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The 8 best things to do in Scotland

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Between Scotland’s ancient castles, dramatic mountains, and lush highlands lies the magical promise of experiences old and new. There's much more to be enjoyed in this enchanting corner of the United Kingdom than hunting for Nessie in the enigmatic Loch Ness - although it's certainly not a bad place to start!

Immerse yourself in the historic epicentre of the country by visiting Edinburgh, or coast through the highlands on a rail journey you will never forget. So many islands, highlands, and scenic drives - where do we even begin? Well, to make things a little easier we've put together a guide to the country's most enrapturing sights and attractions.

Whether you're planning a family day out, joining a group tour or setting off on the road trip of a lifetime, here is our pick of the best things to do in Scotland.

1. Experience natural phenomena

Did you know that you can experience a number of fascinating natural phenomena in Scotland? For a start, you can see the famed Northern Lights. For the best chance of seeing this elusive light show, you'll want to head north to locations like the Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland or Caithness, with late October to March being the best time to spot them.

Scotland is also home to the world's third largest whirlpool. Located off the country's west coast, Corryvreckan whirlpool has been fascinating travellers since the 8th century. You can see it for yourself on a boat tour with a local guide, which also provides the chance to view a seal colony and spot eagles. For one of the more serene natural activities in Scotland, visit An Lochan Uaine - The Green Loch - in the Highlands. While legend has it that the loch got its deep turquoise colour from a pixie king washing his clothes here, a slightly more likely explanation is that it is tinted by algae.

Now for an unusual one. Lying off the coast of the uninhabited island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides is one of the world's most famous sea caves. Known to the Celts as ‘The Cave of Melody’, Fingal’s Cave is 72 feet tall and 270 feet deep, formed of hexagonal columns of basalt. The symmetry is truly otherworldly. The cave has inspired creative minds all over the world, with everyone from Pink Floyd to Jules Verne writing about it, so hop on a cruise to hear the eerie echo of Atlantic Ocean waves crashing against the ancient rock.

Suggested tour: Scottish Isles & Faroes Cruises

2. Explore unspoilt nature

Unsurprisingly for a country as scenic as Scotland, there are plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventures to be had, from climbing Ben Nevis, the country's highest peak, to laid back boat trips on its majestic lochs. Of course, the most well known is Loch Ness. While the loch is the site of an age-old cryptozoological mystery, it’s also quite the natural beauty - and an underrated sunset spot. Keep an eye out for the cormorants and ospreys on the wooded shores and maybe even venture past the dramatic ruins of Urquhart Castle, which still boasts prison cells and a watchtower. Even if you fail to spot the loch's legendary inhabitant, it still makes one of the best days out in Scotland.

The Isle of Skye tops most nature-lovers lists. Why? Its well-preserved castles, rugged coastline, unusual peaks, and colourful waterfront villages are hard to look past. It’s best discovered on an adventurous road trip, with stops at unforgettable locations like the imposing Eilean Donan Castle and the charming harbour town of Portree.

When it comes to true rugged, wild natural beauty, the Outer Hebrides are the ultimate wish list destination. This 130-mile-long series of islands at the very edge of Britain are home to impressive peaks, idyllic sandy beaches and moorlands teeming with flora and fauna. Visit the island of Lewis and Harris to enjoy mountainous landscapes, vast, pristine beaches such as Luskentyre, and enchanting miniature fjords. There are plenty of manmade marvels to explore, too, including the Calanais stone circle, which predates Stonehenge, 15th century Rodel Church, and the 18th century Gearrannan Blackhouse Village.

Suggested tour: Hebridean Island Adventure

3. Marvel at traditional festivals 

Scotland's long and fascinating history can not only be experienced through its landmarks, museums and architecture, but also in its many traditional festivals and events. One of the most well known is Burns Night, which marks the birthday of beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns on the 25th January. During this bewitching evening, a traditional supper of haggis with neeps and tatties (swede and mashed potato) is served, followed by poetry recitals, singing, and plenty of whisky. Want to experience something a little more obscure? If you happen to be in Edinburgh on the second Friday of August, be sure to pop over to the nearby town of South Queensferry to witness the Burryman celebrations, in which a local man is covered head to toe in flowerheads before setting off on a nine-hour walk around the town, with residents offering him whisky through a straw along the way.

