Inverness is the capital of the Scottish Highlands, and thanks to direct rail links with London, Edinburgh and Glasgow – as well as its own airport – it’s the ideal starting point for your adventure. The city is compact enough to explore on foot, with art galleries, botanic gardens and its very own castle – but if you’ve just arrived on the overnight train, kick things off with a full Scottish breakfast; Café Artysans is a local favourite.
Scotland puts on a glorious show for visitors and will leave you wanting to return again and again. From the jaw-dropping scenery of a Highlands road trip (and excitement of a possible Loch Ness Monster sighting) to a year-round series of celebrations in the capital, Edinburgh, there’s always drama and entertainment on offer here. It’s not just about watching though, but taking part: get hands-on, whether that means making your own beauty products or crafting your own whisky, and be inspired by only-in-Scotland experiences, from riding on the Falkirk Wheel to exploring The Queen’s floating residence, The Royal Yacht Britannia.
Day 1: Spot the Loch Ness Monster
Refreshed, pick up a rental car and get your binoculars ready for some Nessie-spotting. Head for the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, less than 30 minutes’ drive from Inverness. The attraction traces the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster back 500 million years, with films, photos and recordings of eye-witness accounts of sightings. There are several boat trips out on the loch, from one-hour cruises to longer expeditions that incorporate a visit to Urquhart Castle. Alternatively, drive all the way around the loch and view it from every angle, stopping at the castle and for scenic hikes along the way. When hunger hits, head to the Dores Inn, a charming loch-side pub that serves delicious meals made with fresh, local produce. Art enthusiasts should make the short detour to the Kilmorack Gallery near Beauly (north-west of Loch Ness); housed in a former church, it’s one of Scotland’s quirky hidden gems.
Spend the night in Fort Augustus, situated at Loch Ness’s southern tip. The Lovat is a delightful Victorian hotel that’s welcoming and cosy, with a fantastic restaurant on site. Nearby The Inch has a range of rooms, from standard to suite, some of which boast loch views and four-poster beds. There are plenty of other accommodation options in Loch Ness, including self-catering, B&Bs and even glamping (‘glamorous camping’!).
Day 2: Drive the scenic Scottish Highlands
Today is all about putting yourself into that picture-postcard image you have of Scotland. Leave bright and early for Glen Coe, Scotland’s most famous and grandest glen. The spectacular mountain valley is continuously changing, with clouds regularly revealing and then concealing the conical mountain peaks. This landscape belies a tragic past: the Glencoe Massacre in 1692.
Drive through the glen, past deep gorges and dramatic waterfalls, stopping for plenty of photographs along the way. There are several short, easy walks near Glencoe village, or for something more challenging, climb to the Lost Valley, said to be haunted by the ghosts of the MacDonald clan (approx. three hours). Find out about walks and the history of Glencoe at its visitor centre. Continue on to Glen Etive, a spot so scenic that James Bond and M stopped to take in the view there while on the run from their enemy Raoul Silva in Skyfall; this part of Scotland has also seen the filming of Braveheart, Highlander and Under the Skin.
Stay in Glencoe Village at the Clachaig Inn, a favourite with walkers, where you’ll receive a hearty welcome and an inviting menu of pub classics, including traditional and vegetarian versions of haggis with neeps and tatties (turnip and potatoes). Or for something completely different, book RiverBeds’ ‘luxury wee lodges with hot tubs’ set in romantic woodland. There’s a huge range of accommodation for such a small area, from luxury hotels to self-catering cottages.
Day 3: Loch Lomond and the art of whisky
Wake up bright and early, ready for another day of jaw-dropping scenery and uniquely Scottish experiences. Hit the road heading south through the stunning Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. You’ll pass the western side of Loch Lomond, the biggest loch or lake in the whole of Britain; you can hire a boat– or even a kayak, canoe or jet-ski – to get out onto the cool, blue water. Stop for lunch at the southern end of the loch, where you can take a ferry over to Inchmurrin Island for a scenic meal, or else head to luxury hotel Cameron House’s Boathouse restaurant, located on the water’s edge.
Half an hour’s drive from Cameron House is Glengoyne Distillery, where you can learn the truly Scottish art of whisky-making. The Malt Master experience begins with a tasting of the Glengoyne 12 Year Old and an in-depth tour of the distillery. Then sit down to blend your own unique bottle using samples from five different Glengoyne casks; nothing beats the first sip of your very own blended drop. Other experiences on offer include a Whisky and Chocolate tour – ideal for those with a sweet tooth.
Head to Glasgow next, about a 40-minute drive away; this UNESCO Heritage City of Music is home to lively bars and restaurants, plus world-class galleries and museums. Stay in the stylish yet affordable citizenM or Grasshopper hotels; both are centrally located. Luxury-lovers should check in at the Blythswood Square Hotel, which has a sumptuous spa. Ready for a night on the town? Head straight to the Merchant City, a funky cultural quarter that’s home to hip bars and hot restaurants: a pre-dinner cocktail at Metropolitan Bar followed by dinner at Arisaig is a fail-safe formula for a fun evening.
