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The complete guide to the North East 250

The complete guide to the North East 250

Have you driven the North East 250? Take a drive around north east Scotland, from the heart of the Cairngorms, through Royal Deeside, to the Aberdeenshire coast line, the Moray Firth and Speyside, this is a Scotland road trip you will never forget. Here’s how to drive the North East 250 around the east coast of Scotland.

What is the North East 250? 

The North East 250 is a Scotland road trip which takes you on a journey around the north east Scotland – discovering the fantastic city of Aberdeen, cliffside castles and literary villains, gorgeous fishing villages, heavenly whisky, and the dramatic Cairngorms National Park– it is a road trip with something for everyone. 

Starting in Glenshee, your NE250 road trip will first take you up through the Cairngorm Mountains to Braemar, home of the Highland Games and then onwards to explore Royal Deeside. Turning north the route takes you to the granite city of Aberdeen with its street art and pretty villages. Then follow the NE250 north to Peterhead, discovering hidden gems and castles along the way. 

Turning west, the North East 250 takes you along the stunning Moray Firth coast line with its tiny fishing harbours hugging the cliffs before turning south into Speyside and its famous whisky distilleries. Returning to the Cairngorms, you complete your trip around the NE250.

Moray Firth Aberdeenshire
Whisky Galore at Portsoy

How to plan your North East 250 Itinerary around the east coast of Scotland

Whether you want to drive the route in 4 days or 2 weeks, take a tent or stay in luxury accommodation, there is a NE250 itinerary for you!  A good way to plan out your NE250 road trip is to think of the route in four stages.

If you are travelling anti-clockwise – try this itinerary:

  • Stage 1 – The Cairngorms and Royal Deeside – visit the pretty towns of Braemar, Ballater, Aboyne & Banchory on The River Dee. 
  • Stage 2 – Aberdeen and the Aberdeenshire Coast – with castles, quirky villages, street art, and dolphins, explore the NE coast of Scotland. 
  • Stage 3 – The Moray Firth – picturesque harbour villages, waves crashing over towering sea cliffs, huge swathes of beach, incredible changing light and not forgetting a famous soup.
  • Stage 4 – Speyside – like whisky? Explore the distilleries of Speyside. 

An alternative route if you are arriving by train or air into Aberdeen is:

  • Stage 1 – Aberdeen and the Aberdeenshire Coast 
  • Stage 3 – The Moray Firth
  • Stage 4 – Speyside
  • Stage 4 – Royal Deeside 

Hire a car for driving the NE250 here

Book your journey to Aberdeen with the*

Need help planning a Scotland itinerary? Check out my guide to planning a road trip in Scotland

Download my north coast 500 map to your smartphone.

I would suggest that you need a minimum of four days to do the route, a week would be perfect, and 10 days or more if you want to spend a few days on each stage.

North East 250 Tours

Dont want to drive yourself? Get a taste of the North East 250 with this tour from Aberdeen

Things to do on the North East 250

You might want to purchase a 3, 7, or 14-day Historic Scotland Explorer Pass*

Stage 1 – The Cairngorms and Royal Deeside

The NE250 starts from the Spittal of Glenshee and one of the most famous passes in Scotland – The Snow Road – which takes you from Perthshire to Royal Deeside following the lovely River Dee. Here is what to do on Stage 1 of the NE250:

  • Bag The Cairnwell – got your hiking boots with you? If you have ever fancied bagging a Munro, then one of the best Munros from beginners is right at the start of the NE250. The Cairnwell towers above the Spital of Glenshee, but the path up the mountain is easy – just follow the ski lifts! Climb the Cairnwell – and read my beginners guide to bagging a Munro. There is a great cafe at the Glenshee ski centre. 
  • Visit the Braemar Highland Games Centre – discover the history of the famous Braemar Highland Games which are attended by the Royal Family each year when they take their holidays at Balmoral Castle. The games pavilion and visitor centre has a lovely cafe. Visit the Braemar Highland Games Centre.
  • Eat at The Fife Arms – in the heart of Braemar, is the truly dramatic Fife Arms. One the most romantic hotels in Scotland, the Fife Arms is all Scottish drama at its best. Book the Fife Arms for a stay or pop in for lunch (booking recommended).
  • Visit Braemar Castle – a large tower house sitting on the River, the grounds of Braemar Castle are always open to visitors. The castle is now community-run and tours are available.
  • See Balmoral Castle and Estate – the home of the Queen in Scotland is open from April to July for visitors. Explore the estate to find the Balmoral Cairns, historical memorials to the Royal Family including a huge stone pyramid for Prince Albert.
  • Take a photo of Crathie Kirk – the pretty parish church at Crathie is the Royals local church when they visit the Balmoral Estate. 
  • Try a dram at Royal Lochnagar Distillery – awarded a Royal Warrant in 1848 after a visit from Prince Albert, Royal Lochnagar is located on the Abergeldie Estate. Tours of the distillery are available where you can try Royal Lochnagar’s 12 year old whisky. Visit Royal Lochnagar.
  • Visit The Old Royal Station (Rothesay Room) – now a restaurant, the Old Royal Station at Ballater has been restored to its former glory, you can still visit the platform and waiting room and a replica carriage in which once brought Queen Victoria to Ballater. 
  • Walk Cambus o Mey – explore the woods and lochans of this pretty woodland on a 3 mile walk including a lovely suspension bridge. Visit Cambus O May
  • Visit the Linn of Dee – a favourite royal picnic spot, visit this beautiful spot on the River Dee. Visit the Linn of Dee.  
  • Explore Burn O’Vat – explore the Burn O’Vat sunken cavern along a 4 mile walk through the pretty Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve.
  • Visit Glen Tanar and the Tower O’Ess – visit this beautiful glen on a variety of walks including a fairy pool and beautiful pinwoods, along with one of the best routes up Munro Mount Keen. Look out for the gorgeous gatehouse. Visit Glen Tanar.
  • Take a trip on Royal Deeside Railway – take a steam train along the Royal Deeside Railway on a 1-mile restored section of track – the return ride along the river takes about 20 minutes. 
  • Visit Crathes Castle – set within beautiful gardens, this 16th-century castle is managed by the National Trust for Scotland. Visit Crathes Castle.
  • Photograph Craigievar Castle – said to have inspired Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle, Craigievar has a bright pink exterior. Definitely one not to miss! Visit Craigievar Castle.
  • Climb Lochnagar – meaning ‘little loch of the noisy sound’ in Gaelic, Lochnagar is one of Scotland’s most dramatic mountains. Climb Lochnagar.
  • Find the Falls of Feugh – spot salmon leaping up the river Dee from this very pretty spot. Visit the Falls of Feugh.

