Your Guide to Discovering the Dramatic Scenery of the Scotland Highlands
Uncover the Beauty of the Highlands
The romantic Scottish Highlands are truly what dreams are made of. You’ve probably viewed the scenery in at least a few television shows and films, but there is nothing like seeing those dramatic heather-covered mountains, glistening lochs, crumbling castles and stunning beaches in person.
This region that covers the northern two-thirds of Scotland, stretching from Inverness north to Thurso, hosts much of the mainland’s most breathtaking scenery, including the most vast, unspoiled wilderness areas in Europe, and many isolated villages that can only be accessed by boat.
So what do you need to know before visiting the Scotland Highlands?
Best Places to Go
You’d be just as happy if you were to spend your entire trip in one town, strolling through the countryside and getting to know the locals. But if you want to see your fill of the best places to visit in the Scotland Highlands, be sure to put these on your list.
Inverness is the only major city in the Highlands of Scotland, and is ideal to use as a base for exploring more remote areas. It also boasts a number of attractions itself, including the picturesque grounds of Inverness Castle, and the 1592 Abertarff House, the city’s oldest building.
Loch Ness is less than a 30-minute drive from Inverness. One of the world’s most famous bodies of water and best destinations in the UK, this is your chance to watch for the infamous creature, whether by joining a canoe tour to paddle around the lake, or from the spectacular ruins of Urquhart Castle.
Climb Grant Tower which overlooks the loch, peer into the miserable prison cell that reportedly once held Gaelic bard Domhnall Donn, and envision the once splendid banquets that were hosted inside its Great Hall.
For a longer visit, book a night or two at Aldourie Castle, one of the best castle stays in Scotland.
Isle of Skye
This dramatically scenic island, connected by bridge to the mainland, has a fantasy-like landscape that looks as if it must have been painted right into the sky. It’s home to some of the most jaw-dropping mountain and coastal scenery on the entire planet.
Just before reaching the island, along the main route in the Western Highlands, is Eilean Donan Castle, set atop a tiny island where three sea lochs meet. This 13th-century castle is one of Scotland’s most iconic castles and it’s open for public tours.
The enchanting Fairy Pools, set at the foot of the Black Cuillin Mountains, are also a must-see. The series of crystal-clear, aquamarine pools cascade down the River Brittle and are so stunning they’ve been used as the shooting location for several popular films, like 2007’s “Stardust.”
Other highlights on the isle include Dunvegan Castle, the ancestral seat of Clan Macleod, inhabited by the same family for over 800 years. As well, there’s the majestic Quiraing and its collection of impressive rock features, like the Old Man of Storr, the island’s most renowned spot.
The largest town on Skye, Portree has a bustling port and a thriving cultural center, though the population is less than 2,500. The harbor is the focal point, with multiple pubs, seafood restaurants and fabulous views across the bay.
Situated just off the north coast, the Orkney Islands feature miles and miles of rugged, wild coastline, and are jam-packed with wildlife, including seal and puffin colonies, dolphins, giant Arctic seabirds and whales. While minke whales are often seen, pilot, fin, orca, sperm and humpback whales all swim through these waters.
But what many come to see is its famous landmark, the Old Man of Hoy, a sea stack that rises nearly 450 feet out of the sea, carved from layer upon layer of Old Red Sandstone. Getting there requires a moderately difficult three-hour round-trip hike from Rackwick, or you can take the easier route and see it from the Scrabster-Stromness ferry.
The Shetland Islands are the most distant of islands in Britain, renowned for their rugged heather-covered hills, idyllic seascapes and ponies. Visit the northernmost inhabited island, Unst, and you can explore its Viking heritage and awe-inspiring scenery that includes a nature reserve, home to thousands of nesting North Atlantic birds.
Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris
Luskentyre Beach has been named the number one beach in Europe and the fifth best in the entire world. This picture-perfect stretch of pristine white sands lies at the edge of crystal-clear turquoise waters, looking as if it was stolen from the Caribbean.
Ben Nevis is the highest summit in the British Isles, tucked deep within the Highlands, looming more than 4,400 feet over neighboring Fort William. Its towering peak offers breathtaking views that stretch for more than 100 miles, from the Grampian Mountains toward Glencoe and the Atlantic Coast.
On a clear day, you can even see Northern Ireland.
The Three Sisters and the Mountains of Glencoe
Glencoe is the most famous glen in Scotland, and one of its most dramatic, with forbidding mountains, thundering waterfalls and dazzling lochs. Walkers and climbers come from all corners of the globe to tackle its stunning routes, while wildlife enthusiasts are drawn to its red deer, golden eagles and pine martens.
When to Go
The summer months are peak season in Scotland. While there are likely to be a number of pleasant, sunny days, that’s not always guaranteed — and, you’ll have to expect lots of other tourists.
If you don’t mind weather that is slightly milder, the shoulder season is the best time to visit the Scotland Highlands. In May and September there are also fewer crowds and accommodations are less expensive.
Scotland uses the British Pound as its currency. Most foreigners find that the exchange rates are less than favorable, but there are still ways to enjoy a more budget-friendly vacation here.
If you’ve visited any of the Scandinavian nations or countries like Switzerland, it’s probably going to seem fairly reasonable.
You can do the Scottish Highlands as cheap or as luxurious as you’d like when it comes to accommodation, with a shared hostel dorm room starting at around $13, and a private dorm room around $25. While hotels are more expensive the closer you get to city centers, budget rooms range anywhere from $20 to $130.
Eating out can be pricey, especially at your typical sit-down restaurant, but you can find meal bargains at street-side takeout carts and local pubs.
What to Know
It’s important to understand that the weather in Scotland can change in an instant, no matter what time of year you go. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about it being too extreme, as Scotland isn’t known for monsoons, hurricanes and the like.
But you may experience four seasons all in one day. That means it’s important to pack appropriately by bringing layers — you’re likely to need both sunglasses and an umbrella or a good rain jacket, and perhaps gloves, a scarf, and even a snorkel and flippers, if you’re so inclined.
After a summer of warmer weather, the seas and lochs are usually warm enough to provide some fantastic spots for snorkeling.