Everyone knows that Edinburgh, Skye and Loch Ness are some of the best places to visit in Scotland. While they’re well worth adding to your itinerary, we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight a few local gems. From beaches that wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean, to recently revived cities brimming with culture, these destinations should definitely be on your hit list.
Stirling isn’t just the Gateway to the Highlands. It’s also one of the best places to visit in Scotland if you’re a history buff. Although it only gained official city status in 2002, it was once the country’s capital. It even has a castle that’s almost as magnificent as the one in Edinburgh to prove it. One of Stirling’s most remarkable attractions is the Church of Holy Rude, where King James VI of Scotland was crowned in 1567. This makes it the only active church in the UK, apart from Westminster Abbey, that’s hosted a coronation.
A large statue of Robert the Bruce stands outside the castle, but that’s nothing compared to the monument to William Wallace. The imposing tower (pictured above) sits high on the hill of Abbey Crag. This hints at the fact that the city is near two important Medieval battle sites – Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn – where the Scots won significant victories against the English army.
If you decide to head up to the highlands for a bit of Nessie-spotting, the A9 road between Stirling and Inverness has been named as one of the most beautiful A-roads in the world.
An hour north of Inverness you’ll find the quaint fishing village of Ullapool, right on the edge of sparkling Loch Broom. It’s the perfect base for exploring Wester Ross and the Outer Hebrides. You can hop on a ferry to Stornaway, which is famous for its black pudding, or head out on a cruise around the Summer Isles. These uninhabited islands are home to nesting seabirds, with dolphins and porpoises leaping effortlessly through the waters.
It’s a walker’s paradise. There’s everything from rocky coastal paths to winding inland trails and challenging summits like Stac Pollaidh. The bone caves near Inchnadamph are also worth exploring. They get their name from the discovery of animal bones dating back to the last ice age – including arctic fox, wolf and polar bears.
The town of Ullapool is a pretty laid back place to be. Most of the action happens in the pub or by the harbour wall, where locals spill out on summer evenings, pint in hand.
3. The Isle of Harris
White sands and turquoise waters might not be what you expect from the Scottish coast, but that’s exactly what you get on the beaches of Harris. But while the west coast beaches of Luskentyre, Horgabost and Seilebost look utterly tropical, it’s a different story on the east. This is a land of rugged rocks and mountains, scattered with purple heather and deep blue lochs. It’s worth hiring a car just to drive around and take in the scenery – as well as the infamously tricky Golden Road from The Bays to Tarbert.
If you’re in the mood for souvenir shopping, head to Tarbert – the main town. This is where the official Harris Tweed shop is, and you’ll find lots of beautiful pieces made from the fabric that the island is famous for. Or, for a taste of the islands, snap up a bottle of gin from the recently opened Isle of Harris distillery. The spirit is infused with local botanicals like sugar kelp, while the distillery’s first whisky is still in barrels waiting to age. Tarbert is also where the main ferry terminal is so you can quickly pop back to the mainland, over to Lewis or go puffin spotting in the Shiant islands.
4. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park
One of the most popular places to visit in Scotland is Loch Lomond. It has a special place in every Scot’s heart: partly because of the folk song, which is played at every Scottish wedding, and partly because it’s just so beautiful. The loch (or lake) is absolutely massive – it’s the longest stretch of fresh water in the UK, coming in at 23 miles long and five miles across at its widest point.
As if the huge body of water wasn’t breathtaking enough, it’s surrounded by soaring mountains. If you’re feeling energetic, you can climb Ben Lomond to get sweeping views across the countryside. Alternatively, try hiking a small section of the West Highland Way. The entire long distance walking trail stretches for 96 miles, from Milngavie in the lowlands to Fort William in the highlands, via the eastern shore of Loch Lomond. Look out for the feral goats.
Once you’ve built up an appetite, you’ll find plenty of convivial bars and restaurants where you can grab a bite. The Rowardennan Hotel has a large outdoor terrace which is great on sunny days, and a roaring log fire for those chilly Scottish summer nights.
5. St Abbs
While fans of the Harry Potter films flock to Edinburgh, Marvel fans make a pilgrimage to the tiny fishing village of St Abbs in the Scottish borders instead. The pretty harbour stood in for New Asgard in the film Avengers: Endgame (2019). It also appeared in a Harry Styles music video (Adore You, if you’re interested)
After snapping a selfie with the ‘twinned with New Asgard’ sign, hop back in your car and head to the St Abbs Head National Nature Reserve. This is a wonderful place for a coastal stroll along the cliff tops. Look out for wildlife like rare butterflies, puffins and grey seals. The clear waters are popular with scuba divers, so if you have your PADI license it’s worth checking in with the local dive schools.
As you walk along the coast, look out for the ‘Widows & Bairns’ memorial statue crafted by sculptor Jill Watson. It pays tribute to 189 fishermen from Eyemouth who perished in a storm back in October 1881, and the wives and children that they left behind.
It sounds harsh, but a few years ago Dundee rarely made it onto lists of places to visit in Scotland. But thanks to regeneration and revival, it’s stepping into the spotlight as one of Scotland’s cultural and creative hubs. One of the biggest catalysts was the opening of the swish V&A Museum in 2018 – the first outpost outside London, and the first dedicated design museum in Scotland. It’s spurred a £1 billion makeover for the waterfront area, and a raft of trendy bar and restaurant openings have quickly followed.
But it’s not just the V&A that creative types will like. The McManus art gallery (which reopens on August 20th) has been part of Dundee’s cultural scene for decades, and took home the Best Visitor Attraction award in the 2019/20 Scottish Thistle Awards. Or, if you’re in the mood for contemporary art, follow one of two Open/Close street art trails. This project began as a way to brighten up the doors and walls of Dundee. With initial funding for six pieces, today it comprises 40 colourful works painted by local artists.
There are so many cool places to visit in Scotland
Our list really just scratches the surface. We hope it gives you the inspiration you need to get off the usual “Edinburgh, Loch Ness, Skye” trail and really explore. One of the best things to do in Scotland is just get behind the wheel and drive around. You never know what sort of beautiful scenery you’re going to discover, or which small town you might end up in.
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