13 Top-Rated Things to Do in Ayr & Dumfries
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Occupying the southwestern corner of Scotland – an area often referred to as the Scottish Lowlands – the county of Ayrshire offers many excellent sightseeing opportunities and fun things to do. The town of Ayr itself is a popular shopping destination and boasts a racecourse; three golf courses; and Ayr Beach, a long sandy strip of sand overlooking the Firth of Clyde and the lovely Isle of Arran.
Scotland's most famous poet, Robbie Burns, was born here and famously described the locals as "honest men and bonnie lasses." Memorials at the train station and the Tam o'Shanter Inn are examples of the Burns legacy, and devotees can even follow the Burns' Heritage Trail, a literary tour through southwest Scotland as far as Dumfries that takes in the many places to visit connected with Burns.
Another nice town to explore – and one which also boasts a connection to Robbie Burns – is Dumfries. It's located in Dumfriesshire on the River Nith, which flows into the Solway Firth a little farther south. The town obtained its charter as a Royal Burgh from Robert II in 1395, while its famous bridge, now reserved for pedestrians, dates to 1208.
Plan your trip to this wonderful part of Scotland with our list of the top things to do in Ayr and Dumfries.
See also: Where to Stay in Ayr & Dumfries
1. Visit the Home of Scotland's Poet: The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
The thatched house where Scotland's most famous poet was born is situated in Alloway, a suburb to the south of Ayr. Built by his father, it was in Burns Cottage that Robbie Burns spent the first seven years of his life. Now part of the excellent Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, this fascinating tourist attraction houses a collection of Burns' most important writing, along with a great café and shop. For kids, the fun Burns'-themed adventure playground, Scots Wa-Hey, is a must, encouraging a little learning as they play.
The museum is also responsible for many other historic landmarks, including the Burns Monument and Gardens. Standing 70 feet tall, this impressive Grecian-style monument was erected by the writer's greatest admirers in 1823, and along with its pleasant gardens, remains one of the top things to do for free in Ayr.
Another Burns-related site is the former home of cobbler John Davidson, the real-life Souter Johnnie immortalized in the poem Tam o' Shanter. The 16th-century Alloway Auld Kirk church is also worth a visit and contains the grave of Burns' father. Burn's himself helped maintain the old church, and an epitaph he wrote for his father can be seen on the gravestone.
Address: Murdoch's Lone, Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland
Official site: www.burnsmuseum.org.uk
2. See Where "Ike" Stayed: Culzean Castle and Country Park
Managed by the National Trust for Scotland, Culzean Castle lies in a picturesque spot on the cliff tops just 12 miles south of Ayr. A fortress had stood on this spot since the 14th century, with the present picture-book castle being a creation of the romantic 18th century. Highlights are the Armory, with its extensive collection of pistols, and the old Dining Hall, with its ceiling decorated with paintings by Antonio Zucchi, and Chippendale-style furniture.
Visitors from the United States like to visit the apartments used by President Eisenhower. The legendary American was granted the right to stay in Culzean Castle whenever he wished in acknowledgement for his role in helping win WW2. For a unique overnight stay, guests can rent out his rooms. Free guided tours are available daily.
The castle grounds cover more than 568 acres of countryside and gardens. Their most striking features are the Fountain Court, the Walled Garden with its colorful flowerbeds, and Sir Herbert Maxwell's Scottish Garden. There's also a fun adventure playground for kids to enjoy.
Closer to Ayr are the attractive ruins of the 16th-century Greenan Castle. The most striking feature is the impressive tower house, which seems to cling rather precariously to the clifftop and makes for a very dramatic photo op. Dating from the same period, Loudoun Hall is also of interest as Ayr's oldest house and is a rare example of Scottish architecture from the period.
Address: Maybole, Ayrshire, Scotland
Official site: www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/culzean
3. Take a Stroll along Ayr Beach
One of the most popular attractions south of the city of Glasgow (it's just an hour away), Ayr Beach is a delightful way to spend some time when in the area. As popular with locals as it is with Glaswegians, it can get a little crowded during summer weekends, but visit during the week (or spring or fall), and you'll often find you've got this 3.5-kilometer stretch of sand pretty much to yourself.
Although not as remote as many of the top beaches in Scotland, it's equally pleasant for families, its fine sand perfect for picnics and building sandcastles. There are also some good facilities adjacent to the beach, such as a kids' play area, a putting green, as well as an arcade with fun games and a café.
The views from here are great, with the stunning Isle of Arran easily visible. Be sure to follow the Esplanade north of the beach, too. It'll take you to Ayr South Pier, a very popular spot for fishing.
