If you're planning a vacation to Scotland, look no further. Here are the most essential things you need to know before you jet off on your trip.
As you might know from my social media accounts, I just returned from a marvelous tour of Scotland. This was my first major trip since starting this blog, and I'm thrilled to be able to share it here. I'm working hard to prepare a litany of posts covering my experiences with specific restaurants, hotels, and attractions, as well as overall travel advice for visiting Scotland. Stay tuned in the weeks to come for more! For now, here are some basics that you should familiarize yourself with before setting out.
Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, and as of this writing uses the pound. It's easy to withdraw money (often for a small fee) from an ATM at the airport. You'll also find currency exchange counters before you leave the arrivals area. It's good to have some cash on hand, but most restaurants and tourist sites do accept credit or debit cards.
Pro tip: In Scotland, as elsewhere in the UK, credit cards are swiped at restaurants with a portable machine that servers bring to your table. The way these machines are used varies. At times, you won't have the opportunity to leave a tip with your card, as the server will just enter your bill's total and give you a receipt to sign. Having a little cash is a good idea so you don't stiff the waitstaff!
Also, many urban areas and rest stops have paid parking lots. The rate is usually fairly low (I saw one pound for four hours in some places), but you'll be better off with coins on hand for this sort of situation.
If you're traveling to Scotland, you'll need to be prepared. The weather varies dramatically, in ways I'm not used to. We're talking five-minute torrential downpours followed by sun followed by an overcast afternoon. Bring a jacket, bring an umbrella, and bring a hat. Carry them with you wherever you go.
Pro tip: Because of the weather and Scotland's many lochs and coastlines, misty mountainscapes and rainbows are very common. The sky is nearly always striking. Bring a camera with you, and be ready to take photos every time you turn a corner.
If you're a picky eater, don't worry. Scotland is touristy enough that you can get a burger and fries (chips) in many restaurants. But Scottish food is a real treat (yes, even haggis!), so don't limit yourself. Scotland does wonderful things with vegetables, particularly in casseroles and soups. They also make a mean spread of toffee-related desserts. And of course, there's always whisky to wash it all down!
Pro tip: If you're traveling with others, coordinate your ordering to maximize the sorts of Scottish food you get to try! This is also great for the haggis, if you're feeling less adventurous but your travel partner is gung-ho. Try a bite of theirs!
If you'll be venturing outside of the major southern cities of Scotland (Edinburgh and Glasgow), you'll be better off with a car. Driving in Scotland is a bit of an adventure, particularly in the Highlands and Islands. Generally speaking, speed limits are 30 mph within city limits and 60 mph on highways. Oftentimes, these speed limits are understood rather than marked (though if you have a GPS, you'll be alerted to these changes). I am here to tell you that 60 mph feels awfully fast when it's raining, you're on a switchback road going up a mountain, there's virtually no shoulder, and running along the road is a stone wall thoughtfully disguised as a hedge.
Also be prepared for one-lane but not one-way roads, common in many areas. You'll still be dealing with the rain, high speeds, mountainous terrain, and no shoulder, but you'll also be able to fit only one car through at a time. This means you'll need to keep an eye on the horizon and pull off if you see someone coming. Every few hundred yards or so, the road should have a "passing place," with a slight bulge to the side where you can pull off and wait. Also, in Scotland, you drive on the left.
Pro tip: Be well-rested before hitting the road, and only drive as fast as you're comfortable. People can (and will) pass you, but your safety is most important!
If you're a native English speaker, you should have no trouble touring Scotland. English is widely spoken, and though many Scottish people have regional accents, I found communication to be no problem. Gaelic is also spoken in Scotland, though it seems less prevalent in public places than in Ireland.
Pro tip: When you're speaking with anyone from another place in your native language, allow yourself to carefully fall in to the cadence of their speech. I've found this is the best way to hear them "without" an accent. Stop trying to fit their words into the confines of how your ears want to hear them. Imagine lying back on a raft and just settling in to float on the water. Do the same with your ears--relax and settle in. You'll pick up the flow quicker than you might think.
6. People and culture.
I think my husband has it right when he describes Scotland as "England Light." Scotland has a lot in common with its southern neighbor, but it also has a national identity all its own which is hugely prevalent. In fact, Scottish traditions seem to me to be perhaps more noticeable than anywhere else I've ever traveled. Scottish people are kind, helpful, and genuine. They are proud of their unique heritage as well as their shared history as part of the UK. If you have the opportunity to engage in more than fleeting conversations as you go about your trip, I'd encourage you to do so. Scotland is a very warm place to visit, and that's 100% because of the people and not the weather.
Pro tip: Ask questions. The more questions you ask of the people you encounter, the greater your changes are of making a real connection. Don't just talk about yourself; learn their story. Your experience will be that much richer.
Stay tuned for more on Scotland in the weeks to come. I'll leave you with my final tip: visit Scotland. It's amazing. You won't regret it!