A full guide on how to explore the best of the Scottish Highlands in 3 days. The most epic road trip ever.
Also read: Things To Do in Glasgow
WHAT TO PREPARE FOR A HIGHLAND ROADTRIP
PLAN IT OUT.
Although driving around the highlands with no plan in mind sounds very zen, it’ not the best idea if your travel time or money is in any way limited – as it is for most people. The distances are big in the highlands and if you want to spend your time smart, you should have a plan. Unless you’re doing a tour that includes transportation, getting around the highlands is hard without renting a car. There is no way around it. Rent that car.
BOOK IN ADVANCE.
Although the highlands in Scotland is a popular destination to visit, accommodation is still limited and I recommend you always book in advance. Not only to make sure you actually have a bed to sleep in, but for your wallet’s sake as well. It can get very expensive. With websites like Booking.com you get free cancellation on a bunch of places which makes it easy to change your mind and book another place if your plans change. I also recommend booking a rental car in advance as they may literally run out of cars.
SCHEDULE IN EXTRA TIME
… in case something happens. You may get ill, have an accident of some sort, or your car may break down. Our itinerary was pretty full, but we were always within reach of our final destination (driving time wise). We also had an extra buffer since we were planning on s few days in Edinburgh before flying home. You should also get travel insurance, for the same reasons.
TAKE PRINTS OR PREP YOUR PHONE.
Cell service is very unstable in certain parts of the highlands. Even though there are hotels & restaurants with wifi every now and then, do yourself a favor and do some prep work instead of stressing with getting wifi every time you stop your car. Get prints or screenshots of your driving route, important addresses, hotel names & numbers, nearby restaurants, etc. I also recommend creating a travel map on Google Maps and downloading it on your phone so you can use it offline – game changer! You should also download some playlists on Spotify for the drive.
FIVE USEFUL TIPS FOR DRIVING IN SCOTLAND
- GENERAL DRIVING TIPS. Driving on the left side is weird at first, but you get used to it pretty fast. Just focus a little extra when you have to make a right turn & in roundabouts. Always be attentive of your surroundings. Keep in mind that the weather can change suddenly, and be aware of possible wildlife (I almost hit a deer, eeek). And whatever you do, do NOT hit the breaks and stop for photos in the middle of the road. You should also let other cars pass if you drive slowly.
- USE THE PASSING PLACES. The roads are narrow in the highlands, it’s part of it’s charm. You’ll see loads of designated passing places wherever the road get particularly narrow – use them. The general rule of thumb is that whoever is closest to a passing place stops and wait for the other car to pass. If someone stops for you, it’s polite to give them a little wave or turn on the emergency button for a few seconds as a sign of gratitude.
- GAS STATIONS ARE FEW AND FAR BETWEEN. Especially in rural areas like the Isle of Skye. Keep an extra eye on your gas tank indicator and stop to refill way before you need to. It might be helpful to mark gas stations off in your map too. Also make sure you use the correct fuel. Stock up on food, snacks and drinks for the drive itself.
- LAWS & SIGNS are similar to the ones you’ll see find all over Europe. Have a look here if you’re not used to European/UK signs. Unlike most of Europe, the UK operates with miles instead of kilometers and all speed limits are stated in miles per hour (mph). The speed limit is usually 30 mph (48 km/h) unless signs show otherwise, normally in built-up areas. The limit often increases to 60 or 70 mph once you get out of built-up areas and/or hit larger roads. You should also note that Scotland has a zero tolerance for drinking & driving.
- GET INSURED. In addition to your regular travel insurance, make sure your rental car is insured in the best possible way. I know car rental companies make some serious bucks on this, but for us it was worth it to not worry. Imagine your car breaking down in the highlands. Not only will it get expensive getting it towed and renting a new car, but your plans & schedule will take the hardest hit. NOT worth it. We paid extra so that in case out car broke down in the middle of nowhere, not only would someone pick us up and tow the car – they’d also bring us a new rental car so that we could continue with our road trip! Although this didn’t happen to us, it was still worth every penny.
