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TravelThe 10 most beautiful places in Scotland

The 10 most beautiful places in Scotland

Growing up in Scotland, incredible beauty was so close at hand that I almost took it for granted. It was only when I hit my teens and twenties and started travelling that I began to truly understand why so many tourists – around three million a year – flock to my homeland from all over the world and are endlessly enraptured. It’s pretty uncommon, it turns out, to find a country where you can wake up in an ancient capital city, walk rugged coastline and admire historic engineering wonders, plunge into a misty Highland glen or climb a snow-flecked mountain all in the space of about 24 hours. Capped with a whisky, of course.

Scotland’s finest attractions both natural and manmade are not only abundant and extraordinary but amazingly accessible. At less than 31,000 square miles, Scotland is smaller than most American states and you can drive coast to coast in less than a day. And yet it packs in so much, from sweeping lochs and peatlands to sleepy fishing villages, cities steeped in culture, mountains stacked on mountains and castles enough to give you castle fatigue. Finding beauty in Scotland isn’t a case of where to look, so much as where to start. Here’s my pick of the most beautiful places in Scotland. 

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Malcolm Jack is a writer from Scotland. At Time Out, all of our travel guides are written by local writers who know their cities inside out. For more about how we curate, see our editorial guidelines. This guide includes affiliate links, which have no influence on our editorial content. For more information, see our affiliate guidelines

The most beautiful places in Scotland

Edinburgh Old Town

Photograph: Shutterstock

1. Edinburgh Old Town

Best for: Getting to the heart of Scottish urban history

Scotland is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe, but for centuries people have clustered themselves so tightly into the medieval heart of Edinburgh that they literally built things on top of one another. Hugging a sloping slab of craggy volcanic rock, Edinburgh’s Old Town is a magical mystery tour through Scottish urban history, stretching from Edinburgh Castle at the top of the Royal Mile down to Holyrood Palace at its foot. Among its warren of cobbled streets and narrow closes, wynds and terraces, you’ll discover traces of a subterranean city beneath a city, sudden sweeping views of the Auld Reekie skyline, and some classic hidden pubs

📍 Need more reasons to go to Edinburgh? Here’s everything you need to know about this year’s Edinburgh Fringe

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Fingal’s Cave

Photograph: Shutterstock

2. Fingal’s Cave

Best for: Marvelling at the raw power of nature

‘The mighty surge that ebbs and swells,’ runs a line of a poem by Sir Walter Scott inspired by an 1810 visit to Fingal’s Cave on the Inner Hebridean island of Staffa, and the roar of the sea amplified by the cathedral-like enclosure. The 60-million-year-old geological wonder has inspired centuries of poetry, music, writing, painting and filmmaking. Accessible on foot over broken pillars of rock, or by boat when conditions are a bit fairer, Fingal’s Cave is an assault on the senses. Deep darkness is hit by shards of light from the sea, kaleidoscopic colours surround you and sound reverberates around the walls and ceiling. Nature’s symphony, you could say, happens here, when air is sucked in and blasted out of the cave by the wind and the waves, creating rumbles and booms. Yes, it’s as poetic as it sounds. 

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Crail Harbour

Photograph: Al Elmes (@alelmes) via Unsplash

3. Crail Harbour

Best for: Grabbing some fresh crab

Among a string of sleepy old fishing villages and towns along the coast of Fife’s East Neuk, Crail has to be the prettiest. Thanks not least to its picture-postcard perfect harbour – a crescent of time-and-tide washed sandstone set beneath steep cliffs, sheltering a small fleet of boats and weathered fishing creels stacked along the piers. Gorgeous old stepped-gabled cottages jut out of the hillside above at severe angles. While the harbour is nowhere near as active as it was in its late 19th century Herring boom heyday, a handful of fishing vessels still operate, landing live lobster and crab which you can buy fresh off the boat from an iconic old harbourside shack, Reilly Shellfish

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The Cairnwell Pass

Photograph: Shutterstock

4. The Cairnwell Pass

Best for: Taking the high road

Stretching from Glen Shee, Perthshire past the mountain ski resort of the same name to the enchanting Victorian village of Braemar, Aberdeenshire, The Cairnwell Pass is the highest main road in the UK and the southern gateway to the Cairngorms National Park. The drive up – which can also be walked or cycled if you’re feeling fit enough – is literally breathtaking; the land suddenly sweeps sharply upward, and before you know it, you’re hundreds of metres above sea level gazing back down at the glen below. The sudden feeling of transition is profound and overwhelming – a true moment of arrival to the Scottish Highlands. Coming back down at speed makes your ears pop. Truly invigorating stuff. 

