The Scottish Highlands are among the most magical sceneries in Europe. Rivers and streams meander through a mountainous landscape, sometimes forming breathtaking lochs, other times dramatically thundering down cliffs as waterfalls. This wild and remote landscape has inspired poems and novels, featured in films and TV shows, and is the highlight of any Scotland trip. This guide reveals some of the most beautiful places to visit and things to do in the Scottish Highlands.
There are many different things to do in the Highlands of Scotland. Experiences range from breathtaking hikes to adventure activities for thrill-seekers, fascinating historical sites and scenic driving routes for road trippers. You can get a great overview in one week in Scotland, but you could easily spend longer and keep exploring. Read on for itinerary tips on the top attractions and things to do in the famed Scottish Highlands.
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Hike the West Highland Way
The West Highland Way is one of Scotland’s most popular multi-day trail and is popular among trail newbies and old-timers alike. The 90-mile trek from Milngavie near Glasgow to Fort William in the heart of the Scottish Highlands can be hiked in five to nine days. A wide range of accommodation and eateries are available along the route, making it a very accessible hiking experience for anyone who has never hiked long-distance before. The trail passes through diverse landscapes, from the woodlands at Loch Lomond to the wild moorlands of Rannoch Moor and the mountains of Glencoe.
Top Tips for the Hiking the West Highland Way:
- Hire door-to-door luggage transfer for your bags.
- Order packed lunches from hiker-friendly accommodation.
- Take your time and walk the route slowly.
Find more tips in this West Highland Way walking guide.
Glencoe is arguably one of the most beautiful places in Scotland. Guarded by the giant Buachaille Etive Mor and framed by the Three Sisters mountain range and the Aonach Eagach Ridge, the valley offers stunning mountain views on all sides. Many visitors get their fix from just driving through Glencoe, but I think the best way to immerse yourself in this beautiful place is by hiking either on a group hiking trip or independently. Whether you want to try and bag a Munro—a Scottish mountain over 3,000 feet—or enjoy a leisurely stroll, there is a hike here for everyone.
Steeped in the dramatic history of clan rivalries and the Jacobite uprising, Glencoe Valley was also the location of the bloody Glencoe Massacre. You can learn more about this dark day in Scottish history at the Glencoe Visitor Centre.
Top Tips for Glencoe:
- Best Hikes Near Glencoe: Glencoe Lochan trails, An Torr trails, The Lost Valley, Pap of Glencoe, and Buachaille Etive Beag.
- Where to Stay & Eat: The Clachaig Inn, a historic pub with a wide range of whiskies, offers live music and a cozy fireplace.
Discover Kilchurn Castle
The Scottish Highlands are dotted with some Scotland’s best castles, many of which lie in ruins but are nevertheless stunning. Kilchurn Castle at the shores of Loch Awe is undoubtedly one of the most scenic castle ruins in the western Highlands. It’s also one of the most photographed! The castle, which was built in the 1400s and abandoned some 300 years later, is located on a small peninsula sticking out into the loch. It’s thus surrounded by water on three side, which makes it a pleasure to photograph. Dramatic mountain scenery offers the perfect backdrop and it’s free to visit.
Things to Do Near Kilchurn Castle:
- Hire a boat from Loch Awe Boats and “storm” the castle from the water.
- Day trip to the castle on a small group tour from Edinburgh to experience Kilchurn and other castles in the Scottish Highlands.
Best Photo Spot: Find the small lay-by on the A819, just off the A85.
Admire the Standing Stones at Kilmartin Glen
Most people think they have to travel to Orkney or the Outer Hebrides to visit the impressive standing stones and stone circles of the Neolithic period. While in fact, the unique and historic Kilmartin Glen is just over a two hour-drive from Glasgow.
There are hundreds of prehistoric sites and monuments spread out around the small village of Kilmartin. They range from cairns, carved rocks, and remains of forts to standing stones and stone circles. The most impressive sites are the Nether Largie stones and Temple Wood, but make sure you also stop by Dunadd Fort and the Kilmartin Museum to learn more.
Where to Stay & Eat: Book a night at Kings Reach B&B and Cottages, a new vegan bed and breakfast in Kilmartin Glen.
