Scotland comes as close to being a magical fairy land as any place on earth. If pixies exist, they live somewhere on the Isle of Skye. Yet, strangely, Scotland had never climbed particularly high on my travel bucket list (which, in my defense, is longer than a Tolstoy novel). But when we planned a trip Oxford, we figured it was the perfect time to tack on a week-long Scotland road trip. After all, the week we spent road tripping Ireland a few years earlier was one of our best travel experiences to date.
So, we flew from London to Inverness in northern Scotland and spent the week slowly winding our way down to Edinburgh.
Scotland completely blew away my expectations. The landscape was some of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen. Our drives nearly always took twice as long as we planned, because we made countless stops to take pictures!
Here is our one-week Scotland road trip itinerary.
Day 1 – Arrive in Inverness
We started our road trip in Inverness rather than Edinburgh, because we were planning to fly out of Edinburgh at the end of the week and didn’t want to waste time retracing our path. From London, Inverness is an approximately 1.5-hour flight. Both EasyJet and British Airways offer direct daily flights from London (we chose British Airways, because EasyJet is pretty strict on carry-on allotments). The Inverness airport is teeny tiny and easy to navigate. There are rental cars available on-site. We reserved our car in advance, because we were traveling during high season.
Alternatively, if you’re traveling from within the UK and want a more interesting travel experience, you can opt for the lux Caledonian Sleeper train from London to Inverness. Though likely pricier and certainly longer, the train provides a throwback to glam travel with good service. And if you book one of the sleeper rooms, you will arrive in Inverness refreshed and ready to hit the ground running—much more pleasant than dealing with long lines and grumpy security agents at the airport. I wish we had taken this option, but we were short on time and traveling with a six-month-old, so it just didn’t seem like the best plan!
Depending on when you arrive, you can either explore the town (it’s really cute!) or head straight to bed. Being the crazy party people we are, we picked up a pizza, got settled into our Airbnb, and went to bed.
Day 2 – Inverness –> Lock Ness –> Isle of Skye
Driving time: approx. 3 hours (excluding stops)
We didn’t spend much time in Inverness, mostly because we had so many other places we wanted to see.
But one thing we highly recommend doing in Inverness, even if you’re just passing through, is visiting Leakey’s Bookshop. Located in an old church, Leakey’s Bookshop is one of the biggest second-hand bookstores in Scotland. It specializes in rare old prints and maps. We usually end up in at least one bookstore in every city we visit, and Leakey’s Bookshop stands out as one of the best ones we’ve seen. It was certainly our favorite in Scotland.
After perusing the books, we headed to Inverness Coffee Roasting Co. (only a short walk away) for a dose of caffeine before hitting the road and starting the road trip!
One of the reasons Inverness is popular is not because of the city itself but because of its proximity to another, more famous tourist site—Lock Ness, the supposed home of the infamous Lock Ness Monster. Obviously, no trip around Scotland is complete without some monster hunting.
Loch Ness is less than 30 minutes southwest of Inverness by car. The lake itself is long and quite skinny, and there are plenty of pull-off spots along the way. We drove down the entire length of the loch’s eastern side.
We stopped several times to snap photos, but our longest stop was at Fort Augustus, a little village at the southwestern tip of the loch where we had some nice (albeit, fairly crowded) views of Loch Ness and popped into the Caldonian Café for some coffee/tea and a snack.
Just bear in mind that if you visit Fort Augustus in high season (like we did), finding parking can be a bear. Some people gave up entirely and abandoned their vehicles seemingly anywhere they pleased. We made at least three passes of the parking lot before finding a spot to park our little rental car.
After we had sufficiently, though unsuccessfully, scanned the waters for Nessie, we hopped back into the car and traveled the rest of the way to the Isle of Skye, which is a nearly two-hour drive from Fort Augustus. (Despite being an island, Isle of Skye is accessible by road.)
We were exhausted by the time we arrived at our Airbnb on Skye, but we perked up as soon as we saw it, because it might be the most amazing apartment we’ve ever rented. I mean, look at that view! Though most of the restaurants and shops are in the main town of Portree, we enjoyed the extra peace and quiet (and unhindered views) that staying outside of town afforded us.
**In hindsight, the total driving time on this day a bit long—especially since we were traveling with a six-month-old. If you have an extra day, it might be worth breaking things up by turning Loch Ness into a day trip and spending one more night in Inverness before heading on to Isle of Skye. That said, we still had a great time.
Day 3 & 4 – Isle of Skye
Isle of Skye was at the very top of our Scotland wish lists, so we devoted as much time as possible to this rugged, wind-swept island. And we are glad we did. Isle of Skye was the undisputed highlight of the trip for both of us and possibly the most beautiful place we’ve ever visited. We easily could have stayed on the island for several more days.
These are some of the must-do attractions on Isle of Skye.
The Old Man of Storr
One of the popular hikes on Isle of Skye is up to the Old Man of Storr, a jagged rock formation. And it’s popular for a reason. The mossy landscape is what Scottish dreams are made of. The day we visited was misty and overcast, which made the scenery even more enchanting.
The hike is moderately strenuous, not a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park but not a Himalayan trek either. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse during our hike—as it so often does in Scotland—and we ended up turning back before we reached the top.
But even without reaching the summit, we were able to enjoy panoramic views that were almost certainly the loveliest of our entire week in Scotland.
Because it’s so popular, we recommend doing the hike first thing in the morning to avoid the densest crowds, especially if you’re traveling during high season. We were on the trail before 8 a.m. (thanks, Claire!), and we didn’t have too trouble finding a parking spot and only encountered a handful of other early risers. But when we left two hours later, the parking area was swarmed.
Another wildly popular tourist attraction on the Isle of Skye are the Fairy Pools, a series of tiny little waterfalls that flow into clear pools of turquoise water. Like everything else on Skye, the Fairy Pools look like they belong on a lush Star Wars planet populated by bright-eyed sprites.
A picture of the Fairy Pools was actually the first travel-related image I pinned onto my “Wanderlust” Pinterest board about six years ago (without knowing what or where it was), so I was dying to visit them when I knew we would be so close. I pictured skipping along beside the waters while friendly woodland creatures scampered by my heels and birds chirped cheery harmonies around my ears. What I didn’t expect was to ford a stream at dusk while covered in mud.
It turns out that the Fairy Pools aren’t located conveniently by the road (as any self-respecting American tourist site would be, complete with tacky gift shop and an overpriced concession stand). Nope, accessing them—at least during a rainy August—requires removing your shoes and socks, rolling up your pants, and balancing on several slick, uneven stones as you slowly and carefully wade to the other side of the stream before continuing your trek down the muddy lane.
Sam claimed the creek was tiny (and he managed to cross it while wearing a squirmy six-month-old in a baby carrier). But as far as I was concerned, I might as well have traversed the Amazon while anacondas slithered at my feet. I felt like I’d dropped into a Bear Grylls documentary and the next step was roasting cockroaches over a campfire.
But the pools themselves were truly lovely. And now that I am warm and dry and not teetering on the brink of an unplanned ice bath, I concede that it was totally worthwhile. Just take a pack towel and wear waterproof hiking shoes. And a little bravery. Other than the water crossings, the hike is fairly easy.
Parking is available in the Forestry Commission gravel lot signposted “Glumagan Na Sithichean.” We didn’t have trouble finding a parking space even though we visited during high season (though that may have been because we started our hike at 8:00pm!). The Fairy Pools are about 30 minutes from Portree by car.
Another highlight on Isle of Skye, and one that doesn’t require the balance of an ibex and the mental fortitude of a Buddhist monk, is the Fairy Glen. The vast hilly landscape is a lovely place to explore, especially with children. We spent about an hour climbing over hills and taking photos, and we would have enjoyed staying even longer if we didn’t have to return to the city to pick Sam’s parents up from the bus stop!
