The journey lasted 9 days, from December 28th to January 5th.
Sometimes something went wrong, other times the itinerary seemed perfectly appropriate. I therefore find it useful to put down our experience and some advice.
To best see a part, we have selected the “central” area, excluding southern Scotland, part of the Highlands (north of Inverness) and the islands.
Our guide and Cicero was the book of National Geographic about Scotland. Series of guides that I love and that differ from the others because they not only suggest what to see, but explain the famous customs & uses, history & legends and the mentality of the nation in question.
This our itinerary (below the complete one):
day 1 – Edinburgh, North Berwick, Tantallon Castle
day 2/3 ->Edinburgh (at least 2 days), Leith
day 4 – Dundee, Arbroath, Dunnottar Castle e Stonehaven,
day 5 – Aberdeen, Huntly e Elgin
day 6 – Inverness, Urquart Castle, Fort Augustus
day 7 – Fort William, Glencoe
day 8 – Glasgow
day 9 – Stirling, Linlithgow, Queensferry
day 10 -> plane from Edinburgh
It was not actually so linear and perfect, so I am bringing it back to you already purged of some errors.
Is it worth it?
Given that it is always worth traveling, anywhere, to this possible question I would answer … absolutely yes. It is one of the most suggestive journeys I have ever made. Magic and history, popular legends and claimed identity return a really strong atmosphere. Even those who do not go crazy for nature trips, will still have landscapes, castles and cities that will always leave you breathless.
Organizing the trip
Who would I recommend it to? Generally, I don’t think there is a suitable destination or not for someone, quite the contrary. I find it very nice that infinite ways of living, based on one’s personality, insist on the same geographical area.
However, I would recommend it to families with children, which we have met galore> in fact, I found a particular sensitivity for them, that manifests itself in many interactive installations inside the castles, themed museums, educational games and so on. Never seen such attention to children in any other region.
Those who do not opt for a Nordic-lifestyle will not have an easy life: public places (gardens, monuments, museums, everything), shops, and many restaurants/cafes close their doors between 15 and 17, also in Edinburgh. Some serve the last lunch before 2pm, few continue for dinner. The only ones who continue undeterred, always full, are the beautiful pubs – closing the kitchen by 8pm, even on December 31st. For us it was challenging to give up our concept of relaxation and change our habits, but we did it.
What is the best season?
Certainly a given for many, ignored beautifully by us in the planning phase: the winter days are short, but very short. The sun rose at 8.30, and at 3.30 pm it was already dusk, late at night at 4.30 pm. After 4pm, driving outside the cities becomes less easy (chapter on the roads to follow), the natural attractions are obviously to avoid, and the opening hours are even more stringent.
It never rained or snowed, the Christmas / winter atmosphere was very beautiful and apart from the wind, the weather was tolerable. But if I could choose, I would go back to another season, not in winter.
What to book before, what to plan after
I believe that for such a vast and circular itinerary, there are no half measures… or totally free from any obligation or everything organized in detail before leaving.
All the middle ground alternatives can, in fact, cause errors of this type (obviously, done!): stopping two evenings in the same locality, when one day would have been enough; stay in two places too close when you have to advance 80 km; go away from a city where there was still more to see, because in the evening the hotel is 152 km away. This forces you to go back, waste a lot of time, energy and available miles, avoid it!
During the travel, you can buy the Explorer Pass, which is really convenient and will allow you to see all the castles that you will cross on the way (only a few do not join the circuit).
In short, if you want to book early to save money, unfortunately it is essential to take down the magic of the unknown and study the route first, up to detailing the times and places to visit (including castles, which take at least an hour and a half of time ).
Traveling by car in Scotland
All guides recommend traveling by car, to see more and stop when you can in places that were not foreseen. Undoubtedly it gives a lot of freedom and saves from physical fatigue. They say also to drive to enjoy more the landscape. In reality, outside of Edinburgh, the landscape of the main roads was very monotonous – you probably had to go further, entering each town but you should have many days more. I also drove many times at night. I can’t tell you how it would have been otherwise, with trains and buses, but driving to me wasn’t a pleasure. I’ll tell you why.
