5 Amazing Places to Visit When Traveling in Scotland
Updated: Mar 25
Scotland has been ranked over and over as one of the best places to travel in 2023! From the United Kingdom being named Travel + Leisure’s 2023 “Destination of the Year”, to Lonely Planet awarding Southern Scotland “Best in Travel 2023”, National Geographic ranking The Scottish Highlands as one of their “Best of the World” destinations for 2023, and Forbes listing Edinburgh, Scotland as one of the “Best Places to Travel in 2023”. We couldn’t agree more and that’s why we’re sharing some of our favorite reasons to visit Scotland below. Plus, we’ve built a fabulous small group itinerary for May 22 - 30, see the full details here and we hope you’ll join us!
Wander Reelig Glen, a fairy tale trail
This beautiful gorge, with the Moniak River slowly winding through it, was once owned by the Fraser family (the real one that inspired the Outlander version) for 500 years. Many of the trees you walk amongst today were planted by James Billie Fraser (1783 - 1856), and a few are the tallest of their species in the U.K. In 2000, a Douglas Fir measured over 200 feet (64m) tall and was given the nickname “Dùghall Mòr”, meaning “Big Douglas”.
Years ago, workers in the forests felt like there were fairies about and that is how it became known as the fairy trail. While walking through the deep, layered greens, taking in the sounds of songbirds and rushing water, the forest truly enchants you with its embrace. That’s the true magic to us.
While it’s only a one mile loop trail, we do recommend bringing something to take photos with, a water bottle, and using the facilities before you head to the trail as there are none onsite. You’ll end up taking so much time enjoying this tiny corner of the world, that it could take you longer than you expected!
Get Up Close and Personal with Puffins on the Isle of Lunga
Take a day tour to Fingal’s Cave and the Treshnish Islands with family-owned company Turus Mara from the Isle of Mull! They have options for whether you’ll take your car on the ferry from Oban or need transportation across the island. It’s a long day, but trust us - absolutely worth it.
First, you stop at the Isle of Staffa, where basalt columns amaze and Fingal’s Cave is the main attraction. You are able to walk along a path to the cave itself, just step carefully. There is also a trail up some steep stairs to the top of the island, where the views are just amazing. While it isn’t the main puffin stop on this tour, you might come across some nesting on Staffa.
Back onboard the tour boat you’re off to the Isle of Lunga. A floating dock is attached to the side of the boat and they push it up onto the rocky seashore for you to disembark. Again, stepping carefully across the rocks and over small tide pools. The puffins look so small from this point as you watch them fly back and forth off the cliffside.
Walking up a steep, but very short, trail to the top of the island, you reach the plateau and stop to take it all in. There are puffins lining the cliffside, minding their nests and hopping about. You can walk all along, at a slightly further distance, or plop down and just hang out mere feet from them!
Folks will have binoculars and fancy zoom camera lenses, but your phone camera will absolutely capture this moment well too because you’re so close. Indulge in a picnic and try to spot puffins who are returning with fish so they can enjoy their own.
Here are a few things we do recommend bringing so you’re prepared for this journey and have the best time:
Raincoat and rain pants for the tour boat ride. Seats aren’t assigned and you don’t know where you’ll end up being placed. If there are waves, they can crash up and spray you.
Hiking boots, especially for the short, steep trail at the Isle of Lunga. It can become quite slick and slippery and you need the extra grip.
Picnic lunch to enjoy on one of the islands.
Plenty of water as there are no facilities to fill up at either island or on the tour boat.
Binoculars, camera with zoom lens, and/or camera phone so you can take in all the sites.
Motion sickness aids, but stay away from something like Dramamine (even the non-drowsy one) so you don’t fall asleep! Items like Sea Bands bracelets, ginger gum or chews, peppermints, and patches are your best bet.
Anti-diarrheal medicine for those who have IBS or other digestive issues, or just to help you not have to go for a bit since you’ll be out on sea most of the day.
Wallet, so that upon boarding the ferry from Mull back to Oban you can grab a drink and sit on the stern of the boat to watch the view go by!
Stay in Edinburgh
This city is not one to be missed on your trip. Even if you fly into Glasgow or Inverness, make time to get to Edinburgh.
Taking a tour of Edinburgh Castle, whether with a guide or using the audio guide you can purchase with your ticket, is well worth it. While you can walk around on your own, there is a lot you will not understand and history you will miss, like the story of how Robert the Bruce had it burned it down, but made sure the chapel was saved.
We highly recommend booking a tour with Invisible Cities as well, perhaps for more insight into the Royal Mile or learning about women in Edinburgh’s History. This fantastic company uses experienced tour guides, all of whom have been impacted by homelessness, and offer a unique perspective because of their lived experiences.
On a sunny day, find an outdoor table at The Albanach, at the top of Cockburn Street where it intersects with the Royal Mile. Head inside to order a pint and some fish n’ chips. If you’re lucky, a local bagpipe player may be across the street, making this moment even more Scottish! Afterwards, explore the many Closes (alleyways) that go up and down from this part of the city to get your steps in and some history along the way.
There are also opportunities to hike in this hilly city, up to Arthur’s Seat or Carlton Hill. Pace yourself and you’re in for some great views! Speaking of hills, Edinburgh is definitely full of them, so make sure you plan for taking a bit longer to walk to and from your destinations. They also have a great bus and tram system, and plenty of taxis if you need one.
After all that exploring - perhaps you’re in need of a tasty cocktail or mocktail? Speakeasy Panda & Sons has an extremely unique and expansive menu if you’re looking to try something fun. You can actually make reservations at this popular spot as well. Another fun location is the Tigerlily hotel. Their floral decor makes for cute photo ops, plus they also serve food.
Travel Between Fort William and Mallaig on the Jacobite Steam Train
You may have seen this scene before, straight out of the Harry Potter films perhaps? They do have a snack & drink trolley, that is followed by one with HP chocolates and merchandise for those who cannot resist. This ride takes you from Fort William to Mallaig and back again. Tickets release in advance and can be snatched up quickly, so it’s recommended that you book as far in advance as you can.
In Fort William you’ll find a few grocery stores where you can purchase picnic items to enjoy on the train ride. Personally, we think this is your best bet for a meal during this day trip as once you get to Mallaig, the few local restaurants quickly fill with train guests. Grab a coffee, tea, or hot chocolate to go from the Tea Garden Cafe and wander around this quiet port to take in the sites. Fishing boats fill the harbor and you might spot the resident seal popping up to say hello!
Western Isle Cruises also offers a perfectly timed one-hour wildlife cruise out of the harbor that’s perfect for making the most of your time while in Mallaig! If you’re looking for something on land, there are a number of shops, including a Harry Potter themed one. Personally, we’d head for the Mallaig Art Gallery & Crafts where there are beautiful originals, prints, and other unique finds. Mallaig Toys & Gifts and the West Highland Tea Company are also good ones to check out!
While onboard the train there are so many great views to take in, even on a cloudy day. Keep an eye out for the many waterfalls dotting the landscape. You’ll have the opportunity to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct both on the way out and back. Don’t stick your hands out the windows, but you can tilt your camera out slightly to get a better angle for your photo or video. There are windows that open at each set of seats, as well as the ones in the section between cars open too. At 1248 feet (380m), the Viaduct is the longest concrete railway bridge in Scotland. It has 21 semi-circles that are all 50 feet (15.24m) across and has a height of 100 feet (30m) where it crosses the River Finnan. It is built entirely of mass concrete, without any metal reinforcement.
While it has become quite famous in recent years due to its appearance in four of the Harry Potter films, it’s also used in multiple other movie and tv shows, including The Crown, Stone of Destiny, and Charlotte Gray. If you don't manage to get tickets for the train, you can also take in the view of the Viaduct from land and time out when the train will be crossing for the ultimate photo!
Explore the Scottish Highlands
Whether you drive through or stop to enjoy the many wonderful hiking trails, the landscapes do not disappoint! Here are a few of our favorite stops in the Scottish Highlands:
Glen Coe - Glen Coe is the valley, and Glencoe is the name of the local village. There is so much to see and do here, including keeping an eye out for red deer or enjoying a meal at the Clachaig Inn. You can also walk up to the filming location used for Hagrid’s hut in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. While the set pieces are no longer there, the view will stand out to you if you’re a fan. Looking for some adventure? Enjoy activities like skiing, biking, hiking, ice climbing, canoeing, and kayaking. Or perhaps something a bit less active? Enjoy the Glencoe Folk Museum, a round of golf, or go waterfall spotting.
Glen Etive - the drive between Glen Coe and Glen Etive is absolutely breathtaking. There are many streams and waterfalls coming down the hillsides to marvel at as you drive along River Etive. Fans of the James Bond films may enjoy a stop to pose exactly where Daniel Craig and Dame Judy Dench stood in Skyfall when Bond drove them to his childhood home.
Loch Ness -
a quintessential place to visit while in Scotland of course! Stop off in Fort Augustus at the southwest tip of the lake and take the trail walk along the water. Grab some fish n’ chips before heading up either the east or west side of the loch depending on your preference. On the west, you can visit the Castle Urquhart, on the east go for a hike up to the Falls of Foyers. And if you feel like monster hunting, there are options for boat tours from the south and north end, as well as a few from the west side of the lake.
Cairngorms National Park - there is so much to do here we can’t possibly capture it all in
a short blurb! You can spend multiple days in the park and there is a wide range of accommodation options from inns to camping. Adventurous activities range from skiing to bungee jumping. Cultural stops include Balmoral Castle, the Scottish home to the Royal Family, and the Highland Folk Museum.
Great kid-friendly options are the Highland Wildlife Park and the Landmark Forest Adventure Park, but, also, who says you need to be with kids to enjoy those?! Adult-friendly options are the many distilleries and breweries that are spread throughout the park. The official website for what is the U.K.’s largest national park can help you decide what you might like to experience while visiting!
Our small group tour May 22 - 30, 2023, incorporates many of these fabulous Scotland stops, and we have an optional add on to see the puffins! We’ll journey between Edinburgh, Oban, Fort William, and Inverness. The group is limited to six people maximum. These dates take advantage of the U.S. Memorial Day long weekend, Canada’s Victoria Day, and the U.K.’s Spring bank holiday.