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Inside: Ready to plan the ultimate Scotland road trip around the Highlands and islands? Here’s everything you need to know before you go!
After returning home from our recent Scotland road trip, I tried three times to finish a single darn post about the incredible Scottish Highlands and islands. Yet twice, I’ve been diverted from this worthy mission by specific sections that necessitated a pivot.
“Squirrel!!” as my husband would say. But, in my defense, it’s not my fault.
I blame Scotland. And here’s why.
This richly complex, stunningly beautiful, and historically fascinating country is simply too massive a topic for a single post. From the captivating capital city of Edinburgh to the majestic peaks and lovely lochs of the Scottish Highlands, there’s just so much to see and do.
So when I sat down to write a few breezy paragraphs about all the best things to do in Edinburgh, it quickly spiraled into this:
Editorial diversion struck again when our road trip reached the magical Isle of Skye. How to possibly sum up this incredible island in just a few “things to do.” Impossible!
Scotland Road Trip 101
But today, the ultimate Scotland trifecta is now complete with this third and final post covering every little thing you need to know to plan an amazing Scottish road trip.
Tip: If you’re just landing here for the first time, I recommend reading this post first for a good overview of how to plan your time. Then, dive deeper with the Edinburgh and Isle of Skye posts, I’ll link to them again later.)
It’s absolutely true that no visit to Scotland is complete without hitting the road to explore the mystical Scottish Highlands, one of the most intriguingly beautiful regions in the world. But you may not even realize (many people don’t) that Scotland also has some pretty fabulous islands to explore.
So, let’s dive in!
Your first question might be…
How many days do I need?
I would love to tell you that a 7-day road trip around this drop-dead gorgeous region is the perfect amount of time to see everything the Highlands have to offer. But I’m a terrible liar.
From rolling green hills and lochs to majestic castles and historic villages there’s so much to see in Scotland’s northern region. You could easily spend months trying to see it all.
But don’t be discouraged. Because what I can tell you is that seven days is a pretty fabulous start. If you don’t mind spending some quality time in the car, you can cover a lot of ground in a single week.
What part of Scotland is considered the Highlands?
Encompassing nearly 10,000 square miles at the northern tip of Great Britain, the Highlands are, by far, Scotland’s largest region.
Geologically, the “Scottish Highlands” refers to everything west and north of Highland Boundary Fault. From Fort William all the way north to the Orkney and Shetland Islands. But I’m not a fan of geographical limits when it comes to road trips.
For the purposes of this post, I’ve adopted a more relaxed definition of the Scottish Highlands. A more cultural than strictly geographic definition, if you will.
When it comes to this Scotland road trip itinerary, anything north of Edinburgh is fair game!
So, on my itinerary suggestions below, I’ve also included the north and eastern coasts, as well as some of the wonderful areas south of Fort William (but still north of Glasgow). Including some pretty awesome islands.
And speaking of islands…
What are the Scottish Islands?
Scotland is well known for its spectacular islands. In fact, there are nearly 800 offshore islands in Scotland. Of course, fewer than 100 of those islands are actually inhabited.
All those lovely islands are divided up between four major island groups. They are, from south to north:
- The Inner Hebrides – 35 inhabited islands including Skye, Mull, and Islay.
- The Outer Hebrides – 15 inhabited islands including Lewis, Harris, and North and South Uist
- The Orkney Islands – 20 inhabited islands including South Ronaldsay, Burray, and Lamb Holm.
- The Shetland Islands – 16 inhabited islands including Whalsay, Bressay, and Yell.
3 Fun (& surprising!) Facts About Scotland:
- The thistle (a purple, prickly weed) is Scotland’s national flower. Not only will you spot them in gardens and all over the countryside, if keep your eyes peeled you’ll notice them everywhere from business logos to police and sports uniforms.
- Loch Ness is over 800ft deep at its deepest points, twice the average depth of the North Sea.
- The official animal of Scotland is the unicorn. Seriously.
What are the Highland Games?
It’s well worth mentioning that the Scottish Highlands are home to a unique and ancient tradition known as the Highland Games.
The ultimate test of strength, skill, and stamina, the Highland Games attract athletes from all over the world. The Games stretch from May to early September but peak in July and August with more than 30 one-day events per month.
The events are typically held on weekends and take place in various scenic locations throughout the Highlands. With entertaining events like caber tossing, tug o’ war, and hammer throwing, the Highland Games are tons of fun and a great way to immerse yourself in Scottish culture on your road trip.
Here’s the complete schedule of locations and dates for the 2022 Scottish Highland Games. If you’re visiting the Highlands during the summer months, adding one of these fun and exciting events to your itinerary is a must!
Now before I move on to the itinerary, let’s quickly cover some basic logistics.
