Updated January 2018
I had always wanted to visit the Scottish highlands! And boy did they very much exceeded my expectations. There is something quite magical about the highlands – the extreme and ridiculously fast weather is extraordinary and creates a different feel – you can imagine that if anywhere has fairies and dragons this place does! Here is my Scotland Highlands Tour Guide covering the 12 best things to do in the Scottish Highlands:
1. Things to do in Scottish Highlands – Make it a road trip!
You absolutely want to have a car and your own car to explore the best attractions of the Scottish highlands. The key reason for me is that the weather changes so often and so quickly that when you get some good light you want to be able to pull over and take photos asap. I saw quite a few big tour buses going by on my road trip and I do think they would have missed quite a few great shots.
Your own car also allows you to get the best attractions intel from the locals. When I checked out of each Scottish Highland Hotel I would tell them where I wanted to end up that night and ask where I should go to get great photos that day. Their knowledge of the area plus the weather that day meant that I explored tiny B roads that would never have worked for a bus.
I picked up my little BMW at Glasgow airport and dropped it off ten days later at Inverness. The BMW and I were then off to our first stop – Fort William. Sat nav in hand it was easy to navigate my way out of Glasgow and head north.
You can also start your road trip in Edinburgh. If you’re heading to Edinburgh make sure you read my post on Exploring Underground Edinburgh.
And if you’re keen to extend your road trip have a look at the South West Coastal Drive 300 and don’t miss the lovely Dumfries and Galloway.
2. Take your time with Glen Coe
When you leave Glasgow head north on the A82 main road. This drive takes you through the stunning Glen Coe. It is frequently commented on in travel books for good reason – it is absolutely beautiful. But it is always about the light and the weather when it comes to photography – and you have to be quick in the Scottish Highlands!
The weather moves so fast that a beautiful shot would have disappeared by the time I found somewhere to pull over. I enjoyed Glen Coe so much that I drove through it again the other way two days later with my extra day in Fort William (I climbed Ben Nevis as well which has its own separate post here).
Leaving Fort William I headed for Rob Roy’s grave which is quite a way south – I like having a destination like this that allows you to stumble across little towns and views. It is a big drive down to the A84 and then the small backroads that take you to the little town of Balquhidder and the grave but it was beautiful and allowed for lots of interesting views. And the grave was very photogenic which was much appreciated!
From there I put the original Loch Fyne into the sat nav. Again this was a decent drive but was perfect for exploring random B roads and making discoveries. I managed to make it to Loch Fyne for a late afternoon oyster snack. The oysters were good – although I’m not sure they quite met my expectations. I had mostly miserable weather over the day but there were several points where the sun shone and I got some stunning shots – so more than worth it!
3. Eat Scottish Breakfasts
Oh my goodness are these BIG breakfasts! They make Irish breakfasts look like nouvelle cuisine! There is only one size – ginormous! So there are of course the usual fry ups you would expect but then less expectedly there were a lot of pancakes! And French toast. And in Durness at Glengolly B&B a very unexpected whiskey porridge. Heavy on the whiskey.
The Lime Tree breakfast was one of the best – great selection. Closely followed by the lovely Pennyland House B&B in Thurso which was a slightly healthier breakfast – much needed at the end of a trip of big breakfasts!
4. Check out the wildlife!
I never would have expected wildlife to be a key attraction when it came to the Scottish Highlands. It’s not exactly a place you associate with safaris. But I got to see quite a range of deer and some pretty spectacular goats! Plus some very strategically placed highland cows and sheep for photo opportunities in great light. This is yet another reason to have your own car for the trip. My best deer shots were when I pulled over to fill up the car – you seldom get your best shots in the car park of a petrol station!
Around Ullapool and further south, there are lots of boat trips on offer. I think we managed to get on the first one of the season. It was cold but we did see quite a few seals and a lot of bird life.
5. Visit a Castle or Three
Gosh, do the scots do a scenic castle well!!! Dark, moody, mysterious – these attractions are amazing! Eilean Donan was a major highlight on the way to and then the way back from the Isle of Skye. It juts out into the loch from a very cute bridge and is worth a brief explore. It is most stunning from a distance.
Naturally, most of these castles are not too far from towns where you can stay as they are fab tourist attractions. As a result, I would recommend visiting them twice for photography – shoot them on the way into town and then on the way out. The Scottish weather changes so dramatically you can get completely different shots – and of course, you double your chances of getting some decent weather for a nice pic!
