A road trip guide to Scotland’s NC500 itinerary

Chloe O'Brien | Live the World

May 16, 2023

Set out on the road trip of a lifetime as you journey through the pristine, undiscovered nature of the Scottish Highlands and the authentic gems of the North Coast 500 route.

Starting and ending at Inverness Castle, Scotland’s North Coast 500 (NC500) route is the optimal road trip that spans across 516 miles of the stunning Scottish Highlands coastline. The breathtaking landscapes are lush, rugged, and is just starting to grow in popularity amongst travellers, so head to check out this road trip route while it's still an off-the-beaten-path experience!

This road trip is an incredible insight into the traditional culture of the Highlands. Small, quaint fishing villages dot the coastline, serving up the finest coastal delicacies and the freshest seafood in the country. Explore historical sights like the stunning castles that are easy to stumble across that teach about the different Scottish clans that once roamed the wild lands. Away from the busy cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow is one of the most beautiful natural beauties in the world, ready and waiting for you to visit! The structure of this guide offers possible routes between small villages along the NC500, and some of the amazing stops along the way to your destination. When embarking on your journey, feel free to include as few or as many of the stops and destinations, personalising your road trip to your unique interests!

Due to so many of the rugged and remote locations that are along the path of the NC500, it can be quite difficult to secure accommodation exactly where you want to stay, especially because there are so many wonderful camp spots that a car just won’t be enough for! That is why renting a campervan with Goboony is an easy way to explore the Highlands in all its glory. Set up camp wherever and whenever you want, waking up to the most stunning views of the rugged coast of the North Sea, or perhaps getting acquainted with the locals, spending some time in a traditional, welcoming village as your accommodation of choice. Whatever your desires may be, Goboony is a flexible way to discover the NC500, with plenty of wonderful vehicles ready to be called your home during this trip.

Camper vans to rent in Glasgow

Explore Scotland with this modern camper van leaving from the Glasgow area. The spacious camper is fully equipped and luxurious for any off-the-grid camping adventures you may head out on. It is a newer vehicle, so it is ready for the long hauls across the Highlands.

This large campervan based in Glasgow is large, luxurious, and pet friendly, with awesome amenities like solar power as well as a heated indoor shower! Experience the best of the rugged wilderness while feeling at home, cosy and pampered!

Camper vans to rent in Edinburgh

This luxurious camper is all set to drive up to the Highlands from Scotland’s capital city, with a modern flair added to your camping experience. Enjoy the roof lookout that allows for the most amazing panoramic views, perhaps during your morning coffee.

Wanna bring your furry little friend along on your camping trip? Well, you’re in luck, because this camper van is pet friendly and located near Edinburgh, so you can bring your dog with you to explore the Highlands! Not to mention, the camper van is modern and cosy, so you’ll feel at home in no time as you explore the wilderness.

Camper vans to rent in Inverness

This beautiful, bright-red Volkswagen camper van is ready to explore the Highlands! Sleeping up to 4 people, the camper van known as Stan is a great choice for exploring the NC500, easy to pickup from Inverness, and fully equipped for a comfortable stay.

Stay in this fully furnished van that sleeps up to 4 people in the Highlands, offering unique amenities to cater to your perfect camping trip, such as high voltage inverters to run heavy-duty appliances like hair dryers and straighteners and a fun outdoor picnic bench with seating for 4!

Inverness

Inverness is essentially the unofficial capital city of the Highlands that is one of the most famous destinations in the route as well due to its proximity to Loch Ness, yes, the one with the monster! The city is a wonderful mix between nature and city life, as it is the biggest city you’ll find in the Highlands, you’ll get your fix of shopping, delicious traditional restaurants, and almost everything that you’ll need. Even though the city has all the necessities, it still is adorable with beautiful routes into the nearby nature, not to mention in size, it is still quite small and charming, with friendly locals and a safe, small-town feeling to the city.

