It’s possible to visit a huge number of tourist attractions in any direction from Edinburgh when you have a car. Glasgow is just an hour away on the M8 and Stirling is an hour on the M9, while Perth is an hour on the M90 – all wonderful cities with heaps of things to see and do.
In this article, you’ll discover some of the best attractions to visit on day trips from Edinburgh including The Kelpies, Doune Castle, and Loch Lomond, all of which are easily driveable by car.
The Kelpies & Helix Park
Address: The Helix, Falkirk, FK2 7ZT
While most visitors driving towards Stirling might only point a surprised finger at the two enormous horse heads they briefly see as they zoom past Falkirk, I recommend taking a short detour to investigate what the enormous metal artworks are all about.
The enormous sculptures were actually installed to celebrate the story of the heavy horses that towed barges up and down Scotland’s canals in the 19th century, in the days when canals provided the main transport route for the coal barges that powered the nation’s industry.
Ever wary of the dangers of the water, many canal workers paid their respects to the kelpies (mythical Scottish water spirits), and so a mix of Clydesdale horse and kelpie seemed like the most appropriate symbol to commemorate this long-lost part of Scotland’s history.
In Scottish folklore, a kelpie can change into several different animals, but it’s the form of the powerful water horse that was most revered. Blessed with the strength and stamina of ten normal horses, a kelpie perfectly represents Scotland’s rich industrial heritage which is why the 30-metre horse-head sculptures were installed on this part of the Forth and Clyde canal in The Helix.
The Helix is the name given to the area around Falkirk that was transformed from a brownfield site into a thriving urban parkland in 2005 and there’s a variety of things to do on the 860 acres of land that it covers. Helix Park (the centre of the Helix) contains a huge performance arena where concerts are regularly held and a giant lagoon nearby offers nearly every watersport activity you can think of.
There are also around 17 miles of cycle paths in The Helix, so if you intend to get there by car it might be an idea to put your bikes on a cycle rack first. It’s worth taking the short drive from Edinburgh to get there, and best of all it’s completely free to visit.
Address: Castle Hill, Doune FK16 6EA
There surely can’t be a historical site in Scotland that has had such a recent surge in visitor numbers as Doune Castle in Perthshire.
It’s the author Diana Gabaldon who can be thanked for the explosion of interest in this historic attraction due to the televised bodice-ripping tales of time travel in 18th-century Scotland in Outlander. The story centres around Claire Randall, a WWII nurse who gets transported back in time to 1743 and becomes embroiled in the ill-fated Jacobite uprising alongside the Highland warrior James Fraser, and it’s at Doune Castle where much of the filming for the first season took place.
But there’s more to the castle than TV shows. Built in the 13th century, it was at one time the official residence of the Duke of Albany and was a showcase for his wealth and power. That’s something that can be seen as you make your way through the maze of rooms and corridors during a visit, with enormous spaces like the Great Hall giving you some idea of the importance that was given to entertaining guests back in those days.
Stepping outside into the huge walled courtyard not only makes you realize how well-fortified Doune Castle is but also how dangerous those medieval times must have been to have needed such massive walls in the first place. It certainly makes you thankful to be a modern-day visitor to Scotland where the most dangerous thing you’ll encounter is a swarm of midges on the west coast.
A morning or afternoon spent in Doune will leave you with enough time to venture into the nearby city of Stirling to explore Stirling Castle, a royal residence that was at one time even more important than Edinburgh Castle. Check out the Historic Environment Scotland website for further details.
Special offer! Click this affiliate link to purchase a Historic Environment Scotland Explorer Pass from Viator. Your 5-day or 14-day pass allows free entry to more than 77 castles, cathedrals, distilleries and more throughout Scotland.
Loch Lomond and Luss Village
Address: Balloch, Scotland, G83 8LQ
If you’re looking for respite from the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh, a short drive to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park will give you all the scenery and fresh country air you’re looking for.
