Scotland brings to mind visions of medieval castles, stunning landscapes, and centuries-old history and heritage. This year, I decided to plan a road trip in Scotland to experience its magic. My husband and I love the freedom and independence of driving vacations, and he has plenty of experience driving on the left from earlier adventures.
Putting together a top-notch Scotland driving tour is like weaving a beautifully intricate quilt. Searching for the right pieces is key, and all the destinations and activities must fit together seamlessly into one complex, cohesive structure. It takes time, knowledge, and skill. When done right, everything comes together into a rich tapestry of memorable experiences.
Brendan Vacations recently hosted me on a self-driving tour of Scotland, and I now understand why having experts plan your trip to this extraordinary destination makes all the difference. Brendan’s specialists helped us plan a customized itinerary that worked exceptionally well, and they included a number of authentic experiences we wouldn’t have found on our own. The trip exceeded our expectations, and I returned with so many wonderful memories to share. The people we met and the places we visited along the way stayed with us long after the trip was over.
Here are my favorite experiences on our 11-day Scotland road trip:
1. Discovering Edinburgh With Locals
Our personalized itinerary included several tours with locals, which provided cultural insights and immersive experiences. In Edinburgh’s Old Town, we walked along the Royal Mile with a fantastic local guide. She took us off the beaten track to hidden places along the busy route and brought history to life through her stories. Touring ancient Edinburgh Castle was a highlight, and we were able to skip the line as part of this excursion.
While Edinburgh is known for its history and landmarks, it also has a vibrant culinary scene. Getting off the tourist path is essential to find some of the best regionally produced Scottish food and drinks. On our foodie walking tour, our local guide led us to reserved tables at unique venues and eateries throughout Edinburgh’s Old and New towns. We sampled amazing dishes and spirits, including the best haggis and black pudding of our entire trip.
Pro Tip: Make travel plans early if you’d like to include the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which takes place at Edinburgh Castle in August.
2. Stunning Landscapes
Scotland’s gorgeous scenery attracts thousands of visitors each year, and seeking out the country’s best views was high on our list. Our itinerary included some of Scotland’s most breathtaking locations, including Loch Ness, Loch Lomond, Glencoe, Glenfinnan, North Berwick, and Perthshire’s beautiful mountains and moors. We spent time hiking in the Scottish Highlands and loved seeing the purple heather that blooms from July through September.
The Isle of Skye was one of the most spectacular places we visited in Scotland. It’s an enchanting wonderland filled with jaw-dropping vistas and picture-perfect spots. Our journey took us to dazzling waterfalls, ragged peaks, dramatic cliffs, incredible castles, and quaint seaside houses painted in rainbow hues.
Pro Tip: Plan to take a guided tour if a full day of driving along Skye’s narrow, winding roads might be too challenging.
3. Legendary Castles
Scotland’s iconic castles were one of the highlights of our trip, and our itinerary included quite a few of these gems. Historic Edinburgh Castle is Scotland’s most famous fortress, but others were also important to us for various reasons. Awe-inspiring Stirling Castle was a residence of Scotland’s kings and queens, and this beautifully restored castle is well worth touring. Outlander and Game of Thrones fans will want to visit nearby 14th-century Doune Castle, which was also featured in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
I was utterly captivated by the picturesque Eilean Donan Castle in the Scottish Highlands, which looks like something from a fairy tale. This iconic gem is set on an island at the convergence of three lovely lochs and is among the most photographed castles in the world.
Pro Tip: Book tour times for each castle in advance, particularly during the summer.
4. Cycling Along Loch Lomond’s Bonnie Banks
Biking excursions are a great way to stay active and see more of a destination, so we were thrilled when Brendan Vacations included cycling around Loch Lomond in our itinerary. We enjoyed biking along the relatively flat West Loch Lomond Cycle path, occasionally stopping to take in the gorgeous scenery. E-bikes made the entire experience stress-free.
Best of all, our biking trip included an elaborate picnic complete with Scottish cheeses, crackers, chutney, fruit, and a s’mores kit for the perfect dessert. It was a great way to spend the day, and the picnic made it even more memorable.
Pro Tip: Scotland’s weather can change quickly. Bring along a waterproof backpack and rain gear, just in case.
5. History, Heritage, And Traditions In St. Andrews
St. Andrews is a must-visit destination for golfers and history lovers. Golf has been played at St. Andrews for more than 600 years, and we enjoyed learning more on our superb walking tour of St. Andrews Links’ fabled Old Course. Our expert guide regaled us with insights and stories, bringing the legends of these renowned fairways to life. We also hiked along stunning West Sands Beach, where scenes from Chariots of Fire were filmed.
Scotland’s oldest university is located in St. Andrews, and this centuries-old town also served as an ancient pilgrimage site. Our local guide took us on a walking tour of the town’s main sights, and we traveled through time as she filled us in on St. Andrews’ history, heritage, and traditions. Stopping at family-owned Jannettas Gelateria made our leisurely stroll even more fun.
