Scotland in winter is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you like your travel with a hint of sunshine, but it can actually be a great time to visit.
Ruined historical buildings, moody skies, snow capped hills and cosy traditional pubs all await you if you decide to explore Scotland in the winter months.
When I’ve looked at our past trips it’s overwhelmingly the time we tend to to visit Scotland and our most common time to go. A combination of our wedding anniversary being in winter and cheap accommodation!
Things to do in Scotland in Winter:
I think Scotland is great at any time, but winter just hits a little bit different. Here are some of the best things you can do when exploring this amazing country in the winter season. Read on to the end for some tips about visiting in winter that aren’t applicable to other times of the year!
Try to see the Northern Lights
You might be surprised to read that you can see the Northern Lights when in Scotland but it’s actually quite possible, even quite far south sometimes.
I have to say that I haven’t managed to see them, even when I grew up there, perhaps as we were always in an area that was too lit up at night.
Winter is one of the best times to see the aurora in Scotland but you can actually see them from September through March.
The best chance to see them is to be as far north as possible and look for clear evenings with no full moon. There are some apps that you can get and social accounts to follow that will help alert to best times for a possible sighting – try searching AuroraWatchUK.
Explore the cities while quiet
If you’ve ever explored Scottish cities in the summer or any other busy period throughout the year you’ll know that they can become a little busy, especially with tourists.
Winter doesn’t mean that there are none of course, but there are dramatically fewer around and that can make for a more pleasant time wandering and exploring. It feels most different in Edinburgh but even cities like Glasgow, Stirling and Inverness can have a totally different vibe in winter.
Museums are one of my favourite places to visit in winter while in these cities – many are free as well which is a bonus!
Since it can be cold and damp in Scotland at wintertime it’s worth factoring in some time while exploring to sit in a local cafe for a warming soup or hot chocolate. You’ll not regret it!
Try your hand at skiing
Many people don’t know that Scotland actually has its own ski resorts – the Cairngorms, the Nevis range and also Glencoe are some of the most popular places.
It’s not just skiing you can try your hand at, but snowboarding too. There’s actually a lot on offer in winter in Scotland for those who like a bit of an adventure!
Ski equipment can be hired so no worries if you just want to give it a try and lessons are also available too!
Visit some reindeer
It’s an activity that can be done year round, but in the Cairngorms of Scotland there’s actually a wild roaming, yet tame, herd of reindeer to see.
For anyone looking to visit Scotland with kids it’s a must, but even for those adults among us (me!) who love animals it’s a great day out.
I remember visiting these as a child and it was fantastic – I’m well overdue returning!
Warm up at the pub
With long nights and the darkness falling around 4-5pm you might wonder what you can do in the evenings. My tip – find a pub! Even better, find one that plays traditional Scottish music and really get into the spirit of the area.
Talking of spirits, having a nip of whisky will certainly warm you up on the inside too!
Explore the countryside – frozen lochs and snow capped hills
The countryside can still be explored even in the winter months so don’t let the cold put you off. It’s not always cold enough for snow in Scotland, often times it’s just rainy or damp. Roads are often clear to access areas, but check news reports and traffic websites before setting off.
You might get lucky and see frost underfoot and the snow on the hills around. Perhaps you’ll even see lochs beginning to freeze over. I wonder how Nessie handles the cold at Loch Ness?
Having good footwear is a must, as is wearing lots of layers and a waterproof before heading on a walk. Don’t attempt any major hills or hikes if you’re unsure – always ask locally if it’s recommended.
Visit some medieval abbeys
Scotland’s history is fascinating and vast but what is better than spending a day where the weather is a bit moody, exploring some old ruined abbey?
There are a number of abbeys in Scotland that you can visit from the four Border Abbeys to Holyrood Abbey next to the palace in Edinburgh. Each one has a similar history but the fate that followed tended to be different which is why some are more ruined than others.
If you can pick only one then I recommend Melrose Abbey in the borders which is incredibly pretty and the town is a great one to spend a night or two with lots of walks nearby.
