A road trip to the Scottish Highlands should be on everyone’s bucket list, including yours (sorry to sound patronising, but trust me on this one.). Why? Because Scotland is a magical land of breathtaking natural scenery, striking man-made wonders and a fascinating history wrapped up in myths and legends, which make it the ideal place to go for a drive. Yet to be convinced? Then note that just this past year Scotland was voted as “the most beautiful country in the world” by the readers of Rough Guides, one of the most distinguished and famous travel guidebooks worldwide (*cue the applause!!!*) .
Of course Scotland owes part of its fame and glory to its enchanting, interesting and historic cities, such as Edinburgh, Stirling, Glasgow and St Andrews, but to properly experience the magnitude of the country’s beauty, you MUST drive to the Scottish Highlands.
So pick the route, buckle up, turn up the music and enjoy the ride!
(As an homage to the wonderful Edinburgh, which was my home for 5 years before recently moving to its cool neighbour Glasgow, I will use it as a starting point for all the road trips below. With simple adjustments these routes can pretty much be followed regardless from where you drive).
1. Myths & Monsters
Edinburgh → Glencoe → Loch Ness → Inverness (5h driving one way)
If Scottish weekend road trips were a menu of burgers, this one would be called “The Classic”. It’s the first road trip that I went to when I first moved to Scotland, one of the most famous picks for tourists, the trip that most people living in Scotland take their friends and family to when they first visit them, and so on. So why is this one so famous? I have 2 words for you. Loch Ness. Yes, this journey includes a stopover at Fort Augustus, a tiny village on the banks of the mythical Loch Ness lake, from which you can jump on an hour-long cruise ride and go looking for Nessie the monster whilst admiring the surrounding scenery. However, having been on this route many many many times, trust me when I say that the wow factor stretches far beyond Loch Ness. It’s in the mystical lochs, the vast Glen Coe valley (my absolute favourite part of this route) and its rugged mountains that offer a truly phenomenal first taste to the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands. Final stop is Inverness (which translates to “mouth of the river Ness” in Gaelic), the capital of the Highlands and northernmost city in the UK. Time to head back? Drive through part of the enchanting (and UK’s largest) Cairngorms National Park, and before reaching Edinburgh pay a visit to Scotland’s former capital, the picturesque Perth.
Highlights: Glen Coe valley, Three Sisters mountains, Ben Nevis mountain (highest mountain in the UK), Ben Nevis distillery, Glen Nevis, Loch Ness, Urquart Castle
2. Skye’s the limit
Edinburgh → Pitlochry → Eilean Donan Castle → Isle of Skye (6h driving one way)
Get ready for a proper adventure and a truly spectacular scenery that screams drama. The Isle of Skye is considered by many as the most beautiful island of Scotland, and remains in my top 3 fav road trips I have ever done (twice). Google it and you’ll see why. It’s basically the Scottish Highlands on steroids; winding narrow roads leading up to dramatic cliffs with exquisite sea views, monumental mountains towering over blue lochs and green valleys, and charming towns such as the colourful Portree serving as perfect pit stops for food and sleep. Fan of whisky? Then you are in for a treat because the Isle of Skye produces Talisker, one of the most famous whiskeys in the world, and you can pay Talisker Distillery (which is beautifully situated next to Loch Harpot) a visit for whisky tasting and a tour. Right before you drive over the Skye bridge to enter the island, you are in for another (eye) treat;
one of Scotland’s most beautiful, photographed and recognised castle(s), Eilean Donan. Built on a tiny island where three lochs meet, the castle is connected to the mainland with a footbridge and for sure deserves a visit.
