What do you need to know before visiting Scotland? This question got me thinking recently so I decided to put together a Scotland FAQ.
I’m so used to living in Edinburgh that I sometimes forget what it’s like to be a visitor. I run a Facebook group called Scotland Travel Tips for people planning a trip to Scotland. Many members are in the planning phase- so the same questions get asked quite a lot.
They’ve encouraged me to ‘think like a tourist’ again, so I’ve compiled a list of the questions I’m most commonly asked into a Scotland FAQ when talking to anyone planning a trip to Scotland.
I hope this answers any questions you have about planning your adventures in Scotland!
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FAQ about visiting Scotland
What is the best month to go to Scotland?
Can I pick two? Personally, I love April and May. It’s getting warmer, the days are longer, the spring colours are lovely, and there are less tourists around.
Popular tourist destinations in Scotland start to get busy in June, with July and August (due to the Edinburgh festivals) being the busiest months! September and early October are also nice months to visit; you’ll still have some warmer days in September and the fall colours are spectacular in October.
Most attractions, including castles, will close their doors to tourists sometime in October and reopen in April. Be sure to check closing dates for any attractions you want to visit during this time.
In winter, there is very little daylight. The sun will usually rise at around 8.30am and it will be pitch black by 3-4pm. Bear this in mind when planning a trip to Scotland- you will need to squeeze in a lot in with short daylight hours.
>> Read more: My favourite autumn breaks in Scotland
How many days do I need in Scotland?
The longer the better! I spent 4 days in Scotland for my first trip, and I just scraped the surface.
I think 10 days is a good amount of time, but 14 days would be ideal. I’ve written a blog post about all the places you can visit and things to do in Scotland in 10 days. This itinerary covers most of the ‘must-sees’ plus a few places off the beaten track. It will give you a good idea about just how much there is to see in Scotland!
Please note this itinerary crams as much in a lot and if you’re the kind of traveller who likes to fit in as much as possible you’ll love it. If you’re a slow traveller, I suggest following it over a longer period, and adding extra nights at the places that interest you.
I recommend staying in each area for 2-3 nights so you get a real sense of the place- Scotland is best enjoyed at a slower pace!
What should I buy in Scotland?
A more important question is where should you buy in Scotland. If you’re buying gifts or mementos, I always recommend purchasing them in smaller towns and villages.
The Royal Mile may be packed with touristy shops- but these shops are often overpriced and they already get a lot of business. Help out smaller communities by shopping in towns and villages or at markets. You’re guaranteed to find special and unique items there!
Personally, I love shopping in:
- Farmers and craft markets (Google the place you’re visiting to see if they have markets)
- Bowmore on Islay
- Lamlash on Arran
- and Tobermory on Mull
Popular things you can buy in Scotland include tartan, cashmere, a hairy coo stuffed toy, Heathergems jewellery, and clan memorabilia including pins and scarves.
I also have a list of my favourite Scottish items in my Amazon store if you need inspiration!
Here is my USA Amazon store and here is my UK Amazon store.
>> Read more: How to travel Scotland on a budget
Can you see the Northern Lights in Scotland?
Yes, you can- if you’re lucky!
While it can be difficult to see the Aurora Borealis with the naked eye, you are most likely to see them in the parts of Scotland where it is dark and there is low air pollution. Areas include the northeastern parts of Scotland such as the Cairngorms National Park and Aberdeenshire, the Isle of Skye, Orkney, Shetland, Lewis and Harris, and the Isle of Coll.
I recommend following Aurora Watch UK on Twitter for updates on geomagnetic activity.
If the lights aren’t active I suggest heading to the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park in southwest Scotland for some star gazing. You’ll have the opportunity to see shooting stars, the rare Andromeda Galaxy and stellar nurseries (where stars are born).
>> Read more: The most romantic places in Scotland
What are some of the off-the-beaten-track places you recommend visiting in Scotland?
Scotland is not short of things to see and do. It has SO much history, so much so that a lot is left out of the guide books.
I’ve written a blog post about the best places to visit in Scotland off the beaten path, but just quickly, here are just some of my favourite hidden spots:
- Cairnpapple Hill (ancient ceremonial/burial ground in West Lothian)
- The Cross Kirk in Peebles
- Kinnoull Hill in Perth
- Sandwood Bay (wild camping here is amazing)
- Kinlochbervie (for white sand beaches)
- Speyside (for whisky lovers)
- Craigmillar Castle (the ‘other’ castle in Edinburgh)
- Jedburgh Abbey
- Loch Glencoul (you can only get here by hiking or kayaking/boat- there is an amazing bothy here too)
I also recommend checking out my blog post about overtourism in Scotland, and some more off-beat places you can visit instead of the tourist traps.
