Things to Do in Scotland
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
Making Scotland the topic of my first travel post was definitely on purpose. This place happens to be my favorite country for many reasons. The distinct architecture, the really great food, the history that goes back thousands of years, and the beautiful landscape are all reasons to go visit the country. The culture and the atmosphere the people create are reasons to keep going back.
To help you have a great trip, here is a list of things to do in Edinburgh including day trips to surrounding areas.
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One great aspect about Edinburgh is that it’s a relatively easy city to get around. Many of the attractions in old town are walking distance from each other and the majority of the hostels in the city are in that area as well. So, here’s where to start!
The Royal Mile- The Royal Mile is the main road in old town starting at Edinburgh Castle all the way down to Holyrood Palace. Walking this route will allow you to see a lot of what the city has to offer.
Edinburgh Castle- For a country that has plenty of castles, the Edinburgh Castle is one of the better known. At the start of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle is a major symbol of the city. Built in 1103, the castle has housed royals as well as military troops. Here you can find the castle’s hours and purchase entrance tickets. If you don’t plan to go inside, it is still worth a visit to see up close and view the city down below.
National Museum of Scotland- You could spend hours at this museum, as I did, and still be able to come back for more. If you’re more interested in fashion and design, or even the natural world, there’s an exhibit for you. There are also exhibits on Scottish history and archaeology in addition to science and technology exhibits. With all that it has to offer, you’ll be happy to hear admission is free! The museum is less than a 5-minute walk from Edinburgh castle, and you pass the elephant house, aka the birth of Harry Potter, along the way.
St.Gile’s Cathedral- This Cathedral was founded in 1124 by King David I, the first Scottish monarch to live in Edinburgh Castle. The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Giles, the patron saint of lepers. With its gothic-architecture and beautiful stained-glassed windows, it’s worth a look inside. It’s free to enter.
Heart of Midlothian- On your walk from Edinburgh Castle right before you reach St. Gile’s Cathedral, you will spot a heart made out of the stone bricks in the road. This heart marked the entrance to the Old Tolbooth prison, which was torn down in 1817. Today, it is tradition to spit on the heart while walking past. There is debate on how this tradition started. Some say it started to show dislike for the prison while others say the prisoners themselves spat on the heart when they were released. Today, however, it is believed to bring good luck.
Holyrood Palace- As another big landmark of the city, The Holyrood Palace marks the end of the Royal Mile. This palace has been home to many royals throughout the centuries, including Mary Queen of Scots. It was in the tower of this palace, that in 1566, Mary Queen of Scots witnessed the murder of David Rizzio, her Italian secretary. The murder was committed by a group led by Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley. I encourage you to read up on Mary Queen of Scots, as her life story is fascinating.
Arthur’s Seat- Taking the hike up to Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcano, was my favorite thing to do in Edinburgh so I highly suggest you plan about two hours out of your day to do it. From the top, you are able to see all of Edinburgh. There are different routes to get to the top, but one way you can enter Holyrood Park (where Arthur’s seat is) is next to Holyrood Palace. For fun, people like to say it's called Arthur’s Seat because they suggest the idea that it was once the site of Camelot, the castle from The Adventures of King Arthur. In truth, it was originally called ‘Ard-na-Said’, meaning ‘height of arrows’ in Gaelic which is believed to have been lost in translation and changed over the years, resulting in the name we have today.
Princes Street Gardens- This is a great place to stroll around or relax for a bit. The Scott Monument, a spire dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, a famous Scottish poet, is also located in this garden. At 200 feet high, it happens to be the world’s biggest monument dedicated to a writer.
National Monument of Scotland- This unfinished monument lies on Calton Hill and was built to commemorate the Scottish soldiers who lost their lives in the Napoleonic Wars. Work on the monument stopped in 1829 when the money for construction ran out. With the monument styled to look like the Parthenon in Athens, it is still impressive to see up close. Calton Hill allows for a different viewpoint to Edinburgh, as it’s on the opposite side of the city from Arthur’s Seat.
Day Trips from Edinburgh
The Scottish Highlands
A visit to the highlands is an absolute MUST. If you only have one day, I highly suggest taking a bus tour with ‘The Hairy Coo’. Hands down, one of the best tours I’ve gone on. Having an upbeat tour guide makes all the difference and this tour company makes sure you receive nothing less. I chose the 1-Day Loch Ness, Glencoe, Highlands & Whisky Tour.
You start your day at Deanston Whisky Distillery and have the choice of taking a tour to see the process of whisky making. At the end of the tour, you have the choice to sample a few of the whiskys they make.
The next stop is Glencoe where the scenic views are beautiful and then you’re on to Loch Ness. Once there, you have the option to take a boat tour. Do it! You don’t want to miss out on seeing where the famous Loch Ness Monster lives. You’ll learn interesting facts about the lake as well. And yes, Nessie is real if you’re asking me.
Throughout the whole trip, the bus stops at different spots so you’re able to get off and take it all in, all while your tour guide is giving out information on the history of Scotland. As I said, if you only have one day, this tour is great and never felt rushed. If you have more time, I highly suggest taking a few days to hike around the Highlands. Personally, I will be doing that in the future.
The Outlander Tour- If you’re a fan of the TV show Outlander, such as I, then this is a tour you want to take! The tour takes you to many of the filming sites used in the show. If you’ve never watched the show, I’d still consider it a great tour to learn more about Scotland. Some of the filming locations have a history of their own outside of the show while some of the stops on the tour are added for educational benefits. One such example is stopping in Dunfermline, the hometown of Andrew Carnegie. You’ll be able to learn more about him on the tour and learn about the ways he gave back to his hometown community. Another great bonus is Linlithgow Palace, which happens to be the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. If you’re interested, here is a link to the tour company’s website.
St. Andrews- Being only an hour train ride from Edinburgh, St. Andrews is a great day trip outside of the city. The University of St. Andrews, the oldest university in Scotland, is located here, making it an upbeat town to visit. While you’re there, make sure to visit the remains of the St. Andrews Cathedral. It’s fun to walk around to see what remains of it and you’ll get a great view of the North Sea. If you’re a big fan of golf, you’ll have the ability to see the ‘Old Course’, one of the most famous golf courses in the world while you’re there. The town has an array of cute cafes if you’re looking for coffee or something to eat as well as pubs if you’re wanting to enjoy a cold beer.
Restaurant and Hostel Recommendations
The Royal Mile Tavern- If you’re looking for a good meal, The Royal Mile Tavern has great food, great service, and an enjoyable atmosphere. For being in a more touristy area, the meals are reasonably priced, and they have a nice selection of beer.
Related Post: How to Eat Like a Scottish Native
Kick Ass Greyfriars- This hostel is in the center of old town, making it a convenient place to stay. The entire place was clean and decorated in fun colors. The hostel also has its own café and bar, which is great if you’re looking to make friends while you’re there or looking for a cheap meal.
*Extra- The city is great for pub crawls and if you’re wanting to try whisky, Scotland is the place to do it.