Best cities to visit in Scotland

Each of Scotland’s cities has its own distinct character and merits two or three days of exploring
“Spring and summer are wonderful times to visit gardens in Scotland’s cities, such as Glasgow Botanic Gardens and Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh,” says Keira from our Scotland rail holidays partner McKinlay Kidd.

“The cities are also lovely in the winter, as there are often Christmas markets on and lots of lights up – notably the whole of the Glasgow City Chambers building in George Square is adorned in lights and looks beautiful.”

Cities such as Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness are popular launching points for epic rail holidays along routes such as the West Highland Line, Kyle Line and Far North Line, which can continue past the end of the tracks into the Inner Hebrides and Orkney. But there’s much to be said for a few days of urban exploring before or after you head into more remote and wild corners of the country.


The weather may not always be so bright in Aberdeen, but the ‘Granite City’ boasts some of the country’s most distinctive architecture, plus beautiful coastline off which dolphins play and working harbours where fishermen unload the catch of the day.

Aberdeen’s proud maritime heritage is on display around the old town of Footdee, with its clusters of old fishermen’s cottages, while the surrounding region boasts no fewer than 263 castles, many of which are well-preserved and open to visitors. Dunottar near Stonehaven, less than 20 miles from Aberdeen, is especially atmospheric, its jagged ruins clinging to the cliff edge.


Dundee, which sits on Scotland’s North Sea coast, is one of the country’s most culturally dynamic cities. Its waterfront is undergoing a massive regeneration project, and there are several superb museums including the V&A Dundee design museum and the RRS Discovery, an expedition steamship that successfully carried Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic back in 1901. At 175m above sea level, the peak of the Dundee Law, a hill in the city centre, merits a bit of exertion for the spectacular city and river views from its summit.


The Scottish capital, with its magnificent castle perched imposingly above the city, has enough landmark attractions to keep any visitor busy for a week. But while Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace and the Royal Mile naturally claim most of the attention, there are plenty of ways to escape the crowds. Hike up to Arthur’s Seat for superb panoramas over the Lothians or duck down below into the Vaults to discover some of Edinburgh’s darker history. Just outside of the city centre, attractive neighbourhoods such as Leith and Dean Village tend to be far quieter.


Remnants of Glasgow’s long shipbuilding heritage are everywhere in a city known as the friendliest in Scotland, from monuments and murals to the many exhibits in the superb Riverside Museum, and a handful of historic cranes that still stand proudly by the River Clyde. The departure point for rail journeys along the West Highland Line, Glasgow is also notable for the Necropolis cemetery, which offers views across the city, and the outstanding artworks of the Burrell Collection found in Pollok Country Park.
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The capital city of the Highlands, Inverness is surrounded by the landscapes of the Cairngorms National Park, while famous Loch Ness lies just to the south. From here, you can connect with rail journeys along the Far North Line all the way to Thurso and Wick, launching point for the Orkney Islands, and along the Kyle Line, finishing on the west coast from where you can continue on to the Isle of Skye. History buffs will find much to enjoy in Inverness too, from the 16th-century Abertarff House to the battlefield of Culloden Moor, where the final battle of the 1745 Jacobite Rising was fought. The National Trust interpretation centre reveals the complexity of the conflict.


Scotland’s ‘Gateway to the Highlands’, Perth is definitely a city for castle-lovers. Scone Palace stands nearby, where kings of Scotland including Robert the Bruce and Macbeth (the real one) were crowned, and which has played host to Bonnie Prince Charlie as well as Queen Victoria. You can also visit the ruins of Loch Leven Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. This compact city is also known as one of Scotland’s foodie destinations – producing everything from fruity country wines to award-winning truffles and flavoursome sea salt from down the road in Fife. A wander through the Café Quarter will satisfy any appetite.


Located between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and said to knit together the Highlands and Lowlands, Stirling’s skyline is dominated by the vast Stirling Castle, besieged on numerous occasions through the ages, and by the 67m-high Wallace Monument, which contains many relics said to have belonged to ‘Braveheart’ himself, including his long sword. The 246 steps take you to the top observation platform for views across Stirlingshire. Also of note in Stirling is the Battle of Bannockburn Experience, an interactive visitor centre that places you in the heart of Robert the Bruce’s famous victory over the army of King Edward II of England in 1314, as well as explaining the events that led up to it, and how it changed the course of Scottish history.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Craig McKay] [Intro: Roan Lavery] [Dundee: Steve Gilruth] [Inverness: Robin Canfield]