10 Things You Absolutely Need to Do in Scotland

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Scotland is a unique country that can surprise even the most demanding tourists. It has everything: unbelievable head-spinning landscapes, historical monuments around every corner, delicious food, the truest whiskey, atmospheric weather, and friendly people. Long story short, you can immediately fall in love with Scotland forever. Just like I did. Since I’ve visited this country four times, I can name the best things you can do to experience the spirit of this proud country to its fullest.

1. Mingle with the Crowd in Edinburgh

Edinburgh is not just the capital of Scotland – it’s the country’s heart and soul. Literally, every stone reminds you about the history and culture of this free-spirited people. Of course, just like any other capital, it has many tourists, but it feels as if they’re entirely different from anywhere else, more polite, pleasant, and unhurried. Must be the British prudishness rubbing off on them. Spend at least two days in Edinburgh to get accustomed and feel at home. I recommend visiting a café to get some coffee with a flapjack, a traditional Scottish dessert. Also, try some baked potatoes with different fillings. You will have the best morning after a traditional Scottish breakfast including porridge, fried eggs, mushrooms, canned beans, and potato pancakes. Picking a few sights in the capital is hard. You’ll want to see everything, but I recommend going to the Royal Mile street, the Edinburgh Castle, the Mary King’s Close, and Сalton hill, the best observation deck, where you can see the whole city.

2. Immerse Yourself in the History of the Orkney Islands

Orkney is the gem of Scotland. It has more historical monuments than any other island, and they’re placed really close to each other. It’s like coming to an open-air museum and moving from one exhibit to another. Of course, you might not like the climate, but all the sights on the island are worth enduring the wind and the cold for a few days. There are historical monuments from the Neolithic period that are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness (that are 800 years younger than Stonehenge in England), the Neolithic village Skara Brae (dated 3100 BCE), the Maeshowe tomb (unique in the whole world). You are guaranteed to get fully immersed in the islands’ history. You will also see a lot of beautiful landscapes, especially at dusk, many walking routes, ancient abbeys, souvenir shops selling manually crafted local wares, and, of course, the Scapa whisky distillery (one of the most remote distilleries in Scotland). If you come here in autumn, there’s a good chance you’ll see the northern lights. Since the islands are so remote, you can catch the lights as early as in the middle of September, so don’t miss the gorgeous sight. By the way, the locals refer to them with the beautiful word “Aurora”.

3. See a Miniature Version of Scotland on the Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye is the most popular place in Scotland. Not surprising if you consider that the National Geographic magazine included it in the list of the most beautiful islands on the planet. It has almost as many tourists as Edinburgh. It’s hard to find lodging at the peak of the season (from July to September), so book it in advance when planning a visit here. On a relatively small plot of land, you will see enchanting waterfalls, dinosaur footprints, and the Quiraing landslip (which is still moving, often causing stonefalls). This is also where the ancestral home of the most famous Scottish highlander clan, the MacLeods, is located. The lower floors of the Dunvegan Castle are open to visitors, and on the top level is the seat of the clan’s chief. You can even talk to him if he’s around at the time. The isle’s calling card is the Trotternish landslip. There is a single rock at its peak called the Old Man of Storr. You can see remarkable landscapes from there. There are also incredibly beautiful lighthouses, valleys, mountains, lakes, and many other things waiting for you on the island. Come and see for yourself.

4. Try to Take a Picture of Nessie in the Famous Loch Ness Lake

It’s hard to estimate the fame this place brought to Scotland. After hearing about sightings of a big monster deep in the lake’s waters, tons of tourists came to the country just to sit there for hours with binoculars, trying to get a glimpse of Nessie. A picture of the plesiosaur could be sensational and sell for a considerable sum. There wasn’t a lot of news about Nessie lately, so the rush somewhat calmed down, but the flow of tourists didn’t really diminish. At any time of the year, many people come here to see the long deep lake with their own eyes (its peak depth is 227 metres, and its length is 37 km). You can take a boat tour to look for Nessie on the water rather than from the land if you want. Right above the lake are the ruins of the Urquhart castle that complement the lake’s mystic image very well.

5. Have a Taste of the Oldest Whisky in a Distillery

Scotland is the homeland of everyone’s favourite drink, so, of course, this is the place where you can enjoy various kinds of it, produced practically right in front of you. There are over 130 distilleries in different parts of the country, so you’ll probably see their signs on your way wherever you travel, be it the islands or the mainland. Follow them to take a sip of whiskey. Usually, distilleries offer tours to show the process of making the noble and ancient drink. After gaining that knowledge, you’ll have the opportunity to taste one to three kinds of whisky produced there. After three such tours, we’ve stopped taking them altogether and just started buying small samples. Sometimes we even take miniature bottles and drink them outside the distilleries. I personally recommend visiting the least famous distilleries since the well-known brands are more expensive and are always available in the shops in your home country. The most mature whisky we tried was the 26 years old limited edition of BEN NEVIS.

