How to get off the beaten track to see the real Scotland…
Where is top of your list when you think of visiting Scotland? The Isle of Skye, Eilean Donan Castle, Loch Ness and the North Coast 500? They are all rightly famous worldwide. However, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of blindly following a top ten list and missing out on the really good stuff – and then taking the same photos as everyone else! If you fancy getting a wee bit off the beaten track, here are my best places to visit in Scotland.
1. The otherworldly mountains of Assynt
With turquoise blue seas, white sand beaches, and tasty Lochinver pies, a visit to the far North West coast of Scotland is not to be missed. However, just driving through Assynt on the North Coast 500 means you miss out on the best bit – the views from some of Scotland’s most dramatic mountains – including Suilven, Cul More, Quinaig and the two Munros Ben More Assynt & Conival. Even if you don’t climb up very high (try the smaller Stac Pollaidh) you will still get an incredible view of Assynt’s hundreds of lochs – all the way down to the sea. Mindblowing.
- Read More: How to Visit Lochinver and Assynt
2. The fairy lochs of the Cairngorms National Park
Deep in the heart of the Cairngorms in the ancient Glenmore Forest and surrounded by huge Caledonian pines are two beautiful lochs. The most famous, Lochan Uaine, is said to have got its green hue from the local fairies washing their clothes in it and the walk up to green lochan is a great walk for families on a well-made trail. Did you know that Scotland’s highest beach is also in the Cairngorm National Park? The beautiful Loch Morlich is a huge draw on a summer’s day for watersports and sunbathing – and is surrounded for much of the year by snow-topped peaks. The loch is also supposedly home to Big Donald – the king of all the fairies!
3. The wildlife paradise of Handa Island
Just off the tip of the north-west coast lies Handa, one of Scotland’s most beautiful islands and a nationally important wildlife reserve. Owned by the Scourie Estate and managed in partnership with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Handa is a breeding ground for over 200 pairs of puffins, great skuas, kittiwakes and guillemots – with stunning views of the Assynt mountains and one of Scotland’s best beaches – which is why Handa makes this list of best places to visit in Scotland. Take the tiny ferry across to the island and spend a blissful few hours exploring. Don’t forget your binoculars!
- How to visit Handa Island
4. The East Neuk of Fife for a foodie adventure
The East Neuk (or eastern corner) of Fife stretches from Elie & Earlsferry north to Crail and was once the heart of the east coast of Scotland’s fishing trade. The tiny harbours along the East Neuk may now be home to more pleasure boats than those landing lobsters, langoustines and crabs, but the area’s fishing history now gives it its charm. Whether you walk the Fife Coastal Path or drive from Elie to Crail, don’t just zoom up to St Andrews or you will miss out on arguably some of Scotland’s best villages – as well as some of the best food that Scotland has to offer.
- Read more: How to have a feast in Fife
5. The spectacular Torridon mountains
A string of white cottages dwarfed by arguably the UK’s best mountains is all that marks the village of Torridon. But despite its size and remoteness, this part of the west coast of Scotland is deservedly popular. The village and the Torridon Inn are a regular stopping point on Scotland’s famous North Coast 500 but for hill walkers, Torridon offers some of the finest hill and ridge walking in the whole of the UK. With nine Munros to climb on Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe you are guaranteed an amazing day out. Beginner? Climb Beinn Damh, a Corbett (901m) for a view across Loch Torridon to hills towering above.
6. Dunnottar Castle and the Angus Coast
Scotland’s east coast is as beautiful, wild, and as rugged as the west, but is often forgotten by visitors rushing past on the A90 heading north to Aberdeen. Instead take the Angus Coastal Route (the A92), one of Scotland’s most scenic roads, passing along the Angus, Kincardine and Aberdeenshire coast. On the way, you pass beautiful beaches, the spectacular Dunnottar Castle and as much fresh fish as you can eat in pretty seaside villages. It is also the sunniest region of Scotland, but I can never guarantee you a blue sky!
- Read more: How to visit the Angus Coast
7. The Isle of Islay
Whether it’s the stunning wild landscapes, incredibly friendly locals, or the cask strength whisky, there is something about Islay that grabs your heart and holds on. With 8 whisky distilleries to sample (my favourite is Bunnahabhain) the Islay wave, incredible wildlife watching and walking on the beautiful Oa peninsula – the Isle of Islay offers up a truly unique Scottish island experience. I can honestly say that I’ve never fallen in love with a place quite as quickly as I did with the Isle of Islay.
- Read more: How to visit the Isle of Islay
8. Big Tree Country, Perthshire
Perthshire is one of the most accessible regions of Scotland and famed for its big trees and autumn colours. Visit the pretty town of Dunkeld, Blair Atholl and its castle, stop for photos at the gorgeous Queen’s View over Loch Tummel and then explore the Victorian Hermitage. On the River Tummel sits the resort town of Pitlochry and along the river is Faskally Wood – otherwise known as the enchanted forest. Follow the woodland paths past the picturesque Loch Dunmore or walk as far as the dramatic Killecrankie – watch out for the bungee jumpers!
