Valley view below the mountains of Glencoe, Lochaber, HIghlands, Scotland, UK

Scotland. Land of ancient castles, misty lochs and towering mountains. Of tinkling, salmon-rich streams and roaring, raging waterfalls, of heather-clad moorland and tree-cloaked glen. The landscape here is truly unforgettable and the ideal itinerary is one that takes you far off the beaten track – out into the Highlands and Islands, perhaps, or deep into one of the country’s pristine national parks. And yet there are incredible, historic cities here too – from the postcard-perfect capital of Edinburgh to the vibrant city of Glasgow. With so much to see, the best way to explore is to get behind the wheel and head out on an adventurous road trip.

Take on the legendary North Coast 500

Kylesku Bridge is just one of many breathtaking sections of the North Coast 500 road (Photo: Getty Images)

If you only do one Scottish road trip, make it this one. The North Coast 500 takes in the far north of Scotland on a 500-odd-mile loop out from the Highland capital of Inverness. Stay at the AC Hotel Inverness here, for views out over the river Ness, then shake off the city in favour of some of Europe’s most dramatic scenery. Tackle the route counter-clockwise, heading up the east coast to check out the jaw-dropping Whaligoe Steps – which lead down to an old stone harbour – and one of the world’s most famous signposts at John o’Groats, before slowing down to gaze at the scenery of the northwest Highlands.

Make time for the sweeping sandy beaches of Durness and atmospheric Smoo Cave before driving down through Wester Ross. Here you’ll find copious opportunities to get out on the water, trying your hand at paddle boarding or canoeing or taking a trip to see seals and seabirds around the Summer Isles. You can also visit the National Trust for Scotland’s most northerly property, the lovely Inverewe Gardens.

Finally, stop off in Applecross where the eponymous inn serves delicious local seafood with enchanting views over the sea to Skye. 

But don't stop at 500 miles: next up, the North East 250

Some parts of the North East 250 landscape, such as the Cairngorms, demand that you get out of the car and linger awhile (Photo: Getty Images)

Aberdeen is the jumping-off point for the North East 250, a picturesque loop around some of Scotland’s most beguiling scenery. But it’s also one of Scotland’s liveliest cities, which you can discover by checking in to the one of the spacious studios and suites at Residence Inn Aberdeen, or the Aloft Aberdeen TECA, located at state-of-the-art events venue TECA

After Aberdeen you may be ready to slow the pace, so follow the river Dee into bucolic Royal Deeside, so-called because it was a favourite of both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II (and is home to Balmoral). Here you can fish for salmon in the river and explore castles such as the well-preserved sixteenth-century Crathes and the ruin of Knock, before entering Scotland’s largest national park, the Cairngorms. This is the place to abandon the car, hiking up Ben Macdui (Scotland’s second highest mountain) or taking the funicular railway up Cairngorm mountain. 

From the Cairngorms head north into Speyside, Scotland’s whisky country, where you can visit big-name distilleries including Glenlivet and Glenfiddich as well as the country’s oldest working distillery at Strathisla. Then hug the coast back around to Aberdeen, taking in cute fishing villages such as Portknockie and Portsoy and sweeping sandy beaches.      

From one truly great city to another

Head from Edinburgh to South Queensferry to marvel at the trio of crossings that comprise the Forth Bridges (Photo: Getty Images)

In Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland is home to two truly great cities – and few road trips can compete with this short jaunt between them. Begin in Edinburgh, checking in to the playful Moxy Edinburgh Fountainbridge for funky rooms and cocktails on arrival. Head out to see the castle, walk up an extinct volcano at Arthur’s Seat and visit a whisky bar. You can also taste traditional Scottish cuisine at top restaurants including Wedgwood and Angels with Bagpipes and check out the city’s fascinating arts scene.

Leave Edinburgh for South Queensferry, to see the trio of awe-inspiring crossings that make up the Forth Bridges, and then it’s on to Falkirk, where you’ll find the Falkirk Wheel, a remarkable rotating boat lift which links two canals and offers unique boat trips, and the 100ft-tall Kelpies equine sculpture.

