I should start by owning up to my unquestionable bias: Scotland is the land of my birth and, to this day, still remains my greatest love. I truly believe it to be the greatest nation on earth. For the scenery, the people, the nightlife, the food, the drink… Scotland may be small, but it’s wonderful, and I miss it every day. I even miss the weather.
Ever since moving to England, I’ve been asked almost daily for advice on where to visit, what to see, and when to go. There is a desire to learn more about the “biggest small country in the world”. To find the truth behind the romantic stories they’ve heard of the Highlands, of countless lochs and wild parties, of warm welcomes and spectacular wilderness. This, more or less, is what I tell them.
First up, that famous weather. The rain is the stuff of legend but, like any legend, there’s a touch of embellishment. Yes, it’s wet and, yes, it can be cold, but as our national hero Billy Connolly says: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.” Temperatures can get up to around 25C (about 77 Fahrenheit) in the summer, but will drop at night. In winter, the day can be as low as -5C (25F). Whatever the season, pack waterproofs, and pack layers: The main feature of the weather in Scotland is the speed with which it changes. Sideways rain can be replaced by scorching heat in the blink of an eye, and it can snow as late as April before turning to glorious springtime warmth the very next day.
LAY OF THE LAND
Most visits to Scotland will begin by arriving in one of her cities. Glasgow and Edinburgh, in the central belt, are the biggest and most popular for international arrivals.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
April/May and August/September are the best times to go for outdoor pursuits. The rain will be less frequent, you may even get a few solid days of unbroken sunshine, and the midges won’t be a bother. In June and July, clouds of these almost microscopic mosquito-like creatures cover the land, and are spectacularly irritating. Outside of these months, the scenery is just as beautiful, but significantly more challenging. Cities look best in summer when the sun hangs in the sky until almost 11pm, but the pubs will provide cozy refuge if you choose to arrive in the depths of winter.
Just 50 minutes by train to the west of Edinburgh lies Glasgow, Scotland’s most populous and vibrant city. Traditionally the more working-class of the two, Glasgow has nevertheless built a reputation as a hub for music and the arts. The welcome afforded to guests and particularly the reception given to touring bands is legendary for being in equal measures warm and ferocious.
However, Glasgow is so much more. The Kelvingrove, Burrell, People’s Palace and GoMA art galleries showcase her contribution and dedication to Scotland’s—and the world’s—art scene; King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut is world-famous for championing new bands at the outset of their careers. The city streets are increasingly visible in Hollywood films such as World War Z, Fast 6, and The Batman. Glasgow Cathedral has stood since 1197 and, along with the imposing Necropolis on the hill behind it, was instrumental in turning Glasgow into Gotham, and are both incredible places to visit.
Affectionately known as the ‘dear, green place,’ Glasgow has an astounding array of parks to explore: Linn Park boasts wild forest walks, a roaring waterfall, and a ruined 13th century castle all within a 15 minute train ride from the city centre. But for all this beauty and culture, Glasgow really comes alive at night, with live music as its’ beating heart. Globally-recognized bands will play at Hampden Park or on the SEC, but you’ll soon find that every other pub has local acts taking to the stage each evening. Try 13th Note and Maggie May’s in the bustling Merchant City for edgy rock; the sprawling Òran Mór in the leafy West End for more reserved performances; or The Howlin’ Wolf for a touch of blues. In the South Side, The Glad Café has an eclectic range of shows nearly every night.
WHERE TO STAY
KIMPTON BLYTHSWOOD SQUARE
High-end luxury, with an exceptional spa. It was good enough for Beyoncé, so it’s good enough for me.
11 Blythswood Square / Glasgow G2 4AD / United Kingdom / 220.127.116.1188
IBIS STYLES GLASGLOW CENTRE
Within easy reach of the bars and venues of the centre, it also offers great value, great coffee, and a free pool table.
Telfer House, Miller St / Glasgow G1 1DT / United Kingdom / 44.141.428.3400
Funky and modern compact rooms with incredibly comfortable beds.