Nessie at Loch Ness

Loch Ness

It wouldn’t be a trip to Inverness or the Highlands without going out and searching for the famous Loch Ness monster, often referred to as Nessie by the locals! The loch (lake in Scottish Gaelic, but don’t call it a lake!) is the second largest in Scotland and is said to be home to the Loch Ness monster, a legend that has transcended Scotland’s highlands and become a well-known story worldwide. Some think the legend is silly, and others enjoy the hunt for the monster. Even if you don’t believe in the monster, the lake is still breathtakingly beautiful, so at least come to admire it! And who knows what (or who) you might come across on your trip to Loch Ness.

The Loch Ness is relatively easy to reach from Inverness by car, but it can also be quite nice to embark on a guided tour to the loch, where you’ll get the opportunity to travel on a boat to search for the Loch Ness Monster for an hour! If you’re too scared of the mystical waters, you can opt out of the boat excursion and experience the beautiful surroundings, hiking through the hills and the forests with incredible vistas over the loch.

Inverness Castle

Inverness Castle is one of the most emblematic sites of the city, perched over the River Ness. Unfortunately, the main castle building is not open to the public, but the historical site remains iconic to the city, even being the site used in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (spoiler alert: its the site where Macbeth murders King Duncan, and also the spot where his madness starts). Literature fans will enjoy witnessing where Shakespeare became inspired for his iconic play.

Besides just being mentioned by Shakespeare in Macbeth, the castle has been extremely important in the role its played in Highland history, used as the base for the Jacobite army during the 18th century, who rebelled against the British throne in the hope of reinstating the House of Stuart to the throne, although unsuccessful, remains an incredibly important fight in the Highlands. Nowadays, the castle serves as the seat for the Highland Council and Sherrif Court, once again portraying its political and historical significance to the region.

Portree, Isle of Skye

Take a day trip to Isle of Skye

While Isle of Skye is not officially part of the NC 500, it is a beautiful isle and arguably one of the most well-known spots to visit in the Highlands. Luckily, from Inverness, you can take a day off from the NC500 and head out on a journey to explore the Isle of Skye. You’ll start off on your guided tour by visiting the Eilean Donan Castle, one of Scotland’s most photographed castles set on an island at the beginning of Loch Duich. Afterwards, you will go to the stunning colourful town of Portree, the main town on Skye, with beautiful views overlooking the ocean and the outstanding architecture. Here you’ll have your lunch for the day, which I can not recommend getting mussels enough, as the mussels I had every meal in Portree throughout a few different restaurants never left my mind after all these years. If you love seafood or shellfish, you’ll devour your plate.

Afterwards, you’ll head to the iconic rock formation of the Old Man of Storr. Attracting those with love for the rugged scene, the breathtaking landscape offers challenges for adventurers looking to take on the most unique of rock formations that the area has to offer, a tall sea stack that rises from the sea, just near the coastline. This destination is a favourite among the adventurous climbers who attempt to tackle the difficult ascent up the distinctive formation. If you prefer to absorb the sights from the coastline, admiring the unique geology and its seaside surroundings from the shore is more than doable and just as impressive.

Where to stay in Inverness

Budget-Friendly - Black Isle Hostel

Clean and spacious shared rooms conveniently located in the City Centre of Inverness.

Mid-range - Alban and Abbey House

This cute, adorably decorated inn is just 10 minutes away from the centre of Inverness in a quiet neighbourhood.

Luxury - The Royal Highland Hotel

This grand hotel is in an excellent location with a stairway inspired by the one in the Titanic.

Bottlenose dolphins near the Black Isle

The Black Isle

Despite its name, the Black Isle is not an isle but rather a peninsula, but interestingly enough, throughout history, it was a strategic position for the Picts, a Celtic people who lived in the Highlands. Their unique culture and use of the Isle as a stronghold separated them from the rest of the Highlands, so even though the Isle is a peninsula, not an actual isle, it does feel more like an isle due to its separation from the mainland.

