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. 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.
Read on to discover an unforgettable holiday destination in our guide to the Scottish 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.
About the towns and villages in the Scottish Highlands:
There are so many wonderful places to stay throughout the Highlands, we couldn’t possibly list them all in just this post but here are a few of the highlights.
The towns and villages in the West 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.
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 colourful Plockton, and vibrant Oban. Head to Applecross for views across to the Isle of Skye or cross over the bridge to stay on the beautiful island itself in Portree or Talisker. 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.
The towns and villages in Sutherland, Scotland’s northern coast
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 - Scotlands'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 towns and villages in the east
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 and the Spittal of Glenshee. Discover more about this unforgettable region below.
Fort William and Ben Nevis:
Fort William: a famous town in its own right and designated as the gateway to Ben Nevis. It’s the go-to destination for families to discover the heart of the Highlands or adventurers looking to test themselves up against the highest mountain in the British Isles. Set on the eastern shore of Loch Linnhe, you can enjoy a beautiful waterside retreat with a stay here. A train station ensures this part of the Highlands is well connected and the town has its own castle, distillery, golf club and many more top things to do.
If you’re travelling with kids then go walking in the incredible landscape, they’ll love spotting local wildlife, take a trip on the Jacobite Steam Train or visit the West Highlands Museum – and adult groups can have great fun on a tour of the >Ben Nevis Distillery. Stay in a holiday cottage in Fort William and wake up each morning to breathtaking scenery that includes famed Ben Nevis.
Visit this beautiful town and stay in a cottage in Fort William on a holiday to the West Highlands.
The snow sports:
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.
The summer adventures:
There’s a whole range of wonderful outdoor pursuits throughout the Highlands during the summer months too - get out and about with walking and cycling, climbing, kayaking, fishing or sailing. What will you get up to during your Scotland holiday?
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.
Everything and anything else!
While walking and cycling are two of the nation’s most popular pastimes, the Scottish Highlands cater to a whole range of fantastic outdoor pursuits from adventure sports like climbing, abseiling and kayaking to tranquil outdoor activities including fishing and sailing.
If you want to get out on the water in one of Scotland’s unique lochs, you can go sea kayaking on the west coast of Scotland with Arisaig Sea Kayak Centre. Try white water rafting or gorge walking in Fort William with Active Highs, or take a canoe tour along the Caledonian Canal – otherwise known as Scotland’s Great Glen Canoe Trail, with Explore Highland.
Any adrenaline-junkies out there should try Craggan Outdoors who offer climbing and abseiling experiences in Strathspey and along the Moray Firth coast, the Ariel Adventure Course with the National Ice Climbing Centre (offering lots to do throughout summer and winter!), or the bravest among you could attempt a bungee jump in Killicrankie with Highland Fling Bungee.
Fishing has been a popular sport in Scotland for centuries and this country has long been a top destination for freshwater and sea angling, with world-class fishing available. Salmon, trout, skate and pike can be found throughout the many picturesque rivers and lochs across the land, a few of the best spots for fishing include the Strathconon Lochs on the North Coast, Lake of Menteith in the Trossachs, and the River Spey in The Cairngorms.
Endless lochs provide tranquil waters, while sailing along the coast is an excellent way to see the magnificent coastline of Scotland – the west coast offers some of the finest sailing in the British Isles. Some beaches, bays and coves cannot be reached by car or even by foot, but in a boat, you can access hidden wonders that no one else can. Take a cruise through beautiful Loch Katrine in The Trossachs, take an exhilarating wildlife watching tour or relaxing cruise around Scotland’s west coast islands with AquaXplore, or hear about local folklore, geology and natural history on a boat trip in Sutherland with North Coast Sea Tours.
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.
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.
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. If you’re a birder, there’s a fantastic range of birdlife to seek out along this beautiful coastline, and birds you might get to see out here include puffins, razorbill and golden eagles.
Many travel to this Sutherland coastline for the seals! A top stretch of coast to spot them is the Bay of Sannick - go walking here and you may see seals playing and hunting in the waves and even get lucky enough to see seals relaxing on the beach.
Read our full blog on wildlife parks in Scotland and pick which one you'd like to visit while on holiday.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Dunvegan Castle & Gardens – an Isle of Skye gem, this fortification offers tours, beautiful gardens and even seal sighting boat trips!
- 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.
- Eilean Donan Castle – visit Scotland’s ‘most photographed castle’ near Dornie.
- 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.
If you think you might like to holiday in your very own fairytale castle, take a look at our luxurious Knock Old Castle in Largs.
All the other top-rated attractions:
There are so many things to do and places to see in 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Landmark Forest Adventure Park – ride a rollercoaster, get lost in the maze or climb the high ropes at this theme park in Carrbridge.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Planning a celebration or big family getaway? Check out our collection of large holiday cottages and lodges and you might find yourself staying in a fairytale castle.
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.
We also have a big selection of dog-friendly cottages in Scotland. Find a holiday home that’s perfect for you and your four-legged friend with long walks directly from the doorstep.
Love hot tubs? Our full collection of hot tub cottages in Scotland are perfect for enjoying a relaxing Scottish holiday.
The food and drink:
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Lochleven Seafood Café – on the west coast, you can enjoy Scottish lobster and scallops and buy fresh fish in their shop.
- Fig & Thistle – a popular Inverness bistro and cocktail bar with a relaxed vibe.
- Inverlochy Castle Hotel – if you haven’t had enough of the magnificent castles throughout the area, dine in this turreted beauty in Fort William.
- The Three Chimneys – a cosy pub serving great Scottish food amongst the breathtaking Isle of Skye landscape.
- Andersons Bar and Grill – grills and steaks are a speciality in this relaxed restaurant in Aviemore.
- 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.
- Boath House – an award-winning restaurant using local produce and their beautiful Nairn location to create a delightful dining experience.
The Loch Ness Monster:
Discover the wonders of the deep at this magnificent loch. The Loch Ness Monster has spawned myth and legend; this creature of the deep has a long neck and has become famous worldwide after a couple claimed to have seen her crossing the road in front of them back in 1933. The legend goes back even further though, with its origins back to 565 AD when a Christian monk wrote that he sighted a beast in the waters of Loch Ness.
Throughout the 20th century plenty of people have attempted to gain evidence of this mythical beast but all have come up short, with only blurry photographs to satisfy those curious as to what the Loch Ness Monster really is - or if it even really exists...
Luckily for holidaymakers, there’s far more to Loch Ness than monsters and myth, it’s also a fantastic place for canoeing and kayaking and has a whole range of attractions for you to visit. Start your stay with a trip to the breathtaking ruins of Urquhart Castle on the edge of the loch, a structure that dates back to 1509 and has a café on-site for a relaxed trip. Falls of Foyers is a magical waterfall and the perfect choice if you’re looking for a walking route, while a second waterfall walk option is the beautiful Falls of Divach. The Clansman Centre is a fun interactive centre that kids will love and another great choice for families is Nessieland, a family-friendly attraction all about the Loch Ness Monster.
Fort Augustus even has the Loch Ness View Point, ideal for that all-essential holiday photo. Take a look through our holiday cottages for big groups, couples and families by Loch Ness and find a retreat that’s perfect for you and your guests.
Stay beside the water in one of our wonderful holiday cottages by Loch Ness.
The Isle of Skye:
Believe it or not, this island is considered part of the Highlands and it’s an essential part of any Highlands tour, so we had to include it in our guide to the Scottish Highlands. Anyone wondering how to get to the Isle of Skye can simply drive across the bridge that connects it to the mainland.
Many people travel from Edinburgh 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.
Take a look at our Isle of Skye accommodation.
One of the most breathtaking landscapes in the British Isles with vast valleys, dramatic mountains and exciting opportunities to get active or visit attractions, the Scottish Highlands are a wonderful choice for a holiday in the UK.
Discover this remarkable destination on a fun holiday by picking out a cottage in the Scottish Highlands.