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How to Explore Scotland Without a Car

If you want to travel the lengths of Scotland but don’t have a car with which to do so, then no problem! Travelling Scotland is made easy by the wealth of other options available to travellers; be it buying a Scotrail Spirit of Scotland rail pass, utilising the widespread cross-country and local bus services, using the impressive national cycle network, or hiking on your own two feet, there will be a way to travel the country that suits you and you needs.

Benefits Of Travelling Without A Car

Travelling in a car always seems like the easy option, and it does give you unrivalled flexibility when travelling anywhere.  But there are so many benefits to seeing Scotland without being inside a car, and in many ways it allows you to appreciate the country more and see things in a different way as well as meeting people as you go as well as being more environmentally friendly!

Not having your own vehicle can lead you to places you perhaps would never have considered going otherwise, and see sights that you didn’t even know existed.  Using lots of different forms of transportation also allows you to see how many of the locals experience living in Scotland, seeing small towns that are a little more off the beaten track.

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It is very easy to visit most of the popular attractions in Scotland by foot, bike or public transport.  This also gives you the opportunity to get exercise as you travel as well as keeping fewer cars on the Scottish roads, resulting in less pollution.  Car-free tourism is one of the best things about Scotland both as a place to live and as a tourist attraction, and it is a great idea to take advantage of this!

Using The Train To Travel Scotland

Travelling to Edinburg Scotland by Train
Travelling to Edinburg Scotland by Train

The fastest way to get around Scotland without a car is certainly by train.  Scotland has an excellent rail service which spreads across a large amount of the country and delivers a very quick and direct service – often getting travellers to their destination even faster than by car.

A clear benefit of rail travel is that, because trains do not run on the roads, you can avoid traffic congestion and do not have to take any irritating detours if something goes wrong.  Scotrail services tend to be on time the majority of the time and therefore make for a very efficient way to travel all in all.  It also allows you to sit back, relax and enjoy the gorgeous scenery without having to worry about directions or roads!

 The only issue with train tickets in Scotland is that they tend to be very expensive if bought separately, which is why it is certainly better to buy a Scotrail pass instead, as it reduces the cost hugely. 

For example, the Highland Rover pass can be purchased for £95 and covers four days of unlimited travel over an eight-day period, when travelling in the north and west highlands; perfect for making multiple trips.  There are many of these types of passes that can be purchased depending on where you would like to go, making train travel a more affordable option.

Here are some examples of popular train lines that will take you on different routes throughout Scotland:

The West Highland Line

Jacobite Express going over Glenfinnan
Jacobite Express going over Glenfinnan

This line spans from Glasgow all the way to Mallaig, with an alternate route going to Oban.  This route is definitely superior in terms of the views and scenery on the way, offering some of the most stunning scenery in Scotland.  In particular, the route goes via Glenfinnan which is by far one of the most impressive views Scotland has to offer.

The Far North Line

This line takes travellers from Inverness all the way to the northernmost point of mainland Scotland, John O’ Groats.  This is a great route as it takes you through some of the less visited parts of the country so it’s a great way to get off the beaten track a little bit.  A highlight for sure is that it bypasses the amazing Dunrobin Castle, which every tourist should see on their trip!

The Kyle Line

This line takes you from east to west, rather than north or south, and allows you to witness a purely stunning landscape, including the Torridon Peaks, Achnashellach Forest and Ben Wyvis all in one journey!  This journey will show you the two absolute staples of Scottish landscape: mountains and lochs.

Travelling Scotland By Bus

Modern double deck bus operated by Lothian busses in the centre of Edinburgh, Scotland
Modern double deck bus operated by Lothian busses in the centre of Edinburgh, Scotland

Regardless of how many railcards and passes you use, the train is never going to be as cost-effective as taking the buses to your destination in Scotland.  Buses can cost up to half of the price of a train ticket (a bus to Aberdeen is on average around £20, while a train ticket is often £40 or more), so if you are travelling on a budget then a  bus is a great option for you.

The most budget friendly and widespread options in the country are Megabus and Citylink, which take you to every major city (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen, Dundee) and even some of the smaller towns:

  • Aviemore
  • Fort William
  • Perth
  • Pitlochry
  • Stirling

And more!

Bus prices are cheap all the times, and the prices don’t go up massively as train fares do, but there are still things that you can do to make sure you are definitely getting the best prices for your travel:

  • Book online – tickets online are often much cheaper when booked online rather than booked on the bus.  This also ensures that you get a seat on the bus you wish to get, rather than having to wait around for another.
  • Compare prices between different operators – oftentimes the different operators will have competitive prices, meaning that the cost of a journey will come up lower on one of their websites.  Sometimes you can even score a cheaper seat on a luxurious Megabus Gold, and enjoy a large leather seat and free refreshment.
  • Book in advance  – prices tend to go up as you get closer to the day of the trip, so make sure you book in advance to get a better price.
  • Book right at the last minute – on the other hand, if a bus is not full right before the journey (one or two hours before) then the prices can sometimes be slashed then too.  If you are not a stressful traveler, and don’t mind leaving things to the very last minute, this is always a good trick to try!
  • Look for special offers – often big sales or special deals will be advertised on the operator’s website, such as the famous £1 trip from Glasgow to Inverness! 

Once you get to your destination there will usually be some form of local bus to take you exactly where you need to be.  The buses in Edinburgh are particularly great and very inexpensive, and Glasgow have a great service too as well as a much faster underground!  In the middle of these bigger cities, it is actually far faster to get around by public transport than it is to take a car, which can be even slower than walking at times due to heavy traffic congestion.

In the Highlands and more rural areas of Scotland, buses are far less frequent due to the fact that there are far less people living there; it simply would not make sense to have the services that you would find in a busy city!  This leaves one other option in terms of buses, which is to book a bus with a small tour group which will take you around the highlands with a tour group and a guide, ensuring that you will never be stuck in the middle of nowhere waiting for a bus that won’t arrive for twelve hours!

Explore Scotland With A Tour Company

View from Portree over the sea with the colourful houses and a boat
View from Portree over the sea with the colourful houses and a boat

On my first visit I went on a day trip to the Highlands, it was a full day of exploring but totally worth it to see the sights! If you want an easy stress free way to see Scotland then using a tour company to Scotland is one of the best options.

The trips vary in length from 12 hours to days worth, here are some of my favourite choices:

From Edinburgh: 3-Day Isle of Skye and The Highlands Tour

This three-day tour covers the beautiful scenery of the Highland, lochs and Glencoe. Visiting famous sights from film locations like James Bond, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and Outlander. It includes capturing the iconic photo of the magnificent Glenfinnan Viaduct.

Accommodation in Inverness isn’t included in this tour, you can either use their recommended places or book your own. It does allow you to adjust the accommodation to your budget range.

Bring Your Bicycle And Use The National Cycle Network

Tourist on a Cycle holiday in Scotland
Tourist on a Cycle holiday in Scotland

Due to the lack of buses in these areas, if you want to see the areas of rural Scotland your other option is to use the vast National Cycle Network that Scotland offers.  The great thing about this is that there are lots of traffic-free paths, making your cycle as easy as possible!  There are also many long-distance routes that can be taken which have all been put onto OS maps, making it very easy to work out which route to take, and also to make cycling your primary mode of transport on your trip. 

Here are some of great options for long-distance routes you can take:

The Caledonia Way

Campbelltown -> Inverness | Distance – 234 miles | Time to cycle – 20 hours

Roads between Campbeltown and Oban but a traffic free cycle from Oban to Inverness

This route shows some of the most dramatic scenery that the Highlands has to offer, with some amazing views of the west coast islands and stunning coastlines.

This route also allows you to pass two of the greatest wonders of Scotland – Loch Ness and Ben Nevis.

The Hebridean Way

Vatersay -> Bottom of Lewis | Distance – 184 miles | Time to cycle – 15 hours

This route gives you a great opportunity to island hop via ferry, towards the Isles of Harris and Lewis.  This is certainly one of the wildest regions of the country and is the perfect quiet getaway from busy cities.

Coast and Castles North

Edinburgh -> Aberdeen (via Fife) | Distance – 172 miles | Time to cycle – 14 hours

This route showcases many castles including the stunning Dunnottar castle.  Aberdeenshire has a huge number of impressive castles, and this route is a great way to see lots of them as well as the beautiful north coast.

Edinburgh to Glasgow

Edinburgh -> Glasgow | Distance – 57 miles | Time to cycle – 10 hours

Picturesque meadows, canals and woodlands

There are two gorgeous nature reserves on this route – Bogburn Flood Lagoons Nature Reserve & Blawhorn Moss National Nature Reserve.

Hike Scotland’s Beautiful Landscape

View of the sea in the Isle of Skye
View of the sea in the Isle of Skye

Walking around Scotland may be the hardest way to travel but it is also the cheapest and often the most rewarding.  There is a reason why hiking in Scotland is so popular – the stunning landscape all over the country can best be appreciated on foot, and it is made easy by trails such as the West Highland Way and the John Muir Way, which are mostly off the main roads and therefore pretty much traffic-free.

A lot of the routes on these trails are similar to the cycle trails, but there are still times where being on foot has its advantages over bike, due to the trails which can only be accessed when walking.  These trails allow you to explore huge sections of the country if completed in full, but they are also incredibly versatile as you can join the routes at many points and come off them easily too.

The John Muir Way

Helensburgh -> Dunbar | Distance – 134 miles

This trail takes you near the major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh meaning it fits really well between two great city breaks!

If you do choose to do the whole thing in one go, you should give yourself around ten days to do the entire thing from start to finish.

The West Highland Way

Milngavie -> Fort William (Passes Loch Lomond, Glen Etive and Ben Nevis) | Distance – 96 miles

This route usually takes around seven days to complete, and those walking the route either take a tent to camp with, or book B&Bs in advance of doing the trail.

This trail gets very busy during the summer months so make sure to take this into account if you are booking accommodation.

The Southern Upland Way

Cockburnspath -> Portpatrick | Distance – 214 miles

This is a very long route, which has some long stretches that can be tough on your feet.  Therefore the best way to do it is in two parts, and take a week to do each section.  Moffat is a great place to divide the route.

