Take the high road or the low road, but if you're visiting Britain, make sure you get to Scotland.
The North of Britain has its own identity. Dialect and DNA, history and culture: Scotland is a land apart.
Blessed with an abundance of wild natural beauty, distinctive folkways that tug at the heart, and heroic history, it is easy indeed to fall in love with the country of heather and bagpipes.
Here is our list of great visits where essential Scotland can be found. Put several visits together for an adventurous itinerary. There’ll be plenty of tartan and whiskey along the way.
The Royal Mile, Edinburgh
Scotland’s capital city is the most popular visitor destination in the country and for good reason.
The full panoply of the nation’s history and culture is on display in the museums, shops, and pubs of its most famous street, from Edinburgh Castle it’s all downhill past St. Giles Cathedral to the Palace at Holyroodhouse.
With the dramatic ruins of its ancient cathedral and castle, the oldest and most famous golf course in the world (and Britain’s Golf Museum), and the venerable university where Prince William met the Duchess all perched on the North Sea coast: What’s not to love?
The Kyle Line, Western Highlands
For one of the great scenic rail journeys of the world, take an observation car.
The single-track railway runs through the forests and glens of Western Highlands from Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh, and back. For an extra kick, try August or September when the mountains are purple with heather.
Holy Island, Iona
Getting there is half the fun when you take a ferry from Oban and cross the Isle of Mull to remote Iona, where Christianity first came to Scotland with St. Columba in the 6th century. Today, Iona Abbey is an ecumenical church, and the island and its single village are a place of pilgrimage.
Tucked under the Eildon Hills on a bend in the River Tweed, this small Borders town sitting next to the beautiful Melrose Abbey makes a perfect base for exploring Sir Walter Scott Country and the border abbeys. Visit Scott’s home at Abbotsford, Floors Castle, Jedburgh, and Drybugh abbeys, and Smailholm Tower, too.
On the Firth of Tay in drydock sits RRS Discovery, built for Robert Falcon Scott’s extraordinary Antarctic expeditions, and the first ship designed for scientific purposes. Both Scott’s story and Discovery’s come to amazing life in a superb visitor center, here where the ship was built.
North Aberdeenshire Coast
Follow the A98 from Fraserburgh to Inverness along the North Sea. You might dip down to the harbor at Pennan (Local Hero), detour to Keith’s Strathisla Distillery and Huntly Castle, visit Baxters at Fochabers and Elgin Cathedral—“The Lantern of the North.” Yes, do this one in summer.
North of Glasgow and west of Perth, The Trossachs are famed as romantic Scotland at its scenic best: Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine, Rob Roy’s grave beneath the Braes of Balquhidder, and an occasional castle or priory ruins to set off the landscape. Just ride around for a day, or stay along the A84 from Dunblane to Lochearnhead.
New Lanark, South Lanarkshire
On the banks of the River Clyde less than an hour south of Glasgow and Edinburgh, the cotton mills and workers’ village of New Lanark were built in 1786 and became a model of social reform and urban planning. Operating mills until 1968, today the complex is a World Heritage site.
The Bannockburn Heritage Centre, Stirling Castle, Holy Rude church, and the Wallace Monument are highlights of this medieval seat of Stuart kings on the River Forth. Strategically located as “Gateway to the Highlands,” Stirling evokes centuries of Scottish history—from Robert the Bruce to John Knox and Mary, Queen of Scots.
* Originally published in July 2015.