4. Explore Dalgarven Mill Museum of Country Life and Costume
Located in the fully-restored Dalgarven Mill in Kilwinning, the Museum of Ayrshire Country Life and Costume is a treasure trove of facts and artifacts relating to the area's rich cultural history, as well as traditional farming techniques and tools. The centerpiece is the authentic working water wheel, still powered by the River Garnock, and the Victorian machinery it powers, as well as the granaries with displays of costumes and everyday tools and possessions.
A pleasant riverside walk along the Garnock is also available for visitors to enjoy. Afterwards, be sure to sample some of the bread baked on-site and made from the flour produced here. Guided tours are also available, and an antique shop and café are located on-site.
Address: Dalgarven Mill, Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland
Official site: www.dalgarvenmill.org.uk
5. Attend the Burns an' a' that! Festival
The centerpiece of a series of annual events and festivals celebrating the life, work, and influences of Scotland's greatest poet, Robbie Burns, the Burns an' a' that Festival takes place over four days each May. During this always busy event, the town is filled with comedians, musicians, and, of course, poets, in what has become the region's leading arts festival.
A fringe program, BurnsFringe, is also part of the fun. It includes everything from culture to food and drink, as well as visual and performance arts and, of course, bagpipes.
Official site: www.burnsfestival.com
6. Take the Kids to Heads of Ayr Farm Park
One of the top things to do for those traveling with children is to visit Heads of Ayr Farm Park. This top-rated family attraction is as much mini-theme park as it is petting zoo, with plenty of fun activities for kids. Highlights include a number of thrilling water attractions, including bumper boats, waterslides, and water guns (yes, you'll get wet!).
Drier fun can be had on the mini construction equipment, which includes a chance to drive mini electric tractors and diggers (electric quad bikes are also available). Other features include an adventure playground, a huge sand play area to dig in, trampolines, and an aerial runway.
The park's animal collection mostly comprises cute and cuddly varieties, including guinea pigs and rabbits, although a few larger species (domestic and exotic) can be seen, including camels and llamas, as well as monkeys. An on-site café is also available.
Address: Dunure Road, Alloway by Ayr, Ayr, Scotland
Official site: www.headsofayrfarmpark.co.uk
7. Visit Dumfries Museum and Camera Obscura
The Dumfries Museum houses an extensive collection of memorabilia and artifacts relating to local history from prehistoric times to the present day. It's also home to the worlds' oldest operational Camera Obscura, built in 1836 and in use ever since.
Located on the top floor of a windmill tower, the camera provides a 360-degree panorama of the surrounding landscape. Other highlights of the museum include fossils, local wildlife, ancient weapons, and stone carvings made by Scotland's first Christians.
Address: The Observatory, The Observatory, Rotchell Road, Dumfries, Scotland
Official site: www.dgculture.co.uk/venue/dumfries-museum/
8. Robert Burns House, Museum, and Mausoleum
The house on Burns Street where the celebrated poet spent the last four years of his life, and where his wife Jean Armour lived until her death in 1834, is now a museum displaying Burns-related memorabilia. Burns died here in 1796, only 37 years old, and the home – a place of pilgrimage for his fans from around the world – paints a vivid portrait of his life. (Admission is free.)
His final resting place is just a short distance away in St. Michael's Churchyard in a mausoleum erected in 1815. For an additional Burns fix, visit the Robert Burns Centre in an 18th-century mill on the banks of the River Nith, with its displays of original manuscripts and memorabilia, as well as an excellent audio-visual presentation.
Address: Burns Street, Dumfries, Scotland
Official site: www.dgculture.co.uk/venue/robert-burns-house/
9. Visit the Ancient Cross of Ruthwell Kirk
Ruthwell Kirk (or church) and its early Christian cross are well worth a visit. A niche in the purpose-built church houses one of the two most famous Christian crosses of Anglo-Saxon times.
Carved out of sandstone in the 8th century, the cross reaches a height of 17 feet. Look carefully, and it's still possible to make out some of the Latin inscriptions and biblical figures on it.
Address: Ruthwell, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
Official site: www.ruthwellkirk.org.uk
10. See the Ruins of Caerlaverock Castle
The imposing ruins of Caerlaverock Castle, just eight miles from Dumfries, date from 1270, when the English established a bridgehead to mount an invasion of the rest of Scotland. This spectacular triangular fortress boasts a drawbridge, a water-filled moat, and an impressive double-tower gatehouse. The first Earl of Nithsdale improved the appearance by adding heraldic symbols and round window and door pediments, and the castle was soon after abandoned.
