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Make the Most Out of Your Scottish Vacation with These Budget-Friendly Stops

Glasglow
Timothy Moore planned free or cheap activities in Scotland to make his budget stick. Photo courtesy of Timothy Moore


Scotland is home to dramatic landscapes, ancient castles and delicious whisky.

I had dreamt of going there since I was 8 years old. And after 20 years of yearning, I recently made that dream come true. My best friend Megan and I packed our bags and flew to Europe, where we spent three weeks exploring Ireland, Northern Ireland and, most importantly, Scotland.

And we did it all on a pretty conservative budget.

For years, we put away money for this trip of a lifetime. But even with long-term budgeting and careful planning, much of our savings went to airfare, car rentals and lodging – leaving less for entertainment, food and drink. Even so, we were able to see much of Scotland by prioritizing these budget-friendly activities.

The Elephant House and Victoria Street (Edinburgh)

Elephant House exterior
The Elephant House, where author J.K. Rowling worked on the Harry Potter series. Photo courtesy of Timothy Moore

Any true “Harry Potter” fan should visit The Elephant House if staying in Edinburgh. Author J.K. Rowling sat in this coffee shop, looking out the window at Edinburgh Castle, as she dreamed up the world of Harry Potter. Megan and I visited the shop first thing in the morning and enjoyed Americanos while gazing out the same window that Rowling would have looked out of — and all for just the price of a cup of coffee.

After you’ve been warmed up by your coffee, head up the road and turn down Victoria Street, a beautiful roadway of bright buildings that was the inspiration for Rowling’s Diagon Alley.

What you’ll pay: £3 (or the price of your food/drink)

How long you should spend there: 1 hour

Edinburgh Castle

At the end of the Royal Mile sits the legendary Edinburgh Castle. With your admission, you can explore much of what’s behind the castle walls, including military museums, medieval jails, the great hall, the crown jewels and more. I highly recommend waiting around for the free guided tour — and I say that as someone who typically prefers to guide himself through museums. The tour guides are knowledgeable, passionate and energetic. Just stay close so you can understand their accents.

What you’ll pay: £17 per adult (if buying in advance online)

How long you should spend there: 2 to 3 hours

Arthur’s Seat (Edinburgh)

My Fitbit registered more than 35,000 steps the day I climbed Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh (though I’d also done a lot of walking in the city center, to be fair). Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park was the first taste of hiking I got in Scotland, and it did not disappoint. From atop the 823-foot mountain, you get an excellent 360-degree view of the entire city and surrounding landscape. Just remember your hiking shoes and a bottle of water.

What you’ll pay: Nothing

How long you should spend there: 2 to 3 hours

Castle Tour of Fife

For me, one of the big draws of Scotland was the abundance of ancient, crumbling castles. Rather than pay for a pricy tour that would take us to the heavy hitters, Megan and I researched and planned our own self-guided tour through Fife before we made our way into the Highlands. The stops included:

 

  • Ravenscraig Castle, where we parked at the beach for some stunning views of the castle and sea.
  • Balgonie Castle, which we could have toured, but instead we just took in the exterior walls.
  • Newark Castle and Lady’s Tower, which started by parking at St. Monans Church (Auld Kirk) and continued with a coastal walk to the castle ruins, which we were free to explore. Further down the coast was Lady’s Tower, with breathtaking views of the sea.
  • Kellie Castle, which was the only castle we paid to tour that day; the castle was owned by a family of painters, meaning it was full of ornate artwork.

 

What you’ll pay: £10.50 per adult (Kellie Castle) and the cost of petrol and your car rental

How long you should spend there: All day

St. Andrews Castle

Megan and I never tired of castles while touring Scotland, but we did evolve into “castle snobs,” developing criticisms for what made a good or bad castle. One of our favorites was St. Andrews Castle (or what’s left of it). Tourists who are brave enough can even crawl through the mines beneath the castle, though admittedly, my claustrophobia prevented me from making it all the way down.

What you’ll pay: £6 per adult

How long you should spend there: 1 to 2 hours

Loch Ness Tour (Inverness)

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Unfortunately, that is not Nessie's head poking out of the waters of Loch Ness. Photo courtesy of Timothy Moore

One of the highlights of the trip was the tour we booked through Loch Ness by Jacobite, a boat tour of the legendary loch. The company offers a number of tour options, but I highly recommend the Freedom Tour, which gives you an hour-long tour of the black waters of Loch Ness and an hour-long tour of the loch’s famous Urquhart Castle.

Megan and I didn’t spot Nessie in the water, but I will take this tour every time I return for another chance.

