As was the case in years past, Edinburgh Castle was Scotland’s most visited tourist site in 2015. That isn’t surprising — the castle is the most prominent site in Scotland’s biggest city — but it’s also kind of too bad. Though Edinburgh castle certainly has its charms, it also offers a more curated, touristy-feeling experience than what lies beyond in the rest of Scotland.
Case in point: the last time I visited Edinburgh Castle, I had just come back from two weeks in the country. It was an incredible experience of walking the highlands, exploring ancient ruins, and listening to bleating sheep. Then I got to Edinburgh Castle and spent time waiting in long lines, squeezing into crowded spaces, and taking the same pictures as hundreds (or thousands?) of other people.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t visit Edinburgh Castle — go ahead and check it off your list — but I am saying Scotland is an amazing place with a wealth of even more rewarding sites. Below are a few of them. Keep in mind that this list isn’t comprehensive, it’s just a subjective handful of places in Scotland that were extraordinarily moving, and which I recommend adding to your itinerary.
1. Loch Awe and the West Highland Line
Loch Awe’s name says it all; it’s an awe-some body of water in west Scotland with a picturesque castle ruin sitting on a small isthmus. Loch Awe is a stop on Scotland’s West Highland Line, a train that traverses the western Highlands and connects a string of remote but beautiful villages, lochs, and historical sites. The train makes a long arc around Loch Awe and its castle, which is one of the visual highlights of the entire trip.
The West Highland Line — a rail line up Scotland’s west side — is one of the most interesting things I’ve done in the country. In my case, I got a Britrail pass, which allowed me unlimited travel during a given period. I used it to go up and down the line several times. I spent one night of the trip in Loch Awe. There isn’t much there, but I did walk out to the castle and explore the ruins — a highlight of the trip.
2. Hiking Ben Lomond
Scotland is know for its rugged landscape and wild beauty. Ben Lomond offers a pleasant introduction to that landscape. The hike up the 3,000+ foot mountain is a decent day hike, beginning in the village of Rowardennan. The top of the mountain offers sweeping view of the loch below and the surrounding countryside. I’ve hiked a number of mountains in the U.K., including Scafell Pike in England, but for whatever reason the memory of Ben Lomond has lingered most poignantly.
3. Kerrera Island
I’ve written before about Kerrera Island, and what I said then is still true: it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The island is near Oban, a larger town on the West Highland Line, which makes it a perfect place to stop and spend a night or two. I’m not going to repeat here everything I previously wrote about Kerrera, so suffice it to say that you should go there.
4. Wandering the streets of Edinburgh
I wanted to include at least one Edinburgh activity on this list, but as I reflected on all the things I’ve done in that wonderful city one thing stood out more than any other: wandering. While wandering Edinburgh, I’ve randomly come across a cricket match. I’ve explored old canals. I’ve popped into off the beaten path churches and studied urban design. (Edinburgh pioneered the concept of high rise housing.) There are plenty of worthwhile things to do in Edinburgh, but seriously, don’t leave without spending a day wandering with no agenda at all.
Bonus: Arthur’s Seat
Everyone who goes to Edinburgh eventually climbs Arthur’s Seat, the peak overlooking the city. Personally, I didn’t love the hike because it’s a far cry from more pleasant highland walks I’ve done elsewhere. Still, if you aren’t going to have time to roam the countryside, or if you want to experience some very extreme wind (see above photo), it is something to check out.
— Jim Dalrymple II