The North Coast 500 is our most spectacular driving route. It is Scotland’s version of Route 66 in the USA, covering 500 miles, taking you on a tour of the wildest parts of North Scotland.
Awarded first place in the 2019 Scottish Rural Awards in the Rural Tourism category, the NC500 company was praised for extending the tourist season in the north Highlands, adding that it had created “a piece of marketing genius, so much so other areas are copying it”. It’s true; the NE250 launched last year, and there are some southern routes in the pipeline too.
Starting and finishing in Inverness, the route takes you on a journey over to the wild west taking in the rugged terrain of Achnasheen, Lochcarron, Applecross and Torridon. Continuing up the west coast, it introduces the charming Highland towns of Gairloch, Ullapool and Lochinver as well as showcasing the craggy coastline and amazing beaches. It then takes you across the north coast, eventually reaching John o’Groats, the most northerly tip of Scotland, before heading south again to Inverness. That is the route in a nutshell, but there is heaps more to it than that which is why we have pulled together the reasons we think you should drive the NC500 route.
- The call of the open road
- Beautiful scenery
- Sandy beaches
- Local food and drink
- Scottish castles
Enjoy the freedom of an open road
One of the nicest ways to see a new area is by car. There is nothing quite like the freedom of the open road; no time limits, no major itinerary - just you and the road making your mind up as you go. Whether on a main road in Scotland, a B road or a small single-track lane, there are so many sights to be seen that will take your breath away. This 500-mile tour of Scotland needs to be driven at least once in your lifetime, so whether you hire an open-top car or take your own one, hit the road and feel free!
The route takes you through woodland, along Lochside, it drives you beside the coastline and up through mountains – the famous one being the Bealach na Ba. This is a winding single-track road which twists and turns you up through the mountains at Applecross. Its name means ‘the pass of the cattle’ and was paved in history by cattle herders who transported their cows by foot – something our generation couldn’t even imagine! This will be a highlight of the trip as you reach the top and admire panoramic views and all the way over to the Cuillin mountains of the Isle of Skye.
North Coast 500 highlights:
- Between Kinlochewe and Gairloch you will pass by Loch Maree, a glorious loch caressed by craggy mountains. At 21.7km long and a max of 4km wide, it is the fourth largest freshwater loch in Scotland.
- The stretch between Lochinver on the west coast and Durness on the north coast will surprise you at the turn of every corner. With options for detours along this road, you can sneak off to Sandwood Bay, Balnakeil Bay or Smoo Cave. However, the views from the car are pretty spectacular too!
- The road between John o’Groats and Tain takes you all the way down the eastern coastline of North Scotland which promises a smooth drive with sea views. The small villages of Brora and Dornoch are just lovely and the magical Dunrobin Castle is set between.
Being a self-toured route means that you have free rein over your plans, so get on the road and enjoy the freedom that comes with it. Whether you decide to take on the whole route or stay in a cottage to take in one part of it, the road is there to help you discover this part of Scotland.
Take in beautiful scenery
The Highlands of Scotland is renowned for its beautiful scenery and this northern section of the country is no exception. Coastline, wetlands, farmland, rivers, lochs, beaches, forests and mountains are everything you can expect when visiting this breathtaking part of the world. The landscapes are second to none and the dramatic scenery is why people keep coming back. It is a route that can be driven once, but most come back again - and when they do come back, they stay in one or two areas for longer periods of time.
Here are some areas in which you could stay and explore a little more whilst immersing yourself in Scotland’s nature…
Applecross is a small village nestled on the Applecross peninsula which lies between the mainland mountains and the Isle of Skye. It lies between Lochcarron and Shieldaig and is the small village you come to after driving over the Bealach na Ba from the south.
Home to just a couple of hundred people it is a chilled-out location for those seeking a relaxing break. With its own inn, gallery, ice-cream shop and quirky take-away it makes for an adorable place to visit. We have four fantastic holiday homes in Applecross which can be the perfect base to explore this area and beyond. They are all located on Applecross Estate who are home to Scotland’s favourite Highland Cattle herd.
