Are you looking to have an unforgettable vacation in Scotland or Ireland? Both are home to beautiful landscapes with green hills, historical sites (including castles!), outdoor adventures, extremely friendly locals, and rich pub cultures.
Obviously, if you have the time, we highly recommend that you travel to Ireland and Scotland. However, if you have to make the difficult decision to choose one over the other and don’t know where to start, look no further!
In this blog post, we’ll weigh up Scotland vs. Ireland and help you decide which bucket list country you should visit first. From unique attractions to delicious cuisine–let us be your guide as we make the ultimate comparison of these two awe-inspiring nations.
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Top destinations in Scotland and Ireland
If you’re having trouble deciding between Scotland and Ireland, it may help to review the top places to visit in each country:
The most popular places to visit in Scotland
- Edinburgh: Scotland’s capital is well known for its stunning architecture, vibrant cultural scene, and famous landmarks like Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
- Isle of Skye: This enchanting island captivates visitors with its dramatic landscapes and scenery, including sites like the Fairy Pools, the Old Man of Storr, and the iconic Fairy Glen.
- Loch Ness: This large freshwater loch is world-famous for the legendary Loch Ness Monster and offers visitors exciting activities such as boat tours and exploring the ruins of Urquhart Castle.
- Glencoe: This village in the Scottish Highlands features awe-inspiring mountain scenery and waterfalls. With this in mind, it’s popular among outdoor adventurers who can go hiking, mountaineering, and even skiing in the winter months.
- Loch Lomond & The Trossachs: Scotland’s first national park encompasses the stunning Loch Lomond, scenic mountains, and abundant opportunities for outdoor activities like hiking, walking, camping, cycling, and wildlife spotting.
The most popular places to visit in Ireland
- Dublin: Ireland’s vibrant capital city, home to attractions such as the Guinness Storehouse, The Book of Kells and Trinity College, Dublin Castle, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
- The Cliffs of Moher: These sea cliffs on Ireland’s West Coast in County Clare receive over 1.5 million visitors annually, making them the country’s most visited attraction.
- The Ring of Kerry: It’s one of the most scenic drives in Ireland, passing through the Iveragh Peninsula and many beautiful sites in County Kerry. Don’t miss Killarney National Park, Ladies View, Moll’s Gap, or the charming town of Kenmare.
- Blarney Castle and the Blarney Stone: Blarney Castle in County Cork is where you’ll find the legendary Blarney Stone. Kiss the stone to receive the “gift of the gab”!
- Connemara National Park: This beautiful natural space in County Galway features Kylemore Abbey & Victorian Walled Garden and views of the Twelve Bens mountain range.
Best time to visit Scotland and Ireland
June through August marks the peak tourism season in both Scotland and Ireland, with warmer days and more hours of sunlight. Sunset is as late as 10 p.m. around the summer solstice, giving you plenty of time to explore. Nonetheless, you’ll also encounter more crowds during this time of year and higher prices for flights and accommodations.
The tourism seasons in Scotland and Ireland begin around Easter each year and end around October. With this in mind, shoulder season provides the ideal combination of fewer visitors with ideal weather. In our opinion, the best time to visit Scotland or Ireland is in April, May, September, or October.
However, you’ll want to consider local holidays when choosing your dates. For example, schools in both countries have two weeks of spring break around Easter. Moreover, don’t forget about Saint Patrick’s Day if you plan a trip to Ireland in early spring!
Weather in Scotland vs. Ireland
Scotland and Ireland are two countries famous for their green landscapes and unpredictable weather. The climate in Scotland is generally cooler due to its location on the northern side of the UK. Plus, Scotland regularly experiences snowfall each year, while it rarely snows in Ireland.
In general, southern Ireland has a much milder climate than Scotland, thanks to the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC). However, remember that both Scotland and Ireland are very rainy destinations to visit. Surprisingly, Scotland even receives slightly more rain on average than Ireland.
