Things to Do in Scotland
Looming over the Royal Mile and Princes Street, Calton Hill is one of Edinburgh’s famous seven hills and part of the capital’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town. While locals know it as a picnic spot and recreation area, for visitors the main draw to Calton Hill are the spectacular views – look out over the city from the summit and you’ll enjoy a panoramic view spanning Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, all the way out to Leith and the Firth of Forth.
Calton Hill is also home to a number of prominent Edinburgh landmarks, including the Nelson Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, the City Observatory and the National Monument of Scotland, an unfinished tribute to Scottish servicemen inspired by the Parthenon in Athens. The hill is also the center of festivities for the annual Beltane Fire Festival in April, and hosts a number of summer festivals and events.
An imposing gothic tower dedicated to celebrated Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott, the awe-inspiring Scott Monument dominates the skyline of Edinburgh’s New Town. Designed by George Meikle Kemp, who triumphed in a national architectural competition, the monument was constructed between 1840 and 1844, and towers 200 feet above the principal shopping district of Princes Street.
Beneath the central arch of the monument, a raised platform holds a statue of Sir Walter Scott, sitting with his faithful dog, Maida, and reading a book. Carved from a solid block of Carrara marble, the sculpture is the masterwork of Sir John Steell and became so iconic that a bronze replica has since been erected in Central Park, New York. The dramatic tower also doubles up as a popular observation point, with a 287-step spiral staircase leading to the tip of its spire.
The Palace of Holyrood House, most often called Holyrood Palace, faces Edinburgh Castle along the length of the Royal Mile. Like its majestic companion, it's riddled with some of Scotland's most potent history.
The Abbey in the grounds was founded in 1128, and the palace itself is baroque. These days Holyrood Palace is the Scottish residence of Queen Elizabeth II, but it's probably best known for its association with another royal figure, Mary Queen of Scots. She was married here, lived here and saw her secretary murdered here.
As you'd expect, the apartments are lavishly decorated and the collection of tapestries and paintings top-notch. Drift around the gardens and make believe you're a monarch.
Along with Calton Hill and Castle Rock, Arthur's Seat forms part of the ridge of cold volcanoes that give such drama to the Edinburgh skyline. The mountain sits in Holyrood Park, 650 acres (260 hectares) of wild parkland just a short walk from the Royal Mile. So you can be shopping for Argyle socks one moment and roaming around lochs and moorland the next! From some angles, the mini-mountain resembles a sleeping lion. It’s perhaps seen at its best in the mellow light of sunset.
Arthur's Seat is no Everest, and if you want to climb it there are several easy ascents. If you're reasonably fit and keep striding you could make it in half an hour, but even if you're less fit or want to gaze at the scenery, an hour should take you to the top. Be careful on rainy days when the rocks are slippery.
With an illustrious history dating back to the 11th century, Inverness Castle is best known for its role in the legendary Shakespeare tragedy ‘Macbeth’, featuring in the play as the location of Duncan’s murder. Looming over the city center, the castle is one of Inverness’ most prominent landmarks, set on a hilltop overlooking the River Ness.
The castle’s present day structure dates back to 1836, an imposing Neo-Norman red stone fortress designed by architect William Burn and still surrounded by part of its original bastion wall. Today, the castle houses the Inverness Sheriff Courthouse and County Hall, and although the offices are not open to the public, exploring the castle grounds is a popular activity for both locals and tourists, affording expansive views over the city sights and along the River Ness.
With its imposing Gothic facade presiding over the west bank of the Ness River, St Andrew’s Cathedral is one of the most striking of Inverness’ many churches. Constructed in the 19th-century to a design by local architect Alexander Toss, the cathedral, often simply referred to as Inverness Cathedral, is the seat of the Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness and remains one of the city’s principal places of worship, with regular Sunday services held.
The cathedral’s design, characterized by its eye-catching pink sandstone and dominated by a pair of square Gothic towers flanking the entrance, has polarized public opinion, with many noting its lack of spires – omitted from the original design due to lack of funds - as its downfall. Despite this, the cathedral boasts a number of notable features including an exquisite series of stained glass windows and a magnificent choir fashioned from Austrian oak.
More Things to Do in Scotland
Coffee breaks don’t come with a more scenic backdrop than Inverness’ Floral Hall, one of the city’s most unique attractions. Opened by Prince Edward in 1993, the Floral Hall includes a series of ornamental gardens, sub-tropical greenhouses, creative water features and ponds filled with tropical fish, set around a popular café. The Cacti House, home to the Highlands’ largest collection of succulents, is a highlight of the gardens, housing an award winning collection, and the dramatic seasonal floral arrangements on display are legendary among local gardeners. The centerpiece of the stone walled gardens is the newly opened Memory Garden, home to the Tree of Tranquility, a poignant sculpture created by the SiMBA charity in support of women who have miscarried or lost a baby – each leaf is personally engraved by the bereaved.
