While there is a plethora of activities to do in Edinburgh, there are also some wonderful attractions in the rest of Scotland. The Isle of Skye is my favorite, and the most beautiful place in the world, but it takes half a day to get there. If you are limited on time, here are several activities you can do within a day of Edinburgh. All you’ll need is a car, although several of them are part of the Hairy Coo bus tour. Click on the below map to add it to your Google Maps and follow the route.
Maid of the Forth
The first destination is still in Edinburgh. The Forth Bridge was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015, and is truly one of most beautiful and iconic locations in Edinburgh. Originally opening in 1890, it still has the world’s second-longest single cantilever span. This isn’t a long stop, as you just need to get a picture. Anytime of the day is great, but especially early morning with the sunrise. After all, this will be a full day of activities, so you need to get started early.
Known as the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, this ruined castle is a unique experience to explore. It was burned in 1746, but the shell remains, along with a courtyard fountain where wine once flowed like water. Even more beautiful is the surrounding field and lake. Exploring the castle takes about 1-2 hours.
Opening Hours: April-Sept 9:30-17:30; Oct-Mar 10:00-16:00
Entry Fee: £5.50
Website: Historic Scotland
The Kelpies are two of my favorite sculptures anywhere. Standing 30 meters tall, they are the tallest equestrian sculptures on the planet. You can see them from the M9 highway, but you simply can’t appreciate their majesty without standing beneath them. They are part of the larger Helix Park, where you can also find the Falkirk Wheel, the world’s only rotating boat lift. The hours and prices below apply to the visitor center and paid tours. Otherwise, you can visit for free anytime of the day. After the center closes, parking is free too, and you can park in the free lot five minutes down the road during daytime hours. Expect to spend about 20-30 minutes here, or longer if you want to take the tour or get some food.
Visitor Center Opening Hours: 10:00-17:00
Tour Fee: £7.00
Website: The Helix Park
I confess, I haven’t actually been this castle yet, and I have no excuse as I had a ticket to go! Everyone I met who has been to the castle said it was better than Edinburgh Castle. Therefore, it deserves a spot on this list. I’m told it takes 2-4 hours to explore the castle. It might take up too much time unless you’re spreading your trip into two days. If castles are your thing, this one is a must.
Opening Hours: Apr-Sept 9:30-18:00; Oct-Mar 9:30-17:00
Entry Fee: £14.50
Website: Stirling Castle
This isn’t a relic from the time of William Wallace, but it’s still worth a visit. Rising above Stirling with a stunning view of the surrounding town and countryside, the tower contains a visitor center and information panels detailing not just the life of William Wallace, but the war between Scotland and England and a lot of other historic facts. Even if you don’t take the tour, the view from the hill is worth the visit. The view from the top of the castle is far better though.
Visitor Center Opening Hours: Apr-Sept 9:30 – 18:00; Oct-Mar 9:30-17:00
Entry Fee: £9.99
Website: Wallace Monument
Make sure you bring your coconuts here, or borrow theirs. You’re going to want them as you gallop, I mean walk, up to the entrance. Does it look familiar? If you’re a fan of Monty Python, or Outlander, or Game of Thrones, it should. It’s a ruin but still wonderful to visit. The audio guide is narrated by Terry Jones of Monty Python, and has now been updated with information from Outlander. Enjoy the castle grounds, or take the full tour. The audio guide takes about an hour to get through.
Opening Hours: Varies throughout the year, minimally 10:30-16:00
Entry Fee: £5.50
Website: Historic Scotland
Go Ape Aberfoyle
As an adventure traveler, this place is easily my favorite on the list. It’s a woodland course, which takes about 3 hours to get through. You start on a zipline over the valley, and continue though the trees on an intricate rope course. Suitable for ages 10+, it certainly offers a wealth of action and excitement. The finale of the course is another zipline over the valley floor, this one a staggering 426 meters long (nearly half a kilometer). The entire course is 1171 meters long, with the highest platform 22 meters high. Make sure you bring good clothes and shoes for this one. Get ready to have loads of fun and perhaps conquer your fear of heights!
Opening Hours: Feb 17-Dec 4, 9:00-16:00; March and November open on weekends only
Entry Fee: £33
Website: Go Ape Aberfoyle
Three Lochs Peak and Hairy Coos
Between Go Ape Aberfoyle and Loch Katrine, there are two spots which you have to visit. They aren’t listed on Google maps, but you can find them on the map above. The first is a little turn-off on the road, leading to the Three Lochs Peak viewpoint where you can get a gorgeous view of the surrounding scenery. A little further down the road, you can park on the side and feed or pet the Hairy Coos there, if they feel like coming over. One way to attract them is to bring some bread with you. The farmers there are okay with you feeding them. If you happen to arrive in April or May, you might get a chance to see one of the baby calves.
It’s hard to say one loch (lake) in Scotland is better than another. They’re all gorgeous. Loch Katrine is particularly beautiful though, and offers a great path along the lake. The full trail is 18 miles long, but doesn’t quite make a full loop, but you can walk any length you want depending on how much time you have left. Another idea is to rent a bike for four hours, and then take a cruise to the far side of the lake for lunch. From there, ride the bikes back.
I’m adding this to the list, as it’s on the way back to Edinburgh. This is your quintessential Scottish village. Mhor Bread Bakery serves some amazing savory and sweet pies for lunch, which you can eat on the banks of the River Teith. If you plan to make this a two-day trip, I’d recommend spending the night here after Doune Castle, and continuing the rest of the list backwards starting with Loch Katrine.
Following this route is roughly 130 miles leaving from the Easirent Car Hire at the Edinburgh Airport, and includes about 4 hours of driving depending on traffic.
There are many other activities to see within a day of Edinburgh. Some of my other favorites include North Berwick, Rosslyn Chapel, Loch Lomond and St. Andrews. The point is, you could spend months in Edinburgh and Scotland. I have, and I’ve still barely scratched the surface.
If you do plan to spread this trip into two days, you can find great accommodations in Aberfoyle or Callander. Some of the most beautiful Airbnb hosts I’ve seen in Scotland have been in this area, and for great prices too. If you squeeze this into a one-day trip, you might have to choose 4-6 items on the list. I did say it was the perfect trip, but there’s just so much to see. I’ve included how long each should take to visit, although if you’re like me, you just might fit them all into a single day. Good luck and enjoy.
Easirent is the cheapest car company to rent from within the UK (but perhaps not the best).
If you’re traveling with more than one person, I’d recommend using Airbnb. Some locations can be fantastic. I’ve even had free, delicious Scottish breakfasts provided!
Couchsurfing is my favorite way to stay in a city. Edinburgh can be very difficult to find hosts, depending on the season, but not impossible. I’ve had some amazing hosts there.
You could also find a hostel or other volunteer job to work at via Workaway.