The northeast of Scotland boasts stunning castles, endless sandy beaches, picturesque lighthouses and quaint harbour towns like no other region in Scotland. Go off the beaten track with this North East Scotland Itinerary including the best routes for Aberdeenshire and Fife, useful travel tips and plenty of inspiration for your trip.
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North East Scotland lies mostly off the beaten track. While the majority of visitors head west and north to discover the Highlands and islands, the east sees significantly fewer visitors.
This itinerary for North East Scotland covers Aberdeenshire, Fife, Dundee and parts of Perthshire. I followed this itinerary on a road trip with my mum in June 2016, but have added a few more tips and stops since returning to some of the locations.
Using this itienrary, you will…
- visit some of Scotland’s exciting cities (Aberdeen + Dundee),
- and relaxed seaside towns such as St Andrews, Stonehaven and Crovie,
- hike in the Cairngorms National Park,
- discover the Fife coast,
- follow the Scottish Castle Trail and
- visit an official Royal Residence in the Royal Deeside.
All in one week!
If you love going off the beaten path, you will love this road trip to North East Scotland. Let’s go!
Get in touch and let me help you plan a trip that is 100% YOU!
North East Scotland Map
Scotland’s east coast has a lot to offer. Up and down the coast, there are fairytale castles and vast sandy beaches, colourful lighthouses and quaint harbour towns, beautiful hiking areas and lots of habitat for Scottish wildlife.
Further inland, the Cairngorm mountains frame lush valleys and serene lochs, farmers grow strawberries and big estates offer castles, adventure parks and tranquil woodlands.
Check the map below for all the scenic stops, activities and places mentioned in this post.
Travel Guide: North East Scotland
Getting around North East Scotland?
The best way to explore the northeast of Scotland is by car. It gives you more flexibility and allows you to reach even the most remote beaches, hikes and villages.
However, it is possible to explore Scotland’s northeast coast by public transport too – you might just have to slow down a little and choose places that are easy to reach.
The train lines that connect Aberdeen with Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen stop for example in Leuchars (near St Andrews), Dundee, Stonehaven and Elgin, which are all beautiful places to visit.
There is also an extensive bus network in Aberdeenshire and Fife, which makes it possible to explore further off the beaten track.
You could also spend a few days in Aberdeen and book guided day trips to visit castles and other sites in the area with tour companies like Rabbie’s.
How many days do you need in North East Scotland?
This itinerary covers one week (7 days) which is a good amount of time to get an overview of what the northeast of Scotland has to offer.
If you can, I recommend spending a few additional days to explore more in-depth.
For example, if you have 8 days in Scotland, add a day in northern Aberdeenshire (Banff), spend a night in Aberdeen to explore the city more in-depth or add a night in Edinburgh if you’ve never been before.
While distances are not incredibly overwhelming, driving can take up a significant amount of time, as many of the minor roads are winding and narrow. You will find yourself stop a lot for sights along the way.
Why should you visit Scotland’s northeast?
Let me ask you: why not?
The west of Scotland is without a doubt the more famous part of the country – who has not heard about Loch Ness, Glencoe, the Jacobite Steam Train or the Isle of Skye? But these regions can also be incredibly busy, especially during the summer.
The east coast offers a lot more tranquillity and a feeling of exploring off the beaten path.
The mountains in the west work their magic on the east – the east coast is blessed with a much drier climate, lush and fertile landscapes and beautiful sandy beaches.
Here are some of the highlights you can expect on the northeast coast of Scotland:
- Less rain, drier climate.
- The Scottish Castle Trail with 19 castles & many more castles on top of that.
- Endless sandy beaches along the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail and the Fife Coastal Path.
- Stunning lighthouses with a fascinating history.
- Delicious whisky from the Speyside whisky distilleries.
- Hiking for all levels in the Cairngorms National Park.
- Golf and history in St Andrews.
- The freshest produce from local farmers.
- Thriving cities like Aberdeen and Dundee.
- Quaint seaside towns and fishing villages up and down the coast.
- Lovely locals who are passionate about their beautiful regions.
I could go on and on! Many of these things are reasons to visit all of Scotland, but why not try something new and go off the beaten track?
One Week Itinerary for North East Scotland
Day 1: From Glasgow the Royal Deeside
Our journey began in Glasgow, although you could just as easily leave from Edinburgh or either of the airports. If you leave in the late morning or early afternoon, you will have plenty of time for stops on the way to the Royal Deeside.
We made our way through Perthshire and the southern Cairngorms to the lush valley of the Royal Deeside.
Stop 1: Dunkeld
The grounds of Dunkeld Cathedral make for a lovely walk, but the real highlight is The Hermitage just outside the village (£3 parking fee, FREE for National Trust for Scotland members. Join here!). A 15-minute walk from the car park leads you to the stunning Black Linn Falls which look particularly stunning from the balcony of Ossian’s Hall [Outlander site].
