Named by Lonely Planet as one of the best regions in the world to visit in 2019, the Scottish Highlands is one of the most beautiful places in Scotland. From Harry Potter to James Bond and the Loch Ness Monster, some of the best places to visit in the Scottish Highlands are spots you’ve likely already heard of. So settle down with this guide (and a copy of the film Braveheart), and get excited for your trip to some of the best places to visit in Scotland.
Best Time to Visit the Scottish Highlands
As with any trip, choosing the best time to visit is dependent on what you hope to accomplish and see on your trip there.
Looking for a winter wonderland? You’ll find it in the cooler months, but also remember that the Highlands are quite far north, so with winter comes very short days and very long, dark nights. This isn’t ideal for driving around and doing lots of sightseeing.
In order to fit in plenty of daylight, have good weather for outdoor activities, and enjoy good and safe driving conditions, aim to plan your trip between May and September.
The Highland Games take place throughout the same months you’ll probably want to visit, but unless you’re interested in spectating, it’s best to avoid crossing paths with the events. Check their website to know exactly what is happening when and where, knowing that the peak is through July and August.
How to Get Around the Scottish Highlands
There are a lot of things to see in Scotland, so you’re going to want to make sure your transportation allows you to get around easily and efficiently. Unfortunately, public transportation in the Highlands is very limited. The best option is to rent a car or campervan. If you do end up in a car or campervan you’ll have a myriad of camping possibilities in the area, especially since wild camping is legal in Scotland.
If you’re not comfortable driving yourself, and keep in mind that they do drive on the left side of the road in Scotland, consider booking a tour. Rabbie’s is the best tour operator in Scotland and offers everything from one to 17-day tours. Tours depart from Inverness, in the Highlands, as well as other cities throughout the British Isles including Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Where to Stay in the Scottish Highlands
With all the things to do in the Highlands, picking the right location for your base is extremely important. Inverness, considered the capital of the Highlands, is not only a beautiful city but is also the best place to base yourself in the area.
The Best Western Inverness Palace Hotel & Spa will truly provide a palatial stay. Set in what was once a mansion house, this hotel now offers updated and stylish rooms, with some even having river and castle views. There is a pool, sauna, and steam room on the premises as well as a brasserie and bar. The hotel offers parking at an affordable £6 per day.
The same luxury but with a local boutique feel can be found at Kingsmills Hotel. The 4-star hotel offers similar spa facilities, including an indoor pool as well as a fully equipped gym. You can also drink and dine at the whisky bar and the two hotel restaurants.
An alternative to a hotel stay is renting a camper or RV. If you go this route there are plenty of campsites scattered throughout the Highlands to make your home at each night.
Best Places to Visit in the Scottish Highlands
There is a lot to see and do here. From animals and lakes to mountains and villages, you’ll easily fill your time in the Highlands.
1. Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle
Just over 20 miles southwest of Inverness, no Scottish Highlands holiday would be complete without a visit to the home of the ever-popular Nessie. While a sighting of the friendly monster is far from guaranteed at Loch Ness, the area will do little else to disappoint. Plus, there are plenty of other, more easily confirmed, wildlife living in the area.
Sitting alongside the impressively picturesque lake you’ll also find Urquhart Castle. Even though the 1,000-year-old castle is in ruins, it still holds the key to any perfect piece of real estate – location, location, location. Tickets to enter the castle cost £12 per adult and you’ll get to climb the Grant Tower, which is the perfect look out across one of the most beautiful places in Scotland.
2. Isle of Skye
A terrific stop for everything from wildlife viewing to fossil discovery, the Isle of Skye sits northwest of the Scottish Highlands and is connected to the mainland of Scotland by bridge. While there are quite a few islands off the coast which make up the Inner Hebrides, the Isle of Skye is the largest. There are a number of villages scattered throughout the peninsulas of the island, all of which radiate out from the Cullin range. The range is an excellent opportunity for some climbing because it has 12 peaks, all of which reach more than 3,000 feet high. If you’re looking for less action, check out the Fairy Pools. They can be reached by foot as the roundtrip walk is less than an hour. You can swim in the beautiful blue water which pools under the cascading falls, but know that it’s a dip that will be far from warm!
