So, you’ve decided to holiday in Scotland. Great choice! It may be a tiny country – one of the smallest in Europe – but it’s unrivalled for its unique blend of mesmerising scenery, vibrant culture, fascinating heritage and welcoming hospitality. If you want to make the most of your stay in Scotland, it’s a good idea to invest some time preparing properly for your visit. This guide will take you step by step through the planning process in order to help you not only make the most of your trip to Scotland but to learn some practical insights along the way
Scotland really does have it all, which can often complicate plans for the traveller. The country’s diversity is unlike any other, but in this lies its strength, because Scotland really can be meaningful for everyone. From the modern, cosmopolitan capital city of Edinburgh, to the sweeping hills and mountains of the Highlands where eagles soar thousands of feet above the ground; from the serene and mysterious lochs that have inspired myths and legends for centuries to the sparking medieval buildings of the ‘Silver City’, Aberdeen: every inch of this country oozes history, beauty, timeless tradition or modernity.
All of this is a gift for the holidaymaker planning a trip to Scotland, because it empowers them to design a trip of their dreams. Whether you favour a city break, a hiking holiday, an adrenalin-rush of outdoor sports or a tour of history’s footprints on this tiny nation, you can choose the type of experience and memories you wish to take home and select your destination accordingly.
Build your transport and accommodation options around your destination – with ample choices of places to stay and ways to get around you won’t be restricted in where you wish to travel. After your research is done, you’re all set for a holiday that is certain to live long in your memory.
In Scotland, there is no ‘best time’ to visit, as every season brings with it a wealth of splendours and spectacles, each as fascinating and mesmerising as the others. In truth, choosing the time of year that you wish to travel depends on what you hope to see during your stay; from the snow-capped Cairngorms in deepest winter to the vibrant colours of autumn, or the temperate climate of spring to the excitement of the Highland Games in summer, every month offers something different that will engrave itself on your memory for years to come.
Summer enjoys the finest weather, with daylight persisting until late evening and temperatures are warm but rarely uncomfortable. Rainfall is at its lowest, so this could be the best time to appreciate the untamed Scottish landscapes if your preference is to avoid the downpours! August is festival season, with sporting, music and comedy events taking place across the country, so book accommodation early to avoid disappointment. Remember that the school holidays, combined with the fairest weather, mean that tourist sites will be at their busiest, particularly in cities.
The Scottish winter is long, typically lasting from November until March, with short days and weather that ranges from overcast and dark to clear and crisp. Snowfall in the Highlands and Cairngorms offers the chance to enjoy winter sports for those seeking an adrenaline rush, while in sunny conditions the mountain ranges make for an impressive photo opportunity.
Remember that some tourist sites may close during winter and road conditions may complicate driving. Hogmanay is, of course, the largest and most famous New Year celebration in the world, during which time Edinburgh welcomes hundreds of thousands of revellers – but it’s not just in the capital that the traditional Scottish welcome can be enjoyed: during the winter months, one of the best places to be is a friendly country pubs nestled in a tiny village, where Scottish ale or whisky can be enjoyed in front of a roaring open fire.
In spring, tourist sites tend to open around Easter weekend and there are often special offers to be grabbed at hotels and guesthouses. While tourist numbers increase, particularly during school holidays and over bank holiday weekends, you can generally avoid crowds, although dodging the showers is less likely as weather conditions can vary considerably. In spring, wildflowers transform the countryside, while a blaze of colour in September and October create an autumnal landscape that is simply unmissable.
Most seasoned travellers would suggest a minimum of a week to ten days to enjoy a variation of what Scotland has to offer. However, there’s a temptation to set unrealistic expectations, even for an extended stay of a week or two: so, decide on your priorities before you even set off from home. What are you hoping to achieve in Scotland? To imbibe the cosmopolitan culture of Edinburgh or the warmth and homeliness of tiny hamlets hidden amid rolling hills? To stand on the precipice of a mountain, surveying the lochs and land in every direction below? Or to tread the footsteps of generations that have gone before you in ancient castles and Stone Age circles?
Attempt to do everything and you’ll risk departing feeling that you’ve somehow failed. Bear in mind that travel times around the country can be lengthy, so take this into consideration when planning your trip and allow additional time beyond what you’d expect in other countries. Remember that this is just one trip to Scotland – and hopefully the first of many!
