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Even on dreich days, the magic sprinkled across Scotland is medicine to the soul of wanderlusters. It’s true that the only major complaint uttered when exploring Scottish terrain pertains to one of life’s most valuable gifts — wanting more time. From the stand-out cities to breathtaking pockets of untainted land, experience that inimitable essence of bonnie Caledonia with our two-week travel guide.
Start off the adventure in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. This city boasts numerous titles, including the world’s first city of literature, the original seat of enlightenment and the Athens of the North. Transport-wise, getting to and from the airport is easy with its horde of taxis, speedy bus shuttle, tram and car rental spot. For sake of ease and soaking up the best parts of Scotland, rent a car upon arrival.
Spend the first day with a walk up and down the Royal Mile, taking in the Castle, secret closes, St Giles’ Cathedral, the Parliament Building, Arthur’s Seat and the Palace; all are in close proximity of one another, making it easy to pick and choose which you would like to explore the most. The National Museum of Scotland and Scottish National Gallery are both free — fantastic for a speedy-tour of Scotland’s history, arts heritage and culture. Victoria St hosts rows of colourful independent shops and leads into the historic Grassmarket area.
After a mouth-watering breakfast and coffee — think Saint Giles Cafe, Burr & Co and Söderberg — make way for the Princes St Gardens and admire the Castle as it towers over its city. Within the gardens is the Scott Monument, the largest monument ever to a writer — those unfazed with heights can climb all 287 steps and brag about the view. Next, wander down to Dean Village, a stunning area graced with the flowing Water of Leith, quaint cobblestones and curious old houses with a milling heritage. Next, get a taxi to Leith, a vibrant place with the best restaurants in town — The Kitchin, Restaurant Martin Wishart, Fishers etc. — and hit up the necklace of traditional homey pubs. End the night with a trip to The Stand Comedy Club for Fringe-style laughs.
Glasgow! Graced with stunning architecture and more art than you can ever imagine, Glasgow is both Scotland’s largest and musical city. Either embark on a brief train journey from Edinburgh Waverley or take the car. Upon arrival, head to see the City Chambers in all its glory with its cascading Carrera marble staircase and gold-leafed everything.
Other highlights in the area include GoMA, the Style Mile (the best shopping spot in Scotland) and The Lighthouse (the first public commission of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and home to spellbinding views). Atmospheric and delicious, The Willow Tearooms is a must for afternoon tea and lust-worthy designs. End the evening with a wander down Ashton Lane, one of the prettiest streets awash with fairy lights. Pop in to the watering dens and enjoy a memorable meal at the Ubiquitous Chip, a culinary icon with its contemporary Scottish dishes, leafy decor and first-class drinks selections.
A good way to start a day in Glasgow is the self-guided street art tour. From colossal murals to hidden gems, each work will leave you wanting more. Next, head to GSA and have a wee gander. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is a must-visit, with its myriad of objects and evocative artworks, including Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross. The Zaha Hadid-designed Riverside Museum is full of facts about Glasgow’s ship building heritage. Have a spot of dinner at one of the many Indian restaurants, which Glasgow is famed for and enjoy an evening catching a live band at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut.
Bid farewell to gorgeous Glasgow and drive to Wemyss Bay where you will take the ferry to the Isle of Bute and look for seals! Hands down one of Scotland’s most underrated hidden treasures, Bute has it all. Home to Mount Stuart House, a resplendent neo-gothic masterpiece set to sweep all architecture geeks off their feet! And yet the best part is inside: Imagine an ocean of Carrera marble in the form of a chapel, a great hall of more marble and alabaster, celestial ceilings splattered with all the constellations and galaxies, the world’s first heated swimming pool, a labyrinth of horticultural golden nuggets, rare opulent artworks and that’s just scraping the surface. Bute also has some gorgeous wee independent shops worth exploring, including the very cool seaweed shop. Food-wise, Liz’s Diner is an authentic American-style diner boasting the full works; The West End Café is overflowing with fresh fish and chips; and the multifaceted Musicker is a guitar shop, book store and cafe rolled into one.
Bid adios to Bute, hop on the ferry and get back on that old road to soak up the serenity of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, a dream for geologists, outdoor lovers and adventure seekers. Sing the Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond’ and investigate this sprawling mass of brooding forests, folding hills and the network of glistening lochs. From swanky country hotel to atmospheric Airbnbs, there are plenty of places to stay in the Trossachs area. It’s worth witnessing the loch and its 30 tiny islands by cruise, especially Inchconnachan with its wallaby colony — seriously! Alternatively, the stunning trails are the kind of place you want to get lost in, as is the majestic Ben Lomond.
