Your complete guide to the 10 best places to go in Scotland in January
Why travel to Scotland in January?
Like many people, you’re probably thinking that January has to be the worst possible month to visit Scotland. After a fun-filled four weeks of Christmas cheer in December you probably just want to spend the next four weeks of January in recovery at home, wrapped up in a blanket with the TV on.
And to be honest, I don’t blame you. Christmas is not only an expensive time of year but it’s also one of the unhealthiest, with people across the world happily gorging themselves on boxes of mince pies, bucket-loads of mulled wine, and more turkey-filled sandwiches than should be humanly possible. And not only is Christmas hard on the waistline but it’s also hard on the wallet, what with expensive presents to buy and parties to attend.
All this merry-making and extravagance is then compounded with December’s second major event happening just a week later – new years eve. The celebration of the beginning of a new year is bigger in Scotland than it is in most other countries and you’ve only got to look at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations to see the monumental efforts the Scots go to celebrate this annual event.
Each year around 75,000 people watches the concert in the gardens while another 100,000 watch the fireworks over Edinburgh castle and enjoy the party in Princes Street, in a celebration that’s often described as one of the biggest street events in the world.
While all this partying is great fun it eventually has to come to an end, and with it comes the realisation that you’ve just spent a small fortune and have nothing to show for it but a few blurred memories and a monumental hangover. It’s at this point that you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s no way you would want to come to Scotland in January, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret, just between us. *whispers* ‘January is actually one of the best months of the year to visit Scotland’.
‘So why’, you’re probably thinking, ‘should I leave my warm cosy house to traipse about Scotland in winter?’ Well stick with me and I’ll give you some reasons to leave your comfy slippers behind and pull your muddy walking boots on.
1. It’s a lot quieter
Before I tell you about the best places to go in Scotland in January I think it’s only fair I should explain my reasoning to visit us in this frequently cold and damp month. Top of my list of reasons is the fact that January is a heck of a lot quieter than most other months. Thanks to the fact that people are still recovering from a hectic December, January has far fewer tourists than at other times of the year.
Take Edinburgh Castle for instance – one of Scotland’s top tourist attractions – which attracts around 2 million visitors each year. Visit in any summer month and you might feel like the entire 2 million tourists are there with you, with some truly dreadful queues to fight through even before you get to the main entrance. But visiting in January is a much more pleasant affair and you’ll more than likely find yourself breezing straight to the ticket office without interruption.
Unfortunately, Scotland has become something of a victim of its own success with regards to visitor numbers and many people find the thought of fighting through crowds rather off-putting. But the simple solution is to visit outside of the main tourist season instead. You can find some great ideas for escaping from crowds of tourists in my guide to 7 Remote Places in Scotland that Avoid Crowds.
2. It’s often cheaper
This links in from the reason above – it’s quieter so most attraction owners look to entice tourists by lowering their prices. In fact, visiting Scotland in January can save you an absolute fortune compared to any other time of year thanks to restaurants and hotels also offering reduced prices to get as much custom as possible.
A quick look on Booking.com will show you that most hotels more than double their prices in August compared to January, so if you’ve got a luxury hotel in the city centre in mind but think you can’t afford it, change the dates to earlier in the year and you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised.
But it’s not just money saved inside Scotland that’ll put a smile on your face. Getting here is often cheaper in the winter months too. I’ve been booking off-season flights for years and frequently travel around Europe in winter for a fraction of what it would cost in the height of summer, and getting to and from Scotland is no exception. A quick check on Skyscanner.com confirms this, with an example flight from Paris to Edinburgh costing half what the airline would normally charge in Summer. Yet another reason to visit Scotland in January.
3. There are loads of events happening in winter
You might be thinking that most event organisers would be closing their doors during the cold winter months but nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that there are a huge amount of events being held in January, and no matter where you are I can pretty much guarantee you’ll find a great event being held somewhere nearby.
Take, for example, The Irn-Bru Carnival that’s held from late December to mid-January in Glasgow. Billed as Europe’s largest indoor funfair the event is held in Glasgow’s SECC (check out my guide to the Glasgow SECC for more information) and includes over 65 rides and attractions suited for all ages. If you come to visit us in any other month you’ll end up missing this fantastic day out.
Or how about Burn’s night, the traditional Scottish event that’s held every year on 25th January to celebrate the life of the nation’s most-loved poet and writer, Robert Burns? Burns was born on January 25th 1759 and is most famous for writing Auld Lang Syne, and his life is celebrated annually with the most Scottish-themed event you could possibly imagine.
Across the country you’ll find recitals of his poems, music from bagpipes, feasts of Haggis, and copious amounts of Scotch whisky being drunk, along with a lot of traditional Scottish dancing. Burns night is so good I’d even suggest you arrange your holiday so that at least one of the days falls on the 25th January. I’ll go into more detail about Burns Night later in the article.
