The Essential Guide to the Highlands

No trip to Scotland would be complete without visiting the mountainous northeast region known as the Highlands. Vast and effectively wild, the area features the highest peaks in the United Kingdom (some barren and forbidden, others covered in dense forests), as well as lochs, streams, and rivers—a geography that helps explain why, for hundreds of years, the Highland people were a civilization apart from the rest of Britain. Here, travelers can combine stunning natural beauty with historical attractions like battlegrounds and castles.

Loch Lomond, United Kingdom
Full of wild scenery, fascinating history, and delicious local food, Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park is a Scottish treasure. At the center of the park is Loch Lomond, the largest body of freshwater in the U.K., featuring ample recreation (everything from kayaking and canoeing to jet-skiing), 30 islands (visit Inchconnachan in spring to see a blanket of bluebells), and miles of bonnie banks (for strolling in the shadow of Ben Lomond). Beyond the lake, the park is packed with interesting corners to explore, from the lush landscapes of the southern section to the sprawling glens and rocky peaks in the north. For the best views, cycle the challenging Loch Eck Loop, or hike the craggy Cobbler. Also worth seeking out are villages like Balmaha, national scenic areas such as Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, and more off-the-beaten-track areas like the Cowal Peninsula and Breadalbane.
Stirling Castle, Esplanade, Stirling FK8 1EJ, UK
Stirling Castle is one of Scotland’s most impressive castles, particularly for its role in Scottish history—several kings and queens were crowned here, including Mary Queen of Scots. Tour the Great Hall, the lavish Royal Palace, the elegant Chapel Royal, and the Great Kitchens, then check out Argyll’s Lodging (Scotland’s finest 17th-century town house, built just beyond the castle walls for a great nobleman serving the royal court). Also worth exploring are the peaceful Queen Anne Gardens and the Stirling Heads Gallery, which features 16th-century oak medallions carved with images of royalty, Roman emperors, and characters from the Bible. When you’re done roaming the interiors, head outdoors and walk the ramparts to appreciate the castle’s commanding position above the Royal Burgh of Stirling.
Glasgow Road, Whins Of Milton, Stirling FK7 0LJ, UK
If you’re a fan of Outlaw King, then Bannockburn is a must-visit sight. It was here that the Scots, led by Robert the Bruce himself, achieved a remarkable victory in June 1314 over the largest English-led army ever to invade Scotland. The battlefield is mostly pastureland today, but there’s an excellent visitor center that employs 3-D technology to put guests face-to-face with medieval warriors on the battlefield. You can also tour the memorial park and see the iconic statue of Robert the Bruce, sitting proud on his loyal steed.
Culloden Moor, Inverness IV2 5EU, UK
After marching within 100 miles of London to restore the Stuart monarchy to the British throne, Jacobite supporters, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, retreated to this site near Inverness in 1746. Here at Culloden, they were slaughtered by forces loyal to King George I and the House of Hanover during one of the most harrowing battles in British history. The aftermath was equally brutal, as a massive military crackdown across the Highlands followed in order to prevent further uprisings from disaffected Scots.

Today, travelers can tour the richly researched Culloden Visitor Centre, which features artifacts from both sides of the battle as well as interactive displays that detail the background of the conflict. You can also walk the front lines where the Jacobites made their final stand, then look inside the newly restored Leanach Cottage—the only surviving building from the battle.
Kilmartin, Lochgilphead PA31 8RQ, UK
Before the well-known royal families of Scotland came to power, there was the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada, about which little is understood. Judging from the archaeology found on Kilmartin Glen, however, it was probably a remarkable, 6th- to 7th-century civilization of Gaelic-speaking Celtic people. Today, visitors to this impressive landscape on Scotland’s west coast can explore 6,000 years of history through stone circles, standing stones, rock art, and burial chambers, then head into the Kilmartin Museum, which displays artifacts like urns, swords, food vessels, and more.
Dornie, Kyle of Lochalsh IV40 8DX, UK
Eilean Donan is the über-castle of the Highlands, perched on a rocky islet in a tidal loch on the road to the Isle of Skye. After crossing an arched stone bridge, visitors may recognize the setting from such films as Highlander and The World Is Not Enough. The seat of Clan MacRae, the castle dates to the 13th century, when it was erected to deter Viking invasions. Destroyed and rebuilt four times as the feudal history of Scotland unfolded, it was restored to its former glory in 1932 and remains open to visitors to this day.

