- DESTINATION: Scotland, United Kingdom
- DURATION: 17-18 days
- TYPE: holiday, leisure, road trip
- MODE OF TRANSPORTATION: rental car
- NAVIGATION: Maps.me
- TIME OF YEAR: May – September
Ahh, Scotland. Land of the Brave; home to stunning landscapes, rich history, and of course bagpipes. There’s no better way to explore Scotland and all it’s wonder than by renting a car and motoring around the vast, unique landscapes, viewing castles, lochs, and natural wonders. For this itinerary, your trip starts in Edinburgh where you’ll rent a car and proceed to work your way around the country counter-clockwise, taking in some of Scotlands most famous sites and destinations. Pack your bags and get ready for a wee adventure!
DAY 1: Edinburgh (Pronounced Ed-in-burr-oh)
Where to stay: Centrally located Airbnb
The capital of Scotland, and second largest city in terms of population. Whether your hobbies include sightseeing, hiking, dining, or even craft making, Edinburgh has something for every traveler. After your travels your first day may be cut short so take this night as a leisurely evening and take a stroll up to the top of the historic Calton Hill. At the top of Calton Hill there is a fabulous restaurant called The Lookout by Gardener’s Cottage. The menu features local, seasonal fares that are sure to excite your palate. Sit and dine while taking in views of the city lights and Edinburgh castle. After dinner, stroll back down the opposite side of Calton Hill and meander your way through the city, back towards the Airbnb, stopping in at various pubs to grab a delicious pint.
DAY 2: Edinburgh
Wake up bright and early to begin exploring the city, and throw on some comfortable shoes because you’re going to be doing a fair bit of walking. For breakfast take a stroll to the Co-Op just down the street from your airbnb and pick up a few grab-and-go items that you can eat while making your way over to The Royal Mile. Once on The Royal Mile head up the street (west) towards Edinburgh Castle for your first tour. Stop in at Mary King’s Close to schedule a tour for the next day as the reservations are limited. The castle will take you anywhere from 3.5-4.5 hours to tour as it’s large and offers numerous exhibits. After viewing the castle, make your way back down towards the royal mile. There area always street performers of magicians, bagpipe players, and artists doing their thing so go slow and enjoy the fun! Stop in for a wee bite of lunch and a pint at any of the pubs and restaurants along the mile. Once you’ve refueled yourself, continue east on The Royal Mile towards The Palace of Holyroodhouse. The castle is still used today as the primary Edinburgh residence of Her Majesty The Queen, but if no one is currently home, the palace is open for visitors. Tour the castle and take a stroll through the stunning grounds and park and don’t miss the ruins of the Abbey that once stood on the grounds. By the time you’re wrapping up this tour, it’ll be nearing dinner time. Head back towards the Airbnb and stop in at The Black Fox for a fresh take on traditional Scottish delights. Definitely try the haggis balls as they’re a great, mild introduction to the unique food.
DAY 3: Edinburgh
Find a cozy cafe for a bite of breakfast and make your way back to Dean Village, one of the oldest surviving neighborhoods in Edinburgh. Take your time strolling through the small area, taking in the views. From there, head back towards The Royal Mile for your tour of Mary King’s Close. The tour will take you into Edinburgh’s underground and back in time over 400 years to what life was like for the residents of the close (scottish for alley). You’ll even get to take a peek inside a 17th century townhome that’s miraculously survived the test of time. It’s dark, damp, and somewhat creepy so be prepared for that prior to your visit. The tour will take about 2 hours. After your tour head back towards Holyrood Park, stopping to check out Mary Queen of Scots bath house before beginning your hike up to the top of Arthur’s Seat. Along your hike there are remains of forts and look outs, local wildlife including ground nesting birds (stay on the paths!), and an array of flora to snap some photos of. The hike can be a bit difficult if you’re not in the best shape as it’s rather steep but take your time and make it to the top. Once at the top, you’ll be able to take in 360* views of Edinburgh and the surrounding area. It’s a truly stunning view and shouldn’t be missed. It makes for incredible photos of the city. By this time it should be early evening, grab yourself some dinner at any of the local restaurants and make your way back to the Airbnb for some rest.
