My mom and Ed are coming to Scotland and asked me to make some recommendations for a Scotland itinerary 4 days long. Now clearly, 4 days in Scotland is not nearly enough for all the “must sees” in Scotland, but I think you can get a good sampler.
If you are like mom and Ed, and doing the London to Scotland drive before catching a cruise to Iceland or skirting off to somewhere else, this itinerary will show you what to see in Scotland in 4 days.
This 4 day Scotland tour will take in all the things Scotland is famous for: Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, castles, Royal palaces, Highlands, whiskey, the Loch Ness monster, and Loch Lomond National Park. I’ll even throw in a ghost tour. This Scotland road trip makes a big loop around the center of the country, touching the edges here and there.
Driving in Scotland
For these top things to do in Scotland, you will need a car. There are a zillion coach tours that can take you around Scotland. In a lot of ways, these tours are great, but you can’t stop wherever you want and explore. Nor can you take a little more time at one castle and a little less time at another the way you can when you tour Scotland by car.
If you are planning to road trip Scotland, I hope you already know that they drive on the left hand side of the road over here. Even with nearly 20 weeks of left-side driving under my belt, I still chant “Left! Left! Left!” at every intersection and round about. And occasionally Henry has to remind me to get out of the right lane. Go slow and plan ahead.
It costs a little more to get an automatic, but if you aren’t comfortable driving a manual anyway, this is not the place to practice. I drove a manual around the UK and Ireland a couple years ago and it was fine, but the shifter is in your left hand and it’s one more thing to think about.
4 Day Driving Itinerary — Scotland
- Day 0 – Arrive in Edinburgh
- Day 1 – Explore Edinburgh
- Day 2 – Edinburgh to Inverness Tour: Royals, Highlands, and Whiskey
- Day 3 – Inverness to Fort Williams: The Great Glen
- Day 4 – Fort Williams to Edinburgh: Loch Lomond National Park and Castles
What To Do in Scotland in Four Days
Day 0 – Arrive in Edinburgh
A 4 day tour of Scotland needs to start in Edinburgh, right? My guess is that when you were planning a trip to Scotland, it was at the top of the list, and rightfully so. It’s a cool city.
If you fly to Edinburgh, take the tram from the airport to downtown Edinburgh. It’s easy to use – walk out from baggage claim and turn left. You get to the tram before the rental car area.
If you drive from London to Edinburgh (a little over 7 hours) you probably want to go straight to your hotel and park. Make sure the place you are staying has free or low cost parking. It is both expensive and challenging to park in the city. When Jen and I spent a weekend in Edinburgh and stayed on the Royal Mile we had parking in a garage below the hotel, and it was still interesting navigating the streets of Edinburgh to get there.
Public transportation and Lyft/Uber work great, so park your car and use ride sharing or public transportation – or walk.
Depending on what time you arrive in Edinburgh, you likely won’t have a whole lot of daylight left, but if you do, one of the best things to do in Scotland is walking up Calton Hill to get a view of the city. It’s an easy walk and not much of a hill climb.
If you aren’t too jet lagged, another must see in Scotland is a ghost tour of Edinburgh. It sounds cheesy, and some of them are, but the tour Jen and I took was more like a history tour. It was a little scary and dark, but mostly fun and interesting. We went with City of the Dead Tours on their Double Dead Tour since they are the only ones who go into the Covanter’s Prison.
We stayed at the Radisson Blu on the Royal Mile. It was nice, super convenient, and has parking.
Day 1 – Explore Edinburgh
All trips to Scotland should include some time in Edinburgh. I wish you had more time here (I’ve spent over two weeks in Edinburgh and still want to go back), but this is a 4 day itinerary of Scotland and I am already cheating a little by using your arrival day as a 5th day.
Get going early and start at the Edinburgh Castle at the end of the Royal Mile. This place gets crowded, so you want to arrive as soon as it opens, if possible. Edinburgh Castle is widely considered one of the best castles in the world.
Travel Tip: If you are planning on going to several places managed by Historic Scotland, you should consider getting an Explorer’s Pass (5 or 14 days) before you leave your home country. Or buy your tickets online for a lower price and “skip the line” entry. Not all castles are managed by Historic Scotland — some are managed by the National Trust for Scotland. Each has its own payment system and pass system.
Free Edinburgh Walking Tour
After exploring the castle, catch the 11 am free walking tour of Edinburgh with Sandeman’s New Europe. Since you only have a day, this is a great way to get an overview of Edinburgh while visiting Scotland. We took the free tour of Edinburgh a few years ago and were both entertained and educated. You’ll see the Royal Mile, Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (home of Greyfriar’s Bobby and inspiration to JK Rowling), the Grassmarket, and the historic streets of Edinburgh.
Tip: You need to reserve tickets online and don’t forget to tip! There is a break at a coffee shop if you need caffeine or a snack.
Where to Eat in Edinburgh
By now, you are starving! There are a lot of great places to eat in Edinburgh, but we are picking somewhere close to the end of your walking tour and the start of your next activity.