9. The Isle of Harris and Lewis, The Outer Hebrides
A visit to the Outer Hebrides is an otherworldly dip into Scotland’s remote edge of the world island culture and Harris and Lewis are my favourites of the Western Islands. Visit the Callanish Stones, the Isle of Harris Distillery and explore Harris’s incredible beaches including Seilebost and famous Luskintyre. If you are feeling more active, Harris’s hills include the mighty Clisham, a Corbett at 799 m (2,621 ft), and neighbouring Uisgneabhal Mor, Teileasbhal and Stuabhal, a paradise for walkers giving views across the whole Outer Hebrides.
10. The Moray Firth Coast
Much of the Moray Firth coastline has long been part of the North Coast 500, but the southern edge of the firth is much more untouched by tourism. Now part of a new initiative, the North East 250, whether you want to go dolphin spotting, sailing, or walking the Coastal Trail, with picturesque harbour villages, waves crashing over towering sea cliffs, huge swathes of beach, and incredible changing light, exploring the Moray coast is about to become top of your Scotland list.
- Read more: how to visit the Moray Firth
11. Visit both Edinburgh and Glasgow
Do you prefer either Edinburgh or Glasgow? I actually love both. Edinburgh is undeniably gorgeous and buzzing with cultural events all year round, so explore with my favourite things to do in Edinburgh and head out for dinner at one of my recommended restaurants. Over in the west is Glasgow. Emerging fresh from decades of urban regeneration, with a lively music scene, a huge art community and people who can make a party out anything, Glasgow has a natural vibrancy which most cities dream of.
- Read more: How to visit Glasgow
12. Cruise the Caledonian Canal
Stretching the length of Scotland’s spectacular Great Glen, the 62 mile Caledonian Canal sails coast to coast beneath the mighty Ben Nevis, through the maelstrom of the Fort Augustus Locks, across the huge expanse of Loch Ness up to Inverness, taking in some of Scotland’s most special scenery along the way. Spend a week cruising the Caledonian Canal and discover a rather special (and fun!) way to spend a holiday. Ready to cast off?
- Read more: How to cruise the Caledonian Canal
13. The hike from Glencoe to Glen Nevis
The walk from Glencoe to Glen Nevis might be a marathon distance and take in 5000 ft of hill climbing, but the views through Scotland’s most famous glen make for an incredible day out. Passing the mighty Buachaille Etive Beag, follow the famous West Highland way to Kinlochleven and then to the very foot of Ben Nevis in the beautiful Glen Nevis – with views of Scotland’s highest mountain and the mighty Mamores all the way. Scotland at its best.
- Read more: the best day hikes in Scotland
14. The Hills of the Trossachs
Rising above Loch Katrine and nearby Loch Achray in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park are two of Scotland’s most popular hills. Ben A’an is described by many hill walkers as the perfect hill and is a ‘mountain in miniature’ – you only have to climb 454m (1500ft) for an amazing view. On the other side of the glen is Ben Venue, one of my favourite hills in Scotland. Ok, so you have to work for it a little harder for the view – Ben Venue at 729m is a bit higher than Ben A’an but it is so worth it.
- Read more: the best hills in Scotland for beginners
15. Sanna Bay and Portuarik
Let me introduce you to one of the west coast’s true hidden gems – the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. The ‘headland of the otters’ is the most western part of the British mainland and is beautifully unspoilt, wild and remote and is home to just 2000 people. At the end of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula is the stunning Sanna. Whilst Scotland has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world I think Ardnamurchan might just have the best. To find Sanna Bay walk from the hamlet of Portuairk along the coastal path.
- Read more: How to visit Ardnamurchan
16. The Elgol Peninsula, Skye
The Isle of Skye’s dramatic Cuillin mountain range dominates the misty isles’ skyline wherever you look – climbing the twelve 3000 ft+ peaks of the Black Cuillin ridge is on most Munro Baggers bucket list and summiting the Inaccessible Pinnacle is probably the most daunting climb in Scotland. However, if you like life a little more sedate the Cuillin is also viewed in all its magnificence from a walk to Camasunary Beach on the Elgol (or to give it its proper name) Strathaird Peninsula. If you don’t fancy a long walk, there is a long drive on a single track road to the village where you can take a boat ride into the heart of the Cuillin.
- Read more: How to visit the Elgol Peninsula
17. Glen Affric and Glen Strathfarrar
In a country the size of Scotland, it’s surprising that there are still parts of the country so remote that it can take days to get to them. The Inverness-shire glens of Glen Affric and Glen Strathfarrar in Strathglass might not be as remote, but as you drive south on single track roads, just 20 minutes south of Inverness, an ancient and undisturbed Scotland is revealed. Walking the 11-mile circular path around Loch Affric must be one of Scotland’s most awe-inspiring walks. Explore Scotland’s ancient Caledonian Scots Pine forest under huge surrounding mountains.
With stone-age villages, huge seascapes, a vibrant arts culture and a genuinely warm welcome (and not just from the Orkney gin!) a trip to Orkney in north-east Scotland is a dip into 5000 years of history. From the simply incredible Heart of Neolithic Orkney to tales of invading Vikings and World War 2 battles, spiritual awakening in gin, whisky and St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, to walks along a coast constantly being changed by time, with a history stretching back 5000 years, you won’t be short of things to do when you visit Orkney.
Where are your best places to visit in Scotland?
Love, from Scotland x