10 Things to Do in Scotland

Recently, I spent a month traveling all over Scotland to research our Rick Steves Scotland guidebook. And I had a blast. There’s something ruggedly beautiful and culturally stimulating about this lonely, lovely land, which bristles atop the isle of Britain like a great, thistly crown. From its hauntingly beautiful glens and sea lochs, to its scintillating cities, to joining the fun of a small-town Highland Games, to the challenge of getting beyond the “kilts, bagpipes, and haggis” clichés — and really understanding the deep cultural underpinnings of those traditions — Scotland is a delight. (As for the weather? Well, I’ll just diplomatically paraphrase Mark Twain: The coldest winter I ever spent was July in Scotland. But it was wonderful nevertheless.)

Here’s a list of my 10 favorite Scottish memories…and ways that you can incorporate them into your own travels.

1. Linger in Edinburgh

New Town Concert

From the famous Royal Mile — with its great landmarks and quirky shops — to the underrated New Town, Edinburgh entertains. One day gives you just enough time to see the castle and ramble down the Royal Mile. A second day lets you slow down and explore. And a third day (or more) really lets you settle into one of Britain’s finest cities.

2. …But Don’t Miss Glasgow

Cameron Scotland Glasgow Buchanan Street

Scotland’s biggest city is also its most underrated. The working-class yin to Edinburgh’s upper-crust yang, Glasgow has the most engaging foodie and nightlife scene I found in Scotland. It also has some of Scotland’s best 20th-century architecture, a rejuvenated downtown core, and an impressive collection of museums.

3. Toss a Caber at a Highland Games

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These celebrations of traditional Scottish culture fill the summer calendar. A Highland Games (or “Gathering”) is like a county fair, dance competition, and track meet all rolled into one. Ranging from glitzy to endearingly small-town, it’s the one day a year when an entire town turns out to socialize, gorge on junk food, and cheer on the strongmen, footracers, and graceful dancers. If you’ll be in Scotland in the summer, check the Highland Games schedule before nailing down your itinerary.

4. Enjoy the Clichés…but Dig Deeper

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Kilts, bagpipes, whisky, haggis…for such a wee land, Scotland has so many claims to fame. Be warned: Cliché-hunting can cheapen a trip, and Scotland is only too happy to indulge tourists looking to buy knock-off kilts. But each cliché also comes with an authentic — and often fascinating — backstory. Visiting a kiltmaker on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, you learn the difference between top-quality tweed and tacky “tartan tat.” Touring a whisky distillery — or several — cultivates an appreciation for the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) variations in bouquet, flavor, and peatiness. And trying your hand at playing the bagpipes instills respect for musicians who’ve devoted their lives to the instrument.

5. Hunt for Ghosts

I enjoyed a ghost walk led by a surprise skeptic in the historic town of Stirling. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of ghost-themed experiences in Scotland — where each city has its haunted tours, each castle its apparitions, and each B&B room its mysterious creaks. (As for whether all of the above have scientific explanations…that’s for you to decide.)

6. Go to the Movies

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The hit TV show Outlander thrust Scotland back into the limelight, like countless pop culture moments before it — from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Braveheart, and from The Da Vinci Code to Harry Potter. Watching these movies and TV shows — before, during, and after your trip — can enhance your enjoyment and appreciation for Scotland. Serious fans can geek out on visiting actual filming locations (our Rick Steves Scotland book includes an Outlander sidebar for just that purpose). And cynics enjoy debunking half-truths (whether in Braveheart or in The Da Vinci Code), which also buys you street cred with the locals…who are weary of explaining that William Wallace was never called “Braveheart” until Mel Gibson came along.

7. Take a Hike…and Bring Good Shoes

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Tromping through drizzle, watching my feet settle onto bright-green turf only to disappear under a torrent of brown water, I wished I’d brought my waterproof boots. But before long, I just ignored my soaked socks to fully appreciate the symphony of achingly gorgeous glen scenery all around me. This was in the valley called Glencoe, but hiking opportunities abound throughout Scotland.

8. Go Island-Hopping

Cameron Scotland Island Hopping Iona

Scotland — with a West Coast slashed by receding glaciers — has nearly 800 islands. But on a short visit, visiting just a few will do the trick. The Isle of Skye, with pretty pastel harbor towns, jaw-dropping scenery, and a vivid heritage of folk tales and clan battles, can easily fill a couple of days. Or, for a strategic strike, base yourself in the small West Coast town of Oban and spend a day side-tripping to a trio of worthwhile Hebrides: Big and desolate Mull, spiritual Iona, and otherworldly Staffa — an uninhabited bulb of rock where puffins greet arriving boats, and the “other end” of Ireland’s famous Giant’s Causeway disappears into a mysterious cave.

9. Go North to Get Off the Beaten Path

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Most tourists in Scotland get stuck in a predictable rut: Edinburgh-Stirling-Glasgow-Fort William-Inverness-back to Edinburgh. And, while there’s plenty to see on that loop, with more time it’s rewarding to break free and strike out for the far north. If rugged scenery tickles your fancy, drive up Scotland’s scenic west coast — called Wester Ross — then along its north coast to John O’Groats. (Just don’t run out of gas.) And if you’re really adventurous, catch the ferry to the Orkney Islands — a world apart, with prehistoric treasures and evocative World War II history.

