Using the train is the natural choice for getting around Scotland. There are fast connections between the major cities, and what could be better than watching the Highland scenery slipping past from the comfort of a train? Scotland's a small country with a lot to offer, so here are our suggestions to help you make the very best of a short time north of the Border.
Here's a quick rundown of our three day Scotland itinerary.
- Day 1 – Glasgow
- Day 2 – Edinburgh
- Day 3 – The Highlands
Day 1 – Glasgow
9:00 – Glasgow city centre
If you’re flying into the country, you’ll land at Glasgow International Airport and it’s easy to catch the Glasgow Airport Express shuttle bus into Glasgow Central station. Trains to Glasgow from other parts of the UK also draw into Glasgow Central Station, in the heart of the city centre.
Walk out of the main doors of Glasgow Central, and you're in the heart of the famous "Style Mile" shopping area. But you won't want to stop and do some damage to the credit card quite yet. A natural starting point for any visit to the city is George Square, a wide-open space flanked by the City Chambers and grand merchant buildings. Take a selfie by the statues before moving on, or explore the streets of the Merchant City, built by Glasgow's prosperous Victorian traders.
10:00 – Gallery of Modern Art, Royal Exchange Square
Just a couple of minutes' walk from George square is the Gallery of Modern Art, in Royal Exchange Square. Look for the statue of the man on a horse outside and don't be surprised if he has a traffic cone on his head – it's an offbeat Glasgow tradition. Inside, the galleries are packed with modern art from across the world and all permanent exhibitions are free to enter. Pick up a guide at the reception desk and spend a couple of hours exploring. There's also a great little cafe in the basement serving excellent home-baked treats and an extensive library.
Midday – Byres Road and Botanics
Time for a spot of lunch. Catch Glasgow's famous "clockwork orange" subway train from Buchanan Street or St Enoch to Hillhead. There's no chance of getting lost as there's only one line, running in a circle. Byres Road is the heart of Glasgow's student area, with no shortage of places to grab something quick and easy to eat. Take your sandwiches, sushi or noodle box into the Botanic Gardens at the top end of Byres Road to enjoy some peace and green space as you eat. Don't leave without visiting the tropical Kibble Palace greenhouse which is packed with exotic orchids.
14:00 – Hunterian Museum
One of Glasgow's hidden gems is the fascinating Hunterian Museum, hidden away inside the main building of Glasgow University and just a 20-minute stroll from the Botanic Gardens. There's an eclectic mixture of exhibits covering everything from Roman archaeology to Victorian scientific instruments. Entrance is free. As you leave, pop into the Glasgow University gift shop to pick up some great souvenirs to take home.
16:00 – Kelvingrove Park and Museum
Glasgow University overlooks the city's other large park at Kelvingrove, and this makes a scenic detour on your way down to the Kelvingrove museum. The Kelvingrove has been pulling in the crowds since Victorian times and showcases all aspects of Glasgow's history. Upstairs, there's a focus on art with some unique Charles Rennie Mackintosh furniture and a much-photographed religious painting by Spanish surrealist, Salvador Dali.
Evening – A bit of Glasgow nightlife
The next part of the ideal three days in Scotland involves a train to Edinburgh the following day, so it makes sense to stay in the city centre, near George Square. Grab a pizza at the highly-rated Paesano, or have a drink at the Horseshoe Bar, with the longest continuous bar in Europe.
Day 2 – Edinburgh
9:00 – Train to the Capital
There are excellent, regular trains from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Services leave from Glasgow Queen Street station, accessed from George Square and the journey time takes as little as 43m. On an average weekday, there are 132 services each day between the two cities, running between 05:30 and 23:30. So sit back, relax, enjoy the scenery and prepare for a packed day of exploring.
10:00 – Edinburgh Castle
You can't miss the Castle – simply step out of Edinburgh Waverley station and it's right there in front of you, with a slightly steep 10-minute walk up from the station to the entrance. There are regular guided tours which leave from just inside the drawbridge or pick up an audio guide to see over 900 years of Scottish royal history at your own pace. The Castle "must-sees" are the Crown Jewels, the massive 15th-century Mons Meg cannon and the elegant Great Hall. The views over the city and across the Firth of Forth to Fife are spectacular on a clear day.
