A visit to Scotland isn’t complete without enjoying a little bit of nature. So even though our home base was Edinburgh, we took a day trip to see some of the rolling hills and lochs that the country has to offer. Here is everything you need to know about taking a day trip from Edinburgh to Loch Lomond and Stirling Castle.
Visiting Loch Lomond (and why it’s better than Loch Ness)
Obviously the most famous lake in the country is Loch Ness, which is better known for housing a fake monster than it is for its actual beauty. Though it’s up in the Highlands, among more mountainous terrain, it’s a 3.5 hour drive from Edinburgh. If you only have a day trip to spare, that’s a whole lot of time on a bus for only a little while at Loch Ness.
With more time, the best thing to do is overnight somewhere in the Highlands to eliminate the suckiness of traveling such a long distance round trip in one day. Many tours originating in Edinburgh offer two or three night itineraries, so you can have stress-free transport and accommodations. You can also do it alone by renting a car. The downside of this option is that the cost of fuel, insurance, and special requests like automatic transmission can add up. Plus you have to potentially drive on the opposite side of the road than you’re used to.
Given these considerations and the fact that it’s winter and roads may have been icy or closed altogether, we opted to do a guided tour to Loch Lomond, which is only an hour and a half out of Edinburgh.
Loch Lomond is located in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, and it’s the largest loch in all of the United Kingdom. The surrounding Trossachs area contain other smaller lochs and wooden valleys, known in Scotland as glens. Most of the tours from Edinburgh couple this stop with other activities around the area where the Lowlands meet the Highlands. Stirling Castle, for instance, is commonly paired with a day trip to Loch Lomond. A whiskey distillery tour is another common option. Having had more whiskey in Edinburgh than I’d ever had in my entire 31 years of life, we decided to skip the distillery and take a tour that stopped at Loch Lomond, the Kelpies, and Stirling Castle.
Choosing a tour
There are quite a few tour companies that offer almost identical itineraries. Some of the most popular companies are Rabbie’s, Heart of Scotland tours, and The Hairy Coo. They leave from a point in central Edinburgh usually between 6 am and 9 am depending on where you’re headed. The Hairy Coo, for instance offer some options within the same tour. For example, you can do the Loch and Whiskey tour but switch out the distillery visit for a stop in Doune Castle, which was the filming location for Month Python and the Holy Grail and is partially the setting for Winterfell on Game of Thrones. Sadly for us, this tour is only available in the warmer months from April to October.
We went with Rabbie’s, which offered guided transportation to a few of our chosen highlights.
The Rabbie’s tour of Loch Lomond, Stirling Castle and the Kelpies
All Rabbie’s tours leave from Rabbie’s Cafe, where you can also pick up a quick breakfast while you wait to board your bus. We had to check in by 9 am for our 9:15 am departure, which isn’t too early of a morning considering how much you get to do.
The tour buses are small comfortable vans that seat something like 12-15 people. The driver is equipped with a microphone so he can give you information as you head to each destination. We got some information about each place, but our driver spent the majority of the ride telling us about the history of Mary Queen of Scots. It was like listening to a Scottish history podcast narrated by someone who has an obvious fixation with Mary. A funny but fitting soundtrack for the beautiful scenery, full of green grass, mountains, sheep and horses.
The first stop on the tour was the Kelpies, a giant sculpture of two horse heads that is dedicated to the legacy of horses as part of Scotland’s industrial revolution and is a nod to an old Scottish myth. Back in the day, parents used to tell their children that the lochs were full of monsters called Kelpies, that looked like horses but lived in the water. This was meant to keep the children from potentially drowning in the lochs of the countryside.
The Kelpies sculptures, which themselves look like they’re emerging from the water, are far more impressive and large than you would expect. The metal plates that are shaped to give the Kelpies their form are each larger than the size of a full-grown person. The area around the Kelpies also has a gift shop and a cafe, so you can make a quick stop to use the bathroom or pick up a coffee after you walk around the sculptures.
Loch Lomond sits near the base of the area where the Lowlands meet the Highlands, so there are long stretches of valleys and meadows that start to merge into hills and mountains. At this time of year, you can even see snow on the peaks of some of the mountains. The tour includes a short optional lakeside hike. The driver pulled up to one spot and we were given the option to walk along Loch Lomond toward the pick-up point which was around 30-40 minutes of walking.
You could also skip the walk and go by bus to the spot, right around Tom Weir’s Rest, a scenic stop dedicated to Tom Weir, a famous adventurer and outdoorsman and basically the human version of my gnome. You can see a statue of him at this spot.
During our visit to Loch Lomond, the weather was pretty awful, alternating between sudden rain and high wind and full-on sun. The upside of this is that we got some pretty spectacular rainbows by the lake and on the drive to lunch. So I would say the tour is worth it, even in the winter.
Lunch at Aberfoyle
Our particular tour stopped for lunch in the small village of Aberfoyle, which is within the bounds of the national park. It’s one of those towns that consists almost entirely of one long street with a few businesses and some houses. My favorite thing about the lunch stop is that unlike every tour of its kind I’ve ever taken, they let us do our own thing for an hour and fifteen minutes. We weren’t herded into whatever mediocre restaurant the tour company has a deal with; we could eat wherever we wanted. In theory, you could also bring lunch and spend this time doing some more hiking in the area. We stopped at The Forth Inn, which had fast service and an amazing haggis burger.
After lunch we made our way to Stirling Castle. We took the slightly terrifying mountainous route of Duke’s Pass, which has really incredible views. We also stopped to check out some Highland cows, very hairy Scottish cattle also known as Hairy Coos if you can believe it. They were pretty friendly and this was one of the small highlights of the day.
We spent the afternoon in Stirling Castle, which is historically important for being a major Scottish stronghold, enabling anyone who controlled the castle to control the lands north of it. It’s also the site of the William Wallace battle featured in the movie Braveheart. From the outer walls of Stirling Castle, you overlook the town of Stirling and the giant memorial to William Wallace, which is in the center of the city.
Entrance to the castle isn’t included in the cost of the tour and they recommend getting the Scotland Explorer Pass, which pays for itself considering the cost of two castles alone. It includes over 40 sites around the country (including Doune Castle mentioned above), so if you’re really into castle-hopping, it’s a great deal. The five-day pass costs 30 pounds and there was a 20% winter discount, which also made it a no-brainer.
The downside about this tour is that Stirling Castle sucks. Irrespective of the views, which are incredible, the interiors of the castle leave a lot to be desired. They’re either completely plain or obviously freshly painted to look like dated original artwork. Rooms that you’d expect to feature lavish decor fit for a king are either empty or have just a wooden bed frame with no mattress. So it kinda takes the impressiveness of truly royal digs out of the experience. Compared to Edinburgh Castle, which is opulent and has really detailed historical exhibits, Stirling is a joke. As such, we had a great time losing our shit at how bad it was.
Those who may be interested in a guided castle tour will be happy to know that you spend almost two hours there. Even though we did neither, we had plenty of time to walk around and enjoy the view of the setting sun from the highest point for miles.
We made it back to Edinburgh around 6 pm, the perfect time for an early dinner and whisky flight.