What to Do in Scotland: Your Perfect 8-Day Itinerary
For a country that’s half the size of Georgia, Scotland packs a decidedly outsized punch when it comes to beautiful natural scenery, wonderful people, and historic cities. While a week there won’t give you time to explore everything—the isles of Skye and Lewis, as well as other remote regions, will be out of reach if you ever want to catch your breath—it will give you enough time to get a satisfying overview of the country, from magical Edinburgh to countless spellbinding lochs.
Days 1-3: Edinburgh
Whether you’ve taken the train in from London or you’re alighting from the airport bus, arriving at Waverly Station is a breathtaking moment. On one side, you’ve got the Royal Mile—a slope lined with medieval structures that culminates in Edinburgh Castle, looking down from its promontory over the rest of the city. On the other side, Princes Street—the city’s high street, which bustles with shoppers—and its gardens, which lie below both the thoroughfare and the Royal Mile’s cliff face.
First things first: Head up the steep, winding slope of Cockburn Street (FYI: that’s pronounced “co-burn”) to find yourself directly in the middle of the Royal Mile. Stop in St. Giles Cathedral, a longstanding monument which was built in 1124 and has borne witness to much of Scotland’s history. Then take in the buskers and street performers as you head further on toward the castle. It’s up to you whether to go in or not—more stunning castles are yet to come—but it’s worth a look at the exterior at least. From there, head back down stopping in at World’s End pub for a refreshing pint. It’s been around since the 16th century, as evidenced by brass cobbles in the road outside marking where the original city gates used to stand.
You’ll pass arched passageways as you continue down the street—there are dozens of these “closes” in all. Pop into them and you’ll find graveyards and gardens, as well as stairways leading you down to lower levels of the city. (Scotland’s capital is built on multiple levels, with parts of the city intersecting and criss-crossing under hills and bridges.) But stick on the Mile for now and head down to the Scottish Parliament, a controversial building architecturally, but one with an excellent tour explaining how the government functions. The neoclassical Holyrood Palace, the official residence of Scotland’s monarchs, is just across the street. Stop there, as well, to see the state apartments and rooms that once belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots.
If you’re not yet tired from travel, a hike up Arthur’s Seat—the “mountain” that rises above the city—is the perfect cap to this excursion as it affords stunning panoramic views of Edinburgh. It’s situated in the 640-acre Holyrood Park which also offers a host of other sites including the Salisbury Crags, the freshwater Duddingston Loch, and the 15th-century St. Anthony’s Chapel.
Finish your day by ascending the Royal Mile once more—only to descend via a steep staircase toward the castle or walking down the delightfully colorful and curving Victoria Bow for a well-earned dinner on the Grassmarket at The Last Drop. It might sound like a reference to the last bit of real ale in your glass, but Scots have a penchant for dark humor: the pub is adjacent to Edinburgh’s old site for hangings.
Treat yourself to a full Scottish breakfast at the Edinburgh Larder, just off the Royal Mile on Blackfriars Street. You’ll get a plate of sausage, bacon, black pudding (we never said this would be a low-cholesterol breakfast), beans, mushrooms, egg, and toast—for less than a tenner—and all of it locally sourced. Then, head to the National Museum of Scotland, a gem of an institution that covers seemingly every aspect of Scottish history—as well as plenty of the world outside its borders. It can be a bit overwhelming, but even if you’re not in the mood for a full-on experience, at least visit one of the more overlooked aspects: the rooftop. There you’ll find a panoramic view of the city along with plaques that identify various buildings and introduce visitors to Scottish flora.
Next up is a visit to the Surgeons’ Hall Museums. Edinburgh has historically been at the forefront of medicine, and the surgery, dental, and pathology museums explore the glorious and gory aspects of the city’s yesteryear in an absolutely fascinating (if not sometime gruesome) way. Around the corner is The Mosque Kitchen—so if you’re still hungry after the museum, you can grab a great curry served up on styrofoam plates for just over a fiver.
Set out on a 10-minute walk from the museum and you’ll land in the Meadows, a stretch of green space bookended by the pleasantly posh Marchmont neighborhood at one end and the twee Bruntsfield at the other. Grab some ciders at a Sainsbury’s just at its edge or go for a takeaway coffee at Peter’s Yard (which also has a good supply of Swedish baked treats), and catch some precious sun as you stroll through the park. Or, if you want to go about your afternoon in true Scottish fashion, crack open your cider and set in for some people-watching.
Round off your evening by going deeper into Bruntsfield—right into Morningside—stopping in at boutiques and shops along the way. The Apartment is a must-stop for innovative, modern dining (think: venison and beetroot patties with sautéed potatoes and mixed leaf salad), then end the evening at the beautifully traditional Canny Man’s. There, a white-shirted staff offers an almost unparalleled range of whiskies—though don’t dare add “and Coke” to the end of your order.
Start your morning on Princes Street with a visit to the Scottish National Gallery which has a stunning fine art collection with paintings by Vermeer, Gauguin, Titian, and Botticelli, among others, as well as a healthy dose—of course—of Scottish works that give visitors a comprehensive understanding of the country’s art history. Then, get out of town with a trip to the beach and a seaside village. A one-hour train trip will take you to the colorful coastal town of North Berwick, which is a treat to stroll through before grabbing some piping hot fish and chips to eat on the beach. From there, you can easily hop a bus to the sandy, quieter shores of Gullane Bents. Even if the water’s a bit too chilly to swim in, a beachside stroll is a breath of fresh air after two busy days in Edinburgh. While you’re there, you’ll also catch gorgeous views of the Firth of Forth, an important estuary highlighted by the gleaming red Forth Bridge, which boasts the world’s second-longest cantilever span. Your return train journey into Edinburgh will drop you at Waverley Station—perfectly positioning you for dinner at Chez Jules. The unpretentious spot features homestyle French food (their coq au vin is spectacular) and an excellent house wine, just off of Princes Street. If you’re not ready to end your night post-binge, you can always top off with a pub crawl along pedestrian Rose Street.