Discover some traditional festivals
Scotland loves its festivals and traditional holidays and like many countries that have long dark winters, there’s an abundance to choose from. If any are taking place when you’re visiting it’s worth checking out if any events are happening as well.
Scotland loves Christmas and as it’s a predominantly Christian country there’s a lot that happens.
Christmas markets, shows, ice rinks and food stalls pop up in cities all around getting you in the mood for the upcoming holiday.
Be aware that if you’re staying in Scotland over the Christmas period that many shops, restaurants and attractions will close early on Christmas Eve and all day on Christmas Day.
Hogmanay is the Scottish term for New Years Eve and it’s a big deal in Scotland! Wherever you end up in Scotland for the end of the year you’ll find celebrations going on, even if you’re in a small village with just one pub!
For those in Edinburgh there’s a huge celebration, tickets are needed in advance and they normally are sold from September onwards. After an evening singing Auld Lang Syne either start the new year with a Scottish fry up or head into the water at the Firth of Forth for a New Years dip!
Robert Burns is a poet that is fondly remembered in Scotland on Burns Night which is the 25th January each year.
Restaurants or hotels may offer a Burns Supper where a traditional meal of Haggis and Neeps is served while someone addresses the Haggis with some poetry and whisky in hand.
(Haggis is a traditional Scottish food – it’s made of sheep’s innards, oats and spices – actually quite nice. Often vegetarian versions are available if it makes you feel squeamish. Neeps is short for turnips. You might also hear the phrase ‘tatties and neeps’ which is potatoes and turnips.)
Up Helly Aa
Marking the end of Yule season, this Viking Fire festival takes place on Lerwick which is in the Shetland Isles. It takes place on the last Tuesday of January
It’s not happened for the past couple of years but should be back for 2023!
Tips for visiting Scotland in Winter
Being aware of the weather should be at the top of everyone’s list when coming to Scotland in winter – being prepared means that you’ll not come home thinking that your trip was ruined by it. Scotland can be stunning in winter so don’t imagine it will be all wet days – cold is pretty much guaranteed though!
The weather in Scotland can be changeable all year round but in the winter months you have a much higher chance of having rain, cold and wind or a combination of them all. Snow and ice is also a possibility although it depends on where you’re headed to.
If you’re driving in Scotland then rain is something to take care with – don’t drive too fast and too close to other vehicles. If you’re just sightseeing then make sure to be prepared with rain jackets, waterproof shoes and nice warm clothes in case you need them to change in to!
Wind is the one to watch if you are planning to do any trips to the Scottish islands. Not only can the boat trips be incredibly choppy and not fun to experience in the high winds but often they can be cancelled with very short notice. It can depend on where you’re going – some ports struggle with the sea swell more than others. Keep an eye on the ferry websites before you head out.
Similarly if you need to drive over any of the bigger bridges on the mainland you might find that the can be closed – more often it’s to high sided vehicles but if it’s a very windy day then they may be shut to all vehicles. Diversions will be in place but they can take you a long way out of your way!
Check opening times / winter timetables
Many attractions either shut down completely in the winter months or have very restricted opening times. Sometimes that means they might only be open weekends or they close earlier on. If you have any must see sites in Scotland then make sure that you check whether they’ll be open before moving forward too far with your plans.
For example, we visited the Scottish Borders this year in February and while we found many of the historic castles open (and quiet!) there were still a good few places that we couldn’t see because they were entirely shut in the winter.
When it comes to public transport, and especially the ferries, you should know that some of those operate a completely different timetable than they do in the summer months. Don’t assume that because there’s a boat to a specific island on Tuesdays in the summer that it will be the same in winter.
Be aware of short daylight hours
With Scotland being so far North it gets really dark early on in the day. Late December will see the earliest sunset with the solstice around the 21st December and from around 3.30 – 4.00pm you’ll be feeling like it’s night time – cloudy days making it even more so. If you’re staying further North in Inverness you’ll feel it even more.
This does make for shorter sightseeing time and if you’re staying in cities I’d definitely recommend staying close by to where you’re planning to visit – this means you’re not walking around too far in the dark. Also it means that if you’re hiring a car you’ll possibly be driving in the dark so bear that in mind too.