>> Read more: 25 tips for sustainable tourism in Scotland
What time of year are there midges in Scotland?
The summer months of July and August are when midges are at their worst. They like warm, damp areas, so avoid lochs and rivers as this is where they hang out!
Midges don’t generally appear in cities- so don’t think you’ll be battling them if you’re visiting Edinburgh and Glasgow. You may get some if you go walking in damp areas, but they won’t be as bad as they are in the highlands.
I recommend buying some Smidge and taking it with you if you plan on visiting the highlands or going hiking. It’s also great for keeping ticks at bay- which are also quite bad in Scotland from March until October.
A lot of people swear by Avon Skin So Soft. It doesn’t work- they changed the recipe recently and it no longer works. Smidge is far easier to pick up anyway – it is sold at most supermarkets and outdoor shops.
Do you need an International Driver’s License to drive in Scotland?
Generally, the answer is no. If you hold a full driving license from your country of residence you can hire a small vehicle and drive with that license in Scotland.
Here is a helpful quiz you can take to determine if you can drive in Scotland on your current license.
What is the peak tourist season in Scotland?
June-August. If you don’t like crowds, avoid visiting during these months!
Is Scotland safe to visit?
I moved to Scotland solo and I spent my first year travelling Scotland by myself. I also solo-hiked the Scottish National Trail in 2018 and spent many nights wild camping and I can vouch that Scotland is a really safe country.
The Scots are some of the nicest and most hospitable people you’ll meet!
Read more: 10 Must-Sees in Scotland You Can’t Miss
What should I pack for Scotland?
I have written a blog post on what to pack for a trip to Scotland, but I’ll list my favourite essentials:
- Layers! Weather is changeable so wear layers
- Waterproof Boots for the autumn/winter months [I love these women’s Wrangler boots– they’re perfect for navigating cobblestone paths in small towns and cities)
- Rain jacket (My Rab rain jacket is a godsend- plus it’s flattering! The men’s version is here)
- A hat and gloves (I love my Barts beanie and these The North Face gloves for women and these The North Face gloves for men– you can use your phone and keep your hands warm)
- A warm, snuggly down jacket for the autumn and winter months (This is The North Face down jacket I own)
- If you’re going hiking I love my Scarpa Terra hiking boots. Here are the men’s Scarpa Terra hiking boots.
>> Read more: The best hostels in Scotland to stay in
Does it snow in Scotland?
Yes, it does. It can snow anytime from November through to April, however, snow usually arrives in late December/January in Scotland. You’ll get the odd snowy day in April if you’re lucky (or unlucky- it all depends on how you view it!).
What is the warmest place in Scotland?
Dundee is known for being the city that has the most hours of sunshine in Scotland.
Edinburgh is also a relatively sunny Scottish city. My rule is, the further south you go, the warmer it usually is. The further north, the more temperate the climate and temperature.
>> Read more: My favourite pubs in Scotland
What is the oldest city in Scotland?
As well as being the sunniest city, Dundee is also believed to be the oldest city in Scotland!
Which part of Scotland is the most beautiful?
This question is totally subjective, but personally, I think the most beautiful parts of Scotland include Kylesku in the North-West (the North Coast 500 takes you through here), Glen Coe, and Killin (especially in autumn).
How many castles are there in Scotland?
There is a bit of a debate around how many castles there are in Scotland today, but it is thought there are over 2000 castles in Scotland.
The key takeaway is that there are a LOT of castles in Scotland, and potentially some that are yet to be discovered. One of my favourite things to do is open up my Outdooractive app (a hiking app that has all the Ordnance Survey maps in Britain) and look for castles on there. You’ll be surprised at how many you can find this way!
The most popular castles to visit in Scotland include Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle, Craigievar Castle, Eilean Donan Castle, Dunnottar Castle, Blackness Castle and Urquhart Castle.
What is the oldest castle in Scotland?
Castle Sween, on the east shore of Loch Sween in Argyll, is thought to be the oldest castle in Scotland. It was built in the 1100s and used for around 500 years. Aberdour Castle is also thought to be one of the oldest castles in Scotland, being built sometime in the 1200s.
Where was Outlander filmed in Scotland?
Outlander was filmed all over Scotland, but mainly in Fife, which is an area north of Edinburgh and the Lothians. The small village of Falkland was used to film scenes of ‘Inverness.’
Once when I was hiking through a forest in Pitlochry I accidentally stumbled across them filming season 5 on Loch Faskally!
