With international travel restrictions waning, and the United States lifting its COVID testing requirements, this summer is prime time to dust off the passport. But while some travelers may still be wary about cramming into the Louvre or partying in Berlin, the wide-open spaces of Scotland’s Highlands are an ideal setting for those itching to venture abroad while sticking to unfrenzied locales.
Located in northwest Scotland, flanked by the Atlantic to the west and the North Sea to the east, the Highlands is a comparatively quiet region marked by tall peaks and deep lochs. Its biggest city, Inverness, has just 47,000 people, while most of the populous towns, like Wick and Fort William, are tranquil harbor-side hamlets with a few thousand residents.
A realm of otherworldly natural wonders, it’s a singular setting where you can see dolphins and reindeer on the same day, where mythical beasts and Hogwarts-sized castles share lore, and where national parks and distilleries offer distinct heritage all their own.
Glencoe and Ben Nevis
The gateway to the Highlands, Glencoe valley is the entry point for many visitors, considering its proximity to Glasgow to the south. As you drive up A82, the road ascends into the clouds and the terrain shifts into a sprawling, moss-green landscape that looks more Lord of the Rings than United Kingdom. Lined with lakes and creeks, the road zigzags through a mountainous valley carved by glaciers and volcanoes, with huge boulders, cascading waterfalls, and cottages along the route. It’s an epic departure from the urban areas in southern Scotland—a larger-than-life natural landscape that looks like dragons could live here.
The drive is a scenic show-stopper, but if you’d like to explore a bit more, Glencoe Mountain Resort offers mountain biking, tubing, skiing, and sledding. Summer chairlift tickets are £15 (US$18) per adult for hikers, and £30 (US$37) for mountain bikers.
Further north, things reach their literal peak with Ben Nevis. The tallest mountain in the U.K., Ben Nevis rises 4,413 feet over nearby Fort William, making it popular with hikers and rock climbers. With a name that translates in ancient Gaelic to “mountain with its head in the clouds,” Ben Nevis is frequently immersed in clouds.
An iconic element of the Highlands is Loch Ness, a mighty body of fresh water that stretches 23 miles through a hilly valley, with an average depth of 433 feet and plenty of room for mythical monsters. Companies like Cruise Loch Ness (starting at £14 per adult) and high-speed Beastie Boats (starting at £28) offer tours of the loch, or you can learn more at the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition, which hosts sonar-equipped cruises (in case you find “Nessie”) and features exhibits examining the history of Loch Ness, as well as Nessie. Exhibition entry is £9 for adults, and cruises go for £14.
The coolest vantage point is from Urquhart Castle, a derelict stone fortress perched on the shores along A82. The centuries-old castle is as storied as Nessie, with exhibits delving into the castle’s role in the battles between the Scots and the English in the Wars of Independence. Nowadays, cannon fire has waned, providing a peaceful panorama of the eerily jet-black loch. Tickets are £12 online or £13 at the gate.
If you’d like to linger, Loch Ness Lodge is the size of a modern-day castle, with modern amenities to match. The intimate property features nine extravagantly appointed nature-inspired rooms, plus private cottages, along with a spa and gorgeous grounds with gardens and sweeping views of the water. Nearby, enjoy dinner at Cobbs Restaurant, where local ingredients and Scotch shine in a dining room overlooking Loch Ness.
Just northeast of Loch Ness is the urban center of the Highlands, Inverness. With less than 50,000 people, it’s a far cry from Scotland’s urban hubs of Glasgow and Edinburgh, yet still teems with big-city luster.
On Scotland’s northeast coast, it’s a city where old meets new—where the ancient Inverness Castle shares an area code with live music venues and contemporary cuisine. For the latter, visit the Mustard Seed, a wood-fired restaurant in a former church slinging piri piri prawn bruschetta and black pudding–stuffed chicken, or stop by the White House for glamorized pub grub like haggis bon bons and beetroot burgers in a suave white-washed space. Inverness also has surprisingly robust nightlife, with hip haunts like Hootananny, where musicians casually play around tables, and Gellions Bar, a long-standing spot to dance to bands. Then there’s Market Bar, a pint-sized watering hole located down an alley and up a flight of stairs, where the jazzy stage takes up about half the space.
Stay at the elegant boutique Kingsmills Hotel, home to luxury confines, cozy rooms, a spa, and a large indoor pool under a ceiling of light wood. The hotel also has a fully loaded Whisky Bar for Scotch connoisseurs and a locally sourced fine dining spot, Inglis Restaurant, with seasonal dishes like coffee-roasted venison loin, carrot and chestnut tart tatin, and cheese soufflé with pickled walnuts.
Outside the city, nature and history abound. Moray Firth, northeast of Inverness, is a coastal enclave with brisk beaches, golf courses (like Fortrose and Rosemarkie Golf Club, one of the world’s oldest), and the iconic Chanonry Point Lighthouse, one of the best places in the U.K. to spot bottlenose dolphins. Home to about 200 dolphins, Moray Firth has the most northerly population of the species on Earth.
A few miles east of Inverness, Culloden Battlefield tells the story of the 1745 Battle of Culloden—where some 1,600 men died in one of the bloodiest battles on British soil during the final Jacobite rising against the Duke of Cumberland. Consisting of expansive fields and a visitor center, the museum costs £14 per adult, but the outdoor grounds are free to explore, with trails winding past gravestones denoting Scottish clansmen who died in battle.
For something that’s aged a bit more peacefully, the Singleton of Glen Ord Distillery is one of the most famed whisky distilleries in the U.K. At this Hogwarts-sized facility in the village of Muir of Ord (about 15 miles northwest of Inverness), visitors can tour the distillery (£9 per person), sample aged Scotch, and snag a coveted bottle. (Bottles of Glen Ord are famously rare to find outside of the distillery.)
Cairngorms National Park
Beyond dolphins and loch monsters, the Highlands are also home to the U.K.’s only free-ranging reindeer herd, in Cairngorms National Park. Most of the 150-animal herd freely roams the Cairngorms Mountains, while others can be seen in the paddocks at Cairngorm Reindeer Centre. The center works to safely manage breeding and prevent disease transmission, and reindeer are rotated in and out to keep them acclimated to the wilderness. Folks can visit the center to see the animals up close (and look for elf dolls, of course), or book a guided hills trip to see them in their natural habitat. Hill trips cost £20 for adults, while a stop at the paddocks is £3.50.
When you’re not living out your North Pole fantasies, Cairngorms National Park—located on the east side of the Highlands—has loads of other activities, from mountain biking and hiking to kayaking and paddle boarding on crystalline lochs. Trails on the mountains and hills span from leisurely jaunts to arduous treks, including the Speyside Way and the Cateran Trail. If you’re looking to summit a munro (the Scottish term for mountains exceeding 3,000 feet), Cairngorms is home to the most extensive range of them in the U.K.
From summits that disappear into the clouds to wildlife that teeters on folkloric, Scotland’s Highlands needs to be seen, sipped, and hiked to be believed. In a region where reindeer and lochs seem to outnumber the humans, it’s the perfect re-entry into international travel, during a season when ingredients are freshest and reindeer are roving.