Edinburgh is the natural first stop on your way to exploring the northern country of Scotland. It is the country’s capital, and, many would argue, its most beautiful. There is so much to do and see in Edinburgh that the city will keep you busy for a few days, but it is also a good base for going exploring a little further afield. I am not talking about the Highlands here, just an hour or so in the car, making for easy day trips and daylight returns to Edinburgh.
There is such a variety to be found within an easy drive from Edinburgh, that you will be spoilt for choice. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite days out of Edinburgh.
Sightseeing In Scotland’s Second City
Let’s start with the obvious: Glasgow. Often called Scotland’s second city, it is Scotland’s largest city, with Edinburgh coming in second place. There is a continuous, friendly rivalry between the two cities, a little like between Melbourne and Sydney, but there is no doubt that both are well worth a visit. Being in Edinburgh without popping along to Glasgow, less than 50 miles to the west, would mean missing out. From magnificent modern and historic architecture to stunning art museums, and a bustling inner city, combined with a stunning Botanic Garden, there is much to do, and you might even come back for another day.
Pro Tip: When in Glasgow, eat. There is a deep-rooted culinary heritage here, and the food is good.
2. Falkirk Wheel And The Kelpies
Explore An Engineering Marvel
The Falkirk Wheel, 25 miles from Edinburgh, is an engineering marvel that you don’t have to be an engineer to appreciate. In a way, it is a Ferris wheel for canal boats, as this moveable bridge allows the connection between two canals, which previously took 11 locks and an entire day to maneuver. Now the boats get carried, while still in the water, up and down in a gigantic wheel, and you can also go on a ride while there.
Pro Tip: The Kelpies, the world’s largest horse sculpture, are just around the corner of the Falkirk Wheel and are a stunning representation of the mythical beasts.
3. Rosslyn Chapel
An Ancient Chapel And Film Star
This 15th-century chapel, a mere 7.5 miles south of Edinburgh, is a little stunner. The stone carvings are exquisite, and each corner is so well decorated that you can barely see it all in one visit. Your timed visiting slot includes a talk held by a local historian, explaining some of the more intriguing details, such as the Apprentice Pillar. Talking about intrigue, this is the chapel that reportedly holds a Knights Templar secret buried underneath it, a legend that Dan Brown milked for his The Da Vinci Code book, and subsequent film. Have you not read the book? You can get a copy in the gift shop.
Pro Tip: The small café within the visitor’s center has some seriously good English scones, served with clotted cream and jam. Take your time to sample them.
4. St Andrews
Fancy Some Golf?
St Andrews lies some 50 miles northeast of Edinburgh on the coast and makes for a fabulous day out. It is a beautiful old city in a stunning coastal setting, with an ancient university, which both Prince William, heir to the British throne, and his wife Katherine attended. Then there is what the city is probably best known for: Plenty of famous golf courses. Stroll around the old town, take in a bracing coastal walk, and then, maybe end with a round of golf for a perfect day.
Pro Tip: You will be crossing the Firth of Fife across the gorgeous Forth Road Bridge, and while you are crossing, you get excellent views of the original Forth Bridge, the old railway bridge.
5. Loch Lomond
Great Britain’s Largest Lake
Considered the border between the Scottish Lowlands and the Highlands, Loch Lomond, part of the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, is the closest you get to the magic of the Highland lochs, the so typical lakes and fjords of Scotland, from Edinburgh. Less than 80 miles from the capital, via Glasgow, you can be enchanted by the rugged nature, the serene setting dotted with stone cottage villages, and the abundance of deer and wildlife within an easy drive.
Pro Tip: Make the most of the scenery by walking the Luss Heritage Trail, an easy and comfortable walk, that nevertheless takes in some stunning natural settings.
A Royal Castle
A mere 20 miles west of Edinburgh, on the way to Glasgow, you can stop off to not only walk around a time-stood-still old town set on Linlithgow Loch but also explore the remains of a historic castle. This 15th-century castle was the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, who was born there in 1542 and became queen at age six. Not years, but days! For petrol heads, there is a plaque on the High Street pointing to the location where Scotland’s first gas pump was installed.
Pro Tip: To allow you to connect the dots, head to the Union Canal, which is one of the canals connected by the Falkirk Wheel. A pleasant walk along the canal between Linlithgow and Falkirk is around nine miles long.
7. Cairngorms National Park
For Nature Galore
This, together with Loch Lomond, is the furthest away day trip I am suggesting here, around 77 miles from Edinburgh, roughly a one to two-hour drive. But the Cairngorms National Park is worth it, being not only the UK’s largest national park but also offering an impressive collection of high mountains, with five of Britain’s highest mountains in attendance, combined with dense forest and some 60 lochs. A very varied terrain, here you can spot birds such as the golden eagle, osprey, and the rare Scottish Crossbill, as well as mammals such as the Scottish wildcat, red squirrels, and pine martens.
Pro Tip: There are countless marked hikes across the national park, but to get the benefit of a local, why not opt for a guided nature walk to know what to look out for?
8. Cramond Island
Walk On Water
Less than six miles from Edinburgh’s center, Cramond Island is one of several tidal islands in the Firth of Forth, but the only one connected by a causeway to the mainland. The uninhabited island has long been a base for all sorts of historic events, from being a prehistoric burial site to a Roman outpost once upon a time, as well as a WWII lookout spot.
While there are no facilities on the island, it is nevertheless worthwhile walking across at low tide, with the walk taking you around 15 to 20 minutes. The views from the water across the Forth, the surrounding countryside, and the tidal barriers themselves lined up like obelisks along the path, are worth braving the elements. Just look out for the tidal calendar, you don’t want to get caught out and get stuck on the island for six hours.
Pro Tip: The village of Cramond lies just on the mainland, offering pubs, cafés, and all sorts of conveniences you might need before and after exploring this rugged island.
9. Dean Village
A Riverside Walk Away
Another village, and for this one you don’t even need to hop into the car to reach it from Edinburgh. Within the city limits of Edinburgh, the picturesque Dean Village, with its imposing architecture and hills, earning it the name mini-Edinburgh, lies along the banks of the Water of Leith, Edinburgh’s local river. Looking like it is right in the countryside, the bucolic setting is indeed a mere 30-minute walk from the center of Edinburgh, and part of the long path of the Water of Leith Walkway, which runs for 12.25 miles either way of the capital.
Pro Tip: A little further on from Dean Village you’ll find the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, set on beautiful grounds.
For more information on traveling to Edinburgh, check out these articles: