How to Spend 7 Perfect Days in Scotland
From haggis toasties to world-famous golf courses, here’s where to go and what to do in Great Britain’s greenest pastures.
At once dazzlingly modern and steeped in centuries of history, Scotland is a country whose cinematic beauty, mythical lore, and shall we say, unique, cuisine all need to be seen to be believed. The northern terminus of Great Britain, Scotland’s mainland body is divvied into regions like the Highlands, Speyside and the Lowlands, lined with mountains, splashed with lochs, soaked in Scotch, and dotted with cities new and old — or, rather, old and older. For a country that’s only about the size of South Carolina, there’s a lot to see and do in Scotland, and if you’ve only got a week to spend in this pastoral paradise, here’s a seven-day itinerary of activities, sights and flavors that’ll leave you hankering for haggis long after your vacation is over.
Stay: Hotel du Vin Glasgow
Most folks entering Scotland do so via Glasgow Airport or Glasgow Central Station, the main rail hub linking England to the south. As the largest city in Scotland, Glasgow’s got a mini London vibe, minus the dizzying traffic and Times Square-like tourist traps. Start your trip on a high note at the luxury resort Hotel du Vin Glasgow, an ornate boutique in a Victorian mansion in the West End. Each of the property’s 49 guest rooms and suites are lavishly appointed with a smart juxtaposition of classic-meets-modern, as seen in the crackling fireplaces and tweed design textures alongside majestic magenta headboards, floral curtains and sleek rain showers. For a pour of whisky or a puff of a cigar, linger in the Restaurant One Devonshire Gardens, a swanky bar and lounge with an all-day menu of Scottish fine dining and nouvelle bistro fare — think Orkney crab Bavarois with ponzu and caviar, lamb rump with broccoli and miso eggplant, and lemon curd soufflé with bergamot caramel.
Bustling with bars, bakeries, museums, parks and shops, there’s no shortage of ways to fill out a day in Scotland’s most metropolitan city. Rise and shine with blueberry-frangipane turnovers, buttery pork pie and banana-butterscotch-rye bread at hip new cafe, Outlier, then meet your culture quota for the day at the free-to-visit Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, where art and artifacts — from Rembrandt to reptilian fossils — have been on display since 1901. While you’re in the area, mosey around the West End, a gorgeously tree-lined district strewn with intimate bars, eclectic restaurants and enthralling architecture like the gothic University of Glasgow, an institution so mighty that it’s basically a spitting image of Hogwarts. For shopping, sipping and dining, Ashton Lane is a cobblestone thoroughfare that looks straight out of a Disney fairy tale — albeit with more booze and vintage shops.
Pro Tip: Glasgow is very walkable, and the city’s widespread bus and subway lines make it easy to hoof it around on a budget, but save some energy for later, because nightlife here is well worth staying up late for. A late-night city with a pumping DJ and dance scene, popular clubs and live music venues include The Sanctuary, Sub Club and Popworld, a whimsical, twinkling space that’s as colorful as a box of crayons.
Chill: Queen’s Park
One great place to reset your energy levels with a view, Queen’s Park offers 148 acres of serenity on the south side of the city, with sweeping views in all directions. A great place to hunker down with a book or a picnic, especially by the fragrant rose garden, the park also has tennis courts, a putting course, a boating pond and lawn bowling.
Pro Tip: Come winter, Queen’s Park is also popular for snowier sports, like sledding and tubing on its gentle slopes.
Eat: Ubiquitous Chip
Head back to Ashton Lane to dine at one of the buzziest — and most enduringly popular — restaurants in town, Ubiquitous Chip, an airy upscale eatery specializing in modern European fare with a locally sourced through line. A pioneer on the Glasgow dining scene since 1971, catapulting the notion of farm-to-table cooking into the mainstream, the Clydesdale family has since expanded the brand to encompass a veritable complex of dining and drinking spaces along Ashton Lane. These include the main restaurant, a brasserie, the corner bar, rooftop terrace, an upstairs bar and the adorably coined Wee Whisky Bar, a pint-sized watering hole that describes itself as “serving more whiskies per square foot than any other bar in Scotland.” The OG, though, is the main restaurant, offering a dynamic spree of seasonal Scottish flavors via tasting menu, a la carte or vegetarian degustation. Examples include mackerel escabeche with sea buckthorn and sardine mayonnaise, Shetland cod with asparagus and lardo, and venison haggis with turnips and potato puree, an upscale riff on Scotland’s national dish, a savory pudding traditionally made with sheep’s innards, oatmeal, suet and spices, and served with neeps and tatties (aka turnips and mashed potatoes).