Guests can climb the steps to the Keep Door, explore the Billeting Room and its historical artifacts (Chippendale furniture, cannonballs fired during a 1719 bombardment, Liverpool china tea sets, dueling pistols), and marvel at the Banqueting Hall, featuring timber ceiling beams shipped from British Columbia during the castle’s restoration. Should you wish to spend the night, there’s even a cottage overlooking the castle, available for both weekly and four-night stays.
Poolewe, Achnasheen IV22 2LG, UK
Closer to the Arctic Circle than the Tropic of Cancer, this botanical garden shows what can happen when the Gulf Stream meets the Scottish Highlands. Here, on 49 acres of once-barren land, visitors can find everything from a vegetable plot on an exposed, south-facing hillside, to a veritable jungle of bamboo. There are also eucalyptus trees, Asian rhododendrons, and towering California redwoods, all framed by mountains and two shimmering lochs. As you wander the garden paths, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife like red deer, eagles, pine martens, otters, and red squirrels, then head to the newly opened Inverewe House to learn about the father and daughter who planted the garden in the 19th century. You can also visit the adjacent Sawyer Gallery, which hosts art exhibitions throughout the year about the garden and its surrounding environment.
Lairg IV27 4RU, UK
Conserved by the John Muir Trust (a U.K. charity dedicated to the experience, protection, and repair of wild places), Sandwood Bay is arguably the most pristine stretch of sand and dunes in all of the Scottish Highlands. Guarded by the Am Buachaille (the Shepherd) sea stack, the beach is absolutely breathtaking, with wildlife like fulmars, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, and shags. Some of the surrounding rocks are among the oldest in the world, dating back to when the Highlands connected to North America. To get here, you need to walk about 4.5 miles on a level path across the 11,000-acre Sandwood Estate. It’s well worth it, however, as you’ll often have the entire beach to yourself.
Cape Wrath, Lairg IV27 4QQ, UK
While the name of this cape sounds scary, it apparently stems from the Nordic word for “turning point,” as Cape Wrath marks the most northwesterly tip of the Scottish mainland. It was here that Viking warships would turn south, heading for conquered lands in the Hebrides. Today, it’s simply a gorgeous place to visit, with spectacular views of the coastline, ocean, and surrounding moorland from the Clo Mor cliffs—the highest on the Scottish mainland, rising some 620 feet from the shore.

Since the cape is so remote, access is challenging—there’s only one road and it’s separated from the main network by the Kyle of Durness, plus it’s closed to public vehicles. The only way to get here without hiking over moorland is to take the Cape Wrath Ferry across the Kyle, or the Cape Wrath Minibus, which offers a tour along the 11-mile stretch of road leading to the cliffs.
A82, Ballachulish PH49 4HY, UK
Undoubtedly one of the most dramatic valleys in Scotland, Glencoe is also a place of historic tragedy. It was here, in 1692, that troops loyal to the monarchs William and Mary slaughtered members of a local clan while they slept for not declaring their fealty. Haunting stories aside, Glencoe’s natural beauty delights visitors. The valley features towering mountains formed by violent volcanic eruptions, then sculpted by massive glaciers, and rolling hills covered in emerald-green grass. There are a variety of hiking trails, but all entail a bit of expertise, so be careful. At the western end of the glacial glen is an excellent visitor center where you can learn about the valley, its wildlife, and the families that lived here (including the legendary Celtic hero Fingal and his poet son Ossian).
Glenfinnan, Lochaber PH37 4LT, UK
Today, the fern-filled hillsides surrounding the Glenfinnan Monument regularly fill with camera-toting tourists, all eager to see the historic Jacobite Steam Train—which serves as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies—breeze across the elevated stone viaduct. More significant than the train, however, is the monument itself, which serves as a striking tribute to those who fought in the Jacobite Risings.

