You’ve finally planned your first trip to beautiful Alba (as Scotland’s known in the local Gaelic)—but between the Lowlands, Highlands, islands, and all the lands in between, you could use a hand finding the best places to visit in Scotland.
The good news? For a country that’s roughly the size of South Carolina, Scotland has ample things to do and see, rain or shine. “You think you know what the color green is until you see the fields,” said staffer Karolina. “You’ll always find pub weather (rainy days, perfect for sharing pints with locals), and most of the museums are free!”
Here, we pinpoint seven unmissable things to do in this lovely land, along with the top trips to Scotland that’ll take you straight there.
1. Delve into the mysteries of Loch Ness
Location: The Highlands
Tour that takes you there: Edinburgh & the Castles of Scotland
Few places in Scotland (or the world) inspire as much awe as Loch Ness. Less a large lake and more a small sea, it holds more water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined—along with its fair share of myths.
Rimmed by rocky shores and guarded by the ruins of medieval Urquhart Castle, the lake plunges to depths of over 750 feet—the perfect home, some say, for what Scotland might best be known for: the cryptic Loch Ness Monster. After exploring Urquhart’s 13th-century remains, board a boat and cruise atop the loch’s murky waters. Who knows… you might just spot Nessie herself.
2. March to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Tour that takes you there: Scotland & the Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Seeking summertime things to see in Scotland? Head for the capital, Edinburgh. If you happen to arrive in August, you’ll be greeted by the whirring drone and colorful plaid of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Since 1950, this annual event has brought martial bands from far and wide to Edinburgh Castle for a show unlike any other. Pipers decked in tartan, drummers lugging snares, and other musicians snap to attention each August evening, playing and dancing to military tunes for an average audience of 8,800 every night.
Attending the Tattoo ranks among the top things to do in Scotland, and we make sure to stop by on our tours to Scotland—but if that isn’t your cup of tea, you’re still in luck. August also sees Edinburgh host the world-famous Festival Fringe, the largest celebration of arts and media on the planet. “Performances take place all over the city, so you’ll see new nooks and crannies of Edinburgh while experiencing theater from all over the world,” said staffer Melissa.
3. Roll through the Scottish Highlands
Location: The Highlands
Tour that takes you there: Landscapes of Scotland & Ireland
For staffer Nic, one region ranks above the rest as the best place to visit in Scotland. “The Highlands were the absolute highlight for me,” she said. “The lochs, babbling brooks, little waterfalls, and the forests and farms were incredible. I’d easily go back 10 more times.” And with scenery like that, why not?
Sprawling close to 10,000 square miles over the Scottish northwest, the Highlands possess something not seen anywhere else in the British Isles: a taiga biome, home to chilly weather and tightly packed forests. On your travels, you might hike among old-growth Scots pine, trek up wooded bens (mountains), or walk along one of thousands of lochs.
Kindle your imagination with these Scottish Highlands travel tips, then let it loose on one of our guided tours through Scotland—or follow staffer Jake’s lead and indulge in one of the best things to do in Scotland: “My friends and I rented a car, and while it took a few minutes to adjust to driving on the left-hand side of the road, it made for a memorable experience as we drove through the great glens (valleys),” he said. “Winding roads and mystical mountains, where the clouds seem so low you can touch them, prove that the Highlands are a true wonder of the world.”
4. Visit castles older than some countries
Location: Edinburgh and Stirling
Tour that takes you there: Highlights of Scotland & Ireland: Edinburgh to Dublin
What else is Scotland known for? Castles! Depending on who you ask, the country was once dotted with 1,000 to 4,000 of them. And while most have been lost to time, hundreds still dominate the hills and plains where they were built centuries ago.
Two in particular stand as some of the best places to visit in Scotland—and we pop by both on tour. Though most of its buildings were erected in the 15th and 16th centuries, Stirling Castle has existed in some form since the early 1100s. And Edinburgh Castle, perched atop ancient Castle Rock, traces its origins back even further, to 1093 AD. If you’re a numbers person, that makes it about 930 years old—or over three times older than the United States of America.
All that history has to manifest itself somehow, and visitors to both will find beautiful vaulted halls, precious paintings, and—at Edinburgh Castle—the Scottish Crown Jewels. This visual feast continues outside, too, ticking another box on our guide of what to do in Scotland: “Edinburgh Castle is on top of an inactive volcano,” said staffer Elise. “When you get to the top, you have panoramic views of the city and ocean.”
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5. Follow in the footsteps of royalty
Tour that takes you there: Highlights of Scotland & England: Edinburgh to London
Magnificent as its cobbled streets and weathered row houses are, the Royal Mile earned its name in a much more literal sense—as the traditional processional route Scottish monarchs would take between Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle.
Nowadays, visitors strutting the Royal Mile can indulge in quirky shops and buskers’ tunes, enjoying the scenic route between two of the most important places to see in Scotland. It centers the Old Town, and its myriad closes (private alleys) and wynds (public alleys) offer plenty of diversion to curious travelers.
“Edinburgh is like a picture-perfect postcard around every corner,” staffer Amanda said. “There is so much history and beauty. It truly feels like you’ve stepped back in time!”
6. Tiptoe through the ruins of the Borders Abbeys
Location: The Scottish Borders
Tour that takes you there: Highlands of England, Scotland & Ireland
The Highlands have their landscapes. Edinburgh has its heritage. But the Scottish Borders have an attraction all its own: an inimitable religious history. Four 12th-century abbeys, clustered mere miles apart, ought to top any list of what to see in Scotland, and you’ll get the chance to visit one on tour with us.
With its Gothic architecture, rendered in beige and reddish rock, Melrose Abbey stands in stark contrast to the emerald grass of the Scottish Borders. First established in 1136 by Cistercian monks, the monastery was the first of its kind in the country, and still inspires wonder in whoever makes the pilgrimage to see it.
7. Unearth some of Edinburgh’s darker secrets
Tour that takes you there: Haunted Halloween Tour: Dublin, Edinburgh & London
“Edinburgh is the kind of city that feels like multiple cities in one,” staffer Shannon said. “And by that, I mean there are lots of areas to explore, each with its own unique feel.” And yes, that includes underground. How’s that for a recommendation for where to go in Scotland?
Beneath the arches of the South Bridge, sandwiched between 18th-century tenements, lie dozens of subterranean vaults. Originally intended for use as storage and workspace, they were quickly abandoned and repurposed as shelter—musty, damp, diseased shelter—for the city’s homeless. Speakeasies, distilleries, gambling houses, and other illegal operations sprouted in the dark, too, giving the vaults an ominous reputation.
Most have been sealed off for good, but some remain open to intrepid travelers looking for what to do in Scotland. The kicker: Those vaults could well be haunted.