A must-read summary and quick description of Scotland’s seven – no, wait, eight – cities to help you choose which to visit. Essential Edinburgh, Stirling for the castle or Glasgow for the friendliness, unavoidable Inverness, handsome Perth and the rest! – we’ll help you decide.
I’m going to summarise Scotland’s eight cities here in just one page – just as an aid to your trip planning, if you are a first-time visitor.
This is just an overview, with only enough honest opinion and hints to displease a few city tourism promoters.
Most of the cities have their own pages – with the links below. Anyway, on this page you’ll get an idea of what’s in store if you choose a Scottish city experience – and I’m writing this page mostly for folk who have never been to any of these places.
(Incidentally, if you’re promoting Aberdeen – look away now.)
How long should I spend in Scotland’s cities?
Ah, glad you asked that, read on….
Population: c. 465,000 – capital of and second largest city in Scotland.
Of all the cities in Scotland, this is the best looking. Scotland’s capital is almost glamorous, it’s certainly romantic and the word I’ve always used to describe it is ‘theatrical’.
That backdrop of castle, spires and craggy hill (Arthur’s Seat), and the neo-classical columns and imposing facades of the New Town are just the setting of some Scottish melodrama. (Hey, work with me here.) From certain angles, the place is impossibly handsome. Read on…more below…
Major events such as the Edinburgh Military Tattoo attract huge numbers of visitors to the city. Book accommodation ahead, especially if visiting in the main Festival season.
From a practical trip-planning point of view, you really should book Edinburgh in advance – especially anywhere near peak festival time – late July, August and into September.
And as you can explore places like Fife, Glasgow, East Lothian, the Trossachs and so on from the city, you could easily spend, say, at least four nights on a first visit and still find lots to do.
If you are visiting for the first time with only a couple of days on your schedule then here is a core list of must sees in Edinburgh.
Wait, wait, there’s even more stuff on Edinburgh.
This is the largest of Scotland’s cities, with a population approaching the 600,000 mark.
With reference to its industrial past, it is one of the cities in the British Isles that is sometimes described as ‘the Workshop of the Western World.’
In its post-industrial phase, it did a great job of re-inventing its own image from about the late 1980s onwards and now likes to link itself to words such as ‘stylish’, as in Glasgow is ‘Scotland with style’.
Way back in 2013, they changed their slogan, tag-line or whatever and continue to promote the city with the catch-phrase ‘PEOPLE MAKE GLASGOW’ – which isn’t bad at all (IMHO), though they rather ram it down your throat. It’s everywhere, from street signs to office blocks.
The other thing often said about Glasgow is that it offers the widest shopping choice of any of the cities in Scotland (sorry, Edinburgh) and certainly used to trumpet the fact that it was second only to London, England, in terms of the importance of retail to the local economy.
There seems to be some uncertainty about that statistic – but it’s definitely a shoppers’ destination, not just for the usual High Street suspects but for a huge choice of exclusive outlets.
And then when Christmas draws near, the good folk of Glasgow throng the streets. That’s the other thing: it’s pretty much an all year round destination – no surprises there.
The ‘genius for instant friendship’…
Glasgow also likes to trumpet its reputation for friendliness – all that ‘legendary friendliness of the Glasgow folk’ stuff. Linked to this friendly yet urbane image is its own belief in its ‘café society’.
Like Edinburgh, there are plenty of cultural opportunities, especially Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, one of the finest in the UK, plus all the clubs and pubs you could ever want to visit.
And I see I’ve just managed to write a paragraph on it without using the word ‘vibrant’ -another of its favourite descriptions of itself. If you want to visit, then you’ll need at least a couple of days to do all the museums and the shops alone.
On the other hand, if you have a preference for quaint little towns or rugged scenery, then you could miss Glasgow altogether.
We include Glasgow on the Seven Day Tour Scotland page. Actually, to be honest, I’m not sure if I even like Glasgow, though I remain open-minded, I hope.
Why I remain ambivalent is explored on another list of tentative Glasgow must sees. (Whisper it…but someone wrote to me recently – an outraged citizen, I think – and thought I was being unfair to the ‘dear green place’.)
Here’s an interesting day out in Glasgow. Take a look. We certainly enjoyed it.
Population: c. 47,000. (Gosh, it always seems bigger than that to me…)
It was announced way back in March 2012 that Perth has regained city status! (To be honest, I was especially pleased because I wrote the copy for the bid brochure! Yes, you’d be amazed what we copywriters have to do to earn a crust.)
Where were we? Oh yes, Perth used to be one of the cities in Scotland but lost the status because of an administrative oversight after a local government re-organisation in 1975.
