Scotland is rarely at the top of a travel bucket list, but this gem of a country should be. Besides the fantastic people, Scotland’s mix of culture, history, and outdoor activities makes for an unforgettable experience. We visited Scotland in late April which meant the weather was chilly however, there weren’t many tourists traveling in the country so it was a good compromise. Below is our eight-day Scotland itinerary covering Edinburgh, the Highlands, and Isle of Skye!
Day 1: Arrival in Edinburgh
Morning: Starbucks on the Royal Mile (sorry travel gods – we were exhausted and needed something reliable and familiar)
Sandeman’s free walking tour of Edinburgh: We try to do these free walking tours in every city. Our German/Minnesotan tour guide was fantastic and had great anecdotes about the city. We loved it so much we signed up for a paid tour that evening! The walking tour showed us a good portion of the Royal Mile, including the Market Cross, St. Giles Church, and Greyfriars Cemetery. We also briefly saw the famous Edinburgh Castle and Grassmarket, the picturesque district in Old Town. The thing we love most about these walking tours is all the interesting and weird history you get to learn. It definitely gives a new sense of appreciation for the city you’re in!
Afternoon: The afternoon was spent looking for aspects of Edinburgh that served as inspiration in the Harry Potter series. Spoiler alert- there are several connections and it’s a fantastic city for Harry Potter nerds. For those looking for a more structured approach, there are also organized Harry Potter walking tours however, it’s fairly easy to visit the locations yourself.
Dinner: Pub & Kitchen at the Inn on the Mile, which is a beautiful hotel located right on the Royal Mile. It’s a tasteful but lively restaurant and we recommend it if you’re looking for something conveniently located!
Sandeman’s Dark Side Walking Tour: This tour allowed us to see the New Town neighborhood, climb Calton Hill, and see another cemetery. The Dark Side name is not an exaggeration – on this tour we heard stories of cannibalism, executions, witch trials, and body snatchers. A great way to end the day as female travelers 🙂
Day 2: All The Steps
Edinburgh Castle: It’s hard to ignore the giant castle on the hill when you’re in Edinburgh. The castle, and the view from the castle, is stunning and a ‘must visit’. In our opinion, the castle audio guides were a bit boring compared to ones we’ve experienced in other cities and the castle exhibits were just ok however, it’s still a really phenomenal site.
Princes Street and the Princes Street Garden: Princes Street is an iconic street with shops, historic buildings, and restaurants. The street, conveniently near Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile, is fantastic for people watching. Princes Street Gardens is below the castle and runs parallel to Princes Street. The garden is so lovely and a complete 180 from the bustling street. There we grabbed sandwiches and just relaxed.
Arthur’s Seat: Arthur’s Seat is an ancient volcano located in Holyrood Park, which is a short (walkable) distance from the Royal Mile. The walk up to Arthur’s Seat was its own mini adventure since there wasn’t really a clear route to the peak. The walk is clearer if you’re starting in the car park but as usual, TwentyA was winging it. The hike was a bit rough if you weren’t dressed properly, but it was absolutely worth it! Definitely wear comfortable shoes and have a coat as it gets pretty windy once you reach the peak. The sweeping views of Edinburgh and beyond were great and thankfully coming down was much easier!
The next portion of our trip was part of a 5-day tour via Haggis Adventures but this itinerary could also be done as a road trip. We loved doing a group tour because of how much additional context we received regarding the places we visited. We also met a lot of awesome people and the tour was budget-friendly. Our tour guide Don, who was the best, now runs his own tour company that customizes itineraries for small groups.
Day 3: The Highlands
Our first day of the tour consisted of visits to various monuments as well as nature hikes in the Scottish Highlands. Below is quick overview of what we saw.
Stirling Castle: One of Scotland’s most historically important sites. There have been at least eight sieges of Stirling Castle throughout history!
The National Wallace Monument: The Wallace Monument is a tower commemorating Sir William Wallace, a 13th century Scottish hero (you may recognize the name from the movie Braveheart).