Less than a year before the Battle of Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his father’s Standard on this very land, marking the start of the Jacobite campaign. An army of 1,500 rallied around him, then marched as far south as Derby before the retreat that would seal their fate. In 1815, a nearly 60-foot monument was erected, with the long, kilted Highlander at the top representing the clansmen who gave their lives to the Jacobite cause. Travelers can make the dizzying climb to the top of the tower for unrivaled views of Loch Shiel, then tour the visitor center, which tells the story of Prince Charles and the 1745 Jacobite Rising.
Glen Nevis Visitor Centre, Glen Nevis, Fort William PH33 6PF, UK
The highest peak in the United Kingdom, Ben Nevis looms over the Highland resort town of Fort William and Loch Linnhe below, attracting an estimated 125,000 completed ascents per year. Most hikers take the well-constructed Mountain Track from Glen Nevis on the south side of the mountain and head for the 2,000-foot-high cliffs on the north face. At the summit, you’ll also find the ruins of an observatory, which was permanently staffed from 1883 until its closure in 1904. While the mountain can be quite easily scaled by even moderately experienced hikers, don’t take the task lightly—do so at your own peril and wear layers, as the weather at the summit can be seasons away from that at the base.
Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder PH3 1NF, UK
One of the only restaurants in Scotland to hold two Michelin stars, Andrew Fairlie combines the very best of Scottish and French cooking. The restaurant’s eponymous chef sadly passed away in early 2019 after a long battle with brain cancer, but his expert staff carries on his legacy, continuing to offer the same exquisite food and unrivaled service. Housed in the five-star Gleneagles Hotel in Auchterarder, the restaurant is known for such distinctive dishes as house-smoked Scottish lobster, Perthshire roe deer, and wild-mushroom-and-truffle ravioli, paired with premier wines like Krug Grand Cuvée, Nuits-Saint-Georges, and Barbaresco. Dinner here is a real treat, if an expensive one.
North Loch Lomond, Inverarnan, Arrochar G83 7DX, UK
From the 16th to the 19th century, drovers were the men responsible for leading cattle out of the rugged Highlands to the markets in nearby towns and cities. Today, they serve as the inspiration for the Drovers Inn, a hotel and pub just north of Loch Lomond. Nestled near the banks of the River Falloch, the property offers a rustic setting for filling meals, frosty pints, and drams of malt whisky. Come for bar-food favorites like steak-and-Guinness pie, fish-and-chips, and venison casserole, and stay for the live musical acts that play every weekend. As the inn has been in operation for some 300 years, tales of various hauntings are part of its appeal.
16 Fraser St, Inverness IV1 1DW, UK
A standard-bearer for casual elegance in Inverness for nearly 25 years, the Mustard Seed offers simple cooking in a friendly atmosphere. Housed in a converted church building, the restaurant features a double-height ceiling and magnificent open-log fireplace, plus period features mixed with modern finishes. Get a table on the terrace if possible and enjoy views of the River Nessie alongside modern Scottish dishes, many of which feature local, seasonal ingredients. Menu highlights include Scottish salmon with slow-cooked tomato sauce and seared haunch of Ardgay venison with beetroot mash, both perfect for pairing with a bottle from the carefully considered wine list.
30 Harbour St, Plockton IV52 8TN, UK
Plockton is among the most charming seaside villages in the Western Highlands, if not all of Scotland, with a palm tree–lined main street and stunning views over Loch Carron. It’s here that you’ll find The Shores, a small, friendly eatery offering lots of local flavor. Working with area suppliers like Island Divers, Lochalsh Butchers, and Highland Soulfoods, the restaurant serves everything from plump scallops to Skye lamb and wild mushrooms, offering guests a taste of the region. Start with the Cullen skink (a creamy soup of smoked haddock, celery, and milk), then move on to entrées like Wester Ross salmon with fresh pesto and Parmesan, or pepper-crusted Sutherland venison in a sloe gin reduction. If you’re in need of something quick, there’s also an attached coffee shop with baked goods, prepared foods, coffee, and more.
Town Pier, Fort William PH33 6DB, UK
Located at the end of the town pier in Fort William, on the historic Road to the Isles, Crannog Restaurant is purely of its place. Local fisherman Finlay Finlayson opened the restaurant after converting his bait shed—which served as a lookout point during World War II—into this beautiful, red-roofed building, choosing the name “Crannog” as a reference to his concept of catching, curing, and cooking the finest West Highland seafood. Over the past 26 years, the eatery has become synonymous with relaxed fine dining, drawing diners with a regularly changing menu of local catches like West Coast mussels, Loch Creran oysters, and hake, which comes crusted in herbs and topped with basil-walnut pesto.
Badachro, Gairloch IV21 2AN, UK
Set in a refurbished Victorian hunting lodge on a 26,000-acre estate, Shieldaig Lodge is the epitome of Highland romance. With everything from breathtaking views of Shieldaig Bay to log fires, cozy lounges, and an extensive whisky and gin collection, the hotel offers Scottish hospitality at its finest, surrounded by stunning scenery. Quietly elegant, the 12 guest rooms come furnished with antiques and luxurious touches like Egyptian cotton sheets, goose-down duvets, and homemade shortbread from the hotel’s kitchen. For utter opulence, book the suite, which features a four-poster bed, separate sitting room, and rolltop tub with views of the bay.