Rent: all companies require a fairly high deposit (1500 pounds), which credit cards often do not reach. If you have the possibility to give this deposit, you still risk that small defects to the car are contested on delivery and a part of it is retained. The best thing is to pay an insurance service, which allows you to lower the deposit fee and to not have excessive driving anxieties for any damage / scratches. Unfortunately, it costs: starting from a 140 euro car, we arrived at a rent of 375 euro. Look at the feedback from many companies first, because not all of them are professional (absolutely avoid Easirent). You are given 700 miles by default (but it was enough for us, errors and deviations included!) And if you exceed them you pay. Second driver: you pay. Damages not included: you pay. A fee for 10 minutes of wrong stop? 140 €.
Too much stress for these things, cameras and bans everywhere.
The guide: after having tried twice to catch the gearbox on the right, in reality you adapt immediately. What has never ceased to bother me is the lack of highways. Except for one between Edinburgh and Glasgow, everything else is connected by main roads. One-track roads, two-way traffic (with little ease), curves, no lighting, no guard rails and many motorists who dart at 70 miles – 110 km / h or more.
The Scots drivers are very good, lightning bolts with formidable precision and attentive to the rules. But I created quite a few queues, because in order not to lose control of the vehicle my speed was lower and if there were several cars in the opposite direction it is easy not to have good visibility in the evening. At some point, I only started driving during the day, which further reduced the available daytime hours (see above the paragraph about seasons). A second “no”.
Misc expenses: petrol costs very little compared to Italy. We certainly spent much less than 200 euros and we traveled 696 miles – 1289 km!
In several locations, even if very very small, you will have no choice but to pay for parking. Beware of temporary stops … there are billions of cameras and high fines. If you can find out, before arriving, about the existence of free parking and parking, all the better.
Last but not least, the food! Aside from the porridge, which I haven’t been able to ingest more than a forkful, everything else is extra-good. From haggis to soups, from fresh fish to fish and chips, from butter biscuits to local meat contained in super burgers. Equally good beers, all dark or IPA. What about breakfast with bacon, eggs and sausage? There is to have fun.
Super nice and welcoming pubs, in deconsecrated church or with an industrial or wood-paneled style – which serve better dishes than restaurants.
Finally the itinerary
Certainly the most beautiful, the Queen par excellence. It is however very contained and two days to savor the city are enough: Royal Mile and strolling around Old Town and New Town with an adjoining visit to the castle. For further visits, such as adding an additional museum-monument (suggested the Holyrood Palace) I recommend three days.
We visited it in the evening, returning from one of the tours in Edinburgh. It is very pretty and well worth a visit, but it certainly gives its best during the day with all the restaurants open near the port.
Tantallon Castle (+ Bass Rock) and North Berwick
East of Edinburgh, one of the most beautiful castles we have seen, with a beautiful surrounding landscape. And lunch break at little North Berwick.
Dundee and Arbroath
In direction to Aberdeen, we made two strategic stops in these two cities, also replaceable with others if you prefer. For example, someone suggested me to visit Sant’Andrews (included the coastal tour) but we were late on our timetable. In case you will visit these two, I suggest in Dundee the V&A Museum of the architect Kengo Kuma, close the sea, and in Arbroath its abbey.
Dunnottar Castle and Stonehaven
Another must, absolutely to do. If you come from the south (therefore Dunnottar is closer than Stonehaven) I actually recommend going further and park in the center of Stonehaven. Take the pedestrian path connecting the city center and the hills of Dunnottar: a beautiful, nature trail suitable to everyone, which allows you to see Stonehaven from above and takes about 40 minutes.
One of the restaurants in Stonehaven boasts a rather singular primacy: the invention of Mars Fried, junk food par excellence but I must say really tasty. As the name suggests, it is the Mars bar wrapped in a breaded and fried layer. It costs about two pounds, it’s an experience to do!
