A trip to Scotland is more than a vacation. It is a sensory experience. The misty ocean air, the fresh produce grown in the glens, the sun-drenched ocean vistas, the luxurious hotels in ancient settings, the sound of bagpipes and the grandeur of a castle combine to take you to a different place, a place of pleasure far from everyday existence.
Perhaps the biggest draw of all is Scotland’s citizenry, famously charismatic and friendly, and overjoyed to share a glass–or five–of the national drink, whiskey, in the best setting of all, a Scottish pub or inn.
We rounded up a few Scotland treasures for your rumination, from urban LGBT adventures to grand castles and winding coastlines dotted with lighthouses and majestic views.
Scotland’s famous grand castles date back as early as the 1200s and served as homes for the aristocracy as well as fortresses against their bloodthirsty foes. Two of the most famous are Edinburgh Castle, where initial construction started in the 12th century, and Balmoral, the country home of the Royal Family, which Queen Victoria described as her “dear paradise in the Highlands.” Use these two as a starting point for exploring the vast array of castles throughout the countryside, each with its own architectural grandeur and spellbinding history. Knowledgeable guides bring the past to life with numerous stories and anecdotes. These castles are not merely museums. You can actually stay in many of them. For a truly romantic getaway, reserve a room in a castle, where guests can spend a romantic night like royalty in rooms with spiral staircases and tower views. These castles may be centuries old, but they indulge guests with modern luxuries such as on-site spas and room service to die for.
Fans of the Harry Potter movies know the scene well: students aboard the Hogwarts Express, the train chugging through the countryside on the journey to school, and they cross a magnificent arched bridge. The stunning scene seems magical, or more likely the product of CGI, but it is real: that bridge is the Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland, and the train’s cars were borrowed from the Jacobite Steam Train, a steam engine locomotive that is part of Scotland’s West Highland Railway Line.
The Jacobite runs day trips from late spring to autumn along a scenic 84-mile round journey, passing through mountains and valleys, stopping at charming villages next to beautiful lakes, or “lochs” as they are known. It is the perfect method to relax, contemplate, and watch the countryside roll by.
The Scottish train experience is not just about getting from point A to point B; rail travel is luxurious here. The Belmond Royal Scotsman makes multiple journeys throughout the country, on multi-day itineraries where guests lodge in their own cabins and then enjoy meals together. Splurge on the Scotch Malt Whisky Trail tour, a four-day excursion with many samplings of the national beverage.
The Scottish Highlands are a rugged area in the northwestern half of the country, a fairytale land of majestic mountains and mysterious lochs, cragged coasts, and rolling meadows. Country roads slice through the wilderness and pass through picturesque towns, and some areas have become designated “scenic routes,” like the North Coast 500 or the NE250 around malt whiskey and castle country of Moray Speyside and Aberdeenshire. But finding a road adventure is as easy as picking a destination, renting a car, and hitting the accelerator. Inveraray Castle, used in a few Downton Abbey scenes, is here in the Highlands. So is Loch Ness, although there is no guarantee that the loch’s resident monster will make an appearance.
Some of the Highlands’ most iconic landscapes are in the Isle of Skye, where nature lovers can hike along trails teeming with waterfalls and wildlife, and the perpetually misty weather keeps the lush landscape green. Visit offseason to get the best from the Isle of Skye, and spend some time in the village of Dunvegan, where the fires at The Three Chimneys hotel and restaurant will warm your chilly bones. The restaurant serves locally sourced cuisine, created from the “natural larder” of the land and sea of Scotland. Oysters plucked fresh from the ocean, figs roasted in aromatic wild heather, buttery monkfish and succulent roasted meats and even wild game–the robust flavors of the Scottish wilderness appear on the seasonally rotating menu. The Three Chimneys makes its own small-batch gin and brings in blonde and IPA ales from local breweries. The New York Times named the restaurant at The Three Chimneys as one of the best in the world, and foodies travel from far away to get a seat at this table.
Across the peninsula, pause in the town of Portree for a gourmet meal at The Bosville Hotel, and enjoy ale on tap from Isle of Skye Brewery or share a bottle of wine. For a special overnight stay, head north to Vatersay House, where hosts Brian and Andy welcome only one party of two guests at a time, making it the perfect opportunity for romance to bloom while connecting with the beauty of the Highlands. Explore the miles of stunning hiking trails, or just bundle up and enjoy the view of the aurora borealis floating in the night sky.
Scotland’s metropolitan areas are a mix of history and modernity, where cobblestone streets lined with architecturally magnificent buildings meet the amenities of urban life. Sleeping around is easy here: Edinburgh and Glasgow both have fantastic hotels, some modern and sleek, others plumped up with dramatic decor redolent of past royalty. Restaurants serve local and international cuisine, and there are countless bars to knock back some of that whiskey, although the locals also traditionally enjoy beer and gin.
Nightlife in Scotland ranges from going to a pub for a beer with your mates to late-night parties at raucous clubs. For a late night in Edinburgh, the dance floor at CC Blooms gets crowded, and the drag shows at Planet Bar rank with the best. In Glasgow, head to the Merchant City neighborhood and join the crowds at Polo Lounge or AXM, big clubs with upbeat music and the occasional Drag Race contestant on tour.
Scotland’s festivals draw thousands of people into the streets, theaters, and fairgrounds year round, celebrating the country’s history and open culture. Inveraray Highland Games is a festival of all things Scottish, with bagpipes and kilts and dancing aplenty. Competitors wrestle and throw heavy things in a quest to find the strongest dude. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world, welcomes any kind of performance, including many LGBTQ-themed productions. Pride festivals in Edinburgh and Glasgow draw tens of thousands each summer to celebrate in the warm summer sun. There are also numerous smaller festivals devoted to food, crafts, dancing, circus performers. Take a topic, add “festival” to the name, and it is happening in Scotland.
Made of plaid fabric called “tartan,” kilts are part of national pride in the country, dating back centuries to when Scottish warriors wore them in battle. Sacred as they may be, visitors should not worry about offending local customs by donning one. Anyone who wants to wear a kilt, or tartan in any form, should feel free to celebrate this lovely Scottish traditional garment, which will be taken as a show of respect by locals.
Kilts are usually worn in Scotland by men at formal occasions such as weddings or sporting events. These garments entail belt, a jacket, and a small purse called a “sporran” that hangs over the male midsection (they originally served as protection in battle). To commemorate a special occasion, kilts can be rented at “hire shops,” like MacGregor and MacDuff in Glasgow, and The Scotland Kilt Company in Edinburgh. Many shops sell casual kilts, which involve fewer accessories, although even the more casual kilts are often custom-made and require fittings. Despite the tradition of men going commando, leaders at the Scottish Tartan Society issued a statement regarding kilt-wearing in modern times: Men, please, cover up underneath.
At any rate, just imagine the selfie opportunities alone these outfits provide.
For more information check out VisitBritain’s LGBT guides
All images courtesy VisitBritain