Visiting Scotland for the first time can be a bit daunting. Unlike visiting a large city where you have everything at your fingertips, visiting Scotland is very DIY, requiring you to be flexible, open, and a little resourceful in your planning.
Scotland was the best trip of my life. I scoured the Internet, poured over Google maps, and created a 15-page itinerary guide for my family trip. It didn’t all go to plan, but I took our lessons learned and experiences to create this guide for what you need to know about visiting Scotland. I hope this guide answers any questions you have about planning a trip to Scotland.
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How long should you spend in Scotland? What if I don’t have 10 days?
We spent one week in Scotland. I would have loved an extra day on the Isle of Skye, as our day was a bit rushed since every accommodation we could find on the Isle was booked. I also would have liked more time in Glasgow, which is why I added those days onto this itinerary.
I feel like our trip was a good balance of driving and exploring, especially no one in our family is an avid hiker (even though we do enjoy the outdoors to some degree). If you want to spend more time outdoors, you could extend any of the days in the Highlands for extra time in nature in this itinerary.
When is the best time to go to Scotland?
We visited Scotland in late May, the week of Memorial Day Weekend in the United States.
Scotland is busiest between June and August. You’ll have daylight until after 10 pm and the best chance at warm, sunny weather. When we went in late May, it was just before the busy season, so the days were long and the crowds were [mostly] small.
Spring and autumn (starting in April and ending in October) mark the start and end of the summer schedule in Scotland. Going to Scotland in spring or autumn will mean more daylight than winter, attractions that are open longer, fewer crowds, less traffic, and cheaper accommodation.
If you want a chance at seeing the Northern Lights, visiting Scotland in the winter is your best bet. Keep in mind that winters have very short days, variable weather, and winter timetables for transport. Some roads and hikes might also be closed due to winter weather. If you’re an avid skier, you can take advantage of the mountains near Aviemore or Fort William. However, seasonal accommodations, restaurants, and attractions will likely be closed or have reduced hours. Do your research online for each attraction to discern its timetable.
What is the weather like in Scotland?
Like the rest of Britain, whether in Scotland is variable. We packed for traditional summer weather in Scotland (read: layers) but the country ended up having a heatwave after we arrived so we had to purchase shorts in Fort William. I would suggest following the weather in the weeks leading up to your trip to see how it’s behaving and use that to inform how you pack. If you’re visiting in spring, summer, and autumn, pack clothes you can easily layer and de-layer to accommodate the large changes in temperature and weather.
What do I need to pack for Scotland?
Regardless of when you’re going, I recommend bringing waterproof hiking shoes, a raincoat (I had a light one to layer over a light jacket), a scarf, a hat (either a baseball cap or beanie depending on the forecast), sunglasses (the thing I’m most glad I tossed in my bag just before we left for the airport), hiking pants, jeans, sneakers, and tops you can layer. We also each brought one nicer outfit to wear when we ate dinners at the hotels we stayed at.
How far in advance should I book accommodation?
It depends! If you want to sleep under the stars, then there’s no need to book ahead. It is in Scottish law that you are allowed to camp on most unenclosed land. Follow “leave no trace” rules and read this post for more information.
If you’re visiting during the busy season (especially during June, July, and August) and want the most choice when it comes to choosing where you stay, start booking early. We went at the end of May and started booking accommodation in April and had trouble finding places to stay on the Isle of Skye and near Inverness. So, if you’re picky, start early!
What type of accommodation should I book in Scotland?
While in Scotland, we stayed in three castles, one hotel, one Airbnb, and one farm BnB. Whatever your budget, Scotland has something. I recommend planning out relatively where you want to stay and looking on booking.com and Airbnb respectively for places to stay, filtered by your price range. Even hotels that are castles can be relatively affordable if booked in advance, so don’t rule them out—especially if it’s always been your dream to sleep in one!
If you want to look at and book the exact places we stayed at in Scotland, I’ve linked them below:
- Edinburgh: The Principal on George Street
- Inverness: Bunchrew House Hotel
- Applecross/Kishorn: Airbnb (no longer available, unfortunately) Check here and here for alternative options.
- Fort William/Invergarry: Glengarry Castle Hotel
- Fort William/Invergarry: Ardgarry Farm
- Glasgow: Crossbasket Castle Hotel
Food in the Scottish Highlands
When in the larger towns and cities, I highly recommend purchasing snacks and water at grocery stores to have on the road. There was a heat wave when we went and we were so glad to have purchased a couple of gallons of water to store in the car. We also ended up having a few picnic lunches and dinners as some restaurants in the villages were already booked, so it was nice to be able to make a meal out of the snacks we had purchased.
In this itinerary, I recommend purchasing food and water in Inverness, Shieldaig, Isle of Skye, and Fort William.
If you know you will be in a small village with only one restaurant during dinner, make sure you book ahead. We were turned away at a couple of places because there were no tables left. We also were there when fires wiped out all of the power in the west of Scotland so all restaurants were closed one day.
A note on dietary restrictions: Places like Edinburgh and Glasgow will have food to cater to a variety of diets. If you have a specific diet, you might want to pack extra snacks to supplement meals in small villages. Our diet was mostly meat, potatoes, chips, crisps, and bread. I was craving a salad by the end!
