On the map, Scotland looks like a small country, and it has an area of less than 80,000 square kilometers and about 5.5 million people. However, when you plan a trip to Scotland, it can be a great challenge to find out where to start! Too many cities, islands, mountains, valleys, castles and very difficult to choose; all of them are worth stopping, but it can't see all, no matter how much time you have. How do you plan the perfect trip to Scotland?
When is the best time to visit Scotland
Impossible questions - what is the best time of year to visit Scotland? In fact, every season in Scotland has a different appeal.
Billy Connolly once said: "There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter." The weather is always unpredictable - even in June. Regardless of when you visit, you should be prepared to meet all four seasons in a day.
That said, there are other factors playing in this. I think the best time to go to Scotland is in May or early fall, in August or September. In May, you had the long summer days that I loved in Scotland - more time to explore! In addition, scary Scottish paradise has bloomed, and you can experience the Highlands without biting! August and September are great months to see wildlife, especially if you like to see puffer fish (they will leave in August) or see the Scottish highlands turn purple like the heather blooms.
And finally, if you want to see the city of Edinburgh in the best way, visit the main festival season in August or December for the Christmas markets and Hogmanay festivities on New Year's Eve!
How much time should you spend in Scotland?
There is an easy answer to this question: the more time the better. Yes, you can take a tour through Scotland, spend a day or two in Edinburgh and then drive for hours to cover Loch Ness, Isle of Skye and Glencoe on weekends. But will you enjoy it? Sure is not…
I'd say that spending at least a week to 10 days to get a glimpse of Scotland is minimal. During that time, you can easily fit a day or two days of exploring Edinburgh and then compare it with the edgy Glasgow. From there, the Highlands is located right on your doorstep and you can spend a few days traveling around the mountains and the islands. On the way back south, plan to detour through Aberdeenshire and the Cairngorms National Park to see a completely different aspect of Scotland - an often overlooked place that benefits the Highlands but explodes with charm and more castles than you can count.
Less, and you'll have to adjust your journey accordingly. I made a mistake and tried to cover everything for 7 days - and I failed. Now I travel much slower and spend long or full weekends for certain areas throughout Scotland.
How to Get around Scotland
Road trips, public transport or organised tours?
The first question you need to ask yourself when planning a trip to Scotland is how to move - your mode of transport has a huge impact on the route through Scotland and the feasibility of any certain time frame. Do you feel comfortable enough with left-side traffic and windy mountain roads where you can rent a car? Or do you prefer to travel eco-friendly and rely on public transport? Guided tours in which transportation is taken care of for the entire group is another option. You may even hitch, which I would highly recommend, but it's a common practice especially among pedestrians and I've successfully done that. And then, there's the option of simply use your feet and walking through Scotland.
Of course, any method of transport through Scotland you choose will greatly affect your experience in Scotland. Each has advantages and disadvantages - here, a list of things to consider:
Renting a car in Scotland
The great advantage of renting a car in Scotland is that you have maximum flexibility for your itinerary. Though, you are responsible for driving and navigating yourself. Single travelers, in particular, might find that driving takes away some of the joys of observing the landscape; Or see it tired.
The distance on the Scotland map can be deceiving, especially on narrow, winding Central Highlands roads. Some roads are very beautiful, image stops will slow you down; Another is very difficult to navigate the buses, mini-buses, truck or even camping truck in front of you to take care of that. Don’t underestimate distances in Scotland - it's better to plan a shorter driving day than to test for as many miles as possible.
Personally, I think to rent a car is the best way to get around Scotland because many of my favorite places can only be reached by car. However, keep in mind that other viable options still exist and a non-Holy Grail journey when planning a trip to Scotland.
Pros : Flexible journey and time management; That is the feeling of the road trip!
Cons: Ability to be more expensive; More responsibility; Distract from the stunning landscape (at least for the driver).
Scotland by Train and Ferry
Public transport in Scotland serves a wide network and fairly reliable. With the combination of trains, busses, and ferries, you can basically travel the whole country. Train rides through the Highlands is a worthwhile journey for yourself because the tracks are often far from the roads and you can see the hills for yourself. All the most popular destination countries, like Loch Ness, Isle of Skye, Oban or Fort William are easily accessible from Glasgow or Edinburgh - you just need a little more time.