An interesting permanent exhibit deals with the castle's rich history, as well as providing details of medieval siege warfare. The nearby marshland is a haven for swans, ducks, and wading birds, and in the winter, thousands of Brent geese come here to breed.
Address: Castle Road End, Dumfries, Scotland
11. Take a Day Trip to New Abbey
Located just a few minutes away from the coast and six miles from Dumfries, and with fine views over the Solway Firth, New Abbey is where you'll find the delightful ruins of Sweetheart Abbey. This Cistercian monastery was founded in 1273 by Devorgilla, who also played a part in the creation of Balliol College, Oxford.
Legend has it she carried the embalmed heart of her beloved husband John Balliol with her in an ivory box, and after her death, it was buried alongside her. While in New Abbey, be sure to visit the pretty 18th-century corn mill that still grinds corn the traditional way.
Address: New Abbey, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
12. See the Star of Outlander: Drumlanrig Castle
An easy 30 minutes' drive northwest of Dumfries will bring you to spectacular Drumlanrig Castle. Entered via a beech-lined driveway, this picture-book castle of pink sandstone boasts numerous small towers. This four-winged Renaissance palace with its decorative facade boasts 120 rooms and contains a unique collection of French furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Carvings by Grinling Gibbons are highlights of the Lounge and Dining Room, and the collection of paintings with portraits by Kneller, van Dyck, Ramsay, Reynolds, and Gainsborough deserve attention. However, it's the three masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Rembrandt that are the castle's most prized possessions.
The castle has also starred in the hit TV show, Outlander, and is also home to a variety of unique outdoor adventures, including Land Rover tours, an adventure playground, mountain biking, and fishing. It's also a popular spot for game shooting, in particular partridge (a variety of packages are available), as well as fishing. Quieter pastimes, such as partaking in a pleasant afternoon tea or a guided tour of the castle, are also available.
Address: Thornhill, Dumfries & Galloway
Official site: www.drumlanrigcastle.co.uk
13. Elope to Gretna Green for an Anvil Marriage
The border village of Gretna Green, located just a half hour drive east of Dumfries, was once the world's most famous refuge for young lovers. Under Scottish law, only two witnesses to a wedding ceremony were required, and these "mock marriages" acquired notoriety throughout the world, especially as the village blacksmith's shop was usually the place where the knot was tied.
In Scotland, once a youngster reached the age of 16, parents were not able to stand in their way if they wished to marry, whereas in England parental consent was needed for those under the age of 21. In 1846, the law was amended and it became necessary for one of the partners to the marriage to reside in Scotland for at least 21 days before the ceremony – a change that helped to boost the hotel trade in the vicinity, if nothing else.
The practice continued until these "Anvil Marriages" were declared illegal in 1940. The legend endures, however, and every year more than 1,000 marriages take place here. Visitors can get a taste of the tradition for themselves at the Old Blacksmiths Shop.
Address: Headless Cross, Gretna Green, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
Official site: www.gretnagreen.com
Where to Stay in Ayr & Dumfries for Sightseeing
Top Hotels in Ayr
- Situated on a huge 300-acre estate on the outskirts of Ayr, the delightful Enterkine House Hotel comes with quaint décor, a lovely garden, and silver service dining.
- The equally attractive Savoy Park Hotel is another great former country estate and comes with a cozy lounge; a free full Scottish breakfast; and a walled garden, which is popular as a wedding venue.
- Fair-priced quality stays can also be enjoyed at the Fairfield House Hotel, set in a Victorian mansion just two miles from the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.
- One of the best bed-and-breakfasts in a town full of such accommodations, Bythesea has just six well-appointed rooms offering quality beds and furnishings, and a good, peaceful night's sleep.
- Equally highly rated is The Burnside Guest House, popular with guests for its friendly owners and clean, attractively decorated rooms.
- Those on a tight budget would do well to consider Travelodge Ayr, a no-frills location that offers clean, comfortable rooms.
Top Hotels in Dumfries
- The Holiday Inn Dumfries is a great mid-range choice; it's a three-star hotel boasting beautiful grounds, modern décor, and a popular restaurant serving locally sourced food.
- Also offering good quality in this price range, the Cairndale Hotel & Leisure Club includes classy, comfortable rooms in a lovely old Victorian building.
- Also worth taking a look at is Huntingdon House Hotel, a good choice for its decent-sized rooms with en suite bathrooms and free breakfast.
- The Premier Inn Dumfries Hotel offers a great hotel experience considering its budget rates, along with fantastic staff and comfy beds.
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