Image: Visit Scotland / Damian Shields - View from Criffel hill
The green and pleasant south-west of Scotland has an incredible array of historical attractions, cultural heritage, pretty towns and villages, glorious beaches, adrenaline-packed outdoor adventures and beautiful green spaces. There is even a Galloway & Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere (the first in Scotland) recognising the uniqueness of the landscapes, wildlife and cultural heritage in this very special region of Scotland.
You might also want to check out our guide to distilleries in Dumfries and Galloway.
It's impossible to talk about a visit to Dumfries & Galloway without mentioning the incredible array of castles in the region. Here are a few of the highlights.
The impressive pink sandstone of 17th-century Drumlanrig Castle will get your attention from the moment you set eyes on it. You can admire the facade whilst taking a stroll around the beautiful gardens and venture inside to admire the exquisitely-furnished rooms before enjoying some time in the tearoom or adventure playground! This is an excellent family day out.
Nearby, the ruins of Morton Castle show a rare example of a medieval hall-house. Whilst you can only view the castle from the outside these days, it's free to visit, and the stunning location gives a hint of the imposing structure this once was.
Caerlaverock Castle stands out on the south coast due to its distinctive triangular layout and sits surrounded by a large moat. You can access the grounds and indoor areas of the castle all year round for a modest fee.
West of Castle Douglas is the island stronghold of Threave Castle, which is reached by boat across the River Dee. The height of the tower is particularly striking and can be seen for miles around. Open all year round; there is a small fee for access which includes the boat transfer from a jetty a short (approx. 15min) walk from the car park.
In the pretty town of Kirkcudbright, you'll find MacLellan's Castle. Built for comfort rather than defence, this Jacobean townhouse gives a glimpse into the past and helps visitors learn about the surrounding area's incredible history. Note: Open April to September only.
Loch Doon Castle's claim to fame is that it may have been built by Robert the Bruce himself and almost certainly by a member of the family. It was originally situated on an island in the loch itself but was relocated to the mainland in the 1930s in order to conserve it.
Photogenic Dunskey Castle teeters on a cliff-edge on the wild and rugged coast near Portpatrick on the Rhins of Galloway, making it one of the most photogenic castle locations in Scotland. It's free to visit year-round, but care should be taken on the coastal path, especially in poor weather.
Although not technically a castle, Sweetheart Abbey is well worth a visit. Although more than 700 years old, it is very well-preserved and remains a stunning and imposing structure with a unique atmosphere. Open all year round; you can access it for a small fee.
There are too many to do them all justice here. If you have enjoyed visiting a castle on your Dumfries & Galloway trip and it's not mentioned here, just let us know, and we'll add it to our guide!
Image: Visit Scotland / Kenny Lam - Logan Botanic Garden
Dumfries & Galloway is particularly well-known for its beautiful gardens.
Situated on the remote Rhins of Galloway, Logan Botanic Gardens benefits from the warming effects of the Gulf Stream and is, therefore, able to host a stunning range of surprising and exotic plant varieties from far away places like Australasia the Americas and southern Africa. As well as the main outdoor areas, there is a peaceful walled garden with a lily-strewn pond and a beautiful glass conservatory housing some of the more delicate species. If you only visit one garden during your time in Dumfries & Galloway, let it be Logan. We can arrange private tours of the gardens with a knowledgeable expert if you wish.
Threave Garden, a training ground for budding - excuse the pun - horticulturalists, is a colourful triumph of garden design and an excellent place for wildlife, especially birds of prey. Just a few miles from Threave Castle featured above; the two are easily combined for a day out.
Over by Stranraer on the Wigtownshire peninsula, 75-acre Castle Kennedy Gardens is one of Scotland's most important historical landscaped gardens. Surrounding the imposing ruins of the castle itself, it has been in the care of the same family for over 3 centuries, and it's this care and attention that makes it such a special place to visit.
A more modern but equally lovely contrast nearby is Glenwhan Gardens, just 20 years in the making and already receiving widespread acclaim. This is a beautiful place for a walk, with a beautiful collection of rare trees and shrubs, paths for all abilities meandering around the gardens and lochans of the immediate area, and far-reaching views across to the Isle of Man and Mull of Galloway. There's a lovely tearoom on-site, too, if you need a post-walk pick-me-up.
Adding to the complement of gorgeous Wigtownshire gardens is charity-run Galloway House Gardens. This is particularly special in spring (blossoms and a carpet of snowdrops) and autumn (a kaleidoscope of changing leaf colours). This is a mix of formal gardens and untamed woodland, lovingly maintained by an army of volunteers. There's a large sandy beach accessible from the gardens, making for a very rewarding and not-too-strenuous walk.