6. Walk the Cuillin Hills – with a guide.
After a full-on experience on Ben Nevis, I was very relieved that I had booked a guide for the Cuillin Hills! Mitchell from Skye Ghillie came and picked me up at the hotel and was such a lovely guy. We headed to the base of the hills and grabbed a coffee at the little pub there. He then took me through the walk in detail and the different options we would have. I did think it was quite a bit of detail – until he explained why.
The year before another guide had gone out with one tourist – a woman – to walk the hills. They were standing on a ledge and a freak gust of wind blew the guide off the cliff. He could not move from where he landed so instructed the woman that she needed to go and find help. She, of course, had no idea where she was so had to wander with his directions from there. She finally found help. However, once she did she could not direct them to where the guide had fallen. The guide was found dead 3 days later.
I paid a lot more attention after this story.
So we headed to the stunning hills. The winds were harsh and we managed about 1 ½ hour. He then told me that the weather was not looking great so I was very happy to suggest we head back to the car – particularly as he offered to give me a sight-seeing drive around the best attractions of the island!
7. Drive the A87 and B roads around the top east side of The Isle of Skye
This was one of my favourite drives of the whole trip. The scenery was absolutely majestic – although of course, it was constantly changing with the weather! Depending on the weather your first stop can be Quiraing – a very scenic rock formation. There is a walk to the prison but the weather was not on my side so we didn’t risk it. The Old Man of Storr is also great for photos.
Driving along the coast and you’ll then hit the stunning and windy Tartan Rock – so named as it does resemble a tartan print. Then head inland to the picturesque Fairy Glen. Movies have been filmed here and it does have a genuinely magical feel – and a lot of sheep!
To find out more about this amazing area check out 10 Highlights of the Isle of Skye.
Go back in time at Ullapool
I would not have been surprised to see a calendar in Ullapool set to 1958. It really did feel like going back in time. It’s a small sea side town – really just one street of shops, bars and a petrol station. We used this as a base for two nights and then drove south and explored.
Stay at some uniquely Scottish Highlands Hotels & B&Bs
I stayed at such a mix of Scottish Highlands hotels on this trip!!! From the very plush to the rather basic B&B. Options were somewhat limited! There are quite a few full on 5-star options but they are very expensive (circa 3-400 pounds a night) so not really for solo or travelling with your girlfriends. Anyway, it is all part of the experience to discover new and interesting Scottish Highlands hotels!
My first stop was Fort William. My first Scottish Highlands hotel was the lovely Grange guest house b&B. My hostess was charming and the service impeccable. My room was lovely – large and with a stunning bathroom. This so felt like home! My lovely hostess had a delicious Scottish breakfast waiting for me in the morning and even packed a sausage sandwich for me to take on my climb on Ben Nevis!
Next up was the Lime Tree also in Fort William. This was a very different type of hotel to the Grange – it has an art gallery and is much more modern with a lot of wood – almost scandanavian in feel. It was lovely. I had delicious room service here the first night and the breakfast was fab!
Then it was off to the Isle of Skye and Portree to stay at The Cuillin Hills Hotel. This Scottish Highland Hotel was much bigger than I expected – I think it is well set up for bus tours. But my room was lovely and I ate well there both nights.
Next up was Ullapool and the rather unique Ceilidh Place. This was like staying in someone’s large home. The rooms are a bit old but very comfy and there is a big lovely lounge on the top floor. The restaurant here was also excellent.
We then headed to our most unique Scottish Highlands Hotel – Glengolly in Durness. I was enticed by the fact that the owner is a crofter and anticipated lots of friendly dogs – there were a few but not as many as I expected. This was shall we say a rather old fashioned B&B. There are not a lot of places in this area and to be honest if it is only one night well as long as it’s clean etc. Opt out of the whiskey porridge in the morning if you’re the driver.
Thurso and Pennyland House B&B was the Scottish Highlands hotel highlight of the trip – the hosts Carol and Raymond are so so lovely and it is a gorgeous and modern B&B. The final stop was Inverness and The Heathmount Hotel. This is also a pub which was a huge plus for us as we didn’t have to go anywhere when we got there.
10. Visit the beach at Durness
Scotland has some stunning beaches. It is difficult to imagine that it would ever be warm enough to wear bathers and actually swim in those beaches but they are very scenic! I discovered the beach at Durness when I took a stroll from our B&B. It is literally called Durness Beach which makes it easy. There is a very picturesque dilapidated church just before you hit the beach. And then just walk and walk along the beach and into the dunes. I went at sunset and this was a fantastic time for photos.
There is a lot of delicious seafood to be had as you travel the highlands. First night in Fort William my hostess recommended the Crannog seafood restaurant which sits on the Loch. The food was outstanding – I started with seafood soup and then moved on to some freshly caught white fish.
