Ok, this is the bare bones blog to get the information out there to friends like CJ who are headed to Scotland and can’t wait for my procrastinatin’ arse to get this all down in a blog.
Useful apps, tools and websites
Rome 2 Rio
dual USB car charger
cell backup charger
www.calmac.co.uk (excellent ferry system site with tourism guide)
Know before you go
- If you don’t already have an international plan for your cell phone, get one. It makes navigating and communicating so much easier out there.
- Wifi is crap in the UK/Scotland (and most of Europe for that matter). It’s spotty, weak and oftentimes “Free Wifi” is just a sign hanging out front like a “Beware of Dog” when there’s a poodle or no dog at all. Deep cleansing breath and upgrade the memory on your phone to fit in all the pics and videos you’ll take.
- Public transport is good there. You can easily get from place to place on buses, trains and ferries and cabs, but driving is fun there. Expensive, but fun.
- In real Scotland, most hotels are older, with brass keys for your rooms, lot a lot of elevators and there’s lots of cobble stone streets, so keep the heels at home and make sure you pack worn in, comfortable shoes for walking everywhere.
- It rains, suddenly and comes down in buckets, then the sun suddenly appears, so keep a light rain jacket in your water resistant purse/bag at all times.
- The Scots aren’t really known for their cuisine. However, they are catching on to the whole farm to table thing. I mean, they and the Irish have been doing farm to table for centuries, but now they get it’s profitable to call it that and are dressing up their plates.
- Expect slow service. That’s just their speed. Don’t tip at the bar, ever. Never tip more than 10% for food/entertainment service unless it’s Michelin star level. It’s imposing our culture on theirs and we’re there to experience Scottish life, not American life with a Scottish accent 😉
- If you do rent a car (you don’t need one when you’re in Edinburgh. You can walk the whole city or hop on/off buses or Uber) it is better to go for their all out coverage for worry free driving. The roads are rough on tires and wing mirrors get dinged here on the narrow roads. It’ll end up costing you in time/hassle if you don’t.
This is the prima donna of Scotland. Love this place. Just gotta watch out for the tourist traps.
Where to dine: Avoid restaurants near the castle. Touristy, $$$ and stale food.
- Divino Enoteca – Great Italian. Great Atmosphere
- Petit Paris – Real French cuisine made by real French people. Charming.
- Michael’s Steak & Seafood – popular. Didn’t eat here, but every local said it was one of their favorites for steak and seafood.
Gillie Dhu – The cool place for a Scottish ceilidh (Kaylee) experience with pipers and highland dancing and the full dining experience. Sits on the west side of the castle on the edge of New Town.
The Royal McGreggor – try Haggis here. I didn’t make it there, but I’ve heard from locals theirs is the most authentic and tastiest.
Things to do:
- Hop on Hop off bus. Do this first thing, to get your bearings of the town
- Hike up Arthurs Seat to get killer views of the city – pee first. No toilets or taxis up there anywhere.
- Take the tour of Scottish Parliament – really fascinating
- Wander through the Castle – trust me, worth it.
- Take this walking tour. Brutally honest, but totally cool. Easy meeting spot by a statue near the Castle on that main street.
- Gillie Dhu – The place to experience a true-ish Scottish Ceilidh
- Pub Crawl along Rose Street in New Town (parallel with the main/Princess Street)
Bonnyrigg Just 30 minutes south of Edinburgh. Worth an overnight stay if you’re looking for a castle experience. Dalhouise Castle hotel is a one stop shop. They have excellent high tea (be hungry) and a falconry experience where you get up close and personal with all kinds of owls, hawks, etc., as well as dining in a dungeon.
Kings Barns Cool little historic town just south along the coast from St. Andrews. Another option for an overnight on the way to or back from St. Andrews with a pretty cool, newer Whisky distillery that offers daily tours and tastings.
Where to Stay:
The Inn at Kings Barns. Totally remodeled, modern rooms with it’s own pub and dining area. The owner is a character and worth talking to for entertainment. He likes to wind people up and watch ’em rant or squirm 😉
Where to stay:
The Russell Has a cool little pub on the first floor. Nice dining in the back and some of the nicest people ever run it. Ask for the sea view room. We ordered a bottle of champagne and watched the world turn from up there. It was totally worth it~
The Ardgowen I stayed at the Russell but heard the Ardgowen was a great one as well with on site chef.
Where to Dine: Either hotel offers good dining, but we were totally hung up on this unique one about 5 minutes drive down the road.
Balgove Larder. We literally came back to St. Andrews twice, just to dine here again. Be sure to check their opening days/hours though. “The Barn” isn’t open every day. The rest is cool, but the Barn is the place to dine.
