The Best of Scotland in 10 Days: A Road Trip Itinerary
Owing to all sorts of factors, not least of which was travelling on a bigger-than-backpackers budget for the first time, driving Scotland for 10 days was one of the best trips I've taken to date.
I can't imagine anyone being disappointed with this incredible country! From gorgeous scenery, unique roadside animals (hello, coos!), castles, ocean, burly Scot accents, and plenty of good beer and whiskey, there's something for everyone.
itinerary at a glance
Day 1 - Glasgow
Day 2 - Fort William
Days 3 - 5 - Isle of Skye
Day 6 - Ullapool
Days 7 - Inverness
Days 8-9 - Edinburgh
Day 10 - Stirling (or Edinburgh)
arrival in glasgow
I arrived in Glasgow late afternoon, having spent the day on the train from London (which is a stunning initiation into the country and highly recommended - much more relaxed than a flight (and airports), too!).
Don't bother with the express train; it costs £22 and takes 30-40 minutes. Grab the regular train to Euston station for only £6 instead - though it will take you about 1.5 hours, it's perfectly comfortable and you can watch London go by!
With limited time to enjoy much of the city for the day, I've opted not to include it as a full day on the itinerary. However I did note a few places below worth eating and drinking if you find yourself there similarly!
Day 1 - glasgow
Glasgow is very much the "working city" of Scotland and it has a bit of a ruggedness to it that is both appealing and yet less enticing than the majesty of Edinburgh.
That said, the inner city is beautiful and boasts many murals! They were hiding in plain sight on nearly every street. With the combination of older buildings, modern/commercial buildings, and great parks and murals, it's a city worth a stop if you're driving.
Extensive research led me to the conclusion that rental cars are cheaper out of any city other than Edinburgh. Since the trains from London (or Edinburgh for that matter) get you just as easily to Glasgow, it may be worth comparing prices to save yourself some money!
Eat & Drink
13th Note for dinner - vegan haggis with neeps and tatties (pictured below). Or, in plain English, an oat cake with mashed turnips and mashed potatoes atop, and a creamy peppercorn gravy slathered over it.
Horseshoe Bar and Drink Tennents Beer - the Scots will be the first to tell you it's shite, but do it anyways! Then switch to any of many delicious ciders or a better beer after the first one ;-)
Amore is just a block or so from George Square and has excellent lunch deals for reasonable food. Costa Coffee is the Starbucks of Scotland! They're more expensive than absolutely necessary but are efficient, have many options, and generally have wifi that works.
A friend recommended Sloan's for something a little more upscale but I sadly did not have time to try it out. Let me know if you do! Apparently the architecture is stunning.
See & Do
The Necropolis is an absolute MUST SEE if you go to Glasgow. I've never been one for visiting cemeteries, as a traveller or otherwise, but this is truly the most gorgeous of them all. Plus, it sits atop a hill which gives you incredible views of the city. Check out my post on this cool spot for a tip on getting a great view of the entire cemetery!
George Square is a great place to get a feel for the city's vibe. It's right at its' heart, boasts some stunning buildings on all sides, and is home to many - MANY - a pigeon. Honestly, don't go here if you're ornithophobic.
Glasgow University is a stunning piece of architecture and the grounds are lush and beautiful. A great place for a packed lunch or just a short meander.
day 2 - fort william & the jacobite steam train
From Glasgow, I grabbed a rental car and headed towards Fort William to catch the famed Harry Potter train. I am not a Potterhead, but I am enamoured of trains, bridges, and that "olden days" aesthetic! It was an absolute must.
The drive between the two cities can be slow going but it's beautiful and afforded plenty of gorgeous places to pull over en route. In fact, I would have loved to have an entire day to do just this stretch of highway. Half a day was ok though, in the interest of seeing more and getting farther flung.
The journey would be about 3 hours direct, but with stops along the way it took about 5 or so.