What’s the closest airport to the Scottish Highlands?
While most people visiting the Highlands arrive at Edinburgh’s busy international airport (EDI), the Inverness International Airport (INV) is considered the gateway to the Highlands. If you’ve visited Edinburgh on a previous trip and you’re only planning to visit the Highlands or islands this time, flying into Inverness can save you some driving time.
Best time of year to visit Scotland & the Highlands
I don’t know about you, but I like my weather squarely in the Goldilocks position: not too hot, not too cold, just right. And that’s typically what you’ll find if you visit the Highlands between June and August. Bonus: You’ll also score extra hours of daylight to explore.
Do keep in mind that this part of the world is pretty far up on the globe so don’t expect traditional European summer temperatures. “Warm” in Scotland is generally defined as somewhere in the low 70’s.
The spring and fall months can also be a great time to visit Scotland with both fewer crowds and lower hotel rates.
Do I need a rental car?
Well, this is a road trip, so that’s a hearty YES! While Scotland does have excellent rail service, it’s much easier to enjoy all the beauty of the Scottish Highlands with your own wheels.
But if driving on the left just isn’t your cup of tea, be sure to stay in one of the larger towns – Aberdeen, Inverness, or Fort William – where you’ll find local bus services and plenty of day trip options.
We rented our car with Enterprise on RentalCars.com which is my favorite booking site for comparing rates across multiple companies (not to mention ensuring no surprise extra charges when you arrive at the counter).
I was initially concerned when they upgraded us to a nicer (and larger) vehicle than we booked. Why? Because on a previous road trip around Ireland, the smallest car possible was the best choice due to the incredibly narrow roads in some small towns.
But it turned out to be fine. Road size wasn’t nearly as big an issue on our Scotland road trip.
Which brings me to…
Is driving in Scotland difficult?
If you’re from a country that drives on the right, driving on the left can be intimidating. Especially if it’s your first time.
Not to worry, the only hard part of driving on the left is fighting every single driving instinct you’ve ever had to be on the righthand side of the road. But seriously, don’t be afraid of driving on the left. It’s not difficult once you get the hang of it.
And if you pick up your car at the airport (my recommendation) and head straight for the Highlands, you’ll have some time to get used to it before you encounter any city driving or small country lanes.
One thing, however, is worth mentioning before you hit the road. On the islands and in more remote parts of the countryside, you will likely encounter “Single Track Roads.” That’s just a snazzy name for a one-lane road utilized for two-way traffic.
The most important rule of driving on a single track road is to always KEEP LEFT when you encounter an oncoming vehicle. There are frequent pull-over spots along these roads that allow for two-way encounters. If the passing place or “layby” is on the left, you should pull over. If it’s on the right, the oncoming vehicle is expected to pull over.
You may also have to reverse if the most recent layby on the left was just behind you. Never pull over to a layby on the right (like the one in the image above). Don’t forget to give the expected friendly wave as you pass if the oncoming driver pulls over for you. And, as always, watch out for sheep.
Now, if you’ve stuck with me this long while I laid the proper groundwork for this epic Scotland road trip itinerary, your patience is finally about to pay off.
A 7-Day Road Trip Itinerary for the Scottish Highlands
Before I get to the day-by-day, a few notes:
- Stops – I’ve tried to include anything you might want to see between each nightly stop. It would be tough to hit them all, so just pick and choose what interests you. Not everyone needs to see 15 castles in 5 days.
- Driving Times – The driving times listed are simply a rough estimate from Point A to Point B with no stops. Obviously, you’re going to make several stops. But I still wanted to give you an idea of the distance you’re covering each day. As much as possible, I’ve tried to list the stops in order of the direction of travel.
- Extra Days – Have time for a more relaxed itinerary? Great! I’ve also indicated where I suggest adding an extra day or two if you can swing it.
Arrival in Edinburgh
Chances are you’ll be arriving in Edinburgh since most international flights arrive here. However, I don’t recommend starting your trip with Edinburgh if you’re short on time. (And for a 7-day trip, trust me, you’re short on time.)
Instead, grab your rental car at the airport and head north. Plan your stay in Edinburgh for the end of your week. That way you’ll have no worries about traffic on the return trip to the airport.
Murphy’s Law in Scotland = A flock of sheep in the road when you have a flight to catch.
Day 1: Edinburgh to Aberdeen
Drive Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (from Edinburgh airport with no stops)
Best Places to Visit
There’s no doubt this is the ultimate pilgrimage site for golf lovers everywhere. World-renowned as the birthplace of golf, the popular sport has been played in Scotland since around 1400 AD. Whether you’re a die-hard golfer or just a history buff, St. Andrews is a fascinating place to visit.