Stop 2: Detour to Pitlochry
A little further up the A9, stop in Pitlochry, a bustling Victorian town with a lively high street, two nearby whisky distilleries (Blair Atholl and Edradour) and lovely walks along the River Tummel. For tea and cakes head to Hettie’s Tearoom.
Nearby Blair Castle & Gardens is well worth the detour (£14 Castle + Gardens, £7.70 Gardens only).
Stop 3: Into the Cairngorms National Park
From Pitlochry make your way through the hills towards Glenshee and the Cairnwell Pass road – one of the highest mountain roads in the UK.
Stop to see the iconic Devil’s Elbow hairpin bend which is still visible next to the main road about 1 km south of the Glenshee ski centre.
You are now deep in the Cairngorm mountains and thus the Cairngorms National Park. The road descends down at the other side of the pass and soon you will reach the beautiful valley of the Royal Deeside.
Overnight in Dinnet (2 nights)
We booked 2 nights at the Loch Kinord Hotel in Dinnet, a traditional Scottish hotel with a lovely beer garden and an on-site restaurant.
ROYAL Deeside Travel essentials
ACCOMMODATION: Loch Kinord Hotel in Dinnet, from £95 per double room, Book it here!
FOOD & DRINK: Light lunches from The Bothy in Ballater, dinner at the on-site restaurant at Loch Kinord Hotel and picnic supplies from Deeside Deli Shop and Chalmers Bakery in Ballater.
THINGS TO DO: Balmoral Castle, Muir of Dinnet walking trails, hiking in the Cairngorms National Park, bicycle hire, other castles on the Scottish Castle Trail.
Day 2: Explore the Royal Deeside
We spent a whole day discovering the Royal Deeside, the lush valley along the River Dee.
Stop 1: Balmoral Castle
Balmoral Castle has been an official Royal Residence since 1852 when Prince Albert bought the estate and re-modelled the castle for Queen Victoria.
She had fallen in love with Scotland and particularly this region on her trips north, and together they built a stunning castle with many fascinating gardens (flowers, vegetables, leisure).
I highly recommend visiting first thing in the morning to beat the crowds (£12). You can’t visit the inside of the castle, but the audio-guided tour leads around the beautiful castle gardens and to a ballroom in a side-wing of the castle.
Find out what else to consider & expect when visiting Balmoral Castle.
Stop 2: Lunch in Ballater
Back in the day, Queen Victoria would have arrived in the charming village of Ballater on the train from Aberdeen and taken a coach from there to her castle. Naturally, Ballater became a popular holiday town for anyone who wanted to spend their summers near the Queen.
We visited Ballater for a short walk through the village and lunch at The Bothy.
We also picked up treats from Deeside Deli and Chalmers Bakery for the afternoon.
Stop 3: Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve
The Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve near the village of Dinnet offers many family-friendly trails and picnic areas.
Loch Kinord Trail is around 4 miles long and very easy to walk. It circuits the lake, leads through bright birch woodlands, up and down the gentle hills of the lakeshore, and across gorgeous meadows covered in flower carpets and rabbit burrows.
Another popular like at the Muir of Dinnet leads to Burn o Vat, a deep “bowl” that was carved by rain and water over thousands of years. You can enter the bowl through a short tunnel and inside you’ll find a hidden waterfall. It’s truly a hidden gem.
Other Things to do in the Royal Deeside
Scottish Castle Trail: You could visit more castles on the Scottish Castle Trail. From Ballater, it is a 35-minute drive to Craigievar Castle (£14.50) or 45 minutes to Crathes Castle (£14.50), which are both FREE for National Trust for Scotland members – join here!
Cairngorms National Park: For more strenuous hikes with more rewarding views, choose a more challenging trail in the Cairngorms National Park.
Hire Bikes: Rent bicycles from one of the bike rental shops in Ballater (Bike Station or Cycle Highlands) and follow the trail along the old railway which brought Queen Victoria and the British aristocracy to Ballater in the 1850s.
Day 3: Road trip along the East Coast
Instead of taking the fastest route to our next stop on the northeast coast, we opted for the longer, yet much more scenic drive along the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail.
The coast of North East Scotland is dotted with beautiful beaches and picturesque lighthouses, a real paradise for beach bums and photographers. We spend the entire day on the road with multiple stops.
Stop 1: Old Aberdeen
Aberdeen is a bustling city – the third biggest in Scotland. You could spend an entire day here – and I highly encourage you to do so, if you can add another day to your Scotland trip. There is a lot to do and see, but because this itinerary focuses more on scenery and small towns, we decided to only include a short stop in Old Aberdeen.
Old Aberdeen is a historic part of Aberdeen and home to the main campus of the University of Aberdeen.
While the buildings of the university are beautiful to look at, it is also important to acknowledge the ways in which the institution has benefitted from wealth related to historic slavery. You read more about this here and here.
Park your car near St Machar’s Cathedral (paid street parking), a marvellous Gothic church with twin towers and a beautiful nave. From there, take a walk down to the main building of the University and discover the small cobbled lanes around the campus.
For a small scenic detour, drive on to the Brig o’ Balgownie which lies in a charming historic village within Aberdeen.
Stop 2: Balmedie Beach
Balmedie Beach lies just north of Aberdeen and is easily accessible by car. We made our way to the sea through the high sand dunes and spent some time walking up and down the beach, watching dogs play in the waves and digging our toes into the sand.
Stop 3: Rattray Head Lighthouse
The iconic Rattray Head Lighthouse had been on my bucket list for ages. Technically, it is a “rock house”, built on a rock off the shore.
During high tide (which we were lucky enough to witness), the lighthouse is surrounded by the crashing waves of the Atlantic – it’s a brilliant photo op! At low tide, you can walk much closer to the lighthouse.
To reach Rattray Head you definitely need a car and some guts, as the beach’s lies at the end of a very bumpy single track road with huge potholes and few passing places. The view was worth the effort though!
Stop 4: The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses
The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is located in the small fishing town of Fraserburgh which sits at the north-easternmost point of Scotland (£8.80).
The museum exhibits an impressive collection of lighthouse lenses, some twice as wide in diameter as I am tall, and tells the story of the Stevenson family who built over 93 lighthouses in 150 years.
Make sure you join a tour of the old lighthouse of Kinnaird Head which is included in your museum ticket – they begin every hour between 11 am and 4 pm during the summer.
From the top of the lighthouse, you don’t only get an amazing view, but you also learn more about the hard labour it took to keep the ships at sea safe before lighthouses were automated.
Overnight in Banff (1 night)
We arrived in Banff just in time for a wander through the historic town centre, sunset at the harbour and a well-deserved dinner after a packed day on the road.
We spent only one night in Banff, but if you can, I recommend staying two.
That would give you more time to visit local attractions such as Duff House (£9, FREE for Historic Environment Scotland members & Explorer Pass holders) with or the Museum of Banff. You would also have an additional day to explore the north coast of Aberdeenshire, the Moray Coast and the Speyside. You could visit scenic places such as Portsoy, Cullen and Bow Fiddle Rock in Portknockie.
BANFF Travel essentials
ACCOMMODATION: Carmelite House Hotel, from £75 per small double room, Book it here!
FOOD & DRINK: The Fife Restaurant (Scottish cuisine)
THINGS TO DO: Duff House, Museum of Banff, Crovie, Cullen and Bow Fiddle Rock on the Moray Coast.
Day 4: From Banff to St Andrews
Time to head south again and make our way to the final region on our itinerary – the Kingdom of Fife. But first, a few more iconic landmarks in Aberdeenshire.
Stop 1: Crovie
Crovie is a tiny village nestled against the cliffs of northern Aberdeenshire. And when I say “nestled against the cliffs”, I mean literally clinging on to the steep rocks.
The village is built on a very narrow strip of land between the cliffs and the sea. There is a narrow road that leads down to the small pier (only to be used by locals), but there is no road in the village – just a narrow footpath in front of the houses.
That makes a trip to Crovie a true adventure not to be missed.
Stop 2: Stonehaven + Dunnottar Castle
Dunnottar Castle is an iconic ruin on the Scottish Castle Trail. It sits on a headland that is connected to the mainland by just a narrow strip of land. On the other three sides, it is surrounded by the sea.
The cliffs of the headland are steep and waves crash relentlessly against them – the castle seems impenetrable.
Yet, the ruin is open to the public (£7) and one of the most fascinating castles to visit in Scotland.
The best way to reach the castle is on foot from the nearby seaside town of Stonehaven. The walk along the coast to Dunnottar Castle takes about 40 minutes to one hour.
Stop 3: Dundee
Dundee is an underdog among Scottish cities, but ever since the opening of the V&A Dundee no one can argue any longer – it is a great idea to stop in Dundee. If only for a few hours.
From Dundee, it’s a half-hour drive to St Andrews.
Overnight in St Andrews (2 nights)
We stayed in my partner’s family’s caravan at East Sands. Caravans are available to rent at the St Andrews Holiday Park, but there is a 4-night minimum. There are many hotels and B&Bs around St Andrews that also provide shorter stays.
ST ANDREWS Travel essentials
FOOD & DRINK: Doll’s House (French-Scottish cuisine), Zizzi (Italian), St Andrews Brewing Company (burgers), Fisher & Donaldson (patisserie – fudge doughnuts), Jannetta’s (ice cream), Keys Bar (traditional pub), The Cellar Bar (bar & live music).
THINGS TO DO: St Andrews Cathedral and Castle, St Rule’s Tower, East Sands beach, historic Old Course.
Day 5: Explore St Andrews and Fife
There are many things to do in St Andrews – it definitely pays off looking at my travel guide for St Andrews for a full list of options.
I recommend spending half the day exploring St Andrews and then heading to the fishing villages on the East Neuk of Fife in the afternoon.
Things to do in St Andrews
Highlights in St Andrews include the ruins of the Cathedral (£6, FREE for Historic Environment Scotland members & Explorer Pass holders), climbing St Rule’s Tower for views of the town, St Andrews Castle (£9, FREE for Historic Environment Scotland members & Explorer Pass holders), grabbing a fudge doughnut from Fisher & Donaldson or ice cream from Jannetta’s and heading to East Sands beach for a wander.
If you love gold, make sure to also visit the historic Old Course.
East Neuk of Fife
The fishing villages on the East Neuk are Crail, Anstruther, Pittenweem, St Monans and Elie – and one is more scenic than the other. Here you will find fresh fish & chips (for example at the Anstruther Fish Bar), scenic harbours with colourful boats, ruins like Newark Castle or Lady Janet Anstruther’s Tower and endless beautiful beaches between.
You can even walk from Elie to Anstruther in 2-4 hours in order to experience the Fife Coastal Path at its best.
Other things to do in Fife
Of course, there are many more things to do in Fife and near St Andrews, such as visiting a whisky distillery (Kingsbarns or Eden Mill), visiting Outlander sites such as Falkland or hiking in the Lomond Hills Regional Park.
Day 6: St Andrews to South Queensferry
South Queensferry is a great place to end this itinerary. From there, it is an easy journey into central Edinburgh if you have time left at the end of your trip. Or just a 15-minute drive to Edinburgh airport – handy for those pesky early morning flights.
Even though it takes just one hour to drive from St Andrews to South Queensferry, I recommend spending the majority of the day “on the road” – there is plenty to do and see.
Stop 1: Isle of May Boat Trip
During the summer (mid-April to mid-August), I highly recommend you return to Anstruther in order to join a boat trip to the Isle of May. The island is home to a thriving puffin colony.
Standard trips take 4 to 4.5 hours and include 2.5 to 3 hours on the island, which is plenty of time to see puffins and take a million photos.
Stop 2: Dunfermline
Dunfermline is the ancient capital of Scotland and Scottish Kings were crowned and buried here for centuries.
The last King to be buried in Dunfermline was Robert the Bruce, whose grave can be visited at Dunfermline Abbey. Legend has it that his heart, however, was buried at Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders.
Take some time for a walk at Pittencrieff Park, stop for afternoon tea at the Carnegie Library and Galleries and explore the ruins of the old Abbey (£6, FREE for Historic Environment Scotland members & Explorer Pass holders).
Stop 3: South Queensferry
Eventually, you will cross the new Firth Road Bridge and reach South Queensferry.
The new road bridge only opened in 2017 (hence it’s still in construction on our photos), but the most iconic one might just be the bright red railway bridge, which is a masterpiece of Scottish engineering.
We spent the late afternoon strolling through the quaint village of South Queensferry and dipped in and out of bars and restaurants along the High Street which all offered magnificent views of the bridges.
Overnight in South Queensferry (1 night)
We booked a night at the Dakota which lies just outside the village centre, but still in easy walking distance to the high street.
From here it was just a 15-minute drive to Edinburgh Airport, which made it the perfect final hotel before my mum’s flight home.
SOUTH QUEENSFERRY Travel essentials
WHERE TO STAY: Dakota Hotel, from £80 per double room, Book it here!
FOOD & DRINK: Antico Bar at Orocco Pier Hotel has a lovely view of the bridges and lovely food (incl. a vegan menu).
Day 7: Departure Day
Time to pack your bags and head back to the airport – or maybe you have some more time to explore Scotland a bit longer?
How to extend this trip:
Day 8: Extend your stay in Banff to 2 nights in order to explore more of northern Aberdeenshire, the Moray Coast or the Speyside.
Day 9: Spend a night in Aberdeen to see more of the city.
Day 10: Visit Edinburgh or other nearby hidden gems such as Linlithgow Palace, the Kelpies or Blackness Castle (Outlander site).
A trip to Scotland does not necessarily have to visit the Highlands and Islands. Exploring North East Scotland can be just as rewarding and beautiful as a road trip on the west coast.
Aberdeenshire and Fife have so much to offer and you will experience a completely different side to Scotland. With this itinerary and plenty of ideas for things to do and see, all that is left to do is to book your flight and go!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.
Disclaimer: VisitScotland provided my mum and me with a rental car free of charge and two ASVA cards which grant free entrance to many of Scotland’s visitor attractions, including Balmoral Castle, St Andrews Cathedral & Castle and the Lighthouse museum in Fraserburgh.