Things to do: If you’re a golfer then well, it is St. Andrews. If not, go with Jamie and Guy, the way cool and very Scottish twins of Blown Away Adventures. We went land yachting on the beach and it was so much fun~
This town is in-between Inverness and Edinburgh/St. Andrews. It’s really worth a stop at least for lunch, but worth a stay over. It’s the non touristy alternative to the popular Pitlochery down the road. Dunkeld is where you’ll get a feel for real Scottish history. Just walk over to the old church and along the grounds you’ll see signs that spell out it’s history. I don’t want to give it away, just go there and walk all the way around the church. If you stay over, I think all hotels there are well kept, the whole town is, but I stayed at the Atholl Arms twice and liked everything but the long trudge up the stairs to my room. It’s right across from the riverfront where you can take your drink and just chill. It has a pub and restaurant, but for dining/music experience, I went with the Taybank just around the corner for fresh grilled fish (if they or any place in Scotland has Hake, try it). For the road, there’s a cool little place called The Scottish Deli across the way that has yummmm single servings of Whisky cake among many other goods worth filling a picnic basket or car snack pack with.
There aren’t any special accommodations up here that I could find, so expect 3 star, dated, but friendly places.
Things to do:
Cruise Loch Ness of course~ Jacobite Cruises are modern and really well organized. I really liked the narration too. I thought it was very insightful as well as entertaining.
Where to Dine:
The Doors Inn. I discovered this place on a random road trip 25 years ago. Back then it was a dirt floored pub with ducks wandering through it. Now, it’s all Artisan fare, modern fixtures and a warm fire. Great food, but also right next door is a British nutter who lives in a hut and devotes his life to finding the Loch Ness Monster.
I love Glasgow. It’s the big city, but if you’re only in Scotland for less than two weeks, I’d come back to it another time. It’s worth staying a week here. Maybe during one of the festivals. If/when you do go, definitely go to a Scottish football match. Glasgow is home of Partick Thistle. These fans are the epitome of loyalty and love for their underdog of a team. Rangers and Celtic are more popular in the press, but Partick is the real deal, the heart and soul of European football.
Ferry town that takes you to the northern tip of the isle of Arran. One horse town, but unique accommodations at the Anchor Hotel where you can spend on a refurbished barge and friendly locals at the pub next door. It’s pretty cool. No wifi on the barge, but there is in the hotel and nice restaurant. Everyone raves about the charming chef, but it was his night off when we stayed there. *If you stay here, be sure to book through the hotel website and confirm you are getting a barge room. The travel sites don’t clearly state which rooms are in hotel and which are on the barge.
The Outer Islands. Best way to discover any of the outer islands is to use the Scottish Ferry System’s website/guide, CALMAC.
Isle of Arran. Quaint island and worth an overnight stay. Famous for their cheeses.
There’s a ferry that lands at the north end and one that lands at the East end, depending on which direction you want to come from and leave. There’s a place to stop and try n buy, Island Cheese Co. To stay: The Auchrainie Spa Hotel or the friendly mid level, Douglass Hotel, both within walking distance of a great, cozy place called The Fiddlers Music Bar and Bistro right by the ferry that offers great food, atmosphere and live entertainment most nights.
Isle of Mull
Supposed to be a great place for live music, but touristy. The only thing I liked about it was the little farm at the top of the road that offered local cheeses and baked goods with an honesty box where you dropped your payment for whatever you took from the shelves.
Isle of Bute
We stayed one night because the local, grande dame of a hotel had an Elvis impersonator show, which was fun. Cheesy, but fun. We were the youngest people there for the most part.
This is the port town where you catch the boat to one of six islands including the famous Isle of Skye. It was well worth an overnight stay or two at the endearing West Highland Hotel and their restaurant was brilliant with great views of the sea. If you can time your visit to Mallaig on a sunny day you’ll pass by the Silver Sands of Morar, which is a beach that when the light hits it, the sandy shores look stunningly beautiful, almost tropical which is such a contrast to its surroundings.
Isle of Skye
Steeps in history, lots of filming locations to stop and stare at and really touristy. Worth a drive through if you’re staying a few weeks in Scotland.
So, if it were me and I only had 12 days (the average) or less to experience Scotland, I would fly into Edinburgh and go this route:
Edinburgh (4) St. Andrews (1) Dunkeld (1) Inverness/Loch Ness (1) Mallaig (2) visit an island Tarbert (1) Isle of Arran (1) Bonnyrigg (1) Edinburgh Airport
If you need to shave some time off of that you can skip staying over in Loch Ness and just drive around the lake on the way to Mallaig. If outer island trekking isn’t your thing, you can skip Mallaig and St Andrews and KingsBarns can be day trips from Edinburgh. If you’re not into castles then skip Bonnyrigg, but you’ll need to find someplace to stay near Edinburgh if that’s where you fly out of, so might as well make it unique. The other option would be that inn at Kings Barns for a last night stay depending on how early you need to get up and to the airport. It’s just over an hour’s drive NE of the airport.
There you have it, my quick quide to Scotland. More coming along with another home spun film about the place, but this should be enough to ensure you see some of the best of what Scotland has to offer and avoid the pitfalls of the time wasting tourist traps~