14 unmissable places to see in Scotland
Include as many of these must see places in your Scottish trip planning. They have the 'wow' factor and there's a great selection. Some, like Stirling Castle or Loch Lomond, are easy to plan round; others, such as Skara Brae or the Isle of Eriskay, take a bit more itinerary juggling but are worth the effort.
What To See In Scotland
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.
You can also find a variety of Scottish must sees elsewhere on this site – right here you’ll find some suggestions on Scottish things to see. Fit as many as you can into your travel plan! The more you can visit the closer you will get to the essence of Scotland. The list here is not in order of ‘must-see-ness’ though. (Maybe I should have listed them alphabetically to be fairer. But then, maybe I worry too much...)
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.
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.
Wow factor? Hmm, probably: great Highland-edge views from the ramparts.
Picturesque? Atmospheric is a better word. Sometimes busy though.
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.
(Pictured here) Always worth the few minutes uphill walk, Duncryne Hill at Gartocharn is a great place to see where the Highlands of Scotland start.
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. 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 Esha Ness. Note Old Man of Hoy at right hand edge of cliffs and looking small! Oh, sorry, 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 - also in picture, quite close to the Stack.
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.
Why visit? Crowded in the main season but arguable features Scotland’s finest mountain scenery (though lots of other grand places on the mainland, some of which are mentioned here).
Wow factor? Very high.
Why visit? Because when the weather is right, the sands 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.
Stac Pollaidh and the the North-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.
(Pictured here) Stac Pollaidh (left), Cul Beag (right). Amongst the weird mountains of the Inverpolly area of the North-West Highlands.
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.
The castle turns up again on a page where I list some of my favorite 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. The link to read more is just a little further on...
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.
How a castle in out-of-the-way Aberdeenshire had a connection to the event that brought the USA into World War II!
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. You could also eat in The Rothesay Rooms - a community-inspired restaurant (inspired by Prince Charles no less!)
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.
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.
(Pictured here) Glencoe - dramatic scenery, atmosphere, a visitor centre too - and easy to see from the road! Many people regard Glencoe as an essential what to see in Scotland.
(Do any islands make it on the list? Oh yes, not just Orkney….)
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! (There is an Eriskay picture as the header for this page. Heck, hope I remember to change this sentence if I change the header.)
Isle of Mull via the Oban to Mull ferry
Why visit? Mull is a great island - things to see and a good dining choice. 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.
MORE TO EXPLORE