With its spectacular landscapes, dramatic ruins, wild coastal beauty and wealth of culture, Scotland offers so many tempting possibilities that it can feel daunting to choose. The good news? That also means it’s hard to go wrong. Our top itinerary suggestion for first-time visitors pairs a few days of immersion in Edinburgh’s ancient past and modern-day buzz with a retreat to the rural Highlands for a taste of life in the countryside and an eyeful of some of the most stunning scenery on the planet.
If you have time for only one Edinburgh attraction, make it Edinburgh Castle. Hunkered down on a hilltop, this behemoth presides over the city with all the gravitas of its 1,000-plus-year history. You can take as much time as you like to explore the castle and its museums, but plan on at least one and a half to two hours to get a thorough overview. Try to catch the firing of the One O’Clock Gun, which has gone off every day (except Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday) since 1861.
Afterward, make a stop at Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, a 19th-century funhouse right next to the castle that’s filled with mazes, optical illusions, holographs and other interactive fun. Its namesake and showpiece is an old-fashioned camera obscura through which you can peer at the streets below. Or see the Museum of Childhood, a quick but fun — and free — detour on the Royal Mile that highlights the evolution of toys over the years. If the kids are game for a more intensive museum visit, pop into the National Museum of Scotland. The collection is vast and eclectic, but excellent kids’ programs and cool interactive activities help younger ones get the most out of it.
TIP: If you have two or three days to spare between the city and the Highlands, spend them at Gleneagles, located in the countryside about 60 miles northwest of Edinburgh. This magical luxury retreat is bliss for all ages, offering a nearly endless list of family-friendly activities: pony trekking, fishing, biking, falconry, a gundog school, indoor games, a toy-filled playroom, a teen lounge and many more. Parents, meanwhile, will be partial to the spa, the golf course and the first-rate onsite dining.
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A few hours’ drive west of Edinburgh, Inverness — a hub of the Scottish Highlands — makes a convenient base for one of this region’s signature sights: Loch Ness. Reserve a spot on a Jacobite Cruises boat tour to cruise the waters and keep an eye out for the fabled Loch Ness Monster. Although parents may or may not buy into the Nessie lore, kids will get a kick out of searching for her with the radar monitor that combs the depths of the water. And the setting, with views of evocative Urquhart Castle (an optional stop), is a highlight for everyone.
For a totally unique glimpse into life in the Highlands, plus memorable time together as a family, book a lesson at Scottish Highland Art, deep in the countryside about 30 minutes from Inverness. Artist Ros Rowell welcomes guests to her cozy studio and does a fantastic job instructing families in different painting techniques, making sure they create pieces they’ll be proud to show off at home.
The classic Scottish itinerary includes a trip to the Isle of Skye or another of the Hebrides, and that’s certainly doable from Inverness. But for a more offbeat coastal excursion, drive north to Spey Bay for dolphin watching and strolling along the bay’s pretty beach. The Scottish Dolphin Centre has a staff of naturalists who can help you spot the sea creatures, plus a small educational center. On the way there or back, make time for a stop at Dunrobin Castle. It flies under the radar compared to big-name cousins such as Stirling and Eilean Donan, but its rooms and gardens are well worth touring, and its small museum displays a collection of taxidermy and Celtic stones.
Luxury-loving families will adore the iconic Balmoral Hotel as well as the Waldorf-Astoria Edinburgh – The Caledonian. Both of these 5-star properties are located on Princes Street a stone’s throw from the Royal Mile, and both pamper guests in every imaginable regard. If you prefer an upscale serviced apartment with a full kitchen, opt for The Chester Residence, also in the heart of Edinburgh.
Loch Ness Country House Hotel, a short hop from Inverness, is a charming, slightly rustic choice for families exploring the Highlands. Comfy and intimate, with just 15 guest rooms, it offers rooms, suites and garden cottages, as well as lovely common spaces for relaxing over cup of tea or coffee. Kids especially will like the library of DVDs — older kids can settle in for a movie night while parents savor cocktails and couple time in the lounge.
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