60 Renfrew St / Glasgow G2 3BW / United Kingdom / 44.20.3519.1111
WHERE TO EAT
MR SINGH’S INDIA
Blends traditional Indian food with local Scottish produce. Try the haggis pakora.
149 Elderslie St / Glasgow G3 7JR / United Kingdom / 44.141.204.0186
Brings a true taste of Italy, albeit with a distinct Scottish accent.
1377 Argyle St / Glasgow G3 8AF / United Kingdom / 44.141.583.0000
In the trendy neighbourhood of Finnieston, they are experts in creating modern cuisine from Scotland’s traditional larder.
1114 Argyle St, Finnieston / Glasgow G3 8TD / United Kingdom / 44.141.334.6127
Has been serving Scottish classics for over 50 years.
12 Ashton Ln, Hillhead / Glasgow G12 8SJ / United Kingdom / 44.141.334.5007
WHERE TO DRINK
THE POT STILL
The Pot Still is, to my mind, the greatest whiskey bar in the world. The pub holds around 800 bottles of whiskey, has been there since the late 1880s, and has been ably watched over since 2011 by the Murphy family, who are all lovely.
154 Hope St / Glasgow G2 2TH / United Kingdom / 44.141.333.0980
A South Side institution, also featuring local folk bands.
708 Pollokshaws Rd / Glasgow G41 2AD / United Kingdom
Tucked away in the leafy West End and provides great cocktails in a relaxed setting.
28 Vinicombe St / Glasgow G12 8BE / United Kingdom / 44.141.560.8004
Edinburgh is the capital, and the entire centre is a UNESCO heritage site. The medieval Old Town is a warren of Wynds (small, narrow streets) and cobbled roads. Edinburgh Castle needs no introduction; strolling out of its gate and down the Royal Mile to Holyrood offers countless opportunities to discover the nooks and crannies. Cross over to the New Town, itself 250 years old, to find expansive squares and stunning sandstone terraces. Climb Calton Hill to marvel at the views north to Fife, then back down the other side into Leith to find a modern crop of bars and restaurants. Walking round Edinburgh is a lot of work, and usually involves fighting the wind whipping up from the docks, so sustenance is key. A full Scottish breakfast is a task in itself: haggis, lorne sausage, pork sausage, potato scone, bacon, fried tomato, toast, black pudding, and fruit pudding. After a couple of hours spent exploring, you’ll understand why we do it.
WHERE TO STAY
Stylish conversion of a historic church; excellent whisky bar and an enormous roof garden.
2 Greenside Pl / Edinburgh EH1 3AA / United Kingdom / 44.131.525.8200
Views of the castle from one of the most ancient market roads in the Old Town.
31-35 Grassmarket / Edinburgh EH1 2HS / United Kingdom / 44.131.300.3456
Famous landmark in the heart of the city, Michelin star dining and opulent suites.
1 Princes St / Edinburgh EH2 2EQ / United Kingdom / 44.131.556.2414
WHERE TO EAT
SNAX IN BUCCLEUCH STREET
One of the best full Scottish breakfasts in the country.
118 Buccleuch St / Newington, Edinburgh EH8 9NQ / United Kingdom / 44.131.662.9009
CANNONBALL RESTAURANT & BAR
Just outside the castle and offers some excellent Scottish fare.
356 Castlehill / Edinburgh EH1 2NF / United Kingdom / 18.104.22.1680
RESTAURANT MARTIN WISHART
Brings Michelin-star dining to Leith.
54 Shore, Leith / Edinburgh EH6 6RA / United Kingdom / 44.131.553.3557
MAKARS GOURMET MASH BAR
Affordable and hearty.
9 & 12 Bank St / Edinburgh EH1 2LN / United Kingdom / 22.214.171.1248
WHERE TO DRINK
THE AULD HUNDRED
After-dinner drinks are found in the pubs on Rose Street. Try The Auld Hundred for a traditional aesthetic and welcome.
