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Best things to do & places to stay:

Last updated: 19 January, 2023
Expert travel writer: Lucy Gillmore

The Highlands is a land of tartan-clad myth and legend: a dramatic, mountainous region, twice the size of Wales, slashed with jagged lochs and peppered with gnarled castles.

It’s a magnet for history buffs, a world-class adventure playground and a hotspot for wildlife enthusiasts: magnificent stags roam across mist-shrouded moorland while golden eagles soar overhead.

There are wild, deserted beaches to tramp and empty roads snaking through forest-fringed glens sprinkled with whisky distilleries – perfect road-trip territory.

And for the end of the day, there are cosy castle hotels where you can tuck into wild venison or salmon from the rushing rivers.

Orientation

Inverness, at the Highland’s core and staging point for Loch Ness, sits at the top of the Great Glen, which cuts diagonally across Scotland from the southwest to northeast.

On the wild north coast you’ll find white-sand beaches and soaring cliffs. Head down the sea loch-indented west coast to activities centre Fort William, at the southern end of the Great Glen, in the shadow of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain.

The bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination

Jacobite Steam Train

Scotland, United Kingdom (UK)

One of the world’s most spectacular rail journeys – an 84-mile round trip from Fort William to the little fishing village of Mallaig along the west coast of Scotland.

Best for ages: 4+ | £90 | 6 hours

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Cruise the Scottish Highlands

Scotland, United Kingdom (UK)

Sail through Scotland’s mesmerising Highlands along the dramatic Caledonian Canal, taking in spectacular landscapes, craggy castles, whisky distilleries and glassy lochs, as well as the islands and waterways of the Inner Hebrides.

Best for ages: 13+ | Varies | 5-7 days

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Belmond Royal Scotsman

Scottish Highlands, Scotland, United Kingdom (UK)

Europe’s most luxurious hotel train offers a relaxing introduction to the Highlands, with stops including country houses, castles, gardens, Loch Ness and world-renowned Scottish whisky distilleries.

Best for ages: 25+ | £4,000 | 2-7 nights

North Coast 500 (NC500) road trip

Inverness, Scotland, United Kingdom (UK)

A spectacular road trip around the far-flung north coast of Scotland – spellbinding landscapes, ancient castles, occasional whisky distillery, and rich Scottish heritage.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free | 5-9 days

Other worthwhile experiences in this destination if you have the time or the interest

Arbikie Distillery
Experience

Arbikie Distillery

Montrose, Scotland, United Kingdom (UK)

A true grain-to-glass distillery on a 2,000-acre independent family estate on the Angus coast. They grow all the ingredients on their farm for their award-winning spirits including the first climate-positive gin made from peas, potato vodka and Scotland’s first rye whisky in 200 years. They’ve also recently launched a striking new state-of-the-art visitor experience and tasting room.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free

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Aerial drone shot of Castle Tioram, it is a ruined castle that sits on the tidal island Eilean Tioram in Loch Moidart, Lochaber, Highland, Scotland. It is located west of Acharacle, approximately 80 k
Experience

Castle Tioram

Scotland, United Kingdom (UK)

Pronounced ‘cheerum’ this atmospheric, 13th-century ruined fortress on a tidal island in Loch Moidart in Lochaber on the west coast has been uninhabited for around two centuries. Closed to visitors due to the dangers of crumbling masonry you can still wander across the sandy causeway to marvel at its ancient exterior.

Best for ages: 6+ | Free

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Cawdor Castle & Gardens
Experience

Cawdor Castle & Gardens

Cawdor, Scotland, United Kingdom (UK)

A place of pilgrimage for Shakespeare scholars (Macbeth was the Thane of Cawdor), this ancient fortress complete with drawbridge, turrets and towers dates back to the 14th century and is furnished with rare Flemish tapestries, oil paintings and fine antiques. The walled gardens peppered with contemporary sculptures are also a highlight.

