Scotland’s vast wilderness and epic landscapes must be on your holiday destination list for 2020 where you can discover great glens, the mirror-like depths of the lochs and long swathes of sandy beaches.
Whether you’re visiting for adventure and intrigue or peace and tranquillity, Scotland is a place like no other. Tuck yourself away in the mountains with breathtaking vistas from your cottage escape or set up camp in a stylish town in the Spey Valley. Take a trip further north to Sutherland, or ferry hop your way to the Isle of Harris and Lewis for wild rugged terrain.
This little guide covers just a fraction of all the phenomenal things to see and do in the Highlands - use it as an inspirational overview and find your ultimate Scottish escape to the Highlands. If you already know where you’re going and what you’ll get up to during your time here, take a look at our collection of holiday cottages in the Scottish Highlands and pick out your perfect holiday escape.
There are so many wonderful places to explore throughout the Highlands and visiting the many historic towns and villages is the perfect way to soak up the Scottish culture. Here are a few that we consider to be the highlights when it comes to the villages of the Highlands…
Let’s begin with the towns and villages around the beautiful Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park: Scotland’s first national park and a uniquely varied landscape due to its position right on the border of the Highlands and Lowlands.
To the south of the loch is busy Balloch and Alexandria with attractions including a SEALIFE Centre and Ballock Castle, while on the western bank pretty Tarbert is a peaceful village with a quaint pier, and further west in the Trossachs, sits the ever-picturesque waterside village of Lochgoilhead; a wonderful choice for a relaxing break. You can uncover more about this national park further on in this guide or over in our guide to Loch Lomond. North of this national park, yet still in the West Highlands, you’ll find Glencoe sat on Loch Leven – it’s a year-round favourite among families as there’s so much to entertain everyone. It’s famed for the ski resort open during the winter months but throughout the summer, there’s a whole range of fun activities too, not to mention terrific terrain to explore. A bit further north of this you will find Fort William which is renowned for its hill walking and mountain biking.
South West Highlands
Further west sits the breathtaking Argyll Coast, with some of the most beautiful and least frequented coastline in Scotland. Home to beautiful sandy beaches and salty lochs, some of Scotland’s prettiest towns can be found here including the colourful and vibrant Oban, as well as Tobermory on the Isle of Mull and Campbeltown on the Argyll peninsula.
Besides wonderful towns and villages, this region is home to the expansive Argyll Forest Park found on the Cowal peninsula and sandy beaches such as Ganavan Sands, found just around the coast from Oban. To discover colourful fishing villages and beautiful beaches, start browsing our holiday cottages on the west coast.
Head north to Applecross for views across to the Isle of Skye, make sure you take on the famous Bealach Na Ba mountain crossing and check out Plockton and grab some seafood in one of the picturesque pubs! Cross over the bridge to stay on the beautiful island itself in Portree or Talisker – these fishing villages are exciting hubs for locals and tourists to come together.
The northern coast is a haven for wildlife and overflowing with friendly fishing villages and azure blue bays with soft sandy beaches. A few of the prettiest villages in Sutherland include the tranquil seaside village of Gairloch, pretty Durness located on remote Cape Wrath (home to an RSPB reserve), the village of Torridon which is part of a larger region consisting of glens and mountains, the northern hub that is Lairg, as well as the quiet crofting village of Scourie set in a picturesque bay.
Unspoilt beauty can be found around every corner; follow the North Coast 500 - Scotland’s stunning version of the iconic 'Route 66' to see as much as possible of this fascinating coastline: a fantastic road trip route that begins and ends at Inverness Castle. Peruse through our collection of holiday homes and lodges in Sutherland.
The eastern towns and villages
The east of the Scottish Highlands is the busiest as it’s home to the cultural capital of the Highlands, Inverness. Home to museums, galleries, shops, eateries and a whole range of fantastic attractions, not the mention the magnificent Inverness Castle, it’s a hot spot for travellers, holidaymakers and locals alike. Under 15 miles away from this bustling city, you’ll find famed Loch Ness - home to the mythical monster of the deep and a popular destination for sailing and canoeing. Fort Augustus and Drumnadrochit are villages sat on the banks of the beautiful Loch Ness and both enjoy a range of eateries and attractions. Pubs, cafes and stylish restaurants line the edge of the loch and provide a huge variety of options while you’re on holiday.
