The north-east of Scotland is full of the most spectacular mountains, dramatic coastlines and vibrant cities - and has more castles than just about anywhere else!
Here, we've assumed you're starting in Edinburgh, but this route works really well from just about anywhere. If you're flying in, you could start in Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Edinburgh or Glasgow - or if you're arriving by train or bringing your own car, there are excellent connections with the rest of the UK.
Image: Unsplash / Connor Mollison
Day 1 - Arrive and relax
- Overnight in: Edinburgh
Arriving in Edinburgh, there's no need to queue up at a car hire counter - just head straight into the city and drop your bags at your hotel.
Edinburgh has a huge amount to offer: a world-class arts scene, lots of history, excellent shopping and some of the best food from Scotland and the rest of the world. Check out our detailed city guide to Edinburgh.
Image: Unsplash / Joerg Angeli
Day 2 - Edinburgh to Pitlochry
- Overnight in: Pitlochry
- Distance: 70 Miles
- Travel time: 1.5 Hours
After breakfast, your hire car will be delivered to your hotel. Leaving Edinburgh and heading across the brand new Queensferry Crossing bridge, you'll make your way towards the Highlands.
We recommend stopping off in the historic city of Perth for lunch. Nearby Scone Palace is the first of many castles on this tour - what better way to start than the historic coronation site of the kings of Scotland?
If you get to Pitlochry early, you'll have time for a tour of the local whisky distillery or a walk along the beautiful River Tummel.
Image: Visit Scotland / Kenny Lam
Day 3 - Across the Cairngorms
- Overnight in: Aberlour
- Distance: 70 miles
- Travel time: 2.5 hours
Today will be the highlight for mountain lovers - all the way across the Cairngorms National Park, crossing two mountain passes and following the famous Snow Roads.
In the morning, the road takes you through Glen Shee and up to the Cairnwell Pass, the highest public road in the UK at 670m, and then steeply down to the village of Braemar.
Braemar is famous as the site of the annual Highland Gathering which is held at the beginning of September every year and attended by the royal family. Even if you've missed the Gathering, Braemar castle is still worth a visit. This imposing building is the home of Clan Farquharson.
Balmoral Castle, the Scottish holiday home of the royal family, is just a few miles further on. Technically, it might not be a real castle, but the impressive main house built by Queen Victoria is one of the most spectacular mansions in Scotland.
To finish off the day, you'll take the mountain pass via Lecht and descend towards the rolling hills of Strathspey.
Image: Visit Scotland / Damian Shields
Day 4 - Aberlour to Aberdeen - Speyside & the wild North Sea
- Overnight in: Aberdeen
- Distance: 85 Miles
- Travel time: 2.5 hours
Before you leave Aberlour, take a walk around the town. The dramatic Craigellachie Bridge is an important landmark. For whisky buffs, we recommend a tour of the Speyside Cooperage - the only working cooperage (barrel maker) in the UK. Speyside is famous for its whisky heritage and you could easily spend a couple of days visiting distilleries in the area.
From Aberlour, the route continues down to the coast at Spey Bay.
There are a whole string of pretty fishing villages along here, starting with Findochty. The dramatic bow fiddle rock is a few miles on, near the village of Portknockie - this natural stone arch is one of Scotland's most photographed sites.
Just after Portknockie, you'll come to the first amazing beach of your tour at Cullen.
Arriving in Banff, we always recommend a visit to Duff House. This Georgian mansion is part of of the National Galleries of Scotland and houses a changing series of art exhibitions.
Leaving Banff along the coast road, you'll quickly come to the picturesque village of Pennan which is famous as the location for the film Local Hero. The steep road down into the village can look a bit daunting, but it's worth it!
Next up, Fraserburgh is the first of the North Sea fishing ports along this coast. Don't miss the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. Housed inside the oldest lighthouse on mainland Scotland, this is a treasure trove of maritime history.
Continuing past the 17-mile long beach at Rattray Head, you'll come to the second fishing port, Peterhead.
A few miles south of Peterhead is one of the most dramatic ruins in Scotland: Slain's Castle - this forbidding building is rumoured to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula.
To round off the day, don't miss Balmedie beach.
Image: Unsplash / Finn Passchier
Day 5 - Aberdeen to Dundee - the Angus Coastal Route
- Overnight in: Dundee
- Distance: 70 miles
- Travel time: 2 hours
On the last day before you head home, you'll follow the official Angus Coastal Route south to Dundee.
Before you leave Aberdeen, you should take the time to explore Aberdeen Harbour - one of the best places in Scotland to see dolphins. You can often spot them from the shore, but there are also boat tours available that will take you closer. Discover more about the harbour's history at the Aberdeen Maritime Museum. While you're in Aberdeen it's also worth visiting St Machar's Cathedral and exploring the historic streets of Old Aberdeen.
Half an hour's drive to the south of Aberdeen, you'll come to Dunnottar Castle. Possibly the most dramatic castle in Scotland, this majestic ruin is perched on a clifftop. There has been a structure on this site since at least the fourth century!
Wildlife enthusiasts will want to stop off at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve. Famed for its rare wildflowers, butterflies and moths, St Cyrus is the perfect place to soak up the raw beauty of this gorgeous coastline. This is one of the best coastal walks in Scotland.
Further on, you'll come to the House of Dun. Designed by the famous Scottish architect William Adam, it was home to the Erskine family for over 200 years.
The last of an array of amazing beaches on this itinerary is at Lunan Bay. Nearby Arbroath Abbey is a spectacular ruin: founded in 1178, visitors can learn more about the role it played in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath (some people call this the birth of the Scottish Independence movement...). Afterwards, head to the harbour for a traditional Arbroath Smokie.
For keen golfers, you're now in prime links territory. Nearby Carnoustie has played host to The Open Championship a total of 8 times!
The final castle on this tour is Broughty Ferry Castle. This free attraction has stood since the 15th century and offers stunning views of Broughty Ferry and the sparkling waters of the Tay Estuary.
The last night of your holiday will be in the historic city of Dundee.
Image: Unsplash / Filippo Biassiolo
Day 6 - Last Day
- Distance: 63 miles
- Travel time: 1 hour 30 minutes
From Dundee it's a short, easy drive back to Edinburgh taking just under 90 minutes. If you wish, you can stop off in the golf capital of St Andrews on your way, or take the more scenic coastal route as the mood grabs you.
Image: Unsplash / Thomas Mills
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