Depending on the type of travel you like, visiting Scotland in winter could sound like an absolute dream or a bit of a nightmare! It’s actually our preferred time to visit though and it’s overwhelmingly our most common time to go. Here are some tips for your winter vacation in Scotland and some ideas on the best places to go too.
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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!
All the photos on this page are from various trips of ours to Scotland in the winter and as you can see the weather varies a lot but there are also many stunning and clear days to be had too.
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 to change in to when you get back to your hotel!
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.
Some specific tips for driving in Scotland:
- We drive on the left hand side of the road in Scotland.
- The central belt of Scotland, between Edinburgh and Glasgow is well connected with motorways and A roads – get in to the highlands and the roads get much smaller. In the far North, especially on the NC500, you’ll find that some of the roads are single track.
- On single track roads don’t use the passing places to park in. (I know it sounds obvious!)
- Always try to stick to the speed limit or just under it – going too slow can cause frustration in other drivers.
- Don’t drink and drive – it’s best to stay completely sober and not try to just stay under the limit. Take a designated driver to any whisky tastings you may do!
- Our cars often have manual gears – you should be able to request automatic cars from the bigger car rental sites though.
- Out in the countryside you might find animals in the road, more often sheep but also sometimes deer too. Be prepared to slow down to go past them.
- Your phone signal might not be so great in rural areas – keep a map handy just in case.
And for driving in winter:
- Be aware of diversions or accidents on the main roads in the highlands. There aren’t so many ways to get to some of the more northern places so if the road gets shut it can often lead to a very long diversion. Check the route before you head out – accidents happen often in the wintery conditions as do landslips that can close roads.
- In really snowy weather roads can completely close – again, check the route and the weather forecast before heading out.
- Make sure you have a blanket in the car or warm jackets in case you break down.
- Daylight hours are short so be aware you might have to drive in then dark.
- Main roads will likely be gritted with road salt but take care on any side roads that might be icy if the temperature has dropped in the night.
If you’re looking for a hire car for your time in Scotland then I recommend searching RentalCars.com as they will search through all the available companies offering deals and serve you up the best one.
What to bring
What to wear in Scotland in winter will depend greatly on the type of activities that you’ll want to do. Someone taking walks in the Highlands will need slightly different things than someone hitting the museums in Glasgow.
However, as a general rule I would say that the following are a must for anyone travelling in Scotland in Winter. Whether you’re a city break visitor or exploring the small villages I recommend:
- a rain jacket – a warm one negates the need for a separate warm jacket (you’ll likely want something warm anyway). Alternatively a light jacket or poncho that can go over a warm jacket is a good idea.
- thermal leggings and top – especially good if you feel the cold a lot or are planning plenty of time outdoors
- comfy, waterproof shoes.
- comfy pyjamas to snuggle in to at the end of the day! No judgement for fleecy all in ones like these!
Other things you should consider bringing:
- refillable insulated coffee cup – keep warm and get a coffee or hot chocolate!
- external phone/camera battery – cold weather can really drain batteries so a back up is really handy.
- waterproof cover for your luggage – especially useful if you will be walking to your accommodation from the train station in Edinburgh or Glasgow and your luggage is fabric.
- Guide book – I’m a sucker for the Lonely Planet guides.
Don’t worry about midge repellant – they aren’t a problem in the winter months.
Best places to go in Scotland in Winter
You can, of course, go anywhere on your winter vacation to Scotland, but here are a few places that we’ve been and enjoyed in the colder months.
Edinburgh is a good idea at any time of year and winter has the added advantage of being a little less crowded than normal. It’s a year round destination so although sometimes opening hours are a little shorter it’s pretty much like visiting at other times of the year. If you head there before Christmas you’ll also have the added Christmas markets to add to the fun.
We spent some time in the Scottish Borders this winter and did a whole heap of gallivanting around with our dog while based just over the border from England. The borders are a great destination because they are quiet, have a really quaint feel to them and they are still super close to both Edinburgh and Glasgow. If you wanted a taste of rural Scotland with heaps of history thrown in then you could do well to consider it.
Our guide to the Scottish Border Abbeys is here.
Inverness is well linked by road and rail from the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh so it’s still well worth a visit if you want to add some of the Scottish Highlands to your trip. Inverness is small but there’s actually lots to do around there and if you want to hand the rails over to someone else to show you around (so you don’t need to drive!) there’s loads of tours too.
My guide to day trips from Inverness is here.
It’s actually been quite a while since I have had the pleasure of visiting Glasgow – a return journey is definitely on the list! Glasgow is a great city for culture, sightseeing and for museums so perfect for a winter getaway and a very different feel than Edinburgh has. If you’ve done the Edinburgh trip and fancy something a bit different then definitely consider Glasgow!
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