What’s January’s weather like in Scotland?
Talking about the weather is a national pastime in Scotland, mainly because it’s so changeable no-one knows what it’s going to do from one day to the next.
Obviously you’re not going to get blazing sunshine every day, but despite what you might have heard Scotland has quite a temperate climate, even in winter. It’s true that January and February are the coldest months of the year but even so you’ll find average daytime temperatures frequently sit in the 5 to 7 degree centigrade range – much warmer than many other countries on the same latitude.
Generally, you can expect cool and crisp Scottish weather in January with the occasional downpour, and the majority of the days will be overcast. That’s not to say every day will be like that though and you’ll often find there’s a beautifully cloud-free sky overhead which really makes the wintry landscapes come alive.
Something to bear in mind is that you’re much more likely to get freezing conditions in the north of the country, and most Highland hilltops will have a blanket of snow at the higher altitudes from November to March. And on average, the west coast gets more rain than the east coast, so that might be something to consider before you plan your itinerary of places to go in Scotland in January.
With regards to snow, it really depends on which part of the country you’re visiting, but if you’re intending to get active on the white stuff you can be reasonably assured you’ll get a good amount of snow wherever you are if you head up north into the Highlands. My personal recommendation is to visit the Nevis range, and Ben Nevis in particular, which is situated close to the popular town of Fort William.
If you manage to get to this most famous of Scottish mountain regions do yourself a favour and book yourself a ride on the Nevis Range Mountain Gondola for some truly spectacular mountain views. Another recommendation from me is to head to the Cairngorm range to take a ride on the Cairngorm Mountain Funicular Railway which takes the prize for being the highest railway in Britain, with a track that rises nearly 500 metres towards the peak of Cairngorm mountain. Both attractions offer near-guaranteed snowfall for winter sports enthusiasts.
Although it’s impossible to always accurately predict the weather, Britain’s weather service is pretty damn good so if you check one of the online weather guides you’ll get a good idea of what you’ll be stepping into before you walk out the front door. I’ve included a handy weather page on this website which details the current weather in the main tourist hotspots and if you scroll a bit further down to the map you can select a more in-depth weather forecast from the Open Weather Map service. Check it out – it’s a useful tool that might help you avoid a soaking.
What should I wear?
Wherever you are in Scotland in January you’re going to want to wrap up warm, especially if you’re visiting us from a warmer climate. Even in the cities you can expect temperatures to frequently hit 0 degrees centigrade so you’ll want a good quality jacket and insulated boots, but prepare to take your thermals to a whole new level if you head out into the Highlands or any of Scotland’s mountains.
Freezing winds can blow in at the drop of a hat and temperatures rarely rise above sub-zero, so whatever you do check the weather forecast before you leave and dress appropriately. Wear multiple layers along with a jacket that offers good wind and rain protection and waterproof hiking boots, and make sure you’ve got a waterproof backpack with plenty of food and extra clothing just in case what you’re wearing gets a soaking. But most importantly, remember to pack an extra mobile phone charger so you can contact the rescue services if the worst should happen.
I really can’t stress this last point enough. The statistics of the number of hikers who set out in sunshine but get lost a few hours later in freezing snowdrifts is frightening, as these figures from the Scottish Mountain Rescue Service illustrate:
- In 2016 there were 436 recorded incidents that required the services of a mountain rescue team.
- There were a total of 733 call-outs to the mountain rescue service in 2016 which resulted in 627 people being assisted.
- Of these incidents 235 involved mountaineers and 214 involved hillwalkers.
- In the Cairngorms, you can expect snowfall for more than 100 days each year, while the average winter temperature on the Ben Nevis mountain range is as low as -0.3°c.
- Bad weather is a critical factor in winter weather incidents, especially in the western Highlands where around 3000mm of rain falls each year.
So without wanting to sound too much like a nagging mother I’ll now turn my attention to Scotland’s cities which are a fair bit milder than the country’s wilderness areas. In general you’ll get away with long trousers, boots, jumper and jacket if you’re going to stick to the urban areas, especially in the large cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow. The locals happily get by with fashionable clothes and a woolly hat and let’s be honest, it’s not like there aren’t any pubs and restaurants to hop into to warm yourself up.
One thing I would suggest though, is don’t wear clothes that you don’t want to get muddy. Scotland’s city streets get pretty dirty in winter, especially after a snowfall when it turns into that horrible grey slush, so if you step out into the town wearing a pair of bright white sneakers you’re going to find they’re in a pretty miserable condition by the end of the day. Take my advice and wear lightweight walking boots, even if you’re in the city centre.
Scotland’s public transport in January
Going hand-in-hand with winter weather is winter travel, because the latter is often determined by how bad the former is. Winter weather in Scotland is often mild in the lowlands but you can expect extreme conditions in the Highlands which inevitably leads to road closures, train cancellations, and flight delays.