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V&A Dundee

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5. V&A Dundee

Best for: A glimpse of modern Scotland

The first design museum in Scotland and the first Victoria and Albert museum outside of London has brought fascinating exhibitions on everything from video games to tartan to the City of Discovery. But you don’t even need to enter Japanese architect Kengo Kuma’s dramatic jagged building, inspired by the cliff edges of eastern Scotland, to experience its impact. Juxtaposed with the famous Dundee-built arctic explorer steamship RRS Discovery moored on the Tay next door, the V&A has helped re-shape and revitalise the entire city’s entire waterfront and provides an inspiring glimpse of a Scotland that seizes its future as well as celebrates its past. Sip a summertime beer by the sea at the pop-up outdoor café and you could be anywhere from Copenhagen to New York.

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The Small Isles

Photograph: Shutterstock

6. The Small Isles

Best for: Dolphin spotting

Almost as famous as its Highlands are Scotland’s islands, many of the most beautiful of which are to be found off the west coast among the Hebridean Archipelago. While the larger islands of Harris and Lewis, Skye and Mull might attract the most tourists, the Small Isles of the Inner Hebrides – Canna, Eigg, Muck and Rum – offer up something different. Our favourite? The most populous small Isle, Eigg. Home to only around 100 people, Eigg is a fascinating experiment in community ownership and sustainable living, and it’s got a stunning beach in the Singing Sands. Rum is a National Nature Reserve, while Canna (with a population only 15) has spectacular cliffs and archaeological sites. If you’re lucky, you can spot seals, dolphins and even whales onboard the ferry there. 

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Loch Katrine

Photograph: Shutterstock

7. Loch Katrine

Best for: A legendary cruise

It might be dwarfed by the far larger Loch Ness and nearby Loch Lomond, but for an unforgettable experience on and around one of Scotland’s countless famous bodies of inland water, the legendary Loch Katrine in the Trossachs can’t be beaten. This is a mystical, atmospheric spot, completely removed from the outside world and surrounded by huge mountains. So beautiful, in fact, it inspired Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘The Lady of the Lake’ and Gioachino Rossini’s opera ‘La donna del lago’. 

Badboy hero of Scots folklore Rob Roy MacGregor was born on the loch’s northern shore, and it’s served as as reservoir to the city of Glasgow 30 miles to the south for over 150 years (the still functioning Victorian waterworks are an engineering masterpiece). There’s still functioning Victorian waterworks to admire, and you can you can hop on a cruise ship adjacent to the SS Sir Walter Scott steamboat (yes, there’s a bar on board). Or simply walk or cycle a paved path along the northern shore.

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Dunnottar Castle

Photograph: Shutterstock

8. Dunnottar Castle

Best for: The crown jewel of Scottish castles

Big ones, small ones, ruined ones, living ones – Scotland has castles to suit every requirement. More than 1,500 in total, spanning over a thousand years in age. Of course, the most beautiful is a matter of taste, but Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire near Stonehaven has to be up there. Built in the 15th and 16th centuries, the ruins gaze out at the North Sea from a 160-foot rocky outcrop ringed by cliffs, once the stronghold for one of Scotland’s most powerful families, the Earls Marischal, until they lost their titles in the failed 1715 Jacobite rebellion. The Scottish crown jewels were famously hidden here from Oliver Cromwell’s invading army in the 17th century, and exploring Dunnottar’s remains with panoramic sea views is a seriously romantic experience.

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Ben Nevis

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9. Ben Nevis

Best for: The highest of Highland highs

If you’re going to climb a Scottish mountain, might as well make it the biggest of the lot, right? And at 4,411 feet, Ben Nevis is the highest peak in Britain, and is always to be taken seriously – check the weather forecast well in advance before setting out, pack sensibly and wear strong footwear. But know that you don’t have to be a highly seasoned mountaineer to bag this Munro (as Scotland’s 282 mountains over 3,000 feet are known). It’s a relatively straightforward climb if you’re quite fit. Budget for about six to nine hours in all and set off nice and early to give yourself plenty of good daylight at the rocky summit. On a clear day, you’ll get 360° panoramic vistas stretching as far as Northern Ireland. In other words, it’s worth it. 

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The Flow Country

Photo by K B on Unsplash

10. The Flow Country

Best for: Splendid isolation

You can travel for miles across the barren far north of Scotland in Caithness and Sutherland and scarcely see another living soul or a trace of human habitation. The feeling of isolation is awe-inspiring, like a private audience with vast mountains and plains. And yet, the Flow Country as it’s known – the most extensive bog in the world, stretching over 1,500 square miles – will play a crucial role in the future of mankind. The soggy peatlands, formed of the remains of plants, store enormous quantities of carbon for thousands of years. Keeping them alive and healthy is essential in the fight against global warming. A decades-long quest for UNESCO World Heritage status and protection is hoped to be completed in 2024.

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