Sometimes as travellers we don’t have the luxury of time, but we want to take every opportunity we get to explore new places. You may be visiting Scotland as part of a bigger trip around the UK or Europe in general. Or you only have a small amount of annual leave but still want to see the best the country has to offer. I’m here to tell you that you can pack a lot of Scotland into 5 days.
Voted the most beautiful country in the world in a poll of Rough Guides readers, it is compact enough to cover a lot of ground quickly. I have produced a 5 day itinerary starting in Edinburgh and finishing in Glasgow, but of course you can do it in reverse. It will require some early starts and long days but it will all be worth it when you look back on an epic 5 days in Scotland!
Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland and to be honest you could easily spend 5 days just exploring the city. But you want to see more of Scotland so make today count.
Start the day at Edinburgh Castle. Built on an extinct volcano, there has been a hill fort here since the Iron Age. These days it is now a hugely popular attraction for visitors from all over the world who come to discover the castle’s secrets. Try to get to there for opening time and follow this one hour itinerary to see the best of the castle including the Scottish Crown Jewels and Mons Meg, a huge siege gun.
Royal Mile (part 1)
From the castle, head down the Royal Mile towards the iconic crown steeple of St. Giles Cathedral. Outside the Cathedral you may notice a lot of people spitting on a heart shaped mosaic on the ground. This is the Heart of Midlothian and legend has it that spitting on it will bring you luck. However, history tells us that this was the site of the Old Tollbooth prison and when the prisoners were brought out for execution, they would be spat at in disgust. Whatever the origin of the tradition, it continues to this day. Just beyond the Cathedral is the Real Mary Kings Close, a hidden warren of underground homes and passages from the 17th century. You can explore the Close in a one hour guided tour, although it is not suitable for under 5s.
Stepping back out into the light of day, backtrack slightly up the Mile to George IV Bridge and take a detour down this street to visit the National Museum of Scotland. On the way don’t miss the small statue of Greyfriars Bobby on the corner of Candlemaker Row and George IV Bridge. Bobby was a terrier dog famous for spending the last 14 years of its life guarding the grave of its master and the story has since been immortalised in book and film.
National Museum of Scotland
From here you should cross the road onto Chambers Street and head for the National Museum of Scotland. Discover the museum’s highlights, which include the Lewis Chessmen (which you may remember seeing in Harry Potter) and Dolly, the most famous sheep in the world! Once you have explored the museum, it will probably be time for lunch. The musuem has a number of places where you can eat, but you will find a better selection outside. A popular choice for Harry Potter fans is The Elephant House, which you passed earlier on George IV Bridge, as it was in this coffee house that JK Rowling spent time writing her books. Alternatively Victoria Terrace, further back towards the Royal Mile, has dining options with an elevated view of Victoria Street.
Royal Mile (part 2)
Once you are suitably refreshed, turn back onto the Royal Mile and head down the hill towards Holyrood. Make sure to peep into some of the closes as you go, giving you an insight of real Edinburgh life. Further down the street, you will pass the Museum of Childhood and the Museum of Edinburgh which are worth a look. However, deciding if you have time to visit them depends on whether you plan on visiting the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at the bottom of the Royal Mile. The Palace is the Queen’s Edinburgh residence and last admission can be as early as 3.15pm in winter. The audio-guided tour takes one hour and explores the history of this royal abode. Close by, is the modern Scottish Parliament building which can be explore in a self-guided 30 minute visit.
Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill
Within Holyrood Park, Arthurs’ Seat is a popular hill walk taking around two hours. Unless it is summer, I would not advise climbing it at the end of the day due to the early sunset time and the lack of lights. If you decide to make the ascent, note that it is steep and rocky, and may be too hard going for young children. Please make sure you keep to the main path and wear suitable footwear. The views from the top are worth the effort and afford a panorama of the Firth of Forth. A good alterative for shorter days, however, is nearby Calton Hill which is easier and has great views of the city. If you are there at sunset you will be able to see the sun sinking behind the castle.
Evening in Edinburgh
A popular choice for an evening’s entertainment in Edinburgh is to take part in one of the many ghost tours. Given it’s long and sometimes dark history, some people believe it is one of the most haunted cities in the UK. Some of these tours are not suitable for children, so please check before you book.
It’s time to hire a car and start your whistlestop Scottish road trip. Get an early start and head for Stirling, a 50 minute drive northwest of Edinburgh. Located on the border between Highlands and Lowlands, Stirling was a city of great strategic importance. It was once the capital and, like Edinburgh, has a castle built on a lump of volcanic rock! The castle is often a lot less busy than its counterpart and has great views of the surrounding countryside and hills. The highlights of the castle can be discovered in an hour, including James IV’s splendid Great Hall. Nearby, is the site of the Battle of Bannockburn. It was here that Robert the Bruce, King of Scots defeated the English King, Edward II.
Having explored Stirling, continue your journey north toward Perthshire. Perth is another former capital of Scotland and is located about 45 minutes from Stirling. Home to Scone Palace, the former crowning place of Scottish kings and queens, Perthshire is a great place to break your journey for lunch. Dunkeld and Pitlochry are two pretty Perthshire towns where you can enjoy some refreshments in pleasant surroundings.
Having had a quick wander around one of these bonnie Highland towns, it’s time to hit the road again. Heading for Inverness, our best route is to drive around the west of the Cairngorms National Park towards Aviemore. The Cairngorms are home to some of Scotland’s tallest mountains and the National Park is the largest in the UK. If you are making good time, the Highland Wildlife Park is located on route in Kingussie. It incorporates a safari park which you drive through in your vehicle and enclosures which you can explore by foot. Its most famous resident is Hamish the polar bear cub born in 2018.