The gardens are a key part of the fabulous family experience on offer at Moat Brae. This 'enchanted land' was the inspiration for J M Barrie's Peter Pan, and the gardens are a combination of adventure playground areas dotted among beautiful plants and flowers. You can also visit the house, and - in keeping with the storytelling theme - the National Headquarters for Children's Literature is also located on the site. Sensory and storytime sessions are a regular feature and great if you are visiting with children.
Surrounding the striking Edwardian house where artist E A Hornel once lived, Broughton Gardens is right in the heart of the artistic and creative hub of Kirkcudbright (pronounced 'kerr-koo-bree', don't ask us why!). This charming garden with its narrow winding paths is awash with beautiful insect-friendly flowers, and there are lovely views across the harbour and River Dee. A collection of Hornel's art is also on display in the house.
Arguably one of the areas best-kept garden secrets is Arkleton Walled Garden. This is unashamedly a work in progress, currently being restored and therefore not open year-round; keep an eye on dates as you won't want to miss this gem if it's accessible during your visit. Growing in popularity and establishing itself as a community hub, Arkleton is a truly special place. There are often special events on-site, especially during the summer, so keep an eye on the calendar!
And finally, whilst you might be forgiven for thinking that gardens are just about the plants, the quirky but spectacular Garden of Cosmic Speculation incorporates sculpture in a range of innovative and striking ways. It has to be seen to be believed!
Galloway Forest Park
Image: Unsplash / Rostyslav Savchyn
Known as the 'Highlands of the Lowlands' due to its rolling hills and glens, Galloway Forest Park is an adventurer's dream.
Although best-known for its evergreen species, Galloway Forest is also home to ancient oakwoods. Furthermore, a recent initiative to create a new native woodland on Bennan Hill and the lower slopes of Benyellary has seen the planting of tens of thousands of young Downy Willow, Juniper, Aspen, Elm, Cherry, Birch and Hazel trees.
As this area matures further, it will provide a wonderful complement to the surrounding conifer-covered landscapes, and it should look even more impressive with every passing autumn!
Covering more than 300 square miles, Galloway Forest Park takes days to explore and appreciate fully.
Scotland's first Dark Sky Park can be found in Galloway Forest Park, providing a wonderful opportunity for stargazing with minimal light pollution. You can visit the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory. We can arrange private tours with a knowledgeable ranger.
The range of outdoor activities available in the park is truly impressive - it's especially well set up for hiking, fishing, cycling, mountain biking, and spotting wildlife. There's even a Wild Goat Park within the forest, where you can meet these quirky creatures up close and watch them navigate the rocky terrain with ease. The best starting point for outdoor activities is the Kirroughtree visitor centre at the gateway to the park.
Image: Visit Scotland / Kenny Lam - Killantringan & Knock Bay
Scotland's beaches are legendary, and the beaches of Dumfries & Galloway are certainly up there with the very best in the country.
An exhaustive list would be impossible, but one of the great joys of exploring in this area is to drive the coastal route and stop whenever you see a beach that takes your fancy! You'll want to leave a lot of time for this, as there are so many stunning ones.
Here are a few of our favourites, but we are sure you'll find plenty of others that grab you.
Either side of Big Water of Fleet, not far from Castle Douglas, you'll find Mossyard beach and Carrick beach, among many others. Rugged bays with glorious stretches of golden sand, there's plenty of space for everyone to spread out. Outside the summer months, you may well have the place to yourself!
The Wigtownshire peninsula, particularly the Stranraer area, is also full of incredible beaches. Arguably the very best on the peninsula is Luce Sands on the south coast, near the village of Sandhead. An expanse of yellow-white sand stretching for miles, this is shallow, safe, relatively sheltered and great for a paddle or a swim if you can handle the North Atlantic chill! You'll find Killantringan and Knock Bay on the west coast, with a stunning sandy stretch at least a mile long and an impressive lighthouse to the south.
Another beach-heavy hotspot is the collection of headlands just south of Dumfries. All within a 30-minute drive of the town, you'll find the popular Powillimount (sandy coves backed by rocky cliffs and an impressive stone arch), Southerness (wide, sandy stretch with intermittent rocky sections and a very photogenic lighthouse!), Sandyhills (gently sloping with rock pools, great for walks) and Rockcliffe (pretty, sandy cove, connected by a causeway to Rough Island at low tide) beaches, among many, many other smaller bays.
Just over the border in England, the Solway Coast AONB is well worth a day out for beach and wildlife enthusiasts. There are some incredible sandy beaches, mudflats, salt marshes and other havens for seabirds and other creatures. The dunes at Mawbray Banks are a highlight.
Image: Visit Scotland / Stuart Brunton - Galloway Activity Centre, Loch Ken
Visitors to Dumfries & Galloway are absolutely spoilt for choice when it comes to outdoor adventures. Whether you'd prefer to be self-guided or accompanied, there are so many options! For those trying something out for the first time, equipment hire is widely available. Here are some of the key outdoor activity categories and hubs available in the area.