Highlights: Eilean Donan castle, Portree, Quiraing Mountain Pass, Old Man of Storr, The Fairy Pools, Staffin, Talisker whisky distillery
3. Lovely Loch Lomond
Edinburgh → Loch Lomond → Inveraray (2.5h driving one way)
The list’s shortest and most relaxing road trip to do, since Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park is only a 2h drive from Edinburgh and 1h from Glasgow. The route is lovely, the surrounding views are vibrant, and the pretty towns of Luss and Alexandria are ideal for a wee stroll (more Loch Lomond pictures and info here). Seafood lover? Stop at the exquisite Loch Fyne Oyster Bar for lunch next to Scotland’s longest loch (prepare to pay a pretty penny though), before heading to the delightful Inveraray for the final stop of the route. Take the time to visit the romantic Inveraray Castle and gardens and enjoy the surrounding views of the beautiful Loch Fyne.
Highlights: Loch Lomond, Loch Lomond distillery, Loch Fyne, Inveraray Castle
4. Harry Potter and the Scottish Highlands
Edinburgh → Fort William → Glennfinan Viaduct (4h driving one way)
As a massive Harry Potter fan I was shocked to find out that the gorgeous landscapes and viaduct that appear during the journey to Hogwarts are real, and even more thrilled to find out that they are in Scotland! Even if you are not a Harry Potter fan (wait, what?!) you can still admire the impressive piece of construction that is the Glennfinan Viaduct and hike up the Glennfinan trail to be rewarded with panoramic views of Loch Shiel, which lies directly opposite the viaduct. You can even do a bit of trainspotting, as the viaduct and the nearby Glennfinan Station Museum are frequented by railway enthusiasts. I recommend reaching Glennfinan via Glencoe, so you enjoy some of route’s no.1 stunning scenery, and to complement your Glennfinan visit with a stopover at Fort William, the 2nd largest settlement in the Highlands surrounded by many popular sights (such as Inverlochy Castle), hiking trails (enjoy a day’s hiking at Glen Nevis), Munro mountains (such as UK’s highest mountain Ben Nevis) etc. Oh and if you want to experience one of the most amazing train rides in the world (and feel like you are actually off to Hogwarts), the ditch the car, hop on the Glasgow-Oban / Glasgow-Mallaig / Glasgow-Fort William train and enjoy an unforgettable railway journey over the Glennfinan Viaduct.
Highlights: Glennfinan Viaduct, Glennfinan Monument, Loch Schiel, McCaig’s Tower, Castle Stalker, Oban whiskey distillery
5. East Coast
Edinburgh → Craingorms National Park → Dunnotar Castle (4h driving one way)
This route explores (part of) the north-east coast of Scotland, some of which is actually not considered as Highlands due to its different terrain and landscape. But, although the north-east of Scotland does not compare in beauty, drama or wow factor to the mesmerising west, it is still a great pick for a weekend’s drive. First stop is Anstruther where you can taste the award winning fish and chips of Anstruther Fish Bar, whose past customers included Tom Hanks and Prince Williams. Continue your journey by driving through the evergreen Craingorms National Park. I suggest going for a hike or doing one of the many other activities offered, such as loch watersports and visiting the area’s WildLife Park. This route includes a visit to the unique Dunnotar Castle and its picturesque adjacent port town of Stonehaven. Return to Edinburgh by the scenic coastal route, and if you have a bit of spare time then visit St. Andrews, home of golf (whose history you can enjoy via an exhibition at the British Golf Museum) and of several medieval sights from way back in the day.
Highlights: Cairngorms National Park, Balmoral Castle, Royal Lochnagar Distillery, Loch an Eilein, Dunnotar Castle, St Andrews Castle
6. North Coast 500
Edinburgh → Inverness → Applecross → Ullapool → Durness → John O’ Groats → Dingwall (14h driving one way)
I saved the best for last. My absolute favourite road trip I have ever been to was the North Coast 500, with the highlight of the trip being driving through Scotland’s northern west coast; a truly unmissable experience. However, it is an insane amount of driving, and, hence, quite impossible to do in just a weekend, so I will devote a future post on how to plan it and what to see when going on this epic adventure.
Have you ever visited the Scottish Highlands?
Which route did you follow?
[a special thank you to George Kan for the photography ♥]
| More Scottish Highlands posts here.
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