Want to avoid soaring petrol prices or travel more eco-friendly? No matter why you choose to travel by train and bus, use this version of my Best of Scotland itinerary by public transport to explore the best of Highlands, the Isle of Skye, Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow without a car!
This post contains affiliate links from which I may make a commission. Find out more here. All opinions are my own.
Soaring petrol prices, rental car shortages, greater climate awareness, a fear of driving on the left – there are many reasons for why you might want to travel Scotland by public transport.
The Best of Scotland itinerary is the most popular itinerary on my website. But it’s primarily designed for people who hire a car and go on a road trip.
This blog post will help you to figure out how to see the best of Scotland and follow my route from Glasgow through the Highlands, to the Isle of Skye, Inverness and Edinburgh by public transport.
Read on for:
- The pros and cons of train and bus travel in Scotland
- Tips for using public transport in Scotland
- The pros and cons of train and bus travel in Scotland
- My most popular 8-day Scotland itinerary by public transport
- Some suggestions for alternative itineraries
- Some suggestions to extend the route to 10 or 14 days
You might also like: How to travel Scotland by Public Transport – A Practical Guide
The pros & cons of travelling Scotland by public transport
Going on a road trip with a (rental) car and travelling Scotland by public transport will give you very different experiences. Even though you can reach many of the same locations and follow roughly the same route, the end result will be wildly different.
Maybe you’re still weighing up your options, or maybe hiring a car is out of the question for whatever reason. Here are some things to consider when travelling Scotland by train and bus.
Pro – It’s more environmentally friendly: If traveling sustainably is important to you, that’s a biggie. Travelling by train and bus is a lot more eco-friendly and less harmful for the planet than hiring a petrol or diesel car. Especially if you travelled to Scotland by plane, continuing your journey on public transport can off-set some of your carbon emissions – or at least won’t add as much to your footprint.
You might also like: 14 tips for responsible tourism in Scotland
Con – It’s less flexible: Exploring Scotland by bus and train gives you less flexibility to explore – which is why my ready-made Scotland itineraries are all designed with a car in mind. You’re restricted to scheduled departure times and routes. This will dictate which places you can visit and now much time you have in each destination.
Pro – It’s cheaper than hiring a car: Another biggie. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, hiring a car has become incredibly expensive and now petrol prices are soaring too. Taking trains and buses around Scotland can be a lot cheaper, especially if you travel solo and purchase your tickets in advance.
Con – You can’t stop wherever you like: On public transport, you travel from A to B. If you get off at a stop in between, you have to wait for the next train or bus, and you have to take all your luggage with you. This means that it’s a lot harder (to impossible) to stop spontaneously along the way to visit an attraction or enjoy a viewpoint.
On the other hand, it means that you get all the time at your end destination. Being restricted also means that you don’t have to make as many choices which in turn can take out the overwhelm of trip planning. This is actually a hidden pro!
Pro – It’s more comfortable than driving: Taking trains and buses, you don’t have to worry about driving on narrow country roads through the Scottish Highlands. You don’t have to remember to drive on the left. You can just sit and enjoy the views. On trains, you can even walk around, so you’re not stuck sitting down for hours on end.
Pro – It’s great for solo travellers: You see, I’ve run out of cons… My Scotland itinerary by public transport is particularly great for solo travellers. It’s cheaper than paying for a rental car all by yourself, you don’t have to do all the tiring driving yourself, you’re reducing your environmental impact and some decisions are made for you by schedules and routes.
What more could you ask for?
How much do you know about Scotland? Take this Scotland quiz and test your friends!
Tips for using public transport in Scotland
Take a look at my full practical guide to using public transport in Scotland. It tells you everything you need to know about trains, bus companies and ferries in Scotland, where to buy tickets and lots of tips for planning a trip using public transport.
The tips below are specifically for following my Best of Scotland itinerary by public transport.
Should you get a travel pass?
ScotRail, the Scottish train company, offers different kinds of travel passes. The Spirit of Scotland pass is available for 4 travel days over 8 consecutive days for £149 or 8 travel days over 15 consecutive day for £189. It includes all ScotRail trains on the Scottish network (but not the Caledonian Sleeper or the Jacobite Steam Train), some bus routes that connect train stations and ferry ports, and all Calmac ferries on the west coast. See the complete route card here.
This pass also includes a few other perks, such as free travel on the Glasgow subway and Edinburgh tram, discounts on the City Sightseeing buses and on the Jacobite Loch Ness Cruise – just to name the ones relevant for this itinerary.
The Grand Tour of Scotland pass is also valid for 4 travel days over 8 consecutive days, but only includes trains and buses along a set route through Scotland. It can be used for most of the route described below, but it does not include the perks and discounts of the Spirit of Scotland pass. Additionally, on Skye, it only includes the bus route from Armadale to Kyle of Lochalsh, not up to Portree – you’d have to pay extra for that.
Either 4-day pass would work for this itinerary, travelling on days 2, 3, 5 and 6. Note that not all routes are included in the pass – the bus from Fort William to Portree and the bus from Portree to Inverness are not covered by the Spirit of Scotland pass. However, I have included alternative routes below that are included.
The bus company Citylink offers an Explorer Pass which covers their Scotland-wide network. The 5-day pass gives you unlimited bus travel on Citylink buses within 10 consecutive days. You can use this pass to follow. myBest of Scotland itinerary by public transport, but it does not include any train or ferry travel.
Should you book tickets in advance?
If you don’t get the Spirit of Scotland pass, book all train and bus connections in advance. Booking train tickets in advance ensures that you get the best available price. Booking bus tickets in advance, can give you a better price, but more importantly it guarantees you a seat. Buses have less capacity and therefore only sell a certain number of tickets. You can reserve seats on many trains, but not required.
If you get the Spirit of Scotland pass, you don’t have to book train tickets in advance – you can just board any train on the included routes. But you must book Citylink buses in advance. Find out how here.
If you get the Citylink Explorer Pass, you have to book seat reservations in advance. Seat reservations are free for Explorer pass holders, but subject to availability. Book as far in advance as possible to avoid disappointment.
Packing & Luggage
Do your best to pack lightly. It will make boarding trains and buses, and walking to your accommodation a lot easier.
I prefer travelling with a backpack, because I like having my hands free when I travel by public transport.
If you bring a suitcase, get one with four wheels for better maneuverability.
Most hotels, B&Bs and hostels will be happy to store your luggage for a few hours on either side of your stay. Just ask in advance.
Alternatively, research luggage storage facilities. You’ll find lockers at the train stations in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fort William ad Inverness.
Booking places to stay
Make sure you book accommodation within easy walking distance of bus and train stations.
Research local taxi companies if you need help getting to and from your accommodation. Note that Uber only works in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Less is more
This Scotland itinerary by public transport covers the same route and destinations as my regular “Best of Scotland” itinerary which is designed for a road trip with a (rental) car. However you’ll soon see that it’s a fast-paced itinerary and you will spend a lot of time on buses and trains.
Consider slowing your itinerary down by adding additional days or removing a destination. This will relax your itinerary and means you’ll get more time in each destination. It might be nice not to move on every day or two if you have to carry all your stuff.
If you need help building a custom Scotland itinerary by public transport, get in touch!
The best of Scotland by public transport in 8 days
Now without further ado, let’s dive into the itinerary. In this blog post, I won’t go into great detail about what to do in each destination. You will find inspiration via the linked travel guides and resources below, or you can purchase my Best of Scotland itinerary for concrete suggestions and heaps of links.
Not sure if this is the best itinerary for you? Find out how to choose the ideal Scotland itinerary!
Day 1: Arrive & Glasgow
Arriving in Scotland: I recommend flying into Edinburgh international airport because it’s well-connected to both cities. There is a direct airport bus to Glasgow, and several options to go to Edinburgh. Glasgow airport is well connected to Glasgow, but a little trickier to get to from Edinburgh.
Things to do in Glasgow: Hopefully you land early in the day and can spend the rest of the day exploring Glasgow. Check out my ‘One Day in Glasgow’ guide. Take the hop-on, hop-off City Sightseeing bus to get an overview – with the Spirit of Scotland pass you’ll get a discount. My other highlights include visiting Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis, following the City Centre Mural Trail, exploring the University of Glasgow campus or heading to Pollok Park to see the Highland coos.
Where to stay: I recommend staying in the city centre, not too far from Buchanan Bus Station and Glasgow Queen Street train station. Try the Motel One, Moxy Merchant City or citizenM, or find some of my other recommended options here.
Day 2: Glasgow to Fort William
Take the morning train or bus from Glasgow to Fort William in order to have the afternoon to explore this town in the Highlands.
Getting from Glasgow to Fort William: The train leaves from Glasgow Queen Street station and takes just under 4 hours. This journey along the West Highland Line is one of the most scenic train journeys in Scotland. This route is included in the Spirit of Scotland/Grand Tour of Scotland pass.
Alternatively, take the Citylink bus from Buchanan bus station. The journey is a little shorter and also very scenic (you actually drive through Glencoe which is stunning), but the route is not included in the Spirit of Scotland pass.
Things to do in Fort William & where to stay: Check out my Fort William travel guide for my recommended things to do and places to stay in Fort William. I recommend hiring e-bikes to cycle out to Glen Nevis, visiting the West Highland Museum, going on a cruise or doing a water activity on Loch Linnhe.
Day 3: Fort William to the Isle of Skye
Spend the morning in the Fort William area and take an afternoon bus to the Isle of Skye, or spend the majority of the day on the road to go via Mallaig and Armadale.
Getting from Fort William to Skye: The quickest and easiest route is to take the Citylink bus from Fort William to Portree via Glen Shiel. This takes just under 3 hours, but is not included in the Spirit of Scotland/Grand Tour of Scotland pass.
The longer and arguably more scenic journey is to take the train from Fort William to Mallaig, the ferry to Armadale on Skye and then then bus to Portree. With changes and transfer times, this journey will probably take the majority of the day. The train takes the same tracks as the famous Jacobite Steam Train, so you will be crossing over the viaduct. This route is included in the Spirit of Scotland pass. The Grand Tour of Scotland pass does not contain the entire bus journey to Portree, so you’ll have to pay extra for that.
You can even take the Jacobite Steam Train to Mallaig, but be aware that you have to purchase a return ticket even if you only take a single journey. Note that the steam train is not included in any travel pass and must be booked well in advance. Space for luggage is subject to availability.
Where to stay on Skye: I recommend staying in Portree as most guided tours around the island and many activities leave from there.
Things to do in Portree: When you arrive, spend time exploring Portree. Walk around its beautiful harbour, climb the Apothecary Tower and browse the little shops in the village. Local buses on Skye are extremely limited, so once you’re in Portree, you’re there.
Day 4: Isle of Skye
Considering that local bus schedules on Skye are rather patchy – and local buses don’t run at all on Sundays – it’s best to book a guided tour or activity from Portree.
Guided group tours are usually offered in small mini-buses, so you won’t have to endure a huge coach tour. They are great to take you around the major sites and attractions on Skye such as the Old Man of Storr and the Quiraing on the Trotternish Peninsula, Neist Point, the Fairy Pools and others. There are different routes and you can find some suggested companies here.
Outdoor Activities in Skye: If you want to try kayaking, canoeing, coasteering, wildlife watching or other boat trips, check out some options for outdoor activities here.
Day 5: Isle of Skye to Inverness
Travel to Inverness in the morning so you arrive in the early afternoon with time to explore the city and surroundings.
Getting from Skye to Inverness: The quickest and easiest route is to take the Citylink bus from Portree to Inverness. It takes roughly 3.5 hours, but the route is not included in the Spirit of Scotland/Grand Tour of Scotland pass.
Alternatively, take the Citylink bus to Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland, just across the Skye Bridge, and then the train from there to Inverness. With changes and transfer times, this takes longer than the direct bus, but it’s a scenic railway journey. Additionally, this route is included in the Spirit of Scotland pass; with the Grand Tour of Scotland pass, you need to pay extra for the Portree-Kyle of Lochalsh bus.
Things to do in Inverness & where to stay: Use my Inverness travel guide to plan your time in the city and find my recommended places to stay. The hop-on, hop-off City Sightseeing bus is a great option because one of its routes heads out to Culloden Battlefield as well as the Caledonian Canal from where you can do a cruise on Loch Ness. With the Spirit of Scotland pass you’ll get a discount.
Day 6: Inverness to Edinburgh
Spend the morning exploring Inverness and take a midday or afternoon train or bus to Edinburgh. That way, you’ll arrive in the afternoon or evening, depending on how much time you want in the city.
Getting from Inverness to Edinburgh: The direct train takes just under 4 hours and is included in the Spirit of Scotland/Grand Tour of Scotland pass. Citylink and several other companies such as Megabus also operate direct buses which are slower but cheaper, and not included in the Spirit of Scotland pass.
Where to stay in Edinburgh: I recommend staying around Haymarket or in the New Town, so you don’t have to carry your luggage up into the Old Town – there are many steep staircases and old cobbled lanes in the medieval Old Town. The New Town is still historic (18th century), but less hilly and more modern infrastructure. That said, the Old Town is always just a short walk away. Find my recommended hotels, B&Bs and hostels here.
Day 7: Edinburgh
You have a full day in Edinburgh. There is a lot to do and see, but a day can give you a great overview.
Things to do in Edinburgh: Use my Edinburgh guide to put together your itinerary for the city and pick and chose some sites to visit and neighbourhoods to explore. You can also take the hop-on, hop-off buses to get an overview. With the Spirit of Scotland pass you’ll get a discount.
Some of my highlights include walking up and down the Royal Mile, exploring its narrow wynds, green courtyards, hidden gardens and historic closes, visiting the rooftop of the National Museum of Scotland, climbing to the top of Scott Monument or Nelson Monument for views, hiking Arthur Seat or Calton Hill for sunset, and restaurant and bar hopping in Leith or Stockbridge.
Day 8: Departure Day
From Edinburgh it’s an easy bus or tram journey to Edinburgh airport. If you fly from Glasgow airport, take the train to Glasgow and then the express bus out to the airport.
Here are some suggestions for alternative routes, following roughly the same itinerary.
Swap Skye for Oban
The Isle of Skye is very popular and can be very busy during the summer months. Or maybe the idea of a guided group tour around the island puts you off? Consider swapping the Isle of Skye for Oban, a bustling seaside town on the west coast.
From Glasgow, take the scenic train journey to Oban and spend two nights there. Use my Oban travel guide and my list of suggested day trips from Oban for inspiration. My highlights include the organised bus and boat trip to the Isle of Staffa and the Treshnish Isles to see puffins (late April to early August), hiring and (e-)bike and cycling on the Caledonia Way, or visiting one of the small isles near Oban (Kerrera or Lismore).
Then take the bus to Fort William and from there, another bus to Inverness. All these routes are included in the Spirit of Scotland pass.
Slow it down and eliminate a destination
If you think this Scotland itinerary by public transport is too fast-paced, I suggest slowing it down by eliminating a destination – either the Isle of Skye, Inverness or Fort William.
- If you eliminate Skye, add one or two nights in Glasgow, Fort William or Inverness to have more time there. You could also consider adding a night in Perthshire on your way from Inverness to Edinburgh – for example in Pitlochry, which is a stop on that train route.
- If you eliminate Inverness, flip the itinerary and go straight from Glasgow to Skye. There is a direct Citylink bus, but it’s not included in the Spirit of Scotland pass. After 2 nights on Skye, return by bus to Fort William and add a second night there. Then travel from Fort William to Edinburgh by train via Glasgow.
- If you eliminate Fort William, take the Citylink bus from Glasgow to Skye (not included in the Spirit of Scotland pass). Then continue as above via Inverness and add a second night in Inverness.
Extending your trip
Of course, you may want to extend your trip. I recommend spending more time in the existing destinations on the itinerary, rather than adding lots of other places.
- Make it 10 days and add a night in Glasgow and one in Fort William. Then take day trips in the local areas using my Glasgow day trip ideas and my Fort William travel guide.
- Make it 2 weeks and add nights in Oban and Perthshire as suggested above.
Of course, there are many other regions to explore in Scotland by public transport. Most of my ready-made Scotland itineraries can be done by public transport with a few adjustments.
If you need help building a custom Scotland itinerary by public transport, get in touch!
Pin this post: