Scotland is one of the world’s most sought-after locations. The northernmost country of the UK is known for its tales of Scottish kings and queens, patriotic sense of culture, and creative talents. And while rural regions like the Scottish Highlands have enticing, windswept views, cities in Scotland are some of the best places to embrace Scottish life – past and present. You’ll find museums, galleries, restaurants, hikes, and history galore.
The Very Best Towns and Cities in Scotland
This guide will cover the best cities in Scotland, with a few of the most unmissable towns sprinkled in for good measure. Scotland’s cities and towns are internationally renowned, which is incredible considering that some have such small populations. Excited? You should be. Let’s get started.
Edinburgh is the obvious starting place when planning to visit Scotland. The capital city of Scotland is the most famous of all the cities in the country. It is full of historic buildings and rich history. Edinburgh is a beautiful city with a photogenic city center. You’ll need to dedicate time just to walk the streets in Edinburgh Old Town – trust us, you’ll be desperate to maximize time on the cobbled streets with Edinburgh Castle above you.
When you aren’t in the Old Town or visiting Edinburgh Castle, there are plenty of other activities in Edinburgh. As the second largest city in Scotland, it has one of the best attraction scenes and a lively atmosphere, added to by Edinburgh University. We recommend hiking the short walk to Arthur’s Seat for sunrise or sunset, shopping on the Royal Mile, climbing the Scott Monument, and visiting the Sheep Heid (one of Scotland’s oldest pubs).
Edinburgh was always guaranteed a place on our list. The iconic capital city is not only one of the most beautiful cities in Scotland but also one of the most exciting for various attractions and things to do. Edinburgh is easily accessed by international visitors. It is also well-connected to London by train if you are traveling from England.
Read more of our Edinburgh guides
Aberdeen is the third most populous city (check out the official Aberdeen population here) and one of the best cities in Scotland. Aberdeen is known for being a port city located on the shores of the North Sea. The city is also renowned for producing local granite and has an industrial but cosmopolitan atmosphere. Its history of granite production has given the city centre a distinctive look, with eye-catching silvery-grey buildings that are stunning to admire while wandering around on foot.
The best things to do in Aberdeen include visiting Duthie Park, the Gordon Highlanders Museum, St Machar’s Cathedral, and Aberdeen Art Gallery. The city has a mixture of outdoor and indoor attractions, with plenty of museums and historical attractions. Overall, Aberdeen won a place in this guide for its sense of character and lingering industrial history.
Glasgow has a reputation for being Scotland’s ‘other city’, regularly coming second behind Edinburgh. However, over the past few decades, Glasgow has really come into its own, and it is now considered one of the best cities in Scotland. Glasgow is situated inland, just under Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, and perfect for country day trips. The city has a large number of museums. It is Scotland’s largest citiy, offering plenty of entertainment to sink your teeth into. Glasgow has great green space, too, with the River Clyde running through the city centre and parks like Glasgow Green, Richmond Park, and Pollok Country Park.
The best things to do in Glasgow are Glasgow Cathedral, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow Science Centre, George Square, and the People’s Palace. While if you want a more laidback experience, you can spend an hour or two hopping between the shops and great restaurants in the bustling city centre. Glasgow has a diverse and fast-paced atmosphere, landing it in our guide.
Perth is a riverside city situated along the banks of the River Tay. It is a beautiful city with a regal atmosphere and distinguished historical architecture. Perth is nicknamed the ‘Fair City’ of Scotland due to its close links to Scottish royalty throughout history. Before Edinburgh rose to stardom, Perth was Scotland’s capital city until around 1452. Many consider it Scotland’s ‘first city,’ home to many traditions and historical events. For instance, the Stone of Destiny was housed at Scone Abbey, and many monarchs were crowned there in the city’s younger years. For those interested in Scottish history and royalty, a visit to Perth should be on the cards.
The best things to do in Perth are to visit Elcho Castle, Branklyn Garden, Black Watch Museum, Fergusson Gallery, and Perth Museum and Art Gallery. Of course, to appreciate the city’s royal history to the fullest, a visit to Scone Palace is also a must. The palace has over 1,000 years of history and was the designated crowning place of Scottish kings. As you may have guessed, Perth’s close ties to Scottish royalty and royal history earned it a top position in our guide. It is a unique and fascinating small city to visit in Scotland.
Dundee is another city on the eastern coast of Scotland and a fantastic place to visit. Dundee is the fourth largest city in the country and well-known for its creative industries, being a UNESCO City of Design and hosting the only V&A museum, not in London. If you want a dynamic experience in a Scottish city with lots of art, design, and creative culture, Dundee is the one for you. Its creative culture makes it one of the most exciting cities in Scotland and has secured it a place in our guide.
So, what is there to do in Dundee? In short, a lot. You can visit the Discovery Point and RRS Discovery, Contemporary Arts Museum, Glamis Castle, Scotland’s Jute Museum, Dundee Science Centre, and Mcmanus Art Gallery & Museum. Prioritize a visit to Dundee’s art museums, which are fantastic places to spend a wet and windy day.
Stirling is one of the most historic cities in Scotland and a massively photogenic city break. Stirling is known for its political history – be that the crowning of Mary Queen of Scots or rebellions against the English. The city is laid out with Stirling Castle on an isolated crag above Stirling Old Town and the spire of the National Wallace Monument on Abbey Craig. Speaking of William Wallace, Stirling also overlooks the battleground of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where William defeated the English in 1297. Stirling is a legendary city – packed with stories of fights for Scottish independence and massively associated with the Scottish warrior hero William Wallace. The amount of emotionally engaging Scottish history in Stirling guaranteed it a spot in this guide.
The National Wallace Monument is Stirling’s most popular attraction and hosts numerous exhibits in memory of William Wallace. The most prized artifact is Wallace’s longsword, which is a massive 1.63 meters in length. Apart from the monument, the best things to do in Stirling include visiting Stirling Castle, the Holy Rude, Old Town Jail, and Robert the Bruce Statue. Spend at least two days in Stirling, as this city has a lot to unpack.
Inverness is another city central to Scottish history. The small city is one of the most northern Scottish cities and is just a short drive away from Loch Ness and Culloden Battlefield. These two attractions draw most people to Inverness, with Loch Ness rumored to be the home of a great sea monster and the Culloden Battlefield, the hallowed last standpoint of the Jacobite Uprising. A visit to Inverness is coming face to face with dark stories and tragic history. It is one of the best places in Scotland to learn about the history of the UK and early life in Scotland.
Apart from visiting Loch Ness and Culloden Battlefield, you could tour Urquhart Castle. This fairytale-like castle is located just an hour’s drive north of Inverness, making it a straightforward day trip. In the city, there’s also Inverness Castle, Inverness Cathedral, the Ness Islands, and the infamous Leakey’s Bookshop.
Read more about visiting Inverness
8. Fort William
Fort William is technically a town, but it is such a significant spot in the Highlands we had to include it. It is a gateway to Ben Nevis, Loch Linnhe, and Scotland’s major skiing scene. Hiking lovers will adore staying in Fort William as Ben Nevis is the highest peak in the UK – known all around the world. While in winter, skiers descend on the city to enjoy the slopes. Fort William is also easy to visit if you want to experience the Highlands without renting a car, as it is connected to Glasgow and Edinburgh by public transport.
Fort William is an exciting town in Scotland and one of the best places for outdoor adventures in the UK. Whether you want to go hiking, skiing, or fishing, it is a peaceful but adventurous holiday spot. And, when you aren’t keeping active, you can relax in the quaint streets with plenty of independent shops and cafes. There’s also the West Highland Museum and Ben Nevis Whiskey Distillery to explore.
Like Fort William, Kirkwall lacks the Scottish city status. However, this town has a lot to offer – starting with a unique location on the Orkney Islands, north of the Scottish mainland. Kirkwall is the largest town on the Orkney Islands and was originally a Norse settlement. Nowadays, it has a population of around 7,000 people and is a picturesque little port ‘capital’ of the archipelago. It is still full of Viking history and character, though.
Kirkwall’s striking location and interesting history bagged it a spot in our guide. However, it has some brilliant attractions as well. The best things to do in Kirkwall include visiting the St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney Museum, Highland Park Whisky Distillery, Ring of Brodgar, and Orkney Wireless Museum.
Kirkwall is a brilliant choice if you want a lesser-visited, unique destination in Scotland. Kirkwall is best reached by ferry, and regular ferry services depart off the north coastline – what better way to channel your inner Viking?
Portree has a similar vibe to Kirkwall, despite being easier to reach. Portree is the largest town (and unofficial capital) on the Isle of Skye. It is reached by crossing over a large bridge connecting the island to the mainland. It is considered the gateway to all Skye has to offer – including the magical Old Man of Storr hike – and is characterized by its famed row of colorful houses overlooking the harbor. For a cute, slow-paced introduction to Scottish island life, Portree is a straightforward and beautiful option. It is ideal for those who want to stay on the main tourist trails but get off the Scottish mainland.
The best things to do in Portree include visiting the iconic harbor, the Lump, and hiking the Scorrybreac Trail. Of course, you should take advantage of Portree’s location to explore the Isle of Skye, with attractions like the Fairy Pools, Kilt Rock, Mealt Falls, An Corran Beach, and Fairy Glenn within driving distance. Portree made our list as the best town to use as a base to experience the Isle of Skye.
Oban is a large town in Argyll and Bute. It is a resort hotspot, with its population ballooning each summer with the drastic influx of visiting tourists. Oban wears many caps; some refer to it as Scotland’s seafood capital, and others as the gateway to the Western Highlands or Hebridean Isles. Whatever you choose to associate Oban with, you’ll enjoy the port views and stunning ruins on Battery Hill above the town centre.
