Anthony heard me say too many times on our trip how much Scotland reminds me of New Zealand. From the mind-blowing landscapes, to the safeness of the country, to the narrow winding roads along cliffs, to the fickle weather- I couldn’t think of a better comparison. We spent a week and a half road tripping through The Highlands and leisurely exploring the countryside. Here are my top suggestions for visiting Scotland including fun finds in Edinburgh.
Take your time
Ignore the GPS, pack a tailgate lunch and go for an directionless road trip to somewhere beautiful. Scotland is a stunning (and safe) place to explore with hidden gems to find everywhere.
Narrow roads are No Joke!
Single track (one lane) roads are no fun, especially if you’re a right-hand side of the road driver. Drive slow, enjoy the ride and don’t forget your DD. Our B&B host told us that one pint will put you over the limit. And if you’re American, I know you’re not use to a strict BAC of 0.02%.
Train from London to Edinburgh
If you’re like us and found an affordable international flight into London, consider taking the train to Edinburgh from there. Trains leave frequently and it’s a lovely 4.5 hour ride from Kings Cross. Harry Potter fans can also visit Platform 9¾ at the station and hope that their train will depart from one of the platforms where the movies were shot.
I originally thought the world-renowned Fringe Festival exclusively hosted comedy acts, but boy was I wrong! Every type of entertainment you could possibly imagine lives in Edinburgh for the better part of August. When we booked our accommodation, we had no plans to attend any festival events, but the Fringe slowly became the focus of our time in the city. We spent our afternoons hopping around the numerous pop-up bars and enjoying the talented street performers. The bag piper who played Thunder Struck was one of our favorites. A lot of ticketed events can be booked last minute, so unless there’s an act that you’re dying to see, I would recommend getting a few word of mouth recommendations and catching shows on a whim. I talked Anthony into a silent disco walking tour and it was just as much fun as it sounds! Accommodation in the city can be painfully expensive during the festival, but the liveliness and creativity of Edinburgh really come to life during the Fringe.
Visit the Fairy Pools late in the day
The Fairy Pools are a top attraction in Isle of Skye, but it draws the crowds to match. It’s a fairly flat 2.4km walk through the countryside along multiple tiny waterfalls and pristine streams of water. I would suggest visiting late in the day for a more enjoyable experience. We arrived around 6pm which allowed us plenty of time to explore the area before the sun started to set around 9pm. Don’t forget your bathing suit if you’re brave enough to jump in the frigid waters!
Another huge similarity to New Zealand is that you can freedom camp in Scotland. This means that you can camp overnight for free anywhere you want, provided there are no signs stating otherwise. It’s a great option if you want to do your own thing and get away from the crowds. Note though that we have heard during peak season, Isle of Skye can get so busy they will cut off traffic and only allow people on the island if they can prove their accommodation. If you’re camping in the summer, don’t forget the midge spray.
What to eat and drink
What’s better on a rainy day in Scotland than a cask ale? A few local bartenders mentioned how they don’t care for the almost room temperature serving, but I think it brings out the flavor more.
This Scottish staple certainly does not appeal to the masses. We overheard our waitress describe haggis to the enquiring table next to us one night, and the disgusted look on the foreign woman’s face was priceless. I’m not a fan of lamb to begin with, so the concept is pretty repulsing to me, too; sheep innards ground up with onion and spices, then encased in the animal’s stomach. If you’ve tried it before, what did you think?
This British grocery store chain saved us in the way of easy tailgate lunches. It’s like a backpacker’s dream to find a variety of prepacked meals ready on the go.
Anthony swears it cures hangovers, but I found this bright orange soda tastes more like liquid bubblegum to me.
Badger & Co. in Edinburgh
Check this place out if you’re in the market for a Sunday roast in Edinburgh. I didn’t realize the novelty of this pub when we found it, but as a huge fan of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, I could not have been more thrilled with our find! The author of The Wind in the Willows grew up in the building and the entire place is appropriately themed with amazing portraits of toad and friends. There’s even a private outdoor space called Badger’s Seaside Adventure.
Talisker Bay in Isle of Skye
Welcome to my new happy place! Green rolling hills, sheep grazing on an open field before a coastal backdrop of beach with smooth grey stones and charcoal sand, rocky bluffs, a stream feeding into the ocean and a calm waterfall trickling off a cliff. This beach has everything. It’s a long (narrow) drive to get there, then a lovely stroll to reach the water. Plan your visit during low tide and stay as long as you can.
Quiraing in Isle of Skye
We had been following the road around “the big finger” of Isle of Skye when we accidentally stumbled upon this one thanks to not listening to our GPS. This detour totally won. Despite the unpleasant weather, the landscape practically glowed in the rain and the texture on the hillside seemed so prominent. Thanks so much to Anthony for brave driving down the wet and winding single track road.
Skyewalker Hostel in Isle of Skye
I originally booked this backpackers to impress my Star Wars loving boyfriend, but we both really enjoyed our stay here. It’s located in a quieter part of Isle of Skye, so you don’t have to deal with the chaos of Portree. The owners are full of great suggestions to best utilize your time in Skye and even though it’s a long (often single track road) to get there, it’s convenient walking distance to a local pub for dinner.
Suidhe Viewpoint near Loch Ness
This pit stop was a highlight of our afternoon. Here you can get 360° views of the surrounding countryside and vantage points of Loch Ness. Stroll as little or as much as you want around here to soak up the wide, open, lonely landscapes.
The Malt Room in Inverness
Anthony highly recommended this find in Inverness. It’s like the Holey Grail for whisky drinkers as they stock hundreds of bottles, many of which you cannot find outside the country. This is the perfect alternative if you don’t have a DD to go distillery hopping around Scotland. And if you’re a beer drinker like myself, they’ve got something for you, too.
This famous, iconic landmark is featured in several Harry Potter films. It’s about a 30 minute drive west of Fort William and while we didn’t make enough time to go on this trip, it would have been a beautiful place to visit. Time your visit for when the train passes through.
Quirky Finds in Edinburgh
J.K. Rowling Café
Ok, there’s not actually a J.K. Rowling Café, but we did wander past one of the cafes where she wrote the Harry Potter books. If you’re a huge fan, queue up in front of The Elephant House to pop in.
Cemetery that Inspired Harry Potter
Again not completely politically correct, but near The Elephant House you’ll find the Greyfriars Kirkyard cemetery. J.K. Rowling pulled inspiration from some tombstones here for names that she used in her books like Tom Riddle.
In the same part of town, you’ll also pass by a small dog statue, a pub named after him and a grave in the cemetery with a pile of sticks on it. When the dog Greyfriars Bobby was only 2 years old, his policeman owner died from tuberculosis with whom he was inseparable. The dog continued to morn his owner’s grave for 14 years until the heartbroken pupper passed away at age 16. The story touched the locals and became a well-known Scottish story.
What to pack
- Rain jacket
- Hiking boots
- Water-resistant pants
Would I go back?
Anthony and I have already talked about where we want to go on our next trip to Scotland. It’s a relaxing place to road trip and wander and the scenery is breathtaking. Edinburgh is also equally charming as it is interesting. If the weather didn’t get so dreadful there, it might be my favorite city in the world. (Melbourne still wins in that department!) I’m glad we visited most of the highlights on this trip, but next time I’d like to go more off the grid and explore some lesser known parts of the country.
Have you been to Scotland? What other tips and travel hacks do you recommend? Comment below to share with other fellow travelers!