Read more: my guide to things to do in Royal Deeside

Footdee Aberdeen
Footdee Aberdeen

Stage 2 of the NE250 – Aberdeen and the north east of Scotland coast

With quirky villages, street art, dolphins and fine food, Aberdeen is a great stop on your north east 250. With the Nuart Street Art Festival changing the face of the city centre, Footdee’s quirky tarry sheds and dolphins swimming right up to its doorstep – the city has discovered a buoyant and well-deserved pride in itself. Here is where to visit in Aberdeen:

  • Explore Footdee – a quirky & colourful fishing village at the mouth of the River Dee.
  • Dine with dolphins – order fish & chips at the Silver Darling and watch the bottlenose dolphins swim by.
  • Visit the Brig o’ Balgownie – stroll amongst the pretty cottages and along the River Don to the Donmouth Nature Reserve.
  • Find the Powis Gate – visit Old Aberdeen to find this incredible Game of Thrones alike doorway.
  • Discover Aberdeen’s street art – see artworks from SmugOne and Ernest Zacharevic, along with the Painted Doors project.
  • Dunnottar Castle – located just to the south of Stonehaven near Aberdeen is one of Scotland’s most famous castles. Perched on 200ft high sea cliffs and accessed from a tiny strip of land it is dramatic, foreboding and breathtaking. Entry to the castle is £7 for adults. Visit Dunnottar Castle.

Read more: Things to do in Aberdeen

The NE250 will now take you up the Aberdeenshire coast, here is where to stop:

  • Forvie National Nature Reserve Visitor Centre – visit one of the largest sand dunes in Britain – 1,000 hectares of sand dunes and dune heath between the North Sea and the estuary of the River Ythan.
  • Old Slains Castle – built in the fourteenth century, Old Slains Castle is a ruined tower house overlooking the north east Scotland.
  • New Slains Castle – New Slains Castle sits on the coast beside Cruden Bay and is said to be the inspiration for Count Dracula’s castle; Bram Stoker visited Aberdeenshire in 1895 and Dracula was published two years later. You can also see Bram Stoker’s signature in the guest book at the Kilmarnock Arms in Cruden Bay near the castle. 
  • Visit Peterhead Prison Museum – a visit to the Victorian HM Convict Prison Peterhead is one of Scotland’s best quirky experiences. Discover 125 years of prison life, meet the guards and learn the history of this fascinating prison and its dangerous inmates – along with the story of the only time the SAS were used to end a domestic siege on mainland Britain. Peterhead Prison is Scotland’s Alcatraz. Visit Peterhead Prison Museum. Entry is £9 for adults.

Read more: Things to do in Aberdeenshire

Stage 3 of the North East 250 – The Moray Firth 

The Scottish coastline from Inverness to Peterhead has picturesque harbour villages, huge swathes of beach, and not forgetting a famous soup. Here is where to stop along the Moray Firth.