Scotland is a great destination for island hopping. There are two major ferry operators: Northlink Ferries (to Orkney & Shetland) and CalMac (to Internal & External Hebrides). If you have a predetermined journey and want to bring a rental car, you should definitely book a ferry ticket in advance, but if you go like a pedestrian it is often unnecessary. While taking a boat to the Outer Hebrides or Shetland takes several hours (overnight to Shetland), other islands, such as Arran, Mull or Skye, are within reach much faster. The main ferry ports that you can consider is the starting point is Ardrossan, Oban, Mallaig or Ullapool. You can access them all by public transport, so island-hopping without a car-free is possible.
Scottish travel by train is made super easy with ScotRail's travel passes. There are a number of options, some are limited in certain areas, others allow you to go through the railway, bus and ferry network with the same ticket.
Pros : Environmental friendliness; Wide network, easy to navigate; Time to focus on the view.
Cons : Journey less flexible; More stressed
Guided Tours of Scotland
Taking a guided tour of Scotland is the option called "Carefree". Everything is taken care of - transportation, routes and in some cases even accommodation or meals. There are many Scottish tour operators to choose from. I recommend reading reviews before you decide on a tour around Scotland.
In general, I recommend that you take multiple day tours instead of some personal tours - mainly because it saves a lot of driving time and in my experience, the journey will be more relaxed.
Pros : Free travel experience; Experienced tour guide on board.
Cons : You may have difficulty with the prescribed journey; There may be too little time at each destination.
Decide what to Do & See in Scotland
It's really not hard to find things to do and see in Scotland.
Would you like to delve into the rich history of the country and see castles and museums - or rather immerse yourself in beautiful natural landscapes? Are you the one looking for thrills when looking for adventures of kayaking, mountaineering or skiing - or do you prefer it more soothing with boat rides, leisurely walks, and culinary delights?
For Scotland I suggest you see at least one castle, do at least one easy hike or intermediate, spend a day on the road / on the train / on the bus to see the scenery, take the ferry, spend one day in the city, go to the pub and watch some live music, and visit a whisky distillery (or gin).
Hiking Tips for Scotland
If you plan to go hiking in Scotland, here are some essential walking tips for the Central Highlands:
Bring a map and a compass, and know how to use them. If you are not an experienced navigator, cling to very popular routes also have good signposts.
Bring lots of water for every climber in your party - water might never be far in the Scottish Highlands, but sometimes access to it is more difficult than you think.
Wear warm, windy and waterproof clothes and sturdy shoes (best climbing shoes support your ankles).
Don’t forget your headtorch, just in case you get lost and dark.
My #1 online resource for information and description of the trail is Walk Highlands, which also has a great site to walk safely!
Where to stay in Scotland
There are many accommodation options in Scotland that you can choose from, luxury hotels, motels, or hostels. If you have a really tight budget, consider camping (in the summer months) or renting campervan to have a home next to you.
Hotels in Edinburgh: Can be very expensive, especially in summer and Christmas.
Hotels in Glasgow: Much easier to come, more affordable but increasingly popular!
Hotels & B&Bs in the Highlands: Range from basic to luxurious. Highland and island accommodation should be reserved in advance, as houses often have fewer rooms. Usually, they are well located near public transport and in scenic spots.
And AirBnB is a great source to find some very unique accommodation in rural Scotland!
Should I book ahead?
This may just be the most asked question about Scotland accommodation (and ferries) - should you book accommodation ahead of time? The simple answer is to agree!
Accommodation in Scotland is quite easy to get to, but not every place has the endless capacity. If you go to popular and sparsely populated places, such as the Isle of Skye, North Coast 500, Orkney, Hebrides or Isle of Mull, you must reserve in advance - unless you plan to go to the wilderness. Even campsites can fill up quickly in the summer months!
Note that, in places like the Isle of Skye, you may not even be allowed to go to the island unless you have accommodation booked in advance!
And give similar advice for the ferries. Especially if you travel with campers / or tents, but except Skye, ferries are the only way to get out of the island. Limited capacity and popular sailing time can be booked quickly. Book ferry tickets as soon as possible, or prepare flexibly in case your favorite time is no longer available. Pedestrians often do not have to worry, but tickets can be purchased until half an hour before sailing.
This guide will give you a thorough idea of how to plan a trip to Scotland. How you want to go around Scotland and what kind of activities you care about, it's time to plan your actual journey.