Scotland has been on our travel list for years, and, needing to find a destination outside the EU to stay within our 90-day tourist visa, this was the year we were finally able to make it happen. Our travel itinerary would put us in Scotland in November, which was a little concerning as we envisioned blistering cold, foggy and rainy days that would prevent us from getting the most of this country and its rich history and culture. We were pleasantly surprised at the mild temps (50F during most days) with lots of sunshine – perfect conditions for exploring this stunning, authentic countryside.
We decided to spend just over two weeks in Scotland with our base in Edinburgh. We rented an Airbnb apartment on West Port which is very close to the Grassmarket, a popular area crammed with pubs and a couple of restaurants. The apartment was ideal as it was also close to both Waverly and Haymarket train stations (important if you plan to get out of Edinburgh), was across the street from a Sainsbury (UK supermarket chain) and it had a working wood burning fireplace.
During our first few days in Edinburg, we did all the usual stuff from the tour books: Edinburgh Castle (which is difficult to navigate due to poor signage and crowd flow), the Grassmarket, Holyrood Palace, the New Town and Victoria Street. However, some of our best days were when we got out of town for a day trip or an overnighter. Scotland’s rail system, ScotRail, has great coverage throughout Scotland and makes getting out of town a breeze. You can buy tickets at the kiosks in the stations, or book in advance at Trainline. Sometimes you can find better fares through the app (be aware if you’re booking offpeak tickets which are cheaper but have limited times for travel).
Dalhousie Castle: Dave and I happened to be in Scotland for our wedding anniversary, and felt that would be the perfect occasion to spend a night in a Scottish castle. As luck would have it, one of the nicest castle hotels in Scotland is just 7.5 miles from Edinburgh. Dalhousie is an 800 year old castle with a rich history, and is rumored to be haunted. We arrived around 4:00 PM and spent a few hours before dinner roaming the castle and grounds. The property interior has wide, creaky staircases, wall tapestries, huge windows, stone walls and of course, a dungeon, which is also one of the restaurants.
The property has just 35 guest rooms, so you’ll feel its intimacy. The entire place has a magnificent coziness about it, especially the library bar. We stayed in the William Wallace room which has exposed stone walls, a four poster bed, a balcony overlooking one of the turrets, the stream and Scottish farmland as far as the eye can see. Upon check in we were able to book spa appointments for the following morning. Dinner at Dalhousie was really special. You meet in the library bar for cocktails and canapes and a host takes your dinner order. Then you are escorted to the dungeon for your meal – it’s insanely atmospheric. Our meal was exceptional… if you can’t spend a night at Dalhousie, at a minimum try to have dinner there. The taxi from Edinburgh was £28. In addition to the spa and restaurants (there are two), Dalhousie offers a falconry program that gets great reviews.
Glasgow: Glasgow is about an hour by train from Edinburgh so we thought we should check it out. Glasgow felt like a more modern, urban city than Edinburgh, and finding beautiful architecture was more of a challenge. We found a much more historic section of the city near the Glasgow Cathedral, including the University, St. Mungo’s and the sprawling Glasgow Necropolis, the final resting place for 50,000 persons. If you’re interested in shopping and museums, Glasgow would probably be more of a draw. We had a good time there, but we didn’t see enough to garner a return visit.
Royal Yacht Britannia: Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht, in service from 1954 to 1997, is permanently berthed at the docks in Leith. To get there you can either take a taxi/Uber or the bus (Google maps is happy to provide your bus route). This is one of the most popular attractions in Edinburgh for good reason – we found the yacht to be fascinating. Your ticket includes an audio guide so you can wander the vessel at your own pace, and pictures are encouraged. The layout of the tour was easy to follow and the exhibits were really well done and interesting. It was a weird feeling looking at the bed that Princess Diana once slept in. The yacht has a café on board so the ship’s galleys are in full operation.
Inverness: We took the train from Edinburgh (approx. 3 hours) to spend a night in Inverness. Situated on the river, Inverness is easily walkable and has the charm of a smaller town with the convenience and amenities of a larger city. The train station is an easy walk to the river which will save you money on cab fare. Plus, Outlander fans can retrace Claire and Jamie’s steps, visit Culloden and the standing stones at Craigh na Dun. We didn’t feel like one day was enough time in Inverness; try to plan at least two or three days to make sure you can spend a full day at the battlefield.
Isle of Skye: From Inverness we rented a car and drove along the Loch Ness to Isle of Skye (approximately 2 hours). En route we stopped at the ruins of Urquhart Castle, which is situated on the Loch Ness. At the beginning of your visit you’re introduced to the history of the castle in a 10-minute film; at the conclusion of the film, the screen is raised and the curtains open to dramatically reveal the castle ruins on the lake. The ruins are very interesting – be sure to allow at least an hour. As we were trying to make it to Skye during the daylight (it got dark at 4:30 PM) we only spent about 30 minutes at Urquhart before continuing to Skye.
Driving around Skye was surreal. Everywhere we looked there were waterfalls breaking through the mountains, and the varied landscape was at times moonlike and other times, dense forest. We drove through Portree looking for food, but arriving on Sunday at 2:30 PM was a mistake. We walked around a bit and found an open café for a pint and a bowl of soup and continued North.
We finally arrived at the Flodigarry Hotel on the northeast of the isle. The last 20 minutes of our drive consisted solely of a single-track road which requires a slower pace so you can pull over at any moment to let an oncoming car (or tour bus) pass. The hotel was exceptional. The décor was upscale and chic with luxurious guest rooms, a cozy bar with a fire place, and drop dead gorgeous views of the shore. We had a great dinner here, and spent a few hours by the fire in the bar – we were only one of two guests staying at the inn and had the place to ourselves. We attempted to have a full Scottish breakfast the next morning but the power went out on the northern end of the island so we settled for coffee, fruit and a croissant and started the drive back to Inverness to catch our train to Edinburgh. It was quite windy and rainy when we left the hotel so we weren’t able to get as many photos on our drive back. We were so taken with Skye that we plan to return for at least two full days so we can spend more time exploring. Skye looks like a hikers paradise so if you want to get out and stretch your legs, this is your place.
Stirling: We ended up going to Stirling on our last full day in Scotland on a bit of a whim – we are so glad we did! It turned out to be one of our favorite things during the Scotland leg of our trip. The picturesque town is home to Stirling castle, which has serious historical relevance having been one of the most used of the Scottish royal residences. Several Scottish Kings and Queens have been crowned at Stirling, including Mary, Queen of Scots. At the base of the castle is an inn and pub called the Portcullis. Definitely stop here for a pint; the pub is absolutely perfect, especially if there’s a fire blazing in the hearth. We ate dinner here and enjoyed the hearty pub food. From the train station you can walk to Stirling’s Old Town and make your way up the hill to the castle. Allow at least two hours to explore the castle, which is well done and really interesting. The views from the castle are breathtaking and there are a lot of opportunities to walk along the walls to take in every angle of Stirling and the surrounding countryside.
Scotland has a rich culture, fascinating history, wild landscapes and friendly, warm people. Do yourself a favor and move Scotland up on your travel schedule, and plan to spend at least two weeks. You’ll be glad you did!
If you’re interested in Northern Scotland, click here!