Family-friendly activities are in abundance, so Dumfries & Galloway is perfect for a visit with children of any age, especially those who love the outdoors!
From cycling, hiking and climbing to watersports and other adrenaline-filled adventures, you're sure to find an activity to suit you here.
Galloway Activity Centre on Loch Ken offers an incredible range of indoor and outdoor climbing, sailing, archery, laser tag, windsurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, an inflatable waterpark and mountain biking adventures. We can arrange family activity days with a range of options.
Galloway Cycling Holidays are your go-to people for all things cycling-related. They can offer route guidance, cycle hire and guided cycling tours to suit your itinerary and budget. Dumfries & Galloway is an excellent place to explore by bike, with a variety of scenery, terrain and route difficulties to keep everyone engaged.
Fishing is available from beginner to advanced level in various locations across Dumfries & Galloway. Two of the best places to try are Loch Ken (mainly perch, trout and pike fishing, with grayling possible in winter) and Drumlanrig Castle Estate (river or loch, mainly salmon and trout fishing). Those who have their own gear and know what they are doing can simply purchase a permit, whilst beginners or those who would like advice and guidance can opt to hire equipment and/or a ghillie or guide to accompany them.
Red kites were reintroduced in the area in 2001. You can find the best places to spot them by following the Red Kite Trail, either as a road trip or cycling (24 miles, reasonably level), and there are well-signposted walks of varying length available at a number of the stops. The route centres around Loch Ken in winter, whereas in summer, there are some forest elements as well. There are shelters, information boards and viewing areas, and feeding stations in some places along the route. As well as the kites, you can expect to see red squirrels and other birds of prey.
For walkers, paths and hiking routes are abundant of all lengths and for all abilities and interests. Beginning in Portpatrick, the Southern Upland Way is a long-distance route right across the south of Scotland from the Atlantic to the North Sea. To complete the whole route (over 200 miles!) takes more time than the average holiday; however, sections can be completed easily. Several particularly rewarding stretches can be completed in a single day, including Portpatrick to Castle Kennedy and Sanquhar to Wanlockhead. We can help with logistics and arrange transfers back to your vehicle or accommodation for those wishing to attempt one-way walks. There are also many lovely shorter circular and out-and-back walks from pretty much anywhere in Dumfries & Galloway, so whether it's hills, coasts, rivers or a mix of the two that you're after, you're sure to find something suitable and manageable. Within the forest park, walks of different lengths and grades are well-signposted, and you can obtain advice from the visitor centre.
A bit different...
Image: Visit Scotland / Kenny Lam - Kitchen Coos & Ewes
Like anywhere in Scotland, Dumfries & Galloway also has some activities and attractions which aren't easily categorised. Here are a few of the slightly more 'out of the box' suggestions for places to visit and things to do in the area.
Hang out with animals: Whilst a snapshot of the amazing wildlife that you can observe in Dumfries & Galloway is covered above, there are other ways you can spend time with animals! Two of our favourites are to go for a trek with the friendly alpacas, expertly guided by Debbie at Nith Valley Alpacas near Thornhill, or experience a different kind of safari and hang out with the sheep and Highland cattle at Kitchen Coos & Ewes, where your options range from a quick drive-by visit to a walking tour and even a full-day farm experience.
Get 'high': The village of Wanlockhead at the head of the Mennock Pass has the lofty title of 'Scotland's highest village', and by extension, it's also home to the country's highest pub, the Wanlockhead Inn. A former mining village, this pretty place has a Museum of Lead Mining to tell the story of its history, with exhibitions offering insights into what life used to be like in Wanlockhead. There is also a light railway linking Wanlockhead and nearby Leadhills, which is great for a family trip in the summer. The drive on the Mennock Pass through the Lowther Hills is one of the most spectacular in the Dumfries & Galloway area, so it's well worth stopping off to make sure you've paid this high-up village a visit.
Have a fab family day out: The excellent aviation museum at Solway is just over the border at Carlisle Airport. The Galloway Faerie Trail near Castle Douglas offers a range of child-friendly activities, a small cafe and horse-riding on site. Weird and wonderful Crawick Multiverse is a piece of land-art for all to enjoy - a former coal mine transformed into an innovative public space. The acclaimed Devil's Porridge Museum commemorates the world's largest munitions factory, which once operated at Gretna. The exhibits cover the area's military history during the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War, making this rich and important history accessible through a mix of media, including interactive games and child-friendly activities.
Get married: And finally, the elephant in the room - no article about the south of Scotland is complete without a mention of Gretna Green and the famous Blacksmith's Shop. Famous as a runaway wedding destination for couples escaping a change in the laws of 18th-century England, sadly it's no longer possible to 'just turn up' and get married here as you need at least 29 clear days' notice; however, it's still quick and easy to arrange a wedding here, and why not let us plan a wonderful escape for you taking in the highlights of Dumfries & Galloway afterwards?