The Highlights Tour of Scotland
Take the High Road to Scotland where we visit the capital city of Edinburgh, the more modern Glasgow, and spend a day exploring castles and lochs in the Highlands.
I wanted to go to Scotland since I was a little girl when I would listen to Judy Collins’s version of “Loch Lomond” in the car with my mom. I wanted to stand on those “bonnie banks” and stare out into the vastness of the Scottish Highlands. Sadly, it turns out what I thought was a sweet Scottish folk song is actually about two Jacobite brothers who had to choose between themselves, one to live and one to be executed by the British loyalists. There is a long dark history between the Catholic Stuart king supporters, Jacobites, and the Church of England loyalists. The “high road” and “low road” thus refer to living and dying respectively. Or at least that’s one interpretation of the song…
While I'm not usually one for festivals, Dan's grandmother insisted that we go to Scotland for the Military Tattoo. When we told her we were moving to Dublin back in January, she told us we must immediately get Tattoo tickets because it was one of her most memorable experiences and the tickets sell out way in advance. She described the Tattoo as a parade-like event with musical acts. Without much more info than that, we bought tickets and booked our flights.
We spent three days in Scotland so we could see Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the Highlands. We flew into Edinburgh, the capital on the east side of the country, and spent a day and a half touring the charming historical city before taking a train to Glasgow, a much more modern city on the western side of the country. From Glasgow, we took a full day tour up to the Scottish Highlands, the absolute highlight of the trip.
Follow us to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and all the way to the “bonnie banks” of Loch Lomond.
You’ll find the nicest people in Scotland, and more specifically Edinburgh. I mean truly. Everyone is so friendly, but very difficult to understand. The Scottish accent is quite thick and they speak a mile a minute. Despite the fact that we both "speak English", we are definitely not speaking the same language...I wonder if they feel the same about my accent.
After living in Dublin for the last six months, I thought that I had experienced wetness, but nothing could have prepared me for Scotland. We went on a major hike in Edinburgh in a torrential rainstorm. I'm not exaggerating one bit. At some points, it was difficult for me to see a few steps ahead. Thankfully, when we got to the top, the rain had cleared just enough, so we could see a partial view down to the city.
Sometimes when I find myself writing these "My Perspective" portions, I'm overly enthusiastic. Let's take Croatia and Portugal. I mean what's not to love? Sun, beach, deliciously fresh seafood, and so much charm. Scotland just doesn't fall into that "sunny, happy, let's grab an espresso and sit outside in a cafe" category. Scotland is more of a "wetter, darker, and hushed conversations inside a pub" kind of place. With that said, Scotland has the most gorgeously green countryside because of all the rain and really shines when the sun is out.
Edinburgh felt like a city upon another city. The current Royal Mile is actually not at ground level, but built on top of old buildings, similar to Rome. I would find myself walking on a road that I assumed was at ground level, only to find myself on a bridge looking down to see the true ground 50 ft below. I guess you could say Edinburgh is a city of hills with varying perspectives.
I was pleasantly surprised by Glasgow. It seems that most people only visit Edinburgh if they're going to see one city, but Glasgow was very modern with amazing food options. I would definitely recommend spending at least a night. Go to Scotland for the cozy pubs, beautiful Highlands, and medieval castles. And of course, golf if you play.
Itinerary at a Glance
We spent 3 nights and 3 full days in Scotland. I would call our trip the highlights tour. You could go for a long weekend or add this itinerary onto your trip to England or Ireland.
Day 1: Edinburgh – the capital medieval city
Day 2: More of Edinburgh and Glasgow – the more modern city
Day 3: Scottish Highlands – breathtaking rugged landscape, castles, and lochs
I wish we had another half day to walk around Glasgow. We could have easily left earlier for Glasgow, but we wanted to explore a little more of Edinburgh that we missed due to bad weather the previous day.