Real Mary King’s Close
Learn about the city’s past as your tour underground streets on this living history-type tour. There is a lot of entertainment wrapped up in this one as you meet characters from the 17th century, but you will learn a lot, too.
Tip: Book your tour online. Jen and I tried to show up and were turned away and that was in April, not even the busy season. It fills up!
Scottish Storytelling Centre
It’s worth seeing what’s on at the Scottish Storytelling Centre while you are there. They have storytelling, music, dance, exhibitions and more.
If you aren’t exhausted, I think it’s always a good idea to just wander around the streets of Edinburgh and see what you find. You might also check into some of the things Jen and I did on our two days in Edinburgh:
- Things To Do on a Girls Weekend in Edinburgh, Day One: Eat vegan food, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Royal Mile self-guided tour, Witchery by the Castle, Spa Services, Hike Arthur’s Seat, Graveyard Tour
- Things To Do on a Girls Weekend in Edinburgh, Day Two: Best Brunch in Edinburgh, Royal Botanic Garden, Water of Leith Walkway, Dean Village, Panda Speakeasy
If you are traveling with kids (or are a kid at heart), be sure to check out my post on the best things to do with kids in Edinburgh. In the video and the post, you’ll see Edinburgh Castle, the Free Walking Tour, and Calton Hill, which are mentioned in this article.
We stayed at the Radisson Blu on the Royal Mile. It was nice, super convenient, and has parking.
Day 2 – Edinburgh to Inverness Tour
Today is about Royals, Highlands, and whisky! Plus, a fair bit of driving. While there are day trips from Edinburgh that go to Inverness, you miss a lot that you can see when driving yourself. There is more than one Edinburgh to Inverness drive, but I am going to take you the most scenic way, in my opinion. It takes about 4.5 hours to drive from Edinburgh to Inverness on this route, provided you don’t make any stops, but of course you are going to stop.
With another earlyish start, you can visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh and the home of Scottish royal history. The Palace is at the opposite end of the Royal Mile as the Edinburgh Castle. I might skip this in order to have a full day driving to Inverness, but if you want to see something Royal (and Balmoral Castle isn’t open), make it a priority to get there when it opens.
Cairngorms National Park
In just under two hours, you will arrive in Cairngorms National Park. This place will blow you away, or at least that’s how we felt the first time we visited. There isn’t a visitor center or anything on this route, like you might see in US National Parks. Plus, there are little towns and villages and commercial areas in the park. Stop along the way for photos and to stand in the wind and the heather.
Spittal of Glenshee
If you don’t have a picnic lunch, you can stop at the small Gulabin Café in the Spittal of Glenshee. Aren’t Scottish names great? The Spittal of Glenshee is where several small streams come out of the Grampian Mountains and form the Shee Water.
If you are one of the people that travel to Scotland means palaces and castles, you may want to stop at Balmoral Castle, about 2.5 hours from Edinburgh. It is only open April through July as this is where the Queen likes to hang out. You can visit the gardens, grounds, and a few exhibition rooms. If you are visiting at a different time of year, try to fit Holyroodhouse into your itinerary.
Scotland is known for its malt whisky, and they’ve created a Malt Whisky Trail to help you taste them all. Personally, I don’t like whisky, so I am happy to report that gin is also quite popular in the area. In fact, one bartender I spoke with said gin is surpassing whisky in popularity.
Whisky still has a deep history in Scotland, especially in the Highlands. If you are interested from a historical perspective or just like to drink, take a detour to The Glenlivet Distillery. We took Henry there for his birthday a few years ago and enjoyed walking around the rural roads and eating in the café while he was on the tour (no under 18s allowed on the tour). Book your tour at The Glenlivet online or take a chance and see if they have openings.
If you prefer a gin tour, book a tour at Caorunn Gin at Balmenach Distillery near Grantown-on-Spey. I wouldn’t try to fit both The Glenlivet tour and the Caorunn tour into your journey, but that’s up to you, of course. You can book a gin tour online.
You’ve finally arrived at Inverness- the capital of the Highlands! You don’t have much time if you spent your day driving through Cairngorms National Park, so walk up to Inverness Castle (now an administrative building) to get a good view of the River Ness and much of town. You can walk along the river or explore the shopping area in the most historic part of town. Inverness should be on your list of must sees in Scotland.
Again, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from, but we recommend the White House for lunch or dinner and ordering the “It’s Not a Buffalo, It’s a Bison” cocktail.
The Best Western Palace Hotel and Spa has a great location where you can walk to just about anything in Inverness. If you splurge, you can get views of the River Ness and the castle from your room.
See our trip through the Highlands to Inverness and back along Loch Ness in this video:
Day 3 – Inverness to Fort William:
The Great Glen
You may have a little more time in Inverness this morning to explore Leaky’s Bookshop, Scotland’s second largest secondhand bookstore, or stroll through the Inverness Botanic Gardens. Then set out to for one of the best places to visit in Scotland – the Great Glen.