“It’s not uncommon to experience four seasons in one day so my biggest piece of advice is not to be put off by Scottish weather. Having spent many a rainy day in Edinburgh, my advice would be to take a tour of the three Scottish National Galleries using their gallery bus; browse through one of Scotland’s largest independent bookshops, Topping & Company; dodge showers in Stockbridge by popping in and out of the various independent shops and cafes; or, lastly, explore the various exhibitions at National Museum of Scotland.”
Slow travel can take us out of our comfort zones, teach us how to interact with new people, environments, and challenge us to get off our phones and actively seek out new experiences.
More than ever in today’s hectic-paced, social media-driven world where we are left feeling more pressure than ever before. We crave the time out to switch off and relax spending our time doing things that will benefit our well-being.
When we stop, close our eyes and listen when out in nature, something magical happens. The sounds of nature hold so much power and help heal our everyday stresses fears and anxieties.
Slow travel is a way of exploring a new place that not only enables you to absorb your surroundings and immerse yourself in the culture, but also enhances your connection with the people who live and work there.
By spending your time absorbing the local culture: browsing the independent shops where artisan goods are sold; enjoying traditional cuisine at cafes and restaurants; or chatting to locals, allows you to connect with where you are instead of simply seeing it.
Without the constraints of a jam packed itinerary you are able to dictate the pace of your travel, spending more time focusing on the aspects of your journey that are important to you, rather than being dictated to you by what everyone else is doing. You can pick and choose your destinations and experiences at a pace that suits you, without the need to pack up and move on to the next place by a given time. Slow travel enhances your connection to the here-and-now and everything that makes a location unique: its people, food, culture, music and trade.
Timescale is an important factor when adopting the slow travel movement. Contrary to belief, slow travel doesn’t mean being on tour for three months while you explore every inch of the country. Slow travel works just as well for a week’s stay and it’s still fine to hop onto an express train to leap from Edinburgh to Inverness rather than trek the length of Scotland by road. Slow travel is a mindset, not a means of transportation.
By allowing yourself more time you will have the option to explore areas on foot or by bike. This method of getting around will increase your chances of discovering hidden gems that might not be listed in the guide books, therefore creating your own experiences and seeing a place with fresh eyes. If you are up against the restriction of set timescales and cramming in as many tourist attractions in a short timeframe, then you are more likely to miss out on these experiences. You may even return home after your trip feeling more stressed than when you first left.
You will also want to carefully consider the time of year that you travel to and around Scotland. Like most places the most popular travel season is in Summer when it is warm and when children are enjoying their school holidays. Although this is a lovely time to visit, if you want to fully reap the benefits of slow travel then the less popular travel months are your best bet. The quieter seasons can even allow for you to have the opportunity to enjoy some places all to yourself. This can increase the benefits of connecting with nature on another level and will leave you with memories that will be cherished for a long time.
“For me, slow travel is not just about reducing the speed by which we reach a destination, it’s how we experience it when we’re there. The phrase is often associated with trains, boats, walking—antidotes to air travel—but it may also be a mindset. Can we notice the layers of the landscape with our eyes first, rather than a lens? Could we research the hidden histories of a place, rather than simply search for the shot we’ll post later on Instagram? Might we even forgo the ‘top ten’ lists and instead create our own itineraries, based on our likes, interests, moods? Slow travel may not involve going to a country’s most popular places (or necessarily outside your own borders at all) but instead making memories beyond what you’re told you should see. Thanks to the speed in which we go about our lives in this technological age, I think the concept of slow travel is more important than ever.”
Fortunately, visiting Scotland requires few documents for most travellers, but it’s worth staying up to date with the changing political situation as requirements are likely to change in the future.
At present, Scotland is part of the European Union so visitors from all EU and EEA states can visit for as long as they like, and a passport is the only document that is required.
Whether a visa is required in future depends on the outcome of the UK’s application to leave the European Union; if a deal is agreed then visa requirements are likely to be introduced from 2021.
Currently, visitors to Scotland from outside the EU and EEA may require a visa to enter the country, depending on the planned duration of their stay.
If you’re unable to drive your own vehicle to Scotland, car rental offers a practical, affordable option to travel around the country at your own pace. You’ll need to be at least 23 years old and have held a valid driving licence for at least a year in your home country. An international driving permit is not required if your licence is printed in English; for EU or EEA citizens, your domestic driving licence will suffice, accompanied by your passport.
If you’re unfortunate enough to succumb to illness or injury during your stay in Scotland, you can be reassured that the NHS will provide treatment for free at the point of care, although if you’re travelling from outside the EU or EEA, you may be required to pay a fee for the service. Despite this, and the fact that Scotland is a safe country with low crime rates, it would always be a sensible step to purchase travel insurance for your trip.
