How long to see Scotland depends if your taste goes beyond cities and takes in the Highlands and islands. It’s certainly going to take more than a weekend, that’s for sure! We’ve got the shortest no-nonsense summary of Scotland’s cities, plus realistic assessments of time you’ll need for Highland destinations, such as Skye and other islands.
First thing to flag up: getting around takes longer than you think!
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This comes about partly through the London, England, based media often portraying Scotland as a kind of single destination ‘somewhere up there’.
In reality, Scotland may not be huge, but it has great diversity in landscape, townscape, accent and culture in a comparatively small area.
So you’ll want to travel from place to place to appreciate the differences. And that takes time.
If driving, bear in mind that there are still stretches where single carriageway (or even single track) roads twist and turn through wonderful scenery but don’t make for speedy progress. Distances can be deceptive.
Having said that, there are some fine driving roads where you can make good time. (Though why would you want to be in a hurry?)
How long do I need to visit Scotland’s cities?
Time: 2 days minimum
Allow at least two full days to get a flavour of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. The same for Glasgow. Perth is pleasant but you can get a flavour in an afternoon.
Stirling basically means a visit to Stirling Castle and a drive-through. Dundee is hard to call but the new V & A Museum of Design is making a big impact.
Aberdeen can be missed entirely. Inverness is usually visited as part of a Highland tour. That’s as short a paragraph on Scotland’s cities as I can write.
How long to see some of Scotland’s history and heritage?
Time: 3 days
Let’s say three days. Here’s your essential menu. Starting from Edinburgh, to get a flavour of Lowland Scotland and its story, you could take in the picturesque fishing villages of the East Neuk of Fife and also the university town of St Andrews.
Just 12 miles (20km) north of Dundee is Glamis Castle, then further up the east coast, Dunnottar Castle, south of Aberdeen, (near Stonehaven), is both popular and dramatically picturesque.
Then – if you are driving – head north-west for some of Aberdeenshire’s other castles – say Crathes or Craigievar but definitely not Balmoral Castle (IMHO) for a variety of reasons, some of them republican.
Alternatively, if you are heading north west from Edinburgh, then it could be Stirling Castle, for an authentic Scottish castle insight. At this point, nearby Doune Castle used to be recommended for its ambience and romantic ruination(!).
However, it is now awash with Outlander fans and causing visitor management headaches. Wait, though, maybe you’re a fantasy Scotland fan, in which case it’s a must-see for you, I suppose.
After that, head up the A9 beyond Perth and Pitlochry for Killiecrankie – not a castle but a battle site – which is why it’s under heritage.
It is also picturesque, wooded and wild and that’s why it’s on the list instead of Bannockburn. Blair Castle is another option on the main A9 to Inverness.
What about some wild Highland landscapes?
Time: 2 days (for example, if starting/flying into Inverness). Much more if you can afford it.
The Highlands with their wild peaks and lochs, their moors and mists are a mainstay of the image of Scotland, so that most visitors want to sample this experience.
For two centuries and more (ever since tourism began in Scotland) tourists have started – from, say, Glasgow or Edinburgh – with the Trossachs and Loch Lomond.
So, if you are on a very limited schedule, you will probably end up doing the same.
After all, the Trossachs and Loch Lomond are the nearest bits of Highland scenery you can get to from Glasgow or Edinburgh.
That’s why they became famous in the first place. You could do Glasgow and Loch Lomond or Edinburgh and the Trossachs in a weekend.
How long to see Scotland ‘big name destinations’ like Loch Ness or Isle of Skye?
Time: 3 days minimum
Elsewhere on this website, we describe the classic Scottish tour that goes Edinburgh-Inverness-Great Glen-Fort William Glasgow.
The obvious and popular variation is to include Skye – which means, say, Edinburgh-Inverness-Skye (via Skye Bridge) – Fort William (via Armadale on Skye ferry to Mallaig) – Glasgow. Worthwhile/rewarding, not really off the beaten track, but classic Scottish touring.
By the way, if you’re thinking of car rental when in Scotland, then that link will take you the people who track down the best rates from a wide range of hire companies.
How long to see Scotland off the beaten track?
Time: 3 / 4 days at least
Off the beaten track in Scotland is a pretty elastic term. You might say that for some tourism promoters anything that isn’t Edinburgh, Inverness, the Great Glen or Skye is seen as off the beaten track. But take note…
Travel fact 1
From Inverness, you can drive to the western seaboard in little over an hour at its nearest point. (Either the head of Loch Carron or the head of Loch Torridon, both around the 60 mile / 96km mark.)
There are still some off the beaten track places in the west that you can even reach on a day trip from Inverness.
Travel fact 2
From the busy little ferry port and Highland resort of Oban, the ferry to Craignure on the Isle of Mull only takes 50 minutes.
The Isle of Mull has a hot-spot or two (eg the island of Iona) but it’s a reminder that most of Scotland’s islands could be considered off the beaten track.
Travel fact 3
In one hour and 15 minutes after take-off from Glasgow Airport, you could be landing on the beach at Barra, one of the islands of the Outer Hebrides.
This is another reminder that Scotland has lots of facets of its culture and heritage to explore while off the beaten track. The islands of the Outer Hebrides are definitely different.
SO HOW LONG DO YOU REALLY NEED TO VISIT SCOTLAND PROPERLY?
OK, let’s count that up. Two days for cities, plus two days for easy day trips from your chosen city (probably Edinburgh!). Then, say, three days for a northern foray, adding on another three or four if you really want to go off the beaten track a little.
So that’s at least ten days to get a decent impression of the place. But that only scratches the surface. Heck, you could easily spend a week on Orkney alone! We’ve lived here nearly all our days and there are still places we need to check out!
At least it’s still possible to find some quieter parts of Scotland. Just about.