10. Seek Out and Celebrate What Makes Scotland Unique

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While it’s still part of the United Kingdom — ahem, for the time being —  Scotland is so much more than just England’s northern annex. In this age of “devolution” (Scotland gaining more autonomy from London) and of a contentious Brexit (which most Scots disagree with), ask locals what they think about current issues. (At least Scotland and England still share a knack for witty signs.) Even if you’re a closet royalist, check your sympathies at the door and really try to understand what makes Scots Scots. And then…celebrate it.

What are your favorite Scottish discoveries?

Turas math dhut! (Happy travels!)


It goes without saying, but all of this — and much more — is covered in our Rick Steves Scotland guidebook. And our Best of Scotland in 10 Days tour is one of our most popular itineraries.

15 Replies to “10 Things to Do in Scotland”

  1. It’s my greatest dream…to visit Scotland. I thought your 10 tips were exciting. Sign me up!!

  2. My wife and I took the Rick Steves – Scotland In 10 Days tour in 2013. It was fantastic! I would highly recommend it.

  3. We toured Scotland and Orkney on our own using the old Great Britain book and Lonely Planet and the back door philosophy. Scotland is the best place ever to visit. People are welcoming, the north is the last wilderness left in Europe. We slept at a croft, in a castle, and a home in Edinburgh.

  4. Hooray for Scotland getting its own standalone guidebook! That amazing country topped my must-see list when I first backpacked through Europe over 20 years ago, and I’ve happily returned many times since. Also great to see “Outlander” mentioned – both the TV show and the book series on which it’s based wonderfully showcase Scotland.

  5. My wife and I will be on our way to Scotland in 57 days, 36 minutes and 40 seconds for the 10-day tour. We have been planning this 50th anniversary event for more than a year and can barely restrain our excitement.

  6. My wife and I will be heading to Scotland in June, also to celebrate our 50th anniversary. Last year my wife published a 647 page book available on Amazon.com titled “Seton, Earls of Winton”. It tells the story of my family’s history in Scotland.

  7. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit eleven different countries. SCOTLAND is by far my favorite. The raw beauty of the landscape, the very friendly Scots, the history, the bagpipes all call my name. Took my daughter and two oldest grandchildren this past August for the Fringe and Tattoo in Edinburgh.

  8. I enjoyed reading the 10 things to do in Scotland. Brought back some great memories. We visited this beautiful country last year and you have failed to mention one of my favourite places,,,,,, the Calanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis. A little difficult to get there and a little out of the way, but if you have a hire car and the time, it’s well worth the visit. Getting to the Isle of Lewis is an adventure, having to get on two ferries and driving on their roads, seeing a totally different landscape. Loved every minute !!

  9. People ask our favorite country we have visited and Scotland is there on top of favorites. We have used public transportation, trains, post buses, and our motorcycle. No one mentioned the Edinburgh Festival in August & September. Been twice. Great experience, too many buskers, plays to count or take in each day.

    1. I’ve been to Scotland several times, and love it. It’s my favorite country, and I’ve visited 36, so far. This summer I traveled to the northern isles, and even for Scottish standards, this area blew me away. The scenery is jaw-dropping. Absolutely gorgeous. The people are friendly, and the food was fantastic! Tourism is not big up here, so its relatively undiscovered. I often found myself as the sole person at a tourist site. I went in May, a little off season, but not by much, and it was peaceful and quiet. Not crowded. A nice break from the big cities. There is SO much to do in the northern isles, too. I’m going back next summer, and might try to buy a vacation home there. Absolutely stunning!! If you want to try something different and a hidden gem, try the northern isles. They will not disappoint!

  10. Heading to Scotland in October spending a lot of time in the highlands staying in Inverness Portree and Port Appin any tips/suggestions

    1. make sure you have reservations for dinner prior to your arrival. We talked to many Canadian tourists and they had same problem with finding places to eat in evening. The waitress in Portree told us that over 30 air b and bs opened this past year. And the large tour buses were overwhelming in mid September. Definately needed dinner reservations for Portree, and Inverness.

  11. We thought we’d visited all of our favorite places in Europe then we raced through Scotland. We now have a new favorite place and plan to go back with more time.

  12. After watching Rick cruising the Mediterranean, we have decided to cruise the British Isles and Northern Europe. We are recently retired and have saved up for the bucket list trip. Edinburgh is one the ports we will be stopping. For travelers like us, who choose cruising, trying to get information on major sights and location to ports is so important. I am constantly reading Rick’s blog, Facebook and books to get updated info. Please more cruising information for travelers like us who choose this form of traveling. You guys do a wonderful job and thank you for your help and valuable information and tips. Happy Traveling!

  13. Break away from the main roads and explore the single-track roads in the Highlands. After visiting the Ardnamurchan lighthouse which is near the Western-most point on mainland Britain, take the ferry to Mull from Kilchoan rather than Oban. It’s shorter, far less crowded, lovely, and goes directly to colorful Tobermory.

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