Gimme your best Scotland
March 28, 2019 6:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm heading to Scotland for vacation in May for about 10 days. What are the best things to see, eat, and do?

This is my first time to Scotland and second to the UK. I have plenty of Gore Tex! I love Scotch whisky, the outdoors, landscape photography, wildlife, coffee, interesting urban places, and lots of things beyond those. But, I don't care about golf at all.

At this point, I have the Rick Steves guide, but basically no real plans whatsoever. I have no problem renting a car, which I'm assuming I'll have to do. Any seasonal advice would be appreciated as well.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper to Travel & Transportation around Scotland (22 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's kinda obvious and cliched, but Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile are honestly really beautiful and worth walking through, even with the crowds. Similarly, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is really interesting (both the place itself, and when I was there there was an excellent art exhibit out of the Queen's collection centered around Venice).

Edinburgh as a whole is a lovely city with great food and nice people and just lots of interesting random stuff to do.
posted by tocts at 7:11 AM on March 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

I found out about this too late in our short stay to go, but there's a whole underground city in Edinburgh, with tours. I just threw up a link - you could probably wait til you're there and head to the tourist office. They were so friendly and helpful and had the best knowledge! Also +1 Edinburgh Castle -- they even have a whisky tasting room at the top.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:47 AM on March 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I dumped my backpack at the youth hostel in Pitlochry even tough I wasn't staying there and took a lovely afternoon walk/mild hike to the Edradour Distillery. I suppose you could drive directly there, but it was quite nice to hike through the well-marked path. It looks like there are many nice walks in the area. I also went to see the salmon ladder, which was fascinating in its own nerdy way.
posted by Liesl at 8:00 AM on March 28, 2019

May, in Scotland, is bluebell time. There are many places where - for just a short while - you can walk though vast, wild , hypnotic fields of them - mabybe at their best on a very long late- May evening. Some places to see bluebells in Scotland.
posted by rongorongo at 8:10 AM on March 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you're not opposed to using a tour guide for all or part of your visit, I can highly recommend Will at Iconic Tours. He was a fabulous tour guide, and he used to work as a travel photographer, so one of his specialties is photo tours.

Definitely plan on spending at least a day on Skye -- there are some amazing landscapes there.
The Quiraing
The Fairy Pools
The Fairy Glen

You should also visit the very picturesque Dean Village in Edinburgh.
posted by natabat at 8:11 AM on March 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

MrsMogur and I did the falconry experience at Dalhousie Castle, which is frankly pretty pricey but (for us) a transcendental experience that was well worth it.
posted by Mogur at 9:00 AM on March 28, 2019

Strongly seconding Skye.

If you enjoy beautiful/hair-raising drives, I recommend Applecross, home of this famous sign.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:10 AM on March 28, 2019

If you are near Dumfries on May 5 you might consider the Garden of Cosmic Speculation. It is only open to the public one day a year. Tickets are limited and apparently sell out quickly.
posted by LiverOdor at 9:35 AM on March 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you'll be in Edinburgh, the hike up Arthur's Seat is well worth doing.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:58 AM on March 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

A couple of slightly more random things that might not be on the usual tourist radar:

Falls of Lora - impressive tidal rapids just north of Oban under a very striking bridge (now a road bridge, but used to be a road and rail bridge. You'll often see freestyle kayakers doing tricks on the standing waves. Timing is key though so check the website.

The hidden valley in GlenCoe. Glencoe is pretty amazing itself, and the Hidden Valley is a nice hike that's not too strenuous or dangerous.
posted by el_presidente at 10:33 AM on March 28, 2019

A few things I did in Scotland last time I was there that were excellent (really, everything I ever do in Scotland is excellent, A+ country, would go many more times):

Mary King's Close in Edinburgh I've found that a lot of things in Edinburgh that smack of TOURIST TRAP... are, yes, tourists traps, but also really great tourist traps? They really know how to do tourist traps right, is what I'm saying. I get a major charge out of "frozen in time, recently rediscovered" stuff and Mary King's Close is very much that.