Whether your travelling to Scotland from within the UK or overseas, excellent road, rail, air and sea links make the country accessible at a reasonable cost.
From England and Wales, the M1 and M6 motorways provide a rapid and scenic route to the border for UK residents or those travelling self-drive from European countries.
Alternatively, Scotland is well-served by high speed rail, with a direct service to Edinburgh from London taking as little as four hours 20 minutes. Routes from all parts of England also serve Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen as well as local stations.
If you’re travelling from overseas, the ferry from Amsterdam to Newcastle-upon-Tyne or Zeebrugge to Hull would leave a modest drive to Scotland on arrival. From Northern Ireland, crossings from Belfast, Larne and Ballycastle serve ports in western Scotland.
From destinations abroad, air travel is by far the quickest route to Scotland and a variety of affordable options are available with budget airlines, such as easyJet, operating services from across Europe. From North America, visitors can fly to Glasgow or Edinburgh, or on connecting services via Manchester, Dublin or London.
Scotland offers a comprehensive variety of accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets, so you’re likely to be able to book that perfect retreat for your stay. Remember that accommodation can be in high demand at certain times of the year – for example, close to festival sites in the summer – so it pays to plan ahead to avoid disappointment.
If you’re seeking an upmarket, anonymous travel experience, there are ample hotels in the major cities and throughout the countryside, from popular well-known brands to chic boutique residences. You’ll also find budget hotel chains offering no-frills but comfortable accommodation at a reduced price.
For an experience with a little more personal attention, a guesthouse or self catering accommodation could be the ideal choice for you. These smaller, economical options are commonplace in more rural areas as well as towns and cities that can offer a more homely feel than a larger, corporate hotel. Check what facilities and services are included when you book to make sure this is the right choice for you.
One of the most popular attractions in Scotland is the incredible, untamed landscape that fails to impress at any time of year. Camping is not only a cheap alternative to a hotel or guesthouse stay, but also takes you closer to nature, enabling you to connect with the landscape more intimately. You can opt to stay in a registered campsite that offers facilities such as toilets and showers, or you can even take advantage of Scotland’s liberal wild camping laws that permit you to peg your tent on any unenclosed land.
All you need to remember is to be respectful to the landowner and the environment: take all your rubbish with you; don’t light campfires in dry conditions; and try to choose quiet locations rather than sites that other campers have already claimed.
GLENDYE CABINS AND COTTAGES
When you’re planning your journey to Scotland, and the places you’ll visit during your stay, bear in mind that travel times by car can be long, especially as the main routes may be winding and slow. Rather than watching your holiday disappear from the inside of a car, plan how you can maximise your time by combining destinations or sights – and allowing time to relax rather than feel you must cram every hour of every day with excitement!
If you’re driving to Scotland from or via England, the motorways to the border pass through some of England’s finest countryside. With the Lake District and Cumbria to the west and the rugged Northumbrian landscapes to the east, there are ample opportunities to break your journey en-route, or even to spend a night in one of these locations before completing the drive to Scotland. Hadrian’s Wall, the infamous north-west frontier of the Roman Empire, also offers an opportunity to explore Europe’s history a short distance south of the Scottish border and is a perfect spot to break a long car journey.
Modern technology enables you to plan likely travel time between destinations; armed with this information, you can explore possible stop-off points along each route. If a diversion is needed to reach a specific attraction that you’d regret not seeing, consider if the extra mileage and travel time is justified, as well as the impact on the arrival time at your planned destination. But above all, remember that seeing and immersing yourself in the whole of Scotland just isn’t possible, even in a week or two, so perhaps focus on one or two regions in turn, exploring every nook and cranny there is to see, rather than tying yourself rigidly to long journeys that commit you to hours of tedious travel.
1. Visitor recommendations are very helpful, so check out travel sites such as tripadvisor.com to learn about your destination and make an informed decision for your trip.
2. The internet hosts a wide range of tourist information sites, traveller blogs and local authority pages that will focus in detail on some of the hidden gems that you’ve probably never heard of. For example there are some useful trips on certain walks meaning that you can decide beforehand which route to take if there is something specific you would like to see on your journey.
3. In peak season, popular attractions can get busy so purchasing entry tickets online in advance can save time queuing on the day, as well as costing less than the ‘on-the-door’ price.