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(4 layered map)
A THREE DAY ITINERARY OF THE HIGHLANDS
After spending a few days in Glasgow it was finally our turn to visit the Scottish Highlands. There were so many places the three of us wanted to experience in the highlands, but we only had three full days to spend. In order to find a realistic driving route we could all be happy with, we started adding everything from our wish list into Google Maps. We then played around with different driving routes, while checking suitable accommodation options, until we found the perfect compromise:
- DAY 1: Glasgow – Doune Castle – Loch Lomond – Glencoe – Eilean Donan Castle – Sligachan
- DAY 2: Sligachan – Old Man of Storr – Kilt Rock Viewpoint – Fairy Glen – Neist Point Lighthouse – Loch Ness
- DAY 3: Loch Ness – Urquhart Castle – Inverness – Culloden Battlefield – Midhope Castle – Edinburgh
This itinerary might be a bit hectic for some people, and I’ll admit – it was three eventful days. But it was AMAZING and I wouldn’t change this adventure for the world. We personally like this way of travel, and although we would all love more time in Scotland it wasn’t possible at this time. Our itinerary never seemed rushed and we took our time at every stop along the way. And the driving itself was super relaxing in the highlands. If you want a more relaxed trip and have more time on your hands, you could also easily do this road trip in 4 or more days. Heck, even two weeks wouldn’t be enough time to see it all, it is simply so much to do.
DAY ONE | Glasgow – Isle of Skye
371 km | 5 hours, 21 minutes
Our alarms went off at 5AM our first day of the road trip. We went straight to the airport to pick up our rental car and by 7 AM we were already on our way to our first stop: Doune Castle. The first part of the drive was mainly highways, which don’t even exist in arctic Norway, so I’m sure even martians could hear the sighs of relief coming from Anette and I when native Detroiter Samantha volunteered to drive first. THANK YOU. Sam did great and the drive went surprisingly fast.
We stopped at Blair Drummond Smiddy Farm Shop for a quick breakfast and some much needed coffee before heading to the castle. Smiddy’s is this adorable café, butchery and farm shop all in one, and their selection of local produce and specialties from Scotland were great. The perfect place to enjoy a meal and get some souvenirs. A couple of minutes more on the road and we arrived Doune Castle. We were so excited – our very first Scottish castle experience!
Doune Castle may look familiar. It’s a famous castle in Scotland that’s been a popular filming location throughout the years. Most people might recognize it as Winterfell from the first season of Game of Thrones, or as Castle Leoch in Outlander. Monty Python and The Holy Grail was also filmed here. In reality, the castle was built as the home of Regent Albany in the 14th century. In other words, there is a lot of interesting history to take in while walking in the footsteps of both fictional and real rulers.
Since we were there when they opened it thankfully wasn’t too crowded. Included in the entrance ticket is an audio tour, which was a very comfortable way of learning about the castle since you get to walk around at your own pace. The audio tour helps you imagine how life must have been like back in medieval times. It was an added bonus that the tour was narrated by Outlander’s own Sam Heughan (aka Jamie Fraser). He must have the most comfortable voice in history. It didn’t take long until the castle started to get crowded, however, so I recommend getting there early in the morning to avoid the worst. Visit their official website for updated prices and opening hours.
LOCH LOMOND & THE TROSSACHS
From Doune we continued driving northwest towards Glencoe. It was my turn to drive and I was grateful our highway days were over and the huge roads were replaced with narrow, rural ones instead. It was just like driving back home in northern Norway. You know, except the part about driving on the left side and nearly peeing in my pants the first few miles. It was the fun type of challenging though, and I quickly adapted to the UK style of driving.
