Places to visit in Scotland
Scotland used to be all about the scenery. Yes, it was awesome, world-beating and breathtaking, but if you weren’t interested in the great outdoors, there really wasn’t much to get excited about. These days, whether it’s dog-sledding in the Cairngorms, following castle ghost-trails in Aberdeenshire, climbing through a giant ear canal in a science centre in Dundee or having entrails slung at you at the Edinburgh Dungeons, there’s an incredible array of attractions for those heading here for family breaks or holidays. There’s also history in spades, and genning up on what happened when and where really does enrich your visit.
The whole country, from the southern uplands to the remotest Highlands, has raised its tourism game hugely since those 1970s summer camping holidays when we parents were bitten senseless by midges. And it’s on your doorstep, which means there’s no need to set foot in a plane, with all the toe-curling moments that presents.
Things to do with kids in Scotland
See the six cities, foremost amongst them beautiful Edinburgh, with medieval streets and newer Georgian additions, set against the mountains with the Edinburgh Castle looming over everything.
But it’s not just about the capital. Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city is a great mix, with austere Victorian buildings that belie the friendliness of the people. It's renowned for its terrifically friendly attitude towards kids, and there’s more for them to do than you could possibly fit in one visit - it's packed with museums and galleries, topped with a vibrant nightlife and plenty of family-friendly activities. Try the amazing Glasgow Science Centre on Clydeside, with fun workshops; the Riverside Museum of transport and Tall Ship just alongside - kids love exploring this impressive vessel from top to bottom ; the mini-museum for kids in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum; the fascinating Victorian Tenement House in Buccleuch Street; and the sweeping historical display that is the People’s Palace and Winter Gardens on Glasgow Green.
Aberdeen, with its stark granite face, yields up such wonders as the cool Aberdeen Science Centre and neighbouring Codona's Amusement Park. Dundee teaches biology in a uniquely kid-friendly way at the Dundee Science Centre. And Inverness provides a buzzing base from which to go Nessie hunting.
Stirling has a castle and town-gaol experience that are fabulously child-orientated. Nearby, and less than an hour’s drive from Edinburgh and Glasgow, Blair Drummond Safari & Adventure Park is the place to take a boat-trip around an island of chimps, drive through a big-cat enclosure and get a bit closer to the friendlier inhabitants of the park, such as pot-bellied Vietnamese pigs, in the petting zoo.
As Scotland's best beaches with kids, highlights include the white sandy beaches of Nairn in Invernesshire, with gorgeous views across the Moray Firth to the Black Isle – a wonderful local secret. On a sunny day (and yes, there are many), it’s bliss to chill out on its unspoilt and uncrowded central beach and let the kids splash in the superb outdoor pool while you relax with a drink and watch a game of village cricket on the green beside the old Victorian bandstand.
For children of an inquisitive nature, the rock-pools on the beaches at St Andrews provide endless afternoons of poking about. The sandy stretch next to the pools was where Chariots of Fire was filmed.
Immerse yourself in history with a stroll around Scone Palace just north of Perth in Perthshire.
Check out some of the castles that Scotland’s landscape, from barely standing moody rocks to huge impressive monuments that look pretty much the same as the day they were completed. Perched by lochs, on sheer cliffs, alone on islands and in the middle of forests - there are castles here for everyone, often complete with bloody history to keep the kids interested. The barely standing ones are perfect for kids to clamber around, while the well-maintained ones often run family-friendly activities from treasure trails, interactive elements, talks and gruesome tours. Check out Glamis Castle, Fyvie Castle and Cawdor Castle (Macbeth’s fictional home), to name but three.
Get back to nature in the Galloway Forest Park, Britain’s biggest.
Cast off from the mainland. The best Scottish islands for families include Islay for its eerie Singing Sands, whale- and shark-spotting trips and sea-kayaking, Arran for its rock-pooling, mountain-biking, gorge-walking and wildlife (including dolphins, seals and huge red deer), Mull, for Tobermory and animals such as eagles, puffins and otters, Skye, for castles, 12 munros to bag and lots of walking, and the Orkneys, for their beaches, Neolithic ruins and farm museums.
Pleasingly, most good restaurants in Scotland still offer the likes of haggis, tatties and neeps, usually with a modern, very palatable twist. Restaurants around the country – historically rather unwelcoming to children, at least in the larger cities – now positively court your little darlings, with colouring pens and paper, balloons, kids’ menus and puzzlebooks proffered by engaging, switched-on staff who get the kids’ orders out double-quick so embarrassing ‘I’m hungry’ tantrums are kept to a minimum. The only real exception is certain high-end Edinburgh eateries, which retain a slightly frosty reception to smaller children.
Glasgow Science Centre.
When to go to Scotland
Weather will be your over-riding concern on family holidays in Scotland, but it should by no means deter you, even when it’s adverse – it all depends on what sort of a break you’re after. Spring is the classic time to see Scotland because it’s not too crowded, the weather is warming up and hotel prices haven’t reached their peak. It’s also a great time for anglers as the salmon are in abundance, making their journeys upstream.
In summer expect crowds, but there’s a reason for this – Scotland is at its most gorgeous in July, August and September, especially when the purple heather swathes the country in late August and early September. Prices are at their highest and the rainfall at its lowest, and the famous Edinburgh Festival kicks in as autumn approaches.
Autumn is great for a short cosy cottage break if you don’t mind some drizzle, and winter is the time to come if you are a keen sking and snow sports enthusiast – Aviemore is superb at this time of year.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Scotland is a great-value destination for budget family holidays, although several luxury hotels and resorts offer the opportunity to splurge too.
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