North of Edinburgh near Stirling is Phoenix Falconry. I randomly wound up going there because of a Groupon and it was a completely mindblowing experience. I think I did their 2-hour "meet the birds" experience and can now tell people that I've handled a bald eagle--it's a great conversation-starter. Anyway, it's definitely not a tourist trap, it's the real deal, this guy (Adrian) breeds and trains raptors for hunting, but he also does rescue. Some of the birds I got to meet and handle aren't really typical falconry species but are birds he's rescued and rehabilitated (like, no one does falconry with a bald eagle, but he had rescued one so we got to fly it). It's pretty far off the beaten track, but near the Gleneagles resort if you want to pretend you're a rich person for a couple hours. I marched right into the hotel and walked around and they just assumed I was a guest.

The Western Isles and West Coast are fantabulous. I love Oban, and there's a big ferry port there so you can get ferries to any number of islands. The West Highland Rail line is just stupid beautiful. You can basically jump and land on the Isle of Mull from Oban as well.

A little south of Oban is a little village that a boat tour company runs out of. The entire area is just gobsmackingly gorgeous. I went on a boat tour (stimulating!) but I arrived well ahead of departure and hiked around the island a bit and, like, dude. The vistas.

When I was there, I had no car, so I was able to get to all these places with creative combos of buses, trains and rented bicycles. (I'm kind of an ambitious traveler though so ymmv.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:56 PM on March 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've only been to Edinburgh, but I would highly recommend the underground tour of Mary King's Close, where an accident of 18th century urban renewal preserved a time-capsule of the medieval and modern city. I'm trained as a historian of Britain in the 16th-18th centuries, and I LOVED IT. It wasn't cheesy or (excessively) touristy, and I learned stuff.

For whisky: I didn't visit any distilleries, but I was really happy visiting Royal Mile Whiskies. I went in with a vague sense of what kind of scotch a relative liked and a budget - and they found me a lesser known SINGLE CASK, numbered bottle of the best scotch I have ever had, before or since (Old Speyside, 25-year, if you're curious). And it didn't (completely) break my bank! They taught me about scotch styles while they were at it, so now I know what to look for.

I would also second Edinburgh Castle and hiking Arthur's Seat - in fact, get off the beaten track, the whole park is beautiful. I didn't do Holyrood, and didn't really mind - but then, I prefer castles to palaces.
posted by jb at 2:58 PM on March 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Definitely come to Glasgow, it's brilliant! Loads of interesting social and industrial history, beautiful architecture, good coffee places, great pubs and music scene, people are notoriously friendly. Food wise a few of my favourite places are Mother India, Jaconelli's (sublime ice cream) and Singl End.

If you like your food Kitchin in Edinburgh is a Michelin star restaurant that does a set lunch for £35, they use amazing local ingredients and it's great cooking. It's fancy but not stuffy at all.

Skye is a great suggestion - if the weather's good go up Sgurr na Banachdich [the site linked here Walkhighlands is great for walking routes and maps all over the country] in the Cuillins, one of the few peaks in that ridge you can walk up without needing climbing gear, the view from the top is a rare thing indeed. Also if you're in Skye take the wee ferry to Raasay and climb the (very small) hill Dun Caan for superb views back over the sea and across to the Skye peaks. For the true Scottish culinary experience I recommend you get Irn Bru (drink) and a Tunnock's Caramel Wafer for eating when you stop for a look at the view.

Orkney is another island further north, I've never been but heard it's beautiful plus their folk festival is on in May which is undoubtedly an absolute joyful riot if you like drinking and traditional music.

My favourite part of the country is Assynt in the North West - the scenery is incredible and it'll be beautiful in May. Here's a suggested driving tour but I should say that a lot of the roads are single track so there's a bit of negotiation required if you meet someone coming the other way. There's a book festival in Ullapool in May that'll bring lots of interesting writers to the town, there'll be ceilidhs and parties and stuff as well. The Ceilidh Place is a nice place to stay or go into for a pint and a look in the bookshop.
posted by Lluvia at 4:28 PM on March 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

If you like Monty Python, Doune Castle, where Holy Grail was filmed, is a lot of fun.
posted by chbrooks at 12:27 AM on March 29, 2019