This part of Scotland has been popular with tourists and locals alike for many years thanks to its wild glens, mighty Munro’s (a mountain over 3,000 feet high), scenic viewpoints and gentle lochs. In fact, if you’re looking for a real taste of rural Scotland there’s really no need to go anywhere else.
Loch Lomond is the largest inland stretch of water in Britain, and it runs north from the peaceful town of Balloch for over 24 miles into the Scottish Highlands.
Home to over 30 small islands, Loch Lomond has a huge array of activities for visitors to take part in whether it’s taking a boat out to its islands, canoeing across its waters or simply cycling around its shore-side tracks. And if you can brave the cold you might even be tempted to take part in the Great Scottish Swim which is held in Loch Lomond each year in August, an event where much braver souls than me splash their way across the loch in aid of charity.
While you’re visiting Loch Lomond it’s well worth taking a slight detour to head slightly north of Balloch to the pretty little village of Luss. This conservation village has been occupied since medieval times, although the quaint flower-covered cottages that line its streets today weren’t built until much later in the 18th and 19th centuries.
A walk around the quiet roads of this village allows you to catch a glimpse into how life might have been when the occupants of these dwellings were employed by the nearby slate quarries. If you want to see where those yesteryear miners worked you can follow the slate quarry path which will lead you through the old mills and stone works.
Address: Callander, FK17 8BD
The busy town of Callander is one of the few places in this itinerary where you’ll probably be rubbing shoulders with lots of fellow tourists whatever the weather and no matter the time of year. But its popularity is justified thanks to its scenery, and as it’s such a short drive from Edinburgh it simply has to be included.
A natural starting point for walkers heading out into the Trossachs National Park, Callander has developed into a tourist-friendly town with enough walking and cycle routes to keep the average family entertained for weeks on end, let alone anyone heading there for a day trip by car.
Popular natural attractions like Bracklin Falls and Ben Ledi are easily reached from the town centre and hikers are rewarded with gorgeous scenery thanks to the woodland, glens and rivers that can be found throughout the area.
Bracklin Falls, in particular, is well worth making the journey to Callander as the roaring waterfalls that thunder through the Keltie Burn are idyllic at any time of the year. Just make sure you’re wearing a decent pair of boots (Amazon link to my recommended brand) and have a raincoat in your backpack for the changeable Scottish weather.
This town offers yet another reason to get that cycle rack out of the garage and loaded onto the car because the route along the old railway line that once connected Oban to Loch Lubnaig is excellent for cycling along.
Following the River Leny, the track passes the Falls of Leny (an impressive waterfall near the village of Kilmahog), Ben Ledi (the highest mountain in the Trossachs) and the very peaceful Loch Lubnaig.
Address: Glencoe, Argyll, Scotland, PH49 4HX
Glencoe doesn’t need an introduction as it’s one of the most-visited locations in Scotland. That doesn’t mean, though, that you have to get stuck amongst swarms of excitable tourists because the area is so vast it’s easy to escape the crowds of tour coaches.
While the journey to Glencoe from Edinburgh makes for quite a long day, it’s a journey that’s well worth taking.
This historic part of Argyll was formed by an ice-age glacier that cut through the volcanic peaks that line either side of the glen for nearly 8 miles, and today, Glencoe’s combination of lochs, mountains and lightly wooded glens has made it one of the highest-rated attractions in Scotland.
There’s certainly enough jaw-dropping scenery at Glencoe to keep any selfie-loving tourist busy, but perhaps the best viewpoint is from the top of one of the Three Sisters, the three peaks that collectively make up the Bidean nam Bian mountain range.
Several routes will take you to the tops of the peaks but one of the most interesting paths begins at the visitor car park at Loch Achtriochtan. From there you can follow the two-and-a-half-mile track up into the mountainside as it passes waterfalls, rock faces and hidden plateaus.
It takes a bit of effort to get up there but believe me, if you want to be gobsmacked by one of the most incredible views you’ll ever see anywhere, then a hike up Bidean nam Bian is a must.
