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Insider Tips Unveiling the Scottish Highlands’ Hidden Gems

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Imagine the most beautiful beach you’ve ever been on.

Feel the sand in between your toes, the gentle breeze brushing through your hair, no sound other than that of rolling waves gently crashing on the shore.

You’re probably imagining somewhere in the Caribbean?

One of my own personal ‘daydream beaches’ is in a country you absolutely would not expect. Not Spain, not Thailand, not Mexico – but Scotland.

Buachaille Etive Mor mountain in glencoe with a small road bridge in the foreground in scotland

That’s right.

Little old Scotland has some utterly outstandingly beautiful beaches in its northern reaches, often places where you won’t see another soul. 

Those beaches are just one of the many hidden gems dotted around the Scottish Highlands – and I’m going to help you plan your dream trip to this country that is growing in popularity among travelers.

Arriving In Scotland

Chances are that the first place you arrive in Scotland will be Edinburgh, which is a fantastic destination in its own right and also regarded as one of the friendliest cities in the whole UK.

You can fly nonstop to the Scottish capital from several different cities in the United States including:

  • Washington D.C. 
  • New York (JFK) 
  • Chicago 
  • Atlanta 
  • Boston
  • Orlando

Flight time from the United States to Edinburgh is roughly the same as it is to London, so anywhere between 7 and 10 hours, depending on which part of the country you are flying from.

view of the royal mile in edinburgh scotland on a sunny day

Naturally, the most expensive time to fly there is in the summer, when return flights come it at around the $1,200 mark. 

However, if you travel in spring or fall, you can get flights for more like $750 per person.

I love Edinburgh, however, any time I’m there, I always find myself thinking of the beautiful northern landscapes beyond the city, and that’s hopefully what I’ll be able to help you enjoy too with this article.

What Are The Unmissable Destinations In Scotland?

This is, of course, a hard thing to define, but after spending just over a month traveling around Scotland last summer, I’m going to give you my thoughts on where I think is unmissable and why.

The Isle Of Skye

Perhaps the most iconic region in all of the Scottish Highlands, this rugged island (accessed by a road bridge) is home to some amazing sights of natural beauty and also manmade wonders. 

The charming coastal town of Portree is a great place to start, awash with wonderful cafes, restaurants, and independent businesses.

male traveler looks out at old man of storr on isle of skye scotland
Photo by David Guest

My best recommendations are The Chippy to get a sample of the British classic that is fish and chips, and then a few doors up the amazingly well-stocked Carmina Gadelica bookshop. 

Portree is a great base camp to visit a couple of Skye’s most famous sights – the Old Man of Storr rock formation and the beautiful Quiraing mountain. 

Both can be reached via moderate hikes, and there are ample car parks around the area to access the trails.

Fort William

Scotland’s original mountain town is best known for being the base camp for climbers who set their sights on the highest peak in the UK, Ben Nevis. 

aerial view of fort william in scotland with ben nevis mountain in the background

Even if climbing is not your thing, Fort William is a great place to spend a few days.

Mist shrouds the peaks surrounding you, and ships gently shuttle in and out of the nearby Loch Linnhe.

Two places you can’t miss in Fort William are the West Highland Museum and Black Isle Bar, a chilled bar run by a brewery, which serves the best pizza in town.

Fort William is also right next to another of the Highlands' unmissable destinations and that's Glencoe (the amazing place in the header image of this article).

Inverness

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s just something about Inverness that I really like. 

Often referred to as the Gateway to the Highlands, Inverness has plenty of hotels to cater to different budgets and a wide range of attractions.

dolphins feeding in the moray firth just north of inverness in scotland

Also, if you thought the bookshop in Portree was good, Leakey’s Bookshop of Inverness is on another level. 

It’s a little touristy, but you can avoid that by checking out hidden gems such as the Botanic Gardens or finding a spot along the Moray Firth north of the town where bottlenose dolphins can often be seen at many times of year.

Inverness is also the closest big town to Loch Ness, which is worth seeing if you want to, but I wouldn’t necessarily include it as an unmissable attraction – under the myths and legends, it is simply a long and narrow body of water.

It’s great for views, and if you want to try your hand at kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, just don’t expect to spy any monsters. 

Some Lesser-Known Scottish Highland Gems

Cairngorms National Park

Absolutely my favorite place in all of Scotland, this huge national park is a mix of imperious mountains, lush pine forests, and beautiful lochs with the clearest water you’ve ever seen.

car parked on the shores of loch morlich in the cairngorms national park
Photo by David Guest

One of the best towns to visit on the edge of this wonder is Aviemore, a bustling hub of outdoor sports enthusiasts and adventurers. 

To the north of here, you will a few of Scotland’s best-known whiskey distilleries in the Speyside area.