Do: Edinburgh Castle
Journeying from Scotland’s largest city to its second largest is faster than a round of Quidditch. Barely an hour train ride out of Glasgow Central Station or Glasgow Queen Street, Edinburgh stands resolute as the country’s timeworn capital, with its central Edinburgh Castle looming over Edinburgh Waverley train station upon arrival. Exiting the station and zigzagging up through stone alleys and meandering streets, Edinburgh Castle rises like a beacon atop Castle Rock, looking utterly preserved in Medieval lore, cannons and all. With ticketed entry, visitors are able to explore the labyrinthine fortress, constructed in the 11th century, with all its barracks, great halls and chapels. Over the centuries, the castle was besieged more than anywhere else in the country, saw Mary Queen of Scots take up residence, and currently houses Crown jewels like an ornate crown, scepter, sword and the Stone of Destiny, used to coronate monarchs for generations.
Pro Tip: Tickets often sell out, so book yours in advance. And come 1 p.m., the castle fires its daily One o’Clock Gun just beyond Portcullis Gate and in front of Redcoat Cafe. A tradition since 1861, and a handy tool for helping ships in the Firth of Forth set their clocks, the modern cannon nowadays blasts a 105-mm field gun in a ritual ceremony that sees large crowds gather for the spectacle. You’ll want to start crowding 20 minutes early (or more) if you want to get a good view, though.
Eat: Angels with Bagpipes
Exiting Edinburgh Castle, rove through Old Town Edinburgh — and follow the sound of bagpipes — to Angels with Bagpipes, a contemporary Scottish stalwart open for lunch and dinner. Midday, the restaurant offers affordable prix fixe menus, with both two-course and three-course options, featuring dishes like velouté potato with pesto, cod with leeks and creamed potatoes, smoked salmon pâté, and mascarpone mousse with cinnamon-poached pears and sesame. Alternatively, a quick snack at nearby Bobby’s Sandwich Bar yields treasures like vegan haggis toasties, essentially a panini-style sandwich with a stuffing-like filling.
Keep the timeworn traditions going with a stroll through Greyfriars Kirkland. Located at the southern end of Old Town, the massive graveyard has been interring noted Scots since 1600, including admirals, scholars, and as you’ll find from scanning the headstones, several surnames that clearly inspired a few characters from Harry Potter. Which makes sense considering The Elephant House cafe, the “birthplace of Harry Potter” where JK Rowling began writing the books, is just up the road. The most famous Greyfriars resident is neither wizard nor muggle, though. Greyfriars Bobby is a dog who heart-wrenchingly stood by his master’s grave for 14 years, before being laid to rest just outside the graveyard gates.
Stay: The Glasshouse
Since most of Edinburgh is seemingly as old as time immemorial, why not mix it up and stay someplace unabashedly modern? The Glasshouse is the inverse of much of Edinburgh’s stone-clad architecture — a former church that’s had its brick exterior replaced with glass. Each guest room features floor-to-ceiling windows (and top-tier amenities like heated bathroom floors, luxurious tubs and wood writing desks, in case you want to write your own wizarding series). To drink, cozy up in The Snug, a comfy nook for imbibing Scotch whisky by the fireplace.
By day three, you’ll surely be ready for a little fresh air and a break from the traffic. Rent a car, remember to drive on the left side of the road, and book it to one of Scotland’s two national parks: Loch Lomond and The Trossachs. About an hour and a half northwest of Edinburgh (or 45 minutes north of Glasgow), the park is an easily accessible haven for outdoor recreation and serenity, anchored by the 22-mile-long loch, making it the largest loch in the county by surface area. It’s home to multiple Munros (the Scottish word for mountains exceeding 3,000 feet), dotted with 30 islands and surrounded by The Trossachs, a term for a densely wooded area filled with glens and hills. Popular activities in Scotland’s first national park include hiking and picnicking along the shores, but to really make the most of the park, you should get out on the water — kayaks, canoes, JetSkis and cruise boats all abound with tours and rentals. The Steamship Sir Walter Scott is the park’s most famed vessel, taking guests out on Loch Katrine (a smaller loch within the park) for scenic sailings aboard a historic boat.
