If you get the chance to take one road trip in the United Kingdom, this is definitely it.
Verdant green rolling hills, majestic mountains and dramatic landscapes, historic castle ruins and ancient megaliths — the Scottish Highlands has them all.
Here is my 5-day road trip itinerary to the Scottish Highlands.
Date: July 17th to 26th
Day 1: Glasgow – Glen Coe Valley – Isle of Skye
Day 2: Isle of Skye
Day 3: Isle of Skye – Tarbert (Isle of Harris) – Stornoway (Isle of Lewis)
Day 4: Stornoway (Isle of Lewis) – Ullapool – Loch Ness
Day 5: Loch Ness – Inverness – Edinburgh
DAY 1 | GLEN COE VALLEY
Glen Coe Valley: The gateway to the majestic Scottish Highland. As we were driving on Road A82, the landscape suddenly opened up to towering mountains rising sharply from the valley floor, creating a view so grand and mysterious. If you can spare a couple of hours here, explore the Lost Valley Trail to take in the beauty of the valley.
Eilean Donan Castle: This 13th century iconic castle is located on its own little island, where three great sea-lochs meet, surrounded by the forested mountains. The castle was already closed when we arrived, but you can still tour the outside. There were barely any crowds, making it even more atmospheric.
Skye Basecamp: The best accommodations on Isle of Skye are undoubtedly in Portree, both for its central location and varied food options. This hostel, while located at the outskirts of the main attractions, is easy to get to and offers a cozy stay. Many of the people staying here were climbers, which made the ambiance especially friendly and sociable compared with other hostels I’ve stayed in.
Cafe Sia: A casual cafe offering a great selection of unique pizzas and a takeaway window for some quick bites and drinks.
DAY 2 | ISLE OF SKYE
Deli Gasta: Homey cafe right next to Skye Basecamp; a perfect spot for some delicious smoked salmon bagels and fruit scones. Try their unique smashed avocado bagel with garlic and honey for a light breakfast on the go.
Quiraing: The most spectacular landscape in Scotland, formed by a massive landslip which created dramatic high cliffs and spiky rock formations. Clear sunny days here on Skye are extremely rare, so expect rainy and misty conditions for the hike — though in my opinion, that’s what makes Scotland mystical and otherworldly. The direction for the Quiraing trailhead is a little tricky to find, because Google Maps has several different location markers; make sure you search for Quiraing Car Park.
Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls: A picturesque observation point offering a panoramic view to the beautiful waterfall of Mealt Falls right below the viewpoint and the grand coastline of Kilt Rock, with its shape and color of the cliff strongly resembling a pleated kilt.
Old Man of Storr: A famous trail on the island to a large pinnacle of rock that stands high against the backdrop of green hills and the coastline of Skye. This highly-trafficked hiking trail is medium in length and difficulty; its clear and smooth hill paths become steeper and rockier as you get closer to the rock.
DAY 3 | ISLE OF HARRIS
Fairy Glen: A lovely easy trail not too far from the Uig ferry station. Because of its miniature size compared to Quiraing, it’s a great place to scramble through the rocks and explore all the little hills covered by the mossy grass.
Isle of Lewis and Harris: It might sound confusing, but Isle of Lewis and Isle of Harris are on the same island in the Outer Hebrides. To avoid mistakes when planning your road trip, pay close attention to the two main ferry stations: Tarbert (Harris) is on the southern side of the island; Stornoway (Lewis), the northern side.
CalMac Ferry: Uig (14:15) – Tarbert (15:55)
The ferry timetable from Uig (Skye) to Tarbert (Harris) is different depending on the season and day of the week, but in general, it only runs once or twice a day. Because of its limited schedule and capacity, definitely book online ahead of time, especially if you plan to take your vehicle onboard.
Isle of Harris Distillery: Right next to the Tarbert ferry station, this up-and-coming distillery offers a unique and aesthetic gin, and a tour with liquor samples for £10. Make sure to book ahead, and leave enough time for the tour (1 hour and 15 minutes) if you’re catching a ferry afterwards.