Things to do in Oban include visiting McCaig’s Tower and Battery Hill, going whisky tasting at Oban Distillery, relaxing on Ganavan Sands, and exploring Gylen Castle, Dunstaffnage Castle, and Dunollie Museum. Oban has lots of history and is highly walkable. It is beautiful and compact – perfect for those who want a Scottish town with which they can quickly become familiar. Oban is also ideal for taking day trips from nearby Scottish islands if you feel more adventurous. The most popular are Lismore, Mull, and Iona.
Read more about Oban
Ayr is a beautiful place to visit in Scotland and is known as a summer holiday-style destination, with long sandy beaches and that slightly cheesy seaside appeal. The town is walkable and full of fun. For those interested in poetry, Ayr also has a claim to fame through Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard. Robert was born in Ayr, and you can visit the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum during your stay.
Ayr is a ‘seaside town’ getaway. However, it isn’t just arcades and beaches – which is why it made it onto our list. Ayr has many attractions, such as Burns Cottage, Alloway Auld Kirk, Rozelle Estate, Belleisle Conservatory, and the Wallace Tower. It also has a strong sense of culture through its literature links to Robert Burns. For a lighthearted, fun beach getaway, Ayr has some good sightseeing to balance out the beach days.
13. St Andrews
St Andrews sits on Scotland’s east coast, just above Edinburgh. The town has many positive qualities. However, it is most known for its golf courses and incredible golfing tournaments. St Andrew’s most famed golf course is the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, which you can book to visit. St Andrews is also known for its university, so when you aren’t on a golf course, you can experience a sociable, youthful nightlife.
Further attractions in St Andrews include St Andrews Museum, St Andrews Castle, the Wardlaw Museum, and (not to stray too far from its golfing identity) the R&A World Golf Museum. You can also visit the Old Course, which houses an ancient 18-hole course founded in the 15th century.
Looking for more royal history and insight into early Scottish life? Dunfermline acted as another capital city of Scotland, covering the time period between Perth and Edinburgh. The town was favored in the reign of Malcolm III and was seen as a royal stronghold. Nowadays, you can still explore Dunfermline Abbey and Palace, albeit in ruins. It is a fantastic city to escape the crowds of Edinburgh yet still embrace royal history and notable architecture. This balance of a lesser-trodden destination with renowned attractions won Dunfermline a spot in our guide.
You can visit the Dunfermline Abbey and Palace, take a walk in Pittencrief Park, or stop by the Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries. On the city outskirts, Townhill Country Park is also stunning to walk around on a sunny day. Dunfermline is a much quieter city to experience compared to others on our list, and you can easily sightsee all of the city centres in a day or two.
Another destination just outside of Edinburgh, Falkirk is a town most famed for its colossal statue of kelpies and the Falkirk Wheel. The Kelpies are two massive horse heads depicting a Scottish mythological legend that drew men into water to drown. The 30-meter-high statues are made of steel and are fittingly set next to water features in true keeping with Scottish legends. Falkirk is highly associated with its relationship to water. It is right next to a series of canals, including the Union and Forth, and Clyde canals. The Falkirk Wheel famously connects these two with a rotating boat lift system.
Falkirk is a wonderful place to visit and experience more residential life in Scotland. The town is best experienced by the canal – who knows, you’ll be brave enough to tackle the Falkirk Wheel. You can stay a couple of nights in the town centre and then book a couple of nights on a canal holiday, exploring the surroundings independently by boat.
What are the 7 main cities in Scotland?
The main cities in Scotland are Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth, and Stirling. These cities are all important centres of population, culture, and industry in Scotland, and each has its own unique character and history.
What is Scotland’s biggest city?
Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland in terms of population. It has a population of approximately 600,000 people and is located on the River Clyde in the country’s west-central lowlands.
How many cities are in Scotland UK?
There are approximately 79 cities in Scotland. Some of the largest and most well-known cities in Scotland include Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Dundee.
Which city is more beautiful in Scotland?
It is difficult to determine which city in Scotland is the most beautiful, as beauty is subjective and different people may have different opinions. That being said, there are many cities in Scotland that are known for their natural beauty and historic charm. Some cities that are frequently cited as being particularly beautiful include Edinburgh, with its castle and historic Royal Mile; Inverness, located in the Scottish Highlands and known for its natural beauty; and St Andrews, a coastal city known for its beautiful beaches and historic university.
Scotland is a massively popular country in the UK, and after hearing more about its best cities, you now know why. Scotland’s cities and towns make up the many hearts of the country. A city break is a perfect way to immerse yourself in Scottish culture.
Have a wonderful trip to Scotland. And if you have extra time, why not combine a city break with the North Coast 500 road trip?
Plan Your Next Trip to Scotland With These Resources