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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 Mile
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100 Tours and Activities
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 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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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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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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Scott Monument
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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.

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Scottish National Gallery
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The building of the National Gallery of Scotland is imposing enough – a neoclassical behemoth sprawling on the Mound – but what's inside is the real treat. This is Scotland's most impressive art collection, and while it's not the equal in size of a Met or a Tate, there are plenty of gems up those stain-glass-lit stairs.

The collection ranges from the Renaissance to the 19th century, and there's a host of big-hitter names. You'll see work from Titian and Raphael, Rembrandt and Velasquez. In the 19th century section, feast your eyes on pieces by Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet, Degas and Gaugin.

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Glasgow Cathedral
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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.

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Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
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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.

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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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More Things to Do in Scotland

Greyfriars Kirk

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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Scotch Whisky Experience

Scotch Whisky Experience

10 Tours and Activities
Sipping Scotch whisky is a quintessential Scottish experience and where better to sample a fine scotch than the home of the World's Largest Collection of Scotch Whisky – a staggering array of almost 3,500 unique bottles, spanning some 300 varieties. The Scotch Whisky Experience lives up to its name by transporting guests on a journey through whisky making history, with a guided tour and tasting at the historic Castlehill property. A number of tours are available and each start with a barrel ride through the whisky production and sensory rooms, where guides reveal the fine art of distilling whisky, before heading into the legendary Whisky Vault for a tasting session.
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Quiraing

Quiraing

22 Tours and Activities

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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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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The Canongate

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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Calton Hill

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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Arthur's Seat

Arthur's Seat

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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.

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Princes Street

Princes Street

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Gracious Princes Street, with its epic length, gardens, stellar shopping, and knockout views, is the central vein of Edinburgh and one of Europe's great thoroughfares. It’s also at the center of the city’s world-famous Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) celebrations, which revolve around a massive street party. If you’re newly arrived in Edinburgh, a stroll along it is one of the finest ways to orient yourself.

Why Princes Street? Because it’s named after two of them – the sons of King George III. The street was hewn out as part of the building of the New Town in the 18th century. The Nor Loch, once a defence for the Castle was drained to make the gardens.

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Real Mary King's Close

Real Mary King's Close

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Palace of Holyroodhouse

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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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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George Square

George Square

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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.

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Buchanan Street

Buchanan Street

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Sweeping through the heart of the Style Mile in Glasgow city center, Buchanan Street hosts some of Scotland’s best shopping, bars, restaurants and cafes.

A hodgepodge of high street and designer names tucked inside some of Glasgow’s grandest Victorian buildings, Buchanan Street is especially busy on Saturdays, when the young and glamorous hunt out new fashions and street performers entertain the crowds.

At the north end is the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the Buchanan Galleries shopping mall, which hosts more than 90 brand-name stores. Toward the southern end, the refined Art Nouveau atmosphere and designer goods of Princes Square draw ladies who lunch. One of the most upmarket retail streets in the United Kingdom, Buchanan Street is also home to the flagship House of Fraser department store, which boasts Scotland’s largest beauty hall and is conveniently located right across the street from Princes Square.

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Merchant City

Merchant City

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Glasgow’s Merchant City buzzes with cool bars, hip restaurants, boutique hotels and designer stores. Stretching from Merchant Square to Royal Exchange Square, the whole area is perfect for a stroll and popular for its high-end shopping centered on Ingram Street and the Italian Centre, the home of the UK’s first Versace. With its piazzas, arches and pavement cafes, the city center district has a decidedly continental feel - a surprise in the heart of Scotland’s biggest city.

Remember to look up at all of the Victorian facades and lovingly restored 18th-century warehouses. From Glasgow Cathedral in all its Gothic glory to the looming necropolis known as the Victorian City of the Dead, there is plenty to interest architecture aficionados. Make sure to look out for Provand’s Lordship, too; it’s the only medieval house in the city.

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