When planning your trip to Scotland, one of the first questions you may ask yourself is ‘what are the must-sees in Scotland I can’t miss?’
Rather than listing the 10 most popular tourist attractions, I’ve decided to list the top 10 experiences to be had in Scotland.
I’ve also listed some of my favourite attractions to make your planning easier for you – this way you can choose the best experience for yourself and your travel buddies!
10 Must-Sees In Scotland You Can’t Miss
Visit a Castle
An obvious one, but one of the top must-sees in Scotland is visiting at least one Scottish castle.
There are over 1,500 castles throughout Scotland, so it’s easy to go castle daft when visiting Scotland! My best advice is to choose 2-3 you really want to spend some time at. Choose the castles that have a history that interests you the most – and go and explore them.
Then enjoy the other castles on your list from the outside.
I also recommend that you visit at least one castle ruin. It’s such a cool experience seeing the ivy-covered walls and moss-covered stone as nature takes hold.
Castles I recommend visiting include:
- Edinburgh Castle – one of Scotland’s most famous castles and home to the Scottish Crown Jewels, Stone of Destiny, and the oldest church in Scotland – St Margaret’s Chapel (built in 1130)
- Craigmillar Castle, Edinburgh – a well-preserved ruin located outside the city centre and a quieter option to Edinburgh Castle. It’s a wonderful castle for families and children to explore. Read my guide on visiting Craigmillar Castle here.
- Finlarig Castle, Killin – one of the coolest ruins I’ve discovered in Scotland, with a bloody past. It’s also located in one of the prettiest villages in Scotland, Killin. Read my guide on Killin here.
- Eilean Donan Castle, Dornie – supposedly one of the most photographed castles in history, Eilean Donan Castle is a wee castle that sits on an island that is connected to the mainland via a bridge.
- Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire – one of Scotland’s most dramatic castles to be found on the coast, Dunnottar was once a mighty defensive structure. Its beauty attracts many young couples who wish to get married there.
- Kilchurn Castle, Loch Awe – cupped by moody mountains and a moody loch, Kilchurn is one of the most beautiful castle ruins in Scotland.
- Craigievar Castle, Aberdeenshire – known as ‘the pink castle’, thousands of tourists visit this castle every year for its unique colour and structure.
Visit an island
Each Scottish island has its unique charm, and recently, island hopping has become a popular activity! Scotland’s islands have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, fabulous fresh seafood, and hidden historic gems. You just can’t beat the relaxed pace and friendly charm of the locals; every trip I take to an island leaves me feeling renewed. There is a magic that hangs in the breeze on Scotland’s islands – and it’s easy to understand why many Scottish kings decided to make the islands their final resting place.
While the Isle of Skye is a lovely island to visit, it suffers from overtourism in the summer months. If you visit, I recommend going there in early spring or late autumn.
Here are some other islands I recommend visiting:
- Islay – is known as the ‘whisky island’. Read my Islay guide.
- Arran – known as ‘Scotland in miniature’ is one of the easiest islands to visit in Scotland, and includes a little bit of everything. It’s famous for its cheese and mustard – which you have to try when you visit! Read my Arran guide.
- Isle of May – this island is one of the best places to see puffins on the east coast. It’s a great day trip for adventure seekers. Read my Isle of May guide.
- Cramond Island – this island is a good one to visit if you’re staying in Edinburgh. It’s a tidal island, which means you can walk across it when the tide is low! Read my Cramond Island guide.
- Handa Island – this island is a great one to visit if you’re driving the North Coast 500. Handa is a small island that takes 2-3 to walk around. It’s filled with nesting seabirds in the spring and summer, including puffins!
- Isle of Mull, Iona and Staffa – you can easily see all of these islands in one trip, as they are located a short ferry trip apart. Mull is one of Scotland’s most underrated islands, from the colourful houses that line the shoreline in Tobermory, to the vast wilderness and wild coastline. Iona is a spiritual island; it’s where St Columba and many of Scotland’s kings are buried. Staffa is home to Fingal’s Cave and a delightful flock of puffins during summer! Read my guide on visiting Staffa.
Even if you’re not a whisky drinker, you’ve got to try the uisge beatha, aka water of life! There are two ways I recommend doing this:
Go on a distillery tour
If you’re interested in learning how whisky is made, and what makes a particular type of whisky special, book a distillery tour. There are usually a few different tours to choose from at each distillery, but if you’re new to whisky I recommend booking a short tour (1-1.5 hours) that includes a tasting.
My favourite distillery tours are Glenfiddich in Speyside, Auchentoshan in Glasgow, and Bruichladdich on Islay.
Order a dram at a pub
If you’re not interested in a distillery tour, my other recommendation is to find yourself a nice whisky pub and try a dram or two. You can ask the bartender what they recommend, or ask for the most local whisky. A few of my favourite whiskies I recommend you try include:
- Jura Journey (the whisky I recommend to beginners!)
The bartender may ask you ‘which one’ when you name a whisky you want to try. For example, if you ask for a dram of Glenfiddich, there will be a selection of ages to choose from, including the standard 3-year-old whisky (the minimum age it needs to be distilled) to 8,10, 12, and even 50-year-old whisky!