Fancy that! It stopped being one of the cities in Scotland because some harassed administrative official lost the paperwork!
Anyway, it comes out so well in ‘quality of life’ surveys and has a proportionately high number of small businesses and shops, plus a pleasant ambience down by the River Tay: so I am especially delighted it has been added to the list of cities in Scotland once more.
It hasn’t really got a total ‘must-see’ attraction as such – though Scone Palace is fairly popular – but Perth is a good base for touring well-to-do Perthshire and well worth a look.
If you go to Scone Palace, then here is some information about the famous Stone of Scone (or Stone of Destiny or just an old Scottish con trick).
Come to think of it…
What is the definition of a city in Scotland?
Ask a Scot to list the cities in Scotland and they would start with Edinburgh and Glasgow, of course, then add Dundee and Aberdeen.
Probably they would then remember some media story about Inverness and Stirling becoming cities in the 21st century. Then they would muse how a city is defined.
Some say it’s a town with a cathedral – hence soccer team names like ‘Elgin City’ or ‘Brechin City’ belonging to comparatively small places but communities with ancient cathedrals.
Strictly speaking and according to official sources:
“City status is a rare mark of distinction granted by the Sovereign and conferred by Letters Patent. It is granted by personal Command of The Queen, on the advice of Her Ministers. It is for Her Majesty The Queen to decide when a competition for city status should be held. Competitions are usually held on occasions such as important Royal anniversaries.”
Gosh, it must be fun having the job of queenie – though that all sounds a bit serious – but the granting of city status allows access to various sources of development and promotional funding, so it’s quite significant.
Just as a footnote, I thought I should add one of my own favourite cities.
OK, it’s not in Scotland but if by any chance you’re planning to take in Ireland on your trip, then you’d like the upbeat and relaxed ambience of Galway City. (We always do!)
Population: c. 148,000 – putting it at no. 4 in the league of Scotland’s cities by size.
Personally, I find Dundee just as friendly as Glasgow. (I almost said ‘less menacing’.) Or is it just that I always find I fall into conversation with folk in shops when I go there?
Like Glasgow, a big chunk of the old inner city has been ripped up and renewed, especially where the old jute mills once stood.
Dundee, again, like Glasgow, went through a period of re-invention and came up with ‘City of Discovery’ as a tag-line.
This was pretty clever, as the RRS Discovery, a polar research ship, is berthed on the waterfront as a symbol of the city’s heritage of, well, all kinds of stuff – but mostly the building of the tough ships used by the whalers of olden days.
There’s a clutch of heritage-type attractions to visit, as well as a worthwhile family-focused science centre (Sensation) and a flagship arts centre (Dundee Contemporary Arts).
And, now arrived, is the V&A Museum of Design Dundee – an international centre of design for Scotland – the first ever design museum to be built in the UK outside London, England. It opened in September, 2018 and you can visit for free. Hurrah.
And Dundee is a good base for exploring Fife and the Angus Glens. While not a ‘must see’, if you like the idea of cities in Scotland, then you could spend a couple of days here, as there’s a lot to visit round and about.
And its attractions – said he, controversially – are going to blow away the next place:
Population: c. 197,000, making it the third-largest city in Scotland.
This northern city wore the comfortable air of a large market town, until oil was found in the North Sea. (Trust me – I was there then!) Then it just got on with making money.
It didn’t worry about its image or about re-inventing itself. If tourists wanted to visit then that was OK too, but they’d find the hotel prices steep – because of the oil business demand.
Nothing much has changed, though the oil activity seems to have peaked and Aberdeen hasn’t found things so easy. You can still hear gulls calling above the noise of the traffic on the main street (Union Street), as a reminder of its old maritime connections across the North Sea.
However, as of 2021 (and I seem to change this date annually), there’s no hiding the fact that Union Street is no longer the busy vibrant shopping area it used to be. It looks a bit run-down. The retail tide has ebbed away.
These days, shoppers go to Union Square down by the harbour, an attractive modern mall which takes in the frontage of the city’s main railway station and looks exactly like any other mall anywhere else in Scotland or beyond.
Downtown, Aberdeen looks different from all other cities in Scotland because of the widespread use of grey granite.
They (used to) fly in from Norway to shop here – itself a reminder that, had there been the will and the vision, Aberdeen could have positioned itself as a North Sea rim city.
That way it could have flaunted its differences in accent and outlook – a vibrant northern community, set apart from the other Scottish cities.
But it never had to. It just got on with being Aberdeen. And that’s fine.