Stops & Sights
Buachaille Etive Mor and Black Rock Cottage are an iconic image of the Scottish Highlands. There's no signage - you'll only know it if you care to see it. It IS visible from the highway, however, and frankly the entire little pull-off is cute.
Inverlochy Castle was an unexpected stop (I got mixed up and thought I was heading to an entirely different castle) but it ended up being a fun and pretty stop anyway. The castle is derelict and nothing much more than ruins, at this point, but it's pretty and right on the edge of Fort William. If you planned accordingly and the weather cooperated, it would be a nice spot for a picnic!
The Jacobite Steam Train was one of my highlights of Scotland, which is saying something given that I loved every bit of the country. So...you really might want to consider doing it!
day 3 - to the isle of skye
...Via the Glenfinnan Viaduct
The Glenfinnan Viaduct is famous for being the spot where you can get shots of the Jacobite steam train as it passes...over the viaduct.
The train will pass at around 11am, so leave Fort William no later than 9:15 to make sure you get there and get parked with enough time to scope out a spot. The parking is horrendous - don't doubt me on this! You may have to head to the overflow lot and walk back.
There will be lots of people vying for a spot. Get your spot and stand in front of your camera to stake out the area. People have no shame! ALSO, consider taking a different angle down below or go up the hill behind the parking lot instead for a different (and probably more interesting) take on the classic shot!
After a brief stop at the little train cafe in Glenfinnan (where the train will also stop - so bonus! you can get up close and personal with the train, even if you didn't ride it!), head to the Isle of Skye.
Skip the ferry at Mallaig. It looks like the faster option but it's busy, often behind schedule, regularly cancelled, and if you aren't lucky enough to hit it just right, you'll lose most of a day backtracking (as I did!).
Head to the Skye Bridge instead! The drive to Skye is beautiful and the elegant bridge connecting land...and Skye (see what I did there!?) is worth the extra driving.
Isle of Skye (half day) See & Do
After arriving on the Isle, and not wanting to lose anymore time, I headed straight for the Fairy Pools at the base of Cuillin. What a place! It's huge and the pools stretch so far...I was losing the light and couldn't spend much more time, which was a shame, but honestly you could lose hours here without noticing.
There does exist the option for a tough hike, so if you get there early and want to spend the day, that could be a thing you want to do!
Had I arrived to the Isle earlier, I would have aimed to do one of the smaller hikes on the island - the Old Man of Storr is supposed to be under 2 hours and is classified as more of a "medium intensity walk" than a hike. It looks gorgeous. Go in my stead and take photos!
day 4 - portree & The isle of skye
This was a big, jam-packed day! Having lost so much of the day before, I really crammed in as much as I could. But honestly just driving around the island, there was so much to see and do, that I hope for your sake you can take some time to pull over and drink it all in!
Eat & Drink
The Caledonian Cafe was great for dinner, though online it sounds like they do an excellent breakfast as well. The prices were reasonable, they serve alcohol (and have an ice cream bar!) and the ambiance was just right. Plus, a friend says they have possibly "the best burger ever" ;-)
For an early morning or quick bite, Mackenzie's Bakery is the place to go! Right on the square, it's hard to miss and the service is quick and super friendly. There are some tables and benches outdoors (and next door) if you still want to sit a while and watch the sleepy town come alive.
See & Do
Coral Beach is an incredible anomaly in Scotland - a seemingly white sand beach on the windy and cold shores of the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides. How did this happen!? Well it turns out that the sand is actually crushed, sun-bleached, fossilized sea algae. So not sand...and also not coral! Odd. And beautiful. And quite the cold, windy, long-ish walk from the parking lot! You've been warned.
Dunvegan Castle was possibly my favourite castle on the entire trip! It's super close to Coral Beach and accessible through the same back roads.