Finally, The Cairngorms National Park can be found stretching across much of the east of the Scottish Highlands. It’s rich in wildlife, fun activities and beautiful places to stay, with a few of its top places to visit being Aviemore, Kingussie, Grantown on Spey and the Spittal of Glenshee. Discover more about this unforgettable region below.
There are so many things to do and places to see in the Scotland, it’s tricky to pick out the highlights but we’ve done our best by choosing a few must-see places in Scotland and fun family things to do. Take a look at our top 10 things to do in the Scottish Highlands.
- John O’Groats – if you happen to be holidaying in the northern end of Sutherland, visit this famous location and take a photo by the iconic sign whose counterpart resides down in Land’s End in Cornwall. This is the most northerly point on Scotland’s mainland where you can catch the ferry over to the Orkney Islands.
- Highland Folk Museum – if you want to get to know the Highlands fully, we recommend a visit to this first open-air museum in Newtonmore. Visitors to this living history Museum can learn how our Scottish Highland ancestors lived, how they built their homes, how they tilled the soil and how they dressed, in a friendly and welcoming environment. Location: PH20 1AY
- RZSS Highland Wildlife Park – from the mighty Amur tiger to the cheeky snow monkeys and the iconic European grey wolf, you’ll meet an amazing variety of animals at this wildlife park near Kingussie. Location: PH21 1NL
- Landmark Forest Adventure Park – ride a rollercoaster, get lost in the maze or climb the high ropes at this theme park in Carrbridge. Also marvel at Dinoland, an impressive display of life-size prehistoric dinosaurs. Location: PH23 3AJ
- North East 250 – you’ve heard of the renowned North Coast 500, now check out the North East 250 which comprises several attractions in one; this is a road trip route that will take you to all the best places the north-east of Scotland has to offer including castles and beaches.
- Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition – the Loch Ness Monster is so ingrained in Scottish mythology that a visit to their Loch Ness Monster exhibition is a must. Location: IV63 6TU
- Glenfinnan Viaduct – otherwise known as ‘the Harry Potter bridge’. Walk the Glenfinnan Viaduct trail to see it from the ground or ride across it on The Jacobite Steam Train. Imagine Harry flying in his car whilst you take the trip on the train!
- The Commando Memorial – any WWII history buffs must make a trip to this memorial located on grounds where thousands of allied troops came to train for warfare. Location: PH34 4EG
- Culloden Battlefield – another gem for those interested in Scotland’s incredible history. This is the site of the Jacobite Rising and includes a visitor centre and interactive exhibition.Location: IV2 5EU
- Fairy Pools – a magical collection of waterfalls running into blue pools on the Isle of Skye where you can try wild swimming or enjoy a wonderful waterfall walk. Location: IV47 8TA
The history of the Scottish Highlands is long and complex, and this has led to a landscape scattered with magnificent castles and fortresses. There are so many it would take you forever to learn about them all, so to save you the trouble, we’ve gathered together our favourites. Discover our top 10 Scottish Highland castles below.
- Dunrobin Castle – the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses, with roots as far back as the 13th century, you can take a tour and see a falconry display on the grounds. Location: KW10 6SF
- Fort George – built during the Jacobite threat of the 1700s and set 12 miles from Inverness, you can step foot on the main rampart, visit the grand magazine (home to an impressive collection of weaponry) and stop by the dog cemetery, the resting place of officers’ dogs. Location: IV2 7TD
- Brodie Castle – a favourite with families and just 4 miles from Forres, explore the Playful Garden and plan your trip right to catch one of their special events that take place throughout the year. Location: IV36 2TE
- Urquhart Castle – a ruined castle on the edge of Loch Ness that has stood for more than 1,000 years, discover incredible history and breathtaking views. Location: IV63 6XJ
- Inverness Castle – climb to the top of this building for the Castle Viewpoint which offers a 360-degree view of the Highlands’ cultural capital of Inverness. Location: IV2 3EG
- Dunvegan Castle & Gardens – an Isle of Skye gem, this fortification offers tours, beautiful gardens and even seal sighting boat trips! Location: IV55 8WF
- Loch an Eilein (Loch of the Island) – walk and picnic in Rothiemurchus Forest, see this beautiful ruined island castle from the shore and visit the Loch an Eilein art gallery that showcases local artists works.
- Cawdor Castle and Gardens – a beautiful castle and gardens near Inverness whose claim to fame is the intriguing link to Shakespeare and Macbeth. Location: IV12 5RD
- Eilean Donan Castle – visit Scotland’s ‘most photographed castle’ near Dornie. Location: IV40 8DX
- Castle Leod – the seat of Clan McKenzie is 20 miles from Inverness. It’s still a family home so you can only visit this ancient castle on special open days or by booking a private tour. Location: IV14 9AA
If you think you might like to holiday in your very own fairytale castle, take a look at our luxurious Pink Castle in Largs.