Luskentyre Beach: Despite the rocky lunar terrain, Isle of Harris is famed for its beaches. Even on a rainy day, the turquoise water and white sand of Luskentyre Beach still stand out against the grey background. If visiting on a sunny day and during low tide, the beach becomes a gorgeous swirly watercolor pallet.
HS-1 Cafe Bar: Surprisingly, the best dinner we had in Scotland was here in this tiny town of Stornoway. Their appetizer of black pudding and haggis stacked with mashed potato, with gravy on top, was seriously delicious. The baked Pork Belly entree was another win; its crispy skin and juicy meat balanced each other perfectly.
Lews Castle: A Victorian-era castle in Stornoway that’s renovated into a museum and a modern hotel. It’s often required to have a minimum of 2 nights stay, but otherwise, it’s not too expensive compared to other accommodations here on the island, especially in such a luxurious setting. Even if you’re not staying here, grabbing a drink at the whiskey bar and exploring the many rooms of the castle already makes for a fun and memorable visit.
DAY 4 | ISLE OF LEWIS
Callanish Stones: We finally reached our ultimate destination, the main thing that brought us here to the Scottish Highlands in the first place — we actually decided to come here after we watched the creative team behind Pixar’s Brave visit this same spot on the Behind the Scenes. These megaliths are one of the most magnificent and best-preserved Neolithic monuments in the UK. Due to its remoteness, apart from the occasional tour buses, you can bet on having the whole site to yourself. Being able to walk among these 5000-year-old standing stones is really what makes the Callanish Stones so special; it’s one of the only ways you can fully experience the beauty and the history of the Neolithic time.
Dun Carloway: A Broch constructed about 200 BC, still stands tall with its remaining cross-section. Its many levels offer a fantastic space for some quick exploration; surprisingly, there are no restrictions on any sort of climbing on such an old structure.
The Blackhouse in Arnol: These traditional rural houses, with stone walls and thatched roofs, were once the homes of Scottish families and their animals. There are a few other Blackhouses on the island, but the one in Arnol has been well-preserved since the original family left in the 1960s. You can even walk through a fully-furnished house with cosy box-beds with original fabrics, and smell the distinct peat smoke that’s truly the heart of home.
CalMac Ferry: Stornoway (15:00) – Ullapool (17:30)
If you still plan to get back to Isle of Skye, it probably makes more sense to take the Tarbert – Uig route again. But if you’re going straight to the Loch Ness area like us, then this ferry route may save you some time on the road, since it skips the hour-long drive back from Lewis to Harris, and the extra driving on Isle of Skye — even if the tickets are slightly more expensive. The ferry only runs twice a day, so booking advance is highly recommended.
DAY 5 | LOCH NESS
Cafe Eight2: A road-side cosy cafe to enjoy a British classic – cheesy beans on toast, a perfect savory breakfast.
Urquhart Castle: Medieval castle ruins situated on a headland overlooking Loch Ness, one of the most famous lakes in the world. Climbing over the tower will give you a stunning view of the lake, and a chance to spot the mysterious (and famously shy) Monster of the Loch. Because of its iconic backdrop, it is a very touristy and busy site, so do plan to arrive early in order to snag a parking spot.
Dalwhinnie Distillery: This famous whiskey distillery, located in a peaceful valley between Loch Ness and Edinburgh, offers various tours and tastings. The regular 1-hour tour costs £12, with 2 drams of whiskey tasting (plus the cute dram glass to take home with you) and a delicious chocolate. We actually learned more than we expected about the history and making of Scotch on our tour; they even let you smell and touch the different byproducts from the distilling process! Because of the relatively small tour sizes, definitely call ahead to reserve your spot, especially if you’re on a tight schedule.
Without a doubt, traveling through the Scottish Highlands was the best road trip I have ever taken. It was everything I ever wanted it to be, and more. The Highlands have so much more to offer than even what I’ve included here, and I can’t wait to return for more — especially to see the gorgeous fall foliage.
Stay tuned for more of my adventures in Scotland and England.