I can’t think why you would actually need to visit this city, if you only had a few days in Scotland. Sorry about that. I’m not putting you off, am I?
I mean, you’d certainly have a nice time if you arrived there, say, by accident. And it is a gateway, of a kind, if you intend to visit scenic Deeside, the valley of the River Dee.
Aberdeen Art Gallery – a must-see
And it should be said, there’s a superb water-colour collection in its art gallery, by the way – and it re-opened in November 2019 after a major refurbishment.
Yes, Aberdeen Art Gallery has a great ambience in its new and expensively re-vamped format. It’s the nearest to a city ‘must see’.
And my daughter used to say it had great night-life. (I mean, the city in general, not the art gallery, obviously.)
So, by all means walk around down-town Aberdeen and, amid the ‘for sale or rent’ signs festooning (for example) the now depressing but once thriving west end of Union Street, you’ll certainly discover some impressive granite architecture here and there.
And you can enjoy the occasional attractive-looking little shop or beguiling coffee place or restaurant, say, down by The Green or along Belmont Street.
But strolling around Aberdeen by day is like finding a few gems scattered through plain grey dross. Aberdeen’s best days might be behind it, when it was the Silver City with the Golden Sands.
I know, I know, it’s harsh, but I was there just the other day…honestly.
Finally…it’s also on our list of ‘must avoid things’ in Scotland. Crikey. That’ll be me permanently off their press invitation list…
Inverness Population: c. 61,000 – so, of the seven places with designated city status in Scotland, it’s bigger than Perth and Stirling.
The Capital of the Highlands acquired its city status in 2000. As a natural route-centre, it’s always busy with visitors. In fact, it’s always busy – period – and consequently seems a very up-beat sort of place. Don’t expect quaint and picturesque – but do expect a wide accommodation and restaurant choice.
Visit the Inverness Art Gallery and Museum if you can – you will learn a lot about the Highlands – as well as how to wear the belted plaid or say some Gaelic phrases – and there is a also lovely café here – nice cakes and soup!
The unavoidable monster attraction – hey-ho
You can enjoy an equally wide-ranging list of out-of-town options, from chasing the ever-elusive Loch Ness monster to exploring Culloden Battlefield. And to the east you could add Fort George, a complete 18th-century military fortification, and/or Cawdor Castle to your list.
All the rugged beauty of the western seaboard is only an hour or so away by road or rail. You could certainly spend a few days here – not because the place itself will make you go ‘wow!’ but, it’s convenient and has a good accommodation choice.
Besides, if you’re touring the north by car, you’ll find it hard to avoid! We also have a 48 hours in Inverness page. It’s unmissable. No, really…
Population: c. 36,000 – making it the smallest of the seven cities.
Historically speaking, a strategically important town on the edge of the Highlands that is very easily accessible by road and rail from Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The ‘must see’ Stirling Castle plus the historic features of the Old Town immediately below are the main draws. Take these away and you have an ordinary Scottish town, sorry, city.
On our last visit, on a dreich day in March 2018, the place looked quite tired, some of the cafes and eating places down at heel, and it had plenty of ‘for rent/sale’ signs in shops – though this characterises ‘high streets’ in many places.
Like any other everyday kind of place, there is the obligatory and anonymous very large shopping mall – the Thistle Centre, that could be anywhere in the UK.
The main street of well-to-do Bridge of Allan to the north may be worth a browse and it’s easy to tour Highland edge places like The Trossachs from Stirling. The Wallace Monument is also popular. Ho-hum.
Battle of Bannockburn
The site of the Battle of Bannockburn – where Scotland won back almost four centuries of independence – is a pleasant enough green space in an otherwise undistinguished urban sprawl.
It is historically significant and has a visitor centre, hugely extended and revamped in 2014. (And possibly closed now. Do check.)
Alternatively, you could just make this small city a day excursion and visit the Castle. I wouldn’t blame you.
Ooh, Dunfermline is now a city!
Announced in May 2022, old Queen Liz the Last has conferred city status to the auld toon of Dunfermline. Something to do with her jubilee.
And why not? It’s an ancient place, dating back to the 11th century and having close associations with many early Scottish monarchs, especially King Robert I (Robert the Bruce).
The town’s, sorry, city’s abbey and palace are well worth a look and Andrew Carnegie’s Birthplace Cottage is fascinating.
Some more information on Scotland’s smaller cities. (And I do hope I haven’t repeated myself.)
Hmm, in which case take a look at the attractive Perthshire town of Crieff.
Mind you, personally, I’d rather spend a day in Berwick-upon-Tweed, just over the Border.
Here are some suggestions for things to do in Scotland, both in city and countryside.