The historic heart of Edinburgh and home to many of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, the atmospheric Old Town became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. Watched over by the striking Edinburgh Castle, the Old Town is most famous for the central boulevard which runs between the hilltop castle and the Royal Palace of Holyrood, four sequential streets known as the Royal Mile. The main starting point for walking tours of the city, the Royal Mile is teeming with landmark buildings and iconic sights. The 12th century St Giles Cathedral, the National Museum of Scotland, the John Knox house and the underground streets of Mary King's Close are all popular visitor attractions, dotted between the throngs of souvenir shops, historic pubs and cafés. The final section of the Royal Mile, Canongate, is the most architecturally varied, with the 16th century Canongate Tollbooth and Canongate Kirk, the modern Scottish Parliament complex and the wacky Our Dynamic Earth building.
With its famous crown spire towering over the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s Old Town and a history stretching over 1,000 years, St Giles Cathedral is one of the city’s most acclaimed religious buildings. Founded in the 1120s, the Cathedral has a long and illustrious history at the center of Scottish Catholic worship. From being ransacked and burned by English troops under King Richard II to hosting John Knox’s famous Reformation sermon in 1559 (a statue in Knox’s honor now stands in the nave), St Giles has seen it all.
Today, most of the cathedral’s Gothic structure dates back to the 19th century with highlights including the exquisite stained glass windows, some of the finest in Scotland and the legendary Thistle Chapel, once home to the Knights of the Order of the Thistle. As well as holding regular services, St Giles’ Cathedral is also renowned for its choral and organ recitals held on its grand Rieger organ, with many free musical events throughout the year.
Located at the end of Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, the striking Scottish Parliament building stands its ground among some of the Old Town’s most dynamic architecture, with the grand Holyrood Palace, the elegant Queen’s Gallery and the fantastical Dynamic Earth all in close proximity.
The complex of innovative buildings opened in 2004, with the original design inspired by the surrounding countryside and Spanish architect Enric Miralles describing his vision as creating a structure that ‘appears to grow out of the land’. Most impressive is the unique façade of the Members' office, with its iconic shaped windows designed to evoke Raeburn’s famous painting of Reverend Robert Walker skating on ice, and the Canongate Wall, designed by Sora Smithson and inscribed with 26 quotations from prominent Scottish writers.
Reputedly the last residence of Scottish clergyman and author John Knox, the 15th-century John Knox House is one of Edinburgh’s oldest preserved buildings, now housing a museum devoted to its namesake. Despite its name, the house actually belonged to James Mossman, loyal goldsmith to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was eventually beheaded for counterfeiting once Edinburgh Castle surrendered in 1573.
The dramatic histories of Mossman, Mary Queen of Scots and Knox, famed for his significant role in the protestant reformation of the 16th-century, are the subject of the house’s permanent exhibition, which brings to life one of the most colorful eras of Scottish history. Today, the John Knox House Museum is part of the Scottish Storytelling Centre and is celebrated for its original architecture, including the 17th century Netherbow bell, now installed in the Storytelling Centre’s bell tower; the wood-paneled Oak Room and a series of early 17th-century ceiling paintings.
Housed in a converted 18th-century Cotton Mill on the banks of the River Teith, the Deanston Distillery boasts a scenic location for whisky tasting and thanks to its close proximity to Stirling Castle, it’s fast become a popular destination for whisky enthusiasts. Established in 1966, the distillery has earned a reputation for its use of hydro-energy and lays claim to the title of Scotland’s only self-sufficient distillery, with electricity generated on-site.
Visitors can enjoy a range of tours at the Deanston Distillery, learning about the history of the distillery; taking a peek at the copper stills, maturation warehouse and open mash tun; or strolling the 18th-century ‘workers’ village located nearby. All tours include the chance to taste Deanston’s renowned single malt Scotch whisky, but there are also opportunities to indulge in an expert-led whisky or whisky and chocolate tastings in the Deanston Tasting Room.
Steeped in history, the Grassmarket is located directly below Edinburgh Castle and is just a minute’s walk from the famous Royal Mile and the National Museum of Scotland. A vibrant and historic area, here visitors can soak up the medieval atmosphere while marvelling at one of the most iconic views in the city, the mighty Edinburgh Castle. A stroll over the George IV Bridge leads to the Greyfriars Bobby statue and through some of Edinburgh’s oldest and most famous streets, including Candlemaker Row, Victoria Street, and West Port. The Grassmarket was traditionally a meeting point for market traders and cattle drovers, with temporary lodgings and taverns all around. It was also once a place of public execution, and a memorial near the site once occupied by the gibbet was created in 1937 to commemorate more than 100 people who died on the gallows in a period known as The Killing Time.
There are many reasons why Glasgow’s Gothic Cathedral is an important building. It’s the only Scottish cathedral on the mainland to have survived the Reformation relatively unscathed. Dating back to the 15th century, the building stands on a historic site blessed by St Ninian in 397.
Another reason to visit the cathedral is found in the lower church, where the tomb of St. Mungo lies amid a forest of Gothic stone pillars. Also admire the carved stone choir screen, the lofty nave, the traditional and modern stained glass, and the medieval wooden beams of the cathedral’s roof.
After undergoing an extensive makeover in 2011, the National Museum of Scotland now boasts 16 additional galleries and thousands of never-seen-before artifacts. Formerly two separate museums – the Royal Museum, built in 1861, and the modern Museum of Scotland - the National Museum was inaugurated in 2008 and is now one of the most popular attractions of Edinburgh’s Old Town.
The museum’s extensive collection features over 20,000 exhibits spread over 36 galleries, bringing to life the colorful history of Scotland and educating visitors on art, science, natural history and outer space, through a series of innovative, themed galleries and uniquely designed installations. Highlights include the Natural World Gallery, where the dramatic centerpiece is an enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton; the Victorian Grand Gallery, renowned for its spectacular architecture; and the stuffed body of Dolly the Sheep, famously the first successful mammal cloned from an adult cell.
Dwarfed by haughty buildings on all sides and surrounded by statues of great Scots, George Square makes sense of poet John Betjeman’s claim that Glasgow is “the greatest Victorian city in the world.”
Named after King George III and built in 1781, George Square began life as little more than a muddy hollow used for slaughtering horses. Today, it’s surrounded by some of grandest buildings in the city, not least the imposing Glasgow City Chambers on the east side.
To Glaswegians, George Square is the city’s cultural center. Hosting concerts and events throughout the year, it comes alive during winter, when children skate around the ice rink and parents enjoy mulled wine at the Christmas market. In summer, George Square is a good place to find a bench and watch the world go by.
The Quiraing is a hiking trail on the Isle of Skye in northern Scotland. The trail is a loop covering a distance of about 4.2 miles. It passes through spectacular Scottish landscapes and is part of the Trotternish Ridge. This ridge was formed by a massive landslip, which created cliffs, plateaus, and rock pinnacles. If you enjoy taking pictures, bring your camera to capture the scenery you'll see along the way. You'll be able to see the water as well as the many strange and beautiful land formations in the area.
The path starts through steep grassy slopes, and crosses rock gorges and streams. Parts of the trail are covered in loose gravel. Along the way, you will pass large rock formations, climb over rock walls, and walk near the edges of cliffs. It is a fairly difficult trail, and it is not recommended in bad weather due to visibility and trail conditions.
Get a taste of Highland whisky without leaving the lowlands with a visit to the Glengoyne Distillery, located right on border of the Highlands, just half an hour’s drive from Glasgow. The historic distillery dates back to 1833 and is renowned for its award-winning malt whiskies, famously distilled at a third of the usual rate and matured in sherry oak casks.
Along with its fine whisky, Glengoyne is celebrated for its scenic location, hidden away amid the wooded valleys of the Campsie Hills, with its own wetlands, beehives and renewable energy source. Visitors to the distillery can choose from a number of guided tours and tastings, including the chance to peek into the legendary Warehouse No.1, take a Malt Master tour or indulge in a comprehensive whisky tasting masterclass.
Glasgow’s grand Victorian cathedral to high culture, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum boasts an excellent collection of Scottish and European art. Displays are spread over two floors of this impressively grand red sandstone building, whose marble, mosaics and Spanish baroque details have recently been restored. Traveling exhibitions are also hosted, along with the permanent collection of treasures. Take a tour of the gallery highlights, including the famously surreal Crucifixion by Salvador Dali.
Things to do near Scotland
- Things to do in Edinburgh
- Things to do in Glasgow
- Things to do in Inverness
- Things to do in Kirkwall
- Things to do in Lerwick
- Things to do in Stirling
- Things to do in Oban
- Things to do in Fort William
- Things to do in Aberfeldy
- Things to do in Aviemore
- Things to do in Northern Ireland
- Things to do in Ireland
- Things to do in The Scottish Highlands
- Things to do in Belfast
- Things to do in North East England