The Western Highlands actually rank as one of the wettest places in Europe, experiencing up to 180.2 inches (4,577 mm) of rainfall annually. Pack a raincoat, an umbrella, and waterproof shoes for either country! We also highly recommend a pair of hiking boots for outdoor activities.
April and May tend to be drier months in both Scotland and Ireland, although you can still expect 8-10 precipitation days. The wettest months occur during the winter time: typically December and January. Luckily, the rain tends to be more of a drizzle during the warmer months. So, it won’t stop you from doing most activities!
Cost of visiting Scotland vs. Ireland
When planning a trip to Ireland or Scotland, budget is an essential factor to consider. Both countries offer unique experiences and breathtaking scenery, but which one is cheaper to visit?
Unfortunately, the difference between Scotland and Ireland regarding the cost depends on various factors like the time of year, accommodation choices, transportation, and planned activities. However, generally speaking, a vacation to Ireland or Scotland will have a similar cost.
For example, we found the car rental cost more in Ireland, while accommodation costs were slightly higher in Scotland. Of course, you could always save money here by wild camping (it’s legal in Scotland!).
The cost of food in both countries is relatively comparable, and you’ll save the most money by buying groceries and cooking yourself. Nonetheless, Scotland has many free activities and museums compared to Ireland, making it the more budget-friendly option for certain tourists.
However, we did find that in Scotland, we had to pay for parking more often than in Ireland. For example, places like Eilean Donan Castle, the Fairy Glen, the Old Man of Storr, the Fairy Pools, Quiraing, and Stirling Castle all had paid parking. The cost usually is no more than £5 and is essential for the upkeep of these sites, but it can definitely start to add up!
Another factor to take into account is the exchange rate. After all, remember that the currency in Scotland is the pound sterling, while in Ireland, it’s the euro. Remember that the pound tends to be worth more than the euro. With this in mind, Americans may get more bang for their buck in Ireland.
Driving in Scotland vs. Ireland
For many North American visitors, driving on the left side of the road for the first time can be stressful. Driving tends to be easier if you stick to big cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh, or Dublin. Just watch for roundabouts, where you’ll need to drive in a clockwise direction.
Nonetheless, back roads can be a little trickier. In less developed areas in both destinations, expect to come across one-lane roads (also called single-track roads) with lay-bys (also called passing lanes). For example, in Ireland, you’ll see these roads along Slea Head Drive and certain parts of the Wild Atlantic Way.
You’ll encounter them all over the Isle of Skye and along the North Coast 500 in Scotland. If you see a vehicle coming from the other direction when on a single-track road, you’ll need to pull into a passing place (if there is one on your left). If the passing place is to your right, wait along the left side until the oncoming vehicle pulls into the passing place that will be on their left.
In general, we would say that driving in Scotland is easier. Often, we found that passing places were better marked in Scotland than in Ireland. Plus, you’ll likely have to pay toll fees in Ireland, whereas we did not encounter this system in Scotland.
However, note that driving on the Isle of Skye in Scotland is an outlier. We found the roads there in many places to be sub-standard and filled with potholes. Often you’ll come across single-track roads where you have no choice but to drive over a pothole slowly. Apparently, it’s become very common for tourists to get flat tires here, so drive carefully!
Public transport in Ireland and Scotland
Both Ireland and Scotland offer their own unique transportation options for tourists. Ireland’s public transport system includes buses, trains, and trams (in Dublin). The train company in the Republic of Ireland is Irish Rail.
Meanwhile, if you plan to travel to Northern Ireland, Translink operates the trains there. For those who prefer to travel by bus, the leading bus provider in the Republic of Ireland is Bus Éireann, while Translink is the largest provider in Northern Ireland.
Scotland’s transportation system, on the other hand, includes trains operated by ScotRail and frequent bus services provided by First, Stagecoach, Lothian Buses, and National Express. You’ll find public transportation in the main cities to be easy to navigate. Nonetheless, a car becomes necessary as you venture to more remote areas (like the Isle of Skye!).
