Scotland has many treasures crammed into its compact territory – big skies, ancient architecture, spectacular wildlife, superb seafood and hospitable, down-to-earth people.
Scotland harbours some of the largest wilderness areas left in Western Europe. In this wildlife haven you can see golden eagles soar above the lochs and mountains of the northern Highlands, spot otters tumbling in the kelp along the shores of the Outer Hebrides, and watch minke whales breach off the coast of Mull. Scotland's also an adventure playground: you can tramp the tundra plateaus of the Cairngorms, balance along tightrope ridges strung between the peaks of the Cuillin, sea kayak among the seal-haunted isles of the Outer Hebrides, and take a speedboat ride into the white water of the Corryvreckan whirlpool.
Scotland is a land with a rich, multilayered history, a place where every corner of the landscape is steeped in the past – a deserted croft on an island shore, a moor that was once a battlefield, a cave that sheltered Bonnie Prince Charlie. Hundreds of castles, from the plain but forbidding tower houses of Hermitage and Smailholm to the elaborate machicolated fortresses of Caerlaverock and Craigmillar, testify to the country's often turbulent past. And battles that played a pivotal part in the building of a nation are remembered and brought to life at sites such as Bannockburn and Culloden.
A Taste of Scotland
Visitors have discovered that Scotland's restaurants have shaken off their old reputation for deep-fried food and unsmiling service and can now compete with the best in Europe. A new-found respect for top-quality local produce means that you can feast on fresh seafood mere hours after it was caught, beef and venison that was raised just a few miles away from your table, and vegetables that were grown in your hotel's own organic garden. Top it all off with a dram of single-malt whisky – rich, complex and evocative, it's the true flavour of Scotland.
Be it the poetry of Robert Burns, the crime fiction of Ian Rankin or the songs of Emeli Sandé, Scotland's cultural exports are appreciated around the world every bit as much as whisky, tweed and tartan. But you can't beat reading Burns' poems in the village where he was born, enjoying an Inspector Rebus novel in Rankin's own Edinburgh, or catching the latest Scottish bands at a music festival. And museums such as Glasgow's Kelvingrove, Dundee's Discovery Point and Aberdeen's Maritime Museum celebrate the influence of Scottish artists, engineers, explorers, writers and inventors in shaping the modern world.
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Edinburgh Castle has played a pivotal role in Scottish history, both as a royal residence – King Malcolm Canmore (r 1058–93) and Queen Margaret first made their home here in the 11th century – and as a military stronghold. The castle last saw military action in 1745; from then until the 1920s it served as the British army's main base in Scotland. Today it is one of Scotland's most atmospheric and popular tourist attractions. The brooding, black crags of Castle Rock, rising above the western end of Princes St, are the very reason for Edinburgh's existence. This rocky hill was the most easily defended hilltop on the invasion route between England and central Scotland, a route followed by countless armies from the Roman legions of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD to the Jacobite troops of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. The Esplanade The castle's Esplanade is a parade ground dating from 1820, with superb views south over the city towards the Pentland Hills. At its western end is the Entrance Gateway, dating from 1888 and flanked by statues of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. Above the gate is the Royal Standard of Scotland – a red lion rampant on a gold field – and the Scottish royal motto in Latin, " Nemo me impune lacessit" ("no one provokes me with impunity"). The One O'Clock Gun Inside the entrance a cobbled lane leads up beneath the 16th-century Portcullis Gate, topped by the 19th-century Argyle Tower, and past the cannon of the Argyle and Mills Mount Batteries. The battlements here have great views over the New Town to the Firth of Forth. At the far end of Mills Mount Battery is the One O'Clock Gun, a gleaming WWII 25-pounder that fires an ear-splitting time signal at 1pm every day (except Sunday, Christmas Day and Good Friday). St Margaret's Chapel South of Mills Mount the road curls up leftward through Foog's Gate to the highest part of Castle Rock, crowned by the tiny St Margaret's Chapel, the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh. It's a simple Romanesque structure that was probably built by David I or Alexander I in memory of their mother, Queen Margaret, sometime around 1130 (she was canonized in 1250). Following Cromwell's capture of the castle in 1650 it was used to store ammunition until it was restored at the order of Queen Victoria; it was rededicated in 1934. The tiny stained-glass windows – depicting Margaret, St Andrew, St Columba, St Ninian and William Wallace – date from the 1920s. Mons Meg Immediately north of St Margaret's Chapel is Mons Meg, a giant 15th-century siege gun built at Mons in Belgium in 1449. The gun was last fired in 1681, as a birthday salute for the future James VII/II, when its barrel burst. Take a peek over the wall to the north of the chapel and you'll see a charming little garden that was used as a pet cemetery for officers' dogs. Great Hall The main group of buildings on the summit of Castle Rock are ranged around Crown Sq, dominated by the shrine of the Scottish National War Memorial. Opposite is the Great Hall, built for James IV (r 1488–1513) as a ceremonial hall and used as a meeting place for the Scottish Parliament until 1639. Its most remarkable feature is the original 16th-century hammer-beam roof. Prisons of War vaults The Castle Vaults beneath the Great Hall (entered on the west side of Crown Square) were used