You are now less than an hour from Inverness so feel free to stop for dinner in Aviemore, a popular Cairngorm resort town. Otherwise head straight for the capital city of the Highlands and your home for the night.
Built on the banks of the River Ness, Inverness was a key location in the Jacobite rising, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose aim was to reinstate the Stuart dynasty on the British throne. This ended in defeat at the Battle of Culloden, just 15 minutes outside of the city
From Inverness, you will follow the River Ness to the shores of Loch Ness. Believed by some to be the home of the Loch Ness Monster, it is possible to go Nessie spotting on a boat cruise! If you don’t have any luck spotting the elusive monster, the iconic ruins of Urquhart Castle on the shore of the loch are a dramatic sight and are just 30 minute from Inverness.
Having explored Loch Ness, head south 50 miles to Fort William. Depending on the time of year, it may be possible to take an afternoon journey on the Jacobite steam train to the picturesque fishing village of Mallaig, with views of the Isle of Skye as its backdrop. Harry Potter fans will recognise the train as being The Hogwarts Express from the movies. The ride will take you over the remarkable Glenfinnan viaduct, which also features in the films. Check the Jacobite website for times and availability. If you can’t book a ride on the Jacobite, the journey can also be made by car along the ‘Road to the Isles’. The drive there and back will take just over two hours, but you will want to spend some time in Mallaig enjoying the views over the sea to Skye.
You will be spending the night in Fort William so, if you didn’t have dinner in Mallaig, find yourself a nice restaurant or pub in town and settle down by the fire for some hearty Highland fare.
On day 4 of your journey, leave Fort William and follow the shore of Loch Linnhe south for 30 minutes. Crossing the Ballachulish bridge, the majestic mountains of Glencoe come into view. Glencoe is probably the most famous Scottish glen and it is easy to see why it’s so popular. Stop off at the National Trust for Scotland’s visitor centre where you can learn more about the area’s geology, ecology and history. Staff will be able to advise you of local walks for all abilities where you can really experience the majesty of these mountains.
Once you have explored Glencoe, continue southwards across the wild Rannoch Moor towards Tyndrum and beyond to Crianlarich. From here, it’s just a short hop to the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. Before you reach the loch, make a short stop at the Falls of Falloch viewpoint where you can enjoy a pretty waterfall just metres from the road. The best place to enjoy Loch Lomond is Luss, located about 1.5 hours south of Glencoe. It’s a charming conservation village on the loch’s western shore with pretty little cottages leading down to the lochside. From Luss pier you will be able to get some fantastic photos with the mountain of Ben Lomond in the background.
If you have time, in summer a waterbus service links Luss with Balloch on the southern tip of the loch. It is 30 minutes each way and allows you enjoy the scenery from the water.
It’s hard to believe you are only 45 minutes from Glasgow; the largest city in Scotland, and your final destination. Hit the road for the final leg of your journey, heading for Scotland’s cultural capital.
Your short break in Scotland is almost over, but you still have time to discover the vibrant city of Glasgow. Renowned for its arts scene, it has multiple live music venues and theatres. Given that its attractions are a lot more spread out than Edinburgh’s, I would recommend taking the hop-on, hop-off bus tour as this is the easiest way to travel between Glasgow’s various attractions. You can start the tour in George Square in the City Centre.
I would suggest getting off at the first stop to explore the medieval Glasgow Cathedral. It is the oldest cathedral on the Scottish mainland and a survivor of the Reformation. Immediately adjacent to the Cathedral are a number of attractions which may be of interest: Provand’s Lordship, the oldest house in Glasgow dating back to 1471; the Glasgow Necropolis, a remarkable Victorian cemetery; and the Saint Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art.
Hop back on the bus and head for the West End. It has some particularly good museums and the first one on the bus route is the Riverside Museum. Located on the banks of the Clyde, it is Scotland’s museum of transport and travel and is housed in a spectacular building designed by Zaha Hadid. Don’t miss the walk-through historic Glasgow street scene and climb aboard the Tall Ship moored on the river behind the museum.
University of Glasgow
It might be time for lunch so take the bus to Byres Road, where you will find plenty of places to eat. It is also close to the University of Glasgow, the fourth oldest university in the UK. The main campus is a beautiful gothic-revival building and can be explored on this self-guided tour.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Below the university lies Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow’s most popular attraction. With 22 galleries covering a range of subjects, including Natural History and Ancient Egypt, there is something for everyone. Make sure you visit the Art Gallery’s most famous exhibit – ‘Christ of St John of the Cross’ by Salvador Dali – housed in its own room on the first floor.
The Museum is located in Kelvingrove Park and if you fancy a stroll, it is a pleasant walk back towards the city through the park. Otherwise catch the bus back to George Square to conclude your tour of the city.
Evening in Glasgow
Celebrate your last night in Scotland by dining in one of Glasgow’s fantastic restaurants. There are lots of family-friendly places as well as more sophisticated options. Maybe catch a show or a concert in one of Glasgow’s many venues afterwards.
Well, we did it! The best of Scotland in 5 days. If you have extra time, you could easily spend this in Glasgow or Edinburgh exploring more of what these great cities have to offer.
Have you been on a road trip around Scotland? Where was your favourite place on the trip? Let us know in the comments below.