What to see in Scotland features 14 special locations to consider for your Scottish itinerary. Some, like Stirling Castle or Loch Lomond, are easy to plan round; others, such as Skara Brae on Orkney or the Isle of Eriskay, take a bit more itinerary juggling but are worth the effort.
The more you can visit the closer you will get to the essence of Scotland.
The what to see list here is not in order of ‘must-see-ness’ though. (Maybe I should have listed them alphabetically to be fairer. But then again, maybe I worry too much…)
What to see in Scotland – not just the heavily promoted venues
Remember that if you add in some of these suggestions to your travel plans, then it’s almost inevitable that you’ll pass through natural route centres such as Inverness, Fort William or Oban, with plenty of other diverting things to enjoy.
Most (but not all) of the places mentioned here are quite small and specific and are only examples of the best of their type.
Also, when you are on your trip, this list assumes you’ll be distracted by obvious venues (eg Edinburgh Castle) or by heavily-promoted tourism big-hitters, for example, a selection of large privately-owned castles, close to the main tourism routes.
Treat the “things to see” list here as a bonus. Treat this page as a menu or checklist of what to see in Scotland. You’ll find more detailed information on other pages – follow the links, obviously – but right here you will get a starting point for your Scotland trip.
This is a sample of some of the best bits of Scotland – mostly scenic and historic.
What to See in Scotland: Stirling Castle
Why visit? Important in Scotland’s story; also successfully restored Royal Palace with costumed guides gives a real insight into 16th-century royal court life. The Stirling Heads exhibition a must-see too.
Wow factor? Hmm, probably: great Highland-edge views from the ramparts.
Picturesque? Atmospheric is a better word. Sometimes busy though. Tip – go early.
from Duncryne Hill
Why visit? There are lots of views of this famous loch, another Scottish icon. But this is the best one. Duncryne Hill is just behind Gartocharn on the A811 on the south side of the loch.
Wow factor? Definitely – unless the clouds are down and it’s raining! (in which case visit Stirling Castle, east, or go shopping at Loch Lomond Shores at Balloch).
Picturesque? Atmospheric is a better word. Sometimes busy though – but it is a great Highland-edge view looking north into that other Scotland. Kinda romantic.
Why visit? Mind-blowingly ancient – about 5000 years old – a Stone Age village time capsule.
Wow factor? Well, you won’t see Stone Age settlements in this state of preservation very often on any what to see list. Good interpretation centre nearby. There’s lots more wow all over Orkney, not just at Skara Brae – see pic below of the Hoy cliffs from Esha Ness. Note also Scrabster to Stromness ferry in picture.
Picturesque? Photogenic at least. Adjacent beach – Bay of Skaill – is pleasant.
(Pictured here) Hoy cliffs seen from Yesnaby. Note Old Man of Hoy at right hand edge of cliffs and looking small! Wait, I should explain if you’re new to Orkney, that the Old Man of Hoy is the name of a landmark rock stack seen from the Stromness-Scrabster ferry.
The ferry journey is the most exciting short sea voyage in Scotland – a great intro to Orkney. For ‘exciting’ read ‘choppy’ sometimes. But it’s all pretty spectacular. And not always rough.
Orkney – Norse Heritage and more
Among the Scottish islands, Orkney is a place proud of its ancient past and sure about its future. We love it there. And the accents are just so melodic. It makes for a different visit: a different kind of Scotland. (Maybe not even Scotland at all – though they do make fine whisky there!)
By the way, you’ll need to book accommodation on Orkney in advance.
St Abbs and its seabirds
Why visit? If time is limited and you are driving up on the main A1 from the south (aka ‘England’) and you want to see something of Scotland’s wildlife, then the seabird colonies here are easy to see – though you have to walk a little way. Nearby, the village of St Abbs is quite picturesque.
Wow factor? Quite a lot of wow, especially on the seabird cliffs, and also the the fine setting of the village. More on birds in Scotland on that link.
Picturesque? Photogenic and dramatic. May and June are very best times for seabirds here, but worth a look at any time. It’s only minutes off the main A1, so it’s an easy tick on your what to see list
What to see in Scotland: the Isle of Skye
Why visit? Crowded in the main season but arguable features Scotland’s finest mountain scenery (though there are lots of other grand places on the mainland, some of which are mentioned here).
Wow factor? Very high.
Picturesque? View of the Cuillin Hills from Elgol, and also the view of the Cuillins from Glen Brittle rated highly. (Picture on that link.) When it’s good weather, it’s breathtaking, but when the rain-clouds come down…Take a look at our page that answers the question is Skye worth visiting?
(Some Skye accommodation options here.)