Day 4: Beauty, art, food and music
Start your day in Glasgow at the Beauty Kitchen to channel your creative talents into an inspired gift to take home. The company, which sells 100% natural pampering and beauty products, hosts ‘Indulgence Experiences’ where you concoct your own amazing beauty treatment from scratch and get a hand massage too! Next, continue the indulgence theme with a trip around Style Mile, Glasgow’s amazing concentration of designer, high-street and independent boutiques in the city centre. Have a light lunch or – if you spent longer than expected shopping and it’s now time for tea – treat yourself to afternoon tea at the Willow Tea Rooms, before heading to the Glasgow School of Art for a walking tour. Led by students of the art school, the Mackintosh Tour is the most eye-opening, immersing you in the life, times and creations of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, designer of the city’s iconic buildings – including the Willow Tea Rooms!
After lunch, head to the magnificent Kelvingrove Art Gallery, which houses 8,000 objects across 22 galleries; the vast atrium displays an impressive working organ, which you may be lucky to hear being played. After your education in art, have one in craft beer: just over the road from the Kelvingrove is BrewDog. The Scottish company launched in Aberdeen and opened their third bar in Glasgow, serving ‘Punk IPA’ among other tasty concoctions including beer cocktails.
For dinner, head to trendy Finnieston, a short walk away: Crabshakk and The Gannet are found on Argyle Street , the former specialising in fresh-caught fish and seafood, and the latter a sophisticated option for modern Scottish dining. Or, just around the corner, is Ox and Finch, which serves tapas-style sharing plates – ideal for those who like to taste everything on offer!
Day 5: A fun-packed journey to Edinburgh
Set off early towards Edinburgh, breaking up your journey with a boat trip like no other. About 40 minutes’ drive from Glasgow is the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift. This feat of engineering was constructed to join the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal, but beyond its practical purpose, it’s incredibly good fun to ride on! About 15 minutes further on are the Kelpies. Snap a selfie at this awe-inspiring public artwork consisting of giant horses heads rearing up– it’s the largest equine sculpture in the world.
Continue on your journey for approximately one hour to Edinburgh. Get straight to the heart of the city on the Royal Mile, which has Edinburgh Castle at one end and The Palace of Holyroodhouse – the Queen’s official Scottish residence – at the other; both are fantastic attractions to visit. The Royal Mile itself is full of tartan and tweed shops, delicatessens selling shortbread and whisky, and intriguing attractions – phantom fans mustn’t miss a spooky underground tour of The Real Mary King’s Close. A short walk away is the Grassmarket, once a medieval market place and now a thriving neighbourhood with cafés, bars and shops. A great health-conscious lunch option here is the Hula Juice Bar and Café, while just on the other side of the Royal Mile, the Whiski Rooms offers a quintessentially Scottish dining experience – complete with whisky pairings.
For good value in a central location, book into The Grassmarket Hotel, which has a fun, friendly vibe and décor inspired by Scotland-born cartoon The Dandy. Just opposite Haymarket Station is the budget Tune Hotel, while for something more luxurious there are plenty of options, perhaps the most opulent of which is The Balmoral, or for something luxurious, contemporary and right on the Royal Mile book the G&V Hotel.
Day 6: A Royal Yacht and year of parties
See a different side to the city in the waterside neighbourhood of Leith. This was the port of Edinburgh for hundreds of years and dates back to the 14th century. Having undergone a regeneration in recent years, it’s a chic place to dine, drink and visit. Start with its star attraction, the Royal Yacht Britannia, which was The Queen’s royal residence on the water. The amazing vessel has travelled over a million miles, received state visitors from all over the world and hosted royal honeymoons. Open to visitors, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the Royal Family’s private life, with The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh’s separate – and very differently furnished – bedrooms open to view. Hungry? Head to Leith institution The Kitchin, a Michelin-starred restaurant with good value lunch deals.
Edinburgh is a renowned Festival City – did you know it even hosts a Mela, which happens largely in Leith? It’s Scotland’s biggest celebration of world music and dance and takes place in August. Whenever you visit the capital, you’re guaranteed to find a party somewhere. The fun starts with Hogmanay over New Year, then there are the Science Festival and Imaginate Festival (for children and young people) in April and May respectively; the glittering Film Festival in June/July, followed by the Jazz & Blues Festival, Art Festival, Military Tattoo, International Festival and Festival Fringe in the summer!
Before you leave, make the steep climb up Arthur’s Seat. Accessed from Holyrood Park, this former volcano is Edinburgh’s highest point, at 251 metres, and offers 360˚ panoramas of the city and Lothians beyond. Descend for a farewell dinner at The Gardener’s Cottage, a convivial restaurant where you share bench tables with other diners and feast on whatever is local, seasonal and delicious today.
Got longer to spend in Scotland?
Those who want to experience a quintessentially Scottish railway journey can extend their stay at Fort William in the Highlands. From here, daily trips on the Jacobite Steam Train head to Mallaig and back, traversing the 21-arched Glenfinnan Viaduct – you might recognise this as the magical route taken by the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films! With even longer to spend in Scotland, the Belmond Royal Scotsman is a luxurious way to experience the country, with several journeys beginning in Edinburgh, including themed trips for golfers and whisky-lovers.
Edinburgh and Glasgow have airports serving international and domestic flights; Inverness also has an airport served by domestic routes. All three cities are accessible by rail direct from London.