Midday – Lunch and the Royal Mile
Edinburgh's historic Royal Mile leads down from the Castle to the Palace of Holyrood house. You could easily spend your entire three days experiencing the sights and sounds of this famous street, especially during the annual Edinburgh Festival in August. But you've only got a day, so you're going to have to prioritise. Pick up a sandwich or stop for soup or light lunch as you head down the hill. Make a detour to the right along George IV Bridge as you approach the cathedral if you want to see the famous statue of Greyfriar's Bobby or stop off at the National Museum of Scotland.
14:00 – Mary King's Close
One of the most unusual Edinburgh locations is hidden away, beneath the city streets. Mary King's Close is a narrow residential street, or "close", dating back to the 17th-century. It was abandoned after several plague outbreaks and is now a quirky, creepy visitor attraction. Follow your costumed guide underground to see how people really lived almost 400 years ago.
16:00 – Holyrood House
Continue your ramble downhill towards the Palace. On the way, you'll pass no end of little shops, pubs and cafes if you need some retail therapy or refreshment. The Palace of Holyrood House is the British Royal Family's official residence in Scotland and is open to the public most of the year. See the throne room and find out about famous Scottish historical figures such as Mary, Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Evening – Scottish cuisine at its best
All this sightseeing is bound to work up an appetite. Luckily, Edinburgh is home to some of Scotland's best restaurants. A short taxi ride north into the Leith area brings you to Michelin-starred The Kitchin, run by celebrity chef Tom Kitchin. If fine dining isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other options too. Try El Cartel Mexicana in Thistle Street, which serves up the most authentic Mexican street food this side of Acapulco. Another great option is Howie's, a bistro with two branches in the city centre. Expect seasonal, Scottish dishes cooked to perfection with locally sourced ingredients.
Day 3 – A trip to the Highlands
9:00 – Train to Pitlochry
Many visitors take the longer trip north by train from Edinburgh to Inverness, completely overlooking the picturesque Perthshire town of Pitlochry. That's a shame as this little Highland town has loads to do, and all within easy walking distance of the station. Trains from Edinburgh to Pitlochry take less than 2 hours (1h 53m), with the bonus of amazing views as you cross the iconic Forth Bridge on the way.
11:00 – A wee drop of whisky at Blair Athol Distillery
It would be a shame to visit Scotland and not find out about the country's most famous liquid export. Unlike most distilleries which are out in the middle of nowhere, Blair Athol distillery is just a 15-minute stroll along the main street of Pitlochry from the station. Book onto a guided tour for an explanation of just how the barley and water is turned into whisky, with a wee dram to sample at the end. You're not driving, so enjoy!
13:00 – Pitlochry Dam and salmon ladder
A hydroelectric dam might not be the most obvious place to visit in Scotland, but the recently opened visitor centre explains not just the science of power generation, but also the lives of the pioneers who built the dam across the River Tummel. Find out about the famous salmon ladder, built to allow the migrating fish to bypass the dam and reach their spawning grounds. July to September is the best time of year to see the fish making the leap. The Centre also boasts a cafe offering light meals, sandwiches and scones, all served with a massive helping of spectacular scenery right outside the window.
15:00 – Shopping and browsing
Pitlochry's one of those quaint little towns where it's easy to spend hours just wandering and browsing. There are lots of small independent shops here, giving the main shopping area an individual feel. Knitwear, especially cashmere, is a good buy. Or why not get some whisky, shortbread or something tartan to take home? One of Pitlochry's most visited shops is the Christmas Emporium, where it really is Christmas every day. Fancy a hand-painted bauble for your tree perhaps? Before you know it, it'll be time to stroll back to the station and board your train back to Edinburgh and the end of your Scottish adventure.
Getting a taste of the best Scotland has to offer in just three days is simple if you plan carefully and make the most of Scotland's efficient rail network. These options are just scratching the surface of the country – we're sure that after your first visit, you'll be planning another trip to take in all the places you couldn't manage first time around. So, what are you waiting for? Visit our trains in Scotland guide to find out more.