The Scottish Highlands are one of the most beautiful locations in the country. The wild, rugged natural beauty attracts millions of tourists worldwide every year. When it comes to Scotland's geography, there are largely two regions: the Lowlands and the Highlands. The Scottish Highlands refers to the geographic location in the Northwest of Scotland..
Dominated by hills and mountains, there are also pretty remote parts of the region. While there is the city of Inverness and towns like Thurso and Ullapool, more hamlets and villages exist throughout the Scottish Highlands. Some of them are so remote that the only way to get there is by car. With so many places to visit, tourists are really spoiled for choice. While this list couldn’t possibly cover everything that the Highlands have to offer, we’ve selected just some of the prime locations you will enjoy!
Getting to the Scottish Highlands and Islands
The Highlands themselves are simple enough to get to by train, vehicle or aeroplane. If you're travelling from abroad, the most direct airport to travel to would be Inverness Airport. Inverness is considered the capital of the region and would be a good place to start your adventures. Alternatively, you can travel to Glasgow Airport or Edinburgh Airport, and take public transport or a rented car from there to Inverness, as well as places like Aviemore or Fort William. However, a lot of tours, such as this guided tour of the North coast and Orkney, start off in Edinburgh, so keep that in mind You can also use the Scottish Airline Loganair from Glasgow Airport to travel to some of the islands by air.
Domestic travellers can reach Inverness by car, bus or train, with direct connections from major cities, including Glasgow, Edinburgh and London. The Caledonian Sleeper Train is a fun option for those travelling from England’s capital. However, if you want to explore further regions, a rented car will be the best mode of transport. Otherwise, you will need to do some homework on public transport. There are ferries which go to the islands. Depending on the time of year, only limited bus services are available. Additionally, the Scottish railway service ScotRail travels to certain locations like Fort William or Aviemore. To save a few pennies, download the Trainline app and book your tickets through them. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can even rent a bike for an extended trip and go camping. Wild camping is legal in Scotland. Just be mindful of the weather, clean up after yourself and be careful on the roads - trucks pass through the region and a good portion of the roads are single-track lanes.
Trekking up the hills and mountains of the Highlands isn’t the only thing you can do on your trip here. Though you can take photos of the elusive wildlife and the stunning landscapes, there are things for the more relaxed adventurer today. The Scottish Highlands are famous for their many whiskey distilleries dotted throughout the region. Try and see which one is your favourite, as some of them may be peaty (a smokey flavour that is created by burning peat) while others might be more fruity or nutty. There are even beautiful beaches where you can go sailing or swimming! Though I recommend doing this in the summer when the temperature is at its warmest. Either that or wear a thermal wetsuit or brave the cold waters for a refreshing wake-up call. It’s also well known for its extensive history and rich culture, as well as being the setting for some iconic films and TV series, like the 80s cult classic Highlander or the more recent drama series Outlander. One important thing to note is that a good portion of income in this area comes from the tourist sector, which means that some attractions will be closed during the winter. So, be mindful of that when you come to this unique part of the world.
The Scottish weather can be very unpredictable. Though it’s usually warm and humid in the summer and cold with occasional snow in the winter, it’s normal to have all four seasons in the one day. As a rule of thumb, though, the cold months will be December, January and February, while June, July and August are the best months to get some sun.
What are the best towns and cities to visit?
The first place to visit on a tour of the highlands is the regional capital, Inverness. As the only city, it’s a hub for the surrounding towns and the setting of the Inverness Highland Games, the largest traditional gathering of clans held every July. Separated by the river Ness, it is also the closest settlement to Loch Ness, the home of the Loch Ness monster. As with the rest of the region, it is rich in history, particularly regarding that of the Jacobite rebellions. If whiskey is a bit too strong for your tastes, you can also sample beer made by the local Black Isle Brewery. One easy way of seeing the city is by booking a tour bus ticket.
Best Things to Do in Inverness
To the south of Inverness is Loch Ness, the largest freshwater loch by depth in all of Scotland (Loch is Scottish for lake). It’s in these deep murky depths where the legendary Loch Ness monster is supposed to live. Viewings of the creature date back to Adomnán’s account of the life of St. Columba, written in the sixth century.
There are many theories about Nessie and if she really is a hoax. Some people believe she is the last of the plesiosaurs, a water-faring reptile that lived at the same time as the Dinosaurs. Why not visit the Loch Ness centre to learn more, or book a tour and see if you can see the creature for yourself?
If you follow the A82 towards Inverness, you’ll come across Urquhart Castle. Located on the western bank of Loch Ness, much of it lies in ruins, but you can still climb the Grant Tower for an elevated view of the surrounding loch. If you prefer a less adventurous view, you can go to the nearby cafe and enjoy the sites with the comfort of a cup of tea.
Entry to Urquhart Castle is £7.80. Sometimes, however, the Scottish weather makes it unsafe to visit, so the site will occasionally suddenly close. To check for closures of this and other historic sites in Scotland, click here.
Towering over the city of Inverness, Inverness Castle stands guard. Though the castle that sits there now dates back to the 19th century, the site it sits on has been used for castle buildings since the middle ages. The current castle was used as a prison and a courthouse when it was originally built.
Inverness Castle is a listed building, which means it is protected by UK law due to its significance. Sadly, at the moment, the castle and grounds are closed to the public due to renovation and remodelling. The site is set to reopen in 2025, but it’s still a marvellous castle to witness from the outside.
Inverness Museum and Art Gallery
At the foot of Castle Hill, In the historic centre of Inverness, is the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. This establishment shows off artefacts and collections related to Highland life and heritage while also displaying both permanent and temporary exhibitions from local artists and crafters.
The museum is open at the height of tourist season, during April and October. It is open every day except Monday and Sunday. If you’re curious about what exhibitions they have on show, click here.
The Black Isle
Located to the North of Inverness is a peninsula called the Black Isle. Here, you can do a range of things, like visit the picturesque villages of Cromarty, Fortrose and Beauly. But it’s also known for its historical relics, such as the Pictish stones (The Picts were a pre-Viking, early Middle Ages people who lived north of the Forth and The Clyde). Some of these stones are in the Groam House Museum in Rosemarkle
The Black Isle is also an area of stunning natural beauty. You can go mountain biking across the Learnie Red Rocks trails or cycle at your own leisure. It’s also a wonderful spot for nature lovers, with two nature reserves - Udale Bay and Fairy Glen. If you go to Chanonry Point, you might even be lucky enough to see some bottlenose dolphins.
The Jacobite Rebellions were a bloody chapter in the history of Scotland, and Culloden Battlefield is the setting of the last battle of this period. It was here that the Jacobite army, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie - or “the Young Pretender”, depending on the historical account - were brutally defeated by the Redcoat army in 1746.
Today, Culloden battlefield is west of Inverness, and there is a visitor centre where you can learn more about this history-defining battle. This is only open during the Summer. You can book a guided tour for yourself, where you can visit the battlefield and other historical points of interest.
Places to Stay
Budget - Adross Glencairn
While the larger rooms are a bit pricey, the smaller rooms are perfect if you wish to travel on a budget. Clean, comfortable and just a 15-minute walk from Inverness bus and railway station, the Adross Clencairn is the spot if you’re travelling on a budget alone or as a couple.
Mid Range - Black Isle Bar and Rooms
Located in the centre of Inverness, this pet-friendly location is ideal if you want to enjoy a pizza and a local beer before kicking up your feet after a day of adventuring. Some rooms overlook the roof terrace bar, so it might get a bit noisy, but is also a good opportunity to make new friends!
Luxury - Inverness Lochardil House
Just outside of Inverness city centre, the Lochadril House features deluxe rooms with free parking. As well as being within driving distance of Aviemore and the Cairngorms National Park, Lochadril is within reach of local gold courses.
2. Fort William
In the Southwest region of the Highlands, where the edge of Loch Linnhe meets the sea, is the town of Fort William. The gateway to the highest peak in the UK, Fort William is a great location for hiking and trail walking in the summer, as its the final point on the West Highland Way. In winter, skiing and snowboarding are available. Its seaside location makes it a great spot for fishing. The seaside location also means that you can take a cruise, and have a unique view of the Highlands from the sea. Fort William’s location and history make it a great spot to take a load off and relax in the Scottish Highlands.
Best Things to Do In Fort William
Next to Fort William is the highest peak in Britain, Ben Nevis. With the summit reaching 4,411 feet above sea level, it is the highest land for hundreds of miles, overshadowing the rest of the Grampian Mountains. Remember to take spare layers with you - Scottish weather can suddenly change even in the summer.
There are multiple paths to take to climb Ben Nevis. If this is your first time climbing, take the ‘mountain path’, which starts at Achintree on the east side of Ben Nevis or the Ben Nevis visitor centre on the west side. There are other routes which are harder to climb, some of them involve scrambling on all fours, but the payoff at the top is worth it.
Ben Nevis Distillery
And for the first whiskey distillery on this list in the Ben Nevis Distillery. Founded by John MacDonald in 1825, this distillery at the foot of Ben Nevis was reconverted from an old warehouse and is one of the oldest licensed distilleries in Scotland.
Why not pop in for a quick dram or two to celebrate climbing Ben Nevis? Due to Scotland's drinking laws, you must be over 18 to sample the whiskey, and the bar/shop doesn’t open until 10 am. If you’re underage, that’s no problem, you can still join on the tour. If anything, it gives you a reason to go back.
The Jacobite Steam Train
The Jacobite Steam Train is possibly one of the most iconic trains in service today. Ran by West Coast Railways, the steam train was used by the Harry Potter production crew and ranked by Wanderlust as the Top Rail Journey in the World from 2009 to 2013.
The steam trains route offers some of the most stunning scenery in the highlands. Along the way, the train passes along the Clenfinnan Viaduct, which you might recognise from the Harry Potter film series. If you start your adventure in Edinburgh, you can take the train and learn about the history of the region.
Old Inverlochy Castle
The Old Inverlochy Castle is about a mile away from the town of Fort William, and as with many of the castles in Scotland, has a lot of history behind it. Its location made it ideal for defence and played a part during the civil wars of the 1640s.
The site itself is not available for access at this moment in time. This is due to a masonry inspection, caused by the effects of climate change. However, you can still cycle or walk by, and give a passing look as it's on the way to the Ben Nevis Distillery.
The Commando Memorial
Located North of Fort William, in the town of Lochaber, is the Commando Memorial. This memorial commemorates the original men who joined the commandos in the Second World War. One of the reasons why it’s here is that, when these men were getting trained, they used this area of Scotland as their training ground.
A beautiful memorial for the men who made a huge sacrifice during a nightmarish war, you can access the Commando Memorial by driving along the A82 towards Inverness. The monument stands near the Commando Basic Training Centre at Achacarry Castle.
Places to Stay
Budget - Fort William Backpackers
Fort William Backpackers is just one of the many backpacking locations across Scotland. At a decent price, this 2-star hostel is within walking distance of Fort William’s attractions and town centre.
Mid Range - Garrison Cells
The Garrison Hotel and apartments offer a quirky location for you to stay in. Available for two people maximum, you can stay in a reconverted jail cell (though its a lot comfier than your traditional lockup).
Luxury - Victoria House Bed and Breakfast
Finally, this bed and breakfast provides comfortable accommodation with on-site parking, a hot tub and stunning views of the nearby mountains.
If you’re taking the train towards Inverness, Aviemore will most likely be one of your last stops before you reach the city. Located in the Cairngorms National Park, this is another great location for hikers and skiers. If you’re looking for wildlife, you’ll be able to see deer, and if fortune favours you, even an elusive Scottish wildcat. If your holiday involves the great outdoors, Aviemore is the location for you, both for families and solo travellers.
Best Things to Do in Aviemore
Cairngorms National Park
From wildlife watching to cycle routes, the Cairngorms National Park is one of the best locations for outdoorsmen to visit in the highlands. Named after the mountain range, this national park is Scotland’s second largest, home to a wide range of wildlife, including Brtain’s only free-range herd of reindeer, which you can visit at the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre.
If you fancy a little bit of adventure, you can take a zip line from the Zip Trek Park and have amazing aerial views of the surrounding country. There are also three nearby ski centres which offer some of the best opportunities for downhill snowsports in the whole of Scotland.