Aberdeen is cute and well worth a visit. Unfortunately we savored it in the evening, but to welcome us there was the first pub opened by BrewDog, in the center. In fact, this delicious beer is originally from Fraserburgh (just north of the coast). Almost opposite there is a deconsecrated church, which has become a pub inspired by the myth of Dracula, if you want to experiment more!
Huntly e Elgin
These too were two strategic stops. specifically to reach Inverness. They were two pleasant but replaceable stops with other itineraries (for example, cruising the coast to Fraserburgh or reaching Balmoral). We had little time and therefore we were a bit forced. If you find yourself in our same condition, however, it won’t go wrong: in Huntly there is one of the castles that are part of the Explorer Pass circuit and in Elgin there is an abbey and a pretty old town. At The Drouthy Cobbler I ordered my classic IPA and a Scottish meat burger, perhaps the best I’ve ever eaten.
Inverness did not impress me, but it still remains a nice knot from which to start south. I absolutely recommend the walk along the banks of the River Ness.
Urquhart + Loch Ness
Urquhart and Loch Ness in one fell swoop: a truly suggestive landscape (although it could disappoint the expectations for the most impatient to see it). The castle is located in a strategic point, perfectly inserted in the landscape, as well as its internal paths, never monotonous and differentiated in altitude.
Fort Augustus, on the way to Fort William, was a very pleasant stop. Small but with several interesting views, a system of really evident canals (the evidence of the Scottish engineering) and several typical places to eat. Curious the “The Highland Club” which has practically taken possession of a beautiful abbey by setting up its own 4-star hotel. We took a stroll there…
Fort William and Glencoe
Fort William, or the city where it always rains. One of the travel errors was staying overnight for two consecutive days here. Once around the town and the adjacent castle, the next day it was not possible to take the cable car to Ben Nevis (fog everywhere) or enjoy the walk in Glencoe as it should be. Clouds, drizzle and fog canceled every landscape, so the most suggestive view was obtained only from the lake. In desperation, we took refuge inside the West Highland Museum in Fort William: small, very arranged but surprising. It contains several national stories that have been pleasant to discover and objects of all kinds related to their culture: from curling to tartan, from the Commando rifles to Stuart paintings. Certainly Scottish history, with all its intrigues and exterminations worthy of Game of Thrones, is far from boring.
Glasgow is a must for architects, given the presence of works by the master Mackintosh and famous contemporary architecture along the shore. Get organized, don’t do like me. I spent a lot of time downtown and inside the Cathedral, while M.’s architecture is in the West End and it was early evening when we had to leave already.
Stirling, Queensferry, Linlithgow
Stirling is another really nice town to walk around, with a beautiful castle at the top which – if you have the Explorer Pass – I tell you to visit without problems. The exterior is in excellent conditions and it is the part I preferred. The interior has been excessively reconstructed, but it is perfect for children because it contains many attractions and interactive installations. If you don’t have the Pass, don’t have children or don’t have time, it could also be skipped: it is one of the most expensive castles, but justified more by the exhibitions than by the beauty. We thought that the Scots are really good at enhancing what they have, in Italy even more beautiful monuments are left to chance.
Linlithgow is very small and the real attraction is its palace. The visit is highly recommended, if not mandatory – and the sunset over the lake is truly suggestive. For dinner / lunch, they recommended the Four Marys restaurant.
We saw Queensferry in the evening and it is really pleasant, full of restaurants, including the recommended Boat House. It deserves above all for the panoramic view on the shore of the Firth of Forth with its three bridges.
and finally return to Edinburgh by plane!
And with a few more days?
With a few more days, like 12 total days, or I would have seen Skye (although the Highlands perhaps deserve a chapter in itself) or I would have made a path of this type to better complete the central part: Balmoral Castle, St. Andrews and the Nordic coast with villages like Fraserburgh.