Pro Tip: Come nightfall in the park, Loch Lomond is particularly known for its dark skies, meaning night skies free of urban lights, where stars are easily visible to the naked eye. So stay up late for a special kind of light show.
Stay: Lodge on Loch Lomond
Live your luxe loch life at Lodge on Loch Lomond (and then say that five times fast), a waterside property with sweeping views of the park from its beach locale in Luss. Popular for banquets and weddings, as well as those who like to get pampered in a spa after a day on the water, the hotel also takes its proximity seriously by organizing yacht cruises, canoe trips and wakeboarding outings for its guests.
If you’ve been hiking in the park, you’ll probably look for convenience when it’s time for dinner. Fortunately, one of the best restaurants in the area is located within Lodge on Loch Lomond. Colquhoun’s Restaurant is a rustic stone- and wood-filled spot directly overlooking the beach, spotlighting fresh Scottish ingredients and produce to really put a cherry on top of your Loch Lomond sundae. But instead of a cherry, it’s haggis croquettes, pea and mint fritters, smoked haddock fishcakes, and sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream ice cream and butterscotch sauce.
Do: Loch Ness
If you thought Loch Lomond had wow factor, wait until you meet the most folkloric body of water yet. Directly north of Lomond by about three hours, nestled in the mountainous Highlands region, Loch Ness is a lake that needs no introduction. Carving its way through misty green hills for nearly 23 narrow miles, it’s easy to believe the rumors that a dinosaur-like monster is swimming in its jet-black depths, especially when you consider it tops out at a staggering depth of 788 feet. Simply driving the winding roads along its shores is captivating enough, but for a deeper metaphorical dive, spend some time at the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, a somewhat cheesy (yet fascinating) exploration of millions of years worth of geographic history, with plenty of conjecture about potential water beasts. The center even hosts guided sonar-equipped sailings, so you can get out on the water and search for Nessie.
Eat: The Dores Inn
Whether or not you find the Loch Ness Monster, you deserve some frills-free comfort food, and The Dores Inn delivers. Located right on the water, this family-run pub offers a family-friendly spread of homey Highland fare, from buttery steamed Shetland mussels and pan-fried scallops with apple puree to crispy fried shrimp scampi and haggis-stuffed chicken with malt whisky cream sauce — because, at this point, there’s no escaping the haggis and you may as well lean into it. If the weather is nice, and you’re still keen on a potential Nessie sighting, sit outside at one of the patio tables.
Do: Urquhart Castle
For mythical monsters with a side of Medieval history, explore the loch-side ruins of Urquhart Castle. Located right on Loch Ness, the castle is as storied as the aquatic fables. It’s a once-mighty stone fortress (one of Scotland’s largest) with exhibitions delving into its role in the Wars of Independence over 500 years of occupation. The museum has a movie and historic context, but you’ve got to explore the ruins yourself for the full experience, and the best loch views. The sprawling castle grounds include Medieval artifacts, a prison cell (with a mannequin prisoner who looks a little too realistic), and steep steps down to the shores of the loch itself.
Stay: Royal Highland Hotel
When you’ve had your fill of monsters and haggis for the day, drive a bit north to settle in at the Royal Highland Hotel in Inverness, the urban hub of the Highlands. A local icon for well over a century, this Urquhart-sized property blends classic architecture with contemporary furnishings and amenities, including Victorian-style rooms in an array of sizes and shapes, and aptly decadent afternoon tea featuring a parade of petit fours and finger sandwiches.
Pro Tip: The Royal Highland Hotel also houses an art gallery, which is free to visit for guests and non-guests alike, along a regal staircase that inspired the design of the grand staircase on the Titanic. There’s also the adjoining Art Gallery Cafe, a comfy space to catch up on work, sip some coffee, or opt for something stronger.