Thankfully it’s not impossible to travel when an unexpected blizzard hits as Scotland’s infrastructure means roads and rail tracks get cleared quickly and there are enough airports that flights can get diverted easily (see my guide to the main airports in Scotland for a rundown on travelling by air).
I’d suggest taking a car if you want to explore the more remote areas of Scotland as you’ll be unaffected by the frequent winter delays associated with public transport, and you’ll also be able to stop and explore the beautiful landscapes at your own pace. And unlike many other European countries, our roads are well maintained and there are indicators on the roadside to show where it is under the thick white blanket covering it.
This is actually an important tip for visitors that aren’t used to driving in heavy snow – when you’re in remote, high-ground areas, take a look at either side of the road and you’ll see tall posts embedded in the ground every few metres. These indicate where the road is, so if you’re ever in a situation where you can’t see it anymore these posts will stop you driving into a ditch, or worse.
Another top tip is to check the road conditions and weather forecast before you set out on your journey. I always use the Traffic Scotland website as they have the most up-to-date live traffic information and road closure alerts.
What’s the best way to travel around Scotland in January?
It depends on what you want to do. If you’re up for exploring the wilderness then your best bet is a car as Scotland’s public transport network simply doesn’t reach the more unpopulated areas. But if you’re intending to stay in one of the cities then you’ll want to ditch the car and use trains, trams, and buses instead.
On the whole, Scottish public transport networks are well maintained, (usually) punctual, and reasonably priced, and Edinburgh and Glasgow have transport systems that rival any city in the world.
If you visit Glasgow in January you can quickly find the major tourist hotspots with the excellent Glasgow subway (detailed in my Glasgow travel information page) along with the frequent First Bus buses. Edinburgh is equally well catered for with the Lothian Buses bus and tram network. You can find out more about transport in Edinburgh with my Edinburgh travel information page.
Travel to the west coast islands is a little more difficult because you’re at the mercy of the Inner Hebridean seas and the Atlantic Ocean, although inner seas like The Minch are relatively well protected by the surrounding islands. The main transport hub for CalMac Ferries is from Oban, and you’ll find more information about the travel options available in my Oban travel information page.
City or countryside?
While it’s possible to visit both the Scottish wilds and cities in Summer you might find the weather throws a spanner in the works in winter. It’s not uncommon for tourists to arrive in a certain part of Scotland only to discover that the next phase of their holiday at the opposite end of the country has to be cancelled due to bad weather, so what’s the best way to approach a Scottish vacation in January?
The decision you make about whether you’ll be visiting Scotland’s cities or countryside during January will ultimately depend on what type of holiday you’re looking for.
Do you want to hit the slopes at the Cairngorm, Nevis, or Glencoe mountain ranges, or would you rather explore the history of Edinburgh and Glasgow? Do you fancy getting out and about in Scotland’s wintry landscapes or would you prefer to cosy up next to a pub fireplace with a good single malt in hand?
As someone who’s explored this country from the Northumbrian border in the far south to Shetland in the far north, my advice would be to choose one area of Scotland and stick to it. That way it won’t matter if the transport links to the rest of the country get cancelled, and besides, pick the right area and you won’t want to go anywhere else anyway.
The pros and cons of visiting Scotland’s cities in January
If you’re intending to visit Scotland to appreciate its culture and history then I’d suggest you stick to Edinburgh and Glasgow for the duration of your stay. Both cities have a huge amount of attractions to visit and both can be reached from each other by train or car in only an hour, and you could easily spend a week in either city and barely scratch the surface of what they have to offer.
Another bonus of taking a city break is that the weather needn’t even be a consideration in your travel plans as everything will be on your doorstep. Want a world-class restaurant? Try The Gannet in Glasgow or Timberyard in Edinburgh. Passionate about history? How about Glasgow Cathedral or Edinburgh Castle (more on those later)? Or maybe you’d prefer visiting a family attraction like Edinburgh Zoo and Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum. All these attractions are within easy distance if you decide to stay in our urban areas instead of venturing out into the wilds.
The downside, of course, is that you’ll miss out on the spectacular views that are around every corner of the country’s landscapes, and while the countryside has a certain kind of splendour in winter the cities can look a little miserable, especially long after a snowfall when the ground into a murky grey slush. Still, who cares about that when you’re nice and warm indoors?
The pros and cons of visiting Scotland’s countryside in January
One of the highlights of the tourism calendar is carving up the stunning mountainsides on a snowboard or pair of ski’s, and there are so many different slopes available you’ll be able to have fun whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned expert. If you fancy a challenge why not head to Glencoe Mountain for the hair-raising Flypaper, officially Scotland’s steepest ski slope? Or if you’re a novice you can learn the basics at the Glencoe Snow sports School before hitting the slopes for real.
Either way, the views you’ll get will stay in your memory for a lifetime and are often a deciding factor for choosing the country over the city, but what else is there to tempt you away from the urban areas?
Well, after snow sports the biggest outdoor activity in Scotland is hiking and there are so many trails to choose from that you might feel a little overwhelmed, but a few of my favourites will hopefully put you on the right path (no pun intended…).
The Loch Morlich circuit loops around one of the most beautiful lochs in Scotland which is also framed by the glorious Cairngorm mountain range and the Glenmore Forest. A winter walk here is the perfect way to relax after an exhausting run on the slopes and the loch beach makes a nice change from mile after mile of snow. Check out my guide to Loch Morlich for more information.
If you’re visiting the western isles and would like to see what many people regard as the most beautiful landscape in the world, I recommend you take a trip to The Quiraing on the Isle of Skye. This ethereal landscape was formed by a series of ancient landslides many thousands of years ago and offers views across the surrounding islands that are nothing short of breathtaking. I could use more superlatives to describe it but check out my Quiraing guide for more information instead.
The main negative to getting out and about in Scotland’s wintry wilds is that it’s inherently dangerous, especially when the temperature can suddenly drop to a f-f-f-freezing 0 degrees centigrade. Read up about the place you’re intending to go to before you leave and check the weather forecast before setting foot outside. Your best bet against having your holiday ruined by a weather-related accident is to heed the advice of others.
Winter walking advice
If you do decide to head out into the wilds you need to be aware that while Scotland’s landscapes are beautiful they can also be deadly if you don’t take the right precautions, so take note of the following list of need-to-knows before you head out.
- Wrap up warm with several layers of clothing, and wear a sweat absorbing base layer along with a rain and windproof top layer. You’ll lose a lot of heat from your head so always make sure you’ve got a woolly hat to hand, and wear gloves and thick socks to keep your extremities toasty.
- I can’t overstate how important good quality boots are in Scotland. Get a pair that has good grips and are waterproof, and make sure they have excellent ankle protection. If you’re going to extreme areas make sure they’re compatible with crampons.
- Pack high-energy food and drink to replenish the energy you’ll be burning off in the cold. With regards to water, bear in mind that you should take 2 litres per person, per day, and each litre weighs 1kg.
- Take walking poles. Not only will they help you balance on slippery surfaces but they’ll allow you to poke the ground in front of you so you don’t end up falling into a snow-covered hole.
- Take a map and compass – and learn how to use them. After a snowfall the landscape can change dramatically and it’s easy to lose your bearings. A map and compass will guide you back to safety.
- Become familiar with your route before you leave and stick to it. One of the main reasons why winter hikers get lost is because they suddenly decide to take a different path and then find themselves unable to get back onto their pre-planned track. The website Walkhighlands is a fantastic resource for walking routes in Scotland.
A list of the best places to go in Scotland in January
So now you’ve decided what kind of experience you want from your Scottish vacation and have taken the time to learn what you need to do to make the most of your visit, you’ll probably be wanting to know what are the top places and events to go to. Well luckily for you I’ve included some of my all-time favourites in the following list, all of which offer fun, adventure, and excitement by the bucketload.
I know how difficult it can seem when trying to choose somewhere to visit when you’re unfamiliar with the area so I sincerely hope the suggestions below will offer some ideas you’ll find useful, and maybe they’ll even form the basis of your entire Scotland vacation. So let’s get into my list of the top 10 places to visit in Scotland in January. Good luck, and happy exploring.
Places to go in the city
Burns Night – Throughout Scotland
Burns Night is an annual event that’s been held in Scotland since in 1801. The tradition began on the 21st July of that year by friends of the Scottish national poet Robert Burns who came together to remember him five years after his death, but the following year they changed the date to coincide with his birthday on the 25th January.
Since that time Burns Night has grown in a semi-formal event where bagpipes are played, a haggis is piped into the room (and then eaten), and some of the bard’s poems are read aloud before guests finish the evening with various toasts, a recital of Auld Lang Syne and a ceilidh (traditional Scottish dancing). The ceremonies range from small informal gatherings to large dining experiences but all involve haggis, whisky, and of course readings of works by the great man himself.
Haggis, as you may or may not know, is the Scottish national meal that contains sheep’s heart, liver and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal, suet and spices, all wrapped up in the lining of a sheep’s stomach. If you’ve not been previously acquainted with this dish then you’re probably thinking it sounds absolutely disgusting, and I suppose it does, but let me assure you that it tastes absolutely delicious.
During the Burns Night event, haggis is traditionally eaten with mashed potatoes (tatties) and mashed swede (neeps), and is followed by traditional Scottish desserts such as cranachan and washed down with a few drams of single malt whisky. If you want to know more about traditional Scottish food read my guide to 10 traditional Scottish foods you HAVE to try.
