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Every corner of Scotland seems to have a dramatic story to tell: This is an ancient landscape marked by crumbling castles, green hillsides where clans once battled, and, of course, deep lochs said to hide at least one mythical monster. The northernmost country in the United Kingdom claims rugged mountains, craggy shores, and cities that look like medieval fantasies. Yes, you’ll probably notice a few kilted street performers puffing on bagpipes as you explore heritage sites like Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the historic heart of the regal capital. But there’s a lot more to this proud nation than its most visible clichés.
In the Lowlands, the majority of the Scottish population resides in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the largest city. Together they form an area known as the Central Belt. Where Edinburgh delivers on Scottish landmarks and grandeur, Glasgow gives you counterculture hot spots. As you move into the Highlands, some of Scotland’s most romanticized vistas come into view, with villages wedged into narrow valleys and towering mountains like Ben Nevis reaching monumental heights. As you explore the mysterious ruins, misty islands, and sprawling national parks, you’ll find Scotland retains some of Western Europe’s wildest and most remote places.
The main airports in Scotland are both in the Lowlands: Edinburgh Airport (EDI) and Glasgow International Airport (GLA). The main air hub in the Highlands is Inverness Airport (INV) in Inverness. Flying between Scotland’s major and regional airports is, of course, the quickest way to get around. But the comprehensive rail network — locally operating as ScotRail — is a far more scenic and sustainable way to go. While many tour companies offer guided coach trips through the major outdoor sites, you’ll want a car to explore wild places such as Cairngorms National Park and the many miles of twisty highways through the most northern reaches.
Scotland is a country known for its internationally famous festivals, culminating in August with the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe taking over the capital for a month of performances and events. Summer is also the warmest and driest season, when Scotland’s northerly position makes for long, sunny evenings and a festive vibe wherever you go. Crowds are noticeably thinner in spring and early fall, when you can experience the major cities and tourist sites more like a local. Winter gets unrelenting rain and occasional snow, but you’ll still find plenty of cozy indoor hubs, historical and otherwise, where you can stay warm.
Glasgow’s fashionable and leafy West End comprises several low-key neighborhoods filled with art museums and galleries, locally owned shops, and some of the most celebrated Scottish restaurants. Take a gander at Argyle Street or duck in cobbled Ashton Lane to get the pulse of Glasgow’s resurgence as a cultural epicenter. This is also home to one of the city’s favorite greenspaces, Kelvingrove Park, where you’re treated to views of the iconic gothic architecture of Glasgow University.
Cross a stone bridge to a tiny tidal island, where several castles have stood guard since the 13th century. In the early 20th century, reconstruction efforts turned the foreboding ruins into one of the most photographed landmarks in Scotland. Its scenic position at the meeting point of several sea lochs makes Eilean Donan Castle alone worth the detour to the Western Highlands to witness the sight for yourself. It’s a popular stop on the way to the nearby Isle of Skye, a magical place with several of its own photogenic castles as well as the iconic Fairy Pools, a series of waterfalls in the Glen Brittle forest.
From Inverness, take one of Scotland’s most scenic drives along the narrow, twisting roads looping through the lesser-traveled North Highlands. The 516-mile (830-km) trip, designated as a touring route in 2015, passes some of the United Kingdom’s most remote fishing villages and harbor towns. You’ll see barren beaches, jagged coastal cliffs, and islands just offshore. While you could drive the North Coast 500 in a day, take a slower roll and give yourself several days to sightsee castles, trek natural trails, and maybe even spot the Northern Lights here at the tip of Great Britain.