Next, feel the spirit of the Highlands and brace yourself for the unworldly beauty akin to Glen Coe. Nothing can prepare for the moment the vast hugging glens reveal themselves. With scenery so striking it puts all Scotland calendars to shame, it only seems fair to take your time and really embrace the beauty, whatever the weather. This mystical area was formed from a super volcano and has served as a set for multiple films, including Skyfall and Harry Potter. Basking at the foot of the Glen is the village of Glencoe and the site of the 1692 Glencoe Massacre. Numerous self-catering but and bens are dotted about to rest your head for the night.
Munro-bagging is one of those bucket list activities that once you start, you just can’t stop. Exclusive to Scotland, Munros are Scottish mountains over 3,000 ft. And the Glencoe area hosts a good handful. Although the aim of the game is to bag them all, it doesn’t hurt to just try one or at least go and investigate. One of the most adored is Buachaille Etive Mòr, with its life-affirming beauty, steep ascent, boulder ridge and photo-worthy aesthetic. Experienced scramblers and Munro-bagging-gurus can brave Aonach Eagach, a sharp formidable shark’s fin of a ridge destined to produce never-ending surges of adrenaline. If the grind and hustle of Munro-bagging doesn’t float your boat, then head for Skye early and spend an extra day there.
Next, onwards and upwards to magical Skye. Highlights on route include the Glenfinnan Aqueduct, a spellbinding 20-arched railway bridge on the famous West Highland Line in Glenfinnan. Harry Potter fans must keep all eyes peeled should the Hogwarts Express zoom by. This bonnie bridge, which can be viewed a stone’s throw from the small carpark, featured in the films. From there, venture to Mallaig and catch a ferry to Armadale on Skye. Make sure to book tickets early in advance, so you don’t get stranded! Hello spellbinding Skye. Although the largest Inner Hebridean island, Skye is still relatively small in terms of getting from a to b. Take note of the incredible Cuillin mountain range. Portree, the capital, is a grand place to get fed and watered and enjoy a wee wander. Settle for the night at one of the many picturesque accommodation and self-catering options.
Rise fresh and early as every second on Skye is a blessing. From your base, embark on an adventure of unrivalled proportions. From exploring the otherworldly Quiraing and frolicking in the Fairy Pools to getting merry with Talsiker whisky, and admiring the wildlife dotting about, prepare for views and moments of a lifetime. Other must-do Skye activities include stumbling across the dinosaur footprints at An Corran, taking a wee cruise on the dramatic waters of Loch Coruisk, soaking up the history of Dunvegan Castle and trekking up to meet the wise Old Man of Storr. Expect to eat and drink some of the finest Scottish produce and dishes until your heart sings and meet the most incredible souls, the locals. Don’t forget to look up at night to witness the most stunning celestial light show out there.
If you can bear to peel yourself away (this place will hold your heart forever), get back on the adventure wagon and start heading to Loch Ness, stopping off to see Eilean Donan Castle. This renowned castle is one of the most photographed places in Scotland and a sight for sore eyes. There is a wee visitor centre, restaurant and gift shop. Next, enjoy the scenic drive and once at Loch Ness, keep all eyes peeled for Nessie. Either stroll about or take a cruise of this famous Scottish loch. Urquhart Castle overlooking the loch may be of interest to history buffs. Inverness is a brief drive away for places to stay and fab eateries.
After a spot of breakfast at Velocity Cafe and Bicycle Workshop, get back on that road until you reach St Andrews, the world’s home of golf. For a compact coastal town, St Andrews boasts a wealth of fun things to do. Tour Scotland’s oldest university campus and the breathtaking ruins of St Andrews Cathedral and St Rule’s Tower. Take a distillery tour of Eden Mill and sample first class gin, whisky and craft beer. Wander down to West Sands Beach, enjoy the aquarium and learn a thing or two at the many museums, including the British Golf Museum. Between The Seafood Ristorante, Forgan’s, Dolls House Restaurant and The Adamson (to name a few), there are tons of head-turning foodie options.
Delight in a day of little driving and lots of sensory stimulation. After a bottomless brunch in St Andrews and a cheeky gelato at Jannettas Gelateria, head on back in the direction of Edinburgh. But first, stop off at Elie Lighthouse and Lady’s Tower. From there, journey over Scotland’s own Golden Gate, the Forth Road Bridge, and spend the rest of the day admiring the Scottish vernacular architecture and bobbing boats of Cramond. Highlights include the beach (and causeway leading to Cramond Island) and the cosy authentic pubs and cafes.
Take your pick from Edinburgh or Glasgow airports, both of which are easily accessible via taxi, bus and train, and cross off anything else on that bucket list. If you haven’t already, try some haggis, invest in something tartan, stock up on cashmere, try some whisky and spend some time soaking up the atmosphere. Until the next adventure — Scotland.