- The Estate Office, sleeps 12
- Bramble Lodge, sleeps 8
- Faoilinn, sleeps 4
- Jam Factory, sleeps 2
Ullapool is a seaside town in the north-west Highlands offering the interested traveller a wonderful holiday spot full of culture and excitement. It is a port town linking the mainland to the Outer Hebrides so trips across to Harris and Lewis are easily achieved.
It has a charming harbour where you can watch the fisherman go about their daily business and you can sample the freshest of seafood in the local pubs, restaurants and award-winning takeaway. Galleries, craft shops, book shops, an outdoor shop and a Tesco can all be found here, so whether you are stopping by or staying here you can stock up with what you need. Well known for its local talent in the music world, you can enjoy live music in many of the lively pubs. Find out more with our guide to Ullapool.
We have some charming holiday homes in and around Ullapool which have amazing scenic backdrops and are remote yet close to the town.
- Burnside House, sleeps 12
- 2 Letters, sleeps 6
- Rural Highland Lodge, sleeps 18
Durness and Tongue
Right along the north coast there are miles and miles of amazing coastline to discover and multiple sandy beaches that will have you stopping every few miles or so. You will come across Durness and Tongue, two thriving villages surrounded by the beautiful landscape of Sutherland which are a haven of wildlife, turquoise waters and rocky coastline.
When staying here, you can explore the wildest part of Scotland, hunting out magical coves, exploring Smoo Cave and taking in the sights of Loch Eriboll, there is no place like it. Here are a couple of places to stay:
- Corrachbeag, sleeps 4
- The Wee Housey, sleeps 4
Play on sandy beaches
Many of us are sun-seekers, especially those who are from the UK. We aren’t always lucky with the weather, so we often leave the country in search of a warmer climate when going on holiday. However, in discovering the NC500 driving route, many have found that some of Scotland’s water and beaches give tropical waters a run for their money – it could be said that they are even more crystal clear than the Caribbean on a good day!
There are so many beaches dotted along the route; in fact, you are never more than 30 minutes from one and the best way to find them is to keep an eye out for signs to beaches whilst you are driving. Keep an eye out for the brown tourist boards.
Here are some of the best NC500 beaches that are worth a detour on a sunny day, even just for a skinny dip, a quick picnic or for the kids to stretch their legs. Or you may want to stay longer to spend some proper time by the ocean to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life. All of these beaches are dog-friendly too!
- Big Sand – Gairloch, IV21 2DL
- Mellon Udrigle Beach – Laide, IV22 2NT
- Achmelvich Beach – Wester Ross, IV27 4JB
- Balnakeil Bay – Durness, IV27 4PX
- Torrisdale Bay – Tongue, KW14 7SS
- Embo Beach – Embo, IV25 3QD
- Burnmouth Beach – Dornoch, IV25 3LZ
Sample local food and drink
Whilst there is so much food to be discovered around this route - from haggis to Harry Gow’s dream rings - the one food group which this area of Scotland is famous for is its outstanding seafood.
If you are a lover of seafood and eating freshly caught fish, lobsters, prawns, mussels and everything else fishy, Scotland’s coast is where to be. Seafood is celebrated in Scotland with lots of establishment serving up the best of the ocean on its plate, but there is nothing like experiencing the tastes whilst staying in remote and rural places.
Here are our top two eateries along the route who will show you how seafood is meant to be eaten!
The Storehouse - This is near the start and end of your NC500 travels and is home to a farm shop, gift shop and restaurant all enclosed in a gorgeous 18th-century storehouse. All the seafood here is locally sourced, from salmon to kippers and herring and the variety of meals and recipes will make you want to come back and try everything on the menu. For warmer months, there is outdoor seating with beautiful views over the Cromarty Firth. Location: Evanton, IV16 9UX
The Kylesku Hotel – This hotel has its own slipway where boats will land and deliver the seafood straight to the door – now that’s what we call local! Lobster, crab, langoustine and scallops are all caught from local waters and served in beautiful form at this splendid hotel. Try the cured salmon gravlax, or Scotland’s best Cullen skink, or pick from their ‘catch of the day’ menu for the freshest choice. Location: Sutherland, IV27 4HW
And then for the drink…
Scotch whisky is malt whisky or grain whisky made in Scotland and it is the beverage we are most famous for. It is regarded as one of the finest varieties of whisky in the world and has been brewed in Scotland since at least the 15th century! Today there are over 120 active distilleries spread across Scotland, with around six existing on the NC500 so there is chance for you to taste some of the country's best when staying on the route.
