Scotland probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when planning a winter getaway, but visiting during the off-season comes with some serious perks. You won’t get the endless days of summer, but there are fewer crowds, lower prices, and a whole host of exciting and adventurous activities you can’t experience any other time of the year.
So, assuming you have your comfiest knit jumper and warmest waterproof jacket packed and ready to go, here are some of the best things to do in Scotland in winter.
Travel to: Scotland
Join in on Scotland’s winter festivals and events
No matter what month you visit, there’s always something going on in Scotland! If your winter getaway falls between November and the end of January, get stuck into these festivals and events on your trip:
- Saint Andrew’s Day. Falling on November 30th every year, Saint Andrew’s Day kicks off Scotland’s winter events in style. This is the day the Scots commemorate their national saint and celebrate Scottish culture with traditional food and rollicking ceilidhs.
- Christmas events. When the holiday season arrives, festive events and activities start rolling out across the country. There’s something for all ages — from ice skating rinks to family-friendly rides — but one of the biggest highlights is Edinburgh’s Christmas markets. Nestled in the heart of the city centre, this is where you can go to stock up on locally-made goods, sip on mulled wine, and indulge in delicious street food.
- Hogmanay. If you’re sticking around to ring in the new year in Scotland, you’re in for one unforgettable party! End-of-year festivities take place everywhere from Oban to Inverness, Glasgow and Aberdeen, but the country’s capital is the ultimate place to spend New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay as the Scots call it). With a torchlit procession led by Vikings from Shetland, an outdoor ceilidh, and a massive street party, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay event is by far the biggest celebration of the year.
- Burns Night. If a night filled with haggis, whisky, poetry, and ceilidh dancing sounds like your idea of a party, you don’t want to miss the annual Burns Night celebrations on January 25th. Marking the birthday of the country’s national poet, Robert Burns, Scots come together from all over the country to celebrate the life, work, and legacy of this cultural icon.
Go on a road trip
The great thing about winter in Scotland is that it’s typically not as extreme as other parts of Europe. Sure, it’s cold, windy, and often rainy, but even during the coldest months, the average maximum daytime temperatures typically hover between 5°C (41°F) and 7°C (45°F).
With relatively mild weather and fewer cars on the road, winter can be a great time to go road tripping. Visit the Isle of Skye for a few nights or spend a week exploring the Northern Highlands along the North Coast 500 — either way, you’re guaranteed to be surrounded by spectacularly dramatic scenery.
Now, there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to a winter road trip: roads can be icy and snow-covered (especially up north) and the hours of daylight are shorter, so you’ll need to be flexible and plan accordingly before heading off on a Highland adventure.
If you don’t feel confident driving a manual car in winter conditions, join a multi-day tour and let your guide take you from point A to point B while you kick back and marvel at the scenery.
Experience Scotland’s top attractions without the crowds
How would you like to visit famous sights like Edinburgh Castle or Skye’s Fairy Pools without the annoying queues and tourist crowds? Visiting during the off-season winter months means you might just have attractions like these almost entirely to yourself!
Embrace the cold with winter activities
While curling up beside a fireplace in a cosy pub is one of the most enticing things about visiting Scotland in winter, there’s no shortage of reasons for you to layer up and make the most of the delightfully chilly weather.
Whether it’s a leisurely walk up Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, snowshoeing at Nevis Range, or winter mountaineering in Aviemore, there are loads of opportunities for winter fun in Scotland.
Ski lovers are in luck, too: Scotland is home to several outdoor ski resorts (two in the Highlands and three in the Cairngorms National Park) — including one of the largest resorts in the UK: Glenshee.
Warm up with a whisky tasting
You can’t visit Scotland without trying the country’s national drink: whisky — a revered spirit that will warm you up on even the coldest of days.
Join a whisky tasting tour and explore the Malt Whisky Trail in Speyside — a route that covers eight distilleries — or hop on a ferry to Islay, a tiny island that’s renowned for producing some of the best single malt whisky in the world. If you’re short on time, take a day trip from Edinburgh or Glasgow and tour nearby distilleries like Glengyone.
Don’t have time for a day trip? No problem! You can still get a taste of Scotland’s national drink even if you stay within the confines of the country’s capital. If you’re a whisky newbie, the Scotch Whisky Experience — Edinburgh’s premier whisky attraction — is the perfect place to start.
If, on the other hand, you’d rather just enjoy a wee dram in an atmospheric setting, make a beeline for renowned pubs like The Bow Bar, The Devil’s Advocate, and Usquabae.
Fill up on traditional Scottish food
Rich, hearty, and (usually) loaded with carbs, traditional Scottish food was made for cold weather.
Beyond the iconic dish of haggis, neeps, and tatties, some of the country’s sweet and savoury culinary highlights include cullen skink (a thick, creamy soup made with haddock and potatoes), scotch pies, fresh fish and shellfish, cranachan (a dessert made with oats, raspberries, cream, and whisky), and buttery shortbread biscuits.
Chase the northern lights
Since Scotland lies at the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway, there’s a chance you might be able to catch a glimpse of the awe-inspiring aurora borealis on your Scottish winter getaway.
You’re most likely to witness this elusive phenomenon in northerly destinations like Shetland, Orkney, and the North West Highlands, but the conditions have to be just right — which means clear skies, limited light pollution, and increased solar activity.
Tips for travelling to Scotland in winter
- Pack for all weather conditions. Scottish winter weather is notoriously fickle, so you’ll need to be ready for everything — from sun to rain and snow. Be sure to pack warm layers, an umbrella, and a windproof and waterproof jacket.
- Be flexible. There’s a chance you may have to change your plans due to inclement weather conditions (especially if you’re planning a road trip or if you’re travelling around the northern part of the country).
- Factor in shorter daylight hours. The days are much shorter in winter (you’ll have roughly seven hours between sunrise and sunset in mid-December, for example), so remember to schedule activities like tours and hikes — as well as long drives — earlier in the day.
- Plan ahead. Some attractions outside Scotland’s larger cities may have reduced hours or be closed throughout the winter months, so be sure to double-check opening times when mapping out your itinerary.
Have you been to Scotland in winter? Or would you consider booking a Scottish winter getaway?