The perfect playlist? Check - the Pretenders are on repeat. Road snacks? Yep, Irn-Bru and Tunnock's at the ready! So, where to? Caledonia, obviously :-)
Given I’m both Scottish and used to work for the country’s national tourism board (not to brag...), I thought I’d share my wisdom on how to do a proper Scotland road trip. Let’s buckle up and get going!
Starting point: Edinburgh
Starting with the expected, Edinburgh is the most famous and popular destination with international visitors, so it’s likely where you’ll be starting your grand Scottish road trip. But before you jump in the car, there are a few spots to check out (beyond the tourist shops of The Royal Mile and the (admittedly impressive) views from Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat!).
Sunny days are not a given in Scotland at any time of year, and as such must be celebrated with homemade gelato from Mary’s Milk Bar in the Grassmarket and a visit to Greyfriar’s Bobby. You can also get away from the main glut of tourists in the Dean Village. The tranquil, cobblestone streets along the river are only tainted by the recent influx of influencers who cottoned on.
On dreich days, go underground into the Edinburgh Vaults or Mary King’s Close and explore the labyrinth of subterranean alleyways where people used to live. Or even better, make like the locals, put on your raincoat, and head south to see the historic abbeys of the Scottish Borders.
Next up: Glasgow
Less than an hour west of Edinburgh, Glasgow is Scotland’s under-rated largest city. The impressive architecture of its many museums, bridges and cathedrals have a unique character, and the legacy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh runs deep in the city’s blood. Quirky features like Duke of Wellington’s perpetual cone hat and the old, circular subway system only add to Glasgow’s personality.
It’s also a haven for foodies. You’ll never find yourself far from an amazing meal, be it traditional fish and chips (deep-fried Mars bar optional), a fancy brunch, or Scotland’s Best Kebab. As the home of the Chicken Tikka Masala (probably), every Glaswegian is fond of an Indian meal. One thing everyone can agree on, is that you can’t go wrong at Mother India.
From street art walking trails, to parks where you can spot highland cows grazing, there’s plenty to do outdoors within the city. But it’s also a great base to start a journey to the islands off the West Coast.
Jump on a ferry to the Scottish Islands: Cumbrae, Inner and Outer Hebrides and Iona
Day trippers can reach the Isle of Cumbrae and the Isle of Arran via train and a short ferry. Cumbrae is ideal for a leisurely walk or cycle once you arrive, while Arran’s castles, waterfalls, and beaches offer more than enough to keep you occupied, and that’s before you reach the whisky distilleries or cheese shop.
The ferry to Cumbrae leaves from Largs, which is well worth a trip in its own right—especially if you’re travelling with kids, like our JFC colleague. You can make a detour to Kelburn Castle on the way, known for its graffitied exterior, secret forest, and annual Garden Party music festival. Then, once you reach Largs, it’s time for Scotland’s most famous ice cream before meeting some Vikings!
A longer island-hopping adventure is best with the help of the CalMac Ferries itinerary builder. There’s really no wrong answer when it comes to Scotland’s Inner and Outer Hebrides: Islay and Jura for the whisky, Harris for its spectacular beaches, Iona for its deep religious history… I could go on. Just watch you don’t get sucked into the Corryvreckan Whirlpool as you’re passing by.
Back on the mainland: the West Coast
You can still see breathtaking scenery without exercising those sea legs, though, especially along the banks of the West Coast’s sea lochs. For views accompanied by famous oysters, bird spotting, and more castles (they’re everywhere!), Loch Fyne has you covered. Then the next loch over, you’ve got the ruins of Kilchurn Castle and the eclectic St Conan’s Kirk, both perched on the banks of Loch Awe.
The area around Glencoe is where you really get a view to kill. Passing through on the road north is spectacular enough, but get out of your car, and you can be immersed in a world of woodland trails, waterfalls and unbelievable mountain vistas.
Head up north: the Highlands
Carrying on north, you’ll encounter charming fishing towns and deserted beaches at every turn. It’s little wonder that the North Coast 500 has become one of the country’s most popular road trip itineraries in recent years, providing a guided tour of the area’s natural and man-made wonders.
Of course, the most likely starting point on the route is Inverness—the capital of the Highlands and home to Nessie. Aside from monster hunting, you need to make time to get lost in Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop, go dolphin-spotting at nearby Chanonry Point, and tap your toes along to some traditional folk music at Hootenanny. That last one is obligatory!
Across the top to Northeast Scotland: Aberdeen, castles and whisky
From Inverness, look towards Northeast Scotland. Despite being jam-packed full of Scotland’s most appealing features—castles and whisky—the area is often overlooked by visitors. Aberdeen is a good city base, though prepare yourself for everything to be shades of grey. Literally. The whole place is made of granite, which is especially pretty when the sun shines and the buildings sparkle.
Being right on the coast, the sea is as much a part of any Aberdonian’s identity as the dog-sized seagulls that’ll poach the sandwich from your hands. Remember that as you take a gentle stroll along the beach esplanade with an ice cream in hand. If you make it to the end of the path unscathed, you absolutely must meander through the rows of tiny old houses in Footdee.
Outside the city, the glorious beaches continue. To the north, the sand dunes of Balmedie Country Park provide kids (and big kids) with hours of hill-rolling fun and play areas. To the south, towns like Stonehaven offer sandy beaches within a stone’s throw of an award-winning fish supper.
Just a mile north of Stonehaven is one of the country’s most iconic ruined castles. Dunnottar lies on a rocky peninsula and is steeped in centuries of history. The clifftop vantage point is ideal for spotting seabirds, including puffins from April-July, but you’ll want to strap your youngsters in tightly, as it can get more than a little windy.
Finishing off with Fife or Stirling
On the home stretch back towards Edinburgh and Glasgow, you have decisions to make. The fishing villages of Fife, and the famous golf course, ruined abbey and university at St Andrews? Or will it be the ancient castles, battlefields and monuments of Stirling, accompanied by the gorges and waterfalls of the Ochil Hills?
Where to next?
Admittedly, there’s so much more I haven’t even touched on here. Like getting outdoorsy in the Cairngorms and the joy of simple pleasures in Scotland’s bothies. Or the whole of the Isle of Skye, which is already so popular for its ethereal Fairy Pools and otherworldly landscapes that there’s hardly space for any more visitors.
Is there anywhere that I’ve missed that should be on the list? Let me know, and you might find your recommendations in a future edition of the Detour.