Two summers ago, I spent a month traveling all over Scotland to research our Rick Steves Scotland guidebook. And right now, Rick Steves is making his own trip around Scotland — updating that book and adding some new discoveries of his own, for the upcoming second edition. Rick was telling me about some of his experiences (which he’ll be writing about on his blog and on Facebook for the next several days)…and suddenly I felt some of those happy pangs that accompany memories of a particularly vivid trip. Here are 10 of my best tips for how to make the most of your Scottish journey.
1. Linger in Edinburgh. 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) lets you really settle into one of Britain’s finest cities.
2. …But Don’t Miss Glasgow. 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. 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 community turns out to socialize, gorge on junk food (deep-fried Mars bar, anyone?), 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. 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 (and sacrificed their left eardrum) to their love of 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. The hit TV show Outlander, and the novels upon which it’s based, helped Scotland kick off a Renaissance among travelers. But Outlander was hardly the first bit of pop culture with a Scottish lineage. From Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Braveheart, from Highlander to James Bond, and from The Da Vinci Code to Harry Potter, wee Scotland has long had a big presence in show business. Watching these movies and TV shows — before, during, and after your trip — can enhance your enjoyment and appreciation for Scotland. Real fans geek out on visiting the places they’ve seen on the big and small screen (for example, our Scotland guidebook includes a list of Outlander locations). 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 tired of explaining that William Wallace was never called “Braveheart” until Mel Gibson came along.
7. Take a Hike…and Bring Good Shoes. 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. Just be sure to dress for the damp conditions.
8. Go Island-Hopping. 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. 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 (and yes, that was George R. R. Martin’s inspiration for “Westeros”) — 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. While it’s still part of the United Kingdom — for now — Scotland is so much more than just England’s northern annex. In this age of “devolution” (Scotland gaining more autonomy from London), 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.
It goes without saying, but all of this — and much more — is covered in the Rick Steves Scotland guidebook.
Turas math dhut! (Happy travels!)