Loch Lomond: A beautiful lake part of The Trossachs National Park
Kilchurn Castle: A ruined castle along Loch Awe
Inveraray: A town on the shore of Loch Fyne. There’s also a castle that’s been featured in Downton Abbey.
The Falls of Dochart: Located in The Trossachs National Park
Lunch at The Drover’s Inn: This place was so stereotypically Scottish it was amazing. The servers wore kilts, it was a dog-friendly establishment, and there were taxidermy animals everywhere. The experience was almost surreal!
Night in Oban at Backpackers Plus: Oban is a fishing and resort town on the west coast. Here we ate dinner at Piazza, a restaurant along the pier with lovely views. We then wandered around town and watched the stunning sunset. Oban is wonderfully picturesque and we can’t image how lovely it must be in the summer time!
Day 4: Movies in Real Life
The second day of our tour brought us to sweeping landscapes and familiar scenes from popular movies! Photos can’t do justice to some of these views.
Glencoe: A good starting place to discover more about the Glencoe Valley is the Visitor’s Centre. The landscape in Glencoe is stunning and the area has a lot of (dark) history. Here we hiked through the valley and a bit up the mountain to better take in the scenery.
Glenfinnan and Loch Shiel: This area again has great scenery and is popularly known for the Black Lake and the Hogwarts Express bridge in Harry Potter. Needless to say, we geeked out. We walked to a great viewpoint for the bridge and then walked around the bridge itself. In the summer you can actually ride the Jacobite steam train that’s shown in the Harry Potter films!
Lunch at Fort William: There’s not much happening in this town but it’s conveniently located near outdoorsy things, making it a good stopping point.
Eilean Donan Castle: This 13th century castle has been featured in many movies but of course, we only recognized it from the 2008 romantic comedy Made of Honor.
We eventually crossed the bridge to Isle of Skye and the village of Kyleakin, where we checked into Saucy Mary’s Lodge. We then walked to Caisteal Maol, which are ruins of a Vikings-era castle located right near the village.
Day 5: Isle of Skye
Isle of Skye still doesn’t feel real to us. The striking and contradicting landscapes combined with the deep level of hospitality make for an otherworldly experience. We were very fortunate to be there at time with few tourists because it allowed us to be fully bewitched by the island.
Fairy Pools: The Fairy Pools are known as one of the most magical places in Scotland. The walk to and along the pools was muddy and wet but absolutely stunning. Seeing the crystal clear water amongst the snow-capped peaks was a big highlight of our trip! In warmer weather, people actually swim in the pools but we were content to just walk around and take in the scenery.
Fun fact – there are more sheep in Scotland than people and after this day we definitely believed it! We also stopped to take photos of Hairy Coo (highland cattle) which are the most adorable creatures in existence.
We next stopped in Portree for lunch. Portree is the largest town on Skye and thus a popular base for exploring the island.
After our interlude in Portree, we continued our drive around Skye. We drove to Mealt Falls and Kilt Rock, which had a shoreline that reminded me of Maui (a drastic change from our snowy morning). We also did a brief stop near Quiraing to take in the dramatic and stunning rock formations.
We then sadly left Isle Skye and headed to Fort Augustus. Our home for the evening was Morag’s Lodge, a surprisingly nice hostel with a fun bar. After dinner, we walked into town and visited Loch Ness. Yes, that famous Loch Ness! The weather was misty and foggy which made for a perfectly eerie backdrop. Unfortunately we did not have any monster sightings.
Day 6: Inverness Area
We still have plenty to see in the Scottish Highlands so we have another jam-packed day focused on the areas surrounding Inverness, the largest town in the area.
Loch Ness: This day began with a walk through a forest near Loch Ness to see some small waterfalls. We then drove to a castle along the lake. The castle was mostly ruins and not free to enter so it was mostly just a ‘look and leave’ situation. Our next stop was a tacky, but essential, gift shop filled with Loch Ness monster toys and gifts! They really milk the legend for every tourist dollar but it’s super fun to see how creative artists get with the monster!