Now for a night to get pulses racing. Take your spot at Edinburgh Castle for an evening performance of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Held every August with events each weekend, it offers the chance to marvel at the spectacle of massed pipes, drums, and colour, and enjoy the skill and tradition of performance teams from all around the globe. There are performances by the British Armed Forces, as well as by participants from as far as New Zealand, in a thrilling and colourful spectacle that marks one of the most memorable things to do in Scotland. A sight not to be missed is the lone piper silhouetted against the black sky as they patrol the battlements above.

Suggested tour: Loch Lomond & the Edinburgh Tattoo

4. Go wildlife watching

If you fail to see Nessie on your trip to Scotland, fear not, there are plenty of other creatures to see across the country. From Shetland's ponies to Orkney's puffins, there are few better places in the UK to see animals of every variety. A visit to Cairngorms National Park offers the chance to see everything from deer and pine martens to red squirrels and golden eagles. You can join a wildlife tour, try your luck at a hide, or just see what you encounter on a stroll through the forest. Another great location for wildlife watching is the Isle of Skye. As well as being home to Britain's largest bird of prey, the sea eagle, the island also offers the chance to glimpse pine martens, seals, otters, gannets, and puffins.

When you think of Scotland, you might think of peaty whisky, resonant bagpipes, and rolling hills of green. You would be forgiven for not immediately thinking of dolphins. The Moray Firth - a triangular inlet to the north and east of Inverness - is renowned for its population of 190 bottlenose dolphins. Take a cruise around the inner Moray Firth to catch one of these magical creatures bursting over the surface of the North Sea - it's undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Scotland with kids. Wildlife enthusiasts will absolutely love this area because the dolphins are rarely alone. The boat trip will give you the precious opportunity to spot other wildlife including whales, seals, otters and ospreys.

Suggested tour: Best of the Scottish Highlands

5. Taste the local produce

A visit to Scotland wouldn't be complete without sampling the local food and drink, and there's a vast array of traditional dishes to get stuck into. While each region, city and town often has its own variation on the cuisine, one of the best places to try all manner of tantalising creations is the capital city. Edinburgh is home to a respected food scene, and offers the chance to try traditional dishes like cullen skink (a creamy fish soup) and stovies (beef with potato and veg). Aberdeen Angus steaks, delicious seafood, superb cheeses... it's all here. You can even find vegan haggis from places like The Haggis Box. If you pop into a fish and chip shop you may also find the famous battered Mars Bar on the menu, as well as 'pizza crunch' - deep fried pizza.
Feeling a bit fancy? Why not head to one of the city's five Michelin starred restaurants, such as Kitchin - renowned chef Tom Kitchin's elegant eatery that serves seasonal, British dishes. Of course, you'll also need to sample the local tipples while you're in Scotland, and what better place to start than whisky - its national drink. Drop into a pub - maybe the city's oldest, the Sheep Heid Inn - or visit a distillery for a tasting. There are several to choose from in Edinburgh, as well as renowned options such as Glen Ord Distillery up in the village of Muir of Ord in the Highlands, or Clydeside Distillery in Glasgow.

Suggested tour: The Royal Caledonian

6. See the scenery by train

Scotland is home to some of the most scenic rail journeys in the world, however there are 3 that really top the charts. First, sit back and relax on the dazzling train ride from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh. This 80-mile journey offers the chance to soak in views of the northern Highlands and the Black Isle, although it enters its most scenic stretch when it glides past Loch Carron and the Attadale Estate. Once you arrive in Kyle of Lochalsh you might like to visit the impressive 13th century Eilean Donan Castle, an imposing structure that looks straight out of a period film.