While taking the train or bus in Scotland and Ireland are reliable and cost-effective options for tourists, renting a car is the only way to explore the smaller towns and countryside fully. Although driving on the left side of the road may seem overwhelming, you’ll get the hang of it in no time!
However, if you’re looking for a hassle-free option, consider booking a multi-day guided tour to truly immerse yourself in the culture and beauty of Ireland or Scotland. Another alternative would be to base yourself in one of the bigger cities and take day trips.
Scottish vs. Irish Cuisine
Both Irish and Scottish culinary traditions are deeply intertwined with their long and complex histories. Irish cuisine is characterized by hearty stews, savory pies, and seafood. Corned beef and cabbage is one of its more famous dishes, which you have to taste with a side of soda bread.
On the other hand, Scottish food typically features game meat and potato dishes. For example, haggis served alongside neeps and tatties is a traditional Scottish meal that everyone should try. Porridge is also a staple of Scottish cuisine. When it comes to dessert, Scotland is well known for its shortbread.
Additionally, both Ireland and Scotland are well-known within the beverage industry. After all, Dublin is home to Guinness, the Irish dry stout sold worldwide. The Emerald Isle is also famous for its smooth whiskey, including brands like Jameson, Tullamore Dew, and Bushmills.
As far as Scotland, of course, Scotch Whisky and its smoky flavor come to mind. The country has over 100 whisky distilleries, like Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, and Highland Park. For those visiting Edinburgh, don’t forget to add a trip to the Scotch Whisky Experience to your itinerary.
Foodies may have a slight preference for Ireland in the end. In fact, it’s home to 21 Michelin-starred restaurants, while Scotland has a total of 11 with this distinction.
Capital cities: Edinburgh vs. Dublin
Edinburgh and Dublin are two of the most visited cities in Europe, each holding a unique charm that leaves travelers in awe. As the capitals of Scotland and Ireland, respectively, both Edinburgh and Dublin have a rich cultural history and an abundance of attractions to explore.
Edinburgh’s iconic castle, stunning medieval Old Town architecture, and famous museums make it a top choice for history buffs. Plus, you won’t want to miss the chance to sample Scotch whisky along the Royal Mile. Harry Potter fans will also love discovering the real-life locations that inspired J.K. Rowling.
On the other hand, Dublin’s literary history, friendly locals, and lively pub scene attract a diverse range of visitors. It’s also home to attractions such as the Trinity College Library, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Castle, and the famous Temple Bar. Of course, a visit to Dublin wouldn’t be complete without a tour of the Guinness Storehouse.
Ultimately, the decision of which city to visit depends on individual preferences. For example, Edinburgh has more of a quaint vibe, while Dublin feels like a more modern metropolitan area. Nonetheless, we found Dubliners to be much friendlier than Edinburgh locals. On the other hand, Edinburgh wins as the more budget-friendly option.
If we were forced to choose between the two, we would opt for Edinburgh. Overall, it’s a more picturesque city than Dublin. Plus, we enjoyed that all the main attractions in Edinburgh were easily within walking distance.
Currency in Scotland and Ireland
Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom, along with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Therefore, it uses the British pound sterling (£) for currency. The Republic of Ireland, on the other hand, uses the Euro (€) as its official currency.
Since these two countries use different currencies, you may want to check the currency exchange rate with the U.S. dollar before deciding between Ireland and Scotland. Recently, the euro has been almost on par with the dollar, while the pound is often stronger than the dollar.
Which country is more family-friendly?
When it comes to deciding between Ireland and Scotland for your family vacation, there are several factors to consider to determine which country is more family-friendly. Both countries offer a rich history, stunning landscapes, and plenty of outdoor activities for families to enjoy.