The Great Glen runs for 62 miles from Inverness to Fort William.
Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition
It’s just 30 minutes from Inverness to the Loch Ness Centre. We stopped here because I thought it would be a cheesy roadside attraction and I love those kind of places. It turned out to be a great museum that uses the tale of the Loch Ness Monster to explain the history and science of Loch Ness and the surrounding area. It’s definitely worth a stop at the Loch Ness Center and you even learn a little about Nessie. If you are up for it and the weather is nice, you can book a cruise on Loch Ness.
From the Loch Ness Center it’s only seven minutes to Urquhart Castle. Maybe it was because we were here on a beautiful day, but this was one of the highlights of our Great Glen tour.
Urquhart Castle is a ruin on the shores of Loch Ness. It’s one of Scotland’s largest castles and has seen a lot of conflict in its 500 years as a medieval fortress. Be sure to watch the movie in the visitor center before walking out to the castle.
Tip: You can use the Explorer’s Pass you purchased for Edinburgh Castle here.
Another 30 minutes of driving will take you to Fort Augustus, a village on the south end of Loch Ness. You can take a boat tour of Loch Ness, walk along the Great Glen Way, admire the locks leading to and from the Loch, check out the shops, or just have a drink and take in the sights.
Back in the car for 50 minutes and you are in beautiful Fort William. Fort William is the gateway to Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the U.K., and one that I will walk up one of these days. The West Highland Museum explores Highland life and history and Neptune’s Staircase is a historic set of locks on the canal.
There is a huge range of outdoor activities for every level. You can walk out to 120-meter Steall Falls and back in just 2.25 miles. It’s a lovely walk to the 13-century Inverlochy Castle on the banks of the River Lochy.
Fort William Hotels
Nevis Bank Inn is a modern hotel across the street from the River Nevis. Restaurants and shops are easily walkable from the hotel.
Day 4 – Fort William to Edinburgh: Loch Lomond National Park and Castles
I think the best place to visit in Scotland is Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. This may be because we spent a month in Callander, a small town in the park. We were able to really explore this area and fall in love with it.
You however, have part of a day, so let’s get going!
The drive south from Fort William must be one of the most scenic drives in Scotland, which is saying a lot because Scotland is a beautiful country. You’ll follow Loch Eil for a bit and then pass through Glencoe in about 30 minutes. This glacially carved, steep-side valley sits at the mouth of the Great Glen. Glencoe has served as the backdrop for a bunch of movies including, Braveheart, Rob Roy, Harry Potter, and Skyfall. You could stop at the Glencoe National Nature Reserve visitor center to get an overview of the area.
In another 45 minutes, you will arrive in Crianlarich. Here you could go south to Loch Lomond, but it’s quicker to head east and you still get to drive through the park.
Mohr 84, Balquhidder
I recommend stopping at Mhor 84 in Balquhidder for lunch or tea (1 hour 15 minutes from Glencoe). It’s a cozy café with great food – much of it locally sourced. You might want to book online if you are traveling during a busy time. You aren’t far from where Rob Roy is buried in a little cemetery outside a stone church.
From Mohr 84, it’s just 20 scenic minutes to the cute town of Callander. If you didn’t stop at Mohr for snacks, there are several restaurants and pubs in Callander. We like the Riverside Inn for pub food and a lovely view of the river. We spent many a sunny afternoon on the deck with a pint. You can walk from the pub along the river on easy trails to shake the car feeling off.
Skip to 5:37 in the video if you just want to see the castle and not the hike.
Another 20 minutes in the car and you arrive at Doune Castle. Doune Castle was built as the home of Regent Albany, “Scotland’s uncrowned king.” His rich tastes can be seen clearly in the architecture of the medieval courtyard castle. Doune Castle was used in the filming of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones, and Outlander.
Tip: Get the audio tour and let Terry Jones (Monty Python) or Sam Heughan (Outlander) show you around. We even got coconuts at the entrance to make clopping horse sounds like they did in Monty Python.
Tip 2: You can use the Explorer’s Pass you bought at Edinburgh Castle here.
In my opinion, Stirling Castle is one of the best places to visit in Scotland, in terms of castles. I like it better than Edinburgh Castle. Fitting this in at the end of the day may be a little much, but if you can do it, it’s worth it. It’s 20 minutes from Doune Castle.
We were struck by the castle on our approach – it’s perched on the top of Castle Hill and looms over the surrounding area. Stirling Castle is one of the largest and most impressive castles in Scotland and has an important historical roll. The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry is a must see, Scotland has the unicorn as its mascot.
Mary Queen of Scots was crowned at Stirling Castle and it served as much as a palace as a fortification.
Tip: Buy your tickets online for a better deal. Or you can use the Explorer’s Pass you bought at Edinburgh Castle here.
It’s about an hour drive back to Edinburgh where our trip ends. Hope you enjoyed it! Let me know in the comments what you would do differently.