Next, marvel at the 42 miles of the West Highland line stretching from Fort William to Mallaig. Often hailed as one of the world's best railway journeys, in addition to being one of the best things to do in Scotland, this captivating stretch offers the chance to glimpse Ben Nevis as the train pulls out of Fort William, and it only gets better from there. Enjoy landscapes like Loch Eilt, the white sands of Morar and, of course, the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct featured in the Harry Potter films.
Finally, finish up with a trip on the steam-hauled Strathspey Railway - you’ll feel as if you have journeyed back in time! This 20-mile round trip takes you through spectacular Highland scenery, with unspoilt views of the Cairngorms and the River Spey as you gently chug past moorland and forest. For an extra special touch, you can even book lunch or afternoon tea to enjoy on the train.

Suggested tour: Scottish Highland Railways

7. Enjoy the festive season

Looking for a cosy getaway over the Christmas period? You'll find few places in the UK with as much festive cheer as Edinburgh. Browse the dozens of stalls at the East Princes Street Gardens Christmas market, which sells everything from handmade goods to traditional Scottish sweet treats and plays host to Scotland’s largest ferris-wheel. You can enjoy the view of the colourful Christmas lights in the city centre by climbing to the viewing platform inside the Scott Monument.

The weather may be brisk, but when it comes to wintery things to do in Edinburgh, Scotland's capital certainly doesn't disappoint. Visit Edinburgh Castle - be sure to catch the festive light shows that run across its walls during the festive season, take a stroll down Royal Mile - perhaps with a stop at the nearby Nutcracker Christmas Shop, or warm up at one of the city's many museums and galleries. If you're staying in Edinburgh over the new year, you can revel in the lively Hogmanay celebrations, when the city becomes even more alive with various street parties, concerts, a torchlight procession and, of course, fireworks.

If you'd rather enjoy the festive period in a more remote location, why not escape the bustle with a cosy winter retreat to the Highlands? Visit the adorable residents of the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, catch a live performance from a traditional Highland Cèilidh band, and feast on hearty, warming Scottish fare. Enjoy walks in the spectacular surroundings and fresh, crisp air before cosying up with a good book and a dram of whisky, perhaps in front of an open fire... what better way to relax and recharge ready for the new year?

Suggested tours: Edinburgh Christmas Markets / Christmas in the Highlands

8. Take a step back in time in Glasgow

While Edinburgh is well known for its ample historical offerings, there are plenty of heritage-related things to do in Glasgow. Scotland's largest city has a rich history dating back to the Middle Ages, largely thanks to the famous River Clyde, and its numerous museums, galleries and landmarks are a strong testament to this. A great place to start is the city's oldest building, Glasgow Cathedral. Dating back to the 13th century, it is Scotland's oldest cathedral and has roots as far back as the 6th century.  

To get a taste of days gone by in a green, serene setting, head to Pollok Country Park. Once part of a grand estate that was home to the same family for 700 years, the park now offers a number of historical attractions. Step back in time at the magnificent Pollok House, now a National Trust property complete with opulent furnishings, perfectly manicured gardens and extensive servants' quarters. Also in the park you'll find the Burrell Collection, a gallery housing everything from mediaeval stained glass to Manet paintings, all of which were collected by a local shipping magnate and gifted to the city in 1944. 

Elsewhere, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum provides excellent insight into Glasgow's industrial past, as well as artefacts from ancient Egypt and art from the likes of Monet and van Gogh, all housed in a spectacular 19th century building. You can continue your cultural tour at House for an Art Lover, an arts centre based on the 1901 designs of renowned Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, 61 years after his death. 

We hope this guide has given you some inspiration for places and attractions to add to your Scotland wish list. Whatever time of the year you visit, and whether you're setting off with friends, family, or venturing solo, the country is sure to provide you with unforgettable experiences you'll treasure forever. Be it long walks in the countryside or exploring rich cultural and historical offerings, there really is something to suit all tastes here.  
Still not sure what to do in Scotland? Why not take a look at our pick of the country's top places to visit. 

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