Eat: Cup & Cone
Waking up in the charming, tree-filled city of Inverness, start your day with a flat white and a pastry from Cup & Cone, a quaint café slinging sweets, ice cream and farm goods. The espresso drinks are top-notch, baristas are as sweet as the cookies, and the ever-changing pastry lineup includes gluten-free and vegan options aplenty. On any given morning, you might mind jam-filled shortbread, raspberry and white chocolate whoopie pies, Biscoff cupcakes and gooey caramel-filled millionaire shortbread.
Do: Culloden Battlefield
Scotland’s harrowing wartime history is on full display at Culloden Battlefield, a serene (yet somber) field just east of Inverness. Although quiet and peaceful now, this was once the location of the explosive 1745 Battle of Culloden, where around 1,600 men died during the last Jacobite rising against the Duke of Cumberland. Along with an extensive and modern museum, the stoic battlefield features free-to-visit outdoor grounds lined with trails and gravestones.
Stroll: River Ness
Back in Inverness, the city is striated with an extensive urban trail network, most of which hug the River Ness. Weaving its way right through the city center, you’ll find paved pedestrian walkways on both sides, with handy signage highlighting specific routes and paths. The coolest parts, on the southeast side of the city center, include paths that wind through islands bursting with trees that look more Northern California than Northern Scotland, including Douglas firs and even a sequoia.
Drink: The Singleton of Glen Ord
Of all the Scotch whisky distilleries in Scotland, The Singleton of Glen Ord Distillery (about 15 miles northwest of Inverness) stands supreme as one of the legacy-makers. A rare treat (bottles are notoriously rare, only available at the distillery and in select parts of Asia), the coveted elixir can be tasted and toured in Muir of Ord, where distillery tours peel back the Oz-like curtain on the production and barrel-aging process, and a small bar provides whisky pours and cocktails in an outdoor courtyard.
Do: Moray Firth
Turns out, Loch Ness monsters aren’t the only aquatic animals you can hope to find in the Scottish Highlands. The region is also home to the northerly most population of bottlenose dolphins on Earth, which can potentially be spotted from the shores of Moray Firth, an inlet on the North Sea to the northeast of Inverness. Looking more like Maine than the UK, the dolphin-filled alcove is also home to the famed Chanonry Point Lighthouse, poised on the end of a sand-swept beach. This is a great place to indulge in Scotland’s signature sport, golf, at one of the oldest golf courses on Earth. Fortrose and Rosemarkie Golf Club is a beachside course that’s been open since 1793. To put that in context, George Washington could have teed off here. The golf course also has a comfy, family-friendly restaurant for hulking portions of Yorkshire pudding with a front-row view of the 18th hole.
Dance: Gellions Bar
A few decades after Fortrose and Rosemarkie Golf Club became one of the world’s first courses, folks started dancing at Gellions Bar. Located in the thick of Inverness’ surprisingly robust downtown nightlife scene (especially for a city with a population of around 50,000), this is an age-old staple for live bands, endearingly rowdy dancing and a fully-loaded bar stocked with Scottish gins, whisky and local beer. The narrow, noisy space has the feel of a Highlands-style honky-tonk; the kind of place where tipsy patrons hug strangers and break out in collective singalong.
Pro Tip: After getting jiggy at Gellions, mosey on down to nearby Market Bar, a speakeasy-ish bar hidden away down an alley and up a flight of nondescript stairs. The teeny space feels like an intimate French Quarter jazz parlor, complete with a small stage for big bands, and a space so cozy that you’ll more than likely be sharing bench space with a member of the band — while they’re playing.
Scotland’s other national park, Cairngorms National Park, is located on the northeast side of the country, with flora and fauna distinctly its own. In the highly specific wilderness Venn diagram of dolphins and reindeer, Scotland is the rare country (and probably only country) where the two animals overlap. The latter can be seen in the wild on the eastern edge of the Highlands, home to the only free-ranging herd in the entire UK. In other words, keep your eyes peeled for Santa’s critters as you’re mountain biking and hiking through the snow-capped mountains — the Cairngorms range has the highest collection of Munros in the UK. Closer to sea level, the park is interspersed with lochs so shimmering and pristine they’re practically catnip for paddle boarders and kayakers.