Enjoy Water Activities at Loch Lomond
Loch Lomond is the largest freshwater loch in Scotland by surface area—it’s 39 km long and up to 150 m deep. There are over 20 islands and many more islets in the loch—some of them are home to such curious communities as a group of Australian wallabies, which were brought there in the 1940s.
Loch Lomond is perfect for water activities, which range from gentle cruises and kayak expeditions, to thrilling speed boat tours and water skiing. The loch is surrounded by mountains, including Ben Lomond, the southernmost Munro in the Highlands.
Where to Stay & Eat: The village of Luss offers great accommodation and eateries, and is a hub for many activities and a launching point for the best things to do in the area.
Feeling Adventurous? Try your luck at “river sledging” with In Your Element.
Visit a Whisky Distillery
What would a trip to Scotland be without a taste of its liquid gold: single malt whisky. The best way to learn more about Scottish whisky—how it’s produced and how it has become the most exported product of the country—is by visiting a whisky distillery.
There are over 120 whisky distilleries operating all across Scotland, many of which offer guided tours and tasting experiences. Some of the most famous distilleries in the Highland whisky region are Glengoyne Distillery north of Glasgow (near Loch Lomond), Oban Distillery in the picturesque coastal town of Oban, Glenmorangie in the far north (conveniently located on the North Coast 500), or Deanston in Doune near Stirling (Doune also has a castle featured in Outlander for fans of the show).
Climb the Via Ferrata in Kinlochleven
Kinlochleven is a former mining community tucked away at the far end of Loch Leven. Few people make their way off the main route to this village, even though it offers so many things to do. It’s the final stop on the West Highland Way, before hikers reach Fort William, and it’s perfect for an adventurous rest day. Go wild swimming in the river behind the village, book a taster session at the ice climbing centre, or book a half-day trip on Scotland’s only Via Ferrata.
The climbing route leads up alongside Grey Mare’s Tail, the third-tallest waterfall in the country. Safely accompanied by an experienced guide, you will climb the rocky cliffs, balance over the waterfall across a series of steel cables and zip line over the river.
Getting to KInlochleven: If you’re not driving, catch the bus from Glencoe or Fort William.
Drive the Road to the Isles
The Scottish Highlands are a top road trip destination and there are countless scenic drives crisscrossing the country. The Road to the Isles is a popular route that connects Fort William with Mallaig, from where you can catch a ferry to the Isle of Skye.
The drive is wonderful and there are many scenic stops along the way, but the most famous of them all might just be the Glenfinnan Monument and the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The monument was erected to commemorate those who lost their lives for the Jacobite cause and offers an unparalleled view of Loch Shiel. You might recognize it from the Harry Potter movies—just add the outline of Hogwarts to the shore yourself. If you’re lucky, you might also see the Jacobite Steam Train cross over the viaduct during your visit—it’s a must experience for all Potterheads!
Don’t Miss the Train: Ask for up-to-date train times at the Visit Scotland iCentre in Fort William, or book a multi-day tour of the area to have a guided experience through the Road to the Isles and all things Harry Potter.
Other Scenic Stops: Loch Eilt, The Prince’s Cairn, and Arisaig.
Visit Eilean Donan Castle
The 13th century Eilean Donan Castle near Kyle of Lochalsh is one of Scotland’s most visited castles. It lies strategically on a small island at the meeting place of three sea lochs: Loch Alsh, Loch Duich, and Loch Long. While the castle was partially destroyed during the Jacobite uprising, it was fully restored in the 20th century and is now open to visitors year-round if you just want to see this iconic castle.
Top Tips for Eilean Donan Castle: The best time to visit is at sunset, when the sun dips into the water behind the castle. You can also easily visit on a day tour from Inverness if you’re strapped for time.
Go Nessie Hunting at Loch Ness
The deepest loch in Scotland, and possibly also its most famous, Loch Ness is the alleged home of the infamous Loch Ness monster, or Nessie as she is also called. You can board a cruise on the loch from the Clansman Hotel near Drumnadrochit. A radar device keeps modern-day monster hunters informed about any movement under the water surface. Legend has it that a dram of whisky (or two or three) increases your chance of seeing the monster, so I recommend getting some from the bar!
Things to Do on Loch Ness: In addition to Nessie spotting, visit Urquhart Castle, a ruined castle in a key position during the English-Scottish Wars of Independence. You could also rent kayaks and canoes (if you dare), or visit one of two museums dedicated to Nessie.
Getting to Loch Ness: If you’re not self-driving, join a day tour from Inverness to get the most out of your Loch Ness visit.
Hike in Glen Affric
Just a stone’s throw from Loch Ness lies Glen Affric, often considered to be the most beautiful valley—or glen—in the Scottish Highlands. The River Affric flows downhill from the Kintail Mountains in the west and forms two lochs in the glen, Loch Affric and Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin. The valley is also well-known for its ancient Caledonian pinewood forest, which is home to ospreys, among other local wildlife.
There are many scenic hiking trails in Glen Affric, ranging from short walks to a long, but rewarding loop around Loch Affric. The hike through the glen also forms part of the Affric Kintail Trail, a 4-day hike from Loch Ness to Morvich. For photographers, a one day photographers tour will ensure you reach the best viewpoints.
Drive the North Coast 500
The North Coast 500 is Scotland’s answer to America’s Route 66. This 500-mile road trip around the north west of Scotland takes in Highland and coastal scenery, magnificent hiking areas, quirky small towns, beautiful castles, and stunning cliffs. Leaving Inverness and driving the route clockwise, the journey begins with an absolute highlight—driving the steep and winding Bealach na Ba Pass Road to Applecross.
Most people drive the route in about one week, but you could easily spend two to three weeks on the drive to take in all there is to see and the many beautiful things to do in the area.
Best Places to See on the North Coast 500: Plockton, Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve, Gairloch, Achmelvich Beach, Durness, John O Groats, and Golspie.
Get off the Beaten Track Hiking to Knoydart
Few places on the Scottish mainland are as remote as the Knoydart Peninsula. Since there are no roads leading here, Knoydart can only be reached by a two-day hike or a small passenger ferry from Mallaig. It doesn’t get more secluded than this! If you’re not comfortable hiking independently, join a multi-day hiking tour leaving from Edinburgh.
Things to Do on the Knoydart Peninsula: Join a wildlife cruise, bag some Munros, or practice the art of doing sweet nothing while enjoying the views.
Sea Kayak to the Summer Isles
Scotland has over 6,000 miles of coastline featuring thousands of sea lochs and fjords and hundreds of islands and islets. It would be a shame not to explore these from the water!
The Scottish Sea Kayak Trail stretches from the Isle of Gigha off the Kintyre peninsula to the Summer Isles near Ullapool. There are numerous kayaking centres along the west coast, including in places like Oban and Arisaig, but one of my personal favorite sea kayaking experiences was a half-day paddle out to the Summer Isles. I did this trip as part of my North Coast 500 road trip, which was a great way to get out of the car for a bit and off the road.
What to Pack: Waterproof camera case and dry bags, sunscreen, sugary snacks, and binoculars. This is a great kayaking guidebook for those looking to paddle most or all of this long-distance kayaking route.
Go Island Hopping Around the Scottish Islands
A Scottish Highland holiday is not complete without a trip to see the islands. The Isle of Skye is the most popular and arguably the easiest to visit, because it is connected to the mainland by a bridge. However, it is also incredibly busy and I would not recommend a trip there during the height of summer—it really is an off-season destination. Luckily, there are many alternatives, some just a short ferry ride away.
If you’re driving the North Coast 500, why not take a quick trip to see Orkney and the Neolithic heart of Scotland. A longer ferry ride will get you to the Outer Hebrides, not only Lewis and Harris, but also the Uists, Berneray, Barra and Vatersay.
From Mallaig, you could set over to the car-free Small Isles (Rum, Muck, Eigg, or Canna)—great options if you travel Scotland by public transport—and from Oban you can explore more of the Inner Hebrides, such as Mull, Tiree, Coll, or Islay.
Getting to the Scottish Islands: Always book your ferry tickets in advance in summer—and research how to use the ferries for maximum island hopping fun!
The Scottish Highlands are full of beautiful places to see and fun things to do. There is no shortage of experiences waiting for you, whether you are a slow traveler who loves to hike and travels by public transport, or you’re working your way through a jam-packed road trip itinerary to see as much as possible.
By Kathi Kamleitner
Kathi is an award-winning Scotland travel blogger. She shares useful guides and inspiring stories on her blog Watch Me See and helps people plan unique Scotland adventures through her travel consultation business.