  • Visit the most famous red telephone box in the world at Pennan – visitors come to this wee village for one thing – the cult Scottish film about an oil company trying to buy an Aberdeenshire Village. Lined with washing poles, a traditional hotel, and a harbour, you can see why Pennan was chosen to represent the a-typical Scottish seaside village in Local Hero. 
  • Visit Gamrie – Gardenstown and Crovie – the most picturesque of the Moray Firth villages – and a popular spot for photos of the traditional fishing cottages hugging the coast. Gardenstown has a lovely 19th Century Harbour and Crovie has no road – the cottages are only accessed by foot. 
  • Macduff Marine Aquarium –  Telling the story of the Moray Firth habitats, the aquarium has a unique kelp reef, daily talks and touch shows, as well as some greedy stingrays! Visit MacDuff Marine Aquarium 
  • Portsoy – Boasting the oldest harbour on the Moray Coast (much of what was built in 1692 remains) Portsoy is thought to mean Saithe (fish) Harbour – you can just imagine the harbour bustling with people and boats. 
  • Eat Cullen Skink, at Cullen – What must be Scotland’s most famous soup, try Cullen Skink in the lovely village of Cullen. 
  • Portknockie and Bow Fiddle Rock – The star of many Instagram shots, Bow Fiddle Rock is a humongous arch rock formation just to the north of the seaside town of Portknockie. Does it look like an elephant or a whale to you? Read more: a lovely walk to Bow Fiddle Rock from Cullen.
  • Dolphins at Spey Bay – The Moray Firth is famous for its dolphin population and it is estimated that around 130 Bottlenose Dolphins live in the waters off the Moray Firth. Visit Spey Bay and the Scottish Dolphin Centre.  

Read more: Things to do on the Moray Firth

Stage 4 of the NE250 – Speyside 

The last stage of the North East 250 takes you through Speyside most famous for the whisky distilleries along the beautiful River Spey. Here is where to visit on the last stage of your NE250.

  • Visit a distillery – over half of Scotland’s distilleries can be found in Moray Speyside – and the region makes some of the most popular Scottish whiskies in the world.  Why not visit Glen Grant, Macallan, Aberlour, Glenfiddich Distillery, Glenfarclas Distillery, Ballindalloch or The Glenlivet Distillery – all which do tours and tastings. Remember you cannot drink and drive in Scotland – so ask for your drams to take away! 
  • Speyside Cooperage – visit this cooperage to discover the ancient tradition of making whisky barrels – the tour is fascinating. 
  • Balvenie Castle – Built in the 1200s as the seat of the earls of Buchan, Balvenie Castle is managed by Historic Scotland (currently closed as of 2022 due to refurbishment) 
  • Ballindalloch Castle – a stunning baronial castle, gardens and distillery along with woodland and riverside walks. A private home, the castle is open 12 April – 30 September 2022 from 10am – 5pm (last admission 4pm) Sunday – Thursday (closed Fridays and Saturdays)
  • Corgarff Castle – at the head of remote Strathdon is the unusual Corgarff Castle with its star-shaped perimeter wall. Corgarff is managed by Historic Scotland and is open 1 Apr to 30 Sept, Wed to Sat, tour times 10.30am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm.

North East 250 route map

​​My route map has lots of ideas of things to see and do to help you plan your itinerary.

  • Yellow – places to visit
  • Red  – places to stay & eat
  • Green – walks and mountains to climb
  • Blue – petrol stations

Download my north coast 500 map to your smartphone. Click on the link via your phone and it will open in the google maps app so you can follow it. Use the wifi in your accommodation to download your daily sections of the route to Google Maps.

Where to stay on the North East 250

There are lots of ways to do the North East 250 – with a tent, staying in b&bs or self-catering. How you do it is up to you! There are hundreds of places from fancy hotels, luxury lodges, AirBnBs and cool campsites. If you are looking for options for staying in certain areas use my (affiliate) links :

Do I need to pre-book NE250 accommodation before setting off?

Self-Catering Accommodation on the North East 250

Hotels and b&bs on the North East 250

North East 250 campsites and glamping

North East 250 FAQs

How long is the North East 250?

250 miles! 

Where does the NE250 start?

The NE250 is a circular route, so you can start from anywhere. My route starts in the Cairngorms, but you can start from Inverness or Aberdeen. 

How long does it take to drive the route?

You could easily drive the route in a day – but that would miss the point of a fabulous Scotland road trip, why not take up to a week to drive the North East 250? 

What’s the best time of year to drive the North East 250?

  • My favourite time(s) of year in Scotland are April – May and September.
  • June and August can be wet months in Scotland.
  • July is busy with UK school holidays.
  • Most attractions (from the National Trust or Historic Scotland) close from October to Easter. Many of the grounds are still open.
  • There is always a risk of snow in winter months inland from the coasts.

Travelling in summer in Scotland means midge – a tiny biting black fly – they are legendary for a reason. You can’t avoid them, but you can beat them – pick up the best insect repellent for the Scottish midge – ‘Smidge’. 

Sadly, midges are worst in the early evening – just as you want to sit out with that sundowner drink… Thankfully the east coast of Scotland isn’t as affected by them as the west – one more reason to drive the North East 250! 

You also need to watch out for ticks in Scotland. These beasties sometimes carry lyme disease, so wear long trousers if you are hiking and always check yourself out. If you want to avoid beasties, the best time to travel in Scotland is spring, autumn and winter.

Petrol stations on the NE250

There are plenty of petrol stations on the route. I suggest filling up regularly. Petrol stations are marked on my NE250 map.

More – Planning a road trip in Scotland guides

How to plan a road trip in Scotland
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