DAY 4: St. Andrews
This will mostly be a day of travel with a few stops along the way. In the morning you’ll pack up, say goodbye to your charming Edinburgh Airbnb, and head back towards the airport to grab yourself a rental car. Once you have your rental car, you’re going to head towards St. Andrews, the birthplace of Golf. Once in town grab yourself some lunch at one of the restaurants along A918. After lunch, head towards St. Andrew’s Cathedral. The stunning ruins are the remains of one of Scotland’s largest churches and some of the graves date back centuries! From there you can take a quick stroll through the remains of The Church of St. Mary on the Rocks and down to the pier for some beautiful views on the coastline. Once you’ve toured those, head back up The Pends and over to St. Andrews Castle for another quick tour. The castles that are in ruins allow for free exploration without a guide which makes for a very fun experience. Do not miss the siege tunnel (countermine) that runs underneath the castle. It’s very damp, and a bit claustrophobic so be warned. After exploring you’ll hop back in the car and make your way towards the city of Aberdeen where you’ll check into your next Airbnb.
DAY 5: Aberdeenshire
Where to stay: Aberdeen Airbnb
The city of Aberdeen is large and modern and offers several dining and sightseeing opportunities but for this trip, it’s used primarily as a base to be able to explore the surrounding area known as Aberdeenshire. The location of the airbnb is near a large mall that offers overnight parking for a small fee and numerous shopping opportunities. In the morning, grab yourself a scotch pie and hop back in the car to head back south a bit to your first stop of the day, Glamis Castle. The gorgeous castle and grounds have close ties to The Royal Family as it was the childhood home of HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and the birthplace of Princess Margaret. The castle is large and in excellent condition. The tour of the castle and grounds will take 3-4 hours and there is a cafe to grab some lunch in after wrapping up your tour. Once completed, hope back in the car and head over to Stonehaven to visit Dunnottar Castle, one of Scotland’s most picturesque ruined castles that’s steeped in history. This castle is stunning and if you go towards the end of the day there will be very few other people there making for an intimate experience. The castle has many interesting stories surrounding it, but whether or not they’re all true is up for you to decide. After you’ve toured both castles it’ll be towards the end of the day. Head back to Aberdeen, drop off the car and grab some grub at one of our favorite places in Scotland, Brew Dog. The pizza and beer are incredible.
DAY 6: Aberdeenshire
Aberdeenshire is known for it’s numerous castles (260) and there is even a castle trail that you can take that’ll bring you to a number of these incredible sites. For the first stop on this itinerary, you’ll visit Castle Fraser. I hate to disappoint you Outlander fans, but this isn’t Lallybroch, that’s actually a castle known as Midhope. Castle Fraser is a z-plan castle originally built in 1575 and is the most elaborate z-plan in Scotland. The castle and surrounding estate are in wonderful condition and there are some unique features within the castle including a spy room containing a Laird’s Lug (meaning Lord’s Ear) and a Priest’s hole. The castle is also rumored to be haunted after the skeleton of a woman was found behind a wall in the 1920s. The castle and grounds will take a few hours to tour and once you’ve explored, you’ll head over to Craigievar Castle, another of Scotland’s most famous, and picturesque castles. This castle is said to be once of the inspirations for Disney’s Cinderella Castle. The pink exterior of the tower house is a unique contrast against the rolling green fields in the background. It’s a smaller castle so it shouldn’t take more than 2-2.5 hours to explore it’s interior and the walled garden beside the castle. Once you’ve toured head further west towards Balmoral Castle. This stately castle is the Scottish home of the Royal Family and HM The Queen is often here during the summer months. When she’s not using the residence, it’s open to the public for visits. The castle is one of Scotland’s youngest having been built in the 1800s and grounds of the estate are beautiful. After touring Balmoral, you’ll head over to Breamar Castle. This highly fortified L-shaped tower house features a star shaped curtain wall and 12 rooms on display so there is plenty to see and learn about on your visit which will take you another few hours. By the time you wrap up your tours it’ll be towards the end of the day so head back to Aberdeen, grab a bite to eat at a local restaurant, and catch up on some sleep before you head up towards Inverness.
