Not sure how to spread your limited time in Scotland? Looking for itinerary guidance? While I won’t make promises I can’t keep, I’m here to share what we did, share ideas, and give hindsight feedback on our choices.
The first thing to point out is that we arrived back from Scotland with three more future trips planned out. We shaped this trip around our top two priorities: Edinburgh and Isle of Skye.
Day 1: Edinburgh
Day 2: Edinburgh, drive West, overnight in Invergarry
Day 3: Eilean Donan Castle, hit Isle of Skye by (late) lunch, Portree, Neist Point
Day 4: Hike the Quirang (in snow!) and Old Mann of Storr, overnight in Corbost
Day 5: Fairy Pools walk, drive to and overnight in Glen Coe
Day 6: Stirling
Day 7: Drive back to Edinburgh, stopping at the Falkirk Wheel and Antonine Wall
Day 8: Edinburgh, fly home.
Quick conclusions: This time-frame worked fine. We’re pleased, but if we had total time-freedom, another 2-3 days would be nice for this itinerary (assuming you didn’t add more on along the way). We skimped on Edinburgh (but knew that we’re likely visit again), and we’d love to have had time to invest in hiking the Cullins on Isle of Skye, or in Glen Coe, and/or to give Ben Nevis a go.
For day-by-day details, including food and accommodation recommendations…
Day 1: Edinburgh should be at the top of your list. It’s a nuclear ball of travel awesomeness, a rare combination of densely-preserved historical layers and a modern, “living” city. It’s got a unique and addicting flavor. In this half-day, we explored Edinburgh Castle and did the worthwhile Mary King’s Close tour. (Book as soon as you arrive.)
Sleep: We stayed at the brand new Motel One – a small chain of “affordable design” hotels. It could not be better located (right at the foot of Waverly Bridge, where the airport shuttle bus drops you into town). The staff were friendly, and the only place we felt the “affordable” cuts was in their cold insistence that there is no such thing as “extra pillows”.
Eat: We were over the moon with every choice we made. Angels with Bagpipes is practically on top of the hotel and had beef tartar we couldn’t get out of our mind all week long. (Everything was superb though.) The Southern Cross Cafe was like breakfast food magic. They desperately need more staff, but the coffee was literally, inexplicably, the best either of us have had in our lives – we were bickering about sharing the end of my larger cup. I’d swear it’s made with ground up fairy dust or something. And the pancakes. I’m confused by how something so common could be so outstandingly delicious.
Day 2: We walk to the magnetic, monument-strewn Calton Hill and climb the Nelson Monument. After, we take in the rest of the Royal Mile on our walk to pick up our rental car. We’re driving west by 2:30. The drive is immediately beautiful, and only gets better as you go. This night we stayed at Glengarry Castle Hotel in the Cairngorms. Good stopping point, nice staff, lovely place, though quite new and modest by “castle” standards. Recommended, just not the “bargain” you’re expecting from the name.
Day 3: Gorged on the best hotel breakfast imaginable – we both came away liking black pudding for the first time ever. Poked around the ruins of the original Glengarry Castle (on the grounds), continued on to Scotland’s most-photographed castle, Eilean Donan. The only down side of our timing is that the tide was low, so plan for that if you want to see it fully surrounded by water just like in the photos. The castle is still privately owned and used, which adds a certain homliness (in the UK sense of the word) that we enjoyed. The staff is super-friendly and happy to show you/explain about the many unique antiques and artifacts housed there. From here we went on to the Isle of Skye.
What to know about Isle of Skye: We though “undeveloped” and low-season would mean inexpensive. Wrong. We like to wing our travels. We pick destinations, sketch a basic timeline but sort the details as we go. This is not a budget-friendly way to do Isle of Skye. • In April, only about half the businesses are open (except Easter weekend, when they do big business). They have a short tourist season to make their year’s profit, we were told, so no (what we consider to be) low-season prices here. Stumbling upon B&Bs meant a lot of £80 nights.
• Food is limited, too. We’d get to a B&B and they’d recommend we think about dinner. The nearest restaurant might be 20-30 minutes away, be the only one open, and close early. Just because it’s in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean it’s cheap! Thankfully, it doesn’t mean low-quality either. We ate expensively, but at least we ate well.