3. Ben Nevis
Ben Nevis is the tallest mountain in all of the British Isles, and it’s quite the site to see. Known fondly to locals as ‘The Ben’, it sits closest to the town of Fort William, which is less than a 20-minute drive from the base. During summer months summiting the peak is quite doable in less than four hours for moderately experienced and fit climbers. Know that the path is steep and climbers will very often encounter snow near the top, even during warmer months. Pack and dress appropriately and follow all signs and advisories if heading up for the climb.
4. Eilean Donan Castle
Eilean Donan Castle is one of the most beautiful castles in Scotland. The castle sits on an island where three great lochs converge and create a perfectly magical scene. There are no residents of the island and it is open to tourists. Visiting hours vary throughout the year and the site is closed during the month of January.
Made famous partially due to being the backdrop of the 1995 movie Braveheart, Glencoe is one of the most famous valleys in the region, mostly thanks to its immense beauty. Surrounded by epic peaks, there is plenty to do in the area, though most of it centers around the outdoors. If you’re not looking to leave your vehicle, a drive through the valley will still provide some of the best views in Scotland. But embarking on one of the many hikes is a different experience entirely. The West Highland Way is a popular long-distance trail, part of which can be walked through the glen. Alternatively, you can pop into a kayak on Loch Leven, or if you’re visiting in season, skiing and snowboarding are available at Glencoe Mountain Resort.
6. Cairngorms National Park
A national park which covers nearly 2,000 square miles of land, Cairngorms is an excellent place to get active in the outdoors. From easy walking routes to strenuous climbs, from skiing to snowboarding, from treetop walks to mountain biking, and from white water rafting to canoeing, there is no end to the opportunities available in the park. And, if you somehow grow tired of the outdoors then you can head over to Cairngorm Brewery for a taste of locally brewed beers.
7. Luskentyre Beach
Arriving at Luskentyre Beach you may not believe you’re still in Scotland. With waters as blue as the Caribbean and white sands as bright as the Australian shores, this area sits in stark contrast to the surrounding greenery of the Highlands. Luskentyre is out on the island of Harris, which is reachable from the mainland by ferry, which you can take your car onto. The island has plenty of opportunities for hillwalking, cycling, and general exploration, and it’s a terrific way to spend a day.
8. Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park
The Trossachs National Park takes up about 750 square miles of land, and Loch Lomond is the centerpiece. While there is plenty to do and see throughout the park, one of the top recommendations is to cycle along the lake following the West Loch Lomond cycle path. This route is indicated as easy and is about 17 miles. For those looking for something more difficult, there are plenty of options available.
9. Glenfinnan Viaduct
While you wait for your acceptance letter to Hogwarts, you can test out the route to school along the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The viaduct runs 100 feet above the ground and spans 1,000 feet. It is where one of the most epic shots of the Hogwarts Express is taken from, and you can be a part of the magic on your trip to the Highlands of Scotland. The actual train running this route is called The Jacobite, and it runs from mid-April through mid-October. It’s an 84-mile round trip ride. Tickets book up quickly so it’s highly recommended to plan well in advance if you’re planning to include it in your Scottish Highlands tour. If all you want to see is the viaduct, skip the train ride and drive up yourself and park at the small carpark nearby. You can walk around below and beside the bridge and catch different views and shots, the better ones being on the east side. Do note, climbing on the bridge or walking on the tracks is not only extremely dangerous but is expressly prohibited.
10. Duncansby Head
Duncansby Head is the most northeasterly point of the British mainland. Sitting up on a perch, this headland provides some truly sensational scenery out across the water and the many rock formations and small islands that dot the sea. A short walk will bring you to the far side of the lighthouse for the best views.
There are many words to describe what the Scottish Highlands are, from magic to wonder to beauty, but none of them quite embody all that this land is. You’ll just have to see it to believe it.