Navigation in Scotland
When in the more remote parts of the Scottish Highlands, cell service can be difficult to come by. I recommend printing out a couple of copies of your itinerary, including directions from how to get from one place to the next. We used these directions several times throughout our trip! You might also want to pick up a map if you know you won’t have cell service.
You can also rent a car with a GPS, but this will be more expensive.
Tip: If you don’t have cell service, you can keep your phone on airplane mode and have the wifi button turned on — this will show you where you are and will help you navigate a bit. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work very well in remote places, but we only lost our blue dot in a few places (where there was only one way to go) so it wasn’t a big deal.
Asking for directions: When we pulled over at viewpoints or in small villages, locals and travelers alike would often strike up conversations. While we never were lost, they gave us tips on stops to add to our drives and the best ways to get from point A to point B.
Driving in Scotland
While in Scotland, you’ll drive on everything from 4-lane highways to 2-lane roads to your average roads to single track roads. The good news is that you won’t have to worry about tolls. Obviously, they drive on the left side of the road so make sure you remember this when turning that you turn into the correct lane!
If you aren’t comfortable driving a manual car on a variety of road conditions, make sure you rent an automatic car. They are generally more expensive, however.
General tips for driving in Scotland:
- Driving age is 18. Everyone in the car must wear a seatbelt. The driver cannot use a mobile device while driving.
- Speed Limits: You’ll find speed limits posted on circular signs with a number and red circle around them. Speeds are in miles per hour. You’ll also find them painted on the ground on more major roads. As a general rule (though we always found the signs easy to spot): General rules for speed limits: 70mph on Motorways and Dual Carriageways for cars (60 for towing caravans) – 30mph in Built-up area (20mph around schools) – 60mph otherwise for cars (50mph for caravans)
- Refilling your tank: In more remote parts of Scotland, petrol stations are scarce. Keep your tank filled up in these parts, especially because you don’t know when one petrol station you see will be the last one you come across for several hours. Prices are marked per liter.
- Road Signs: Road signs are clear and easy to read. They’ll point out upcoming turns, towns, villages, attractions, etc.
- Weather closures: Some roads can be closed because of inclement weather (including wind). Traffic Scotland lists road closures and live traffic information.
- Road Conditions: Roads in Scotland were in very good condition and we never felt unsafe driving them. Some were freshly paved and some were currently in the process of being repaved, which could get a little annoying, but they’ll be 1000x better if you’re used to driving in the U.S.
- Bikes: In the summer during nice weather, you’ll come across many bikers, especially on single track roads. Be patient and wait until you come across a usable passing place to pass them. Often, they will pull over to let you pass, but not always.
- Animals: Animals roam freely throughout the Highlands. Don’t be startled if you see sheep, cattle, deer, etc. on your drives. We often had to stop and wait for sheep to cross in some of our drives near small villages.
- Cattle Grids: In some places, you’ll have to drive over cattle grids. They are essentially grates placed in a small depression in the road to prevent cattle, sheep, etc. from leaving one property and crossing into another. Just drive slowly over them.
- Freight trucks/lorries/semis: On busier thoroughfares (usually two-lane roads) you’ll find yourself driving behind large, slow trucks (lorries). Use good judgment (i.e. don’t pass on a blind peak or turn) and follow traffic rules when passing them.
- Roundabouts/Traffic circles: If you’re used to driving American roads, you might be unaccustomed to the fact that interstate exits are all roundabouts (or traffic circles). Upon entering one, yield to oncoming vehicles from the right and turn left into them. It might be hard to get used to, but you can always keep driving in a circle until you figure out the correct street on which to exit.
- Paying for parking: If I remember correctly, we only paid for parking in Glenfinnan and in Sterling. Parking at the attractions we visited was free (though sometimes hard to find) and we did not have a car in Edinburgh or Glasgow.
Driving on Single Track Roads in Scotland
You will be driving on single track roads multiple times throughout your trip. Daunting at first, these roads are only wide enough for one vehicle on which cars travel both ways. This means you will often come face-to-face with a car coming at you from the opposite direction. These roads feature passing places which allow for cars to pass each other.
How do passing places work? Driving on single track roads isn’t as scary as it sounds. I remember writing in my journal how driving on them was like an exercise in diplomacy: coming bumper-to-bumper with another car after a blind turn and making eye contact with the other driver as both of you figure out who is closer to the passing place; then waving as you pass.
An easy rule of thumb for navigating these passing places: If the passing place is on your left when a car is approaching, you’ll pull into it and let the other car pass. If the passing place is on your right, the other car uses the passing place.
Other passing place tips:
- You might need to back up to reverse into a passing place.
- Please do not park in passing places unless there is room for multiple cars.
- Be careful on blind turns and hills: cars can come out of nowhere.
- Give way to the car coming uphill if possible.
- Don’t tailgate on single track roads—passing places are often just large enough for one car and if you’re driving too closely to the car behind you when they need to pull into a passing place, you’ll often have to reverse into a previous one.
For a detailed itinerary on what to do in Scotland:
I hope this post answers any questions you have about the logistics of visiting Scotland. These are certainly the things I wish I knew before doing a road trip around the country!