1. Explore Edinburgh
Start your adventure in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city. The medieval Old Town is built on a sloping crag with the famed Royal Mile (running from Edinburgh Castle, down to the Palace of Holyrood) where your kids can check out sidewalk magicians, musicians and buskers. Purchase tickets online in advance to explore the castle, then take the kids on a walking tour of the city’s haunted underground streets. Read the touching tale of Greyfriars Bobby together before taking the kids to the faithful dog’s memorial statue and gravesite, a short distance past The Elephant House where J.K. Rowling spent time working the second and third Harry Potter novels. Reserve a half-day to make the easy hike up Salisbury Crag to enjoy spectacular views of the Old Town and the Firth of Forth. In the shadows of the looming Sir Walter Scott Monument, play a game of tag in Princes Street Gardens before crossing over to New Town’s Rose Street for some fish and chips.
2. Sightseeing in St. Andrews
Up the coast from Edinburgh lies the enchanting town of St Andrews. The legendary Old Course, aka “the Home of Golf”, has hosted some of the world’s best golfers. Consider a tour of Swilcan Bridge, a humble 700-year-old stone bridge on the 18th hole, where champs such as Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have posed for photos. Allow ample time to stroll around the historic centre of St Andrews—perhaps with a gelato from the local favourite, Jannettas Gelateria—making a stop at the University of St Andrews (est. 1413), where The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge first met. Next, wind your way toward the cathedral ruins overlooking the North Sea, making sure to walk the length of the pier. The beach area of East Sands has a playground and plenty of great dinner options or trek over to the Steak Barn, a working farm just outside town where your kids can tuck into a beef burger with twice fried chips for £5.95.
3. Discover Loch Ness
A night under the stars at the Loch Ness Shores Camping and Caravan Club Site by the banks of Loch Ness, not far from where, gulp, Nessie may be snoozing, will be the highlight of your trip. No worries, mom and dad, the campsite has a funky Airstream cafe, fire pits, warm showers and heated cabins, if desired. Owners Donald and Lyn Forbes provide family archery lessons or guided wildlife walks. A visit to Loch Ness wouldn’t be complete without venturing to Nessieland in Drumnadrochit, a museum and adventure play park featuring the beloved monster. Nearby, you can visit the story-book ancient fortress of Urquhart Castle, part of the set for the award-winning Outlander series. Let the kids gawk at the trebuchet and peer out over the entire length of Loch Ness (37 km total) from the Grant Tower outlook.
4. Cruise down North Coast 500
If you fancy a seven to 10-day road trip that takes in Scotland’s rugged north coast, the 516-mile North Coast 500 is sure to please. Starting and ending in Inverness, capital of the Highlands, the route winds through remote, pastoral countryside on coastal roads, including the famed single-track road Bealach na Bà, where your family will get an unrivalled view of the soaring mountains and picturesque seascapes. From the car, your wee ones should be on the lookout for Highland cattle, which freely roam the land. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to watch seals sunning themselves, play I-Spy-A-Dolphin in Cromarty or explore the Pictish Trail before settling in for a night in one of the many romantic fishing villages, including Thurso at The Inn at Y-Not. Take an hour or so to leisurely hike to the ruins of Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt, a great walk to physically and emotionally connect with the land. The white-sand beaches of Clachtoll Beach or Sinclair’s Bay will remind you of the Caribbean where the kids can frolic in the sugary sand. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the road safety guidelines before you pilot your dependable vehicle on this 516-mile adventure and keep in mind that this journey isn’t about speed but a chance for your children to breath in the complexity of Scottish landscape and culture.
5. Hike the West Highland Way
West Highland Way offers 154 km of lush, well-marked trails for families who like to hike. The southern section of the route, which begins in Milngavie, is less demanding, so it might be a good place to start for novice hikers. Companies, such as Travel-Lite, offer luggage transfer so that when you arrive at your destination, all you have to do is extract jammies and plunge into bed for the night. More comprehensive packages include accommodations and services like tailored walks for your family. Arrange for some time in the personality-rich village of Balmaha for an overnight at the Oak Tree Inn. Rowardennan’s charming hotel (note: they offer family rooms) has a cozy log fireplace with views of Loch Lomond and the mountain, Ben Lomond. Along the trail, the kids will be dazzled by views over the loch from Conic Hill, from which they’ll be able to spot a small grouping of islands in the lake far below which signals they’ve officially entered the Highlands. Kids can expect to see ospreys diving for fish, sheep, goats, cattle grazing and of course, the glorious wildflowers, especially heather and Scotland’s national flower, the thistle. Pro Tip: Pack reliable bug spray to fend off the infamously pesky Highland midges.
