Michelle and I recently returned from an amazing 8 days in Scotland. We had a week off from work and when $500 nonstop flights became available we couldn’t resist.
We love the outdoors and hiking and were expecting a lot, but Scotland completely blew us away! It’s also affordable – I used to think of the UK as a very expensive country, but I found it slightly cheaper than the US. We spent £936 for our 8 nights, or £59 per person per night ($76 USD at the current exchange rate), with no expenses spared and burning through lots of gas (petrol) at $6.50 USD/gallon.
We had 8 days and nights in Scotland. We spent three full days (four nights) in the incredible Isle of Skye, which will be the subject of the next post. Of the remaining 5 days we spent two in Edinburgh and three driving to and from Skye with stops along the way. The drive is 5 hours each way, but I recommend splitting it into a couple of days to explore the Scottish Highlands, including our stops in Glencoe, Glenfinnan, and Loch Ness.
Edinburgh is one of our new favourite cities, even in the rain! It’s very compact (you don’t need a car or even public transit), the food was excellent (and affordable), there’s lots of green space, plus many free or cheap activities.
Mostly walking! Start by walking around the city centre, featuring the large castle and park right in the middle. We spent hours meandering around the park, walking the pedestrian streets, and getting street food at the many markets.
I also highly recommend exploring Stockbridge and Dean Village. Stockbridge is a really nice neighbourhood with lots of cafes, nice shops, at walkable streets. The walk along the river towards Dean Village was really nice and an urban rarity – it’s great to be in nature so close to downtown.
But the highlight for us was taking a Harry Potter walking tour! Potter Trails put on a great, pay-what-you-want tour that’s a must for any Potter fan (or even the crazy muggles who have’t yet learned to appreciate the good things in life).
First of all, don’t miss the weekend food markets! We got great desserts at Grassmarket on Saturday and the Stockbridge Market on Sunday.
Otherwise, we went to
- The Pantry (twice!) for excellent breakfast food
- Pekora Bar for excellent cheap Indian food
- Under the Stairs for a high end (for us) place with amazing food at reasonable prices (around £10-12 for mains, tax included).
- Cora Chocolate Cafe for a light, healthy snack
If you’ll be hiking in Scotland, you need good waterproof shoes and warm clothing. If there’s anything you’re missing, Mountain Warehouse is your place. We bought two pairs of waterproof hiking shoes, a fleece sweater, and a backpack for a total of £87 ($112), much cheaper than they would have been back home. Even if we hadn’t used anything in Scotland they are all items we wanted for back home anyways.
Driving to & from Skye
We spent two days driving to Skye. One day driving to and hiking in Glencoe, another day driving from Glencoe to Skye (with a detour to the Glenfinnan Viaduct of Harry Potter fame), and a full day driving back from Skye to Edinburgh, with a stop at Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness.
We broke up our drives with a night on each end. On the way to Skye we spent a night in Glencoe at the Ardno House (£76). We had a really nice room with a huge bathroom and tub, and the host was very friendly and served a made-to-order breakfast. It’s not far from the town which is really beautiful, right along the river.
On the way back we stopped in Perth, just 45 minutes north of Edinburgh Airport (we had an early flight). We stayed at Northlees Farm, 15 minutes outside the city. Our room was very small and basic but it was fun being on a farm and the host was friendly. For £50 not a bad deal. Perth is also a really nice small city – we recommend Gloagburn Farm Shop (just go!) and the Fish & Chip Co. for a great local chippy.
We left Edinburgh early for the drive to Glencoe, filled with huge mountains and great fall foliage. Our first hike was Lost Valley, a little bit before reaching the town. The weather was great once again. The trail was really nice with great views, but unfortunately we didn’t reach the top. There was a water crossing near the end that required a big step over a fast-moving stream of very cold water. I probably could have made it but Michelle is 5’0 (152 cm) with very short legs and there was a pretty big chance she’d end up in the river, which would not be pleasant! So we aborted the hike but had a great time anyways with no regrets.
After a short break we went for a walk at Glencoe Lochan, following the route on Walkhighlands. It was a very nice easy walk that’s popular with locals and dog-walkers. Our favourite part was the moss – I’ve never seen so much of it!
We left Glencoe at 8:30 and set out to catch the Jacobite pass by Glenfinnan at 10:50 (aim to arrive 15 minutes after the train departs Fort William) . We stopped at Fort William for some excellent vegetarian pies from Nevis Bakery and made it to Glenfinnan by 10:00. We parked in the lot after the river and took the path that goes right under the viaduct and then up the hill. We got some great pictures from many angles, found ourselves a good spot, and waited patiently for the train to come. When we arrived there weren’t many people there, but unfortunately a tour bus came right before the train did. Luckily we had our waterproof shoes on and scrambled up to a muddy spot where nobody was blocking our view. As Harry Potter fans, watching the train go by was amazing! Even without the Harry Potter connection, the train itself is worth seeing – I’ve never seen a real steam-powered train before.
After watching the train we turned back to Fort William and made our way to the A87 towards Skye. The drive was mind-blowingly stunning. It felt extraterrestrial. It’s hard to describe in words, or even capture in pictures. You just need to go – one of the nicest drives I’ve ever been on, even in the rain and fog, and completely unexpected.
Eilean Donan Castle
We stopped at Eilean Donan for some great sunny pictures and a bathroom break before crossing the bridge to Skye (stay tuned!). If it starts raining, wait a few minutes – you may get some incredible rainbows!
Urquhart Castle & Loch Ness
Urquhart Castle is a sprawling, ruined castle on the shore of Loch Ness. The cost is £9 to enter, but in my opinion worth it (confession: we were trying to find a bathroom, took a side door, and accidentally snuck in without paying). This place is tourist central; the parking lot is packed with tour busses and there’s a huge visitors center with more people in it than the population of Skye. But the tourist shtick, including the short Disneyesque video and the “Live History Demonstration,” which consisted solely of a man dressed up as a medieval soldier demonstrating how to different weapons can be used to kill your enemies, was kind of endearing. Also the castle is really beautiful, especially if you prefer ruined castles to intact ones, as we do. The best way to experience Loch Ness in my opinion! Next time we’ll try to spot Nessie.