Here are some distilleries you should keep an eye out for to try a range of tipples:
- Dunnet Bay Distillers – famous for their multi award-winning Rock Rose Gin and Holy Grass Vodka.
- Glenmorangie Distillery – exceptional single malt whisky, being made for the last 175 years. Tours and bookings every half hour through the summer season.
- Clynelish Distillery – sample its fruity, waxy and slightly smokey single malt which is made using water from the Clynemilton Burn.
- Badachro Distillery – infusing wild Highland botanical in their small batch gin.
- Glen Ord Distillery – famous for The Singleton of Glen Ord.
- Balblair Distillery – one of the oldest and most picturesque distilleries in the world.
Have a dram and celebrate Scottish style!
Discover Scottish Castles
With the route starting and finishing in Inverness, Inverness Castle is in a handy location whether you want to fit it in at the beginning or end of your trip. Originally it dates back to the 11th century, however the structure seen today was built in 1836 and is now the sheriff court for the Highlands. It is built with red sandstone and overlooks the River Ness. Although not open to the public, there is a northern tower which you can climb for a good view of the city.
- Location: Inverness, IV2 3EG
- Entrance fee to tower: Adult £5/child £3
- Stay close by: The Ardross Residence, sleeps 4
This spectacular castle lying north of Dornoch dates right back to the middle ages and is one of the largest castles in the northern Highlands. In 1845, the architect Sir Charles Barry was retained to completely re-model the castle, changing it from a fort to a house in the Scottish Baronial style which later became popular among aristocracy. On visiting you will notice the French influence in the turrets and conical spires and the gardens which surround the house, which were based on Versailles. A fascinating place and definitely one to fit in!
- Location: Golspie, KW10 6SF
- Entrance fee: Adult £12 / child £7.50 Free to walk around the grounds
- Stay close by: Sunny Cottage, sleeps 8
The Castle of Mey sits just west of John o’Groats on the north coast of Scotland. Dating back to the 14th century, the original structure still stands with additional structures being added throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Opening in 2007 as a visitor centre, it has become one of Scotland’s most-visited castle, with 27,000 visitors in its first year. You can take a tour of the castle or simply wander around the gardens, and then take a break in the castle shop and tearoom.
- Location: Caithness, KW14 8XH
- Entrance fee: £12 Adult / £6.50 child
- Stay close by: The Captain's House, sleeps 6
Other amazing castles to discover:
- Castle Varrich - A ruin sitting high above the local village of Tongue. This is one of the oldest castles on the NC500 and is thought to have been the ancient seat of the chief of Clan Mackay, over 1,000 years old.
- Castle Leod – This fully restored castle dates back to the 12th century and has been home to both Clan Macleod and Clan Mackenzie over the last 500 years. This castle will be a familiar sight to all of the Outlander fans out there, being widely thought of as the main inspiration for Castle Leoch!
- Castle Ardvreck - Surrounded by the still waters of Loch Assynt, the ancient ruins of Castle Ardvreck are a sure sight to behold. This was then the stronghold for Clan Macleod until 1672, when it was captured by Clan Mackenzie. It was then inhabited until 1737, when a mysterious fire destroyed it beyond repair.
Are you ready to drive the NC500 in Scotland?
As if this list wasn’t enough, there is even more to be enjoyed when taking on this spectacular 500-mile road trip. As well as sights and beautiful scenery, there is so much wildlife to be seen including red squirrels, deer, eagles, dolphins and seals to name a few. And for those of you desperate to get your eyes on our famous ginger locals, Highland Coos can be spotted in various locations too!
If you are looking to stay in this amazing part of the world to explore sections of the route, check out our amazing NC500 holiday homes which are waiting to offer you a brilliant base and a comfortable night sleep.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing,
please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.