Exploring Scotland's wealth of attractions needn't cost a fortune. In fact it needn't cost a penny. To help plan your visit, here are ten ideas for totally free days out.
1. National Parks of Scotland
To witness the sheer beauty and scale of Scotland's wild places, a visit to one of the country's national parks is a must. With activities ranging from walking and mountaineering to watersports and wildlife watching there's something to suit most tastes. Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park covers 1,865 sq km of everything from the sparkling Loch Lomond to mountains, coastlines, ancient forests and grassy lowlands. At 3,800 sq km The Cairngorms National Park is double the size of the Trossachs park. Home to the biggest area of mountain landscape in the UK, it encompasses an Arctic wilderness and four of the country's highest peaks.
2. National museums and galleries
From Mackintosh to Matisse, Picasso to Peploe, Scotland's cities and towns are brimming over with world-class museums and galleries. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow is Scotland's second most visited tourist destination and is the biggest civic museum and gallery in the UK. Glasgow is home to one of the most impressive collections of art in Europe with exhibits ranging from the Italian Renaissance, French Impressionists to the Glasgow Style. National Galleries of Scotland have five galleries in Edinburgh and house world-famous exhibits from Botticelli to Warhol.
3. Award-winning beaches
They've been mistaken for Caribbean sands and tropical idylls but these beaches are right here in Scotland. Scotland boasts a huge array of pristine beaches, many of which have been awarded Blue Flag status and the Seaside Award which grades beaches on cleanliness, facilities and water quality. Some notable beaches include, the golden crescent of Kiloran Bay on the Hebridean island of Colonsay; and West Sands, St. Andrews which featured in the iconic opening credits of the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire.
4. Historical sites
Scotland has a wealth of historical sites just waiting to be discovered. Many sites around the country don't charge an entrance fee either. Keep an eye out for offers and doors open days, where sites that usually charge for entrance welcome visitors for free. Some sites that can be visited for free all year round include the mysterious Calanais Standing Stones on the island of Lewis, one of the oldest prehistoric standing stones in Scotland, Glasgow Cathedral and the Scheduled Ancient Monument, Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, home to four hill forts, including Arthur's Seat.
5. Wildlife watching
There are as many opportunities for sighting wildlife in Scotland. From ospreys and puffins to red squirrels, whales and dolphins there's enough to keep even the most ardent enthusiast busy. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has two educational wildlife centres in Scotland at Spey Bay and North Kessock on the Moray Firth. Visitors can view dolphins from special viewing points at the centre and listen too with the aid of underwater microphones. From the centres, visitors can follow the Dolphin Trail to the best locations from the shore for spotting bottlenose and common dolphin, minke whale and harbour porpoise. Other wildlife that can be spotted includes ospreys, seals, otters and wildfowl.
6. Botanical gardens and parks
Pollok Park in Glasgow was voted Best Park in Britain in 2007 and Europe's Best Park in 2008. The park is an oasis in the city and is home to not only the renowned Burrell Collection of eclectic art but also wildlife trails, highland cattle and horses. The Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh is spread over 70 acres and is home to one of the largest and most diverse collection of plants in the world, complete with Victorian glasshouses sustaining heat loving palms and orchids. There's an important body of conservation and botanical research work carried out here as well as an inspired range of free activities.
7. Edinburgh's Royal Mile
This fascinating street in the city's Old Town is punctuated by the bulk of Edinburgh Castle at one end and Holyrood Park and Palace at the other. Steeped in centuries of history, the street is home to closes (narrow lanes), buildings and monuments that tell stories of Scotland's - often gruesome - past. Unsurprisingly the street is a base for many ghost walks and tours. Stroll around the darker parts of this area and its easy to see why. There's a good choice of museums such as the excellent free Museum of Childhood, the Writers Museum and the Peoples Story as well as the imposing St Giles Cathedral. At festival time the street becomes a showcase for the myriad events and shows around the city. Actors and performers bring the street to life, entertaining the crowds with everything from puppetry to sword swallowing and stand up comedy.
8. Tour a famous whisky distillery
A visit to a whisky distillery is a must for many a visitor to Scotland. However, you may be surprised to know that one of Scotland's most famous whisky producers can be visited for free. The award-winning Glenfiddich Distillery based in Banffshire in the Highlands offers visitors a chance to learn how this world-famous dram is produced. Starting with an historical film documenting the distillery's origins in 1886, the tour continues through the mash rooms to the atmospheric warehouses. There's more to this distillery than just whisky too. The Glenfiddich Artists in Residence scheme is now in its eighth year and gives eight up and coming artists a three month residency at the distillery. All work completed in this time is influenced by the local community, the scenery and the ethos of the distillery.
9. River walks
Scotland's vast coastline makes for many rivers and there's countless opportunity to explore them through both urban and rural landscapes. Some examples include: the River Clyde in Glasgow a walk along this great river shows the diversity of the city and provides an insight into its shipbuilding industrial past. The fascinating Water of Leith in Edinburgh flows from the Pentland Hills right through the city to the Port of Leith. It can be easily navigated, joined and departed along the accessible, well tended walkway. The Speyside Way is a long distance trail that follows the valley of the River Spey through rich whisky country from Buckie on the Moray Firth coast right down to Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park.
10. Tour the Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament building opened for business in Edinburgh in 2004. Situated in Holyrood, the building boasts magnificent views of the city and Arthur's Seat, and is situated within the UNESCO World Heritage Site within the city. The building divides opinion for its striking, individual exterior, but it has been heralded as a triumph of craftsmanship and has won a string of international awards. Tours of the building take in the Main Hall, the Garden Lobby, the Member of Scottish Parliaments Chamber and the Committee Room. Visitors can also take a tour of the Scottish Parliament's Art Collection of paintings, sculpture and photography all chosen to complement the architecture of the building.