It doesn't take much scrolling around the Skyrim map in game to realise just how huge it is, so picking out the best places to explore and find new quests can be quite tricky. Of course, you can just wander off into the wilderness and hope you stumble across an awesome location, but the chances are pretty slim on the grand scheme of things. The thing you need to know about Skyrim is that it's divided up into nine different Holds, each of which has a distinctive appearance and its own places of note, so if you want to take in the more important sites and sights then here’s a list of the best areas to visit in the entire Skyrim map.
Whiterun is probably the first Hold capital you’ll encounter in Skyrim. It’s home to Dragonsreach, where Jarl Balgruuf the Greater is seated, and it’s got a vast array of shops and taverns.
However, because Whiterun is an early area, there aren’t a whole lot of interesting dungeons to explore. The Companions are based here, which is a factional questline well worth following, and there are some other quests here involving everything from runaway Redguards to family feuds. However, Whiterun should serve as little more than a pitstop on your legendary odyssey across Skyrim. There are far more intriguing places to explore, and far more adversaries to test your mettle against.
Riften is one of the most intriguing towns in all of Skyrim. It’s quite a poor Hold, but the characters who live there are fantastic. The first time you show up at the gate, a couple of guards will attempt to extort you. Next thing you know, you’ll see an infamous thief named Sapphire threatening people who owe her money outside The Bee and Barb.
An underground area known as the Ratway is the heart and soul of Riften though. This is where the Ragged Flagon is located, notoriously renowned for being the Thieves’ Guild’s hideout. Hang around for long enough and you might just rise to the top - a life of crime is quite lucrative in Skyrim, if you know what you’re up to.
If you have the Dawnguard DLC installed, you can find Fort Dawnguard off to the east of Riften too. It’s an impressive old castle, tucked away in the mountains and headed by Isran, the famed vampire hunter and reformer of the Dawnguard. It’s well worth checking out, although you should probably hear the vampires out before joining - it’s important to make an educated decision here.
Markarth is absolutely teeming with character. It’s a city of gold, surrounded by wilderness and waterfalls. Its outskirts are filled with redoubts, which are inhabited by the region’s indigenous Forsworn. One of the best quests in the game actually involves teaming up with them to escape from prison, although not everybody knows about your cooperation, so other groups will still attack you as you traverse the mountainous terrain of the wild Reach.
The town itself is huge, featuring a massive stairs that goes the whole way up to Understone Keep - which, by the way, has lots of friendly dogs, making it the most wholesome place in all of Skyrim. The area around Markarth is what makes it truly special though, boasting probably the most impressive open plains in the whole game. It’s very easy to get lost in The Reach, so make sure you’ve stocked up on supplies before braving the wilderness here.
Winterhold is Skyrim’s most northerly Hold. It’s also its most destitute, largely consisting of decaying buildings and snow-covered roads.
However, its also home to the College of Winterhold, which is the most celebrated academy of the arcane arts in the whole of Skyrim. Here, you can enrol as a student and begin your ambitious endeavour to become the College’s Arch Mage. This is a fantastic questline that makes trekking the whole way up well worth your while.
North of Winterhold is Septimus Signus’ Outpost. Signus was driven to insanity after studying the Elder Scrolls, but because of his knowledge, you need to pay him a visit during the main quest. He’ll give you a Lexicon before you leave, and if you inscribe it with the right marks, you’ll be forced to discern the transmundane, AKA, enter a pact with the Daedric prince known as Hermaeus Mora.
Winterhold is a curious Hold for sure, but there’s a lot of intrigue to check out there. Also, simply scouring the sea it borders is captivating, as you’ll come across shipwrecks and hidden treasure in the most arbitrary of places.
Windhelm is where Skyrim’s Stormcloak rebellion is based. Here sits Ulfric Stormcloak, High King of Skyrim. The Palace of the Kings is gargantuan, so it’s well worth exploring it thoroughly. If you’re sneaky, you might even be able to steal some valuables and make yourself some easy coin.
