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Things to Do in Scotland

Scotland boasts centuries of colorful history, UNESCO World Heritage–listed treasures, and a rich culture. With lively cities sprinkled among unspoiled landscapes of beaches, lochs, peaks, and valleys, Scotland has plenty to offer visitors of all ages and interests. The capital city, Edinburgh, is an ancient settlement where efficient hop-on hop-off bus tours shuttle travelers to landmarks like mighty Edinburgh Castle, the creepy Edinburgh Dungeon, and the famous Royal Mile; travelers can also witness the pomp and ceremony of the annual Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Other cities such as Aberdeen, Glasgow, Inverness, and Stirling all offer experiences filled with history, culture, and natural beauty. Travel by road or rail into the Scottish Highlands to experience the magic of Loch Ness or Loch Lomond, or follow hiking trails through the wilderness of Glencoe. History lovers can explore Alnwick Castle and Stirling Castle—constructed to protect Scotland against attack—and Hadrian's Wall, where the country’s Roman past comes to life. To experience the best of coastal Scotland, take a multi-day tour out to the Isle of Skye or the remote Orkney Islands, where dramatic skyscapes and wild pastures await. And if you're thirsting to sample some of the world’s finest Scotch whiskies, make sure to visit a traditional distillery such as Bowmore or Laphroaig on an Isle of Islay tour.
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National Wallace Monument
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Built in the mid-19th century, this Gothic-style tower commemorates William Wallace, the medieval Scottish freedom fighter whose story was fictionalized in the 1995 blockbuster, Braveheart. Exhibits chronicle key episodes from Scottish history, while the top offers views of Stirling Castle and the surrounding countryside.

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Glenlivet Distillery
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Amid the rolling glens of Scotland’s premier whisky region, Speyside in the Cairngorms National Park, The Glenlivet Distillery opened in 1824 and is considered as the granddaddy of all single malts. Distilled in unique lantern-shaped copper stills and matured in the obligatory oak casks for at least 12 years, The Glenlivet has a fruity, smooth flavor thanks to using Scottish barley and spring water from the local Josie's Well. Now owned by French company Pernod Ricard, it is one of the largest distilleries on Speyside and the biggest selling whisky in the USA, producing nearly six million liters of single malt each year while still maintaining many traditional production methods, all be it on an industrial scale. Unlike most of the smaller Speyside distilleries, bottling does not take place onsite but it has an award-winning visitor center with an exhibition showcasing the development of the brand as well as a café selling whisky-drenched cakes.

One of the major highlights of the self-driven Malt Whisky Trail through Speyside, The Glenlivet Distillery is open for guided tours and tutored tastings of various drams; visitors can also bottle their own single malt to take home.

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Orkney Islands
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Separated from the northern tip of mainland Scotland by the choppy waters of the Pentland Firth strait, the Orkney Islands are an archaeological wonderland. Comprised of about 20 inhabited islands and many more uninhabited ones, Orkney is littered with prehistoric ruins and Viking remnants. The islands’ interiors, a patchwork of heather-clad moors and fertile grasslands, are encircled by superb sandy beaches and sheer coastal cliffs.

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Scott's View
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Named for Scotland's greatest Romantic novelist of the late 18th century, Sir Walter Scott, Scott's View affords travelers an epic panorama that spans southern Scotland's green landscape. The writer lived nearby while completing his greatest works, includingRob Roy andIvanhoe, and his favorite spot in nature (of many) was at the top of Bemersyde Hill above a meander in the river.

From here, travelers can see the three peaks of the Eildon Hills, the sparkling water of the River Tweed and the heather-clad hills, as well as the rolling Tweed Valley laid out below. In spring, the foreground is covered in jasmine-colored gorse, while in fall the view glows russet and brown. Sir Walter Scott so loved this view that his hearse pulled up here one final time on the way to his funeral.

These days a simple stone plinth and plaque marks the spot, which is included on a range of cycling and walking routes, plus many day trips from Edinburgh into the Borders area. Scott's View is a favorite local spot for newly married couples to be photographed.

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Loch Ness
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While visitors flock to Loch Ness hoping to catch a glimpse of its elusive and eponymous monster, Loch Ness—a lake in the Scottish Highlands—is worth the trip even if you don’t believe the rumors. Vast and surrounded by magnificent Scottish scenery, Loch Ness is a popular boating and sightseeing spot.

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Glencoe (Glen Coe)
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Bordered by steep, waterfall-threaded mountains, dramatic Glencoe (Glen Coe) is the stuff of Scottish postcards. Though it has historical significance—it was the site of the 1692 Glencoe Massacre of the MacDonald Clan—and its very own ski resort, Glencoe Mountain Resort, the valley’s main draw is its spectacular scenery.