Highland Wildlife Park
If you follow the A9 due south of Aviemore, you’ll find the Highland Wildlife Park. Owned by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the wildlife park is a zoo and safari park that helps people connect with nature.
In addition to its function as a zoo and safari park, it acts as a conservation program to save threatened animals. These include native species like the Scottish Wildcat, to those of the more exotic variety, like the giant anteaters from Brazil.
Speyside is the name of one of the regions that produce Scotch Whiskey, and the most well-known of this region is the aptly named Speyside Distillery. Originally a barley mill, this reconverted distillery opened its doors in 1990, drawing its water from a nearby Spey River tributary.
Speyside Distillery is not the only one worth visiting. There are actually more than 50 different distilleries in Speyside alone! You can book yourself a guided tour along the Speyside Whisky Trail, and visit three of them: Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and Glen Moray distilleries.
If craft beer is more your speed, then check out the Cairngorm Brewery. Established in 2001, this relatively new craft brewery lies at the north end of Aviemore, on the Daflaber Industrial Estate. Made from Scottish recipes, the beer available is sold in kegs, but also in bottles, just in case you want to take a taste of Scotland with you.
They also have a 20-barrel Brewhouse, so you can go on the sesh- I mean, sample the local produce after a day of skiing or hiking. They always value customer feedback when it comes to developing their products, and it would be rude not.
Places to Stay
Budget - The Snug at the Ski Lodge
This small cosy accommodation provides a well-priced location for travellers to rest their weary head and plan future excursions.
Mid Range - The Balavoulin
Along with providing rooms and a restaurant/ bar, this accommodation also provides a ski pass sales point for those who want to do some winter sports.
Luxury - High Range Self-Catering Chalets
These chalets are well equipped for every would-be traveller's needs, with a warm apartment while just being 5 minute's walk away from local shops.
Ullapool is a small village located on the shore of the sea Loch Broom. Despite being a small town of approximately 1,500 permanent residents, it brings in a lot of tourists as it sits on the legendary North Coast 500, a road trip that travels all around the North coast of Scotland starting from Inverness. As well as opportunities for hiking and sailing, it is a port connecting Scotland's main island to nearby islands within the Hebrides.
Best Things to Do in Ullapool
Located in a listed building, the Ullapool Museum is a small but fascinating attraction to visit. Many of their exhibits feature the history of the local area, and how men from the local area have affected history.
One of the exhibits talks about a period of Scottish history referring to the Klondykers, a period of time where many different cultures started mixing in with the local population, including fishermen from some post-soviet countries.
One of the establishments you can visit in Ullapool is the Ceilidh Place Hotel. As well as a hotel, bar and restaurant, the Ceilidh Place is also a music venue. A Ceilidh is traditional Scottish dancing, though does more private functions than public ones.
Still, there is a lot for tourists to enjoy. Young artists exhibit their pieces in the gallery here throughout the year. The bar has at least one gin from each of the surrounding Hebrides, and live bands perform here, and a New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay in Scottish) concert is hosted here!
One of the locations you can travel to from the port of Ullapool is the nearby archipelago of the Summer Isles. Made up of around 20 different islands, the name may sound familiar to fans of the 1973 movie The Wicker Man.
You might be confused if you visit there expecting to find a pagan cult though - most of the filming was done in Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway, but the Summer Isles themselves are still worth a visit. Also, don’t be fooled by the name. The Summer Isles are under the mercy of the Scottish weather just as much as the rest of the country is.
Places to Stay
Budget - Ullapool Youth Hostel
Don’t let the name fool you. The Ullapool Youth Hostel is available to customers of all ages, and provides comfortable accommodation for travellers both local and from abroad.
Mid Range - Croft 17
Located just up the road from Ullapool, Croft 17 offers on-site parking and comfortable rooms with a view of the sea
Luxury - Number 27
This apartment is located on the edge of Ullapool, has secure access into the accommodation, and free parking to make your stay as private and comfortable as possible.
