I’ll never forget summiting a small peak at Glencoe on a blustery, clear June day a few years ago, knowing that I’d never see another place like it—boundless skies, vast swaths of green, distant peaks—the striking accents of a land marked by a long and powerful history. It was like perching atop the edge of the world.
So it is for most travelers who explore the fabled Highlands of Scotland—it’s a place that sticks with you. Spending time there is a warming experience, despite the gale-force winds: Honest land, hearty food, salt of the earth people. It’s a bit like time travel, even. Just as rich in color as the region is in history, these rolling hills and rocky peaks are a sought-after destination for both adventure-seekers and comfort travelers, and it’s no surprise that countless works of literature and film have taken inspiration from this lush natural kingdom (think Skyfall and the Harry Potter series). And for those who are interested in more than exploring the many natural wonders, the beauty of the Highlands doesn’t stop at the great outdoors. Here, you’ll find a smattering of historic architecture, storybook villages, exciting art, world-renowned distilleries, museums, top-tier accommodations, and cuisine that’s a welcomed departure from the bland reputation often attributed to many a Scottish menu.
Below, you’ll find outlined everything that should be on your to-do list when you plan a visit to the Highlands.
Where Are the Scottish Highlands?
Geographically, the Highlands occupy a good chunk of the country—so it can be hard to choose where to start. Luckily, it’s pretty much impossible to go wrong, and the Scottish public transport system has made the Highland region quite accessible, despite the land seeming rather remote. Think of the Highlands as north of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and west of Aberdeen and Dundee.
Where to Go
Cairngorms National Park
Consider the Cairngorms a veritable adventure dreamland. The mountain range runs across one of Scotland’s most breathtaking national parks, and is home to 55 Munros—mountains over 3,000 feet—so naturally, it is a paradise for winter sport lovers. There are also plenty of warm-weather activities, like watersports, golfing, and hiking. If you’re planning to ski, be sure to book your lift tickets early at Cairngorm Mountain resort, and don’t miss the Christmas Market if you’re visiting around the holidays.
Must See: Take advantage of the park’s knowledgeable rangers and book a guided walking tour.
Considered the “gateway” to Ben Nevis, which is the highest peak in Scotland, Fort William will charm any traveler who sets foot in this town nestled along Loch Linnhe. Visitors can expect a plethora of outdoor adventures, the most obvious one summiting Ben Nevis, which towers over the town at around 4,400 feet. In addition to stunning hikes, many travelers come here for some of the country’s best fishing and skiing. And for those who love a classic Scottish pub, there are plenty of those scattered around town, perfect for cozying up with a local whiskey and a book. Pro tip: Plan to drive the storied Road to the Isles, which winds past miles upon miles of some of the world’s most breathtaking coastline (think sandy beaches, towering green hills, and stretching moors).
Must see: If you don’t want to drive (or even if you do, make time), there’s always the steam train—a magical journey that’s particularly reminiscent of the one and only Hogwarts Express.
It’s hard to describe the immensity of Glencoe—seeing it for the first time is nothing short of jaw-dropping. What makes it so very special are its geographic roots; the ability to see centuries of natural history in the peaks and valleys that surround you is undeniably astounding. Carved from volcanic explosions and ice glaciers hundreds of years ago, the jagged peaks of Glencoe meet a deep and vast valley to create one of Scotland’s most celebrated natural wonders, nestled in Lochaber Geopark.
Must See: Take a moment to gaze out across Loch Leven, go for a hike along the Glen Coe Geotrail, and absolutely stop by the Glencoe visitors center to learn about the land’s long an tumultuous history.
City-dwellers may be pleased to learn that the Scottish Highlands aren’t entirely made up of lochs, valleys, and mountains—between the peaks and rolling hills and stretches of tempestuous coastline, there lay not only dozens of cozy villages but indeed a small city, and the cultural center of the Highlands: Inverness. Located along the River Ness, and near two of Scotland’s most important (and bleak) battle sites—think of the Jacobite Risings, history buffs—the Capital of the Highlands is a place where Scottish history and modern culture wed, yielding a buzzing cosmopolitan hub. Small, yes, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character, which any visitor will learn quickly. Grab a bite and a pint at Mustard Seed (you can dine al fresco in the warm season), and soak up views of the river over a local, seasonal menu.
Must See: Head south of the city to explore the famed Loch Ness—you can take a cruise or simply admire from the shore the largest freshwater body in the country. Head to The Dores Inn, and enjoy whiskey fireside, or out on the terrace with sweeping views of the Loch.
Isle of Skye
If you aren’t yet convinced of the magic that is the great Scottish outdoor experience, perhaps having a wee peek at a few photographs of the Isle of Skye will set things straight (start by looking at the Old Man of Storr). Located just off Scotland’s deliciously atmospheric western coast—connected by bridge—this island feels altogether otherworldly; a real-life fairyland, as it were. It’s the largest of the Inner Hebrides, clocking in at 48 miles in length, and it’s all coastal fishing villages, stunning natural formations, local whiskey and beer, and beautiful vistas. One can easily get around the island by car, or head out for a little day trip (though I recommend booking an inn, like this one on the westerly coast, for an especially spectacular sunset).
Must See: Head to the western side of Skye to walk among the Fairy Pools, a collection of vibrant blue waterfalls and pools that are known for looking particularly mystical. Be sure to seek out Dunvegan Castle, one of Scotland’s most famed, which has been the ancestral dwelling of the Clan MacLeod for a cool 800 years.
Seafood lovers simply must travel to Oban when visiting the Highlands. Considered the 'gateway to the Hebridean Islands,' this cozy little fishing port may be quite small, but it packs a serious punch. Take in stunning views of the bay from McCaig’s Tower, explore the ruins of Dunollie Castle, and be absolutely sure to make time for a lengthy seafood meal and some good local spirits. Oban Distillery is one of the country’s oldest (think 1700s kind of old). Be sure to book a tour in advance—the friendly tour guides are at once incredibly informative and full of that Scottish wit, and you’ll leave with not only a warmth down to your toes from the whiskey itself, but an understanding of the country’s spirit history.
Must See: Waterfront seafood restaurant Eeusk is located directly on the docks of the port. The glassed-in dining room offers unparalleled bay views that pair very well with the fresh seafood menu. Pro tip: Order the full seafood platter from the “mains” menu.