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Eilean Donan Castle
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One of the most photographed sites in Scotland, the Eilean Donan Castle dates back to the 13th century. Built as a defense against the Vikings and used during the Jacobite rebellions in the 18th century, this loch-side castle was restored in the 20th century and is now a popular destination for weddings and tours.

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St. Andrews
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The seaside town of St. Andrews is known for its magnificent 12th-century cathedral ruins and elite university, which was founded in the 15th century. Both Prince William and Kate Middleton attended the school. St. Andrews is also a pilgrimage site for golfers, who come to try out the famous Old Course, which dates back some 600 years.

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St. Andrews Castle
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St. Andrews Castle on the east coast of Scotland dates back to the 1100s and was home to the Archbishops of St. Andrews. It was once the main administrative center of the Scottish church. The castle was badly damaged during the Wars of Independence and little of the original castle remains today. The new castle was finished around 1400 and was built to be easily defended. Steep cliffs to the north and east protected the castle, and the building included thick curtain walls and ditches. Five square towers served as living space for the bishop, his large household, and guests.

Later St. Andrews Castle served as a prison. Visitors can see the bottle dungeon where John Knox and George Wishart may have been imprisoned. Cardinal Beaton's body was also kept here after his murder. The mine gives visitors a sense of what medieval siege warfare was like. The castle also offers impressive views of the sea over the rugged rocky coast.

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Royal Mile
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The atmospheric Royal Mile thoroughfare cuts through the historic core of Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, extending for slightly more than a mile from Edinburgh Castle all the way to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Both sides of the partly pedestrianized street are bordered by historic granite buildings bearing shop display windows piled high with symbols of Scotland, from tartan to whisky to shortbread. In between the former tenements and taverns are darkened arm-width-wide alleyways, known locally as closes.

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More Things to Do in Scotland

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

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Edinburgh Castle—with its fortress walls, cobbled promenades, and winding stone steps—has loomed over Scotland’s capital city for more than 1,000 years. Steeped in history, the former royal residence is now a museum, featuring detailed exhibits; period artifacts, such as the Scottish Crown Jewels; and dark dungeons that illuminate the castle’s storied past.

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George Square

George Square

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Dwarfed by haughty buildings on all sides and surrounded by statues of great Scots, George Square makes sense of poet John Betjeman’s claim that Glasgow is “the greatest Victorian city in the world.”

Named after King George III and built in 1781, George Square began life as little more than a muddy hollow used for slaughtering horses. Today, it’s surrounded by some of grandest buildings in the city, not least the imposing Glasgow City Chambers on the east side.

To Glaswegians, George Square is the city’s cultural center. Hosting concerts and events throughout the year, it comes alive during winter, when children skate around the ice rink and parents enjoy mulled wine at the Christmas market. In summer, George Square is a good place to find a bench and watch the world go by.

George Square leads to Glasgow’s famous shopping streets in the Style Mile, as well as the ritzy Merchant City district. Glasgow’s main tourist information office sits on the south side, and sightseeing buses begin their journeys here, making this a handy place to get oriented with the city.

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Grassmarket

Grassmarket

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Steeped in history, the Grassmarket is located directly below Edinburgh Castle and is just a minute’s walk from the famous Royal Mile and the National Museum of Scotland. A vibrant and historic area, here visitors can soak up the medieval atmosphere while marvelling at one of the most iconic views in the city, the mighty Edinburgh Castle.

A stroll over the George IV Bridge leads to the Greyfriars Bobby statue and through some of Edinburgh’s oldest and most famous streets, including Candlemaker Row, Victoria Street, and West Port.

The Grassmarket was traditionally a meeting point for market traders and cattle drovers, with temporary lodgings and taverns all around. It was also once a place of public execution, and a memorial near the site once occupied by the gibbet was created in 1937 to commemorate more than 100 people who died on the gallows in a period known as The Killing Time.

Nowadays, the old market area is surrounded by pubs, clubs, shops, and two large hotels. Most buildings in the area are Victorian, with several modern buildings on the area’s south side.

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Glasgow Cathedral

Glasgow Cathedral

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Dating back to medieval times, Glasgow Cathedral is the only medieval cathedral on Scotland’s mainland to have survived the Reformation almost fully intact. A magnificent Gothic construction, it features stained-glass windows, a 15th-century stone choir screen, and the tomb of St. Mungo, Glasgow’s patron saint.

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Doune Castle

Doune Castle

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A favorite filming location for movie and TV productions, medieval Doune Castle has appeared inMonty Python and the Holy Grail,Game of Thrones, andOutlander. Built for the Duke of Albany in the 14th century, the castle—now semi-ruined—has welcomed such illustrious guests as Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bonnie Prince Charles.