Address: Culross, Dunfermline KY12 8JH
If you’ve followed this guide through its earlier stages you’ll have already visited Doune Castle, the filming location for the Outlander TV series. If you’re in the mood for even more Outlander experiences you should take the short drive across the Forth Road Bridge from Edinburgh to the cobbled streets of Culross village.
Acknowledged as the most picturesque village in Scotland, stepping into Culross (pronounced coo-ross) is like stepping back in time.
The winding, narrow streets of this 17th-century seaport meander lazily through the village towards Culross Palace, an ochre-coloured building that has been the focal point for this hamlet since its construction in 1611. While it’s not exactly a ‘palace’ as you might think of one, it’s still an impressive building.
Pine-panelled walls and painted ceilings give you a glimpse into how it would have looked in its prime and the fully restored interior (courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland) is well worth a look, as is the 17th-century garden behind the main building.
The walk through the fruit trees and herb gardens is a great way to spend an hour or two before stopping for a well-earned coffee and cake at the nearby tearooms. Just remember to save some cake crumbs for the Scots Dumpy hens back in the palace gardens.
The Engine Shed, Stirling
Address: Forthside Way, Stirling FK8 1QZ
The Engine Shed near Stirling is one of those attractions that your average tourist would never visit, and yet it offers an experience that’s completely different from the other attractions in the area. Maybe using the word ‘attraction’ isn’t the best way to describe the Engine Shed. Informative entertainment perhaps? Whatever, it’s a great way to kill a couple of hours if you’re in the Stirling area.
Operated in conjunction with Historic Environment Scotland (the trust that preserves Scotland’s heritage), The Engine Shed features a diverse collection of exhibits that explain the stories behind the buildings that are as much a part of the country’s history as its people are.
Using interactive media including 3D theatre, electronic displays, hands-on activities and augmented reality, visitors can learn about the history of Scotland’s iconic buildings and the people who built them, used them, and lived in them.
It’s not just children who will enjoy getting hands-on with events like Lego construction and 3D printing because adults can get involved too, with demonstrations of traditional building techniques and metalwork regularly held inside the education centre.
If you want to learn a little bit more about Scotland’s history at a truly unique attraction, The Engine Shed in Stirling is the place to go.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much will it cost to fuel a hire car in Scotland?
The cost of fuel (as of 2023 according to the RAC website) is around £1.50 per litre of petrol and around £1.70 per litre of diesel.
That means filling up a family hatchback like a VW Golf will cost you anywhere from £60 to £75, which will give you around 500 miles of driving.
How long do car journeys take from Edinburgh?
Examples from Edinburgh: Aberdeen – 3 hours, Aviemore – 2 hours 40 minutes, Fort William – 3 hours 10 minutes, Inverness – 3 hours 10 minutes, Perth 1 hour, Pitlochry – 1 hour 40 minutes, Stirling – 1 hour.
Where are the nearest towns and cities to drive from Edinburgh?
St. Andrews. Distance from Edinburgh: 51 miles. Approx 1 1/2 hours to drive.
Dundee. Distance from Edinburgh: 64 miles. Approx 1 1/2 hours to drive.
Falkirk. Distance from Edinburgh: 26 miles. Approx 1 hour to drive.
Glasgow. Distance from Edinburgh: 48 miles. Approx 1 1/4 hours to drive.
Stirling. Distance from Edinburgh: 37 miles. Approx 1 hour to drive.
Dunfermline. Distance from Edinburgh: 18 miles. Approx 3/4 hour to drive.
What are the best passes to buy for train journeys from Edinburgh?
Spirit of Scotland Rover – Unlimited rail travel throughout Scotland for either four or eight days.
Scottish Grand Tour – Four days of unlimited rail travel for tourists.
Central Scotland Rover -Take unlimited rail journeys between Glasgow, Edinburgh, and the surrounding area.