variously as storerooms, bakeries and prisons. The vaults have been restored to how they were in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when they were used as a prison for soldiers captured during the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars. Original graffiti carved by French and American prisoners can be seen on the ancient wooden doors. Honours of Scotland The Royal Palace, built during the 15th and 16th centuries, houses a series of historical tableaux leading to the highlight of the castle: a strongroom housing the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish crown jewels), among the oldest surviving crown jewels in Europe. Locked away in a chest following the Act of Union in 1707, the crown (made in 1540 from the gold of Robert the Bruce's 14th-century coronet), sword and sceptre lay forgotten until they were unearthed at the instigation of novelist Sir Walter Scott in 1818. Also on display here is the Stone of Destiny. Among the neighboring Royal Apartments is the bedchamber where Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to her son James VI, who was to unite the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603. Tickets to Edinburgh Castle The castle operates a timed ticket system, and all visits must be booked online in advance. You can only enter the site within the timeframe outlined on your ticket, but you may stay as long as you like up to closing time. Children under 5 can visit for free.
Predating Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza, extraordinary Skara Brae is one of the world's most evocative prehistoric sites, and northern Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic village. Even the stone furniture – beds, boxes and dressers – has survived the 5000 years since a community lived and breathed here, giving an incredible insight into everyday Stone Age life.Idyllically situated by a sandy bay 8 miles north of Stromness, the Unesco-listed settlement was hidden until 1850, when waves whipped up by a severe storm eroded the sand and grass above the beach, exposing the houses underneath. It can feel as though the inhabitants have just slipped out to go fishing and could return at any moment. What can you see there? There’s an excellent interactive exhibit and short video, arming visitors with facts and theory, which will enhance the impact of the site. You then enter a reconstructed house, giving the excavation (which you head to next) more meaning. Tour the ancient houses before admiring the area's important archaeological artefacts, including jewelry, tools and pottery, in the visitor center. The official guidebook, available from the visitor center, includes a good self-guided tour. Tickets All visitor tickets have a timed entry slot and must be booked online in advance (this includes members of Historic Scotland). In April to October, your ticket also gets you into Skaill House, an important step-gabled Orcadian mansion built for the bishop in 1620. It may feel a bit anticlimactic catapulting straight from the Neolithic to the 1950s decor, but it's an interesting sight in its own right. You can see a smart hidden compartment in the library as well as the bishop's original 17th-century four-poster bed. How to get to Skara Brae It’s possible to walk along the coast from Stromness to Skara Brae (9 miles), or it's an easy taxi (£15) or cycle from Stromness. The 8S bus route runs to Skara Brae from Kirkwall and Stromness a few times weekly. Check Traveline Scotland for timetables.
Glasgow Cathedral has a rare timelessness. The dark, imposing interior conjures up medieval might and can send a shiver down the spine. It's a shining example of Gothic architecture, and unlike nearly all of Scotland's cathedrals, it survived the turmoil of the Reformation mobs almost intact because the Protestants decided to repurpose it for their own worship. Most of the current building dates from the 15th century. Built on the supposed site of the tomb of St Kentigern (Mungo), Glasgow Cathedral has been closely entwined with the city's history. The necropolis behind it is one of Glasgow's best rambles. The exterior The fairly svelte 13th-century Gothic lines of the building are nicely offset by the elegant central tower. Fine tracery can be seen on the windows, particularly at the principal western entrance, used only on special occasions. The doorway is fairly unadorned, with just some blind arching above it. It's worth walking around to the cathedral's other end, where the protruding, heavily buttressed lower church gives the building a bulky asymmetry. The nave The nave makes an impact with its height – around 100 feet (30 meters) – and slender grace. There's some stunning stained glass, most of which is 20th century. Particularly fine is Francis Spear's The Creation (1958) above the western door, with Adam and Eve center stage. The aisles, separated by graceful arcades, are flanked with tombs and war memorials hung with regimental colors. Above the arcades are two further levels of elegant arching. The roof is 20th century but conserves some original timber. The eastern end The eastern end of the church is divided from the western nave by a harmonious late-15th-century stone choir screen, or pulpitum, with a central door topped by a balustrade. It's decorated with seven characterful pairs of figures that may represent the seven deadly sins. Going through it, you are confronted with a splendid vista of the choir stalls leading to the four narrow lancet windows of the eastern end. These are also evocative works by Francis Spear that depict the Apostles. In the northeastern corner of this area is the upper chapterhouse, a mostly 15th-century space used as a sacristy. The University of Glasgow was founded here in 1451; larger premises were soon built for it. The lower church This vaulted crypt is an atmospheric space with thick pillars. There's a modern altar over the supposed location of the tomb of St Kentigern/Mungo, a 6th-to-7th-century figure who is