The Scottish Highlands are filled with an array of activities and interesting destinations, making it challenging to decide what to include on your itinerary. From beautiful lakes to historic castles, neolithic monuments, whisky tours, and more, no matter your travel budget or interest, you’ll be busy in the Highlands of Scotland.
Check out this ultimate guide to some of the best things to do in the Scotland Highlands for all the inspiration you’ll need to start planning your trip!
10 Best Things to Do in the Scotland Highlands
1. Spot the Old Man of Hoy
The Old Man of Hoy, off the coast of Orkney, is worthy of a place on any itinerary if you visit Scotland soon.
The Old Man of Hoy is a vast, giant-like sea stack off the coast of Orkney in Northern Scotland. It seems to be looking down at the mainland it faces. It is the tallest sea stack in the U.K and was created relatively recently in the 18th century. It stands at 449 meters or 1473 feet. Many think the enormous stone sea stack will soon fall into the sea.
Professor Jim Hansom recently told the Scottish Express that the stone structure could “cave in at any time.” So if you want to see the impossible-looking sea stack for yourself or even scale it, it might be time to plan a trip to the Scottish Highlands and make it a goal for this year.
Many have scaled the Old Man since it was first conquered in 1966, including an eight-year-old boy, Edward Mills, who climbed the giant in under five hours in 2018.
The Old Man of Hoy is located just off the coast of Hoy Island, which is part of the Orkney archipelago. You’ll need to wake up early for this day trip!
2. Visit the Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Hoy is just one of the small islands off the coast of Orkney. But Orkney itself, off the north coast of the highlands of Scotland, is host to some unmissable sights. The heart of neolithic Orkney, a group of four sites, is the most popular.
The neolithic Celtic peoples of Orkney built these massive stone monuments over 5,000 years ago. They survive as some of the best examples of megalithic architecture anywhere on Earth.
Maeshowe looks like a small grassy hill from the outside, but within it is a long corridor that opens up to a grand chambered tomb, or cairn. The passage was created from colossal sandstone slabs, each weighing up to three tons. It’s a feat of both strength and design.
The sun’s rays shine directly down the passage during sunset on the winter solstice each year.
Few sites are as eye-opening as Skara Brae for those interested in the everyday neolithic lifestyle. This is a village settlement consisting of ten intact, interconnected houses. The stone slab houses still contain furniture and flushing toilets used by their owners over 5,000 years ago.
The Stones of Stenness
You’ve heard of Stonehenge, but did you know it isn’t Britain’s only henge? Henges were built across neolithic Britain, but the earliest henge was at Stenness. It was built around 3100 B.C. The 6m tall stones (nearly 20 feet) of Stenness are vital evidence that seafarers imported henge culture to Britain via the Orkney Islands.
The Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar is an enormous 104-meter (or 341-foot) circle of stones within a wide dugout ditch. The site is still yet to be excavated, so no one knows how old it truly is. Regardless, it is a fascinating destination for visitors to the Scotland Highlands.
3. Take a Whiskey Tour
The Scotland Highlands is the most extensive whiskey-producing region in Scotland and the world, currently housing 39 distilleries. Today’s whiskey-makers continue a history dating back more than 500 years.
The Whisky tour in Inverness is a great place to start your Scotch spirit journey. After visiting a distillery and drinking a dram or two, you’ll go home a connoisseur.
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4. Spot the Hogwarts Express at Glenfinnan Viaduct
The name Glenfinnan Viaduct may not be familiar, but if you’re a fan of the Harry Potter movies, you will no doubt remember the high bridge that the Hogwarts Express crosses.
The Jacobite Train runs two daily roundtrip journeys on a single track, from Fort William to Mallaig in the west highlands. This means you have four opportunities to see the magical crossing each day.
If you want to make the most of the few seconds the Jacobite Steam Train comes into view, you’ll need to arrive early, climb one of the nearby hills and get a viewpoint above the tracks.
Crowds will form as buses bring in tourists to see the famous engine. Most tour buses don’t arrive early enough to allow time to climb up very far, so with a little planning, you can get a perfect picture with no one else in the frame.
5. Hunt for Nessie at Loch Ness
Lakes are called lochs in Gaelic, meaning Loch Ness is undoubtedly the most famous lake in the world.