We shortly entered the outer parts of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park and the nature was simply gorgeous. This was our first real encounter with the Scottish nature and we were shocked by how green and lush everything looked. It was a bit foggy but that only made the experience more magical. We pulled over by Loch Lubnaig to stretch our legs and it was so peaceful sitting by the water in complete silence. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of the national park, all the locals we talked to in Glasgow recommended it wholeheartedly.
After another hour in our cute little Ford, the beauty of Glencoe started to reveal itself. It was pouring rain, a little foggy, but we could still see the mountains and hilltops surrounding us. We couldn’t get over how green everything was! It sounds weird but it was like a different kind of green than we’ve ever seen while traveling. My favorite sights in Glencoe were The Three Sisters and the Skyfall location and I still get goosebumps whenever I think about those places. Once in a while, the sunlight would shine through the heavy clouds and turn the lush green a bit more yellow, before suddenly disappearing.. Leaving everything green and moody again. It felt a bit like magic.
We continued driving until we reached Glencoe Village, where we stopped to grab dinner at Glencoe Gathering. Their food was good and it was next door to cozy Glencoe Inn, which seemed like a great place to stay. The three of us all fell in love with Glencoe in our short stay, and if we had more time this is definitely a place we would spend a few days. There is so much to do in and around Glencoe, making it the perfect hub. We would love to hike The Three Sisters or even Ben Nevis – the highest mountain in the British Isles. Glencoe is a short drive form Fort William and the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct from Harry Potter. You can even catch the Jacobite train, aka the Hogwarts Express! I’m definitely spending more time in Glencoe on my next Scotland trip, preferably staying at lovely Glencoe House – it looks incredible.
EILEAN DONAN CASTLE
Our drive continued a few hours until we arrived Eilean Donan Castle. This is one of the most famous castles in the highlands and have been featured in movies like James Bond – The World is Not Enough, Highlander, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Made of Honor, and many more. Since we got there quite late in the afternoon we almost got the entire place all to ourselves. The only people around were a couple of newlyweds having a photo shoot by the loch, and another couple from Spain who we randomly ran into while hiking the following day (small world, huh). The 13th century castle was such a beauty and we had a lot of fun walking around exploring the area and learning about it’s vivid history.
Since we got there after opening hours we didn’t get the chance to see the inside of the castle or visit the gift shop & café, so make sure you check their opening hours before visiting. We still enjoyed it a lot though, so I would still recommend stopping by even if it’s after they close. The little island the castle is located will be open regardless of their hours, so it’s still a fun experience.
TIP: From Eiliean Donan Castle we drove directly to our hostel in Sligachan on the Isle of Skye, since we wanted to begin our hike to The Old Man of Storr early the next morning. It is also possible to find accommodation a bit closer to Eilean Donan Castle, like in Broadford on the Isle of Skye. Broadford is larger and has a larger selection of places to eat and places to sleep, which is perfect after a long day of driving and exploring.
DAY TWO | Isle Of Skye – Loch Ness
314 km | 5 hours, 25 minutes
Day 2 of our roadtrip we woke up in Sligachan on the Isle of Skye. We stayed at Sligachan Bunkhouse which was right up our alley: Nothing fancy, you get a room with clean beds and shared bathrooms. But that was literally all we needed. The hostel has common areas which makes it social for those who are into making new friends while traveling. There is a kitchen on site that’s great for cooking, but make sure you bring groceries.
The bunkhouse is located next to cozy Sligachan Hotel, which has both a restaurant and bar, so we went there to enjoy a Scottish breakfast before heading out. Since I was in the mood for greens, I actually ordered the vegetarian breakfast with bacon on the side, which got some weird looks from the wait staff hahah. It was delicious, though! They get bonus points for having a good selection of gluten free, vegetarian and vegan options. Sligachan Old Bridge and various hiking routes are right outside the doorstep, and the ultimate whisky legend Talisker Distillery is only 8 miles from the hotel. I would definitely stay here next time I’m in Sligachan.