Bear in mind that there is no official parking lot, and street parking can be hard to find—a frustration we experienced frequently during our trip to Scotland in general, and on Isle of Skye especially. We spent more than 30 minutes driving up and down the narrow road trying to find somewhere to park. If you’re traveling in high season, arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid crowds. The Fairy Glen is located approximately 25 minutes from Portree by car.
Neist Point Lighthouse
The last hike we did on Isle of Skye was to the Neist Point Lighthouse. And unlike like the other hikes we mentioned, this one is along a paved path with zero stream fords (though the incline, in certain parts, is a bit of a thigh-burner). The whole journey takes about 45 minutes to an hour to complete. We didn’t do the whole thing, because we were traveling with Sam’s parents and a baby. But we were still able to enjoy the beautiful scenery. The views of the ocean against the sheer cliffs reminded us of the more famous Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.
There is a parking lot as well as street parking. The lighthouse is about an hour away from Portree by car.
Day 5 – Isle of Sky –> Eilean Donan Castle —> Fort Williams
Driving Time: Approx. 3 hours (Excluding Stops)
After spending two glorious days exploring the Isle of Skye, we all piled into our little rental car (which was a tight squeeze with four adults, a car seat, and all our luggage!) and headed onward to Fort Williams in the Glencoe region.
Along the way we decided to stop into the Eilean Donan Castle, which is a little more than an hour from Isle of Skye by car.
The castle is situated on its own island where three lochs meet (Loch Duich, Loch Long, and Loch Alsh). It dates to the 13th century and became a stronghold for the Clan Mackenzie, though much of it was destroyed during the Jacobite rebellion in 1719 and was rebuilt in the 20th century.
The Eilean Donan castle is a great place to learn about Scottish history, particularly the history of Scotland’s highland clans. Admission to the castle includes an audioguide, which we recommend utilizing. The staff located throughout the castle are also happy to answer questions. We spent about an hour exploring the castle. (If you are traveling with a baby, we recommend baby-wearing, as a stroller would be difficult to navigate in the narrow stone staircases).
Before continuing on to Fort Williams, we popped into All the Goodness Coffee & Bakeshop for a cup of coffee and a sweet treat to go.
The drive from Eilean Donan castle to Fort Williams is about 1.5 hours. It was late afternoon by the time we got settled into our new accommodations, so we spent the rest of the day exploring the little town and grabbing a bite to eat—and some ice cream—on the main pedestrian street.
Day 6 – Fort Williams/Glencoe
We spent the next day in Fort Williams and the surrounding area, which is bursting with natural beauty. These are some of the best things to do in the Fort Williams area.
The primary reason I wanted to visit the Fort Williams area was to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Why? Because it’s the beautiful bridge the Hogwarts Express famously crosses in the Harry Potter movies! I have been a major Harry Potter fan since I was 11, so it was pretty much nonnegotiable for me.
For the most authentic Harry Potter experience, plan to visit when the Jacobite train (aka, the HOGWARTS EXPRESS) passes over the viaduct. In summer (June-September), the train crosses twice per day at around 10:45am and 3:00pm. In the shoulder season (April, May, October) the train crosses only in the morning. Unfortunately, the Jacobite train doesn’t run during the winter months, but you can obviously still see the viaduct.
If you have your heart set on seeing the train pass, we recommend arriving early. Like, a full hour early. Especially if you’re traveling in high season.
We arrived 30 minutes before the crossing when we visited in late August and couldn’t find an open parking space for more than a mile. We ended up driving back and forth for 20 minutes in a panic before Sam eventually just dropped me off and drove around with Claire until it was time to pick me up.