You could of course build a full itinerary around Scotland to include:
- St Andrews – home of famous St Andrews Golf Links and university
- Inverness – culture capital of Scottish Highlands, Urquhart Castle, Inverness Cathedral
- Isle of Skye – rugged landscape, lochs, and castles
- Stirling – castles and fortress town
- Shetland Islands – subarctic archipelago in the north (on my bucket list)
- Overnight in Highlands – stay in a cabin on one of the lochs and go up to Loch Ness to find Nessie
What to See by Day
Day 1: Edinburgh and Arthur's Seat
Spend the first part of the morning visiting the castle and cruising the Royal Mile. Then hike up Arthur’s Seat and have a late lunch at the cozy Sheep Heid Inn.
+ Walk from your accommodation up to Edinburgh Castle
In full transparency, we did not take a castle tour because we knew we would see it at night for the Tattoo. We were satisfied with simply viewing the castle from the outside. Depending how much time you’d like to spend, the website has a few routes outlined. You could easily spend a half or even a full day between morning and afternoon tours. I would follow the just an hour tour to hit the highlights.
+ When you exit the castle, cruise down the Royal Mile to the Palace of Holyroodhouse
High Street, also known as the Royal Mile, connects the Castle to the Palace. As you stroll along the cobblestone street, stop at the Gothic St Giles’ Cathedral and pop into the shops to taste Scottish delicacies. Make sure to stop at The Fudge Kitchen. They had the best fudge by far. Try the dark chocolate sea salt. You won’t regret it. Who doesn’t love free samples? The other thing to notice are the closes, small alleyways and courtyards off the main street. Many of the closes are now covered by buildings, but you can still visit the Real Mary King’s Close to see how people in the 17th c. used to live. The tour was a bit touristy for our taste, but if you have kids, they may enjoy it. Make sure to book ahead. Instead, I would recommend just wandering down the alleyways yourself.
+ Admire the Palace of Holyroodhouse and turn right into Holyrood Park
The Holyrood Palace is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland, aka where the Queen stays when she visits. You can take tours, but we chose to admire the beautiful building from the gate and instead head into Hoyrood Park. When you get the park, turn left onto Queen’s Drive and enter when you hit the pond on your right. Follow the path to St Anthony’s Chapel Ruins on your left.
+ Climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat for the best views of the city
Now at this point you have a few options. You can take the easier way up the mountain by continuing on your current path or you can turn back around and start from the beginning and take the long scenic way. Let me just tell you, it’s not easy and pretty strenuous, especially if you’re in a downpour like we were. I think it’s worth it to admire the views as you climb up, but it’s nice to know there are alternate routes. Once you reach the top, head down the backside of the mountain towards Dunsapie Loch. When you hit the Loch, turn right onto Queen’s Drive. Follow the road for a bit until you see a path at a bench on your left. Take this path down to Duddingston Village. Turn left down the alley and you’ll hit the perfect pub for lunch.
+ Reward yourself with a long leisurely lunch at Sheep Heid Inn, said to be the oldest pub in Scotland that dates back to 1360
Now at this point for us, we were beyond soaked. We took an extra-long lunch and warmed up over Irish Coffees in the cozy pub. The food was great and ambience even better.
+ After lunch, explore the small Duddingston Village
Depending on the weather, you can walk to Duddingston Kirk, the church, and Dr. Neils Garden on Duddingston Loch.
+ If you’re in Edinburgh in August, go to the late night fireworks show of The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Now how do I describe the Tattoo? Let’s just say it’s a mix between a musical, drumline, marching band competition, and military drill line. Military bands and drill teams travel from around the world to perform on the esplanade of the Edinburgh Castle. The house was packed without a single open seat. Acts included: traditional Scottish dancing, drills from His Majesty of Norway’s Guard, the U.S. Europe Army Band and Chorus, motorbike stunts from the young boys of the U.K. Imps, the Royal Jordanian Army Band, and last, but not least, my favorite, The New Zealand Army Band. The New Zealand Army Band’s performance included songs from Hairspray, 007, “Bang Bang,” and “500 Miles.” Oh, and tons of bagpipes! The whole night ended with a spectacular fireworks show. I would plan your whole trip to Scotland around this festival.
Day 2: Exploring Edinburgh’s Famed Streets and Traveling to Glasgow
Spend the morning walking Princes and George Streets, explore Calton Hill and Dean Village before taking a train to Glasgow.
