Scotland will always hold a special place in my heart. Three years ago, after a personal tragedy forced me to move back home to Boston from Australia earlier than anticipated, I made a promise to myself that I would continue my travels regardless of the roadblocks I faced. Two and a half years ago, that promise became a reality when, frustrated by the difficulty in finding a travel buddy and excuses, I said f*ck it and booked a round trip ticket to Edinburgh for nine days. And I haven’t looked back since. Whether this is your first time abroad or your eighth, first solo trip or you’re a well-seasoned traveler, a romantic escape with your partner or a getaway with your best friends, Scotland offers something for everyone.
From the cobbled streets and narrow closes of the Royal Mile, to the rolling hills of the Highlands and blue waters of the Hebrides, to the tales of monsters and faeries that seem almost possible when encouraged with a wee dram of whisky, Scotland’s magic is both tangible and unavoidable. Immediately upon descent into Edinburgh, you can see Arthur’s Seat rising above the city with Holyrood Palace sitting majestically at its feet. Edinburgh is a history nerd’s playground and a walking tour of the Royal Mile should be a first on the must-do list to familiarize yourself with the medieval city and its legends. Free tours are available from several different companies, or you can purchase a combined tour with entrance to Edinburgh Castle with Mercat Tours, as I did. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting in August, you can’t miss a show by the famous Edinburgh Tattoo, the royal military band whose performances are broadcast internationally around the world. August is a very popular time to visit Scotland’s capital, as the world’s largest arts festival, Fringe Fest, kicks off and runs through the end of the month. If you want to avoid the heavy crowds and rising cost of accommodation, you can still catch some acts around town in the weeks leading up to the festival. The Stand Comedy Club is a great basement venue in New Town that features both major headliners and local hopefuls throughout the year and is sure to provide a few laughs, especially at the expense of your friends sitting in the front row. If you are a loud and proud Harry Potter fan like me, then a trip to Scotland is a must! Edinburgh is lovingly known as the birthplace of the boy wizard, with some of J.K. Rowling’s favorite haunts and inspirations now immortalized around the city; take a stroll through Greyfriar’s Kirk to snap a selfie in front of Tom Riddle’s grave, shop for souvenirs on the original Diagon Alley at Victoria Street, or grab a cup of coffee at The Elephant House, where Rowling brought the celebrated character to life. Planning to escape to the Highlands? Travel in style on the Jacobite Steam Train, used as the real stand-in for the Hogwarts Express in the movies, and cross the recognizable Glenfinnan Viaduct as you make your way from Fort William to Mallaig, before heading onward to the enchanting Isle of Skye.
If you make it all the way to Scotland, then you can’t limit your time to just Edinburgh. Renting a car and driving the well-known North Coast 500 is one of the best ways to get around the country and explore the far north; however, if the prospect of driving on the left-side of the road scares you like it does me, then there are several tour companies that offer anywhere from 1 to 10-day group trips that include transportation, pre-organized lodging, and a guide. My favorite operator is Haggis Adventures, for the backpacker on a budget, or its sister company, Highland Explorer, which caters towards a slightly older crowd and offers a higher standard of lodging. My first trip to Scotland was also my first solo trip, preferring to choose a country that spoke the same language (at least in theory - I wasn’t quite as confident the further into the Highlands we got and the harder it was to decipher local speech, ye ken). Playing it safe, I decided to join the five-day ‘Highland Fling’ tour with Haggis Adventures and it was the best decision I could have made. Not only did the tour provide a comprehensive, well-planned itinerary that offered a chance to experience the beauty of Scotland in the limited time I had, but the local guide who accompanied us was simply fantastic. Lee, a proud born and bred Scot from Fife, enthusiastically regaled the group with colorful history and local legends as we wove our way through the Highlands and onward to Skye, keeping us entertained with Scottish lore that would have been completely missed had I attempted such a trip on my own. From the stunning peaks of Glen Coe, to convincing us to dip our faces into the icy waters of the Sligachan (still waiting on that eternal beauty to kick in), to Nessie hunting on the shores of Loch Ness, and whisky tasting at an authentic Highland distillery, Lee guided us around his country with a humor and genuine passion that can be hard to find on organized tours. By the end of my five-day experience, I left Scotland with a new friend whom I was lucky enough to reconnect with two years later upon my return to the place where it all began for me. Scottish hospitality is very real my friends, and I count several of the Haggis guides (shout out to Duncan and Rich) as some of my favorite people I have met on my travels across 20 countries. While the Scots’ dry humor and sarcasm can be off-putting to some, I found it a familiar reminder of my Boston roots and eagerly accepted invites for a pint (or five) upon both of my visits to Edinburgh. Be warned, however, do not try to keep up with a Scot at the pub or you may find yourself falling asleep at the table after one too many whiskies or waking up wondering how you made it to your bed, still wearing your clothes from the night before. A proper night out with Scots is never just one pint and is rarely an early night, but it’s always a guaranteed good time.
If a multi-day tour isn’t a possibility (this time) then there are several day trips that can and should be easily made from Edinburgh. Stop in Anstruther along the Fife Coastal path for Scotland’s best fish and chips on your way to St. Andrews, home to the oldest golf course in the world. Golf not your cup of tea? Grab a cupa at North Point Café, where Will and Kate famously had their first date, or explore the ruins of the medieval cathedral, built in 1158. The television premier of Outlander kicked off my original fascination with Scotland, as I followed Clare’s journey back in time and her blossoming love affair with the rugged Highlander, Jamie Fraser. Several of the show’s filming locations are easily accessible from Edinburgh, including Midhope Castle as Fraser’s ancestral home of Lallybroch, the village of Falkland as the stand-in for modern-day Inverness, and Duone Castle, which has not only been used as Outlander’s Castle Leoch, but was also featured in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and as Winterfell in Game of Thrones.
What would any trip abroad be without trying the local cuisine?! A personal fan of haggis, I highly recommend sampling the traditional Scottish dish at least once. If you don’t know what haggis is, I advise trying it before Googling the ingredients. For a true Scottish experience, head to Deacon Brodie’s or Whiski along the Royal Mile and order the meal with neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes) – don’t forget the side of whisky sauce to help it all go down smoothly! If you’re looking for something (non-alcoholic) to quench your thirst, grab an Irn-Bru from any convenience store. Scotland is notably the only country in the world where Coca-Cola is not the most popular drink, beat out by the orange beverage that legend says is colored by rust from the Forth Bridge. While Scotland is without a doubt known for its whisky, craft beer has also become quite popular. Located on the outskirts of the popular Grassmarket, sample Scottish ales and microbrews at Hanging Bat for a more intimate experience at a local favorite. If you fancy a pint with a lively atmosphere, head over to Finnegan’s Wake on Victoria Street, which features live music every day of the week. Celebrate a successful trip to Edinburgh with brunch at Larder Café and order a full Scottish breakfast (vegetarian substitutes available!) made from locally sourced produce.
Impossible to experience all that Scotland has to offer in one visit, this charming country will tug at your heart and leave you dreaming of clear lochs and moss-covered stones for days, weeks, or even months after you have left. From the Northern Lights dancing across the Shetland skies, to the mystical stones of Orkney and Clava Cairns, to the sounds of a guitar drifting through the night air from the nearby ceilidh celebration, Scotland is a country filled with magic and wonder that will capture a person’s imagination whether they are six or sixty-five. So grab your favorite plaid scarf, pack a pair of Wellies, and book those tickets to Scotland.
Originally featured and published on Roaming Nanny