At the restaurant, rare-breed lamb, Highland cattle, and deer from the hotel’s estate provide the raw ingredients for the sumptuous menu. Also available are crabs, lobster, langoustines, oysters, and scallops caught by hand right in front of the property, and vegetables grown in the on-site walled garden. After dinner, grab a nightcap in the Liberator Bar, which stocks an ever-growing collection of more than 110 gins and 250 whiskies from around the world. The next day, visit the lodge’s falconry (home to eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls), or have the concierge arrange a local activity, from deerstalking and fly-fishing to hiking, boating, and pony trekking.
Strathcarron IV54 8XF, UK
Bealach na Ba, or “Pass of the Cattle,” may be just a road, but it’s one of the most remarkable drives in all of Britain. Rivaling many a Swiss mountain pass, it winds its way from Lochcarron up 2,000 feet to the Bealach and Applecross, offering breathtaking views of Highland alpine crags, the Isle of Skye, and even the Outer Hebrides farther out to sea. Once you reach the top, there’s a parking area to the left, but take the trail up to the transmitter station for even more spectacular vistas. Don’t, however, attempt the drive in a camper or other large vehicle—the upper part of the road is one lane all the way to the top.
Loch Ness, United Kingdom
Good luck if you’ve come here to witness the eponymous monster—though, given the dark, brooding waters of Loch Ness, seemingly anything is possible. At the very least, you’re bound to enjoy some beautiful scenery, from verdant shores to snowcapped peaks. One of the best ways to experience the loch is by boat tour, several of which leave daily from the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition in Inverness. Alternatively, you can drive up the A82 highway along the lake’s western shore, stopping at such spots as Castle Urquhart, a romantic stone ruin that’s some 1,000 years old.

Fancy trying to get a gander at the Loch Ness Monster? There’s only one way and that is on a boat trip out onto the deep and foreboding waters of Loch Ness. “Nessie” has certainly defied many a scientific attempt at location. The earliest mention of the serpentine beast with a snakelike head dates back to Adomnán’s account of the life of St. Columba, completed in the late 7th century. Cruises leave from just south of Inverness and feature interpretive guides who can tell much more than monster stories.
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