• Don’t be put off by the weather. It can change quickly and it’s an island of micro-climates. We had a gorgeous day followed by all-day snow. At first we were bummed but went hiking anyway – and it was fantastic.
• Look out for sheep. Not “on occasion” as we had read. All the time. They own this island. Drive with particular caution in April (lambing season!) and at night. It’s dark out there and all you see is beady eyes coming out of nowhere.
• We see how people say you could stay for 6 weeks and barely get started on Isle of Skye, three days left us feeling that we’d done a good amount for the time being, as we were ok with moving on.
Portree was cute but we saw no particular reason to stay. So we continued on to Neist Point lighthouse. It’s an easy trail and you can see the whole rugged strip of land laid out before you (so it’s easy to judge whether you have the time/conditions to see it through). Our timing was perfect as it put us there at sunset. You used to be able to stay overnight at the lighthouse but sadly it is currently rundown and not open. Maybe next time…
We found a lovely B&B with a view, then raced to catch dinner at The Old School Restaurant. (Delicious!)
Day 4: When we woke to heavy snow we thought our day was done. We made do by driving the Trotternish peninsula and had a lot of fun poking around in Iron Age souterrains. (There should be hard-hats and flashlights at the entrance but be prepared to with your own flashlight in case they’re missing. Those caves just ate our piddly lights. In the rain they are also muddy, and you either have to crawl, or squat severely. Still, we had fun.)
We also enjoyed the dramatic, cliff-edge ruins of Duntulm Castle. Then, when we saw the Quirang hike we just couldn’t resist. Actually, the snow just added to the atmosphere of the hike (though we didn’t go the entire way up as the slim path became very slushy at a point and we didn’t have the proper gear). The Old Mann of Storr hike came next, but we only did that half way. There’s a giant forestry project of some sort going on, which appears to mean “cutting everything down” and the walk was a comparative dull, muddy trudge of tree stumps and the Old Man was shrouded in fog.
Our day ended with a spectacular drive through the Cullin Hills and an overnight in Corbost’s Old Inn & Waterfront Bunkhouse – a handy combination of cozy pub, hostel and inn.
Day 5: We’d done a satisfactory amount of hiking, but images of the Fairy Pools are what brought me to Isle of Skye, so I wasn’t skipping it. This is an easy, kid-friendly affair that can take as long or as little as you like.
That night we ended in Glen Coe and stayed at the most lovely B&B yet. Lios Mhoire is run by Kareen and Willie. Kareen is originally from the Shetland Islands, which I found fascinating, and from the moment she opened the door laughing I just knew I wanted to stay in this warm and friendly home. It’s right on the Loch, which beautiful sunset views, and you’ll feel like family friends.
We ate dinner and had a sociable drink at the Glen Coe favorite, the Clachaig Inn. Just plan on it; you’ll end up there anyway.
Day 6: We intended to hike around Glen Coe, but began to feel pressed for time, and since we’d just done a few days of hiking we decided Glen Coe exploring would be better saved for a future trip. So we went on to Stirling and over-nighted in the irresistibly cozy Portcullis Hotel and pub. Right at the entrance to the castle, we resisted what seemed like must be a tourist trap. It was just too easy! But a few other recommended places were closed or full and we ended up back there and delighted that we did.
Stirling was a ghost-town at night. Rather creepy actually, and I loved that! I’d been here before and it’s just as atmospheric as I remember. It’s a compact, historic town that should not be missed. The castle is quite a bit more interesting than Edinburgh Castle (IMHO) and it’s too conveniently nearby to miss.
Day 7: Today we did what my Scottish friends declined to take me to last time – the William Wallace Monument. I think it was worth it and I’d go again, if for no other reason than the open-to-the-elements crown at the top offers exhilarating views over the most strategically important place in all of Scottish history.
We then headed back towards Edinburgh, stopping in Falkirk to see the Antonine Wall (unless you’re a real Roman geek like me, it’s probably not of interest) and ended up seeing the Stargate-like Falkirk Wheel. If you’ve got an hour to spare (it’ll take you 30 min just to find the place as the signage is aggressive, yet totally missing at important points), swing by. You can live without seeing it, but it is pretty darn cool.
We’re back in Edinburgh by 2 for the car return. With an early dinner booked we lament not having time to go Holyrood Palace or Arthur’s Seat, but we’re glad to have firm reasons to come back.