Day 7: Inverness
Where to stay: Inverness Airbnb
The gateway to the Highlands. In the morning, you’ll repack your bags and head northwest towards the city of Inverness. This unique city ties the old with the new and has become a rather posh place over the years. It’s rich in history and has strong ties to the Jacobite Uprising that took place in the mid 1700s. Leaving Aberdeen you’ll head west through the Cairngorms into some of the most stunning landscapes around. Along the way you’ll stop at Corgarff Castle, a beautiful white tower house with star shaped fortification wall that stands out beautifully against the landscape. The castle has a bloody past and has been in military use as recently as 1831 when it was used to control the smuggling of whisky (spelled without an “e” in Scotland). The castle will take about 1.5 hours to tour and from there you’ll continue up towards Inverness. Don’t miss the lookout point that provides a fabulous opportunity for some landscape shots of the area. The drive will take nearly 3 hours, not including stops so grab some lunch in one of the quaint towns along the way, as there are numerous to choose from. Once you arrive in Inverness you’ll head straight to your Airbnb. The location couldn’t be anymore perfect as it’s located almost on top of the River Ness and walking distance to the heart of Inverness, and Inverness Castle. For dinner, make yourself a reservation at The Kitchen Brasserie just around the corner from the Airbnb. This restaurant was INCREDIBLE and featured all local ingredients with a modern take on traditional dishes. The views of the River Ness and Inverness Castle will not disappoint as you feast on an incredible meal.
DAY 8: Inverness
Inverness is a large area with many things to see and do. Wake up early, and hop back in the car and head over to Culloden Battlefield just outside of the city. This is the site of the battle where the Jacobite Uprising came to it’s brutal end. Walking through the moor, you’ll get an idea of how difficult the terrain must have been to battle on and just how tough those Scots were to fight, and die, on such an unforgiving landscape. You’ll be able to walk the front lines, see the numerous clan stones with names of the clans involved in the battle, and visit Leanach Cottage. A traditional thatched roof cottage that was lived in up until 1912. There is a cafe on site that’s a great opportunity to grab some lunch before you continue along on your journey. After touring the battlefield, make your way over to Clava Cairns just a short drive away. Clava Cairns is a well preserved bronze age burial site complete with standing stones. It’s very interesting to see how large the cairns are and the orientation of the standing stones, what they were used for is still a mystery. The site isn’t vary large and shouldn’t take more than an hour to tour. Once you’ve wrapped up at the cairns, head northwest towards one of my personal favorite castles in Scotland, Cawdor Castle. You’ll pass under the Nairn Viaduct along your way. It’s absolutely beautiful so stop and snap some pictures. Cawdor Castle dates back to the early 14th century and features one of the most stunning locations of all the castles along this itinerary. There are 3 gardens on the estate but the walled garden connected to the castle is one of the most beautiful you’ll see along your tour and there is a small wooden door in the garden that leads down to a creek that runs behind the castle. This castle and grounds will take you a considerable amount of time to tour so bring some snacks along with you and enjoy a picnic in the garden.
DAY 9: Inverness
This day will be a rather leisurely one. You’ll start your morning with breakfast and then drive an hour north to Dunrobin Castle, the largest castle in the Highlands and one of the oldest continuously inhabited castles in Britain. The castle is huge with over 189 rooms and visitors can watch the art of falconry as well as take a stroll through the meticulously maintained gardens. There is also an elaborate museum on the property the provides a unique look into the past. The tour of the castle and grounds will take about 3-4 hours. After your tour, you’ll head back towards Inverness with a stop at Fort George along the way. The fort is the finest example of 18th century military engineering everywhere on the British Isles. It is still in use today and houses the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS). The fort shouldn’t take more than 2 hours to tour and then you’ll head back to the city of Inverness. In the evening you’ll stroll around the city, taking in the sights. Inverness Castle has a long history attached to it with the site first being used in the 6th century AD. It was rebuilt and made stronger over the years and the castle that now sits atop the hill, keeping watch over the city was built in 19th century. The castle is still in use today for government business so tourists can not view the interior but it makes for beautiful photos from the opposite side of the bank. There are several pubs and restaurants along the River Ness so stop in somewhere inviting for a bite to eat.