+ Walk to George Street and have breakfast at eteaket
Scones were great. Porridge and chai latte were amazing. (Scotland is known for its porridge).
+ Spend time strolling down George Street and parallel Princes Street
On Sunday morning, most of the shops were closed on George Street. We headed down Frederick Street to Princes Street Garden then walked down Princes past the Royal Scots Greys Monument, Royal Scottish Academy, and Scott Monument.
+ At the end of Princes Street, walk up to the top of Calton Hill
There are a number of monuments and beautiful viewpoints on Calton Hill. Dan and I spent a while taking pictures on the National Monument.
+ Make your way to the Water of Leith Walkway via Queen Street
The Water of Leith Walkway is a quiet nature pathway that runs along the river. I suggest entering off MacKenzie Place from India Place. You can follow directions to the path on Google Maps. Walk up the path past St Bernards Well and end in Dean Village, the most picturesque little town. I thought I was in Switzerland or Austria for a minute.
+ Stop at Cairngorm Coffee Co before collecting your things and making your way to the train station
The cutest coffee shop on the corner of Randolph Place and Melville Street.
+ Take the 50-minute train from Edinburgh to Glasgow
Waverley and Haymarket are the two main train stations in Edinburgh. Take ScotRail to Queen Street Glasgow. You can buy tickets at the station and they run frequently.
+ Explore Glasgow and have haggis for dinner at the Chip
Walk around George Square and Buchanan Street. Then head to the West End with cute shops and the University of Glasgow before dinner. Haggis is the national dish of Scotland. I’m not going to reveal the ingredients unless you’d like to click here and look for yourself. Let’s just say if you’re a vegetarian, this dish is not for you. Ubiquitous Chip is said to have one of the best. The restaurant has a brasserie upstairs overlooking the more formal space set in an indoor garden downstairs. Make a reservation for the brasserie. Grab drinks in the outdoor rooftop bar before dinner. Maybe check out some of the other bars on Ashton Lane after dinner. If you have a sweet tooth, go to Crolla's for gelato across the street.
Day 3: A Day in the Scottish Highlands
Take one of rabbie’s small group tours up to the Highlands. We chose “Oban, Glencoe, West Highland Lochs & Castles.” As much as I wanted to go up to Loch Ness and find Nessie the monster, a rabbie’s representative recommended this tour, so we could spend less time in the van and more time exploring. The Loch Ness tour goes all the way up to Inverness, which is in itself over 3 hours from Glasgow. The furthest point of our tour was only 2 hours.
Spend the day getting lost in the green splendor of the Highlands. You’ll visit castles and learn about Scottish folklore as well as the history between competing clans in the area. And the best part, what we’re calling “5 minutes of Scottish,” is when your tour guide plays traditional and modern Scottish songs maybe once an hour…or at least our guide did. Thanks Grant Scott for an amazing day!
I was absolutely amazed by the vastness of the landscape. It was very difficult to capture the sheer size of the valleys, lochs, and mountains. Everything was so green and there were beautiful waterfalls streaming down almost all the hillsides. You must go and see for yourself!
We started north into the Highlands in complete fog and mist. I was so nervous that we wouldn’t be able to see anything all day. Here I am in the fog at Glen Croe.
Our first stop was at Inveraray Castle, which is still the home to the Duke of Argyll and his family. The Duke is the Chief of the Clan Campbell, one of the largest and most powerful Highland clans. They also filmed the Downton Abbey Christmas Special at Inveraray. The rain stopped just as we finished touring the inside. Can you imagine living here?
Kilchurn Castle was second on the tour. Dan and I had a lot of fun playing in the old ruins.
Can you spot Stalker Castle in the distance?
The Three Sisters at Glen Coe was perhaps my favorite stop besides the surprise (still to come, keep reading). We stopped in the glen to admire the unbelievable scenery. Some say this spot is the most beautiful in Scotland and I can see why.
The sun shone down at the perfect moment on the river running down the mountain.
