There are so many places worth visiting in scenic Scotland. Edinburgh, the country’s capital, was named number one in Time Out’s list of best cities in the world for 2022. Glasgow is renowned for its music, nightlife, and arts scene. Inverness, the cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands, boasts stunning landscapes, medieval sites, and proximity to Loch Ness. But while all should certainly be on your must-see list, they sometimes overshadow the quainter places that contribute just as much to Scotland’s beauty and intrigue as their larger counterparts. In fact, you may not have heard of many of Scotland’s most charming (albeit, smaller) towns at all.
And it’s time to change that. If you’re planning a trip to the country, definitely make space for its biggest attractions — but at the same time, be sure to include some under-the-radar, equally character-filled places to give you a fuller experience. Not only will they expose you to more of Scotland’s rich history and endless outdoor adventures, but they’ll also give you plenty of the classic storybook-like charm that the country is so well known for. Perfect Instagram pics, here you come.
Though if you’ve never been to Scotland, that’s obviously easier said than done. Thus, TZR tapped several experts to get the lowdown on some of the quaintest, prettiest, and lesser-known Scottish towns you shouldn’t miss. From tiny coastal villages to breathtaking lake-front destinations, here’s what they suggested.
Scotland is brimming with charming towns, but Oban is one in particular that comes highly recommended from our sources. Mandy Pullin, co-owner and agent of DPP Travel and a Virtuoso Travel Advisor, calls it one of her favorite places in the country. According to her, that’s because it has “all the things” that make Scotland unique and wonderful. “It is a seaside port city with historical sites nearby (two castles!), wonderful local shopping, and pubs.” And, she continues, “It’s a gateway to the Isles and in fact, you can see the Isle of Mull from the shoreline.”
There are many other draws as well. Pullin says it serves “some of the best seafood you’ll ever eat” right near the port at the Oban Seafood Hut. Oban is part of the Above and Below Argyll trail initiative, and is also a great place to experience “wild water” in Scotland. For accommodations, she loves staying a little out of town at Loch Melfort Hotel. “You don’t get much more charming than Highland Cows (Coos) right there on the property and sweeping views of the loch.”
According to Rick Lunt, Head of Travel Curation at Origin, Kenmore is a small town in Perthshire located on the banks of Loch Tay worth visiting. While there, he recommends exploring the place as well as the small villages surrounding the lake. He also says not to miss the Black Rock Viewpoint, the town of Killin, and the hamlet of Ardeonaig during your visit. And as for where to stay? “There are several luxury inns and private mansions to call home while you explore this stunning region of the Highlands.”
Looking for something truly picture-postcard perfect? Victoria Gooch, a UK-based journalist and British travel expert who runs the website Curiously British, says Tobermory, the capital of the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides, is it. “Brightly colored buildings line the harbor front and are backed by tree-lined hillside,” she tells TZR, setting the scene.
According to Gooch, the town was originally built as a fishing port in the 18th century, and is now “a popular stop-off point for boaters sailing in the western isles of Scotland as well as visitors by ferry.” On its main street, she says you’ll find hotels, arts and craft shops, lively pubs, and the Tobermory Distillery. And, there’s plenty to do in its surrounding areas as well. “Beyond Tobermory, you can explore the wilder parts of Mull and its trails, or follow the coastline for spectacular scenery in the Sound of Mull,” she continues.
All you Outlander fans, take note — Gooch says Falkland was recast as Inverness in the cult-favorite show, meaning you’ve probably already added this stunning town to your travel list without even realizing what it was.
According to Gooch, Falkland is a former royal burgh in the Kingdom of Fife in eastern Scotland. “At the foot of the Lomond Hills, the medieval town is home to the 16th-century Falkland Palace, a favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots,” she says. And that’s not all for its history: Gooch says it’s also “home to the Royal Tennis Club, the world's oldest real tennis court still in use.”
Mike Peddie is the owner of the Scottish travel website Secret Scotland, and lives in and explores Scotland year-round to research for the site and travel guides. Of all the places he’s been, Peddie cites Dornoch — a town on the east coast near Inverness — as a particular favorite.
According to Peddie, Dornoch oozes charm, “with narrow side streets that meander around the old cathedral, quaint cottages all built from a gold-colored sandstone, and beautiful flower displays in summer.” The fact that it has a castle in the town center “is the icing on the cake,” he says. Dornoch also has a rich history that makes for an interesting visit. It’s built around a small cathedral that dates from the 13th century, and he says there are even signposted walking trails that guide you to various places, like the spot where the last witch was burnt to death in Scotland.
Accommodations allow for a wide range of budgets here, says Peddie. On the higher end, you can stay in Links House Hotel near Royal Dornoch Golf Club, or Dornoch Castle, which has a cozy whisky bar. “For something cheaper, we recommend Heartseed House B&B which is located in quiet countryside just beside Dornoch, or for somewhere in Dornoch town the Albatross B&B,” he continues.
Matt Vickery is a former freelance journalist who founded the travel website Wandering Our World, and grew up in the Highlands of Scotland. While he says he’s lived elsewhere for more than a decade, he always spends time in Ullapool on Scotland's west coast when he returns home. “The road to this pretty coastal village from Inverness is beautiful as it'll have you meandering past mountains, lochs, and through valleys, before opening up to the west coast and the small town of Ullapool — the gateway to the remote Western Isles.”
One of the main reasons Vickery loves Ullapool is because it’s actually one of the major hubs of Scottish traditional music. “On the weekend, you can often find several cozy pubs serving delicious food, local beer, and whisky to the sound of live traditional Scottish music in the background,” he shares. According to him, three of the most popular live music spots to visit — The Argyll Hotel, Ferry Boat Inn, and the Ceilidh Place — each have accommodation options, too.
While you’re waiting for the evening festivities to start, Vickery recommends taking a road trip to Achiltibuie. “The road winds around the bottom of mountains, past loch shores, and is spectacular,” he says. “The view from the village of Achiltibuie out towards the Summer Isles is one of the best in Scotland. But it's a little known spot amongst tourists.”
For another lesser-known but charming town in Scotland, Matthew Fox, CEO of Independent Cottages, suggests Dunkeld. “It is brimming with history dating back as far as 2,000 years, with a beautiful cathedral that is the centerpiece of its town and quaint white cottages lining its streets.” Being that it’s a small town in Perthshire, Fox describes it as the perfect place to experience a quieter, more rural way of life. However, it’s also close to “popular Scottish destinations including Perth, Aberfeldy, and Blairgowrie,” he explains, so you can easily visit other destinations if you need more to do.
With its surrounding countryside, Fox says Dunkeld is also ideal for people who enjoy cycling and walking, and to take in Scotland’s renowned scenery. “Nearby there is Hermitage Woodland, which is open all year round with some of the tallest trees in Scotland, and Loch of the Lowes Wildlife Reserve, famous for its ospreys which come to nest annually here.” And if you’re looking for a place to stay, The Bothy is a rural hideaway in the area made for retreating to after a day of exploration.