The Black Isle is filled with immense nature, but one of the most unforgettable experiences is the Chanonry Point, a narrow split of land that protrudes into the Moray Firth. The most incredible aspect of this point is the resident bottlenose dolphins that can be frequently spotted playing and swimming in the waters around the point. Take a scenic shore walk, enjoy the dramatic coastlines, and keep an eye out for the dolphins that only add to the natural beauty of the peninsula!

Cape Wrath

Cape Wrath

The most north-western point of mainland Scotland is a prime spot along the NC-500, with desolate beauty and a rugged, dramatic landscape characterising the intense lookout point. The windswept Cape feels like standing at the edge of the world. There is nothing but the vast Atlantic Ocean that can be seen in every direction, and the gorgeous natural beauty and tranquillity of the Cape’s quietness make for an ideal place to soak up the nature surrounding, watching out for wildlife, and admiring its lighthouse dating back to the 19th century which is now open to the public for tours, delving deeper into the lives of the workers and the significance the lighthouse had when guiding boats through the treacherous waters.

Wick Harbour

Wick

This lively town is set upon the harbour and has long been an important cultural scene in the Highlands for quite a while, with one of its main attractions being a whisky distillery that has been in business since 1826! The Pulteney Distillery has been producing single malt whiskey for almost 200 years with no signs of stopping anytime soon, and they offer tours of their distillery, teaching about the process of making a nice whisky, and of course, including a tasting of some of their award-winning whiskies!

If visiting the town along the NC 500 during the summer, you might get lucky with the weather and get to soak up the sun at the town’s own sandy beach, but if it is a typical Scottish day, with overcast and wind, you’re still in luck as the beach offers some of the best lookout points over the North Sea.

Where to stay in Wick

Budget-Friendly - Harbour bridge, Camps bar

This cosy accommodation is housed above the lively Camps bar, offering breathtaking views of the Harbour bridge.

Mid-Range - House by the Harbour - NC500 Route

Enjoy a holiday home with a garden and a barbeque set in Wick with an ocean view.

Luxury - Caithness View Luxury Farm Lodges and BBQ Huts

Relax in a beautiful chalet with wonderful rural views and a unique setting.

A rare sighting of the Northern Lights in Thurso

Thurso

Thurso is the most Northern town on the Scottish mainland, not including the isles nearby the highlands, and its location has made it one of the most popular destinations for surfers in the UK, and is even considered one of the best surfing spots in the UK due to its consistent waves and pristine beaches. Surfers, make sure to be prepared to rent a wetsuit as the waters this far North are anything but forgiving!

Thurso is also quite a historic town, with a wonderful castle, the Thurso Castle overlooking the River Thurso, a stunning architectural wonder that was once the seat of the Clan Sinclair and has been converted to a private residence in this day and age. Another old gem in Thurso is the ruins of the Old St. Peter’s Church, with historical origins dating back to the 12th century. While the full structure no longer exists, the distinct architecture is impressive even in its ruined form and worth the exploration.

Dunnett Head

In the country of Caithness is where you’ll encounter Dunnet Head, a headland that is officially the northernmost point of the mainland United Kingdom. The viewpoint overlooks the Pentland Firth, which are the fast-moving tidal waters that separate the Orkney Islands from mainland Scotland. Keep your eyes peeled for any puffins who call the nearby cliffs their home! Those looking for a sandy beach to catch the views from can make an extra stop at the nearby Dunnet Bay, home to spectacular coastal views that will leave you in complete awe of the ruggedness and wildness of the Highlands.

Strathy Point

Strathy Point

Strathy Point has become one of the most gorgeous spots to come to enjoy the ruggedness of the northern coast of Scotland. The beautiful headland is known for being a perfect location to stop for a photo-op, soaking up the stunning views of the rugged surroundings, and is a great way to take a break from the car, stretch out your legs, and get a glimpse of something beautiful! The headland is a great place to come to spot the Scottish seabirds and marine wildlife, as well as enjoy the peace and quiet of this picturesque location. Between the hills and the rocky shores, you’ll find some miscellaneous hiking trails that may intrigue you, offering even more spectacular views over the sea.