6. Listen to Some Music in the Fingal’s Cave

The famous naturalist Joseph Banks considered this tiny cave on the Staffa island to be more beautiful than the Louvre in Paris and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It’s hard to draw comparisons between them, but there’s no denying that the cave is among the ten most gorgeous in the world. It’s often called a singing cave because the basalt columns at the top form a dome, creating incredible acoustics when hit by the sound waves. It’s so unusual that, after visiting the cave and hearing the sound in 1829, composer Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to write an overture, The Hebrides, also known as The Fingal’s Cave. This made the island and the cave very famous, and many notable people like Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Walter Scott. You can get to Staffa on a ferry from another island, Mull, that is a few kilometres away. When you get inside the cave, try to close your eyes stand in silence for a while. You might hear your own unique music that no one else can. Don’t be sad if you don’t, you still get to visit one of the most beautiful caves in the world.

7. Take a Ride on the North Coast 500 Route

If you want to explore northern Scotland, this route is just what you need. It’s a little over 500 miles long (around 800 kilometres) and goes through the wildest and least populated parts of the country. People usually take a car or a motorcycle for it. That will take you about 5 to 8 days, depending on how many stops and detours you’ll make along the way. Start at the city of Inverness, often called the northern capital of Scotland, and continue north. Then make a full circle and come back to Inverness. Try to at least come up with an estimated route, or you won’t make it in the desired time. There are too many landmarks on the way to stop at each one. I personally liked the north-western part of the road the most, because I’ve never seen places that wild and uninhabited before. A trip on this route will show you how diverse the northern Scottish nature really is. It has everything from sandy beaches to mountains, valleys, cliffs, woods, islands, and endless sea waters. Some parts of the route don’t have any mobile reception, so be ready to get fully immersed in the wilderness of northern Scotland. The best time to take the trip is summer or mid-autumn. The winter climate is so harsh that most of the roads are impassable, and most of the guest houses where you can stay are closed.

8. See the Vast Snow-White Beaches of the Lewis and Harris Island

The island is part of the Outer Hebrides archipelago, meaning it has a very harsh climate compared to the rest of Scotland. Only very resilient and strong-willed people can live here. And only the most experienced tourists come to visit this remote island. The air temperature rarely goes above 10–13 degrees in the hottest season, not to mention the cold northern waters. Paradoxically, however, the beaches of Lewis and Harris were rated higher than popular resorts like Mykonos and Santorini by TripAdvisor. The island itself is among the top-10 islands in Europe. You won’t believe your eyes when you’ll see the vast sandy beaches with turquoise water. They contrast heavily with the harsh surroundings and temperature. The most courageous of you can even try to take off their shoes and step in the ice-cold water. There are so many beaches, you can spend a whole day trying to visit all of them, with each one seeming more beautiful than the last. Don’t forget, however, that there are many other things worth seeing on the island. Things like the Callanish Stones, the big northern city of Stornoway, and the tiny island Great Bernera, the birthplace of the person that inspired the famous agent 007. All in all, you’ll need at least 2 days to see everything. On the island, we met a married couple from America that loved Lewis and Harris so much that they visited it for the 22nd time. That’s the Outer Hebrides for you.

9. Make Your Own Rating of Scottish Castles

It’s hard to tell just how many castles are located in Scotland. According to some data, it can be anywhere from 2000 to 4000. Some are in a pretty sorry state, while others are inhabited by their owners. There are many ratings on the Internet telling you about which caste is the most beautiful, the most ancient, the most photographed, etc. But I can tell you that your opinion will often differ from the common one. You’ll be surprised by some things that are lauded by many other people. So, it’s time to make your own rating of castles. You won’t be able to visit all the castles, of course, and it’s also costly because tickets to most of them run from 10 pounds. I personally really like the lesser known Castle Stalker situated on a separate island that can only be reached by boat. But you are sure to find your own favourites. The Scottish castles have something to offer everyone.

10. Take a Walk Down the Picturesque Glen Coe Valley

This valley is so gorgeous that hundreds of thousands of tourists visit it every year to admire the landscapes. But the beauty of Glen Coe hides a sinister history of a feud between two clans, the Massacre of Glencoe. Short version: Clan Campbell deceitfully massacred many members of Clan McDonald. Since then, Glen Coe is often called the Valley of Tears. The story is known by everyone in Scotland, and the Campbell family name became one of the most hated in the country. If you’re not interested in the valley’s history, however, and you only want to have a look at it, you’ll love absolutely everything about it. You can stay there for a few days with a tent or at the nearby Glencoe village. There is a wide variety of walking routes to choose from, including for two or three days. Because of the beauty, the valley and the nearby lands were used as a set for many famous films: Braveheart, Skyfall, Highlander, Under the Skin, etc. We chose a one-day hike through the Three Sisters peak and were delighted with it. Many people spend their whole vacation in Glen Coe.

Scotland is an incredible country with a rich history and culture. Everyone can find something to their liking here. I hope that I’ve inspired you to visit my favourite country. I personally can come here over and over again, discovering new incredible and unique places. See you in Scotland!

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