There are Burns Night celebrations held right throughout Scotland, many of which are overly formal affairs, but I prefer the relaxed atmosphere of the event held at the Ghillie Dhu in Edinburgh city centre. The celebration mixes just the right amount of pomp and fun and includes a fab ceilidh afterwards.
If you’re in Alloway, Ayr, then there’s possibly no better place to enjoy the celebration of the life of the bard than the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum which holds their annual Haggis Hooley in the last two weeks of January. This is a really good informal event that centres around traditional music played by local musicians and it’s the perfect way to soak up some Scottish culture while you’re visiting the town.
You can learn a whole lot more about Burns Night in my guide about how to Celebrate Burns Night in Scotland.
Edinburgh Castle – Edinburgh
The world-famous Edinburgh Castle doesn’t really need an introduction as pretty much every visitor to Scotland’s capital city will have researched it at least a little bit before leaving home, which is perfectly understandable as it’s arguably Scotland’s most-hyped tourist attraction.
Incredibly, archaeologists have established that people have been using the site as a fortified base for nearly 2000 years and it’s been used by royalty for nearly 1000 years, so this is one attraction that’s definitely worth visiting if you’ve got an interest in history. You can read more about the history of Edinburgh and its castle with my guide to the history of Edinburgh.
The castle dominates the city skyline where it sits perched at the very top of Castle Rock at the upper end of the Royal Mile, with the equally spectacular Holyrood Palace sitting at the bottom. The castle encapsulates everything that’s great about the best Scottish attractions. It’s massive, beautiful, ancient, fascinating, is sited in a fantastic location and has more things to see and do than you might imagine.
The attraction regularly attracts more visitors than any other in Scotland so in summer the queues can be a bit of a nightmare, but if you visit it in January you’ll likely find that there aren’t any queues at all. While a lot of the castle can be explored from the outside there are enough rooms inside that you don’t need to brave the winter weather at all, and in fact you could easily spend the majority of the day walking around the museums and historical displays on show.
There are interesting exhibitions to walk through, loads of interesting artefacts to look at, some really good museums to wander around, and more shops and cafes than you’ll likely be able to fit into one day. Basically, Edinburgh Castle rightly deserves its position as the nation’s number-one tourist attraction.
You can find out more about this attraction with my guide to Edinburgh Castle.
Glasgow Cathedral – Glasgow
Glasgow boasts the most complete medieval cathedral on the Scottish mainland with a building that features stunning stained glass windows and incredibly well-preserved ancient chapels. This cathedral (also called St. Kentigern’s or St. Mungo’s Cathedral) is, in my opinion, one of the top places to go in Scotland in January.
The cathedral was built in the 12th century and is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Scotland, which means it attracts hundreds of camera-wielding tourists every day. Luckily for you though, visitor numbers decrease substantially in January and I much prefer visiting the cathedral when the winter light is bathing it in a sombre hue and it’s nice and quiet. It’s certainly an atmospheric place to be.
The cathedral is thought to have been built on the site of St. Kentigern’s tomb and many Scots believe that this location is the birthplace of the Glasgow city that we know today.
There’s a lot to admire about this building, especially the ornate stone carvings on the inside which are remarkably well-preserved considering they were made nearly a thousand years ago. And even if you’re not a religious type you can’t help but feel a little bit awe-struck by one of the finest collections of stained glass windows in Britain, which are worth the price of admission alone in my opinion.
You can also explore the spooky crypt that was built to house the tomb of St. Kentigern, the Blackadder aisle ceiling with its brightly painted carved stone bosses, and some seriously ugly stone gargoyles looking out from under the rooftop.
Glasgow Cathedral is close to the centre of the city so it’s easy to get to either on foot or by using public transport, and because it’s so close to The Necropolis (an enormous Victorian cemetery) you can see some of the most interesting bits of the city’s history without having to walk very far.
I’d even go so far as to say that these two historical attractions are the most beautiful parts of Glasgow, so if you visit them do yourself a favour and make sure you’ve got your camera with you.
There are frequent guided tours held by local volunteers that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the cathedral but if you want to wander around it at your own place you’re completely free to do so. The only thing to remember is that church services are held on Sunday so it might not be possible to visit while they’re happening.
Holyrood Palace – Edinburgh
The palace of Holyrood House (as it’s officially known), is the main residence of the British monarchy in Scotland and is arguably the grandest building in Edinburgh.
The palace is located at the bottom of the Royal Mile in the centre of Edinburgh’s Old Town and can be easily walked to after a visit to the castle at the top, but it also has two other attractions right on its doorstep. Directly across the road sits the architectural wonder of the Scottish Parliament which has free-to-enter self-guided and guided tours, while the enormous bulk of an extinct volcano can be seen in Holyrood Park which lies just a few hundred yards to the south.