Cumbernauld Town centre is like nowhere else in the world. A city centre enclosed in a single building it’s like a cross between a spaceship, an artic outpost, and a shopping mall. It’s ugly, impractical and insane, but amazing, and unmissable in my opinion.
posted by Middlemarch at 2:10 AM on March 29, 2019

Edinburgh's 165-year-old Camera Obscura is genuinely awesome - and the World of Illusions, in the same building, is great fun, even as a solo visitor. Visit on the sunniest day you can get, for the best camera viewing experience. (Skip the tacky gift shop).
posted by brushtailedphascogale at 5:31 AM on March 29, 2019

As with other places, I'd recommend Atlas Obscura - my link goes to the Edinburgh section where you can find some of the ideas mentioned above as well as visit Dr Neal's Garden. the Library of Mistakes or the Norwegian Brigadier who happens to also be a penguin.

In terms of castles: I'd recommend visiting at least a few which are more off the beaten path: so perhaps a walk through Dollar Glen to Castle Cambell, a stroll around Blackness, an exploration of the high towers of Tantallon. If you want a mechanism to link all such places together - then be aware that these were all Outlander Locations - there are many more you should look for if you are a fan of the show - or even if you just want to see some unusual places.
posted by rongorongo at 6:09 AM on March 29, 2019

I would second Camera Obscura, it's a really neat thing to see. As an added bonus, before/after you experience it you can hang out on the open balcony area around it (it's very high up), which has really great views of Edinburgh. I took a picture from up there that I liked so much I had it printed as a very large canvas triptych that now adorns a wall in my house.
posted by tocts at 7:05 AM on March 29, 2019

Best answer: Absolutely rent a car - driving isn't bad, and the countryside is glorious. We liked Edinburgh, but wished we'd spent more time going north and west. In Edinburgh we got delicious whisky at Cadenhead, an independent bottler, and highly recommend it. Stop at the Kelpies and Millenium Wheel. Pitlochry was beautiful, Skye was amazing (give yourself more than a day). Be aware that some of the distilleries (like Talisker on Skye) can require a reservation if you want a tour, which you should do at least one of. But mostly, get thee north and west to Highlands and lochs and the gorgeous scenery.
posted by ldthomps at 11:56 AM on March 29, 2019

The Highland Folk Museum is amazing. Stirling and Doune Castles are great. If you want to stay in a surprisingly cheap castle near those: Culreuch Castle is a hotel. One room there is both haunted and has original 18th century wallpaper!
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 3:34 PM on March 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In a few similar threads, I have recommended the guide book "Scotland the Best" for answers to questions such as yours. This guide is Peter Irvine's personal take on what you should really go and see when in the country - and it is the very individuality of his views that makes it valuable. For example in terms of selecting the best castles, beaches, coffee bars etc. It has gone through many editions - which is a testament to its use by Scots themselves - as well as to the reliability of the reviews.
posted by rongorongo at 11:08 PM on March 30, 2019

Seconding Doune Castle! It's not just where Holy Grail was filmed, but also it was Castle Leoch in the recent first season of Outlander. My boyfriend and I managed to get there on my birthday last summer and not only did we discover it's an excellent castle, but there is a free (!) audio tour narrated by Terry Jones that is HILARIOUS and incredibly informative. Boyfriend and I kind of hate feeling excessively touristy but the tour was an absolute delight and we both had a blast (there are a few Outlander bits, too, narrated by Sam Heughan, which were a treat for me). We agree it was a highlight of our 5 days in Scotland, and a very fond memory.

Otherwise, while we had an excellent time, we just took it easy because simply traveling through Scotland is a treat. We wandered Edinburgh, which is phenomenal (my third time visiting and it's never once disappointed; yes, the Castle is very much worth it!). Frankly, if you end up near the Cairngorms, I wouldn't bother going to Glenfiddich - we wanted to visit a distillery and it was on our way so we swung in. It was nice, but not amazing (though tbf both of us prefer Islay whiskies, so their product wasn't our favorite - no fault of theirs), and felt a bit commercial.

Have a fantastic time; Scotland is just wonderful.
posted by AthenaPolias at 3:02 PM on March 31, 2019

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