Which regions of Scotland you choose to visit will naturally depend on how much time you have, and whether you’ve been here before. First-time visitors will want to squeeze in as many highlights as possible, so they could try following the well-trodden route through Edinburgh, the Trossachs, Pitlochry, Inverness, Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye.
It takes considerably more time to explore the further-flung corners of the country, but the ruined abbeys and castles of the Borders, the jaw-dropping scenery of the northwest Highlands and the gorgeous white-sand beaches of the Outer Hebrides are less crowded and ultimately more rewarding. The long journey to Orkney or Shetland means that you’ll want to devote more than just a day or two to these regions.
Dubbed the Athens of the North, the Scottish capital is a city of high culture where, each summer, the world's biggest arts festival rises, phoenix like, from the ashes of its rave reviews and box-office records to evoke yet another string of superlatives.
Castle & Museums
Perched on a brooding black crag overlooking the city centre, Edinburgh Castle has played a pivotal role in Scottish history. The growth of the city from its medieval origins and the parallel development of Scottish nationhood is documented in its excellent museums.
Edinburgh has more restaurants per head of population than any city in the UK. Eating out is commonplace, not just for special occasions, and the eateries range from stylish but inexpensive bistros and cafes to gourmet restaurants with Michelin stars.
Museums & Art Galleries
Glasgow's mercantile, industrial and academic history has left the city with a wonderful legacy of museums and art galleries, dominated by the grand Victorian cathedral of culture, Kelvingrove, which boasts a bewildering variety of exhibits.
Glasgow is the star of Scotland's live-music scene, with legendary venues like King Tut's Wah Wah Hut staging gigs that range from local start-ups to top international acts.
Architecture & Design
From Charles Rennie Mackintosh's iconic buildings and interiors and the centre's grand Victorian architecture to the fashion boutiques of the Italian Centre and design exhibitions at the Lighthouse, Glasgow stakes its claim as the most stylish city in Scotland.
Rolling countryside and ruined abbeys dot Scotland's southern border. The Gothic ruins of Melrose, Jedburgh, Dryburgh and Sweetheart and the martial towers of Hermitage Castle, Caerlaverock Castle and Smailholm are eloquent testimony to a turbulent past.
This region is rich in Robert Adam–designed mansions such as Culzean Castle, Paxton House, Floors Castle and Mellerstain House, but the almost perfectly preserved Chippendale time capsule that is Dumfries House takes top place.
The rounded, heather-clad hills of the Southern Uplands can't compete with the Highlands for scenery, but the granite hills of Galloway and Arran are prime hill-walking country, and the 7stanes trails offer some of the UK's best and most challenging mountain biking.
Scotland is the home of golf, and the Old Course at St Andrews – the oldest in the world – is on every golfer's wish list. The game has been played here for more than 600 years; the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, the game's governing body, was founded in 1754.
The scenic coastline of the East Neuk of Fife is dotted with picturesque harbours and quaint fishing villages, their history recounted in the excellent Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther.
Some say that Stirling has the finest castle in the country, but the region has plenty of others worth visiting, including Castle Campbell, Kellie Castle, Doune Castle and St Andrews Castle.
Don't leave Scotland without visiting a whisky distillery; the Speyside region, around Dufftown in Moray, is the epicentre of the industry. More than 50 distilleries open their doors during the twice-yearly Spirit of Speyside festival; many open year-round.
Aberdeenshire and Moray have the greatest concentration of Scottish Baronial castles in the country, from the turreted splendour of Craigievar and Fyvie to the restrained elegance of Crathes and Balmoral.
The northeast is the ancient heartland of the Picts, whose mysterious carved stones (dating from the 7th and 8th centuries) can be seen in places such as Aberlemno and St Vigeans Museum (near Arbroath).
Southern Highlands & Islands
This region is home to some of Scotland's most spectacular wildlife, from magnificent white-tailed sea eagles in Mull to majestic minke whales and basking sharks cruising the west coast. It's also where the beaver – extinct here for centuries – has been reintroduced into the wild.
Island-hopping is one of the best ways to explore the western seaboard, and the cluster of islands here – Islay with its whisky distilleries, wild and mountainous Jura, scenic Mull, the little jewel of Iona, and the gorgeous beaches of Colonsay, Coll and Tiree – provide a brilliant introduction.
Whether you dine at a top restaurant in Oban or Tobermory, or eat with your fingers on the harbourside, the rich harvest of the sea is one of the region's biggest drawcards.
Inverness & the Central Highlands
The Highland towns of Aviemore and Fort William offer outdoor adventure galore. Be it climbing Ben Nevis, walking the West Highland Way, biking the trails around Loch Morlich or skiing the slopes of Cairngorm, there's something for everyone.
The valley of the River Dee (often called Royal Deeside) between Ballater and Braemar has been associated with the royal family since Queen Victoria acquired her holiday home, Balmoral Castle.
Nessie & Bonnie Prince Charlie
Scotland's most iconic legend, the Loch Ness monster, hails from the heart of this region. You might not spot Nessie, but the magnificent scenery of the Great Glen makes a visit worthwhile, as does Culloden battlefield, the undoing of another Scottish legend, Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Northern Highlands & Islands
Mountains & Beaches
From the peaks of Assynt and Torridon and the jagged pinnacles of the Cuillin Hills to the dazzling beaches of the Outer Hebrides, the big skies and lonely landscapes of the northern Highlands and islands are the very essence of Scotland, a wilderness of sea and mountains that remains one of Europe's most unspoilt regions.
The northwest's vast spaces make one huge adventure playground for hikers, mountain bikers, climbers and kayakers, and provide the chance to see some of the UK's most spectacular wildlife.
Rural Communities & Standing Stones
The abandoned rural communities of the north teach much about the Clearances, especially Arnol Blackhouse and Skye Museum of Island Life. The region is also rich in prehistoric remains, including the famous standing stones of Callanish.
Orkney & Shetland Islands
Neolithic Sites & Viking Heritage
These treeless, cliff-bound islands have a fascinating Viking heritage and unique prehistoric villages, tombs and stone circles. Predating the pyramids of Egypt, Skara Brae is northern Europe's best-preserved prehistoric village; Maeshowe is one of Britain's finest Neolithic tombs.
Shetland is a birdwatcher's paradise, its cliffs teeming in summer with gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills and puffins, and Europe's largest colony of Arctic terns. The islands' nature reserves include Hermaness on Unst, Scotland's northernmost inhabited island.
Traditional & Folk Music
The pubs of Kirkwall, Stromness and Lerwick are fertile ground for exploring the traditional-music scene, with impromptu fiddle and guitar sessions. Both Orkney and Shetland host annual folk-music festivals.