Scotland has a lot going for itself as a tourist destination. England's northern neighbor is best known for its starkly beautiful wide-open spaces, its crumbling castles, its historic cities and, of course, its whiskey.
Like elsewhere in the U.K., Scotland has a good public transportation infrastructure. Casual tourists who want to see the highlights of this nation are technically able to do so without renting a car or even hailing a taxi. But, like virtually everywhere else in the world, most visitors assume that exploring in depth requires getting behind the wheel.
Yes, a car does bring a sense of freedom: You can go from Highland loch to coastal distillery to medieval castle in the same day… on your own schedule.
But is it actually more convenient to get around if you have a car?
A guide specifically for car-free tourism
A new guide, part of the Transform Scotland initiative, gives tourists all the information that they need to see the most popular attractions without having to drive at all. Dubbed “Car-Free Tourism,” the site focuses on 24 attractions and activities. Each has its own profile page with all the information needed to get there and back without a car.
The attraction entries include data about the nearest train stations and bus routes as well as walking and cycling directions from the nearest station or stop. The info gets quite specific including steepness of the walking route and quality of the sidewalks. Bike riders and pedestrians can download an attraction-specific guide and use it on their smartphone or GPS device.
Thanks to the NextBike system, tourists who are visiting Glasgow don’t even have to bring their own wheels. They can rent a bike at one of the rental terminals and return it to another one near their destination. NextBike is currently in Glasgow and neighboring Stirling. It is not yet in Edinburgh or other Scottish cities.
Tourists visit Urquhart Castle besides Scotland's Loch Ness. (Photo: Bucchi Francesco/Shutterstock)
Trains, buses and a good pair of walking shoes
While urban attractions will see more visitors, rural destinations are also on the agenda for many tourists. As we said, decent public transit and walkable streets make Scotland’s cities relatively easy to navigate. Rural sites like Urquhart Castle, on the famous Loch Ness, are more difficult to get to. The Urquhart page on Car-Free Tourism details a trip that requires a train ride and a bus trip. It also highlights something else: Scotland is a hiker’s paradise. The Great Glen Way passes from Inverness, the closest major city, to Drumnadrochit, a village near the Loch. Information about the hike is also a part of the Urquhart page. (Hiking is not necessary if you choose to take the bus from Inverness).
In fact, a quick browsing session on the Car-Free Tourism site will make it evident that, though you can get around by bike, Scotland is perhaps best explored on foot. Extensive trails and pedestrian-friendly cities are ideal for people who remembered to pack a good pair of walking shoes. Hill walking and long distance hiking are as much of a part of Scottish culture as kilts and whisky.
Making public transportation less intimidating for tourists
Lots of tourists forego the bus because of the intimidation factor. (“What if I end up traveling 20 miles in the wrong direction?”) Some estimates say that 95 percent of all Scottish people live within a 5-minute walk of a bus station. Bussing is far more convenient here than in most other parts of the world. However, unfamiliarity often causes tourists to give this form of transport a miss.
Sites like Traveline Scotland can help plan trips by bus, train and ferry. They can also provide information for travelers with special needs.
The Car-Free Tourism site can help too. It was built to make travel greener, but it can also serve to lower the intimidation factor. Tourists can plan their movements on one site instead of having to hop from site to site to piece together directions for each item on their itinerary.
Car-free is easy, as long as you have a smartphone
Scotland’s downloadable Car-Free Tourism guides can make public transit seem more user-friendly, but the site also highlights the need for technology when traveling. Yes, a good paper map can still get you from A to B, but a good app can do the same thing, while giving you real-time information about bus and train fares and providing detailed location updates via GPS.
Hopefully other countries will follow Scotland’s lead and publish guides for car-free tourism. Not only would this help people who want to travel green, but it would also aid those who simply need straightforward directions that can make public transportation easier to understand and city streets easier to navigate.