Continuing on to more lochs. There are both fresh and saltwater lochs in the region. They farm oysters in Loch Fyne. If you choose to drive up to the Highlands, I would suggest stopping at the Oyster Bar.
Finally, we ended on the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond with Ben Lomond mountain in the distance. The lake is a popular summer destination. It is the largest lake by area in all of Great Britain. Loch Ness is the largest by volume. Lock Lomond is protected as part of the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park.
And surprise, highland cows!! I told our tour guide that I was hoping to see them on the tour and of course he delivered as a last surprise stop on the way home. Sadly, we weren't able to see them in the wild, but I'll take it.
Where and What to Eat
> Sheep Heid Inn - the oldest pub in Scotland with a cozy atmosphere. Share the mezze platter and roast chicken. You can reserve if you'd like. It gets busy on the weekends.
> eteaket - a bright and cheerful breakfast spot
> Ubiquitous Chip - the best haggis, neeps, and tatties in Glasgow. Make a reservation for the brasserie.
> Hanoi Bike Shop - looked like a cool pho place across the street from the Chip
Now onto the Scottish goods.
> Fudge - Traditionally, Scottish fudge is grainier than typical American fudge and known as tablet. Our favorite was the Fudge Kitchen on the Royal Mile. The dark chocolate sea salt (fudge, not tablet) was incredible!
> Shortbread - a dense sweet biscuit perfect with afternoon tea
> Haggis, neeps, and tatties - again, not sharing haggis on here, but it's traditionally made with lamb. Dan tried one in Glasgow made of venison. I had a vegetarian version made of lentils, which wasn't that bad. Maybe worth a try. Neeps are turnips and tatties are potatoes.
> Black Pudding - not revealing this one either. We also have it in Ireland. It's a type of sausage.
> Smoked salmon - no explanation needed here
> Porridge - simply oats, water, and salt. Enjoy with berry compote perhaps.
> Whiskey - what you probably call Scotch. One of the main differences between Scottish and Irish whiskey is that it is distilled twice rather than three times, similar to American whiskey. Many people do not like Scotch Whiskey for its peaty characteristic. It is made from malted barley, which gives it that smokey taste. I actually semi-enjoyed the more floral, citrus Glenmorangie. It's fun to try a few while you're there and see what you like.
Where to Stay
Edinburgh is so small that you can stay almost anywhere in the city center. If you look at a map, center yourself around the Royal Mile and look for hotels or Airbnbs in that area. You want to be within walking distance of the Royal Mile near Waverley and Haymarket train stations. If you are planning to go during the festivals, you must book early. We booked four months in advance and still overpaid for a room in a shared Airbnb.
In Glasgow, I can't recommend the Citizen M hotel enough. Have you stayed in a Citizen M hotel before? They are super efficient and compact, but very clean and affordable. They also have iPads in the room to control the lights. Hello "Movie Mode." Oh, and you can change the color of the lights in the shower. The one in Glasgow is perfectly located in the city center.
TBP Insider Tips
> Edinburgh – pronounced Eh-din-bur-oh
> Lochs – lakes, pronounced locks
> You can take a Scottish Highlands tour from Edinburgh, but then you’ll be spending more time in the car driving up to the Highlands. Instead, take an easy train to Glasgow in the late afternoon and have a fabulous night in Glasgow before taking a day trip.
> It’s wet in Scotland. Very wet. Bring a good pair of rain boots, rain jacket, and an umbrella. Bring extra clothes in case you get soaked like we did.
> Gett is the more popular app-based taxi service.
> To/From Edinburgh Airport: The Airlink 100 Bus was very quick and efficient and only costs 4.50 pounds. You can also take the tram. Both link to multiple destinations in the city center. You can buy tickets on the bus or at the kiosk next to the bus pick-up at the airport.
> To/From Glasgow Airport: Glasgow Airport Express was direct and easy. The cost is 7 pounds and you can pay on the bus.
> There's a great subway system in Glasgow, but it closes early on Sundays.
> You can also time your visit to Edinburgh with the Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world. You can see magic shows, comedy, live art performances, and more. It overlaps with the Tattoo if you time it right!
Do I have to climb up there? Right before it started to downpour.