The ancient fishing port and market town of Nairn lies East of Inverness. The third largest settlement in the Highlands, people have been living in the settlement since the 4th century. Nairn is a relaxing little seaside town located on the Moray Firth. The name comes from the Gaelic Inbhir Narann. One of the biggest draws during the summertime to Nairn is its two gorgeous beaches. One famous visitor, Charlie Chaplin, used to take his family out here, taking walks along the waterfront. Nairn has different events throughout the year, like the Nairn Highland Games, the Nairn Book and Arts Festival, and the Nairn Farmers Market. If you want to visit this town and explore its highland heritage along with some of the previous destinations, book a day trip.
Best Things to Do in Nairn
The child-friendly Nairn Museum can be found in the Viewfield House. This museum’s many permanent exhibits illustrate and life and history of the people who lived in Nairn and the surrounding area. There’s also stuff for the children, with a play area and pick-up-and-touch exhibits.
The establishment is run by volunteers who work around the clock to help breathe life into these exhibits, as well as look after visitors. As with many attractions in the Highlands, the Nairn Museum is closed in the winter, opening from March to October.
Nairn Beach and Culbin Sands
As a seaside resort, one of the aspects that make Nairn so attractive to visitors is their beaches, Nairn Beach and Culbin Sands. Both of these locations rival tropical beaches in the summer.
While Nairn Beach and Culbin Sands both provide excellent opportunities to catch a tan and go for a swim, they are different in that Nairn Beach is enjoyed by locals walking their dogs or enjoying the seafront, while Culbin Sands is a coastal reserve, where visitors can spot the local flora and fauna.
“All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!” If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, you’ll recognise this from his play Macbeth. If you’re unfamiliar with the text, on his rise to power, Macbeth ends up becoming the Thane (or Lord) of Cawdor. Though the play is a fictional tragedy, it is set in Scotland, Castle Cawdor could’ve been a location Shakespeare had in mind.
It was originally founded in 1179, though that castle no longer exists. It has since been rebuilt and gone through different reconstructions from its owners throughout the ages. Take yourself through the many gardens, or climb up the tower house. As with many attractions in this list, the castle is closed during the Winter months, so don’t let that inconvenience your trip.
Places to Stay
Budget - Greenlaws
There aren’t any accommodations that I would consider the budget in Nairn. The cheapest is a double or twin room at the Greenlaws guest house. However, despite this, the price tag makes it worth your while, with free parking and breakfast included.
Mid Range - The Bandstand
This award-winning family-run hotel offers lovely views of the beach and Moray Firth, with a traditional Scottish breakfast included in the price.
Luxury - Muthu Newton Hotel
Just a 30-minute drive away from Inverness, this hotel used to be visited by Charlie Chaplin. Its proximity to Inverness Airport also makes it ideal for visitors coming from abroad.
At the very top of the main island of Great Britain is the town of Thurso. Originally an old Nordic port, Thurso now serves as a pitstop for those doing the NC500, but also uniquely is a spot for surfing as well as swimming. It also has the northernmost train station in the country, so you can just take the train from Inverness. The journey usually takes a couple of hours, and there are eight trains a day, so do a little research if you’re using public transport. It also serves as the ferry point to reach Orkney. Despite its remote location in Scotland, Thurso has its own set of attractions that make it a destination worth visiting.
Best Things to Do in Thurso
North Coast Visitor Centre
Originally known as the Caithness Horizons Museum, the North Coast Visitor Centre opened in November 2021 and acts as a museum for Caithness County. Sitting in what was originally Thurso Town Hall, the centre features permanent exhibitions spread across three floors, detailing the history of the country from prehistory to the present day.
Among the exhibits are Pictish artefacts which highlight the past of Caithness, and the Dounreay exhibition, which talks about the nearby Nuclear development sites which provided for much advancement in the field, but also was a significant employer that helped grow the population.
Auld St. Peter’s Kirk
Old St. Peter’s Church, or Auld St. Peter’s Kirk, is a ruined church that sits on the bank of the River Thurso. Dating back to 1220AD, this church dedicated to St Peter used to be the church that served the county.
The ruined church was attended for six centuries until being abandoned in 1832, when the new church was built. Up until 2016, it used to be a listed building. The ruins, however, still stand as a monument of Caithness’s religious past.
North Point Distillery
While many distilleries in the Highlands may be known for their whiskey, North Point Distillery also does rum. Co-founded by Struan Mackie and Alex MacDonald, North Point is based in Forss, just outside of Thurso. Now, rum might be an unusual product to find in Scotland, as it is typically more associated with countries where sugar is produced.
