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In strict geographical terms, Scotland is about the size of South Carolina, but that comparison is deceptive. This country—the northernmost in the United Kingdom—is crisscrossed by impassable mountains, deep valleys, large lochs, and wide rivers, with very few roads actually running in a straight li…ne. As such, distances are often misleading, and journey times need to be adjusted accordingly. Highlights of any visit include the two major cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh (lively places with lots going on), plus the scenery and long history of rural Scotland (whether in the Highlands, the islands, or regions like the Borders).
What to know before you go to Scotland
Scotland is ideal for travel almost three-quarters of the year. The only time to avoid is the depth of winter—unless you enjoy dark nights, short days, and the occasional gale force wind. The best seasons are arguably spring and autumn, when crowds thin and you’ll get more of the country’s attractions to yourself. However, summer is also nice, with several festivals, moderate temperatures, and days that don’t end until well after 10 p.m., especially in the north. Regardless of when you visit, be sure to bring a waterproof jacket.
Most people arrive in Scotland by air, landing at one of two major international airports on the outskirts of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The two cities are only about 50 miles apart and well connected by frequent express trains. Alternatively, visitors can take a train from London or a ferry from Ireland.
If you’re planning on spending time in the cities, you can rely on public transportation—Glasgow has an underground train, while Edinburgh has buses and a newish tram. If you’re heading to the countryside, however, you’ll want to rent a car for the most freedom. Trains and buses across Scotland don’t really compare with those in Europe; the nation’s public transportation system is generally extensive but is slower, costs more, and is less frequent than in, say, Germany.
Cuisine in Scotland is no longer an afterthought or risky proposition. Sure, you can still find stodgy food and oddities like the deep-fried Mars bar, but the country’s natural resources are superb. Whether it’s heather-fed lamb or Galloway beef, smoked salmon or creel-caught lobster, craft beer or single-malt whisky, it’s all among the best in the world. Local dishes to try include the smoked haddock chowder known as Cullen skink, grilled langoustines, and pan-seared scallops served with Stornoway black pudding.
Scotland has a long intellectual and literary history. Some of the most influential English-speaking leaders of the Enlightenment were Scots (David Hume, Adam Smith), as were famous writers like Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson (plus Alasdair Grey and Ian Rankin, both still working today). Equally alive is the music scene—contemporary acts like Belle and Sebastian, Idlewild, and Withered Hand attract international attention, and there’s a prominent folk music scene with standouts like singer Karine Polwart and fiddle player Aly Bain. Scotland also has its own national art collection, jazz orchestra, and theater, ballet, and opera companies.
Scotland’s two major cities are less than an hour’s train ride apart, but each has its own character and vibe. Edinburgh is the gem, with its royal palace and hilltop castle, though it can be gritty along the fringes. Glasgow, on the other hand, is contemporary in feel, with a gregarious nature—especially among its natives. Once you’ve done your urban duty, seek out the countryside, whether the rolling hillsides of the Lowlands or the majestic crags of the Highlands. In rural Scotland, you'll find more evidence of the country’s long and sometimes violent history, with castle ruins that vividly evoke the past.
American travelers only need a valid passport to visit Scotland, but with the U.K. on the verge of exiting the European Union, more documentation may be required in the future. The main language is English, the currency is the British pound, the voltage is 240 volts, and the socket type is G.
read before you go
Barry Steven Shelby is a Berkeley, California–born journalist, author, broadcaster, crofter, environmentalist, and quite a bit else, who has lived in Scotland since 1997. After a decade in Glasgow, he moved to the Western Isles, where, in addition to writing and broadcasting, he weaves on a handloom, sketches, and regularly takes long walks across the hills and along the sea.