DAY 10: Highlands / Loch Ness
Today you’ll pack up your bags and hit the road once again, heading over to the Isle of Skye. Along the way you’ll make some stops at some of Scotland’s most famous sights. First up: Urquhart Castle. This ruined castle sits right on the banks of Loch Ness. You can still climb the watch tower and take in the views of the Loch. Perhaps you catch a sight of the Loch Ness Monster, playfully nicknamed Nessie. There is an old trebuchet on the grounds just before the entrance that gives you an idea of the destruction the castle faced. Take the path down to the water’s edge and dip your toes into the (ice cold) Loch. After your tour, you’ll continue heading west towards your next stop, Eilean Donan Castle. If you’re familiar with the James Bond films, you may recognize this castle from 1999 film The World Is Not Enough as the headquarters of MI6. This castle has a vibrant history and is built on a small island where 3 lochs meet and keeps watch over the lands of Kintail. The castle as it stands today was was completed in 1932, but record of the fortification goes back to the 6th century. Visitors can tour nearly every part of the castle and there are many legends and myths associated with it. If you’re lucky, you might see some otters playing around in the kelp filled waters surrounding the castle. Once you’ve finished touring the castle, it’s back in the car for the last leg of your journey over to Isle of Skye where you’ll check into your airbnb in the quaint town of Portree.
Day 11: Isle of Skye
Where to stay: Portree Airbnb
Portree might just be the cutest wee fishing village you’ll ever see. With the colorful store fronts along the port, to the small alley ways winding up and down the village it’s just about as perfect of a Scottish town as it gets. There is so much to see an do on Isle of Skye and the landscape provide some of the most picturesque in all of Scotland. On day one on the island, you’ll take your time exploring Portree. Make reservations early in the morning for dinner at a restaurant called No (#) 2 Down the Lane. You absolutely must try the salmon and the mussels, they might just be the best I’ve ever tried. Scotland is, after all, known for its legendary seafood and where better place to try it than port town. For lunch you’ll head down to the harbor and grab an order (or two) of absolutely delicious fish & chips from The Harbour Fish & Chip Shop. Take your brown paper wrapped package, grab a couple beers from the Co-Op and find a nice place to sit while you eat and take in the views of the harbor. Once you’ve finished eating, stroll up the road called Scorrybreac and you’ll find yourself at a small path on the north side of the road. Take it. After walking back into the woods a bit you’ll be greeted by one of the most lovely waterfalls in the area and it’s a off-the-beaten-path attraction so you’ll likely be the only people there. Let’s just say this, if Fairies did exist, they’d live there. Take some time to explore or head back to the airbnb for a bit of rest before dinner at No 2 Down the Lane.