The viaduct is located a short walk down a paved path from the parking areas. There are a few viewpoint options requiring varying levels of commitment. I ended up watching it from the large open field on the ground, because I arrived fairly late (darn the limited parking!).
Obviously, the better views are from higher vantage points. Prepare to arrive extra early to get a spot up higher.
Regardless of which vantage point you chose, be sure to wear waterproof footwear that you don’t mind getting dirty! The field was a muddy mess the day I visited.
Limited parking is available at Glenfinnan Visitor Center. The viaduct is located approximately 30 minutes from Fort Williams by car.
High Bridge and The Commando Memorial
The area around Fort William is filled with beautiful walking and hiking trails ranging the gamut from post-Sunday-lunch leisure stroll to a full-fledged adventure trek (nearby Ben Nevis is the highest peak in the UK). Since we were traveling with Sam’s parents and a baby, we were most certainly looking for the former. A nice nature walk that isn’t too strenuous starts at the Commando Memorial in Spean Bridge and winds across open pastures and through the woodlands along River Spean. The trail provides good views of Ben Nevis. We weren’t able to complete the full route, because Sam’s parents needed to catch an afternoon train to Glasgow, but we thoroughly enjoyed the part we saw.
Park at the Commando Memorial. Spean Bridge is about 15 minutes from Fort William by car.
Another beautiful place to walk near Fort Williams is along the wooded tails at Glencoe Lachan. The serene lake and surrounding foliage were cultivated by Lord Strathcona to remind his wife of her homeland in Canada. As an Albertan myself, I can certainly see the resemblance to Lake Louise!
There are several routes requiring various amounts of difficulty. We stuck to the easiest/shortest option, a paved trail ringing the lake, because we had limited time. The entire walk took us about 30 minutes at a slow, easy pace.
Free parking is available at the entrance. Glencoe Lochan is about 30 minutes from Fort Williams by car.
**Glencoe Lochan is located along the route to Edinburgh, so it’s possible to add it on as a pit stop on day 7, which is what we did.
Day 7 – Fort William –> Glasgow –> Edinburgh
Driving time: Approx. 3-3.5 hours (Excluding Stops)
The last day of the “road trip” portion of the itinerary involved a fair bit of driving. About an hour into the drive from Fort William to Glasgow, the route goes through Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, a vast, stunning landscape of lake, forest, and rolling hills.
There are plenty of pull-off spots along the way, and we stopped frequently to take pictures. If we’d had more time, I would have liked to do some hiking in this beautiful, remote part of the country. Alas, we never seem to have enough time!
Total driving time from Fort William to Glasgow is roughly 2.5 hours, though the traffic near Glasgow can become congested depending on the time of day.
To be honest, the only reason we stopped in Glasgow was to meet up with a friend who lives there. We have heard that Glasgow is grittier and less “touristy” than Edinburgh. We only spent a few hours in Glasgow, so we can’t really give a fair assessment (though we did really enjoy Edinburgh.) If you’d rather bypass Glasgow altogether and just carry straight on to Edinburgh, you can cut out some driving time.
If you decide to stop in Glasgow, visit the Glasgow Cathedral, do some shopping on Buchanan Street, and grab something to eat in a cozy pub before continuing on to Edinburgh, which is only about an hour away by car.
Day 8 – Edinburgh
We spent our last full day in Scotland exploring the historic capital. And while the main draw to Scotland is certainly it’s jaw-dropping landscapes, we were surprised by how much we enjoyed spending time in Edinburgh—despite the fact that we were at the end of a 16-day trip to the UK (we spent the first week in London and Oxford) with a baby, and we were all getting fairly road weary.
These were some of our favorite things we did in Edinburgh.
The top attraction in Edinburgh is undoubtedly Edinburgh Castle. We visited first thing in the morning to beat some of the crowds. The castle itself, perched high on a rock overlooking the city, is certainly impressive. A royal castle has existed on the rock since the 12th century, though there is archeological evidence of human inhabitation dating back much earlier. The strategic high vantage point, which undoubtedly provided a great military advantage, also offers great views of the city.