There’s a whole range of wonderful outdoor pursuits throughout the Highlands which can be enjoyed all year round - get out and about with walking and cycling, climbing, kayaking, fishing or sailing. What will you get up to during your Scotland holiday? Here are just a handful of the activities that are on offer…
Hillwalking in the Highlands
A favourite way to discover the incredible landscape is through a wonderful country walk, great for families, couples and dog-walkers looking to explore the Highlands. You could spend the whole day out in the wilderness or simply enjoy a short morning stroll from your holiday cottage.
One suggestion of a fantastic hill walk would be Beinn Alligin (Gaelic for ‘Mountain of Beauty’) in Torridon - a really popular mountain climb found in this majestic, rugged, remote part of Scotland. This will certainly be a challenge for those fairly new to hill walking, but totally worth the grind as from the top you are promised some of the most beautiful views in the country, sometimes as far-reaching as the Outer Hebrides on a clear day! With the highest point being 986m, you will be in for a good climb.
Cycling through the Highlands
Explore the Highlands on two wheels! With more and more people taking to the saddle to discover their surroundings, cycling is the top way to enjoy a day out in the Scottish Highlands. Whether you are cycling with a group or simply by yourself there are hundreds of routes around Scotland that offer a lovely way to get out and about in rural settings, fusing countryside, small villages and quiet country roads.
A route we love is the Achiltibuie Circular Cycle Route – it’s challenging but rewarding with unforgettable views and wide-open spaces along the way. You will pass by beautiful sandy beaches, magnificent lochs and some of Scotland’s most famous mountains – Sula Bheinn and Stac Pollaidh. It is a 70-mile loop, starting in Achiltibuie, and lasting about 7 hours at a moderate pace, so feel free to pick out a favourite section for a shorter cycle trip.
Snow sports in the Highlands
The renowned Cairngorms National Park, with its mountainous landscape, is a top spot for snow sports in Scotland. Glenshee Ski Centre in the south of the Cairngorms, offers 3,504 ft of mountain to race down. Beginners can learn their stuff while experienced skiers and snowboarders can hone their skills – you can even try ski touring.
Meanwhile, to the south sits Aviemore, a region that feels like a land of myth due to the beautiful lochs, ancients forests and mountain slopes that surround it, and is the perfect base for anyone looking to ski Carn Gorm Mountain. It is an incredibly popular holiday destination due to the wide variety of activities you can get up to here - practise your skiing/snowboarding or test yourself at the freestyle park. After busy days out on the slopes, return to one of our cosy log cabins, lodges and holiday homes in The Cairngorms.
Outside of this national park, Glencoe Mountain to the west is renowned for its fantastic skiing and snowboarding opportunities. You can also go sledging and hill walking – both fantastic ways to see the mountain before stopping off for a bite to eat in their café. While snow sports are popular in the winter months at these resorts, walking, cycling and climbing are all fun summer activities you can get involved in too - great for anyone excited to get out and about exploring.
Everything and anything else!
Many people travel from Edinburgh and Glasgow up to the Isle of Skye to see as much of beautiful Scotland as possible, while plenty opt to take a tour of the Isle of Skye to see the wildlife, the towns and incredible beaches that rival those in the Mediterranean. Stay in the island’s largest town and capital of Portree - with a population of 2,500 it’s still a relatively quiet place for a getaway, or you could pick out a completely secluded holiday cottage where you can enjoy absolute peace and tranquillity. Read all about this magical island in our guide to the Isle of Skye. Take a look at our Isle of Skye accommodation.
The Isle of Harris and Lewis sits north of Skye and can be reached by ferry from Uig or from Ullapool on the mainland. Whilst it is generally seen as one islands, it is in fact two packaged as one! The gentle grasslands and flats of Lewis make a nice contrast to the moon-like rocky terrain and craggy coastline of Harris. Driven easily in a day or cycled over a couple, the island makes for an adventurous explore across landscape you will never forget.
The towns and villages of Stornaway, Leurbost and Tarbert are lovely examples of traditional Highland island villages and are lovely spots to find a café or a pub to refuel whilst chatting to the locals. The atmosphere on Harris and Lewis is one of welcome and generosity, so read all about it in our guide to Harris and plan a trip today.