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Isle of Harris

Isle of Harris

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Split into North and South Harris by Loch Tarbert, the north of Harris is all about the dramatic mountains while the south is home to some of the best beaches in the country, like Luskentyre — the famous sandy bay that looks out to the blustery isle of Taransay. Though it may come as a surprise, the Isle of Harris isn’t actually an island at all. It’s actually joined with Lewis.

Harris is world-famous for Harris tweed, and there’s a strong tradition of quality crafts shops and galleries. For a feel of how crofters’ life must have been in the not-so-distant past, visit the abandoned village of Molinginish and wander the stone croft blackhouses. Near the village of Rodel, the medieval kirk of St. Clement is also a popular visit. From Harris, it’s also possible to take a boat trip over to the craggy island of St Kilda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to over a million birds. A popular place for hill walking and kayaking, many hikers come to Harris to climb Clisham, which at 2,621 feet, is the tallest mountain in the Outer Hebrides.

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Edinburgh Old Town

Edinburgh Old Town

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The historic heart of Edinburgh, UNESCO-listed Old Town, is home to the city’s most visited sights. Its central artery is the Royal Mile, which connects Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and is lined with top attractions including St. Giles Cathedral, Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, and the Scottish Parliament Building.

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Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

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Founded in 1835, Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions is one of Edinburgh’s oldest tourist attractions. Located on the top floor, the Camera Obscura provides real-time views of the city, while the five floors below it are crammed with puzzles, optical illusions, and interactive exhibits that fool the eye and the mind.

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Cairngorms National Park

Cairngorms National Park

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Stretching over 1,500 square miles, Cairngorms National Park is a popular destination for mountain bikers, nature lovers, sea kayakers, and hikers. The park has been named one of the world’s Last Great Places by National Geographic and is the perfect place to enjoy Scotland’s renowned wild landscapes of granite mountains and deep lochs.

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Fort Augustus

Fort Augustus

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A village on the shores of Loch Ness, Fort Augustus is a popular destination in the Scottish Highlands. Once a garrison in the 18th century, the scenic village today attracts cyclists, hikers, and travelers in search of the Loch Ness monster. It’s also a gateway to the Great Glen Way, a 73-mile trail that runs from Inverness to Fort William.

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Kilt Rock

Kilt Rock

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Kilt Rock is a sea cliff on the north end of Trotternish in northern Scotland. It was named Kilt Rock for its resemblance to a kilt. The vertical cliff is composed of both igneous and sedimentary rock which come together in vertical bands and look like the pleats of a kilt. The cliff is 200 feet high and one of many impressive cliffs along this coast.

Kilt Rock is close to a waterfall that tumbles into the pebbled shore of the Sound of Raasay below. This waterfall is called Mealt Waterfall, and sometimes the wind here is so strong the water doesn't even reach the bottom before being blown away. There is a popular viewing spot that overlooks the dramatic sea cliffs where visitors can see both Kilt Rock and Mealt Waterfall. It is a fenced area and allows visitors to get their postcard pictures of both of these natural beauties in one frame.

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The Gordon Highlanders Museum

The Gordon Highlanders Museum

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Located in Aberdeen’s West End, the Gordon Highlanders Museum is dedicated to what Sir Winston Churchill once described as “the finest regiment in the world.” The Gordon Highlanders were active from 1794 to 1994, and the independently run military museum is committed to preserving and sharing the legacy of the historic infantry unit.

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Rannoch Moor

Rannoch Moor

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With its expanse of heather-speckled moors, peat bogs and mist-veiled lochs, Rannoch Moor offers an enchanting introduction to the wild scenery of the Scottish Highlands. Vast, remote and uninhabitable, the moors stretch over 12,800 hectares (128 sq.km) between Glencoe and Loch Rannoch, and have long been a favorite spot for hikers and photographers looking to escape the beaten track.

The easiest way to take in the dramatic scenery of Rannoch Moor is with a ride on the West Highland Railway, a historic route that runs through a 23-mile stretch of the moors. Alternatively a number of hiking, cycling and 4WD trails offer the chance to discover the rugged moorlands and the surrounding mountains, as well as spot native wildlife like Red and Roe deer, red squirrel, Golden Eagle and even the elusive Scottish Wildcat.

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Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis

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Rising 4,409 feet (1,344 meters) above sea level, Ben Nevis is Scotland’s tallest mountain and a premiere destination for climbers. Once a massive volcano that exploded and collapsed inward, the summit is frequently shrouded in mist. In Gaelic, it is called the “mountain with its head in the clouds” and also “venomous mountain.”

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