Silver (or White!) Sands of Morar
Why visit? Because when the weather is right, the sands and views of the islands really are lovely.
Wow factor? Yes, you’ll go ‘wow’ a lot.
Picturesque? If the dazzling sands weren’t photogenic enough, you also have a horizon full of islands. The White Sands of Morar are on the beautiful scenery page. Take a look.
What to see in Scotland: West Highlands
Why visit? The mountain ambience of the Inverpolly area, north of Ullapool, is worth discovering. A real sense of remoteness, forgotten-ness, ‘gawd-what-must-it-be-like-in-the-winter-ness’ etc. Find out how not to climb Stac Pollaidh (or Polly) here.
Wow factor? Oh Yes. Wow and thrice wow.
Picturesque? I’ll say … especially with dramatic cloud and light effects.
The Vikings ruled the North from their Orkney power base. The most northerly part of mainland Scotland was the south land – today’s Sutherland – to these Scandinavian settlers and warriors, who also left their mark on today’s place names. Follow this northern tour to discover more.
Why visit? Some of the quirkiest mountains in Scotland are here and easily seen as you drive up the glen. Plus it’s not much more than an hour or so from Inverness.
Wow factor? A big wow.
Picturesque? Crikey, yes. See another Torridon and Applecross page here.
Am I being too mountainous and Highland? (Lists are always idiosyncratic.) Well, what about another castle….
Why visit? Rural Aberdeenshire has a selection of castles and this one, along with, say, Crathes (great garden) is typical. Actually, maybe we should have featured Crathes…hmm. Here’s a wee picture of Craigievar though.
Craigievar castle turns up again on a page where I list some of my favourite castles. It’s a handsome building, much as the 17th-century masons left it.
However, it has got an unexpected and sinister connection to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (of all things). Most guidebooks prefer not to cover this. Imagine – a castle in out-of-the-way Aberdeenshire had a link to the event that brought the USA into World War II!
Wow factor? Yes, it’s wow all right if you like perfect wee castles. But I personally don’t think that the Disney logo was inspired by it. You hear that story a lot.
Picturesque? Photogenic, oh yes.
Why visit? Lovely setting. Hire a rowing boat or take a boat trip or enjoy local seafood. This wee village is easy to find from the road to Skye . You can also visit by train, as it’s on the Kyle line.
Wow factor? A kind of gentle wow. A little one.
Ballater and Glen Muick
Why visit? This is for those of you afflicted with inexplicable curiosity to learn about the royals. Near Balmoral Castle (yawn), the handsome little town of Ballater is interesting because of its setting and all those ‘By Royal Appointment’ signs.
Wow factor? Not wow, more ‘this is a funny wee place but nice and I’m glad we came’. And the rest of Deeside, west of Aberdeen, is pretty, as well as being the starting point for some high mountain excursions, if you are (steeply) inclined.
Picturesque? The picturesque bit is when you tear yourself away from the waxed all-weather jacket shops and go up Glen Muick. Look out for red deer. And the glen is a good place to see heather in Scotland.
Why visit? Here we go again, back to spectacular scenery. The advantage here is that the mountains are high (for Scotland) and easily viewed from the road. Plus it has the added association with a real Highland event – the infamous Massacre of Glencoe. Excellent visitor centre on site.
Wow factor? Yes, just look up…
Picturesque? Gloomy, brooding, atmospheric….your imagination will run away with you.
Which town, Oban or Fort William, makes the better base for exploring the West Highlands? Oban has a fine and breezy coastal setting but Fort William is nearer more rugged scenery. Plus, here is where to go for Scotland’s must see scenery, mostly mountains.
(Do any islands make it on the list? Oh yes, not just Orkney….)
Isle of Eriskay
Why visit? Easily reached by causeway, classic get-away-from-it-all tiny Hebridean gem.
Wow factor? The little beaches are wow.
Picturesque? In short, yes. More about it on the Isle of Eriskay page. Lovely pictures!
Isle of Mull via the Oban to Mull ferry
Why visit? Mull is a great island – things to see and a good dining choice in Tobermory especially. Getting there from Oban on the Mull ferry is also a scenic experience.
Wow factor? Intermittent wow. Lots of wows depending on the light and shade on the landscapes. (Gosh. Is that pretentious?)
Picturesque? Well, Tobermory, the island ‘capital’ is one of the most scenic little coastal communities in all of Scotland. Lots of wild and picturesque views elsewhere on the island.
Good range of accommodation on Mull.
OK – you’ve had a look at some of the best things to see in Scotland. Here’s a reminder of some of the things you could do while in Scotland.
And here are some estimates of how long you need to see Scotland.
(A lifetime should just about do it…)