From Falkirk, continue north to Stirling, where Scotland’s most imposing castle stands, at what was once the crossing point from the Lowlands into the Highlands. Also near Stirling is Bannockburn, where you can discover the story of the famous fourteenth-century battle, and the National Wallace Monument, which pays homage to Scotland’s national hero, William Wallace. 

From Stirling take the short drive to Glasgow, where the Moxy Glasgow Merchant City makes a great base for exploring the city's legendary nightlife, as well as for hitting the shops and visiting the renowned Gallery of Modern Art

Touring the stunning shoreline of Loch Lomond

The road that hugs the shore of Loch Lomond passes some of Scotland's most beautiful scenery (Photo: Getty Images)

Glasgow is the starting point for a short road trip around the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs national park. Head out along the River Clyde towards Helensburgh, for a visit to Rennie Mackintosh’s The Hill House, then turn north for the loch and some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery. Take a boat trip to see Loch Lomond’s fabled “bonnie banks” and for dramatic views northwards to Ben Lomond, or take off in a seaplane to check out the islands of Arran, Islay, Jura and Mull from the air.

Further east are the Trossachs, where Ben A’an beckons. This 1491ft (454m) “mountain in miniature” is relatively simple to climb – children can happily walk up – but offers incredible views from its summit of the surrounding lochs and craggy peaks.

On your return to Glasgow, spend a night or two at the Glasgow Marriott Hotel on Argyle Street right in the heart of the action and with a lovely indoor swimming pool. 

A Hebridean road trip through the atmospheric landscape of Skye

Lying in the far north of the island, the Quiraing is one of Skye's most celebrated landscapes (Photo: Getty Images)

Inverness, known as the "Capital of the Highlands", is a great base for exploring some of Scotland's most dramatic landscapes – none more so than the Inner Hebridean island of Skye. After a restorative stay at riverside AC Hotel Inverness, head west to Mallaig (around two and a half hours' drive) for the car ferry, or to the Kyle of Lochalsh (around two hours) to cross to Skye via the bridge.

Whichever way you cross, you're doing much more than passing simply from 'mainland' to 'island' – Skye's singular landscape feels at times like a whole other world. There are, of course, the celebrated sights – some made famous by their starring role in Game of Thrones – like the Quiraing, Old Man of Storr and the Fairy Pools, but it's the island as a whole that you'll remember: the stretches of road you have to yourself; the movement of a silvery bank of cloud over the jagged peaks of the Cuillin Hills; the glimpse of a stag darting across heather; the sheer number of times you feel like you've reached the end of the world, never mind the road. And don't worry about the weather – a little sunshine is always welcome, but Skye's scenery seems almost designed to be experienced through a veil of wind and rain.

A laid-back drive through the Scottish Borders region

Lying just half an hour's drive from the border with England, St Abb’s Head is a dramatic introduction to Scotland's landscape (Photo: Getty Images)

For a luxury road trip, the Borders can’t be beat. This is a land of grand stately homes and imposing abbeys, rolling hills and gentle valleys. Begin in Edinburgh with an indulgent stay at The Glasshouse, Autograph Collection, a palatial hotel with wonderful suites, or at the Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, Edinburgh, which hosts the city’s only thermal spa, complete with rooftop hydropool.

There are some fantastic day trips from Edinburgh but far better to spend a while touring, heading south first to the historic town of Melrose. Here you’ll find Melrose Abbey, the final resting place of Robert Bruce and now atmospherically crumbling, as well as Abbotsford, the extraordinary home of Sir Walter Scott.

From here head east to the coast for a blustery walk at St Abb’s Head and a visit to Tantallon Castle, before finishing up in North Berwick, where boat trips run out to Bass Rock to see the world’s largest colony of Northern gannets.

Published: November 15, 2022

Last Updated: November 16, 2022

Article Tags:  Road Trip , Scotland , United Kingdom

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