What are the must-sees in Scotland that you absolutely cannot miss? This can be a problematic question- everyone has different interests, tastes, and travel styles. Ask 100 people what their favourite attraction in Scotland is, and you’ll probably get 100 different answers! It’s my job as a Scotland travel planner to help people determine what is a ‘must-see’- so read on for my recommendations so you can plan the best trip to Scotland for you.
”What are the must-sees in Scotland?” I’m asked this question regularly. Rather than listing the 10 most popular tourist attractions, I’ve decided to list the top 10 experiences to be had in Scotland. This way you can choose the best experience for yourself and your travel buddies!
I’ve also listed some of my favourite attractions to inspire you. Let’s dive in!
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 advice is to choose 2-3 castles to explore. Choose the castles that have a history that interests you the most- or if you’re not a history nerd, just pick the ones that look the most intriguing.
If you have a long list of castles on your bucket list, choose your top three, and look at some others from the outside. Make sure one of your three castles is a ruin- exploring a ruin is a completely different experience.
It’s such a cool experience seeing the ivy-covered walls and moss-covered stone as nature takes hold.
Here are some of my favourite castles to get you started:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Aberdeenshire is also home to many more incredible castles, and has the most castles than any other region in Scotland!
- Kilchurn Castle, Loch Awe – cupped by moody mountains and a sullen loch, Kilchurn is one of the most beautiful castle ruins in Scotland.
- Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire – this castle is one of the most haunted castles in Scotland, and also has some of the most interesting history!
- Castle Tioram, Ardnamurchan – A hidden gem tucked away on the remote Ardnamurchan Peninsula, Castle Tioram is located on a tidal island and was once the ancient fortress of the MacDonald clan. Read my guide on visiting Ardnamurchan.
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 a Scottish island leaves me feeling renewed. This is why I think adding an island to your itinerary is a must!
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 – is known as ‘Scotland in miniature’ and includes a little bit of everything that Scotland has to offer. 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 from Edinburgh 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 hours 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.
- Barra – Located at the bottom of the Outer Hebrides, Barra is a wee island with a huge heart. With azure waters and white sandy beaches, it’s not called Barradise for no reason! Read my Barra guide.
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 Bunnahabhain 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!)
- Laphroaig (for the comedic value of watching someone try it for the first time!)
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!). Try a few different aged whiskies to see what you prefer.
Go on a hike
Experiencing nature in Scotland is something everyone should do when they visit Scotland, after all, it’s the weatherbeaten land that formed the character of the Scots!
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.
Read more: 50 Scotland Travel Tips
Visit a city
Even though I’m a country girl, I love Scotland’s cities.
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 city status!
Visit a small village
Village life in Scotland is very different to what you’ll find in the city – this is why I always recommend you spend some time in a smaller area of Scotland to discover the local way of life.
Many folk living in villages in Scotland have lived there their entire life. Everyone knows everyone, and don’t be shocked if you overhear tidbits of gossip about old Maisie down the street!
Villages in Scotland have their own unique charm you won’t find anywhere else. 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
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.
Did you know that we provide private driving tours in Scotland? We can organise a day trip or multi-day tour for you and take you wherever you want to go! Visit our website Kiwi and Haggis Tours for more information.
Try Scottish food
Sampling as much traditional Scottish food as you can is a must. Scottish food is hearty and filling – and the Scots 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, and having a Sunday roast at a pub.
Be sure to try the following 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 the streets in a kilt playing the bagpipes!
Luckily, many events run throughout Scotland over 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 (many pubs run ceilidh events in the cities)
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 Museum 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
If you’re planning a trip to Scotland, you should also check out my Scotland course– it includes 70+ videos that walk you through planning your Scotland trip step-by-step.
This is the second article in my Planning A Trip to Scotland series. Be sure to read the next article in the series, Should you use a travel agent? or sign up here to have the whole series emailed to you.