What you’ll pay: £22 per adult (Freedom Tour); tours start at £14 per adult

How long you should spend there: 2 hours (Freedom Tour); tours range from 1 to 7 hours

Isle of Skye

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Hiking on the Isle of Skye offers free breathtaking views. Photo courtesy of Timothy Moore

The most rewarding experience for me in Scotland was the time we spent on the Isle of Skye. Fair warning: You’ve got to love hiking to have a good time here. There is so much to do within the beautiful landscapes of Skye, and it’s all free — just remember to fuel up in Portree.

During our stay on the Isle of Skye, we hiked out to the Neist Point lighthouse, which looks eerily abandoned, though it’s just now remotely operated. The yellow lighthouse is a stunning change of color along the green cliffside and shockingly blue water. If you get there early enough, you can explore it without other tourists, though you may be joined by free-roaming sheep.

We also hiked up to the Old Man of Storr, a miraculous rock formation that formed millions of years ago. The ascent to the top is draining, but it provides stunning views of the lochs below and the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Perhaps the most breathtaking area on the Isle of Skye is the Fairy Pools at the foot of the Black Cuillins, tiny pools of water waiting to take their plunge down impending waterfalls. The water glistens a blue-turquoise that seems like it was poured straight from a fairy tale.

What you’ll pay: Nothing

How long you should spend there: All day

Eilean Donan Castle

This 13th-century castle sits on an island between three converging lochs. Shrouded in mist, it offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The cost of admission allows you to explore the exterior and the interior.

A highlight for Megan and me was a walk through the kitchen, where we learned about how they prepared food year-round without the modern conveniences we are used to. I read online that you can see otters around the castle, but I didn’t spot any myself.

What you’ll pay: £7.50 per adult

How long you should spend there: 2 hours

Steall Falls (Fort William)

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Steall Falls is a beautiful but potentially hazardous hike. Photo courtesy of Timothy Moore

“Harry Potter” fans might recognize this waterfall — the second highest in Scotland — as the backdrop of the dragon scene in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” And while the falls themselves are gorgeous, the hike to get to them was even more stunning.

Just be careful: The walk is treacherous and starts with a sign warning of potential death should you fall off the side. The truly adventurous can even cross a rope bridge over the river.

What you’ll pay: Nothing

How long you should spend there: 2 hours

Signal Rock and Hagrid’s Hut (Glencoe)

Hiking is a favorite activity of mine, so as we left the Highlands, I made sure to fit in one last adventure to Signal Rock in the woods surrounding Glencoe. The walk is incredibly short and easy, but the views of the surrounding mountains and forests are indescribable.

An added bonus: The trail is close to where Hagrid’s hut was filmed for the third “Harry Potter” film and beyond, so you can fit in a quick drive past.

What you’ll pay: Nothing

How long you should spend there: 2 hours

Oban Distillery Tour

The small coastal town of Oban has stunning ocean views and offers up some of the best fish and chips you’ll ever eat — not to mention delicious chocolate, coffee and waffles at Oban Chocolate Company.

While there, make sure to hike up to McCaig’s Tower for incredible views of the town below. However, the best experience in Oban is a tour of its distillery, complete with two tastings of the world-famous Scotch whisky.

What you’ll pay: £10 per adult

How long you should spend there: 1 hour

Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle was our last castle in Scotland, and it was a phenomenal note to end on. The castle grounds were expansive, meaning there were lots of ramparts and towers to explore and several halls and chambers to walk through. The views of the surrounding city of Stirling were also quite nice from atop the hill it sits on.

What you’ll pay: £15 per adult

How long you should spend there: 2 to 3 hours

Glasgow Central Station Tour

Glasgow Central Station
The Central Station tour in Glasgow offers a peek inside the past. Photo courtesy of Timothy Moore

I have never had a tour guide who was more passionate about his subject matter than Paul, who designed the tour beneath Glasgow’s train station all by himself. But it wasn’t just a tour of the train station — it was an in-depth history of the train station and Scotland’s war heroes.

Paul continues to add to the tour and, by the end of this year, intends to recreate the Victorian-era station underground. Every pound you pay for this tour goes right back into ways to improve it and keep its history alive.

What you’ll pay: £13

How long you should spend there: 1 hour

Glasgow Science Centre

Megan and I felt like kids again, exploring one of the world’s best science museums. We learned a lot through hands-on activities that were fun for children and adults alike. The museum is a short walk along the river from the city center and is an easy way to spend an afternoon in Glasgow.

What you’ll pay: £10.45 per adult

How long you should spend there: 2 to 3 hours

Timothy Moore is an editor and freelance writer living in Germantown, Ohio, with his partner and their two dogs. He has traveled to lots of cool places, including Mexico, Scotland, Ireland and all over the US, but his favorite vacation is, and will always be, to Cedar Point in his home state.

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