A road trip in Scotland will likely start where you arrive, however, our Scottish road trip itinerary kind of loops around, like a figure 8, meaning you can begin pretty much anywhere from our destination list below. For example, from Edinburgh, I would probably start at St. Andrews, and from Glasgow, I would maybe start at Loch Lomond. However, when we travel from Belfast in Northern Ireland, with a ferry crossing from the island of Ireland, we typically start in the southwest of Scotland in Ayr. Given it is the first major destination after arrival from the Stena Line ports and ferries travelling from Belfast to Cairnryan. A ferry route which also offers the option to include Northern Ireland and maybe even the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland, on an extended driving tour of Scotland. Anyway, below we share our Top 10 Best Places to visit in Scotland on a Scotland Road Trip Itinerary.
When to Visit Scotland?
We have covered at least most of these Scottish tourist attractions through various seasons; including the busy tourist months of summer, and when the roads were heaped with snow through amber travel alerts in winter in the northern highlands (check our video below). But it is hard to say when is the best time to visit Scotland, as even in low season and rainy months the lakes and mountains are just atmospheric and exciting for Scotland driving tour routes. Otherwise, I guess it depends on interests in sightseeing and travel, whether it is the warmth of castles and scotch during the winter months or the seaside summer charm during the holiday months of Scotland.
This pick may be influenced by personal nostalgia, somewhat, as the coastal resort of Ayr has always been a popular seaside destination for day-trippers travelling with Stena Line (coach and sail) from Northern Ireland. And it’s perfect for a stopover before travelling north towards the lochs and mountains in northern Scotland. It also shares the traditional seaside cliches and charm of British beach resorts, with seafront kiosks selling ice cream, rock and buckets-n-spades, and a seafront promenade with amusements and arcades. So it’s the perfect destination for families and kids. And while it is more popular during summer holidays in Scotland, it is no doubt scenic year-round, and it is a popular commuter town for the well-heeled folk working in the not-so-far city of Glasgow. (Hotel Deals in Ayr).
Best Places to Visit Near Ayr?
Ayr itself is undoubtedly one of the Best Places to Visit in Scotland during summer. But the surrounding county of Ayrshire in the Scottish Lowlands also shares a bunch of popular tourist sites which are focused on the revered Rabbie Burns who is the National Poet of Scotland. This includes the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and Mausoleum, and, for those travelling in May, you cannot miss the annual Burnsfest (Burns an’a’ that! Festival). Other near-ish tourist attractions to add to a Scotland Road Trip itinerary then include Culzean Castle and Country Park, and Dalgarven Mill Museum. So
Loch Lomond (Argyll)
It is possible to follow the coastline from Ayr to Argyll, but with the many islands and sea lochs dotted along Scotland’s southwest coastlines, it can be somewhat tricky (it normally includes 2 car ferries). And while it does add a bit of adventure to a Scotland Road Trip Itinerary, a detour past Glasgow is much simpler, along a route that soon leads to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. So Loch Lomond is the perfect introduction to the majestic lakes (Lochs) of Scotland, given it is the largest lake in the entire country, and there really is just a lot to explore (Hotel Deals around Loch Lomond).
Best Places to Visit Near Loch Lomond?
“The Queen of Scottish Lakes” is known foremost for its natural beauty, but the area also shares many tourist attractions such as Loch Lomond Shores and Sea Life Aquarium, and a couple of our own recommendations would be Loch Lomond cruises with Sweeney’s Cruises as well as a visit to the Inveruglas Pyramid viewpoint. Note, it is best to drive anti-clockwise when circling Loch Lomond (around Balloch), as it makes it easier to pull in at scenic laybys and viewpoints along the way. And it is undoubtedly one of the Best Places to Visit in Scotland.
I would then travel back towards the coast from Loch Lomond (A83) where the scenery becomes just rather stunning as the Scottish Road Trip passes boundless landscapes of freshwater and sea lochs surrounded by lush mountain scenery. Along the way, I would recommend a stop at Inverary for Inveraray Castle and Auchindrain Township before basing a stay in the quaint and cute fishing village of Tarbert (Hotel Deals in Tarbert). As it is just a 10-minute drive from Tarbert to reach the Kennacraig Port for travel to the island of Islay (Calmac Ferries Crossing here). It really is easy to reach Islay as well where you just drive onto the ferry at one side and drive off at the opposite. And I share our visit to Islay in the video below as well as a full guide to travel to Islay as well. (Hotel Deals on Islay). For
There I would hie me and there I would rest – At hame wi’ my ain folk in Islay
Best Things to do on Islay?