Fish and chips was a common meal type on this trip – best enjoyed in Ullapool on the water and then at well pretty much the only spot to eat in Durness – the Sango Sands. The Ceildih Place in Ullapool has a fantastic seafood menu – head there for dinner even if you are not staying the night.
And make sure you head for dinner quite early as during the trip it appeared that the Highlands shut down by 930pm in the month of April!
12. Don’t miss the top of the UK
So I thought that the top of the UK was John O’Groats – turns out it depends on how you define top. The most northerly part of mainland Britain (very specific) is actually Dunnet Head. So obviously that needed to be visited. However, to be complete we also felt we needed to head to John O’Groats as well. They’re conveniently close together but there is a lot more going on at John O’Groats.
I’ve travelled a lot and I have to say the Scottish Highlands is one of the most stunning places I have ever visited. The strangest thing is how often I was the only person around – it feels like there are places here that should be teaming with tourists. We can thank the Scottish weather for that! Don’t let the weather put you off though because it will change within the hour!
A fantastic way to get to the Scottish Highlands is to take the Sleeper Train from London – find out everything you need to know about Catching the Sleeper Train to Scotland here.
A Scottish Highlands Itinerary
Want to use this itinerary as a basis to plan a trip of your own? Check out the link below to wOndary – you can use this format and share it with friends and/or customise your itinerary:
Boutique Hotels in the Scottish Highlands
Looking for a hotel in Fort William in the Scottish Highlands? Check out the top 10 hotels in Fort William here
Getting to the Scottish Highlands:
Looking for flights to Inverness? Click here for some great deals
Looking for flights to Glasgow, gateway to the Scottish Highlands? Click here for some great deals
Scotland also has some amazingly scenic Train Rides
And it is a great place to hire a car
Great Deals for those visiting Scotland from outside the UK
Visit Great Britain has some fantastic offers that are just for those who live outside the UK. It is possible to make significant savings if you book certain things before you travel – not to mention how much easier it is to already have tickets for things when you arrive!
If you have just moved to the UK you can buy these passes in your first six months of residency.
There are a number of Brit Rail passes available. Rail is a brilliant way to get around the UK – the train services are generally pretty good and there are good timetables. The most important thing to check is what kind of pass you need. The best way to determine this is to start by checking this map against where you are planning to visit.
There are two options available for Scotland.
The BritRail Central Scotland Pass covers the key central cities in Scotland – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and Fife Station.
If you’re planning on exploring the Highlands and the islands of Scotland then a better option is the BritRail Scottish Freedom Pass. This covers all rail within Scotland and even some of the ferries to the islands.
If you’re planning on travelling around England and Scotland then the best option is to buy the BritRail GB Pass. This covers all train journeys across all of the United Kingdom.
All of the above take the form of paper tickets that will be mailed to your home address.
There is a new BritRail MPass which has an eticket that can be downloaded onto a mobile. However, it has one key restriction which is that the travel must be taken on consecutive days so make sure you check if this suits your plans before purchasing.
Book Your BritRail Passes Here
If you prefer travelling via a bus to train then check out the skimmer pass national express coach. National Express travels to over 1000 locations and has free wifi, usb and power sockets, onboard entertainment, air conditioning and reclining leather seats!
Minicabs can be a great way to get around the UK. Minicabit taxi booking covers 300 UK towns and cities and can be booked as far as one year out. These can be particularly good for getting from a train station to hotels/b&Bs.
One of the best value offers for overseas visitors are National Trust passes. These passes cover entry to a large number of major attractions and stately homes within the UK. If you will be visiting a few of their properties these passes very quickly become amazing value.
The Historic Scotland Explorer Pass covers more than 75 properties including Edinburgh and Stirling Castles, Urquhart Castle at Lochness and many more.
The Scottish Heritage Pass covers over 120 properties but can only be used between April 1 and October 31.
Click Here to see All Deals on UK Sightseeing passes
UK Travel Essentials
Grab a WorldSIM PrePaid Global SIM Card to stay in touch at reasonable prices. Access WIFI at local rates with the mobile wi fi rental wireless internet anywhere you go in britain. This in your pocket wifi can be picked up at Heathrow or Paddington Station.
Travelling Solo? Check out these organised tour options:
Need travel insurance? Click here for a good deal
You can support The Boutique Adventurer by clicking through on the links that appear on my blog posts around flights, accommodation, tours, travel insurance etc. I get a small commission if you end up buying on these sites. If that’s ok with you thanks as it all helps
Also published on Medium.