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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions 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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93 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 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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Royal Yacht Britannia (HMY Britannia)
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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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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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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
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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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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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More Things to Do in Scotland

People's Palace & Winter Gardens

People's Palace & Winter Gardens

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Glasgow’s oldest city park, the People's Palace and Winter Gardens, was built in 1898 as a cultural center. Now a museum telling the story of Glasgow’s social history over the centuries, it’s a fascinating place to while away a few hours.

Paintings and photographs trace the city’s story, and reconstructions of tenement life bring the tale to life. The Winter Gardens surrounding the museum feature a Victorian conservatory filled with tropical plants. The Doulton fountain in front of the museum is the largest terracotta fountain in the world.

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Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA)

Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA)

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A multimedia mixed bag of paintings, ceramics, furniture and sculpture come together at the Gallery of Modern Art, one of Britain’s most popular contemporary art museums. Temporary exhibits mix with the fine permanent collection of works by the likes of Hockney and Warhol.

GoMA is housed in a straitlaced neoclassical building complete with pedimented and pillared facade, the perfect foil for the challenging, fun and inspiring artworks that lie within.

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Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

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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The Hunterian (Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery)

The Hunterian (Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery)

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While you’re visiting Glasgow’s lively university quarter, take the opportunity to drop into the hallowed Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery. Scotland’s first museum, the Hunterian opened in 1807. Displaying the collection of renowned physician William Hunter, who spent time at the university as a student, the museum exhibits an idiosyncratic array of artifacts, from coins to fossils, scientific instruments and curios.

In a separate building across University Avenue, the art gallery highlights the work of the Scottish colorists and landscape artists. The standouts here are the work by artists known as the Glasgow Boys, and the gallery’s renowned collection of works by James McNeill Whistler. Don’t miss Mackintosh House, with its re-created interiors from the home of famous architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The Mackintosh Collection brings together the largest array of Mackintosh designs, watercolors, drawings and correspondence.

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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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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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Caledonian Canal

Caledonian Canal

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The Caledonian Canal is a waterway that runs for 60 miles through Scotland's Great Glen connecting Fort William in the southwest to Inverness in the northeast. The waterway connects several lakes, or lochs, and 22 miles of the Caledonian Canal are manmade to link Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Dochfour, and the famous Loch Ness. It first opened in 1822 as a way for commercial ships to avoid the more dangerous west coast. However, by the time it opened, the boats the canal was designed for were replaced by steam ships that were too big to use the canal.

Today the canal is a popular recreation area. Pleasure boats and scenic cruises sail up and down the canal and through the lochs. Visitors can also go to a viewpoint to see some of the 29 locks that get the boats from one section to the next. There are also opportunities to go fishing and swimming. For visitors who prefer dry land, there are hiking and cycling trails, including the 73 miles of the Great Glen Way.

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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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Scott Monument

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

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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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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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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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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