Edinburgh is one of Scotland’s most popular cities, and one of the world’s most beautiful with its Georgian grace-filled New Town and history-rich medieval Old Town. While you’ll want to spend lots of time exploring it, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to take at least a day trip or two. There are some particularly alluring destinations that are well worth the drive, including these.
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Steeped in beauty and mystery, a road trip to Loch Ness is worth rising early for, a little over three hours from Edinburgh. Spend the day walking along the shoreline, watching the glassy waters for the infamous Loch Ness Monster and visiting the magnificent ruins of Urquhart Castle. It was once one of the largest castles in Scotland, though today only the ruins of the medieval fortress remain – still, you can climb Grant Tower which overlooks the loch, and get a glimpse of the prison cell that’s said to have held Gaelic bard Domhnall Donn. You can also join a canoe tour, paddling around the lake, while keeping an eye out for the “monster,” of course. Afterward, learn about the legends of this sea creature at the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition.
Less than an hour from Edinburgh is Stirling Castle, which one of the grandest castles in Scotland and one of the United Kingdom’s most well-preserved Renaissance buildings. In the 16th century, it was considered the country’s arts center and was a favorite residence of many kings and queens. Public tours are offered taking visitors to the Great Hall, an impressive banquet hall completed in 1503 for James IV, heated by five huge fireplaces and used for feasts, pageants and dances. The Royal Palace recalls the years when it was Mary Queen of Scots’ childhood home, and the Stirling Heads Gallery is home to one of the greatest art treasures, the Stirling Heads. These oak medallions date to the 1500s and are carved with images of kings, queens, Roman emperors and characters from Classical mythology.
Arguably one of the world’s most scenic mountain valleys and the most famous Glen in Scotland, Glencoe Valley is two-and-a-half hours from Edinburgh and filled with cascading waterfalls, sparkling lochs and dramatic mountains. The landscape is so stunning if you don’t see it with your own eyes you might think it was Photoshopped. At the forefront is Loch Leven which is overlooked by the pinnacles of the Three Sisters Mountains and the cone-like Pap of Glencoe. Walkers and climbers come from around the world to experience its many mountaineering routes, like the eight Munros, while wildlife enthusiasts are drawn for the golden eagles, red deer and pine martens.
Golfers often come to Scotland just to play the world-renowned golf courses at St. Andrews, located about 80 minutes north of Edinburgh. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club is the oldest in the world, dating back to the 1400s. Often referred to as the birthplace of the sport, St. Andrews is home to seven public courses, including the famous Old Course, but the city itself offers plenty to non-golfers too. It’s home to Scotland’s oldest university, lots of fun local shops, pubs and fine dining restaurants as well as West Sands Beach – you might know it as the filming location for “Chariots of Fire.”
Loch Lomond National Park
Visitors are drawn to this area of outstanding natural beauty by poems and tales inspired by local legends, and the jaw-dropping landscape with its wild scenery and rich history. Just a little over an hour from Edinburgh, it was once roamed by legendary outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor. The largest lake in Britain, Loch Lomond, “The Queen of Scottish Lakes,” as called by author Walter Scott, is at its heart. A popular destination for fishing, visitors and locals alike can test their luck at catching salmon, whitefish and trout, or enjoy swimming, boating and picnicking. You can also take a walk around the shoreline or join a boat excursion.
Ben Nevis, Fort William
Ben Nevis is the highest point in Scotland and the highest mountain in the United Kingdom. Hiking is a major challenge, but those who did can look forward to some of the most breathtaking views in the region including everything from the Atlantic coast to the Grampian Mountains. If you want to tackle it, take the “Pony Track” just east of Fort William, located three hours from Edinburgh. It heads up the west flank for a steady and not-too-steep gradient much of the way.
Melrose Abbey, Melrose
Less than an hour from the city is one of the most famous ruins in Scotland and one of the most magical. Melrose Abbey is a partly ruined monastery of the Cistercian order. The remains of the church date to the early 15th century and have a notable air of romance. King Robert the Bruce’s heart was in Edinburgh until a couple of decades ago, lying in an unopened casket – in 1998, it was buried here. Check out the many carved decorative details that include likenesses of dragons, gargoyles and saints, and the inscription on the stairway by master mason John Morow, which reads “Be halde to ye hende,” translated to “Keep in mind, the end, your salvation,” – now the motto of the town of Melrose.
You can’t visit Scotland without visiting one of its distilleries, and Glenkinchie is only 15 miles from the capital. Whisky (spelled without the “e” here) has been around almost as long as Scotland itself. The Scots have produced and consumed fermented beverages here for thousands of years, and they have it down to a fine art. Visitors can take a tour by booking in advance to learn more about the process of whisky making and enjoy a sample too.
Perth is often referred to as the “Gateway to the Highlands,” due to its central location but it has plenty to offer of its own. Visit Huntingtower Castle, with its oldest part dating to the 15th century, and the Balhousie Castle and Museum, where you’ll learn about Scotland’s oldest regiment. The River Tay is popular for fishing, renowned for its abundance of Atlantic salmon.
Scotland’s largest city offers a wide range of things to do and is just an hour from Edinburgh. It’s become famous as the inspiration for the film “Trainspotting” and is home to some great architecture, hopping nightlife that includes multiple music venues, world-class museums, historic parks and a fantastic foodie scene.