Pro Tip: If you’d prefer a guaranteed reindeer sighting, look no further than the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. While much of the 150-animal reindeer herd roves freely in the hilly wilds, select few are rotated in and out of these up-close-and-personal paddocks, designed as a secure place to manage breeding and disease transmission amongst the herd. At any given time, you can spot a handful of reindeer in the outdoor paddocks, all while rest assured that animals are never kept here for long periods, so as to keep them acclimated to the wild.
Just down the winding road from the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, The Barn at Rothiemurchus is the roadside cafe of your dreams. At first glance, it may look simply like a place to fuel up and use a clean restroom, but this road trip stopover wildly exceeds expectations with curated sundries, non-tacky souvenirs, farm-fresh groceries, deli wares and unexpected treats like bottled espresso martinis and “beer” for dogs. In terms of prepared food and to-order food, the bucolic cafe features everything from pastries and black pudding rolls to burgers, beef stew, Thai curry and artisan English cheeses.
Stay: The Lazy Duck
For that full-body Cairngorms mountain experience, glamping is your best best. Throughout the national park, tricked-out cabins, cottages, tents, and campers abound, but The Lazy Duck soars as a singular destination for woodland ambience and amenities. Tucked away in the reindeer-trod wilderness, the company features eco huts, a bunkhouse hostel and safari-style tents, all anchored by a wood-fired hot tub and infrared sauna — because this is glamping, not camping.
Do: The Home of Golf
In terms of timeworn Scottish traditions, golf ranks right up there with Scotch whisky, haggis and loch-faring monsters. And nowhere is the former on full display like St Andrews, the “Home of Golf.” The whispered sport was invented here around 1400, and while it’s long since swept the globe, it’s still a rite of passage on Scotland’s eastern shores. Today, there are seven public courses in St Andrews, including the oldest golf course on Earth, the on-the-nose Old Course. Naturally, as a course that pre-dates Tiger Woods by about half a millennium, this is a hard course to get a reservation for. In general, tee times typically entail month-long waits (if not years), so you might be better off just watching and taking in the sights at these meticulously manicured seaside beauties. The newest course, though, is The Castle Course, a cliff-side jaunt with distracting views of St Andrews and its namesake castle.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or in this case, when in St Andrews, stay at a golf resort and eat lamb shepherd’s pie. The Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa is so close to all the action that you’re practically on the green. Nestled alongside the Old Course, the castle-sized property boasts 175 guest rooms and a penthouse suite, all of which overlook hole 17, allegedly the most difficult par four in the world. (So you may spot a meltdown or two.) Whether or not you’ve been golfing, you can treat yourself at the only Kohler Waters Spa outside of the US, and dine at restaurants likes Swilcan Loft, a suave spot for braised short rib, rump of lamb, and fillet of hake with fried prawn and curry sauce.
Eat: Forgan’s St Andrews
In St Andrews’ charming epicenter, amidst an array of golf shops and cafes, Forgan’s is the bustling heart and soul of Market Street. The massive restaurant has an entry through what looks like a small alley, fronted by bushels of produce and florals. In back, the dining room opens into a cavernous, clamorous space filled with large tables and a lengthy bar. Here, elevated European and Scottish cuisine is the bill of fare, like orange blossom-cured salmon and crispy haggis bon bons, or harissa-spiced cauliflower steaks and line-caught haddock and chips, featuring huge fillets fried into a golden-brown crackle. For some of the snazziest haggis in Scotland, the savory pudding arrives like a creamy sausage over a bed of mashed neeps and tatties, with heady whisky cream sauce and a smattering of colorful root vegetable chips for salty crunch.
Drink: Vic St Andrews
Pubs are omnipresent throughout Scotland, but Vic St Andrews surprises as a clubby, cocktail-slinging nightlife alternative with more pops of color than a comic book. The large upstairs bar is a go-to for late-night dancing and pop bops, and there’s a plant-filled rooftop beer garden that opens on the rare rain-free sunny day. For drinks, look for expertly made classics, like boulevardiers and daiquiris, along with espresso martinis on draft, boozy slushies and a variety of gin & tonics. Thanks to St Andrews’ reputation as a college town (the University of St Andrews is one of the oldest in the country), the crowd here skews decidedly younger.
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