4. If you plan to use public transport to travel around Scotland, check out online timetables and print these in advance or download them to your phone. Knowing when and where to catch services is not only a great timesaver, but also minimises the chance of being stranded for hours on end (some rural bus and train services are infrequent and, in winter, may operate a reduced timetable).
The main thing to remember when packing for Scotland is that the weather is somewhat unpredictable, at any time of year. You’re more likely to experience all four seasons in one day than in most other holiday destinations, so choosing your clothes wisely is essential.
Most importantly, if you are planning to venture outside during your stay, ensure you have enough layers to insulate against the wind. A rainproof coat or jacket is a must-have, even if the weather forecast doesn’t suggest rain is imminent. In summer, particularly, rain showers can quickly give way to sunshine and warmth, so pack some suitable lighter garments as well. If you’re planning to enjoy some lengthy walks, strong walking boots will help you to maintain your balance and grip on uneven ground.
In terms of equipment, lightweight and waterproof backpacks are ideal when venturing out and about, as well as bottles or flasks for drinks (depending on the temperature outside). If you plan to drive in Scotland, don’t be tempted to rely on your mobile phone for directions as the signal will invariably fail in remote areas, so include some maps (preferably OS standard) or download to your phone before you set off. Unlike in Europe, no specific equipment is mandatory in your car but, due to the remote nature of some parts of Scotland, an emergency tyre repair kit and warning triangle are advisory – but hopefully unnecessary!
WiFi internet is widely available in guesthouses, hotels, cafes, restaurants and some public buildings. Some cities, such as Edinburgh, over public WiFi in all open spaces outdoors.
The legal age to purchase alcohol is 18, although shops and off-licences may require you to be 21. Proof of age may be required
Undoubtedly Scotland’s greatest strength is its undeniable beauty, whatever the weather or season, and visiting it is a must-do for everyone. But enjoying the landscape brings important responsibilities and it is well-worth familiarising yourself with these before setting off on your travels.
The right to access the countryside is enshrined in Scottish Law but with a caveat: respectful behaviour is expected! When hiking across open land, ensure you follow these simple rules:
Keep to designated footpaths and rights of way, where they are provided.
Only light campfires in open areas where this is permitted and never leave a fire unattended, especially in dry weather.
Where work on the land is taking place, such as farming, stay clear to avoid hindering it and keep a watchful eye for hazards such as farm machinery, felled logs or crop-spraying.
Stay clear of houses or other buildings to ensure residents have
As a rule of thumb, after you have left, the land that you have visited should be exactly the same as when you arrived. Anything that you have brought, such as food packaging, should leave with you and anything that was present, such as plants, should still be there. Bear in mind, in common with many countries, that it is illegal to deliberately remove any plant species from the Scottish countryside.
Driving in Scotland, either in your own car or a rental vehicle from one of the many hire companies you’ll find at airports and ports, is a perfect way to explore the countryside at your leisure. Wherever you live, bear in mind that driving laws may differ and Scotland’s road network, particularly in mountainous regions, may be more hair-raising than you are used to!
At all times, keep other people’s enjoyment of the countryside at the forefront of your mind. Regulations regarding the use of drones may alter in future – Scotland’s laws differ from those in England and Wales – so make it your responsibility to keep up to date with changes.
In common with the rest of the UK, driving is on the left and the minimum age is 17 (18 for overseas drivers).
Drink-driving laws are strictly enforced and punishments are severe; the minimum concentration of 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood is lower than in England and Wales.
In rural areas, refilling stations may be sparse so always ensure you have a plentiful fuel supply.
Remember that weather conditions can change suddenly, with rain, snow and wind all posing hazards to drivers. In winter, ensure that you are properly kitted-out and that you modify your driving style to accommodate the weather conditions.
If you would prefer to reduce your carbon footprint during your visit, take advantage of the many environmentally-friendly options, including train and bus services, that operate across the country and can provide you with a cost-effective alternative to enjoying Scotland’s breath-taking scenery.
In short, Scotland is for all and the greater enjoyment is to be had when everyone takes responsibility for their own actions, acting positively to help to preserve the countryside for generations.
Once you’ve planned your trip to Scotland, you can relax in the knowledge that you’ve taken all the necessary steps to enjoy a relaxing and memorable trip that will inspire you to return time after time!
But however much preparation you make, it’s very likely that you’ll have questions during your stay. The best piece of advice? Ask a local. Scottish people are among the friendliest on Earth and you’ll probably be offered the warmest of welcomes on your arrival – and most Scots will be more than happy to guide you in the right direction should you need their assistance.