Corrimony Chambered Cairn: This (super old) collective burial site is free to visit and is essentially a bunch of organized rocks. Pretty cool to see if you have the time but otherwise is a stop worth skipping.
The village of Beauly: This adorable town is a perfect stopping point for a meal. Here we tried dream rings at a local bakery – a donut-like sandwich with a light cream in the middle.
Inverness: Although we didn’t stay here, Inverness is the largest city in the Highlands and thus makes for a good home-base to explore the rest of the area. The compact city has a bit of everything and is beautiful to explore. We were only here for a lunch break but we wandered as much as we could in our limited time.
Tomatin Distillery: No visit to Scotland is complete without whiskey tasting! Our afternoon was spent at Tomatin Distillery where our guide was no joke the Scottish version of Jack Black (wish we took a creeper shot of him). We’re not big whiskey fans but it was cool to tour the distillery and learn more about the whiskey making process.
Clava Cairns: Somehow we later ended up at another grouping of rocks! The Clava Cairns are likely from the Bronze Age and include a passage of graves. TwentyA is convinced it was actually set up for sacrifice or crazy rituals.
Culloden Battlefield: Our last stop of the day was Culloden Battlefield where we learned about the British slaughtering people and attempting to suppress an entire culture (that’s a familiar plot). This site has been restored to look as it did during the Culloden Battle – the final battle of the 1745 Jacobite Rising and the last battle to be held on British soil. Some 1,500 Jacobites were killed or wounded in the battle. Again, Scotland has a lot of dark and fascinating history, especially when you look at the relationships between Scottish clans and with the British.
Day 7: Final Tour Day
As we sadly weaved our way back towards Edinburgh we made several notable stops.
Commando Memorial: a 17 ft WWII memorial
Glen Roy: The Glen Roy National Nature Reserve is best known for the mountains that have visible parallel lines (like literally perfect lines) caused by the ancient glacier that was once there.
Killiecrankie: This small village has a great wooded area and river for hikes.
Lunch in Pitlochry: Pitlochry is a classic resort town nestled among some great scenery.
Tay Forest Park: It’s only fitting that we do some walking after lunch! Within Tay Forest Park we walked along the Tay River and saw a couple mini waterfalls.
Dunkeld: Our final stop before returning to Edinburgh was Dunkeld, an adorable little town along the Tay River.
That concludes our road trip through the Highlands and Isle of Skye. The end of our vacation is spent back in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh: Back in Edinburgh we explored shops around Grassmarket and had dinner at El Toro Loco (basically a hipper Chipotle). We ended the night drinking spiked hot chocolate at Elephant Cafe, the cafe where JK Rowling wrote parts of Harry Potter.
Day 8: The Finale
Sadly, we’ve made it to our last day in Scotland 😦
Breakfast at Patisserie Valerie: This cafe chain was adorable, smelled amazing, and the coffee was fantastic.
National Scottish Gallery: Fun fact – museums in Scotland are free!! The National Gallery is located in a stunning building and has a pretty vast collection.
National Museum of Scotland: This museum was massive, beautiful and has a wide-ranging collection of things to explore.
Water of Leith: This waterway weaves through the city and we ended up following it towards Ocean Terminal. Ocean Terminal is a major shopping center and is also next to the Royal Yacht Britannia. We walked around Ocean Terminal but opted not to pay to see the Royal Yacht Britannia. We then headed to Mimi’s Bakehouse for afternoon tea. We can’t have a successful trip in Europe without having at least one tea service! After tea, we bussed back to our apartment and spent a quiet evening near the Royal Mile.
That concludes our eight days in Scotland! We wish we had time to explore more of the Highlands and to visit Glasgow but now we have an excuse to return. Have any of you been to Scotland? What did you think?