A Family Vacation in Scotland and Ireland
The British Isles offer unrivalled variety for travellers seeking out a family vacation with a difference, and Ireland and Scotland take centre stage.
With everything from charming castles to opportunities for adventure, this is our guide to a family vacation in Scotland and Ireland.
Scotland’s largest city Glasgow has an edgy feel to it, and is alive with culture and style. Home to world-class museums and galleries, a vibrant arts scene and some of Scotland’s best shopping, there’s plenty for families to discover here. The architecture in Glasgow reflects how the city has changed through the centuries, with streets housing both 18th-century warehouses and red sandstone Victorian buildings. On a city tour, travellers can visit the Kelvingrove Art Museum and Gallery, the Glasgow Cathedral and the Provand’s Lordship (the oldest house in the city) for a varied insight into the city’s history.
Edinburgh, Scotland’s beautiful capital, is awash with history and culture. Nicknamed the Athens of the North for its grand Georgian architecture, Edinburgh is filled with streets lined with sandstone coloured buildings and neoclassical terraces. The city is a true historic gem – even the so-called ‘New Town’ is already nearly 300 years old. In the Old Town, Edinburgh Castle balances perilously on the edge of a volcanic outcrop and the Royal Mile runs down to the Palace of Holyrood House, Her Majesty the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. On an Edinburgh eats tour, travellers can accompany a local gastronomic expert on a private tour of the city. During the tour, you can sample a series of tasting plates, showcasing everything from haggis to smoked salmon.
Capital of Northern Ireland, Belfast, has a fascinating history, and as the centre of Ireland’s turbulent 20th century, it’s no surprise. Today, the city of Belfast remembers its troubled past with important historical monuments, such as the Titanic Belfast attraction. The infamous Titanic was built in Belfast and in the city’s Titanic Quarter, visitors can wander along the very slipways where the ship was constructed. The attraction itself is spread over nine multi-dimensional galleries and draws together special effects, dark rides, full-scale reconstructions and interactive features. This museum is a great place for kids to learn about the Titanic’s story, as the attraction even comes complete with a live undersea exploration centre.
Dublin, the Republic of Ireland’s capital, is also steeped in history. One of the city’s cultural wonders is Trinity College’s Old Library and Book of Kells exhibition. Ireland’s greatest cultural treasure, the Book of Kells is regarded as the world’s most famous medieval manuscript. A must-see for all visitors to Dublin, a walk through the cobbled streets of Trinity College Dublin transports travellers straight back to the 18th century. The magnificent Old Library is a sight in itself, with the Book of Kells on display amongst charming walls lined with floor to ceiling bookcases.
To delve into Ireland’s history, travellers can also visit the GPO Witness History Museum. A brand new immersive exhibition in the heart of Dublin City Centre, the GPO Witness History Museum tells the tale of the pursuit of Irish independence. Using special effects, soundscapes and heartfelt testimonials, this exhibition is sure to captivate both young international visitors and well-informed history buffs.
For a lighter look into Ireland’s history, travellers can peruse the Natural History Museum of Ireland and the country’s National Gallery. Since the doors opened in 1857, the museum’s 10,000 exhibits have delighted generations of visitors. This cabinet style museum showcases a wide ranging and comprehensive zoological collection that has changed little in over a century. For an insight into the artistic heritage of Ireland, travellers can join a tour of the National Gallery, which has been open since 1854. The drop-in creative space is a great place for families, as workshops, events and ‘art backpacks’ can keep kids entertained for hours.
The western coast of Scotland is a sublime landscape made up of beautiful mountains and evocative lochs. Arguably the most beautiful region in the British Isles, it is easy to see why many travellers choose to spend time in these picturesque surroundings. Made famous by the song The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond, Loch Lomond is one of Scotland’s most stunning freshwater lakes. Marking the beginning of the Highlands, Loch Lomond is backdropped by the equally magnificent mountains of the Trossachs National Park.
Similarly to Scotland, Ireland is peppered with beautiful lakes throughout the countryside. The shimmering Glendalough gets its name from the phrase ‘Gleann dá locha,’ which translates to ‘Glen of the two lakes’ in the traditional Irish language. Situated in the heart of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, Glendalough is home to one of Ireland’s most atmospheric monastic sites. Established in the 6th century, the settlement was attacked time and time again by the Vikings but is still standing over 600 years later. Other highlights surrounding the lake include Powerscourt Estate (one of the most beautiful pieces of land across Ireland) and Wicklow’s mountains. Travellers can even have the opportunity to experience a traditional Irish sheepdog demo.