A visit to Scotland is not complete without a visit to a whisky distillery. And when it comes to Scotch whisky there is nothing more distinctive than the sexy seductive peat-smoked single malts of Islay. And while there is of course more to Islay than just whisky, the distilleries are just fascinating, with big-name Scotches such as Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Bowmore and Kilchoman found on the island (Full blog to come). And while Islay is easily one of the Best Places to Visit in Scotland for whisky, but a visit to Islay also ticks off the essential visit to Scottish islands. Full Islay tour here.
I could spend a week or so exploring whisky in this region of Scotland, including Jura and the surrounding coasts of Argyll and Bute. And to do this I would probably base myself in Tarbert as it is more central to travel and is just more relaxed and traditional. Before travelling north along the coast of Argyll to the larger and busier seaport of Oban. Again these roads follow a rather scenic coastal route along the Peninsula of Kintyre, and while I do prefer the sleepy village life along this coastline, Oban is the largest resort town in the region with a lot to offer when it comes to tourist attractions and places to see in Scotland. (Hotel Deals in Oban)
Best Things to do in Oban?
One of the more obvious tourist attractions in Oban is McCaig’s Tower on Battery Hill with panoramic views over the town and ports of Oban. Then there is Dunstaffnage Castle and Chapel which is worth a visit, as well as a handful of other historical sites like Dunollie Museum, Castle and Grounds, Gylen Castle and St. Columba’s Cathedral. And there are just the various remnants of the remarkable castles of Oban from the past. Then there are more niche interests in the Oban War & Peace Museum, and of course more whisky opportunities at Oban distillery, and it definitely ranks in the best Places to Visit in Scotland.
It is around an hour or so from Oban to reach the handy tourist town of Fort William (Hotel Deals in Fort William), which is a bit like the gateway to the Highlands, along with the many sights the region has to offer. And while I am a bit mixed on Glenfinnan as one of the best things to do in Scotland (it’s a bit of a niche interest with Harry Potter fans) it is undoubtedly a beautiful scene as the famous Jacobite Steam Train (aka the Hogwarts Express) puffs on past (our Jacobite Steam Train Guide here). So you will likely be surrounded by a crowd of Potterheads during the summer months, which is when the train operates the crossing at the Glenfinnan Viaduct. As the area is otherwise serene and silent in the winter months when this train is cancelled and in hibernation.
Best Places to Visit near Glenfinnan?
There are various heritage sites and tourist attractions in Glenfinnan including the Glenfinnan Viaduct, where directly opposite is the historic Glenfinnan Monument which sits on the banks of Loch Shiel. There is also the Station Museum, the Trail View Point, St. Mary and St. Finnan Catholic Church, and together these do make the journey from Fort William worthwhile. However, an experience high up on my personal to-do list, is the actual Jacobite Steam Train journey which sets out from Fort William before crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct en route to Mallaig. And there will be a full guide on Glenfinnan to come as one of the Best Places to Visit in Scotland. Anyway, for now, here’s the famous Harry Potter scene that has created such a boom in tourism at Glenfinnan.
So Fort William is like a gateway to the Highlands, including Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in the British Isles, which is just a 20-minute drive away. But I would otherwise recommend Glencoe as the ideal start to exploring the highlands following a northeast route (A82) past seemingly endless scenic views of towering hills and the mountains of Scotland’s Highlands. And this includes another niche interest in Glen Etive which was the setting for James Bond’s ancestral home in the movie Skyfall.
Best Places to Visit near Glencoe?
The Glencoe Visitor Centre (National Trust) is always a good start for info and insights on the volcanoes and glaciers of these towering mountain scenes. But I actually found myself more fascinated by local history and the stories of the Jacobite Rebellion, in particular, the Massacre of Glencoe. But, being a Campbell, I almost feel I’d be better off not knowing. Otherwise, the surrounding mountains are just huge attractions for walks and hiking year-round, as well as for extreme sports like kayaking and mountain biking before skiing and snowboarding in the snowy winter months.
The Cairngorms (Highlands)
I would then travel northeast from Glencoe, past Loch Tay, and towards the Cairngorms National Park. And while I admit I haven’t ventured much further into Aberdeenshire, it’s because I always find myself distracted by the hills and lakes of Scotland’s highlands. So the Cairngorms is really not to be missed, and more so in winter, when the mountains surrounding Aviemore (Hotel Deals in Aviemore) are huge skiing destinations including Scotland’s largest ski resort at Glenshee Ski Centre. But even for those who do not ski, there are all sorts of winter sports in this region, and we always regret not bringing a sledge with us as there are seemingly endless opportunities to mess around in the snow. In all, it is infinitely one of the Best Places to Visit in Scotland during winter.