Neist Point Lighthouse is one of the classic Skye spots...but I have to tell you, it was not my favourite. That's not to say it wasn't good - it's just that it's a LOT of walking single file with a ton of other tourists down and then up a little, very long, trail. So I'm not saying don't do it, I'm just saying temper some of your expectations a bit. Also you can't reach the actual lighthouse, just get views of it :(
Day 5 - the isle of skye
I'm throwing a day more than I had on here because the Isle of Skye was gorgeous and so much of my time there felt rushed. I really recommend taking the time to meander more, do at least one of the hikes, and even just sit in Portree's little harbour and read or paint.
Whether on your way on or off the island, don't forget to stop at the Eileen Donan Castle (apparently particularly beautiful at sunrise and sunset). It sits very near the bridge, on the mainland.
day 6 - the north coast 500 to ullapool
This was the most frustrating day of my entire trip - made so because of the absolute unexpectedness of how far, how slow, and how small and long the roads were through the Highlands. It actually altered my entire itinerary (which I had based on serious research and google mapping every distance) and prompted me to write an entire post on things you should know about driving the Highlands!
In the end, it was lovely and an absolute highlight, but I'll definitely be needing to head back to get to the Northern parts of the Highlands. I can imagine they must be incredible, based on the beauty I was fortunate to see despite the mix-up.
Stops & Sights
Applecross is a charming little village that I'm pretty sure only exists to offer travellers overpriced goods along their way. That said, it's an excellent lunch stop and the cafe offers delicious Skye black beer (don't drink and drive peeps!).
You could lose days stopping at pullouts to take pictures - and it's honestly worth it! The picture above was taken simply by wanting to stretch for a second and have a snack in the car, and I was afforded this view at a simple pullout off the highway!
Day 7 - to Inverness
Let's face it: you're going to Inverness for one, maybe two reasons: Loch Ness and Culloden. You can do these in one morning, easily. You could even avoid spending the night in Inverness if you wanted to just cruise through! But it is a fair drive from Ullapool and two of my trip highlights were in fact, en route, meaning I arrived to Inverness a bit late to be fitting in both locales.
Stops & Sights
Dunrobin Castle is just north of Inverness and basically en route from Ullapool as you drive west to east, crossing the Highlands. It is, in a word, gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. It's Victorian (duh) and though the history enthralled me less (rich English folk as opposed to awesome Scottish clans), you can agree that the architecture and imagery is well worth a stop. Photos are prohibited inside, so take what you can outside. Also, the grounds are pretty immense!
Just between the castle and the distillery lies a great little lunch spot by the name of Dornoch. Look for the Dornoch Inn, enjoy a Crabbies ginger beer and some sort of hearty Scottish fare (meat pies, anyone?), and take a quick meander around the little town centre.
A trip to Scotland would be no trip at all without at least one stop at a whiskey distillery. I chose Glenmorangie Distillery - I expected their operation to be impressive and I was not disappointed. It's still quite small and felt really cool to wander through the setup that they've been using and altering for almost two hundred years!
See & Do
Loch Ness! I actually - almost - wrote a post about how it's kind of just a lake and kind of over-hyped and there's a lot of expensive souvenirs along the highway and...then I stopped and thought, you know what? It's FUN and it's ok that most of the excitement is simply for the sake of maintaining a legend. Not everything has to blow your mind up close! Some of it can quite literally just be in the magic of the collective conscience. And so, my friends, go :) It IS fun. And the lake, in the early morning, felt eerie and magical.
Culloden Moor is literally a war memorial and battlefield burial ground. Had it not been for my obsession with all things Outlander, I can't say that I would have been interested in going. That said, I went in the evening as it was growing dark and it was very beautiful and just a touch spooky (in that reverent way).
day 8 - to edinburgh
Edinburgh is very much one of those cities in which you could spend a day and have a great time or explore for a week straight and still feel you hadn't seen it all. Which to my mind, makes it a very cool city indeed.
