I’d like you to close your eyes and think about Scotland. What do you see? Maybe Highland cows and bagpipers, men in kilts with nothing underneath, the medieval streets of Edinburgh, a steam train on a viaduct or a narrow road winding its way through the Highland mountains? If so, you only know half the picture, because Scotland has a completely different side to it. Lush green valleys where it hardly ever rains, golden sandy beaches that stretch for miles, Victoriana palaces surrounded by light green forests. On a recent road trip around the north east of Scotland I got to know this side and got to tick off a few places from my Scottish bucket list.

So, which places should you add to yours in order to discover this different side of Scotland? Here are a few ideas.

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Royal Deeside

The Royal Deeside has its name from the River Dee that cuts through the valley, flowing from the Cairngorms mountains towards the sea and Aberdeen. The name also derives from the fascination the British Royal Family has with the area. Queen Victoria fell in love with the Deeside valley in the 19th century, subsequently bought a huge estate of land and built Balmoral Castle. The British aristocracy has holidayed in the area ever since and the Royal Family still spends their summer holiday here year after year every August.

Balmoral Castle

The highlights of the Royal Deeside include said castle, Balmoral Castle & Estate, which can be visited from March to July, although you cannot actually go inside the castle. It is an ‘active’ residence of the Queen after all. The gardens however are absolutely stunning and well worth the entrance fee. With the self-guided audio tour through the gardens it took us about 2 hours to visit this place. The best time to visit is right after the castle opens at 10am, as most tourists will come in a bit later than that.

Beaches & Castles - A Different Side to Scotland

Ballater

Although we stayed in a hotel in Dinnet, 8 miles east of Ballater, we came through this town numerous times on our way in and out of the valley. Ballater is where Queen Victoria would have arrived back then by train, which makes the town the central starting point for most visitors up until today. Sadly, the train station was seriously damaged last year in a fire, so currently you can not visit it. There are however many other reasons to stop in Ballater. Lunch for example.

Aberdeenshire, which is the name of the Scottish county where the Royal Deeside is located, is famous for its amazing fresh produce and not trying some of the local veg would be a sin! Head to The Bothy on the main street of Ballater, or fill up a picnic basket at the local veg shop and the bakery around the corner. Make sure to grab some cakes too!

Muir of Dinnet

We decided for a picnic with cake in the nature and made our way to the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve a few miles outside of Ballater. There are several paths leading you on easy hikes through the light forest of the area, and the one we chose – Loch Kinord Trail – was a 4 miles circuit around the lake Loch Kinord. It took us about 2.5 hours as we stopped frequently to observe the local wildlife taking their newborn babies on a tour around the meadows (think fluffy geese and tiny rabbit babies) and of course to munch our cakes by the lake shore. If you want to go for an easy walk through  Scottish nature without having to climb a steep mountain, Muir of Dinnet is perfect for you! Head over here to read my full story from Muir of Dinnet.

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Along the East Coast

The east coast of Scotland is full of gorgeous lighthouses, golden sandy beaches and serene fisher towns. You could literally stop anywhere along the way and expect amazing vistas and delicious fish & chips munchies. These are some highlights listed north to south.

Banff & Macduff

Although we only spent an evening and a night in Banff, this little fishing town and its neighbouring sister town of Macduff definitely need to make this list. The towns are only separated by a beautiful stone bridge, but the beaches west of Banff really make this area so popular. We spent the sunset hours strolling along Banff harbour marvelling at the waves rolling in and the sun dipping everything in golden hues.

Fraserburgh

We stopped in the little town of Fraserburgh in the north-east of Aberdeenshire for one thing: the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. The museum is full of memorabilia from the times when lighthouses were operated by hand and men had to live in the most remote corners of the country in order to keep the ships of the sea safe. The museum tickets includes a guided tour up the historic Kinnaird Head Lighthouse just outside the museum and you get to climb all the way up in the tower where the huge lens is still located. The views from here over Fraserburgh and the sea are quite impressive.

Rattray Head Lighthouse

Hands down, my favourite place along the Scottish east coast was the lighthouse at Rattray Head – a little beach at the end of a bumpy gravel road. The lighthouse is theoretically a rock house (standing solitary like a rock in the sea), although it can be reached by tractor during low tide. We made sure to reach the beach during high tide though, so we’d see the waves crashing into the beach as they break by the lighthouse.

Beaches & Castles - A Different Side to Scotland

Dunnottar Castle

One of Scotland’s most peculiar castles is Dunnottar Castle just outside of Stonehaven, south of Aberdeen. It sits in a prime location out on a rock overlooking the sea and lies in ruins these days. The path leading to the castle alone is quite an adventure, up and down the cliffs, but even the insides of the castle are really interesting to explore.

Beaches & Castles - A Different Side to Scotland

St Andrews

Even if you do not love golf, St Andrews is a must stop along the Scottish east coast. The little seaside town has two great beaches, a ruined castle and a ruined cathedral, which one can only imagine how grand it was when it was still standing in the 12th century. It is incredible to think what people managed to build almost 800 years ago.

For the best ice cream head to Janetta’s in the centre of town, drink a pint and a dram of whisky at the Keys Bar or head to Anstruther just south of St Andrews for the best fish & chips in Scotland.

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With all this in mind, the east of Scotland really is at your finger tips. All you need to do is book a flight to Glasgow or Edinburgh, rent a car and set out for adventure. To see how this list works out in practice, check out my one-week itinerary for North East Scotland here.

Have you ever been to Scotland before and travelled around the east coast? I’d love to hear about your favourite places so I can add them to my bucket list!

 

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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.

Disclaimer: This trip was supported by VisitScotland .