the city's patron. His legend grew in the 11th and 12th centuries and his tomb became a major medieval pilgrimage destination. This area was built in the mid-13th century to provide a more fitting setting for the saint's resting place. On display is some of the fine 19th-century stained glass from Munich that once adorned the windows but was removed in the 20th century, probably because it was fading. The sunken ambulatory at the eastern end has four square chapels separated by arches; this area featured as L'Hôpital des Anges in Paris in season two of Outlander. The tomb of Bishop Wishart, a key supporter of Robert the Bruce and an important figure in the cathedral's construction, is here. The southernmost chapel has a well that was likely venerated before the cathedral was even built and perhaps even before Christianity came to the area. There's also a lower chapterhouse here, usually closed off by a grille. The Blackadder Aisle After the gloomy gravitas of the rest of the cathedral, the whiteness in the Blackadder Aisle (also spelled Blacader) feels like a dose of light. Though originally this aisle was designed as a crypt for a chapel to be built above, this was never constructed. The tierceron vaulting is spectacular, with ornate ceiling bosses. This was the last part of the cathedral to be built, in the late 15th century. The necropolis The hill behind the cathedral was converted from a park to a cemetery in the 1830s. It is interdenominational; indeed, the first burial was a Jewish man in 1832. It's a spectacular spot for a stroll; there are 50-odd thousand burials here and 3500 monuments, including some designed by Alexander Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. You reach it via the "bridge of sighs" that separates the realms of the living and dead; just wander the paths and enjoy the city views and the ornateness of the tombs, built when Glasgow's wealthy captains of industry were at their apogee. At the very top is a monument to John Knox that predates the cemetery. Tickets and other practicalities Entry to Glasgow Cathedral is free but donations for upkeep are appreciated. To guarantee entry, book your timed tickets online in advance of your visit. There are helpful guides throughout the cathedral; don't hesitate to speak to them, as they can point out some interesting details. There's no toilet in the necropolis or the cathedral; pop into St Mungo's museum if you're caught short. Getting to Glasgow Cathedral It's a 15-minute uphill walk to the cathedral from George Square. Numerous buses pass by, including buses 38 and 57.
Many years may have passed since Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code and the subsequent film came out, but floods of visitors still descend on Scotland's most beautiful and enigmatic church – Rosslyn Chapel. History Rosslyn Chapel was built in the mid-15th century for William St Clair, third prince of Orkney, and the ornately carved interior – at odds with the architectural fashion of its time – is a monument to the mason's art, rich in symbolic imagery and shrouded in mystery. The carved stones As well as flowers, vines, angels and biblical figures, the carved stones include many examples of the pagan Green Man; other figures are associated with Freemasonry and the Knights Templar. Intriguingly, there are also carvings of plants from the Americas that predate Columbus' voyage of discovery. The symbolism of these images has led some researchers to conclude that Rosslyn is some kind of secret Templar repository, and it has been claimed that hidden vaults beneath the chapel could conceal anything from the Holy Grail or the head of John the Baptist to the body of Christ himself. The Apprentice Pillar The beautiful Apprentice Pillar is at the Lady Chapel's entrance. Four vines spiral around the pillar, issuing from eight dragons' mouths. At the top is an image of Isaac, son of Abraham, upon the altar. Lucifer, the Fallen Angel At head height in the Lady Chapel, to the left of the second window from the left, is Lucifer, the Fallen Angel. The bound, upside-down angel is a symbol associated with Freemasonry. The arch is decorated with the Dance of Death. The Green Man On the boss at the base of the arch between the second and third windows from the left in the Lady Chapel is the Green Man. It's the finest example of 100-plus carvings of this pagan symbol of spring, fertility and rebirth. Indian corn The frieze around the south wall's second window is said to represent Indian corn (maize), but it predates Columbus' voyage to the New World. Other carvings resemble aloe vera, found in Africa and Asia. The Apprentice High in the southwestern corner, beneath an empty statue niche, is the head of the stonemason's apprentice. Apparently the Apprentice Pillar he created was so exquisitely carved that the mason jealously murdered him. The worn head on the side wall to the left is his grieving mother. The ceiling The spectacular ceiling vault is decorated with engraved roses, lilies and stars; look for the sun and moon. Rosslyn Chapel and The Da Vinci Code When Dan Brown chose Rosslyn Chapel as the setting for the climax of his best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code, he was referencing its alleged links to the Knights Templar and the Freemasons. Templar and Masonic symbols can be found among the carvings, and a descendant of its founder, William St Clair, was a Grand Master Mason. Rosslyn is indeed a coded work, written in stone, but its meaning depends on your point of view. See The Rosslyn Hoax? by Robert LD Cooper for an alternative interpretation of the chapel’s symbolism. Visiting Rosslyn Chapel Visits are by 90-minute timeslot only and must be booked in advance online. The chapel is owned by the Scottish Episcopal Church and services are still held here on Sunday mornings. The chapel is on the eastern edge of the village of Roslin, 7 miles south of Edinburgh's center. Lothian Bus 37 to Penicuik Deanburn runs from Edinburgh's West End to Roslin.