As a general rule, the older the whisky, the better the taste (and the more expensive the dram!). Trying a standard 3-year-old whisky is fine.
Go on a hike
Experiencing nature in Scotland is something everyone should do when they visit Scotland, after all, it’s the land that made the Scots who they are today!
I use WalkHighlands to find walks around Scotland. This website contains a lot of great information, including difficulty, route maps, written instructions, and you can even load the starting point of each hike on Google Maps.
You will need hiking boots or shoes with a grippy sole for many hikes in Scotland; the terrain can range from rocky to boggy, so make sure you’re happy with your boots getting wet and muddy. Be sure to break in your walking boots properly before you go hiking in Scotland.
Recommended read: 50 Scotland Travel Tips
Visit a city
I love Scotland’s cities. They are more laid back than other cities around the UK, and each has its own charm. There are eight cities in Scotland:
There’s always something happening in Scotland’s cities. There’s a great range of pubs and restaurants to choose from, events, live music, shopping and more. Most of the cities have a main attraction or two – important castles, abbeys or cathedrals with great historical significance.
Each city has its own unique charm; Edinburgh is famous for its gothic architecture, while Glasgow has colourful and charming locals which is why the city’s slogan is ‘People Make Glasgow.’
Perth and Stirling both have strategic and historical significance; Inverness is the gateway to the Scottish Highlands, Aberdeen is where Scotland and the UK make most of their money from oil and gas, and Dundee is the UK’s first city of design.
Dunfermline is the burial place of Robert the Bruce and other kings and queens, and has recently been upgraded from a town to reach city status!
Visit a small village
Village life in Scotland is very different to what you’d find in the city – this is why I always recommend you spend some time in a more local area of Scotland to discover the other way of life.
Many folk living in villages in Scotland have lived there their whole life. Everyone knows everyone, and don’t be shocked if you overhear tidbits of gossip about old Maisie down the street! All villages in Scotland have their own unique charm,
I love village pubs because you’ll often get into conversation with the locals curious as to where you’ve come from.
I recommend you read my blog post about the prettiest villages in Scotland, but quickly, here are a few of my favourites:
- Killin, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs
- Peebles, Scottish Borders
- Mid Calder, West Lothian
- Pittenweem and St Monans, Fife
- Aberfeldy, Perthshire
- Shieldaig, Highlands
- Tobermory, Isle of Mull
- Portnahaven, Isle of Islay
- Dunkeld, Perthshire
Recommended Read: 11 tips for driving in Scotland for the first time
Go somewhere off the beaten path
My best bit of advice is to include one place that is off the beaten path in your Scotland itinerary. Some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had when travelling has been when I’ve ventured off the tourist track. This way you’ll get to mingle with locals, find out what modern Scotland is really like
To discover more hidden gems in Scotland, read my blog post about my favourite places to visit in Scotland off the beaten path.
Try Scottish food
This is a must. Scottish food is hearty and filling – and they know how to make a great dessert!
A great experience to try is having Afternoon Tea, going to the local chippy for a fish supper, or having a Sunday roast at a pub. Here are some food and drink I recommend you try while in Scotland:
- Full Scottish Breakfast (tattie scones will change your life)
- Steak Pie with Roast Tatties
- Cullen Skink
- Scotch Pies
- Scottish seafood from one of the many seafood restaurants on the coast or the islands
- Fish and Chips
- Scone with jam and clotted cream (in that order)
- Sticky Toffee Pudding
- Porridge with whisky (popular on Islay)
- Whisky (try a whisky from each whisky region – Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown).
- Irn Bru (fizzy drink/pop)
Experience Scottish culture (bagpipes, Highland Gathering)
There are many different ways to experience traditional Scottish culture, but you do have to seek it out. Scots only wear their traditional dress for special occasions, such as a wedding, so don’t expect to see them wandering around in kilts playing the bagpipes!
Luckily, there are many events that run in Scotland throughout the year where you can experience Scottish culture. Try attending one of the following:
- Attend a Highland Gathering (or Highland Games)
- Seek out bagpipers on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh
- Attend the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
- Take part in or watch a ceilidh
Visit a museum
Many of Scotland’s most interesting bits of history are preserved and protected by museums. If you’re limited with how much time you have in Scotland and want to see standing stones, Pictish carvings, medieval clothing and armoury, or something else, visiting a museum is a great way to see many of these pieces in one place.
There are over 400 museums around Scotland, and many of them are free to visit.
Some of my favourite museums in Scotland include:
- The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
- Surgeons Hall Museum, Edinburgh
- The Writer’s Museum, Edinburgh
- Whithorn Museum, Dumfries and Galloway
- Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore
- Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow
- The McManus Art Gallery and Museum, Dundee
- V&A Dundee
- The Black Watch Castle and Museum, Perth
- Shetland Museum and Archives, Shetland
That concludes my 10 must-see experiences in Scotland – do you have anything else to add to this list? Leave me a comment below!