The Ideal Time to Travel and Explore Scotland: Weather, Northern Lights, and Crowds
Are you dreaming of lush green landscapes, ancient castles, and breathtaking views? If so, Scotland is calling your name! But before you pack your bags, you might be wondering, when is the best time to travel to Scotland? Don't worry, we've got you covered! In this article, we will explore the best months to visit Scotland, where to go during January, the cheapest time to travel, and even when you can witness the mesmerizing Northern Lights. So, grab a cup of tea and get ready to discover the wonders of Scotland in the most enticing seasons!
What are the best months to go to Scotland?
There isn't a definitive best time to visit Scotland because it depends on what you want to do. Interested in festivals, concerts, Christmas markets, exploring castles, or witnessing the Northern Lights? Every month offers something amazing to do, so the best time to visit Scotland depends on your goals.
Personally, I went in late June and early July because I wanted to take a small-ship cruise to hard-to-reach Scottish islands and hike the world-famous West Highland Way. I highly recommend Adventure Canada's Scotland Slowly cruise and Wilderness Scotland's trek.
Scotland receives the most visitors between July and September due to the warm weather and abundance of activities. However, different parts of the country attract different numbers of tourists. So even when visiting more secluded places like the Shetland Islands, you'll encounter fewer people compared to popular cities like Edinburgh.
Speaking of Edinburgh, it is particularly popular in late July and August because it hosts numerous music, theater, food, and cultural festivals. Keep in mind that prices will be higher, and the crowds will be larger during this time. But the entertainment options are endless.
If you prefer to avoid crowds and midges, it's best to skip the summer months. The notorious Scottish midge, a small fly that swarms and bites, is more prevalent from mid-May to September, especially at dusk and dawn.
Where to go in Scotland in January?
The weather data used in this article is from the Met Office Station in Edinburgh based on climate period: 1981 - 2010.
Visit the Met Office website for more information.
Don't let the chilly weather put you off from visiting Scotland in January. Just pack a warm coat! It's a great time to experience Scotland at one of its quietest periods.
You can find great deals on accommodations during this time, and there are plenty of stunning winter photography opportunities. In some areas, you might even see cities or mountaintops covered in a dusting of snow.
January is also the month of Robert Burns, Scotland's National Bard. It's celebrated with ceilidhs, haggis, and Burns Suppers on the 25th. Up in Shetland, you can experience Up Helly Aa, a Viking-style street party held on the third Tuesday of the month. In Glasgow, Celtic Connections fills the city with folk music, traditional songs, and hundreds of live music events and gatherings.
For stargazing enthusiasts, January offers the chance to see some of the darkest night skies in Europe. You might even catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis dancing across the sky. Discover more dark sky experiences in Scotland.
- Monthly Average Maximum Temperature: 4°C/ 40°F
- Days of rainfall: 19
- Sunshine hours: 36
May, June and September give you sunshine without the crowds
May is often considered the best month by many Scots. It offers long days, rising temperatures, dry weather, and no midges. Wildflowers bloom on the Hebridean machair, hawthorn hedges flower, and cherry blossoms grace city parks. Islay's whisky festival and the first big Highland Games of the season are also great events to attend.
In June, evenings are long with daylight until 11pm, especially in the Northern Isles, giving you endless time to explore. Border towns celebrate gala days and the deeply historic Common Ridings with bunting. It's the best time to be in border country. The return of gannets and puffins also makes it a great time for a cruise to Bass Rock.
September marks the end of the school holidays, the decline of midges, and the ripening of wild brambles in the hedgerows. The weather is often dry and mild, making it an excellent time for outdoor pursuits. Aviemore and Fort William are the top adventure-sports hotspots.
Come October in Scotland, the days grow shorter and the trees explode in spectacular autumn colors © Scotland's scenery / Shutterstock
What time of year is the cheapest to visit Scotland?
If saving money is your priority, the best time to visit Scotland is between January and March when fewer visitors plan their trips to the country. This is the best time to book affordable flights and hotels.
The shoulder seasons, April to May and October to December, also offer good opportunities for savings. However, keep in mind that Scotland is known for its Christmas markets and New Year celebrations, so plan your trip before mid-December or after mid-January to avoid higher prices.
How many days are enough to visit Scotland?
The duration of your trip depends on how far you want to travel and how many regions you want to visit. Flying directly from New York City to Edinburgh takes around seven hours, allowing for a quick exploration of Glasgow before recovering from jet lag.
If you're flying from Los Angeles or Seattle, however, expect a longer flight time of 13 to 15 hours. This includes layovers, which can be even longer if you stop in another country and go through customs.
In 2022, the average visitor spent 9.2 days in Scotland, which is a respectable amount of time but only enough to see a small portion of the country. Personally, I spent a month in Scotland and found it insufficient. Scotland's diverse geography, sites, and attractions make it a place worth spending more time exploring. So don't rush through your trip.
When can you see the Northern Lights in Scotland?
If you want to witness one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Northern Lights, during your visit to Scotland, you're in luck.
Northern Scotland lies at the same latitude as Stavanger, Norway, and Nunivak Island, Alaska, increasing your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. The best time to visit Scotland for this spectacle is between November and February when there are longer periods of darkness and higher frequency of clear nights. However, even in late September, you can still get good views due to Scotland's northern location.
While it's possible to occasionally see the Aurora Borealis in Edinburgh, the best chances are in remote and wilderness areas of Scotland.
Scotland is a fantastic place for stargazing as it has some of Europe's largest expanses of dark sky. It is home to Europe's second Dark Sky Park and many Dark Sky Discovery Sites with low levels of light pollution. You can find nine Dark Sky Discovery Sites on the Isle of Skye and the northerly Trotternish Peninsula, making them ideal for stargazing and Northern Lights sightings.
What are the rainy months in Scotland?
In Scotland, every month can bring rain due to its location in the UK, known for gray skies, fog, and precipitation. However, if you prefer drier weather, the summer months are generally the best time to visit.
January is the rainiest month, with an average of 19 days of rain. October and November follow closely with an average of 18 rainy days. In comparison, April through June have an average of 13 rainy days.
Nevertheless, Scottish weather is unpredictable, and you can experience both sunshine and rain throughout the year. During my trip, I enjoyed nonstop sunshine and above-average temperatures for the first 12 days.
Keep in mind that rain showers in Scotland are often brief, and there are plenty of activities to do regardless of the weather. Western Scotland tends to be wetter than Eastern Scotland. While the Highlands experienced more sustained rain, showers in Edinburgh and Glasgow typically lasted less than 10 minutes.
Locals often carry umbrellas and continue to enjoy outdoor patios while sipping their beverages. Many hotels provide umbrellas, but it doesn't hurt to bring your own. I relied on a waterproof jacket and shoes during my visit, which served me well.
In conclusion, Scotland has something to offer year-round, making it a truly captivating destination. If you prefer mild weather and fewer tourists, May, June, and September are ideal, granting you sunny days without the crowds. However, traveling in January can provide a unique and magical experience, particularly if you venture to picturesque spots like Edinburgh or the Highlands. For those on a budget, consider visiting during the offseason, when flights and accommodations may be more affordable. Whether you have a few days or a couple of weeks, Scotland's breathtaking landscapes and rich history will leave you spellbound. And if you're lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights dancing across the night sky. Keep in mind that Scotland's notorious rain showers can occur at any time, so be prepared and embrace the country's enchanting mist and green landscapes, no matter the season.
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