We enjoyed visiting the dark, grim prisons where pirates were held during the 1700-1800s (because who doesn’t love pirates). Another highlight was touring the tiny St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh dating to the 1100s. The Great Hall and Crown Jewels and Scepter are also worth seeing.
**If you’re traveling during peak season, buy your timed-entry tickets online in advance. Also note that the ground is uneven and certain parts of the castle can be difficult to access for wheelchairs or strollers. We ended up putting Claire in her carrier leaving her stroller outside whichever building we were exploring. We really wished there was a designated stroller parking area!
The Royal Mile
Connecting Edinburgh Castle on one end with The Palace of Holyroodhouse on the other, the Royal Mile is a mile-long route through Edinburgh’s old town that passes by several of the city’s top attractions, including the impressive St. Giles’ Cathedral.
We particularly enjoyed visiting The Writers’ Museum, a free museum with exhibits on the life and work of Scotland’s most beloved authors: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
If you’re visiting in August during festival season, this part of town gets especially busy. Street performers were scattered along every block when we were there, which was a lot of fun to watch. But it also meant the streets were packed. Keep a very close watch on your children!
An old sloping cobblestoned street lined with cheery restaurants and shops, Victoria Street is a great place to pass some time in Edinburgh.
We highly recommend grabbing a bite to eat from Oink, a popular pulled pork restaurant. It was absolutely delicious.
I can’t go to any new city without checking out a bookstore, and Armchair Books in Edinburgh, which has a great selection of second-hand books, fit the bill. After a long day of pushing a stroller up steep roads, a bookshop break was exactly what we needed.
Just be warned that the aisles are extremely narrow, so trying to push a baby stroller or lug a big backpack might be a challenge!
Princes Street Gardens
Another great place to kick back and relax after a long morning of sightseeing is at the Princes Street Gardens. The well-manicured urban park offers great views of the Edinburgh castle, and there are plenty of benches where you can rest your tired feet. Don’t miss the floral clock!
I admit that “beach vacation” doesn’t exactly spring to mind when I think of Scotland. It probably has something to do with the frigid, rainy climate that would make a Nordic sailor shiver. But because Sam has developed a habit of undertaking a “polar plunge” in any cold body of water we visit, we headed to the nearest beach to our Edinburgh apartment we could pinpoint on our GPS, which ended up being Portobello Beach. And I will admit, I was surprised by how lovely of a beach it was! Though the water is cold enough even in summer to discourage swimmers with less rigorous constitutions, the sand is fine and soft and there is even a nearby playground for children. There is also a wide promenade for walking, jogging, or cycling. Had we discovered it sooner, I would have loved to spend more time there.
Day 9 – Depart Edinburgh
On our last morning in Scotland, we packed up our stuff, dropped our rental car off at the airport (which was a surprisingly easy ordeal), and boarded our flight back to the USA. It had been a lovely, memorable week, and we were exhausted.
When to Visit Scotland
As with any destination, the best time to visit Scotland depends on your preferences. We visited in August, which is the height of peak season (June-August). While the weather was mostly pleasant (despite a few dreary days, because, well, this is Scotland after all), it was also quite crowded. Finding parking was a recurring challenge, especially in popular destinations like Isle of Skye and Loch Ness. Our visit also coincided with the Edinburgh Fringe festival, which meant Edinburgh’s Old Town was completely swarmed (though we enjoyed watching the street performers).
Winter (January-February) sees the fewest crowds but also the least pleasant weather (something that might be an issue if you’re planning to do a fair bit of hiking). There may also be fewer restaurants, hotels, and attractions open.
As with most places, the shoulder season (April-May or September-October) tends offer the best combo of fewer crowds with still-pleasant weather and affordable prices.
