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Things to Do in Scotland

Scotland boasts centuries of colorful history, UNESCO World Heritage–listed treasures, and a rich culture. With lively cities sprinkled among unspoiled landscapes of beaches, lochs, peaks, and valleys, Scotland has plenty to offer visitors of all ages and interests. The capital city, Edinburgh, is an ancient settlement where efficient hop-on hop-off bus tours shuttle travelers to landmarks like mighty Edinburgh Castle, the creepy Edinburgh Dungeon, and the famous Royal Mile; travelers can also witness the pomp and ceremony of the annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Other cities such as Aberdeen, Glasgow, Inverness, and Stirling all offer experiences filled with history, culture, and natural beauty. Travel by road or rail into the Scottish Highlands to experience the magic of Loch Ness or Loch Lomond, or follow hiking trails through the wilderness of Glencoe. History lovers can explore Alnwick Castle and Stirling Castle—constructed to protect Scotland against attack—and Hadrian's Wall, where the country’s Roman past comes to life. To experience the best of coastal Scotland, take a multi-day tour out to the Isle of Skye or the remote Orkney Islands, where dramatic skyscapes and wild pastures await. And if you're thirsting to sample some of the world’s finest Scotch whiskies, make sure to visit a traditional distillery such as Bowmore or Laphroaig on an Isle of Islay tour.
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Royal Yacht Britannia (HMY Britannia)
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10 Tours and Activities

The Royal Yacht Britannia hit the seas in 1953, and took the British royal family around the world from then until 1997, when she was decommissioned. She's the 83rd royal yacht – the first belonged to Charles II in the 1600s.

Few yachts can boast such an illustrious career as the Royal Yacht Britannia, having sailed over a million miles and transported the British Royal Family on hundreds of official visits. Since retiring from service, the luxurious vessel has been permanently docked in Edinburgh’s historic Leith port, beside the Ocean Terminal shopping center, and serves as a museum of royal life at sea, as well as hosting elite events in its grand dining hall.

Exploring the regal yacht offers a unique insight into the life and travels of the Royal Family and you’ll be in good company if you choose to step on board – Sir Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Rajiv Gandhi are among the many iconic figures that have been welcomed below deck.

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Royal Mile
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Bookended by Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace, the Royal Mile (it's actually slightly longer than a mile) is the grand center of Edinburgh's Old Town. The Royal Mile is dominated by granite, giving it a dark, Gothic feel, and lined with majestic buildings - banks, churches, courthouses. It was first modeled in the 12th century, when it was called Via Regis (the Way of the King). It’s not many thoroughfares that can claim to follow a path carved out by a glacier! Even though these days it's Tourist Central - it's jam-packed during the Edinburgh Festival, and year-round is heavy on the tartan'n' shortbread kitsch - it still somehow manages to maintain its feeling of splendor.
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Edinburgh Old Town
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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.

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Edinburgh Castle
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Look up anywhere in Edinburgh's old town and you'll see Edinburgh Castle, seeming to grow out of the blackened cold volcano that forms its plinth. There's evidence of human habitation on this spot that dates back to 900 BC, and the Castle has been a royal stronghold since the Middle Ages. The place is steeped in history. There’s the Honours of Scotland – the oldest crown jewels in the United Kingdom, no less – and the Stone of Destiny, the coronation seat of ancient kings. There’s St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh’s oldest building, and a cluster of military museums. You can take guided tours and see costumed performers bring the history of the Castle to life.
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Palace of Holyroodhouse
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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.

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Calton Hill
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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.

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The Canongate
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The historic street of Canongate makes up the eastern section of the Royal Mile, leading up to the grounds of Holywood Palace and is home to many of the key attractions of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Taking its name from the canons of the neighboring Holyrood Abbey, modern-day Canongate is one of the most architectural diverse sections of the Old Town, with the strikingly modern Scottish Parliament building standing in contrast to the grand Holyrood Palace and the futuristic, tent-like structure housing the Our Dynamic Earth exhibition.

Canongate is also home to a number of significant 16th and 17th century buildings including the painstakingly preserved Canongate Tolbooth, dating back to 1591 and 17th century townhouses like Russel House and Queensbury house.

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Greyfriars Kirk
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Opened for worship on Christmas Day 1620, Greyfriars Kirk is best-known as the home of Greyfriars Bobby, the loyal dog who became famous in 19th-century Edinburgh for maintaining a vigil at his master’s grave until he also died fourteen years later. The story was made into a Disney movie in the 1960s, and ever since, the memorial statue of the faithful Skye terrier, just outside the churchyard, has been a popular spot for a selfie.

Some of Edinburgh’s most famous figures are buried in Greyfriars kirkyard, including poet Allan Ramsay, philanthropist Mary Erskine, and architect William Adam. There’s also a popular onsite museum which tells the story of church. Greyfriars Kirk also continues to play an important role in the local community, with regular services in English and Gaelic as well as free organ recitals.

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More Things to Do in Scotland

St. Giles Cathedral

St. Giles Cathedral

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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.

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Quiraing

Quiraing

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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.

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Deanston Distillery

Deanston Distillery

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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.

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Scottish Parliament

Scottish Parliament

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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.

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Grassmarket

Grassmarket

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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.

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Inverness Cathedral (St. Andrew's Cathedral)

Inverness Cathedral (St. Andrew's Cathedral)

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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.

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Inverness Castle

Inverness Castle

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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.

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Road to the Isles

Road to the Isles

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Great Glen Way

Great Glen Way

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Glengoyne Distillery

Glengoyne Distillery

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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.

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National Museum of Scotland

National Museum of Scotland

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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.

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John Knox House

John Knox House

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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.

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Eden Court Theatre and Cinema

Eden Court Theatre and Cinema

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A modern gem of a theater, Eden Court houses a range of performing arts performances involving music, theater, opera, ballet and dance as well as film. To accommodate all these large scale performances as well as studios for art classes, a new building to house them all was built in 1976 right next to the River Ness. With its sharp angles and metal and glass encasing, the theater now sports a somewhat retro futuristic look. This provides a sharp contrast to the Gothic mansion right next door, the official residence of the Bishops of Moray. But the small palace from an entirely different century has been successfully incorporated into the modern Eden Court Theatre and now houses the dressing rooms, offices and a small cinema.

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