Summer Isles

This is probably the most remote place I will mention here, a collection of around 20 stunning islands just off the west coast north of Ullapool. 

two hikers pose for a photo near the summer isles in scotland
Photo by David Guest

You can view them spectacularly from the mainland near the coast or get a boat tour around where you’ll see some impressive wildlife and be left with a feeling that you’ve reached the very end of the world.

Durness

Remember when I was rambling on about the beach to end all beaches in the intro?

This is it.

Durness Beach and Sango Sands are located on Scotland’s north coast near the town of Durness, funnily enough. 

durness beach on the north coast of scotland on a beautiful sunny day
Photo by David Guest

Expect perfect white sands, stunning turquoise water, and not many people at all – similar can be found at nearby Balnakeil Beach.

Sure, it might not be as warm as the Caribbean, but I’d venture it’s every bit as beautiful.

Which Places Could You Skip?

Again, this is subjective, but there were a few places in Scotland that just didn’t quite feel worth the effort to get there for me.

One is John O’Groats, the northernmost point in the UK.

Despite the legend and aura surrounding it, it is just essentially a signpost on the coast that is quite far from anything else particularly interesting.

signpost at john ogroats the most northern point in the united kingdom

Equally, I would include Loch Ness in the list of places that have a reputation that is probably a little overexaggerated.

It’s a nice place, for sure, but not necessarily worth detouring south for unless you really want to tick it off.

How To Plan A Route Around The Highlands

Because of how remote some of the best places are in the Highlands, the best choice of transport is hiring a car (or if you want to really wild it up like we did, a campervan).

There are some places you can get the train to and public transport in Scotland on buses is reasonably priced and well-run, but if you like to have a bit of freedom and flexibility, driving is the best way to do it.

With Edinburgh as your starting point, you have a few options.

a winding scottish road in the highlands with a stunning mountain in the background
Photo by David Guest

My preferred route is driving north on the M90 highway, past Perth until it becomes a smaller road known as the A9.

This skirts around the edge of the Cairngorms National Park (the biggest national park in the UK) and will eventually land you in Inverness. 

You may have heard of the much-fabled North Coast 500 touring route, but I prefer to skip out on a large part of this and cut across from Inverness to the northwest corner of Scotland via Lairg.

In Lairg, you can choose to go straight north to the north coast (Tongue and Talmine are stunning spots) and then work your way down the west coast, or just cut straight across to the west coast to a beautiful spot called Scourie. 

sunset at scourie on the north west coast of scotalnd in the highlands
Photo by David Guest

From here, you can work your way back down towards Glasgow, which is about a one-hour drive from Edinburgh via the M8 highway.

What Is Driving Like In Scotland?

Despite the Highlands being a remote region where only around 600,000 people live, the roads here are of a good standard.

Even when you reach remote places where the roads can only fit one car, there are always plenty of passing places to take the stress away.

a passing place sign in the highlands of scotland to help cars pass safely on the road
Photo by David Guest

The narrow and windy nature of some of the roads (there aren’t many highways north of Inverness) means you will have to adjust your expectations when it comes to journey times compared to the distance you’re covering.

For example, the drive from Scourie in the northwest to Portree on Skye is around 160 miles (about the same distance between Austin and Houston in Texas), but it will likely take you around four hours, maybe even four-and-a-half with a stop.

A slower pace is the best way to stay safe on the roads and also enjoy the epic scenery you’ll be driving through. 

How Much Should I Budget?

This won’t be the cheapest trip you’ve ever been on, that’s for sure.

After a transatlantic flight, you will be looking at a reasonable chunk of your budget being taken by car rental – expect $30-$50 a day, depending on what you choose.

Gas is also around 40% more expensive in the UK than in the United States. 

ard neackie lime kilns in loch eriboll in the northern scottish highlands

Hostels are an option to keep accommodation costs down, and if you want a real budget choice then you could consider camping (can be as cheap as $25 a night).

One of my top tips is to go to hotels’ websites directly after finding them on a comparison site, as they seem to offer better deals this way quite consistently. The average price of a moderate hotel should come through at about $110-$130 per night.

On a road trip like this, another great way to save money is to get a cooler and fill it to the brim when you’re near a supermarket or store – that way, you’ll have lunches and breakfasts covered while you’re traveling around. 

You Won’t Regret It

That’s my number one piece of advice about visiting the more remote parts of Scotland.

the mountain ben loyal near tongue in the noprth west of the highlands in scotland

Sure, the cities of this wonderful country are great and absolutely worth visiting, but while you’re there, with just a little more effort, you can see deep into Scotland’s soul and quickly realize why it has inspired so many poets, artists, and writers (guilty) over the eons. 

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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com

Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.