Stops & Sights
The Highland Folk Museum is the cutest, oddest little place and I highly recommend it for history lovers, Outlander fans, and basically everyone in between. It's open air, so pack along your umbrella and enjoy an outdoor walk. Entrance is by donation...and did I mention it includes a large 1700s Highland Township replication with animals and actors and fires and everything!? So cool.
The Pitlochry Falls of Bruar may be worth it to some - especially if you're (again) an Outlander fan (s01e01!) or just like any excuse for a little hike and a break from the car. Honestly it was nice, even in the squidgey mud and rain, but it was a bit further than initially anticipated.
Doune Castle is yet another Outlander stop (WHAT?) aka Castle Leoch in the series but it's ALSO the Winterfell Castle for Game of Thrones nerds!
See & Do (half day) Edinburgh
Wander through Grass Market for loads of cuteness, colour, and delightful little shops. It's a "sunken" bit of the city, so you're essentially looking up at the rest of the city from this little borough.
Dean Village was actually once a village just outside of the city centre, and now it's this super cool area in which to live - or you know, stroll with a coffee and snap pictures of peoples' lives and envision yourself living there.
Calton Hill is a bit of a walk up from the centre, and it's a great spot to watch the sunset. It'd be nice during the day for a picnic, but frankly if I was you, I'd do the sunset.
day 9 - edinburgh
See & Do
I am sad to admit that I didn't make it to Arthur's Seat, but from what I've read it's fantastic for sunrise if you can get your butt up and out of bed and to the top of a hill in time!
Edinburgh Castle is best before noon for two reasons: it's less busy and they shoot the cannon at 1:00pm every day so you should be able to catch it if you're there before then! Give yourself some lead time in case of lines.
Just wander up and down the Royal Mile - practically an impossibility to avoid, but worth it for the Scottish kitsch and plenty of charm.
Don't miss out on an Edinburgh highlight - a night walking tour! Kitsch and a little silly, I know, but it was fun and we got to go into the bowels of the city, learning all about its' frankly horrid history and plenty of folk tales to keep you entertained. I went with City of the Dead Tours (on the Double Dead Tour) and I'd def recommend them!
Eat & Drink
Scran and Scallie Public House (cool local area of the city too).
Elephant House Cafe is at the top of the Royal Mile, somewhat overlooks the castle, and is the famed writing place of JK Rowling while she wrote the Harry Potter books. Honestly, you can see upon arrival how Edinburgh would bring out the fantastical in a person's mind! Such a unique city.
Day 10 - Stirling (or edinburgh)
Stirling likely doesn't make most itineraries, because it's small and really more of a University town than anything. That said, it's close to both Edinburgh and Glasgow, so it's easily accesible and it does boast one claim to fame: William Wallace.
That's right. Stirling is the site where he famously beat back the English army, and so there is a monument erected in his honour! The monument itself is quite cute, with the tiniest winding stairway allll the way up, affording views of the surrounding countryside. It's a bit pricey to my mind (£20 if I recall), but may be worth it to some.
Also, Stirling University's grounds are beautiful and very walk-able. Plus there are a few older buildings to roam, as long as you're decent at blending in ;-) Certainly worth checking out if you find yourself in this cute little University town. Have fish and chips for lunch at the Allan Water Cafe and meander a few cute shops nearby.
If Stirling doesn't interest you, I recommend taking another day in Edinburgh! I found the city enchanting just to wander and wished I'd had a lot more time there - be sure to wander through the tiny alleyways you encounter to find the best little spots and report back on the any magic you find!
And last but not least, if you can find any excuse to stay in a castle, regardless of price or prestige (it's still a castle, who cares if it's the fancy dancy one!), then do it. Because YOLO, guys. And also, it's amazing!
(I stayed at Melville Castle and you can read all about it here before deciding if it would fulfill your castle dreams.)
It bears repeating that Scotland is an INCREDIBLE place to visit and you should not tarry - plan your trip asap!
If you've been, what was your fave spot? Did I miss anything!?