Holyrood Palace has a long history dating back to the 12th-century and it’s still used to host state occasions to this day, but there’s an annual garden party held in summer which invites specially chosen locals to attend. Queen Elizabeth II spends one week at the palace at the beginning of each summer, and many tourists wait excitedly for the royal flag to be raised which indicates she’s in residence.
The palace has loads of sights for visitors to enjoy, including the official state apartments of Mary Queen of Scots, the Throne Room and the Great Gallery, as well as the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and the beautiful palace gardens. And on top of all this is an excellent cafe, one of the highest-quality shops of any attraction in Scotland, and an exhibition of master paintings in the Queen’s Gallery.
While the majority of your visit will be inside there are a couple of outside areas where you can brave the cold weather if you want. First off is Holyrood Abbey, which although partly in ruin offers a good glimpse into the grandeur that medieval royalty would have enjoyed for their religious ceremonies. And second are the perfectly manicured palace gardens which are well worth a look even in winter (although please note they’re only open on the weekends in January).
My favourite part of a visit to Holyrood Palace has to be the Queen’s Gallery which features an ever-changing collection of paintings, furniture and photos from the royal collection, and there are frequent exhibitions which include priceless works of art. After a visit to the gallery you can sit back and relax in the palace cafe which offers top quality food (as you’d expect) and one of the best cups of coffee I’ve ever had in the city. The only downside is it’s a bit pricier than many other cafe’s in Edinburgh, but then I suppose it’s a bit more special too.
You can find out more about this attraction by reading my guide to Holyrood Palace.
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum – Glasgow
One of the things I love most about Glasgow’s tourist attractions is that the very best ones are completely free, and Kelvingrove, located right in the city’s heart, is no exception. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (to give it its full name) is the focal point of the beautiful Kelvingrove Park, the 84-acre green area that was created in 1852 as a place of recreation for the city residents.
This stunning building has been entrancing Glasgow’s visitors for over 118 years since it initially opened in 1901, and from the very first moment that people step onto the marble floor of the central hall they’re captivated by the diversity of the exhibits on display.
Inside the museum you’ll find over 9000 artefacts and paintings which depict every aspect of human knowledge, from wildlife, art and literature, to Glasgow’s industrial past. Designed to be informative as well as entertaining, Kelvingrove has gained a reputation for being one of the best places in Glasgow for family days out.
The constantly changing exhibitions of the museum and art gallery are displayed across multiple different sections and visitors can delight in displays that cover themes from modern art, animals, ancient Egypt, Scottish heritage, and everything in-between.
There are so many things to see and interact with at this attraction that visitors could easily spend the majority of the day there, which is why it gets so incredibly busy in summer, especially when the parkland attracts so many visitors too. Don’t worry though because January is much quieter, although it’s still very popular with locals at the weekend.
Top tip – If you’re after food once you’ve visited Kelvingrove but don’t know where to go, check out Mother India’s Cafe which is an Indian themed tapas restaurant just 2 minutes walk from the museum entrance. Yum!
Places to go in the countryside
The Nevis Mountain Range Experience – The Highlands
The Nevis Range Mountain Experience Centre located at the foot of Aonach Mor mountain is widely regarded as Scotland’s premier adventure destination, a claim that you’ll likely find yourself agreeing with once you visit the centre for yourself. For winter sports enthusiasts it’s also one of the premier places to go in Scotland in January
While many people will associate Ben Nevis with winter skiing and snowboarding there are loads of other activities you can get involved with at any time of the year, although visiting this majestic mountain when it’s been covered with a fresh snowfall has to be at the top of most Scotland tourists ‘must-do’ list.
Ben Nevis is part of the Grampian mountain range in the Scottish Highlands and you’ll find it near the town of Fort William, itself a major tourist destination as it’s the starting point for most wilderness excursions in this part of the country. Over 125,000 walkers come to Ben Nevis each year to follow the mountain track up to the summit, but it’s not just hiking that draws tourists to the mountain thanks to the Nevis Mountain Range Experience Centre. But what can you actually do there?
Well firstly, the centre offers a starting point for some of the best downhill mountain bike trails in the country, whether you’re a mountain bike beginner or an advanced rider, and there are enough specially graded routes down Aonach Mor that you’ll find a challenge whatever your skill level.
Secondly, the Nevis Range Experience Centre runs a really good tree adventure aerial obstacle course at the edge of the nearby Leanachan forest, where kids and adults can brave tree swings, balance ropes and zip wires from heights of just 1.5 metres above the ground all the way up to a dizzying 10 metres.
And thirdly, the centre is home to the only mountain gondola ride in the UK, a ride that sees visitors whisked up the side of Britain’s 8th highest mountain towards incredible views at the top station, 650 metres above the departure point. The gondola ride was originally installed as a way to transport winter skiers up the mountainside but it’s now used equally as much by keen hikers as a way to get to the top of Aonach Mor for a hike.
