A reader asks whether it’s possible to traverse much of Scotland in just one week. Our expert has some thoughts.
Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors is here to address your travel problems and provide tips to help you plan a hassle-free trip. Lonely Planet author Luke Waterson, who has written three guidebooks and numerous travel articles on Scotland. helped us out with this Scottish query.
Question: We are spending a week in Scotland. Is it possible to do Inverness, Portree on the Isle of Skye and a few days in Edinburgh within this time? If not, what else do you recommend? We love scenery and historical sites.
Luke Waterson: All these are worthy destinations for a best-of-Scotland trip. Hitting them all up in a week can certainly be done – but it will be fairly frantic. For the sake of a less hectic holiday, and so that you remember Scotland as fondly as possible, consider a couple of itinerary edits.
While it doesn’t seem that way on a map, Edinburgh, Inverness and Portree on the Isle of Skye are far apart indeed in terms of time: driving non-stop between the three alone takes a good seven hours – and that’s assuming the going’s good. You mention Inverness as a starting point, yet logistically this would come in the middle of any itinerary featuring these places. Given Edinburgh’s better international flight, rail and road connections, it makes sense to start your adventure there.
Setting off for Skye
After some time in one of Europe’s most dazzling capital cities, the best option is to rent a car for exploring everywhere else on your trip, given where you want to go and the time you have. You’d need to leave Edinburgh on day three in order to spend two nights in Inverness, then on day five leave by lunchtime to drive the three hours to Portree for a late-afternoon arrival. Day five evening and all of day six could indeed be spent in Portree, before you’ll have to head back fairly early on day seven to make onward connections from Edinburgh (or Inverness or Glasgow, the other two transport hubs you could use). However, I’m guessing you will be wanting to see some of Skye if you’ve made it this far. And here is the caveat: the roads get slower, the scenery more staggering and the desire to stop en route more frequent…meaning you are sure to be frustrated and frazzled by the tightness of your schedule.
My suggestion: skip Inverness. It’s nice enough if you need to be there, but the reason most folks visit is to take a cruise on Loch Ness, one Scotland’s most underwhelming sights. It’s not unattractive – just way down the league table of Scotland’s loveliest lochs, despite the huge crowds it attracts.
An alternative: linger in Edinburgh, and explore the Highlands
Linger another day in Edinburgh; it has so much to offer. You can squeeze in the must-see Edinburgh Castle and Royal Mile sights in a day, then spend two days getting under the city’s skin with visits to the likes of laid-back Stockbridge, with its Georgian architecture and well-to-do cafes and delis; Calton Hill, writer Robert Louis Stevenson’s favorite city viewpoint; Leith for exquisite seafood and the Royal Yacht Britannia; and charming fishing village suburb Cramond. Then, drive to Portree on day four. You can make the journey memorable by stopping somewhere like Glencoe, even taking the three-hour out-and-back to Coire Gabhail (the Hidden Valley) and soaking up some of the most impressive Scottish Highlands mountain scenery, or pausing at probably the country’s most fetching fortress, Eilean Donan Castle, which sticks out on a causeway-connected island in Loch Duich. This approach gives you three days on Skye.
Here, I think your plan of basing yourselves in Portree is sound. Your extra day opens up intoxicating possibilities, too. Drive around Trotternish peninsula to wander among some of Britain’s craziest rock formations, like the Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr. Or head to Glenbrittle or Elgol for knockout views of what general consensus has as the UK’s most picturesque mountain range, the Cuillins. You’ll also have ample time to appreciate Portree’s candy-colored harborfront houses and inviting places to eat and drink.
Perhaps most importantly, you’ll feel that you can relax a bit.