If you’re interested in exploring Outlander locations in Scotland, Visit Scotland has a handy guide.
What is Scotland famous for?
Ridiculously attractive men. I jest, but if you’re in favour of a Scotsman, I suggest you read this article my husband wrote about dating a Scottish man. It might just help you in that department.
Aside from that, Scotland is known for bagpipes, kilts, tartan, Heilan coos, haggis, seafood, castles and its turbulent yet romantic history.
Read More: 50 Travel Tips for Scotland
What food is Scotland famous for?
Scotland is known for its hearty and sometimes bizarre cuisine, including:
- Tattie scones (these are the best)
- Black pudding
- Lorne sausage
- Cullen Skink
- Bacon rolls
- Scotch pies
- And tablet.
Wash the above down with some Scottish whisky or gin, and you’ve got yourself a traditional Scottish meal.
If you’re looking to add some Scottish inspiration to your kitchen at home, check out the website Scottish Scran for lots of traditional Scottish recipes you can make at home!
What is the best car hire in Scotland?
I personally compare prices on Auto Europe when booking a hire car in Scotland, the UK and Ireland. They compare the prices of all the major car hire companies and have good deals on insurance too.
Tip: To search for Scotland, look under ‘Great Britain’ rather than the ‘United Kingdom’ otherwise cars won’t show up.
I also highly recommend Celtic Legend and Arnold Clark Car Rental.
Do you need to make dinner reservations in Scotland?
Yes, although you can just turn up and ask for a table. Check the time of year you’re visiting; June through to August is often very busy and you’ll need to make reservations especially if you’re eating out in a city.
I always recommend making dinner reservations in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and the Isle of Skye.
If you’re travelling in a group (5 or more people) I would always try to book in advance.
If you’re open to where you can eat for lunch, you should be fine without a booking, especially if you dine outside of the busy hours (I recommend having lunch at 11am or between 2-3pm).
Worst case scenario if you can’t find a restaurant? Find a local grocery store, pick up some snacks, and enjoy it somewhere with a nice view! You can always get a takeaway from a chippy (fish and chip shop) too!
Where can you see puffins in Scotland?
You can find puffins along the coast of Scotland and on many islands. They start arriving to make their nests from late April, but June and July are the best months to see puffins in Scotland.
I saw my first puffin at John O’Groats, one of the most northern parts of Scotland, during April. If you don’t want to travel too far north, you can catch a ferry to the Isle of May, which isn’t too far from Edinburgh. The largest colony can be found on St Kilda.
Staffa is also an amazing place to see puffins! I visited Staffa to see puffins in July and it was fantastic. These wee comical birds are so curious they will come up rather close to check you out. I highly recommend a day trip to this island.
>> Read more: The best birdwatching sites in Scotland
How long do you need on the Isle of Skye?
Firstly- I do not recommend you try to see the Isle of Skye in just one day. It takes around 5 hours to drive from Edinburgh to the Isle of Skye, and 2.5 hours to drive from Inverness. It may look as though the island isn’t that far away on a map, but you need to take Scotland’s roads into account.
Scotland’s roads are very narrow compared to the USA, Canada and other parts of the world. The Isle of Skye has many shingle roads that are on a single track too- and you have to stop for oncoming traffic!
I recommend the following: spend one day driving to Skye, and stop off at the many attractions along the way (trust me- you won’t want to miss them), spend 2 nights on Skye, and spend day three driving to your next destination. This is the minimum amount of time I recommend.
Check out my Isle of Skye 2 day itinerary for how to make the most of 2 days there!
When is the best time to visit the Isle of Skye?
This brings me to another important question. During July and August, the Isle of Skye gets incredibly busy and suffers from overtourism– especially attractions such as the Quiraing and Old Man of Storr. Traffic can be backed up for miles on the single-track roads, so avoid visiting Skye during these months if you can.
Scotland has 789 other islands you can visit- I recommend swapping out Skye for a trip to the Isle of Mull, Iona and Staffa. This is a much more ‘off-beat’ option and has an excellent mix of beautiful landscapes, history, beautiful beaches, awe-inspiring hikes, friendly locals and colourful towns.
I hope this article has helped answer some of your questions about Scotland! Do you have a question for me that wasn’t answered? Drop it in the comments below and I’ll answer it!
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Sunday 25th of September 2022
WOW! You obviously are a "traveler" because in the 3 articles I have read you have hit every nail in the building. We live in Scotland 4 months of the year and the rest of the time in Texas. We have travelled a LOT and I have never seen such a well written and comprehensive set of guides as you have produced.
Saturday 1st of August 2020
Great information. Thank you.