However, one of the most interesting places near Windhelm is the Sacellum of Boethiah. Here, you’ll be forced to take part in a battle royale in honour of the Daedric prince Boethiah. Win and you’ll become their champion; lose and you’ll, well… die.
You can also get the boat to Solstheim from Windhelm if you have the Dragonborn DLC installed. It costs 500 gold, but Solstheim is an incredible place located in Morrowind that you should absolutely visit. Just make sure you’re a decent level before making the voyage across, as the enemies there are a lot stronger than most of the ones you’ll encounter in Skyrim.
Falkreath is an underappreciated gem in Skyrim. It’s based right beside some of the darkest places in the game, such as the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary and the Twilight Sepulcher, but it’s also home to Lakeview Manor, a beautiful house you can purchase if you’ve installed the Hearthfire DLC.
It’s located in the south of Skyrim and it’s much less built-up than several of the other Holds, but there’s a real charm to Falkreath. Also, if you venture eastward for a few minutes, you’ll come across a place called the Ancestor Glade, which is one of the most extraordinary places in the whole game. If your planning on doing some digital tourism, Falkreath’s got it all, providing the quintessential 'Skyrim' experience.
Dawnstar is often seen as the ugly duckling of Skyrim’s Holds, but it’s actually an incredibly intriguing place. There’s a Mythic Dawn museum here, which instigates the Mehrunes Dagon questline, and the whole town is plagued by terrible nightmares. Perhaps the reason the rest of Skyrim often dismisses Dawnstar is because people are too afraid to give it a chance.
However, Dawnstar’s links to the Daedra are pretty much all it has going for it. Aside from that and the ancient Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary hidden nearby, there’s not a whole lot here. Hearthfire added a house to Dawnstar, and it’s actually quite nice, but the location isn’t ideal. You’re much better off living in Falkreath and checking out Dawnstar whenever you get curious about demonology and nightmares.
Morthal is mostly just a place between places. It seems as if the whole point of this town is to be a place in the middle of nowhere without much of a say in the overall goings-on in Skyrim. However, there is one place in Morthal that’s essential for any aspiring Dragonborn to visit.
Movarth’s Lair, located just north of the town, is home to a powerful ancient vampire. After discovering that a resident of Morthal has quietly been turning some of the townsfolk into creatures of the night, you can visit the lair and pay Movarth a visit. However, once you’ve done this, it’s probably best to get out of Morthal and head northwest to Solitude.
Of all the places to go in Skyrim, Solitude is probably the hold with the most to do. When you walk through its gates, you’ll be welcomed by a massive city filled with people from all over the world. The Imperial Legion is based here, so if you’re thinking of joining up, Solitude is where you’ll need to go. It’s also home to the Blue Palace, previously ruled by the High King Torygg before he was killed by Ulfric Stormcloak.
There are some great quests to pick up in Solitude. You can do Sheogorath’s Daedric quest here by visiting an abandoned wing of the city’s palace, which will send you hurtling headfirst into the demon prince of madness’ mind-bending domain. You can also sneak through the East Empire trading company, pull off a heist with some shady Argonians, and even sneak onboard the Emperor’s private ship. Solitude is the richest place in Skyrim, so here you’ll get to use diplomacy instead of violence… sometimes. When words don’t work in your favour, you’ll see that sometimes the pen isn’t mightier than the sword, so you’ll have to compromise. Like most rich places though, there’s lots of subterfuge and espionage in Solitude, so a conniving Dragonborn will fit right in.
These are the best places to visit and pick up quests in every single Skyrim hold. The best way to experience Skyrim as a tourist is to make your way to a hold on foot, check out the places mentioned above, and then move on to the next one. That way you’ll see the more minor areas in Skyrim too - the unnamed gems hidden off the beaten track. Just be sure to keep your sword at the ready, lest you be ambushed by ancient vampires or malevolent necromancers.
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