Hold Stirling and you control Scotland. This maxim has ensured that a fortress of some kind has existed here since prehistoric times. You cannot help drawing parallels with Edinburgh Castle, but many find Stirling's fortress more atmospheric – the location, architecture, historical significance and commanding views combine to make it a grand and memorable sight. The current castle dates from the late 14th to the 16th century, when it was a residence of the Stuart monarchs. Here are the top things to see while you're there. The Royal Palace The undisputed highlight of a visit is the fabulous Royal Palace, which underwent a major restoration in 2011. The idea was that it should look brand new, just as when it was constructed by French masons under the orders of James V in the mid-16th century with the aim of impressing his new (also French) bride and other crowned heads of Europe. The suite of six rooms – three for the king, three for the queen – is a sumptuous riot of color. Particularly notable are the Stirling Heads – reproductions of painted oak roundels in the ceiling of the king's audience chamber (originals are in the Stirling Heads Gallery). The Stirling tapestries are modern reproductions, painstakingly woven by expert hands over many years, and based on 16th-century originals in New York's Metropolitan Museum. They depict the hunting of a unicorn – an event ripe with Christian metaphor – and are breathtakingly beautiful. An exhibition at the far end of the Nether Bailey (at the castle's northern end) describes their creation, often with a weaver on hand to demonstrate the techniques used. The Stirling Heads Gallery, above the royal chambers, displays some of the original carved oak roundels that decorated the king's audience chamber – a real rogue's gallery of royals, courtiers, and biblical and classical figures. In the vaults beneath the palace is a child-friendly exhibition on various aspects of castle life. Other buildings The other buildings surrounding the main castle courtyard are the vast Great Hall, built by James IV; the Royal Chapel, remodelled in the early 17th century by James VI and with the colorful original mural painting intact; and the King's Old Building. The latter is now home to the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders Regimental Museum. Other displays include the Great Kitchens, bringing to life the bustle and scale of the enterprise of cooking for the king, and, near the entrance, the Castle Exhibition, which gives good background information on the Stuart kings and updates on current archaeological investigations. There are magnificent vistas from the ramparts towards the Highlands and the Ochil Hills. Best time to visit It's best to visit in the afternoon; many tourists come on day trips, so you may have the castle almost to yourself by about 4pm. Tickets for Stirling Castle Tickets and audio tours must be booked online in advance. Guided tours of the Royal Palace are included in the admission cost.
Constructed about 5000 years ago, Maeshowe is an extraordinary place, a Stone Age tomb built from enormous sandstone blocks, some of which weighed many tonnes and were brought from several miles away. Creeping down the long stone passageway to the central chamber, you feel the indescribable gulf of years that separate us from the architects of this mysterious tomb. Entry is by 45-minute guided tours (prebooking online is strongly advised) that leave by bus from the visitor centre at nearby Stenness.
The Scottish National Trust's flagship property, magnificent Culzean (kull- ane) is one of the most impressive of Scotland's stately homes. On approach the castle floats into view like a mirage. Designed by Robert Adam, encouraged to exercise his romantic genius, this 18th-century mansion is perched dramatically on a clifftop. There's a great play area for kids, which recreates the castle on a smaller scale, as well as a recreation of a Victorian vinery, an orangery, a deer park and an aviary.
'So thanks to all at once and to each one, whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone.' This line from Macbeth indicates the importance of Scone (pronounced 'skoon') as the coronation place of Scottish monarchs. The original palace of 1580, laying claim to this historic site, was rebuilt in the early 19th century as a Georgian mansion of extreme elegance and luxury. The self-guided tour takes you through a succession of sumptuous rooms filled with fine French furniture and noble portraits.
Built on Clydeside, the former Royal Yacht Britannia was the British Royal Family's floating holiday home during their foreign travels from the time of her launch in 1953 until her decommissioning in 1997, and is now permanently moored in front of Ocean Terminal. The tour, which you take at your own pace with an audio guide (available in 30 languages), lifts the curtain on the everyday lives of the royals, and gives an intriguing insight into the Queen's private tastes.
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