You can even follow in the footsteps of golfing legends with a 75-minute guided walk of the Old Course that takes you to the 1st, 17th and 18th holes.
Need to Know: Walks take place twice daily (11:00am and 2:00pm) from April to September 18, 2022 and then once daily (11:00am) October 4-30, 2022. Tickets are £15 for adults and £7.50 for children (8-12). For more information and to book tickets visit the St Andrews official website.
Just north of Dundee, this regal 14th-century palace was the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth I and the birthplace of her daughter Princess Margaret. And while the enormous castle is impressive in its own right, the gardens are truly incredible.
You can choose to tour just the grounds and gardens if you’re short on time. If not, opt for the self-guided tour inside as well.
Need to Know: Open daily from 10:00am – 5:00pm. Tickets are £15.50 for adults and £10 for children (5-16). For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Glamis Castle official website.
It’s entirely possible that no castle anywhere else north of Edinburgh enjoys a more stunning location than this one. Set atop a rocky outcrop surrounded on three sides by the sea, the ruins of Dunnottar Castle are my favorite stop on today’s itinerary.
Bonus: There’s no ticket needed to walk the various viewpoints along the cliffs. Which means those iconic views of these remarkable castle ruins are free to everyone!
Need to Know: Open daily from 9:00am – 6:00pm. Tickets are £9.50 for adults and £4.50 for children (5-15). For more information or to purchase advance tickets, visit the Dunnottar Castle official website.
Just a 5-minute drive north of Dunnottar, the quaint harbor town of Stonehaven is the perfect spot for lunch after visiting Dunnottar. It’s also a solid contender for a charming overnight stay, if you prefer to avoid driving in larger cities.
There aren’t really any tourist sites to speak of but the bobbing fishing boats in the crescent-shaped harbor just scream Scottish seaside charisma. Don’t miss an ice cream from Bucket & Spade or the haddock and chips at The Ship Inn. There’s also a convenient, free car park right by the waterfront.
Even if you don’t choose to spend the night in Aberdeen, be sure to save at least a little time to explore this historic city. Highlights include the Maritime Museum and the traditional fishing village of Footdee, located at the south end of Aberdeen Beach.
Where to Spend the Night
Aberdeen, Scotland’s third largest city, is a great place to spend your first night since there are plenty of hotel options to choose from. However, I’d argue the lovely seaside town of Stonehaven also makes a terrific choice for your first stopover. Here are my favorite hotel options:
Best Places to Stay in Aberdeen:
- The Marcliffe Hotel & Spa – For a touch of luxury just 3 miles from Aberdeen’s city center, this boutique hotel brings to mind an elegant manor house. It also has free parking and an excellent restaurant.
- Lochnagar Guest House – Affordable, stylish rooms in the heart of Aberdeen with free private parking (a tough find in the city center).
- Cedar’s Guest House – A comfortable guest house with great hosts, plenty of parking, and many of Aberdeen’s best sights within walking distance.
Best Places to Stay in Stonehaven:
- The Ship Inn – Overlooking Stonehaven harbor, this rustic inn dates back to 1771. The excellent pub is the best spot in town for haddock and chips but the inn is also a great place to spend the night. They also offer free parking.
- Arduthie House – This warm and welcoming guest house is just a 3-minute walk from the beach. Rooms are spacious and comfy, parking is free, and the hearty Scottish breakfast is a bonus.
Day 2 – Aberdeen to Inverness
Drive Time: 2.5 hours with no stops (plan on 3-4 with the coastal route)
Notes: Unless you’re up for lots of driving today, you’ll want to choose either the countryside route to Inverness (the first three stops below + the last few) or the coastal route which includes everything but the first three stops. (It becomes an easy choice after September when both Balmoral and Craigievar Castle are closed.)
Best Places to Visit
In 1852, Prince Albert purchased this large country estate for Queen Victoria and this Royal residence has been the Scottish home of the Royal Family ever since. The castle is open to visitors each year from April to the end of July when it closes to prepare for the Queen’s annual August arrival.
The drive from Aberdeen takes a little over an hour and does involve a few narrow country lanes. Parking is free and tickets can be purchased in the small shop at the entrance gates. From there, a 10-minute walk through the forest takes you right to the spot to pick up the audio guide (which is terrific!) included with your ticket.
Some visitors to the Highlands skip Balmoral since you can’t actually visit the inside of the castle, just the extensive grounds and the ballroom exhibition. But I thoroughly enjoyed our visit and thought the drive was worth it (even though it was a bit out of the way for the rest of our coastal tour).
The grounds are massive and you could spend hours exploring. But, for most, it’s safe to block out about 2 hours for your visit. The gardens are gorgeous and there’s also a fantastic gift shop for all things Royal. The gift shop remains open in July and August but it’s not really worth the lengthy drive unless you’re visiting something else in the area.
Need to Know: Closed to visitors for the season as of July 31st, 2022 but reopens fully on April 1, 2023. However, select guided tour dates are offered between October 15th and the end of December 2022. For specific dates and ticket information, visit the Balmoral Castle official website.
If you’ve heard rumors of a pink castle in Scotland, this is probably the one (though rose-colored Brodie Castle could also lay claim to the title of “Scotland’s pink castle.” Like Balmoral, Craigievar Castle is located deep in the countryside, about 45 minutes west of Aberdeen.
Dating back to 1576 and completed in 1626 by William Forbes, this iconic tower house was still used as a family home until the 1960’s. So the vibe in this well-preserved Scottish castle is part country residence, part historic castle.
There’s not much time left to explore Craigievar Castle before it closes on September 27, 2022 to undergo a major 18-month conservation project. It is projected to reopen in Spring 2024.
Need to Know: Closed Wednesdays. Open 10:30am – 4:00pm every other day through August 31, 2022. From September 1 – 26, open Friday-Monday only. Tickets are £14.50 for adults. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Craigievar Castle official website.
You can’t visit the Highlands without sampling the national beverage and the Glenlivet Distillery is a great place to do it. Continue about an hour west of Craigievar and you’ll enter the heart of Scotch whiskey country along the fertile glens of the River Spey.
Located in Ballindalloch, the Glenlivet Distillery is a pilgrimage site for lovers of this iconic amber nectar. However, if you don’t possess a specific affinity for Glenlivet whiskey, or just prefer to drive the coastal route today, it’s a bit out of the way. Instead, plan some time at the more conveniently located Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William or the Talisker Distillery on the Isle of Skye (more on those below).
Need to Know: The standard 90-minute tour includes a guided tasting of three whiskies and tickets are £20 (must be over 18). For more information and to book tickets, visit the Glenlivet Distillery official website.
If you opt for the coastal route instead today, let’s return to Aberdeen now and start over! Head northwest from Aberdeen, first up…
Just 25 miles northwest of Aberdeen, this magnificent 800-year old fortress should be your first stop today if you choose the coastal today. Built in the Scottish Baronial style, the folklore here is all about ghosts and legends (don’t miss the murderer’s death mask on display in the library). It’s a good preview to some of Edinburgh’s spooky sights later in the trip!
There’s also a shop and a tea room if you’re feeling a bit peckish, as the Brits would say. Guided tours are available without advance booking. Tours operate every 45 minutes with the first tour at 10:45am and the last at 3:30pm.
Need to Know: The grounds and garden are open year round from 9:00am to dusk. The castle, shop and tearoom are open 10:30am – 4:30pm Wed-Sun through August 28th, 2022. Then, Thu-Sun from August 29 – October 30. Closed October 31st through the end of the year. Tickets are £14.50 for adults and £11 for children (or £33 for a family). For more information and to book tickets, visit the Fyvie Castle official website.
I’m a sucker for ruined castles on the sea and this one is a beauty. Located on the scenic coast of Cruden Bay, Slains Castle was built in 1597 by the Earl of Erroll. The castle remained in the hands of a string of wealthy family heirs until one descendent eventually fell on hard times. The castle was sold in 1919 and abandoned in 1925 when the roof was removed to avoid paying taxes.
Back in the 19th century, celebrities were a fixture on the castle’s social circuit and one of the most famous guests was Bram Stoker. Rumor has it, Slains Castle was the inspiration for the setting in 1897’s Count Dracula (though I also visited a castle in Transylvania years ago that stakes a similar claim).
Fans of The Crown might also recognize Slains Castle from Season 1 when it stood in for Castle Mey on the Queen Mother’s visit to Scotland.
Need to Know: There are no tickets required, of course, but be very cautious around the site because it’s located very close to dangerous cliff edges. From the car park, it’s about a 15-20 minute walk to view the ruins.
There’s not much to see in this tiny Aberdeenshire village (actually it’s just a single street!) but it was still my favorite stop of our second day. Situated at the base of a steep cliff, Pennan is made up of just one row of whitewashed houses fronting the sea. Fair warning, the last portion of the road descending into the village is narrow and curvy (fortunately, we were the only car on it).
The uber-charming village is stunning on a sunny day (like the day we visited) but I’m told it’s also mesmerizing on a stormy day. The only “sight” here is the street’s most famous spot, a red phone box featured in the 1983 Scottish film Local Hero. Dolphins are often spotted from shore and grey seals love to sun themselves along the rocks to the village’s east.
There are no hotels or restaurants here but there are well-maintained public restrooms near the lone parking area. In the harbor, a stop by the tiny wooden shack called Coastal Cuppie is a must. The delightful owner sells tea and homemade sweets with all proceeds going entirely to support essential repairs for the harbor via the Pennan Harbour Trust. She doesn’t keep regular hours so check the Coastal Cuppie Facebook page to time your visit when she’s open.
Tip: Bring cash, she’s unable to accept cards due to a lack of wifi signal. (We didn’t know that and arrived without cash but she still offered us tea and cake and only asked that we go to the website and make a donation when we had a cell signal – which we were luckily able to do while we ate her delicious cake).
Bow Fiddle Rock
Located just off the coast of Portknockie, this impressive natural Quartzite sea arch is named for its resemblance to the tip of a fiddle. To get here, follow the A96 toward Inverness and exit the main road at Buckie.
Head toward the sea and you’ll eventually come to Portknockie. Parking is available at the end of Addison Street and from there you’ll see signs directing you to the path toward Bow Fiddle Rock.
Just 15 minutes from Brodie Castle. If you have a little extra time, this lovely abbey is worth a quick visit. Entrance is free and there are information boards to guide you around.
Located northeast of Inverness, this rose-colored castle is the other “pink castle in Scotland.” It was the ancestral home of the Brodie clan – one of Scotland’s most prominent families – for more than 400 years.
The castle has a colorful history and houses an impressive collection of furniture and artwork. Kids will love the Playful Garden on the castle grounds which includes the “Brodie Bunny,” Scotland’s largest bunny sculpture. The castle is especially popular in the springtime when the grounds are blanketed with more than 100 varieties of daffodils.
Need to Know: Open daily 10:00am – 4:00pm through October 30, 2022. Tickets for the castle and gardens are £15 for adults or £40 for a family. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Brodie Castle official website.
Built in the 14th century by the Thanes of Cawdor as a private fortress, this formidable medieval tower house has been home to 23 generations of the Cawdor Family.
Visitors can explore 12 rooms within the castle including the Tapestry Bedroom, the Old Kitchen, and the Tree Room where you’ll see the original holly tree (dead since 1372) around which the tower was built.
Need to Know: Open daily 10:00am – 5:30pm through October 2, 2022. Tickets for the castle and gardens are £15 for adults £7.50 for children (6-15), or £35 for a family day pass. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Cawdor Castle official website.
Culloden Battlefield Museum
A must-see for history buffs, stop here to learn about the battle that brought the Jacobite Rising to a bloody end in 1745. Visitors can trace family ancestry, read letters from the battle, and get into the battle spirit in the visitor’s center with a 360-degree battle immersion theater. There’s also rooftop garden with panoramic views and, of course, a gift shop.
Need to Know: Open daily 9:00am – 4:00pm, Tickets are £14 for adults or £30 for a family. For more information, visit the Culloden Battlefield official website.
The unofficial capital of the Highlands. For a terrific glimpse into the history of the Highlands, stop by the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery (IMAG). For an overview of Inverness, take a walk along the riverfront through the woods of the Ness Islands.
Starting from the Ness Bridge, the circular route passes the Inverness Cathedral and the Eden Court Theatre. The islands are linked to the shore by a series of Victorian-era suspension footbridges.
Where to Spend the Night
Inverness is a no-brainer for your overnight stop tonight. Here are my favorite hotel options (all with free parking):
- Bluebell House – Just a 5-minute walk from Inverness Castle, this is the top guest house in the city center. Rooms are warm and elegant, service is 5-star and breakfast is made to order.
- Heathmount Hotel – This boutique hotel is just far enough from the city center to be quiet, yet still walking distance from everything you’ll want to see. The newly-renovated rooms are bright, modern, and chic.
- Drumdale Bed & Breakfast – An easy walk to the city center, this affordable B&B has cheerful rooms and a great breakfast. There are also plenty of pubs and restaurants nearby.
How to Spend an Extra Day
If you have extra time, head north from Inverness to the Orkney Islands for a night. Ferries depart from Scrabster and the journey takes 90 minutes. The drive up from Inverness takes about 2.5 hours. On your way up the coast, don’t miss a stop by Dunrobin Castle, the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses. Or, just spend a whole day in Inverness!
Day 3 – Inverness to the Isle of Skye
Drive Time: 2.5 hours (to Portree)
Notes: If you didn’t have time to explore Inverness yesterday, start there before heading south to Loch Ness. Today’s itinerary goes right through the heart of the Highlands.
Best Places to Visit
The legend of the Loch Ness “monster” is synonymous with the Scottish Highlands. Unexplained mysterious sightings at this deep, dark loch date back to 565 AD and the iconic mystery continues to draw visitors and explorers to this day.
Sidebar: In case you were curious, there’s no difference between a lake and a loch. Loch is simply the Gaelic, Irish, and Scottish word for a sea inlet or lake.
Located in the village of Drumnadrochit since 1980, the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition provides a good overview of the legend and lore of the Loch Ness monster. The tour takes about 30 minutes and flows through a series of 7 themed rooms with videos to tell the history of Loch Ness.
All manner of “suspicious” sightings through the years are explored via witness interviews and even a few hoaxes are revealed.
Yes, it’s a little bit kitsch. Yes, there are oodles of Nessie souvenirs. And yes, you will share the parking lot with more than a few tour buses.
But if you’re visiting the Scottish Highlands, you can’t help but stop by. And the lake view scenery is pretty incredible, monster or not.
Need to Know: Open daily April to October 10:00am – 5:00pm and November to March, 10:00am – 3:00pm (closed Christmas Day). Tickets are £9.95 for adults and £5.95 for children (6-15). For more information or to purchase advance tickets (which are not necessary), visit the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition’s official website.
Loch Ness Boat Trips
Hitting the water on legendary Loch Ness truly is a must while you’re in the area. There are tons of boat trips available all around the lake, here are a few:
At one time this medieval fortress was one of Scotland’s largest castles. Over the course of 500 years it changed hands several times between the Scots and the English during the wars of Independence.
Today, the castle’s picturesque ruins overlooking Loch Ness are one of the Scottish Highlands’ loveliest landmarks. Located near the Loch Ness Centre, it’s an easy stop while in the area.
Need to Know: Open daily at 9:30am. Closing time varies by season: Jun-Aug (8:00pm), April/May/Sept (6:00pm), Oct (5:00pm), and Nov-Mar (4:30pm). Tickets £12 for adults and £7 for children (5-15) Advance tickets are recommended for this one. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Urquhart Castle official website.
Eilean Donan Castle
Located on the shores of Loch Duich, Kyle of Lochalsh, this striking castle was first fortified in the 13th century. It’s been built and rebuilt at least four times since then and it remains one of Scotland’s most beautiful castles to visit. Highlights include the Billeting Room and the Banqueting Hall. There’s also a visitor center, gift shop and coffee shop.
Need to Know: Hours are 9:00am – 6:00pm through August 31, 2022 (9:30am/Sept and 10:00am/Oct). Tickets are £10 for adults and £6 for children (6-15). For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Eilean Donan Castle official website.
Isle of Skye (Day 1)
From Eilean Donan Castle, it’s just a quick ride through Kyle of Lochalsh and then across the short bridge to the Isle of Skye (getting to Portree, however, will take you a solid hour from the castle). At this point, hopefully you have some daylight left to start your exploration of this incredible island.
In my detailed post on the Isle of Skye, I covered all the best things to see and do by region – the north, the west, and the south:
Since my recommendation for tomorrow involves taking the ferry from Skye back to the mainland, I’d focus on either the west or north part of the island with the rest of your day today. If you save the southern portion of the island for tomorrow you’ll be close to the ferry terminal when you’re ready to head back to the mainland.
On the western side of the island, Dunvegan Castle and the Neist Point Lighthouse are a great way to spend a few hours.
If you choose to head north (past Portree), try to get in the Old Man of Storr hike and stop by the Kilt Rock/Mealt Falls viewpoint. (These two are both pretty easy to get to if you start out early enough tomorrow so my vote is go west.)
Check out the complete Isle of Skye post for everything you need to know about the best things to see and do on the island.
Where to Spend the Night
Skye’s main town of Portree is a great choice due to its central location on the island. Plus there are plenty of dining options nearby after a long day of driving. Here are a few of my favorite hotels in Portree:
- Cuillin Hills Hotel – Just a 10-minute walk from the town center, this is one of Skye’s finest luxury hotels. Set amidst 15 acres of lush private grounds, this stunning location features the island’s best panoramic views of Portree Bay and the Cuillin mountains.
- Harbour House – If you’re traveling with the whole family, this holiday home is the perfect choice. Located in the heart of Portree, this spacious 3-bedroom, 2-bath home has the best view of the town’s colorful harbor. There’s also a full kitchen and plenty of room for everyone.
- Rockview Bed & Breakfast – Also centrally located in Portree, this elegant B&B has sea views, comfortable rooms, and terrific food.
How to Spend an Extra Day
Absolutely, positively, spend an extra day on lovely Skye if you have the time. There’s a ton to do on this island and I promise that you will feel shortchanged if you only have half a day to explore.
Day 4 – Isle of Skye to Oban
Drive Time: 3 hours (from Portree, does not include 30-minute ferry time)
Notes: Today is for the Harry Potter fans in the group as we head back through the heart of the Highlands to visit one of the most famous locations from the movies.
Best Places to Visit
Isle of Skye (Day 2)
To depart Skye and continue on to the next few stops, I recommend taking the 30-minute ferry from Armadale to Mallaig instead of the bridge. This will save you the time of backtracking past things you’ve already seen.
If you didn’t have time yesterday to head north from Portree and see the sights, get an early start and begin your day there. Then, head south where you can likely cover the Talisker Distillery, the magical Fairy Pools, and Armadale Castle in a few hours.
From there, hop on the Calmac car ferry to get back to the mainland. The ferry runs approximately every 2 hours during the summer season so you’ll need to plan for a specific sailing. For the current fares and schedules, and to book tickets, check the Caledonian MacBrayne official website.
The Jacobite Steam Train
Beloved by Harry Potter fans everywhere, the Jacobite Steam Train (aka the Hogwarts Express) makes the 84-mile scenic journey daily between Mallaig and Fort William along the West Highland Line.
Tickets are hard to come by in the summer months unless you book well in advance (much to my husband’s dismay). However, if you can’t score tickets for a ride on the train, you can catch a glimpse of it as it passes over the Glenfinnan Viaduct (more on that in a moment).
Need to Know: For more information on availability and tickets, visit the Jacobite Steam Train’s official website.
Featured in 4 of the Harry Potter movies, the Glenfinnan Viaduct is perhaps the most scenic spot on the Jacobite Steam Train’s journey.
The train passes here twice daily, first at approximately 10:30am and again just after 3:00pm. It’s a terrific photo op. If you’re traveling with a Potterhead (like my husband) and you can’t get tickets for the Jacobite Steam Train, this stop is a must.
You can watch the train pass from the convenient viewing spot near the visitor center parking lot but it’s not a particularly good view. For a much better view from above, make the 20-minute hike up the marked trail to await the train’s arrival from the grassy hill above the viaduct.
Across the street, the Glenfinnan Monument pays tribute to the clansmen who died fighting for the cause of the Stuarts.
Gateway to the Caledonian Canal and the sea, this central Highlands town is at the foot of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. Here you can hike or cycle up Ben Nevis or go rafting or canoeing on Loch Linnhe.
Fort William is another great place for an overnight stay since it offers plenty of hotels, shops and restaurants. If you scored tickets for the Jacobite Steam Train, it might make more sense to spend the night here, rather than Oban.
Ben Nevis Distillery
While in Fort William, this is the perfect chance to learn about and sample some Scottish whiskey. If you missed Glenlivet and Talisker, this is the best distillery remaining before you get back to Edinburgh. Founded in 1825, it’s one of the oldest licensed distilleries in Scotland.
The Standard Tour includes a guided tour of the distillery and a tasting of two whiskies. For four whiskies, upgrade to the Classic Tour.
Need to Know: Standard Tour is £12 per person, Classic Tour is £20. For more information and to make reservations, visit the Ben Nevis Distillery official website.
One of Scotland’s most picturesque glens, the towering mountains and deep valleys of Glen Coe were carved out by glaciers centuries ago. Picturesque Glencoe Village, located on the shores of Loch Leven, is the perfect base for exploration.
Here you can hike or bike through the stunning scenery featured in several Harry Potter movies, as well as James Bond’s Skyfall.
This terrific Scottish seaside town is the gateway to the Isles of Mull, Iona and more in the Inner Hebrides chain. From Oban, you can take a ferry to Mull and explore its rugged coastline, ancient castles, and charming villages.
The busy ferry terminal offers easy connections to a wide variety of Scottish isles nearby but you’ll likely need more than just an afternoon to make the trip worthwhile.
For a quick overnight stay, just focus on enjoying Oban itself. If you do have time to stick around for a full day, book a day trip to Mull, Iona and Staffa with Staffa Tours. (The tours that originate in Oban last 10-12 hours so you need a full day.)
Where to Spend the Night
There are plenty of great hotel options in the town of Oban, here are a few of my favorites:
- No26 By the Sea – This luxury boutique hotel boasts an excellent waterfront location with superb sea views. Impossibly stylish rooms are exquisitely decorated in rich, velvety tones. Some rooms also feature a private terrace. Free, private parking.
- No17 The Promenade – Incredibly similar property to glamorous No26 but in a slightly more convenient location (and with a slightly higher price) closer to restaurants, shops, and the ferry terminal. Parking is available for a fee.
- Killorn Guest House – This affordable guest house truly is a hidden gem in the heart of Oban. Recently renovated rooms have fresh, chic décor drawing on colors from the sea. The sea view rooms are definitely worth the minimally higher rate. The only downside here is no parking, you’ll have to use nearby public parking.
How to Spend an Extra Day
To get out and explore the Isles of Mull and Iona, you’ll need an extra night here in Oban. Book an excursion (or take a ferry) to Mull and Iona from Oban. Or visit the Treshnish Isles and see Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa and the wildlife paradise of Lunga, home to a large colony of puffins.
Day 5 – Oban to Edinburgh
Drive Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes (to Edinburgh Airport to drop your car, without stops)
Notes: You’ll want to devote at least half of your day to glorious Edinburgh today. But there are some gorgeous stretches of countryside along the way. I would normally have included Kilchurn Castle and Linlithgow Palace on today’s itinerary. However, they are both currently closed for conservation work with no announced reopening date. For more information on when they will reopen, check their official websites linked above.
Best Places to Visit
Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park
Spanning 720 square miles, this national park includes 22 scenic lochs. The largest of these, Loch Lomond, is considered the “Queen of the Scottish Lochs.” With 39 miles of coastline, the Park is ideal for sailing, kayaking, or just spotting the local sea life.
Loch cruises depart from Balloch and Tarbet and are a great way to get out on the water and enjoy the stunning scenery. Both the cruises and waterbus services link the villages surrounding Loch Lomond.
Because of its close proximity to both Edinburgh and Glasgow, this region is a great place to experience Scotland’s beautiful countryside if you don’t have enough time for a full Scotland road trip.
After all that driving, return your rental car, take the tram into Edinburg’s city center.
From a lofty castle to underground haunted vaults, Scotland’s energetic capital city has plenty of things to see and do. I’ve covered them all in great detail here…
If you’re not totally castled-out by now, start your tour of Edinburgh with the magnificent Edinburgh Castle. It’s a great way to get up high and take in the beauty of Scotland’s capital city.
Where to Spend the Night
Plan to spend your final two nights in Edinburgh. You’ll be driving part of Day 5 and you’ll want at least one full day to see the highlights. Here are my favorite hotel options in Edinburgh:
- The Balmoral Hotel – Opened in 1902, Edinburgh’s historic grand dame is more than just a luxury hotel, it’s a 5-star destination. For Harry Potter fans, Room 552 (now called the JK Rowling Suite) is where JK Rowling completed the final book in the series, Deathly Hallows.
- Six Brunton Place – For local charm, this cozy guest house is a terrific mid-priced choice. From the tasty breakfast options to well-appointed rooms, it’s the perfect home away from home after a long day exploring the city
- Motel One Edinburgh Royal – Just half a mile from Edinburgh Castle, this affordable hotel is the ideal choice for anyone on a budget. Rooms are a bit on the small side but sparkling clean and stylishly decorated. Tip: It’s well worth the few extra bucks for one of the view rooms.
Day 6: Edinburgh!
Drive Time: None, hooray! Edinburgh is a terrific walking city.
Best Places to Visit
I won’t go into too much information here since I covered everything you need to know about Edinburgh in great detail in the above post.
Assuming you covered Edinburgh Castle yesterday and you have just one full day left to explore, this is how I would spend it:
- Take a stroll along the Royal Mile.
- Stop for lunch or a pint in Grassmarket.
- Wander the colorful shops of Victoria Street.
- Get spooked in the Real Mary King’s Close (book this one WELL in advance!).
How to Spend an Extra Day
You could easily spend several days in Edinburgh and that’s definitely my first choice if you have an extra day.
But if you want to venture out, Glasgow is just a quick 1-hour train ride away. Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow is home to world-class museums, friendly locals, and plenty of visitor attractions. It’s also one of the world’s best music destinations and Scotland’s only UNESCO City of Music.
From high-end shopping to local distilleries, here are 3 great things to do in Glasgow:
- Princes Square – Located in the heart of Glasgow City Centre, this elegant 19th-century Merchants’ Square is home to more than 30 specialty shops and boutiques.
- The Tall Ship – Built in 1896 on the River Clyde, the Glenlee (also known as the Tall Ship) is the only remaining vessel afloat in the UK built on what was considered the greatest shipbuilding river in the world. Today, it’s a popular free museum in Glasgow’s west end.
- The Clydeside Distillery – A great spot to learn the shared history of Scotch whiskey and the Clyde River. Sample some single malts at a tasting and watch the distillery’s craftsmen at work.
Wrapping up an epic one-week Scotland road trip!
From pretty seaside towns and villages to rugged coastline and castles galore, you could spend weeks exploring the Scottish Highlands and still miss out on plenty of good stuff.
But if you only have a week, this 7-day Scotland road trip itinerary covers the best of the Scottish Highlands and islands with just enough time leftover for sensational Edinburgh.
Now who’s ready to hit the road?