100 Rose St / Edinburgh EH2 2NN / United Kingdom / 126.96.36.1999
Then to Nightcap.
3 York Pl / Edinburgh EH1 3EB / United Kingdom / 44.7765.496418
BRAMBLE BAR & LOUNGE
Then along to Bramble on Queen Street.
16A Queen St / Edinburgh EH2 1JE / United Kingdom / 188.8.131.5243
Scotland is, of course, far more than just the cities of the central belt. The vast wilderness of the Highlands in the north and the rugged forests of the south are magnificent destinations for anyone seeking respite from urban life. Hours can be spent exploring the area around just one of the thousands of lochs scattered across the countryside; days can be lost driving through the glens or catching boats between the Western Isles. The beaches, like Berneray West beach on North Uist or Crabhadail on Harris, could be mistaken for the Caribbean—all white sands and crystal waters.
If road trips are your thing, the North Coast 500 is a round trip which sticks to the spectacular coastal roads north of Inverness-shire. Scotland is proud of the freedom her people have to roam the mountains and forests and glens and moors which cover the country, and that freedom extends to guests as well. Camp wherever you feel suits you and sleep under the stars, as long as you’re respectful of your surroundings. If you need a bit more shelter, find a bothy to call home for the evening. A bothy is a traditional rural cottage, left unlocked and free for use to anyone passing by who needs a warm place to lay their head. Leave it as you’d wish to find it, and enjoy the protection from the elements.
Walking and climbing are pretty popular with Scots. Mountains over 3,000 feet are called Munros there are 282 of them, and ‘bagging’ them all is a challenge many set for themselves. There are plenty of other sports to try in the rural areas. Water-based pursuits, like sailing and white-water rafting have increased in availability in recent years; fishing and sea-angling offer spectacular views and the chance to compete against nature.
Scotland gave golf to the world, and the magnificent courses attract visitors in their thousands every year. The east coast town of St Andrews is the home of golf, and is the course most fans wish they could play. Loch Lomond is within easy reach of the central belt cities.
WHERE TO STAY
ORD HOUSE HOTEL, MUIR OF ORD
Once the mansion belonging to the founder of the neighbouring distillery, it is set in 30 acres of country estate.
Ord House Dr / Muir of Ord IV6 7UH / United Kingdom / 44.1463.870492
KINLOCH LODGE, SKYE
Hunting lodge of Clan MacDonald since the 18th century and run as a hotel by the current generation of the family for 50 years and counting.
A851, Sleat / Isle of Skye IV43 8QY / United Kingdom / 44.1471.833333
CAMERON HOUSE, LOCH LOMOND
Sprawling 5-star resort on the shores of a 24-mile long freshwater loch. Less than an hour from Glasgow, perfectly placed to explore the Trossachs National Park.
Loch Lomond / Alexandria G83 8QZ / United Kingdom / 44.1389.312210
All this exploring is thirsty work, and this wouldn’t be much of a guide without mentioning Scotland’s greatest gift to humanity. With more than 130 distilleries spread across 5 whisky regions, the concentration of whisky production in Scotland is the highest in the world. The spirit invented in Scotland (that’s right, Ireland—in Scotland) is today one of her biggest exports. Edinburgh recently saw the Johnnie Walker Experience open in a landmark building in the city center, but for a true whisky pilgrimage we have to visit a working distillery. Whether you drink whiskey or not, this is a fascinating slice of Scottish culture and heritage, and you never know—the dram at the end of the tour might change your mind.
Just outside Glasgow and is one of the prettiest
Dumgoyne, Killearn / Glasgow G63 9LB / United Kingdom / 44.1360.550254
THE SINGLETON OF GLEN ORD
Tucked away in a beautiful forest just outside Inverness.
A832 / Muir of Ord IV6 7UJ / United Kingdom / 44.1463.872004
ISLE OF ISLAY
Famous for its powerful peated whisky and every distillery on the island will offer a tour, as will many of the ancient producers lining the banks of the River Spey.