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posted on May 15th, 2019

The best sights for first-timers

With summer on the horizon, Scotland offers a welcome alternative to a typical beach vacation (though there’s no want of coastline). You’ll find everything from ancient castles to modern art and historical whisky distilleries to ultra-hip vegan cafes and music venues. Ready?

North Coast 500

Castles spiral into the sky, sunlight reflects on white sand beaches, and crumbling ruins take you back in time. The NC500 takes off from Inverness Castle and winds along over 500 miles of eye-catching coastline. The route is marked by rural villages, breweries and distilleries, craggy beaches, castles, caves, and more, so whether you’re looking for historical sights or beer halls (or even better, both), you’ll find it here.

A couple standouts you’ll want to stop at: Smoo Cave is the only one in the country formed by both sea and rain water and has a 20 meter high waterfall inside (if this whets your waterfall appetite, check out the Fairy Glen at Rosemarkie and Clashnessie Falls). Stop by Isle of Ewe Smokehouse for some local smoked goods to enjoy on a picnic. The Whaligoe Steps zigzag over 250 feet down a cliff to a natural harbor — then reward yourself for the climb with a drink at Whaligoe Cafe.

And keep an eye out for wildlife along the way. Majestic red highland deer are best spotted in the early mornings in fields away from villages. For bird lovers, the Dunnet Head Nature Reserve offers a gamut from puffins to cormorants to kittiwakes. Not to be outdone by the land creatures, the sea offers whale watching, plus bottlenose dolphins, porpoises, and seals.  

Glasgow

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

A rich foundation of art, architecture, and history mixes with an electric club scene, local music, and a healthy dose of modern breweries and cafes to make Glasgow an appealing marriage of old and new. Take in Scottish gothic architecture at Glasgow Cathedral, then amble over to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum for a taste of Spanish baroque style and, of course, world-class exhibits.

For a look at the modern art community, head to Street Level Photoworks, which both supports photographers and invites the public to engage with and make their own photography. Mono has a little bit of everything — a single domed roof encompasses a live music venue, independent record shop, outstanding food and drink, and gallery. Finally, to honor another kind of art, The Scottish Football Museum will speak to sports fans as it’s housed within the National Stadium at Hampden and houses an impressive array of memorabilia.

Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park

Loch Lomond

While driving between Glasgow and Edinburgh, detour into the countryside at this national park. If you’re looking to stretch your legs, climb some hills (easily accessible for any level of hiking expertise), like Ben A’an, which will reward you with expansive views of Loch Achray.

If you want to get into the water itself, you can choose from kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, sailing, windsurfing, swimming, or simply cruising in a boat. There are 22 lochs, Scotland’s only natural body of water named as a “lake,” and 39 miles of coastline surrounding three sea lochs — so suffice to say, your opportunities are bounded only by your activity level of choice.

Edinburgh

Calton Hill, Edinburgh

The capital city is rife with entertainment both indoor and out. Start at the extinct volcano Arthur’s Seat for unparalleled city views, then head to the visual illusions museum Camera Obscura to have your mind blown in a totally different way. You can’t visit the city without sampling some whisky (that’s the Scottish spelling), so head to the North British, the city’s sole distillery, to start, then head out of the city to Glenkinchie Distillery for more taste tests (for science’s sake).

Continue your mini-road trip (here’s where we remind you to have a designated driver post-whisky-tasting!) by driving just over an hour to St. Andrew’s, the birthplace of golf. Finish it out with a round where it all began — even without a whisky primer, you’ll be hard-pressed to keep your jaw off the floor while on any of the seven courses marked by emerald expanses, castles, and water views.

Virginia is equally enamored with words and globetrotting. Whenever possible, she likes to combine the two through travel writing to help other wanderers discover and fall in love with the world.

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