My favourite part about visiting Ben Nevis though – even better than the gondola ride in my opinion – is the Snowgoose restaurant at the gondola top station which serves locally sourced food and drink from across the country with the most stunning balcony viewpoint I’ve ever enjoyed a coffee from. It’s a great place to relax after an adrenaline rush and it’s a unique experience you won’t forget in a hurry.
You can find out more about this attraction with my guide to the Nevis Range Mountain Experience Gondola.
Cairngorm Mountain Range – The Highlands
The Cairngorms National Park is part of the Grampian Mountains, the Highlands range that occupies nearly half of the country’s land area. The area is famous for being one of Scotland’s premier snowsports destinations and there are lots of activities for visitors to enjoy, like the Cairngorm Mountain Funicular Railway, which is the highest railway track in Britain.
A journey in one of these carriages will take you up to an incredible 462 metres over the length of its 1970 metre track, and along the way you’ll get a unique view of this beautiful mountain range.
Because it’s so popular with adventure-sports enthusiasts the region gets very busy at all times of the year, with around 120,000 visitors coming to enjoy the mountains each winter. However, numbers do drop somewhat in the first couple of weeks in January so it’s a great time to experience the best of Scotland’s snow sports without being plagued with non-stop crowds of people.
Once you get to the peak of the northern slope of Cairngorm Mountain you can stop to take in the scenery that stretches for miles around in all directions, with Loch Morlich clearly visible below and the mountain ranges of the Cairngorm National Park stretching out into the distance.
Cairngorm has some remarkable walks to enjoy although the conditions can be difficult, so you’d be well advised to take part in one of the professionally guided excursions that are hosted by the mountaineers at the Top Station. The Top Station also has an excellent cafe and restaurant that can serve up high-quality food after an energetic session of sightseeing.
The restaurant is particularly noteworthy as it has a viewing terrace that provides amazing panoramic views as you sit over 1200 metres above sea level, and in winter the mountain is truly spectacular with many visitors finding it exciting to stand on the terrace and experience the 50-60mph winds!
There’s also a gift shop and a mountain gear outfitter if you fancy taking home a memento, and if you have a postcard you can even mail it from Britain’s highest post box.
Glencoe Mountain – The Highlands
Glencoe Mountain is popular with tourists at all times of the year thanks to the fantastic walks on offer across nearby Rannoch Moor, but it’s the winter activities that draw in thousands of visitors year after year, all looking to make the most of the extreme sports available at one of Scotland’s top winter destinations.
While you probably won’t be making much use of the camping facilities in January you can at least get involved with the other attractions on offer, with hill walking, skiing, snowboarding, and sledging available for all skill levels thanks to the mixture of gentle plateau’s and downhill runs that Glencoe Mountain has become famous for.
You may not know this but this mountain has some of the steepest and longest runs in the whole of Scotland, but thankfully there are 8 chairlifts to take snowsports enthusiasts back to the top after each downhill race.
The resort at Glencoe is the oldest ski centre in Scotland, having been established in 1956, and it’s developed a reputation for being the country’s best destination for experienced skiers. As I’ve already mentioned, Glencoe Mountain is home to ‘The Flypaper’ which is officially the UK’s steepest run, but in recent years it’s become equally popular for the free sledging area that allows anyone of any skill level to enjoy the snow.
The facilities on offer here are pretty good, although it isn’t quite as big as the centre at Cairngorm. But even so there are 2 on-site cafe’s (one with a bar), and micro lodges if you fancy staying overnight. The views looking out across Buchaille Etive Mor and Rannoch Moor have to be some of the best views in the world to wake up to on a crisp January morning, and make a visit to this mountain range a necessity for winter tourists.
Not far from Glencoe Mountain (around 10 miles and a 20 minute drive) lies another mountain peak that draws in thousands of visitors each winter – Bidean Nam Bian. This mountain region is well-known amongst Munro (a mountain over 3000 feet) walkers for the fantastic views it offers from the ‘Three Sisters of Glen Coe’, the three steep ridges on the north face that extend into the Glen. The huge mountain rises to 1150 metres at its highest point and has several ascent routes of varying difficulty, and while even the easiest is a bit of a scramble the views from the top are well worth making the effort.
Whatever you decide to do in this beautiful part of Scotland I can guarantee you’ll love every minute of it, whatever the weather.
You can discover more about Glencoe at The Glencoe Exhibition Centre.
The John Muir Way – West to East Coast
What can be better for blowing away December’s excesses than a bracing walk across some of the most scenic countryside in the most beautiful country in the world?* Well, how about the coast to coast route of the John Muir Way which stretches 134 miles across Scotland’s heartland, from the coastal village of Helensburgh in the west to the town of Dunbar in the East.