Tongue

Situated on the northern coast of Scotland, the village on the shores of the Kyle of Tongue is a wonderful point for accessing some of Scotland’s most amazing hikes, including the Ben Loyal. The Ben Loyal already dominates the skyline of the village of Tongue. Of course, Ben Loyal is a wonderful mountain to admire from afar, but why not step it up a notch and hike up to the top of the emblematic Highland mountain? We promise you’ll be rewarded with some of the most stunning views of the countryside, as well as the tidal inlet of the Kyle of Tongue that stretches miles along the coast.

Tongue is also a wonderful little traditional village that makes for a great spot to spend the night. Between shops and cafes, as well as unique Highland cuisine served in the restaurants, there are a lot of quaint little businesses to explore, all with their own personal flair.

Smoo Cave

Smoo Cave

The natural sea cave of Smoo is nestled between limestone cliffs in the Sutherland region of the highlands, with one of the largest entrances to a sea cave in all of Britain. Formed by erosion, the impressive site is home to a 25-metre cascade that crashes into an 8-metre pool. The steep walk to the cave from the car park is worth it for the impressive mouth-like entrance and magnificent sites along the pathway. Visiting the cave on your own is a great way to get a taste of the cave, but to explore deeper, you can check if tours of the cave are operating to explore the lesser-seen areas of the natural wonder with a guide. The weather conditions can abruptly change if the Smoo cave is safe to enter or not, so we highly recommend calling in advance to see if tours will be running on your scheduled day of visit. Tours don’t run between 1 of November and the 31st of March as well.

Lochinver

The beautiful fishing village of Lochinver sits upon a bay, and is a prime spot for embarking on some of the region’s most beautiful hikes. One of the most iconic of the Scottish mountain ranges, Suilven, can be climbed from Lochinver, reaching an elevation of 731 metres. The mountain is a challenging summit, taking about 8 hours to complete the trail! While the hike is quite strenuous, it is the main attraction near Lochinver, and it is well worth the journey to the top. After the tough hike, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most fantastic views over the Highlands, the bay, and the Northwest coast of Scotland.

Despite its access to unforgettable hiking trails, the fishing port of Lochinver itself is quite lively, with plenty of restaurants serving up the freshest seafood of the Western coast of Scotland, not to mention the small seaside streets housing some artisan shops sellling traditional pottery and ceramics, amongst other delicacies.

Ullapool

Ullapool

This excellent destination has a long fishing history, with the British Fisheries Society being founded here in 1788, and the sparsely populated town hasn’t lost out on this tradition! The town is surrounded by unspoilt nature, which is what attracts most of its visitors to til this day, looking to explore the walking trails through the rigid mountain ranges amongst those along the rocky, whimsical coast. Ullapool is on the shores of the Loch Broom, and is a great stopping point on the NC500 because of its great location and cute little stores and shops along the coast.

Renowned throughout history for being a fishing town, you can’t leave Ullapool without trying some of the freshest delicacies that are found around the town. Fishing boats bring in delicious products daily, including langoustines, lobsters, spineys, crabs, fresh white fish, mussels, oysters, and scallops. An interesting fact about Scotland is that they export most of their fish to other countries because of the high global demand for fresh fish, but despite all this exporting, Ullapool has maintained its delicious and outstanding quality.

Where to stay in Ullapool

Budget-Friendly - Ullapool Youth Hostel

This hostel located right on the waterfront has fun social rooms and exceptionally helpful staff.

Mid-range - Croft No.8 Bed&Breakfast

This beautiful property is elegantly decorated offering breathtaking sea views.

Luxury - Harbour House

This beautiful lochside guest house has beautiful views of the loch and comfy interiors.