The way North Point create its rum is by using sugarcane and molasses from the Caribbean, but what makes the creation process so uniquely Scottish is that whiskey casks are used in the maturing process. In addition to their rum, they also have their whiskey, Commando Spirit. North Point offer private tours of its distillery.
Dunnet Beach/ Dunnet Head
To the west of Thurso, along the A836 lies Dunnet Beach. If you go even further, there’s Dunnet Head. While they share the same stretch of coastline, both are points of interest for different reasons.
Dunnet Beach is also the venue for the annual Tunes by the Dunes music festival, though this is only available to those over the age of 18. Why not take a beginner surfing lesson while you’re there? Dunnet Head, on the other hand, is a good spot for seeing wild sea birds, like Puffins and Kittiwakes.
Places to Stay
Budget - Sandras Backpackers
The only accommodation available in the budget range is this hostel in the centre of Thurso. Offering simple dorm rooms, this is the place to stay if you’re looking for good value for money.
Mid range - Westlea Bed and Breakfast
Near the beachfront of Thurso, this well-priced bed and breakfast has full-day security in a quiet location. The hosts offer packed lunches for any day trips you may be taking.
Luxury - Forss House
Located in the nearby village of Forss, this 4-star hotel comes with free private parking, as well as access to a restaurant and bar
Nestled at the mouth of Glencoe Valley, Glencoe is a perfect spot for hiking and admiring the natural beauty of the Highlands. Red deer frequent these parts, and if you’re lucky, you might just see a golden eagle. However, for those unfamiliar with the place, it is also the site of a traumatic piece of Scottish history: the Glencoe massacre of 1692. The story leading up to the event is a sad one, in which traditional highland hospitality was spat upon, and 38 members and friends of the MacDonald clan were slaughtered by government forces. Though it’s a heavy memory for the clans of the Highlands to this day, Glencoe is one of the most beautiful places in the Scottish Highlands.
Best Things to Do in Glencoe
The Three Sisters
If you’re travelling along the road towards Glencoe, or taking the train towards Inverness, you will pass the Three Sisters. These three peaks - separately known as Aonach Dubh, Beinn Fhada and Gearr Anoach - are one of the most recognisable geographical features of Scotland.
If you’re in a car or cycling, you can easily find it by typing ‘Three Sisters Car Park’ Glencoe into your map. You can walk along this range. There are well-worn paths along the way, but the terrain is very rocky, so don’t try walking up there with your trainers after it’s just rained. If you feel like its too much of a challenge, there are other hiking paths nearby.
Glencoe Folk Musem
Housed in a hay-thatched cottage, the Glencoe Folk Museum was the collaborative work of Barbara Fairweather MBE and her friends. The exhibitions inside are made up of donations from the local community, and it opened its current location in 1972.
The Glencoe Folk Museum features not just exhibitions from the era of the Jacobites, but also the First and Second World Wars. You can find the museum on the Main Street of Glencoe, though they are closed between the months of November and March.
Glencoe Visitor Centre
If you wish to learn more about Glencoe, then the Glencoe Visitor Centre is a must-see location for those travelling here. As well as explaining the geology and ecology of the area, they also go into extensive detail about the Glencoe Massacre and why/how it happened.
It doesn’t just feature information about this nightmarish chapter in Glencoe’s history. Glencoe is also a place that is frequented by mountaineers, and the Visitor Centre also goes into the history of the sport here. If that isn’t your thing, they also have a wee cafe where you can have a snack and coffee for the road.
Places to Stay
Budget - MacDonald Cabins
While there are no accommodations that fit our criteria for budget accommodation in Glencoe itself, one of the nearest and cheapest accommodations is these chalets in Kinlochleven.
Mid Range - The Wooly Rock
As with the MacDonald cabins, this accommodation isn’t in Glencoe itself, but is 3 miles away. They offer a cosy place to sleep with free parking, as well as the option for a packed lunch for day trips.
Luxury - River Beds
Glencoe has plenty of accommodation that fits into our definition of luxury, but these lodges set on a private estate with accompanying hot tubs and free parking were a personal winner.