Day 12: Isle of Skye
Strap on some hiking shoes and make a stop at the Co-Op for some grab-and-go food items because today is filled with hiking some of Skye’s most iconic sites. Don’t worry, none of the hikes are particularly difficult. Leaving Portree you’ll head up A855 towards your first hike, Old Man of Storr. It’s definitely one of the busiest hikes on the island so be prepared to see lots of other people on the trail. Storr is a large pinnacle of rock that’s part of the Trotternish Ridge and was formed by an ancient landslide that left the easily recognizable formation that can be seen today. The whole hike should take you about 1-1.5 hours from carpark to peak and back. Once you arrive back at the car, you’ll continue heading North on A855 to your second hike, Quiraing. This hike is also part of the Trotternish Ridge and also created by an ancient landslide. While it’s not as steep as Old Man of Storr, it’s a bit longer of a hike and takes roughly 2 hours to complete, although you can continue on further if you choose to. If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, it’s what I’d imagine Mordor to look like. The hike does take you along a steep cliff edge so it’s not recommend to do this hike if there is strong rain. Keep your eye out for the small rock shelter along the path. There’s no record of when it was built, or by who but there was a sheep sleeping away in it when we made our trip. After hiking Quiraing, you’ll cut across the landscape following the road from Staffin to Uig. From there it’s just a short drive to the Fairy Glen where tourists have moved rocks to create small labyrinths that make for a great photo opportunity. This hike is short and sweet and shouldn’t take more than 30 min. After strolling about the Fairy Glen, you’ll head South for about an hour towards the Fairy Pools. These are magical. The pools consist of a crystal clear blue pools along the River Brittle. If you’re brave enough to jump into the cold waters it’s said to bring good luck. There will be lots of other people, as it’s a popular attraction but it’s doable in most weather conditions and shouldn’t take more than 40 min to 1 hour. After all of your hiking, head back towards Portree for some much needed dinner and rest.
Day 13: Isle Of Skye
The following morning you’ll head back across Skye to Dunvegan Castle. Dunvegan Castle is one the greatest Hebridean castles and the only Highland fortress to have been continuously occupied by the same family for 800 years. This castle has a ton of history and is well known for housing a precious artifact known as The Fairy Flag. It’s said that when the clan rode out into battle and unfurled the flag that victory was imminent. The clan’s motto is “Hold Fast” which originated from Malcolm MacLeod (3rd Chief 1296-1370). On his way back from a clandestine meeting in Glenelg, Malcolm was confronted by a wild bull. As he wrestled with it, his clansmen who were nearby shouted ‘Hold Fast MacLeod’. He overcame the bull and dispatched it with his dirk. ‘Hold Fast’ has been the clan motto ever since. The castle offers seal tours by boat should you be so adventurous. After touring the Castle, head North towards Kilvaxter up on the Northern tip of Skye. Kilvaxter is an iron aged souterrain, aka a stone-lined underground passage with chambers leading off the main passage way. There is debate about what they were actually used for but when we visited, the gate was unlocked and the passage could be explored. It’ll likely be very dark, and very wet so only enter if you’re very brave and not claustrophobic in the slightest. The souterrain is located on a farmstead and shouldn’t take more than 20-30 min to explore the area. From there continue heading north on A855 and you’ll eventually see the ruins of Duntulm Castle. Of other ruined castles this one is in pretty bad shape so fully exploring it isn’t possible, but it’s still wonderful for photos and has an interesting history. Legend has it that the castle was abandoned sometime around 1730 after a nursemaid accidentally dropped the baby son of the clan chief from a castle window above the cliffs. The ghost of the nursemaid, killed in retribution, is still said to wander the ruins. She is apparently kept company by the ghost of Hugh MacDonald, who plotted against the rightful clan chief in the 1600s, and who was starved to death in the dungeon at Duntulm. Spooky stuff. After viewing the castle, you’ll head north following A855 around the Northern tip of Skye and back towards Portree where you’ll stop along the way to view Kilt Rock & Mealt Falls. This is a natural formation made out of basalt rock surprisingly resembles the pleats of a kilt and the falls fed from the nearby Lock Mealt flow over the edge in a dramatic display. When a strong wind blows through the fencing it creates an beautiful, yet haunting tone that somewhat resembles and organ being played. From here, you’re just a short drive back to Portree.