The iconic Blair Castle, lying in the Scottish Lowlands near Pitlochry, is unlike any other castle in Scotland. The castle’s baronial architecture and beautiful woodland setting are typical of many Scottish castles, but Blair Castle’s stunning mountain backdrop sets it apart from the rest. The castle also has an interesting history – in 1844, Queen Victoria spent three weeks at Blair and granted the Duke a private army during her stay. In more recent times, the castle was also passed to a branch of the royal family residing in South Africa. Although Blair has changed hands many times, the castle has remained a Scottish icon throughout its lifetime.
Located on the West Coast of Scotland, Inveraray Castle looks as though it has been lifted straight from a fairy tale. As the ancestral home of the Duke of Argyll, the Inveraray Castle is one of Scotland’s grandest stately homes. This otherworldly property was put firmly on the map for all visitors to Scotland, thanks to its being featured as Duneagle Castle in the hit TV show Downton Abbey. Beyond its beautiful grounds, the castle pays homage to its history with an impressive collection of swords, muskets and other weapons.
In Glasgow, travellers can experience a touch of the 14th-century with a trip to Doune Castle. This well-preserved medieval building is a traditional castle, and the domestic quarters give travellers an insight into what life was like for servants in the Middle Ages. The castle also has many claims to fame, having featured in Ivanhoe, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Game of Thrones and Outlander.
Kilkenny Castle is one of the most recognisable buildings in Ireland. The monument has been an important site since Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, constructed the first castle here in the 12th century. Today, Kilkenny Castle is a complex structure marrying various architectural styles. The property has been in the care of the Office of Public Works since 1969, and archaeological excavation, conservation and restoration works have all transformed the castle into the stunning building it is today.
In Adare, families can travel back in time at the acclaimed 15th-century Bunratty Castle. Housed in the 19th century Bunratty Folk, Bunratty Castle and its surroundings provide travellers with an insight into the Ireland of the Middle Ages. In the folk park, rural farmhouses, village shops and streets are recreated and furnished as they would have been in the 15th century. From the poorest one-roomed dwelling to the grandiose Bunratty House, the village is a fascinating place for both adults and kids to explore. The fun is also brought to life through costumed characters, who recreate the traditions and lifestyle of a bygone era.
One of the most beautiful castles in Ireland, Belfast Castle and Cave Hill is well worth the visit. Built in the 1860s, Cave Hill is synonymous with Belfast – its outline has overlooked the city for centuries. The estate here is surrounded by ecotrails, walking and orienteering routes, so adventurous travellers can discover the surrounding nature after a tour of the impressive castle.
Active family adventure
Encompassing the bottom half of Scotland between the Highlands and the English border, the Scottish Lowlands are the perfect place for family adventure. Traditional country pursuits such as fishing and grouse shooting are popular in this region, and some vast estates and stately homes are dedicated to them. Walking, rock climbing and mountain biking are also gaining popularity, so there really is something for everyone. The Scottish Lowlands house a fabulous network of forest trails, as well as some of the most famous golf courses in the world, so there is plenty to entertain both adults and children. For nature enthusiasts, the nearby Cairngorms National Park is home to over 55,000 Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet), incredible wildlife and native woodlands.
Located off the West Coast of Scotland, the Isle of Skye is covered in unrivalled rugged landscapes and dramatic mountain scenery. There are only a few roads crossing the island, so journeying from one end to the other is a delightful adventure. Beyond nature, there is a thriving arts and crafts scene here that travellers can get involved in. Visitors can spend time perusing galleries and studios, or watching local creatives hand craft jewellery. There is also a burgeoning photography scene here, as photographers from far and wide are attracted by the peaks and valleys and abundance of wildlife that Skye is famous for.
Families can journey underground at the UNESCO recognised Marble Arch Caves Geopark. A fascinating underworld of rivers, waterfalls, lofty chambers and ethereal cave formations, the Marble Arch Caves Geopark is a veritable underground playground. This site is also host to an array of magnificent natural and man-made attractions, including the 17th-century ruin Tully Castle.
The Giant’s Causeway is a place of pilgrimage for many travellers to Ireland, and for good reason. At the heart of one of Europe’s most magnificent coastlines, the unique rock formations have stood as a natural rampart against the tumultuous shores for centuries. The rugged symmetry of the stone columns here have intrigued countless visitors over the years – a stroll through along the Giant’s Causeway makes for an inspirational voyage back in time.
A dramatic 14 kilometre (9 mile) stretch of Atlantic coastline at the southwestern edge of Ireland’s Burren region, the Cliffs of Moher are one of the most incredible landscapes in Europe. These rugged cliffs reach a height of 214 metres (702 feet) close to lookout point O’Brien’s Tower. One of the most popular sites in Ireland since the Victorian era, the tower affords travellers views over the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, the Maumturks and Twelve Pins mountain ranges to the north, and Loop Head lighthouse to the south.