If you’re Scottish or American you’ve probably already heard of John Muir, but if you haven’t I’ll tell you a bit about his background.
Born in Scotland in 1838, John Muir grew up in the pretty coastal area around Dunbar in East Lothian, and during his childhood he developed a passion for wild places thanks to the wonderful coastline that borders the county. He eventually emigrated to the United States where his love of nature blossomed (again, no pun intended…) and he began a life-long quest to protect America’s wilderness.
Muir became famous not only for being a writer of distinction, but also a conservationist, botanist, mountaineer and explorer, and it was thanks to his work promoting the preservation of the natural world that the very first national park system was created, with possibly the most famous being Yosemite Valley in California.
The walk that was designed in his honour allows everyone to experience some of the best places to go in Scotland in January either on foot or on a bicycle, with the trail passing through countryside, coastal towns, villages and cities. Although the entire route takes around 10 days on foot or 5 days on a bike you can break it down into much smaller sections that can easily be completed in a day.
Before you start, make sure you take a look at the official John Muir Way website which breaks the route down into 10 distinct sections with each section described in detail along with an accompanying map.
One of the things I really love about walking the John Muir Way is that the countryside it passes through is so nice that it’s worth doing in any weather and at any time of the year, but if you’re worried about getting lost in the countryside you could always stick to the section that passes right through Edinburgh city.
This stretch offers superb views across the Firth of Forth and the coastline at Cramond before heading inland to take in some of the sights of the capital, and it allows visitors to see parts of the city that are well off the normal tourist trails. And best of all, it’s easy to take a diversion into the city centre if Scotland’s changeable winter weather suddenly closes in.
If you decide you’d like to experience more of the John Muir Way then you might like to think about walking the final stretch of the route from North Berwick to Dunbar which passes close to the John Muir Country Park. This nature reserve is well-loved for the number of plant species that live on the site and to date over 400 different varieties have been recorded growing there. It’s also a prime site for birdwatchers thanks to the different habitats in the area, and across sand dunes, salt marsh, beach and woodland you’ll see an enormous variety of native bird species.
*To prove I’m not just making this stuff up check out the Rough Guide readers poll of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Cardrona Forest – The Borders
Scotland is a fantastic place to explore and it’s always worth leaving behind the usual tourist trails and getting out to see the places that the locals know about but visitors often miss. Sitting firmly in this category is Cardrona, a large forest close to the Borders town of Peebles that offers tranquil walks through the Tweed Valley forest park.
Although Cardrona is less than 2 hours away from the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh it has to be one of the most peaceful places in the country, although if you want to get active you’ll also find some really good mountain biking and horse riding trails cutting through the forest, but even so, for a bit of peace and quiet within easy distance of the capital, Cardrona forest is hard to beat.
There are three excellent trails running through the forest. There’s the Burn Trail which offers an easy walk along the Kirk Burn (river), The Kirkburn Trail which has some great views of the surrounding Tweed Valley, and Wallace’s Trail which runs past Cardrona Tower. All walks come highly recommended and I guarantee they’ll make you fall in love with the Scottish Borders, especially if it’s a sunny winter day.
The entire Tweed Valley forest park is a nature lover’s paradise with a wealth of bird life flitting through the trees and shy red squirrels jumping between the branches. As you may know, red squirrels have had their numbers decimated in recent years due to the invasion of larger grey’s, but thankfully there are a few places in Scotland where their populations are strong, with Cardrona and the surrounding forests being home to a large number of them. In fact, over 75% of the UK’s red squirrel population lives in Scotland, so if you want to see them Tweed Valley is a really good place to look.
An interesting feature of the forest is the 16th-century Cardrona Tower situated in a clearing which although in ruin is home to a colony of bats. These protected animals obviously love the tower as there’s quite a few of them living there so if you don’t mind staying in the forest after dark you can watch them on the hunt for food as soon as dusk settles.
There’s one final top tip I’ve got for you if you visit Cardrona Forest. Follow the signs to Castle Knowe which is the site of an Iron Age fort nearly 2000 years old (see map below). While it’s really just a ruined wall in a clearing it’s quite a thing to suddenly find yourself stumbling across it during your walk.
Well, that’s the end of this article about the best places to go in Scotland in January and I hope you’ve at least got some ideas about where to begin your Scottish adventure if you come to visit us in winter. I think it’s obvious that there’s such a huge amount of things to do and places to visit in this country that it doesn’t matter what time of year you come here, and in fact coming here when everyone else has barricaded themselves indoors is actually one of the best times to visit.
I’ll always be updating my articles with new information and recommendations and I’ll be regularly publishing new content over the coming months, so check the website often for more ideas about how to make the most of your time in Scotland.
Thanks for reading, and as always, happy exploring!