The Great Glen Way

Fort William -> Inverness | Distance – 77 miles

The Great Glen is the longest Glen in Scotland and goes via Loch Ness

Popular Tourist Attractions That Don’t Require A Car

Edinburgh Castle

The castle is only a very short walk from Waverly Train Station, via the stunning Royal Mile!

Edinburgh Zoo

The zoo is accessible from the centre of Edinburgh by bus which stops across the road from the zoo, and you can get the same bus back to the centre from the bus stop on the same street as the entrance.

Gallery of Modern Art

From Haymarket train station in Edinburgh, the gallery is less than a mile to walk and provides a fun day out if the weather isn’t great!

National Museum of Scotland

Once you’re in Edinburgh city centre, the museum is only a short walk up the Bridges and has great accessibility to so many other tourist attractions around the city too.

St Giles Cathedral

This is another really accessible attraction, just a short ten to fifteen minute walk from Edinburgh Waverley Station.

Glasgow Botanic Gardens

From the city centre, it’s easy to hop on an underground train from Buchanan Street which gets you to Hillhead in just eight minutes!  From Hillhead, turn right and walk along Byres Road until you see the stunning Botanics.  The walk is around five minutes.

Glasgow Science Centre

Grab the train from Glasgow Central Station and take the 3 minute journey to the Exhibition Centre which is just a short walk from the science centre.  Alternatively, you can walk from the city centre, which only takes around half an hour in total.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Take the underground to the Kelvinhall stop from any stop in Glasgow, turn left and walk straight until you see the stunning museum building – this one is super easy!

Loch Lomond Shores

Loch Lomond Cruise with Sweenys
Loch Lomond Cruise with Sweenys

Hop on a train at Queen Street station in Glasgow and take a ride to Balloch, which takes around fifty minutes.  Once you get off the train you’re just a short ten minute walk from the shores, and a whole day of fun!

Falkirk wheel

Take the train from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Falkirk High train station, and then take the scenic canal route, around 2.5 miles, to get to the wheel.

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

The birthplace museum of Scotland’s most famous poet, Rabbie Burns, is located in Ayr, which is around fifty minutes from the centre of Glasgow by train.  Once you arrive in Ayr you can walk to Alloway town where the poet’s birthplace is situated.  After visiting the Cottage, The Poet’s Path leads to the main Burns Birthplace Museum with the nearby attractions of Alloway Auld Kirk (Old Church, in Scots) and the bridge, famous from the Burns poem Tam o’ Shanter.

Stirling Castle

Hop on a train at Queen Street and take the short journey to Stirling town.  The walk to the castle is very pleasant and takes you through some lovely streets via the old town jail and Church of the Holy Rude.

Scotland has an abundance of gin distilleries but nearby Stirling Castle you Stirling Distillery where you can take a tour and taste of their gin. It’s the perfect souvenir to take home from Scotland.

Fast Facts

There is also the little-known option of air travel in Scotland, although it is rarely necessary. This is mostly useful for getting to the islands.  There are airports in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Prestwick, Barra, Benbecula, Campbeltown, Fair Isle, Islay, Orkney, Shetland, Stornoway, Tiree, and Wick.

There is also the little-known option of air travel in Scotland, although it is rarely necessary. This is mostly useful for getting to the islands.  There are airports in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Prestwick, Barra, Benbecula, Campbeltown, Fair Isle, Islay, Orkney, Shetland, Stornoway, Tiree, and Wick.

  • Aberdeen – 3 hours
  • Aviemore – 3 hours 30 minutes
  • Fort William – 4 hours 30 minutes
  • Perth – 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Inverness – 4 hours
  • Pitlochry – 2 hours 20 minutes
  • Stirling – 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Glasgow – 1 hour 20 minute

You can buy train tickets in advance, but currently there is no online ticket option at the gates of train stations, so you do need to leave enough time to print your tickets before your train.  This can be done at any ticket machine in the station or at the ticket desk.

Best Resources For Travelling Scotland Without A Car

Below are some of the best resources to use in order to organise your adventure:

  • Scotrail– this is Scotland’s rail network website.  Tickets and travel passes can be bought here, but tickets still need to be printed at the station.
  • Caledonian Sleeper – this is a luxury overnight train service travelling from London to Scotland. 
  • West Coast Railways – if you are looking to hop on the Jacobite Express then check out this resource.
  • Rabbies Coach Tours – this is a great small group coach tour, which can be used for regions where buses are less frequent
  • Citylink – one of the main coach travel companies
  • Megabus – the other main coach travel company
  • Lothian Buses – Local bus service in Edinburgh.  Get the free app and use the journey planner to figure out which buses to get.
  • Sustrans Cycle Network – this is the charity that maintains the vast cycle network in Scotland.  The cycle routes can be found here
  • UK Campsite – here you can find all of the campsites you can stay at as you travel.
  • Walk Highlands – amazing way to find walking routes anywhere in Scotland

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Kat
Hi, I'm Kat, an Australian that moved to London in 2013 to start a new adventure. What a roller-coaster that was! I love helping others move to the UK and people explore the world! I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.

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