Best for ages: 8+ | £14

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Our selection of the best Viator tours of this destination, plus helpful tickets and transfers

2 Day Loch Ness, Glencoe, Glenfinnan Viaduct & St Andrews Tour

2 Day Loch Ness, Glencoe, Glenfinnan Viaduct & St Andrews Tour

Edinburgh

Experience the BEST of the Scottish Highlands on this quintessential 2-day tour - an awesome overnight escape with one of Scotland's highest...

£112 | Rating 4.85 / 5 [14 ratings]

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2-Day Loch Ness and Inverness Small-Group Tour from Edinburgh

2-Day Loch Ness and Inverness Small-Group Tour from Edinburgh

Edinburgh

Spend two days exploring Loch Ness and Inverness, past and present, on a small-group trip to the Scottish Highlands from Edinburgh. As you e...

£204 | Rating 4.81 / 5 [431 ratings]

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3-Day Isle of Skye and Highlands Tour from Edinburgh

3-Day Isle of Skye and Highlands Tour from Edinburgh

Edinburgh

Discover the best of the Highlands and the Isle of Skye on this 3 day tour from Edinburgh. Visit Eilean Donan Castle, explore the Highlands ...

£300 | Rating 4.67 / 5 [488 ratings]

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3-Day Isle of Skye and Scottish Highlands from Edinburgh

3-Day Isle of Skye and Scottish Highlands from Edinburgh

Edinburgh

Discover the Highlands and the magical Isle of Skye with its outstanding natural beauty, Viking history, and ancient myths and legends. This...

£219 | Rating 4.89 / 5 [156 ratings]

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Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay in this destination

Three Chimneys

Isle of Skye, Scotland, United Kingdom (UK)

Legendary restaurant with rooms in an old crofter’s cottage, set on the remote shore of Loch Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye.

Official star rating:

Granary Lodge

Thurso, Scotland, United Kingdom (UK)

Fit for a (future) king, the Castle of Mey’s 17th-century grain store was converted into a luxury B&B by Prince Charles.

Official star rating:

Kilmartin Castle

Lochgilphead, Scotland, United Kingdom (UK)

A quirky 16th-century castle, complete with spiral staircases and stone-vaulted ceilings, converted into a bijou B&B in history-steeped Kilmartin Glen.

Official star rating:

Kylesku Hotel

Kylesku , Scotland, United Kingdom (UK)

A 19th-century coaching inn with creel-to-plate seafood, overlooking Loch Glendhu on the spectacular North Coast 500 route.

Official star rating:

When to go

Hogmanay is a traditional highlight – nobody celebrates New Year quite like the Scots and there are ceilidhs (dances) scattered all over the Highlands.

However, if you want to sightsee, many attractions close over the winter months. Spring and autumn are probably the best times to visit.

The summer season can be mobbed in the tourist hotspots and midges can be a nightmare on the west coast particularly (the midges are at their worst June to September). If you want to experience the traditional Highland Games you’ll need to brave the peak season crowds.

Getting there and away

Inverness is the main gateway to the Highlands and its transport hub, with an airport and train station on the main east coast line. However, Glasgow and Edinburgh airports are also access points. It’s just a three-hour drive from Edinburgh to Inverness up the A9.

Getting around

Driving is a dream in the Highlands. You’ll often have the route to yourself, especially along the coastal roads in the far north.

However, take care on the A9 (the main north–south route) as it’s a muddle of dual and single carriageway; slow-moving trucks and driver frustration can cause tailbacks and accidents. During the summer there is also a plague of caravans on the roads.

Where to stay

Inverness is the small, bustling capital of the Highlands and a good base for sightseeing, outdoor activities and Loch Ness.

Fort William, in the shadow of Ben Nevis and the Nevis range ski slopes, is the west coast’s outdoor activities hub. Aviemore is its equivalent on the east in the Cairngorm National Park.

For staggering coastal scenery, the northwest coast can’t be beaten, while foodies should head to gourmet hotspot the Isle of Skye.

Our writer’s recommended itineraries for this destination

Other guides relevant to this destination