DAY 14: Glen Coe
On day 14 you’ll say goodbye to the Isle of Skye, and head back to the mainland towards Glencoe (you’ll see it spelled both ways). Harry Potter fan? You’ll pass by the Glenfinnan Viaduct (aka the hogwarts express) along your way before making it to Fort William and then the town of Glen Coe. If you’re up for another hike, this is your opportunity to hike Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Britain. Glencoe offers views of some of the most stunning landscapes in Scotland, numerous hiking opportunities, rock climbing excursions and so much more. The town is quaint despite the amount of tourists and makes for a wonderful place to stop on your way to Stirling. Along your drive, you’ll see a sign for Invergarry Castle. Take a detour and stop to view the castle. It’s small and in ruins with a chain link fence around it, but we hopped the fence (at your own risk) and snapped some shots of the once 6-story L-shaped tower house. It’s largely overgrown now but there is a small path that leads down to the Loch behind it, which is absolutely beautiful. Continuing on your journey towards Stirling, you’ll see signs for another castle called Doune. Do NOT miss this castle. You might recognize Doune Castle immediately as it’s been featured in numerous movies and shows including Game of Thrones, Monty Python, and Outlander. The castle is beautiful and very well preserved. It’s allows you to almost step back in time to what life would have been like living within the castle. If you go just before close, you’ll likely be the only people touring it as well.
Day 15: Stirling
Where to stay: Friars Wynd Hotel
Stirling is one of the most beautiful cities in Scotland with it’s castle perched on the top of a cliff, overlooking the surrounding area to the William Wallace Monument. It has a ton to offer any tourist’s unique wants and needs. Start your morning with a traditional Scottish breakfast in the hotel restaurant, and definitely order a side of the haggis. Trust me, it’s delicious. After breakfast, head towards the William Wallace Monument where you’ll be taken back in time to the victorious battles of William Wallace, the savior of Scotland. The imposing tower looks over Stirling and visitors must climb up a narrow, 246 step spiral staircase in order to reach the top (and the views). There are three different floors to the tower each with several artifacts and exhibits about William Wallace and Robert The Bruce. There’s even a sword on display that is said to have belonged to the later. After exploring the tower, and park in which it sits, head back towards the heart of Stirling and make your way over to Stirling Castle. This is one of the prettiest, best preserved castles in all of Scotland. Like almost every other castle it has a rich history and is closely tied to Mary Queen of Scot. Do not miss the incredible woodwork in the ceilings, constructed without a single nail. After your tours take some time to explore the city, it’s steeped in history and has numerous sites right around the Castle that shouldn’t be missed.
DAY 16: Falkirk
After heading out from Stirling, you’ll head towards Falkirk to stop and see the Kelpies located within Helix Park. Kelpies are a mythic creature of Scottish lore that are half horse and half fish. They’re said to lure weary victims to the water’s edge and then pull them under to their deaths. The sculpture is massive and hard to miss even from the highway, but definitely worth a stop. There is wonderful little cafeteria sort of establishment on the grounds that’s a wonderful place to grab lunch. After viewing the Kelpies and strolling through the Park, make your way back towards Edinburgh to view Rosslyn Chapel and Castle. You might recognize the chapel from the movie The Da’Vinci Code. The absolutely stunning chapel sits just a short walk from Rosslyn Castle, tucked within Rosslyn Glen. If you’re up for a bit of a hike, there is a cave tucked deep within the glen called Wallace’s Cave (there are many caves with this claim) that apparently has ties to William Wallace as he used it as a hideout to evade the English after the battle of Falkirk. There is a metal plaque placed into the stone of the cave and a some images and symbols etched into the rock that support this claim. Forewarning, the cave was very difficult to find and took some scrambling along a cliff edge to access, but it was worth it. After you’ve explored the area, you’re just a short trip back to Edinburgh where you’ll stay for a final night before flying back home.
DAY 17: Edinburgh
Finally back in Edinburgh, you can use this day to relax and recuperate from a eventful trip and see any last minute sites that you may have missed your first time through the city.
DAY 18: Edinburgh
Say goodbye to bonnie Scotland, return your rental car and fly back home.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: There is obviously plenty more to see and do than what is part of this list. One fo the main cities not mentioned is Glasgow, which can easily be added on to the trip after Stirling as it’s just a wee bit south from there. Get out, explore, and don’t be afraid to switch up the itinerary a bit.