Falls of Measach

Corrieshalloch Gorge

One of the most awe-inspiring spots in all of Scotland is the Corrieshalloch Gorge, created by erosion and melting of glaciers at the end of the Quaternary ice age. The gorge itself is long, with a dramatic waterfall known as the Falls of Measach, an impressive natural feature that only adds to the beauty of the area. A Victorian suspension footbridge and a viewing platform have made for great lookout points over the waterfall as well! If you’re afraid of heights, don’t look down! The bridge can be quite intimidating, but as long as you keep your eyes up at the waterfall, you should be fine! One of the coolest parts of the suspension bridge is that it is accessible by wheelchair as well, so anyone can see the amazing natural wonder without having to worry about steep hikes that aren’t accessible for everyone.

Culloden Battlefield

The Battle of Culloden was where the Jacobite Rising came to an end, and is a somber place, housing the final battle on British soil in history, which killed 1,300 men, a shocking 1,250 of them being apart of the Jacobite rebellion. The Scots were never predicted to win this battle, and if they had, it can be sure history would look quite different today. Nowadays, a monument stands at the moving site. An interactive visitor centre houses artefacts from both sides of the confrontation and even has an immersive surround cinema that recreates the battle, so you can get a unique experience while also learning about the history of the battle.

A visit to Culloden Battlefield is extremely interesting, yet it can be rather upsetting. Headstones mark the graves of the hundreds and hundreds of clansmen who lost their lives fighting for the Jacobite cause, and a 6-metre memorial stands in honour of those who lost their lives. While it is one of the most important grounds in the Highlands, please keep in mind the dark history that is behind the battlefield, as it may stir up some unpleasant emotions while visiting.

Highland cow

Spot the Highland Cows at Applecross

It wouldn’t be a true trip to the Highlands without seeing some of the famous Highland coos, would it? The population of cattle in Applecross is one of the oldest and most famous in the world, where cattle roam through the surroundings of the village. If you’re not familiar with Highland cows, let's just say they’re like giant puppies. So fluffy, sweet, and in a variety of different colours! Visiting the cows is a great addition to any road trip, but especially for families travelling with animal-loving children! Make sure to be respectful of the animals of course, while they’re adorable and look like perfect cuddling companions, they do have free graze, are massive, and have horns. While the cows are known for their sweet disposition, when dealing with wildlife, it is always important to proceed with caution and give the animals space so as not to make them uncomfortable.

Beauly

Beauly

The rumour of how Beauly got its name is quite a lovely story, saying that the Mary Queen of Scots visited, calling it in French a beautiful place, or a beau lieu, therefore the Scottishized word Beauly spawned, creating the adorable Highland town that is known and loved today throughout Scotland! Whether this legend is true or not, we’re sure you will agree with the words of Mary Queen of Scots, that is a gorgeous little spot!

Beauly is located just 20 minutes away from Inverness, making it a great last stop on your NC500 road trip before completing the circle. For some authentic Scottish shopping, make sure to check out the Campbell’s of Beauly, a historical store that specialises in the traditional production of tweed, an iconic Scottish look. The village and the High Street boast quaint cafés, delicious delis, and wonderful shopping that will keep you occupied during your visit.

Just outside of Beauly is where you’ll find Robertson’s the Larder and Highland Cows, which is just outside of Beauly. The Larder is a farm shop that has a range of different delicacies and seasonal fruits and veggies, as well as a lot of souvenirs and desserts. In the field next to the Farm Shop, you’ll find a few highland cows alongside alpacas who are keen on the company. This is a cute visit for families as you get to enjoy the wonderful delicacies the shop has to offer, while admiring the gorgeous Highland cows.

Return to Inverness

It is up to you if you actually want to finish off your trip once again in Inverness. If you do decide to close the route and have it all come together full circle, finish off your journey in the capital of the Highlands, enjoying the nature that flows through the energetic city, and give yourself a pat on the back for completing the full route of the NC500!

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