Renting a Car
To thoroughly explore a destination like Scotland, renting a vehicle is essential. Though a car isn’t strictly necessary in bigger cities like Edinburgh or Glasgow, much of Scotland’s appeal lies in the countryside, which is largely inaccessible by public transit.
If you’re not comfortable or able to rent a car, a bus tour may be a viable alternative. But we much preferred the flexibility to travel at our own pace and stop wherever we desired. Many of our best memories from the trip are of stops we made at random places along the route! Since we were traveling with a baby, we especially liked the flexibility of having our own car, as we often had to stop to feed and change Claire at inconvenient times.
We rented our car through Europcar. We picked it up at the airport in Inverness and dropped it off at the airport in Edinburgh before leaving home.
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you plan to rent a car in Scotland:
- Manual vehicles are more prevalent and often cheaper. If you know how to drive a stick-shift, you can save money on your car rental and have a wider variety of options.
- Traffic keeps to the left-hand side of the road. Unlike in North America and most of continental Europe, traffic in the UK drives on the left side of the road. The mental shift can take some time, but Sam did surprisingly well! Stay vigilant.
- Many roads are single lane. As in Ireland, some of more rural roads are single-lane only, which can be somewhat terrifying, especially when driving at night! We came across several of these roads in Isle of Skye (most notably on our way to the Fairy Pools). Again, always use caution.
- Watch out for livestock. On rural roads, keep your eyes open for livestock, particularly sheep and cows. They don’t always obey the rules of the road.
Where to Stay
Where you stay will, again, depend on your preferences. Scotland has plenty of lovely B&Bs that offer great value and delicious breakfast. We stayed at quite a few B&Bs in Ireland and had a fantastic experience. This time, since we were traveling with a baby, we predominantly rented Airbnb apartments so we had more space.
Further Reading: 50+ Tips for Traveling with a Baby
One thing that is important to keep in mind is that if you’re traveling in high season (particularly in August like we did), hotels and holiday rentals fill up well in advance. To be safe, book your accommodations as early as possible. We booked ours about five or six months before our trip and had plenty of selection, but Sam’s parents decided to tag along at the last minute and had to scramble to find any hotels with vacancies.
For reference, these are the places we stayed:
Inverness – (our only B&B)(affiliate)
Fort William – (our apartment and an adorable B&B where Sam’s parents stayed)
Edinburgh – (this was a little outside of the heart of the city, but that was fine since we had a rental car)
Money-Saving Tips for Scotland
The only thing we didn’t love about Scotland was the price. The UK as a whole is probably the most expensive place we’ve ever traveled, and we realized fairly quickly that if we weren’t careful, we could easily blow our budget! So here are a few tips to cut down on costs.
- Grocery shop. By far our biggest savings came from buying groceries as opposed to eating every meal out. Because restaurants in the UK are crazy expensive, we did a big grocery run at Aldi in Inverness and stocked up on bread, peanut butter, cheese, sandwich meat, and snacks to cover our breakfasts, lunches, and some dinner. (Packing a lunch was also more convenient, as we often got hungry when we were nowhere near a restaurant!)
- Get the smallest car possible. Gas is expensive, and the roads are crazy narrow in places, so we recommend renting the smallest available car that will accommodate everyone in your party and their luggage.
- Avoid high season. We weren’t able to follow our own advice on this one, but if you really want to save money, don’t visit in the summer. The best deals are nearly always in the off season or shoulder season.
- Enjoy free activities. One of the greatest things about visiting somewhere as beautiful as Scotland is that the best activities are often free! Rather than paying for expensive tours or activities, our favorite thing to do in Scotland was explore its plentiful walking and hiking trails!
- Stay outside the city. While we normally prefer to stay as close to the city center as possible, in Scotland we saved money by staying just outside the city in the suburbs (like in Edinburgh) or in nearby villages. Because we had a rental car available, we decided the extra savings was worth the minor inconvenience.
Like it? Pin it!