Days 4-6: Whisky, Lochs, and Mountains
After exploring Edinburgh, rent a car and head north for three days of Speyside whiskies and gorgeous natural scenery. First stop: Aviemore, in the middle of Cairngorms National Park in the Highlands. Three hours north of Edinburgh, the town is a popular holiday destination for skiers in the winter—but during the more temperate months of the year, there’s plenty of hiking and hillwalking to do. Loch Morlich is a great stop for watersports like sailing and kayaking, with a beautiful sandy beach set against low mountains (although, it must be noted—five of Britain’s six highest mountains are near Aviemore). After taking in the innate natural beauty of the area, tuck in for the night in Aviemore.
Indulge in one more full Scottish breakfast (the Mountain Cafe does a particularly good one) to line your stomach for the day ahead. From Aviemore, it’s time to head an hour further north to Glenlivet Distillery in Banffshire for a free tour and tasting. While you’re at it, twenty more minutes down the road will take you to Glenfiddich’s distillery for—yes—another tour and tasting. Pro tip: if you opt for the half-day Pioneer’s Tour, you’ll walk out of the distillery with a bottle of Uisge Beatha (as they say in Gaelic) that you bottled yourself, straight from the cask. After a late afternoon visit to the lovely seaside village of Lossiemouth 40 minutes north from there—and some fish and chips to soak up all that whisky from the Lossie Chip Shop—end the day soaking up the quaint charm of tiny town of Elgin.
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Before you scoot out of Elgin, you have to check out the romantic ruins of the village’s eponymously named cathedral which once rivaled St. Andrews in importance. Hop in the car once more for a final distillery stop at Glen Moray. Being a bit smaller than the world-famous ones you visited yesterday, it’ll give you a different perspective on the whisky-making process. Before you leave town, it’s essential that you stop at Gordon & MacPhail, one of the world’s best shops for whisky, to pick up a bottle (or seven) to take home.
Travel on an hour west to have lunch in Inverness. The Mustard Seed does an excellent two-course lunch for less than a £10 that draws on local ingredients to craft Highlands-influenced modern European dishes before heading south to check out another loch—located in the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, less than three-and-a-half hours south.
After spending the night in the quaint, well-preserved village of Luss (it dates back to medieval times), choose from one of Cruise Loch Lomond’s many hiking trails—you’ll find some options better than others depending on how much time and effort you’re willing to spend. Just be sure to leave town by 1 P.M. or so as there’s plenty more to see in Glasgow, just 30 minutes further south.
Days 7-8: Glasgow
Thirty-six hours in Glasgow will go by faster than you think, but it’s not a trip to Scotland without stopping in this intriguing city. (And, surprise—you’ve wound back up just 40 minutes from Edinburgh.) If you’ve already dropped off the rental car, no worries—the city is easily navigable, whether you’re walking its gridded streets or taking the circular subway line with its toy-like cars.
The Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, whose gorgeous Baroque building opened in 1901, is a stunning place to start your afternoon exploration, and bonus: it’s free to enter. With 22 galleries and 8,000 objects from Dutch Old Masters to European armor, as well as a dedicated display to Charles Mackintosh (who defined much of Glasgow’s architecture), there’s plenty to see here before it closes in the early evening.
Following your visit to the gallery, head over to Ashton Lane, a charming passage criss-crossed with fairy lights and chock full of boutiques and quirky watering holes. Here, dinner at the Ubiquitous Chip is a must. Founded at a time when restaurant options in Glasgow were limited, it’s become one of the city’s best restaurants and spans more than a few dining areas, including a roof terrace that serves a brasserie menu. If you find yourself in Glasgow on a Friday, pop back on the tube to Sloans, which bills itself as Glasgow’s oldest bar and restaurant. More important than its age, the spot hosts a Friday ceilidh, a traditional Scottish dance that’s unlike any American line dance you’ve ever been to. Otherwise, head to the Scotia, Glasgow’s oldest pub, which opened in 1792 and carries on a strong tradition of live music. If you’re in it for the traditional tunes, you’ll also find a friend in Ben Nevis which is famous for its folk music and whisky selection.
Grab tea and a scone for breakfast at the Willow Tea Rooms, which has been restored to match plans drawn up by Mackintosh at the turn of the century. Filled up on carbs and caffeine, you’ll be set to start your last day. Nearby is the Tenement House, where four restored rooms provide a frozen-in-time glimpse at what life in Glasgow was like at the turn of the 20th century.After, take the 30-minute walk to Glasgow Cathedral, where Glasgow’s patron saint, St. Mungo, allegedly built his church (he’s also buried in the lower crypt). Dedicated in 1136, the hallowed hall is a gorgeous example of Scotland’s take on Gothic architecture.
For your final stop, take a late lunch at Scottish-Continental Cafe Gandolfi on Merchant Square, which is surrounded by buildings that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries (the cafe itself used to be the city’s main cheese market)—or its sister restaurant, Gandolfi Fish, where you can enjoy some of the country’s prime seafood (think: roast Shetland cod and pan-fried Orkney salmon). From there, the 500 bus will take you practically door-to-door to Glasgow Airport.
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