Best Things to do in the Cairngorms?
Some alternative highlights in the Cairngorms include Loch Morlich, a small freshwater lake near Aviemore, which is big for watersports in summer. And will be likely iced over in the winter. There is also a popular reindeer park for Christmas visits, as well as wild deer, mountain hares, and lots of birds like the red grouse and ptarmigan, found in the forests. Otherwise, the scenery is awesome with snow domed summits, steep cliffs, and just an extensive mountain range through the Cairngorms National Park. And of course you can always visit the Edradour Whisky Distillery.
Loch Ness (Highlands)
We would now cross back over towards the big lochs in the northern Highlands, and it’s really not far before reaching the Capital of the Highlands at Inverness (Hotel Deals in Inverness). So Inverness takes its name from the “Mouth of the River Ness” as the river runs through the city and into the famous Loch Ness. A lake that is foremost famous as the home of the ‘mythical’ Loch Ness monster. Aka Nessie. Otherwise, Loch Ness is one of Scotland’s biggest freshwater lochs spanning 23 miles through the Scottish highlands, and the route west, towards the Isle of Skye, has some of the most perfect scenery I’ve come across in Scotland.
Best Places to Visit near Loch Ness?
Obviously Nessie would be the main attraction in Loch Ness, although chances of seeing him are pretty slim, to none. But there are some really nice views over Loch Ness from Urquhart Castle, as well as a visitor centre, and other Nessie related attractions include the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition found in Inverness, as well as Nessieland for the kids. Otherwise, Inverness and Inverness Castle are well worth seeing on a stopover (Hotel Deals in Inverness), and the waterfalls of Falls of Foyers make a great excursion on a Scotland Road Trip itinerary in the Highlands.
Isle of Skye (Highlands)
There are some scenic attractions towards the Isle of Skye, including the spell-bounding Eilean Donan Castle, located in the lakes of Kyle of Lochalsh. Then there is the connection between the mainland to the Isle of Skye crossing the Skye Bridge (toll-free) shortly after. Otherwise, Skye is a somewhat unworldly place with endless stretches of scenery and landscapes dotted with little more than sheep at times. And Skye is just so remote throughout that driving is often on single-track roads as cars have to pull into “passing places” to allow for 2-way traffic to pass. But the roads are relatively empty on the Isle of Skye anyway making it perfect for a Scotland Road Trip Itinerary. (Hotel Deals on the Isle of Skye).
Best Places to Visit near the Isle of Skye?
The Isle of Skye is otherwise known for its medieval castles, fishing villages and just pleasant landscapes. There are also a handful of tourist attractions scattered around, including Armadale Castle, the Museum of the Isles, Dunvegan Castle, and the hike to the Old Man of Storr. And of course one of the most famous peat-smoked whiskys at the Talisker Distillery.
St Andrews (Fife)
There is a huge leap in the itinerary now from the Isle of Skye to the opposite side of Scotland in Saint Andrews (around 5 hours driving time). But the route also passes through the highlands where a stop at Fort William helps break up the drive to either tick off those earlier attractions (Glenfinnan and Glencoe) or maybe add more on to the itinerary. So there are two routes to St Andrews either following a northern path through the lower Cairngorms (A9) or a more southern path past Glencoe and the upper parts of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Both sharing fantastic scenery. However, traffic does become busier now on this Scotland Road Trip Itinerary before crossing the Tay Road Bridge across the River Tay to St Andrews (Hotel Deals in St Andrews).
Best Things to do in St Andrews?
St Andrews is foremost famous for its myriad of golf courses, but most famously it is home to St Andrews Golf Course (St Andrews Links Trust), which is known as the “Home of Golf” as one of the oldest courses in the world (15th century). And it is kind of a Mecca for Golf enthusiasts, and, for those unable to play golf, there will always be the British Golf Museum chronicling the history of golf in the UK. But there is more to St. Andrews for traditional tourists, including the castle ruins of Saint Andrews Castle and Cathedral. And the prestigious buildings of the University of St Andrews which is the oldest university in Scotland, and third oldest in all of the UK (after Oxford and Cambridge). Then West Sands Beach is a tourist magnet and one of the Best Places to Visit in Scotland during the summer months.
It is rare that we travel further south in Scotland apart from crossing the border into northern England via the bridge Dumfries (here for possible tourist suggestions). Otherwise the furthest south we would travel would be to Edinburgh, Scotland’s medieval capital city, and while I don’t normally recommend built-up destinations on a road trip, Edinburgh is a must-visit if you have never visited before. In fact, it’s probably my favourite city in all of the UK.