6. Explore Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park
Base yourself in the village of Balloch so you can explore Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. The Balloch House, where Hans Christian Andersen was once a guest, is a great Inn with a warm, dog-friendly restaurant downstairs. Walk John Muir Way or The Great Trossachs Path, keeping your eyes peeled for Scotland’s precious red squirrels. Area walks are equally satisfying, yielding amazing water views, such as the circular route, which goes around the perimeter of the Balloch Castle Country Park, a slow ramble that winds you past the castle and back to the city. Kids 7 years and older can fly through the air on ziplines (£18/child) but if you’re travelling with younger kids, head out onto the quiet lake in a double kayak, available through Portnellan Organic Farm, a working farm raising herds of grass-fed cattle with a stunning view of the lake. Retreating to Portnellan to stay in one of their luxury tents will complete your time on Loch Lomond. It’s called “glamping” and you’re sure to love it as much as the kids!
7. Island hop in Mull and Iona
Half the adventure of travel is the journey, a fact richly illustrated by the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry ride you’ll take to get to the Isle of Mull. Stay in the colorful seaside town of Tobermory, a perfect home-base for day-trips. Don’t miss Duart Castle, where Entrapment, starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones, was filmed. Tour the castle (£17.50 for a family of 4), but if kids are restless and hungry, surprise them with Afternoon Tea at the castle’s Tearoom before roaming the grounds. Get an early start to visit the tiny island of Iona, less than a mile from Mull, where St Columba, an Irish nobleman who was one of the first Christian missionaries in Scotland, established a monastic community. Pro Tip: Depending on your travel itinerary, you might want to consider purchasing a Historic Scotland Explorer Pass, which covers Iona Abbey and a host of other national treasures.
8. Discover Aviemore and Cairngorms National Park
Situated on the River Spey, Aviemore is your best base for exploring the UK’s largest park, Cairngorms National Park. Situated in the middle of the Highlands, there are plenty of festivals and events year-round offering “ceilidhs”—festive gatherings with traditional Scottish dancing—and piping competitions, sure to set the kids boogying. From the heart of the Cairngorms, rally the family for a bit of hiking in the surrounding hills of Aviemore, where kids can also pet Britain’s only free-range reindeer at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. Afterwards, join local residents at the Cairngorm Hotel restaurant for a traditional meal of haggis with mashed tatties (potatoes), neeps (turnips) and gravy (£11.75) or head to the Old Bridge Inn on the banks of the Spey where parents can indulge in an “Apres” cocktail (£8), a hot drink featuring Calvados. Reserve some enthusiasm for—surprise—the fresh water beach on Loch Morlich, offering activities such as sailing or paddle boarding. Or, consider the Family Rafting Scenic Float Trips.
9. Hop on the Hebridean Whisky Trail
Experience Scotland’s rich tradition of whisky by taking the family on the Hebridean Whisky Trail through Hebrides Islands. A whisky tour may not seem family-friendly, but stepping into Scottish distilleries to witness the science behind crafting some of the world’s finest whisky will help build your children’s understanding of the community, culture and soul of the country. It’s easy to imagine using this tour, which encompasses three islands, as a springboard for plenty of other adventures on the respective islands. This four-distillery tour includes Torabhaig Distillery and Talisker Distillery on the legendary Isle of Skye, accessed by car from the mainland via Skye Bridge. The small island of Raasay (25-minutes from Skye by ferry) enjoys a tight community (population ~170) and thus, the Raasay Distillery holds a place of prominence on the island welcoming guests with various lodging and dining options. Fun-fact: brown long-eared bats reside on the property in a specially built “Bat Hotel.” A scenic two and a half hour ferry ride from Uig, Skye will deposit your family safely on the Isle of Harris, home of Harris Tweed, the ubiquitous red deer, and prize whisky at Harris Distillery. Make sure to check age restrictions prior to booking your trip as each establishment sets their own regulations regarding kids (For example, Harris welcomes visitors five and up for tours while Raasay prohibits kids under 8 years old in the production facilities).
10. Tour Glasgow
Glasgow’s city centre is best explored by foot, so we recommend downloading the Glasgow Walking app to make sure you don’t miss treasures such as Victoria Park, which features a children’s maze. If you want more guidance, book a free walking tour, which can be uniquely catered to your kids’ interests if you book well in advance, exploring the city’s eerie abandoned railway stations and railways. Alternatively, board the City Sightseeing hop-on, hop-off bus to see George Square, Glasgow Cathedral and the city’s oldest park, Glasgow Green. Kids can choose the entertaining Ghoulish Glasgow commentary version of the tour featuring “ghostly, gory and ghastly” facts. In the elegant West End of town, hang out with the locals in the hip Ashton Lane district before venturing to the cost-free Botanic Gardens. Afterwards, children can fuel up with the tearoom kid’s sandwich and soup combo (£3.95).