One of the last great wildernesses in Europe, the Highlands are a phenomenal place for seeing wildlife with a wide variety of species making this landscape their home – you might have even heard the rumours that wolves could be reintroduced to Scotland as locals aim to ‘rewild’ the country. Photographers, bird watchers and walkers can keep an eye out for all kinds of rare and unusual species during their time in this far north wildlife haven.
In The Cairngorms Nature Reserve, already a fantastic destination if you’re searching for natural terrain and wildlife, there are a couple of wonderful protected stretches of land you could explore: the Insh Marshes Reserve and Abernethy Reserve - head south to visit the beautiful Abernethy Forest as well! The Cairngorms is also where you’ll find the family-friendly attraction, the Highland Wildlife Park where you will see all kind of species - native and foreign!
The west coast, with its many islands, lochs and wide-open spaces is a great place to see wildlife in its natural habitat. See whales, basking sharks and seals in the waters around Oban and Lorn, or head to The Trossachs for unique bird watching as this national park is home to 13 species of birds of prey. As well as all the species you need to look hard for, the locals will always grace you with their presence too, in the most beautiful of places...
The northern coastline is a particularly wildlife-rich area of Scotland with seals, otters and birds making their homes here – travel the North Coast 500, an incredible road trip route, to visit some of the best wildlife-spotting areas along this breathtaking coastline. For the birdwatchers…
- Golden eagles
Read our full blog on wildlife parks in Scotland and pick which one you'd like to visit while on holiday.
For the best of the best in this region, take a look at the Highlands Food & Drink Awards to discover some of the finest food in all of Scotland, or check out our recommendations below in our overview of the top 10 restaurants in the Scottish Highlands.
- Clachaig Inn - an award-winning pub by Loch Lomond serving hot toddies, perfect after a blustery mountain walk. Location: PH49 4HX
- Lochinver Larder - a quaint riverside café located on the River Inver and a great stop off for road trippers as it’s on the North Coast 500 route. Location: IV27 4JY
- The Pier - over in Lairg, a busy town and hub for Sutherland, you’ll find this waterfront café/restaurant where you can dine before stunning views. Location: IV27 4EG
- Lochleven Seafood Café – on the west coast, you can enjoy Scottish lobster and scallops and buy fresh fish in their shop. Location: PH33 6SA
- Fig & Thistle – a popular Inverness bistro and cocktail bar with a relaxed vibe. Location: IV2 3JN
- Inverlochy Castle Hotel – if you haven’t had enough of the magnificent castles throughout the area, dine in this turreted beauty in Fort William. Location: PH33 6SN
- The Three Chimneys – a cosy pub serving great Scottish food amongst the breathtaking Isle of Skye landscape. Location: IV55 8ZT
- Andersons Bar and Grill – grills and steaks are a speciality in this relaxed restaurant in Aviemore. Location: PH24 3BN
- Fiddlers Highland Restaurant – right beside Loch Ness and on the Great Glen Way walking route, visit this waterside restaurant in Drumnadrochit for tasty food and a dram of whisky. Location: IV63 6TU
- Boath House – an award-winning restaurant using local produce and their beautiful Nairn location to create a delightful dining experience. Location: IV12 5TE
The annual Highlands Food & Drink Festival is a fun event showcasing some of the best of food and drink in the region. Sample delicious produce and pick out a food basket to take home for your dinner.
Finally, enjoy a visit to beautiful Speyside which is, of course, known for the many distilleries that line the River Spey - so if you are a large party of adults or grown-up family group, drop by a distillery for a tour and a dram or two. Enjoy a stay amongst stunning scenery in a cosy cottage in Speyside.
You could stay anywhere is this phenomenal region and have a fantastic holiday, just take your pick of top holiday destinations! Hide out in a cosy lodge in the mountainous region of Glencoe or settle down in a stylish cottage near the busy Highland hub of Inverness.
We have waterside holiday cottages which allow you that feeling of total serenity and provide a breathtaking backdrop to group dinners. There are cottages with hot tubs and with wood burners to keep you toasty while on holiday, not to mention beautiful log cabins and dog-friendly lodges so you can take the entire family with you. And if you have Scottish ancestral roots to discover, book a stay in a castle to make it even more of an experience?
If a family escape is what you’re after, take a look through our holiday cottages in Scotland for families and find yourself a cosy cottage where kids can play outside in the garden while you enjoy your morning coffee gazing out over Scotland’s remarkable landscape.