Pro Tip: St. Andrews Links’ golf tee times should be reserved far in advance. Less-than-expert golfers can play a round at The Himalayas, the Old Course’s putting course.
6. The World-Famous Jacobite Steam Train
All aboard! The 84-mile ride on the Jacobite Steam Train has been called one of the “greatest railway journeys of the world,” and it lives up to the billing. The train navigates through some of Scotland’s most breathtaking scenery, offering picturesque views of Ben Nevis, glistening lochs, and charming villages. It’s also a bucket-list journey for Harry Potter fans since the train was featured as the ‘Hogwarts Express’ in the films.
We loved the entire trip, including our in-depth conversations with Scottish people we met along the way. The 21-arched Glenfinnan viaduct featured in Harry Potter movies is one of the stars of this rail journey. For photos, the best views of the train crossing the Glenfinnan viaduct are on the left-hand side on the way to Mallaig and the right on the return.
Pro Tip: Arrive in Fort William well before departure to allow plenty of time for parking and photos.
7. Iconic Animals
While spectacular scenery and historic places topped my Scotland bucket list, I also longed to see sheep and goats rambling freely through the hills and spot Scotland’s large-horned Highland cattle — also known as Highland cows or “hairy coos.” Luckily, these goals were met in the Scottish Highlands.
We took a fabulous multi-hour land rover safari with an expert guide, who navigated from the valley floor high up into misty ridges in search of wildlife. Along the way, we saw herds of magnificent red deer, soaring golden eagles, and woolly sheep and goats roaming the craggy highlands. Private hill tracks took us through forests and into the mountains, and the scenery was breathtaking. On another day, we spent time with friendly Highland cattle showing off their shaggy waterproof coats in various hues.
Pro Tip: If looking for places to see Scotland’s Highland cows, check out these top locations.
8. Street Art In Glasgow
Glasgow is an incredible city filled with fantastic entertainment and cultural attractions, including some of the country’s best museums and art galleries. I was most surprised by the stunning murals found throughout Glasgow’s city center. Brendan Vacations arranged a superb urban art–focused walking tour led by a knowledgeable local guide, who took us to see murals by various artists and provided insights into Glasgow’s art culture. The street art is beautiful, and it was great to learn about the stories and artists involved in each piece.
Pro Tip: While in Glasgow, step into the stately Glasgow City Chambers building to marvel at the opulent marble staircases. They are extraordinary.
9. Freedom And Flexibility
Road trips offer freedom and flexibility, plus the chance for daily adventures. We loved taking our own road trip in Scotland, and we found ourselves constantly stopping for pictures and scones along the way. It helped to have a rental car with a built-in GPS system, and using our cell phones for navigation helped as well.
We covered a lot of ground on this trip, and the Brendan Vacations team did a great job of factoring driving time into our itinerary. There were also plenty of opportunities to veer off for spectacular views and additional historical sights we had time to visit, including Culloden Battlefield, Clava Cairns, and Rosslyn Chapel. Driving some of Scotland’s single-track B roads sometimes provided a bit of an adrenaline rush, but it was fun to take the scenic route.
Pro Tip: The Philip’s Navigator Scotland road atlas is a valuable asset for Scotland self-driving trips.
10. Castle Hotels And Country Houses
While touring Scotland’s magnificent castles was high on my wish list, so was staying in one. Baronial Atholl Palace Hotel in scenic Pitlochry fit the bill, and our stay there offered just the right amount of grandeur. So did Cameron House on Loch Lomond, a splendid castle-like mansion set on 400 acres offering superb cuisine, luxurious accommodations, and a wealth of activities and adventures.
Scotland offers a wide array of lodging choices, and every place we stayed was unique and special. Rufflets St Andrews, a lovely country house surrounded by gardens, provided a peaceful retreat on our journey. The culinary experiences and attentive service at Ness Walk Hotel in Inverness were exceptional, and Marine North Berwick’s stunning seaside views perfectly capped off our trip.
Pro Tip: Make all dining and high tea reservations in advance.
11. Scotch Whisky
Whisky is Scotland’s national drink, and the country has over 130 working distilleries. I’ve never been a big whisky fan, but my experiences on this trip completely changed my mind. I discovered that Scotch comes in more than one smoky flavor, and I found unique whiskies I loved at specialty venues and distilleries. Edinburgh’s educational and entertaining Johnnie Walker Journey of Flavour experience was the perfect place to start. The sessions and tastings here taught me a lot about Scotch whisky and helped me “find my flavor.”
Scotch whisky plays a part in the country’s culture, and we connected with locals at bars and pubs throughout the journey. While whisky may help fight off winter’s chill, the warmth of the Scottish people will steal your heart. After just a few days in Scotland, we were already planning our return.
Pro Tip: After the Johnnie Walker Journey of Flavour experience, take the elevator to the 1820 Rooftop Bar and enjoy the spectacular views of the city and Edinburgh Castle.
For more inspiration for your Scottish adventure, see: