Are you travelling to Scotland for the first time and want to make sure that you do everything a first-timer can’t leave without? Scotland is full of experiences that can make your trip an unforgettable one, and if you’ve long dreamt about visiting Scotland, I’m sure that you have a long bucket list of things to see and do. This post suggests 20 things to taste, feel, do and see, if you’re planning a trip to Scotland and it’s your first time in the country.
Disclaimer: Always check local travel guidelines and restrictions, especially when it comes to visiting Scottish isles and other remote areas post-Coronavirus.
I love thinking back to when I arrived in Scotland. I moved here on a whim without ever visiting before. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew Scotland was famous for things like whisky, rain and men in
skirts kilts. Within my first year in Glasgow I made a lot of wonderful experiences, tasted what the country’s larder has to offer, saw the wilderness and beauty of the Highlands and felt what it means to be at mercy of the Scottish weather.
Having guided many of my friends, family members and lately clients through their first visit to Scotland, I thought it was time to make it easier for you to prepare a bucket list of must have first timer experiences in this country!
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A whisky from each region
There are five whisky regions in Scotland (Lowlands, Highlands & Islands, Islay, Speyside and Campbelltown) and each offers its own bouquet of fragrance and taste. I’ve only started enjoying whisky a couple of years into living in Scotland, but if you appreciate your whisky, then try at least one from each region and taste the difference.
You might like my essential guide to trying Scottish whisky.
Traditional (veggie) haggis
Haggis is the national dish of Scotland and no trip to Scotland would be complete without at least trying a little bit. If you’re a little squeamish, don’t make the mistake to ask what’s in it before you tasted it, though. Personally, I prefer the veggie version (some veggie Haggis brands are even vegan!), which is a good alternative if you don’t eat meat or want to take it slowly.
Liquid Gold: Irn Bru
The in-official national drink of Scotland is not whisky or beer, but a bright orange soft drink that tastes sweeter than any other you’ve ever tried; Irn Bru. To an outsider like myself, Irn Bru might be an acquired taste, but if you visit Scotland for the first time, you should at least try it. If soft drinks aren’t your cup of tea, try Irn Bru sweeties, sorbet or cakes – personally, I much prefer those!
A flight of Scottish craft beers
Back to alcoholic drinks though. While Scotland’s largest beer producers focus on easy-to-drink lager, there is a budding craft beer scene emerging in unexpected places all over the country. In many pubs you will find a variety of craft beers from around Scotland, and if you fancy trying a couple different ones, you should ask if you can order a flight of beers. This flight usually contains several small glasses of different ales, stouts and lagers from various breweries and should give you an idea of what brewing in Scotland tastes like.
The Vegan Scene in Glasgow & Edinburgh
The creativity and dedication chefs in Glasgow and Edinburgh put into providing vegan options is incredible. I mostly enjoy how some of them re-invent Scottish classics without the use of animal products, but also love how the more healthy options in the cities change the face of typical Scottish cuisine. Whether you are vegan or not, you should definitely try at least one vegan dish while you’re here.
A few more things to TASTE: Scottish strawberries when they’re in season; if you eat meat & seafood, try some traditional Scottish dishes, like Cullen Skink, Black Pudding, Steak Pie or seafood from Loch Fyne; Scottish gin is catching up to the whisky industry, and there are many variations to try.
The chilling water of a Scottish Loch
Dreaming of diving into a Scottish loch? Or maybe more like dipping your toe in… Even though Scottish lochs can be unpleasantly cold, I recommend taking your shoes and socks off at least once, to feel the water play around your ankle. A lot of the water you see in Scotland comes straight from the mountains (and from the rain of course), and it is very special to connect with nature in this way. If you want a ‘warmer’ Loch, try Loch Ard – it is shallower than many other lochs and thus one of the best places for wild swimming in Scotland.
The rhythm of (traditional) Scottish Music
When I think of traditional Scottish instruments, I can already hear the majestic bagpipes, or a fiddle accompanied by a small flute. The best way to feel the rhythm of traditional Scottish music is by attending a ceilidh, a traditional Scottish dance event where you dance in couples or small groups – but don’t worry the band leader always explains how each dance works! But Scotland isn’t just about traditional music, and going to a gig at one of the iconic Glasgow music venues or during the Edinburgh festivals is an absolute must!
5 different kinds of rain
Rumour has it that the Scots have more words for rain, than the Inuit for snow… Indeed, just saying that it’s raining is far from precise enough in this country – is it just lightly drizzling or is it lashing down? Is the sun still shining or are the clouds hanging low above your head? When you visit Scotland, experiencing some rain is almost inevitable (that’s why it’s so green here after all), and by the time you leave you will have probably experienced at least 5 different kinds of rain!
A warm welcome
The Scots are an incredible warm and welcoming people, and I’m almost certain that cannot even make it out of the country without feeling this. Talk to your B&B hosts, chat to show owners and restaurant staff, ask for local’s advice and tell them what you’ve loved about their country so far. If you can’t understand someone – just ask them to talk a bit slower or repeat; or maybe they’ve used a typical Scottish word you don’t know? Ask them to explain and you’ll make a friend for life!
Glasgow is particularly known for it’s friendly locals – here are some tips on how to meet them.
The thrill of surviving a single track road
Road trips are the best way to explore Scotland beyond the tourist attractions; however, driving in Scotland can also be quite intimidating. Even if driving on the left is not an issue – either because you’re used to it or you’re just badass – it’s the narrow roads, especially single-track roads that are the most thrilling to drive. Make sure include at least one on your road trip – but drive safely!
Find the most scenic road trips in Scotland & how to navigate them.
A few more things to FEEL: the sense of accomplishment when driving on the left side of the road; the scent of blooming flowers in your nose – whether you come for bluebells, rhododendron or heather; a sense of disconnecting from civilisation as your phone signal fades away in the Highlands.
Visit a whisky distillery
Now that you’ve tried a few different whiskies, it’s time to learn more about how it’s made! There are many whisky distilleries in Scotland and no matter which region you chose to spend most of your time in, I guarantee you, the next distillery won’t be far! Most distilleries offer tours for £10-15 which usually last around an hour and include a wee dram – one serving of whisky per person. Not only will your guide explain the correct way of tasting and drinking whisky in a pub, but you also see the whole process from grain to bottle!
A great distillery near Glasgow for example is Glengoyne Distillery in the Trossachs. You can visit it on a Rabbie’s tour (there’s a half-day tour from Glasgow, but various day tours from Glasgow and Edinburgh also stop here) – it saves you driving yourself!
Climb a Munro (or a smaller hill)
To get up close with the Scottish Highlands, you’ll have to hike in them! Real hiking junkies can come to Scotland for munro-bagging. A munro is a Scottish mountain higher than 3,000 feet and there are 282 of them. While you might not fit all of them into your trip, it is worth including at least one in your itinerary to get a bird’s eye view of the mountains and glens. If you’re not experienced enough to tackle such a giant, there are also lots of beautiful hikes up smaller hills that are nowhere short of gorgeous views.
Wonder how I plan my long-distance hikes? Check out my step-by-step guide for planning a self-guided walking holiday in Scotland for more tips.
Take a ferry or a scenic train ride
Scotland is not only beautiful from the roadside or the hiking trails. Some of the best views can only be seen from aboard a ferry or a train! Iconic train lines, like the West Highland Line which runs through the isolated landscape of Rannoch Moor and crosses the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct between Fort William and Mallaig, are joined by leisurely ferry journeys across to the islands of the Hebrides, Orkney or Shetland.
A particularly special journey is the ride from Fort William to Mallaig aboard the Jacobite Steam Train.
Visit a Castle
There really is no shortage of Castles in Scotland – there even is a Castle Trail in Aberdeenshire, the region in Scotland with the highest density of castles! Visiting at least one castle while you’re in Scotland is a no-brainer and your options are basically endless, whether you tour the highlights or explore off the beaten path. I highly recommend visiting two different kinds of castles – first, a ruined castle, like Kilchurn (in Argyll), Dunnottar (near Aberdeen) or Urquhart (by Loch Ness); and second a well-maintained or restored castle, like Stirling, Inveraray (near Oban) or Culzean (in Ayrshire).
Do some city sightseeing
Admittedly, most people come to Scotland to see the wild countryside, but the Scottish cities are definitely worth a visit too! When you put your itinerary together plan at least one day in Edinburgh and Glasgow – they’re so close, but world’s apart – and consider going off the beaten track by spending more time in Aberdeen, Dundee or Stirling – there is more than the castle, you must know!
Spot Scottish wildlife
Like on any Africa safari, you should come to Scotland with a lost of local wildlife you want to see here. Scottish Highland Cows and sheep are a no-brainer and fairly easy to tick off; red squirrels and majestic stags are a bit harder to spot. If you come during the summer, make sure you visit one of the nesting colonies of puffins, along the West Coast or on the islands. And most importantly, bonus points if you manage to stroke a little haggis!
A white sandy beach
Not all of Scotland is lush green – the coastline is lined with beautiful white sandy beaches where you can dig your toes in the sand and listen to the roaring waves crashing onto the land. Some of the best beaches lie far off the beaten track on the Outer Hebrides, but even on the mainland – along the coasts of Aberdeenshire and Moray, but also around the NC500, there are many beaches just waiting for you!
Vibrant street art
Glasgow is without a doubt Scotland’s most colourful city when it comes to street art and a self-guided tour is one of the many fun and free things to do in Glasgow if you’re interested in some urban culture. However, other places are catching up too! New murals are popping up all over Fife, and in Dundee you can go for street art tours with Open/Close.
There are over 80 lighthouses along the coastline of Scotland (even more if you also count the smaller lights), so it should not be too hard to fit one into your itinerary. Most of them where built by four generations of the Stevenson family, often under the most horrible conditions – which luckily, you can’t see when you look at the lighthouses today!
A Scotsman in a kilt
Last, but not least, your Scotland trip would not be complete without seeing at least one Scotsman in a kilt. You might just have to make do with the bagpipe buskers in Glasgow or Edinburgh, but you might be lucky and stumble across a wedding party (kilts are men’s traditional wedding attire) or even a real Highlander on your journeys into the mountains! Just promise me one thing – don’t lift their kilts!
A few more things to SEE: masterpieces of Scottish engineering such as the Forth bridges, the Falkirk Wheel or the Kelpies; endless miles of uninhabited coastline and lonely islands – far away from the bustle of the cities; one of Scotland’s historical University campuses in Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews or Aberdeen.
Of course, you will make much more than just these 20 experiences in Scotland – but they are a start and will hopefully help you plan a diverse trip that covers a little bit of everything Scotland has to offer!
To make it easier for you to keep track of your progress, I’ve designed a freebie to print off and bring to Scotland with you. You can find the First Timer’s Checklist printable in our Scotland Resource Library.
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.