Most have heard stories about Nessie, the mythical Loch Ness Monster. Scientists continue to debate the possibility of Nessie’s existence. A recent discovery of a plesiosaur in Morocco has scientists more confident that a colossal monster could live in the depths of Loch Ness’ fresh water.
You’ll find Loch Ness in the northern highlands, where there are plenty of things to do around the lake (other than hunt for Nessie). This includes the expansive grounds and ruins of Urquhart Castle.
If you prefer hikes, try the ultimate Loch Ness experience: the 350 Trail. It’s a six-day, 80-mile footpath around the lake. Perfect for walkers, you’ll see castles and canals and have plenty of time to scan the surface for signs of Nessie.
6. Enjoy the Spirit of the Highland Games
The Highland Games are over 1,000 years old. During the games, clans pit themselves against each other for glory.
The Games run throughout the summer months across the Scottish highlands. Most games are single-day events, so you can schedule more than one if you are traveling around the area. Expect to hear bagpipes, see the highland dance, and wear a Scottish tartan and kilt.
You’ll find food and activities like a state fair at any Highland Games events, with the main event being the games themselves. You might be unfamiliar with some events and, as a result, be surprised that Olympic events – like the hammer throw and shot put – were initially Highland Games events.
Events you won’t want to miss include:
- The Caber Toss: A log is thrown end over end to see who can land it, pointing closest to 12 o’clock.
- Tug-o-War: Two teams pull either end of a rope in a test of strength and skill. Join in to become a real Highlander!
7. Visit Eilean Donan Castle
Eilean Donan Castle in the northwest highlands is a picturesque fairyland come to life. Originally built in the 13th century, this medieval castle on a small island is now a monument to the history of the highlands.
If you want to come away from Scotland better informed of its history, including the Jacobite uprising and the struggles against the English, Eilean Donan Castle is a must-visit. Additionally, if you want to come away with an Instagram shot like no other, you’ll find that here too.
8. Drink at a Highland Pub
For Scots, there’s no better escape from the wind and rain than inside one of the inland stone-built highland pubs. You’ll drink in some authentic highland culture as you share a swallie (drink) with the chookters (Scottish highlanders.)
Even the most introverted extrovert will have a good time with the live music and dancing, and many offer at least basic meals as well. While it may be challenging to find food to meet specific dietary restrictions in these local establishments (though you’ll find plenty of gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan food in Edinburgh!), they’re a must when visiting the Scottish Highlands.
9. Explore Inverness
The city of Inverness is the defacto capital of the Scottish Highlands. Only eight miles from Loch Ness and six miles from The Clara Cairnes, Inverness is the perfect hub to explore Scottish Highlands sites.
It’s the best place to find quality traditional kilts, learn about the battle of Culloden and the history of Scotland, and visit the oldest bar in Inverness, called Gellions. Inverness also hosts a traditional Victorian market in its old town, which offers insight into Victorian Britain and the opportunity to find souvenirs.
10. Climb Ben Nevis
The highest mountain in the U.K. is in western Scotland in the Scottish Highlands. Of the three peaks in Britain, Ben Nevis is the most significant and most challenging climb. However, that doesn’t stop thousands from completing the three peaks challenge every year of summiting the three highest peaks of Scotland, Wales, and England (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike, and Mount Snowden).
Anyone with a reasonable fitness level should find climbing Ben Nevis is possible in about eight hours. Of course, those more interested in the views than the hike can take the cable car for a breathtaking gondola ride with beautiful scenery.
Looking for a unique excursion near Ben Nevis? Check out the eerie Corpach shipwreck, beached on nearby Caol Beach.
Enjoy The Highlands
Whether you’re visiting the Scotland Highlands to reconnect with your ancestral heritage or you’re just here to enjoy the incredible scenery, there is something in Scotland for every traveler. Add some of these best things to do in the Scotland highlands to your itinerary, and you will surely have a memorable trip.
This post originally appeared on Savoteur.
Carley Rojas Avila is a bilingual New York-based travel writer, editor, content marketer, and the founder of the digital travel publications Explorers Away and Home to Havana. Carley is an expert on all things Latin America, the Caribbean, and Cuba, having lived and worked in four different countries in the region. Her writing has appeared on the Associated Press wires and in Travel + Leisure, Yahoo, MSN, Euronews, The Weather Channel, and more. When she's not writing about her travels, find her front row at a Bad Bunny concert, befriending street cats, and taste-testing every pizza in Havana.