However, Scotland may appeal more to families with older children and teenagers due to its rugged terrain and adventurous activities such as hiking, skiing, and mountain biking. Of course, there are also many things to do indoors. For example, Scotland’s museums typically have free entry and are great for kids, like the National Museum of Scotland.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s picturesque countryside, charming villages, and friendly locals make it an ideal destination for families with younger children. Additionally, the Emerald Isle’s abundance of playgrounds and age-appropriate activities, such as the Dublin Zoo and the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History, provide endless entertainment options for little ones.
Hotels in Scotland vs. Ireland
Hotels in Scotland and Ireland share similarities in terms of hospitality and comfort, with accommodations ranging from B&Bs to luxury castle hotels. B&Bs are likely to be your only option in smaller towns in both countries.
Since B&Bs tend to have a smaller capacity for guests, one of our best travel tips is to book your accommodations well in advance. In particular, availability will fill up quickly in more remote areas of Ireland and Scotland, like Doolin (near the Cliffs of Moher) or on the Isle of Skye.
Overall, you’ll notice that there are more chain hotels in Ireland, although they’re only in the bigger cities. Generally, accommodations will be more expensive in the cities in both countries, including Dublin, Galway, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. Frequently, B&Bs in smaller towns are the most budget-friendly options.
Castles in Scotland vs. Ireland
Historically, Scotland has been home to over two thousand castles. Some of the most famous Scottish castles to visit include Edinburgh Castle, Balmoral Castle, Dunrobin Castle, Glamis Castle, and Eilean Donan Castle.
By comparison, Ireland features over three thousand castles and ruins. You may have heard of at least a handful of them, including Blarney Castle, where you can kiss the Blarney Stone in hopes of obtaining the gift of the gab. Other famous Irish castles to visit include Kilkenny Castle, Bunratty Castle, and Dublin Castle.
Overall, it’s hard to say which country has the best castles. In general, we tended to enjoy the outside architecture and grounds of castles in Scotland better. Meanwhile, we were more impressed by the interiors of castles in Ireland.
Scenery in Scotland vs. Ireland
Ireland tends to be greener; hence, its nickname of “the Emerald Isle.” You’ll find that much of the country looks like green rolling hills or is relatively flat. The country is also home to natural wonders such as the Cliffs of Moher, The Burren, and the Slieve League Cliffs.
The main difference between Ireland and Scotland regarding scenery is that Scotland is more diverse, with taller mountains. For example, the most famous national parks in the country–Cairngorms and Loch Lomond & The Trossachs–are well known for their mountainous terrain. By comparison, Ireland doesn’t have any geographical features that compare to the Scottish Highlands.
Ben Nevis is the most impressive natural wonder in Scotland. At a height of 4,413 feet (1,345 m), it ranks as the highest mountain in the United Kingdom and the British Isles. Meanwhile, the highest peak in Ireland is Carrauntoohil, standing at 3,407 feet (1,038 m).
Of course, Scotland is also famous for lochs. For example, there’s the famous Loch Ness, as well as Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park–a popular day trip from Glasgow. So, depending on your interests, you may enjoy the landscape in Scotland or Ireland better. We think Scotland is best for mountains and Ireland is best for coastal drives.
Flying to Ireland or Scotland from the U.S.
Most Americans fly into the Dublin Airport (DUB) when visiting Ireland. You can book nonstop flights to Ireland’s capital from major cities like New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
Nonetheless, the Shannon Airport (SNN) is another excellent option, especially if you want to explore Ireland’s West Coast. You can find direct flights here from Boston (via Aer Lingus), Chicago (ORD with United), and New York (JFK with Aer Lingus and EWR with United).
The Edinburgh Airport is the busiest airport in Scotland’s capital city, and most American visitors choose to arrive here. There are direct flights to EDI from New York City, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Orlando. Just remember that the direct options are sometimes only seasonal offerings during the high season for tourism to these areas (summertime).
Depending on the areas of Scotland you want to explore, Americans can also consider flying into the Inverness Airport (INV). This international airport is located in northern Scotland, providing easy access to the Scottish Highlands. Nonetheless, there are no options to fly to INV directly from the United States. So, you’d have to lay over in Edinburgh.
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