TIP: If you would like to stay in an area of Skye with more dining options and things to do, you should have a look in lovely Portree. Such a beautiful village! Broadford, as I mentioned previously, is also a great option.
THE OLD MAN OF STORR
Starting in Sligachan, we drove north on the beautiful Isle of Skye, enjoying the wonderful view until we reached the Old Man of Storr car park after about 30 minutes behind the wheel. There were a ton of parking spaces there, which indicates how popular this hike really is. We instantly recognized the magnificent rock formations that Storr is known for from the car park and it was very easy to spot the trail. The main trail quickly spreads into a large number of different pathways you can choose from, so we never felt like we were walking in a queue despite crowds growing with every hour. The hike was incredible, and the rain and clouds didn’t hurt. Frankly, they set the perfect moody tone Scotland does better than any other place. We walked around exploring for hours, enjoying ourselves completely.
The hike isn’t too hard and it should be within reach for people in any shape – just take your time if it gets hard. You can do it. Remember to bring water and some snacks or food if you plan on spending some time up there like us. Wear suitable clothes for the weather and maybe bring an extra shift so that you can change at the top if you get sweaty, as it can get quite windy up there. Unless it’s super slippery there isn’t necessary to bring hiking boots for this trip in our opinion, if you have sneakers with a good grip you should be fine. However, if you’re an inexperienced hiker it might be a good idea to wear hiking boots for extra balance and grip. We ran into a few people that couldn’t make it up there due to wearing high heels, so please be smarter haha.
KILT ROCK VIEWPOINT
After our hike we continued driving north until we arrived Kilt Rock Viewpoint. From this observation point you get to see two major sights on the Isle of Skye: Beautiful Mealt waterfall and Kilt Rock (a rock that resemble a kilt). There were a lot of other tourists there when we visited so we didn’t stay long, but it was a wonderful sight nonetheless. Ohh and there was a man in a kilt playing the bagpipe when we were there, lots of people posed with him for pictures. He did great but it didn’t look very comfortable..
A short drive from the viewpoint we reached Staffin, a community with some restaurants and accommodation options. We were pretty hungry from our adventurous day, so we stopped at the first place we saw that served food. Turns out we got lucky – Columba 1400 is number one on TripAdvisor in this area. They had good and filling food, highly recommended after an active day outdoors.
TIP: There is a lot more to see & do in this area. For instance, you can check out real dinosaur foot prints not far from Kilt Rock Viewpoint (as long as you time it with the tide, which we did not). The Quiaraing, a popular hiking destination, is also in this area.
THE FAIRY GLEN | CASTLE EWAN
After dinner we continued driving north towards Uig. Although you can reach Uig by driving through The Quiaraing, we continued driving the A855 around the top of Isle of Skye. Although I hear the Quiaraing is supposed to be breathtaking, the drive around was insaaane as well. There’s just something about the rock formations by the Scottish coast, it’s so beautiful.
Once we reached the western side of Isle of Skye we headed towards The Fairy Glen – a strange and unique landscape in the middle of nowhere. It’s hard to explain exactly what it is. I would say it’s like a miniature Scotland within one area; you’ve got lush green grass, sheep, a glen, and loads of tiny hills you can climb and trails you can follow. We walked around there for an hour or so, climbing Castle Ewan (the most popular little top) and it was a really lovely place to visit. There weren’t too many other visitors at the time, but I hear it can get very busy at times. Maybe we did something right by arriving in late afternoon? Who knows.
NEIST POINT LIGHTHOUSE
After The Fairy Glen we continued further west on Skye until we arrived Neist Point Lighthouse. In addition to The Old Man of Storr, Neist Point Lighthouse is probably the Scottish landmark I’ve seen the most on Instagram (#GermanRoamers I’m looking at you). And I completely get why. The landscape is incredible with it’s dramatic cliffs rising straight from the wavy turquoise ocean, with an iconic lighthouse at the very outer cliff. There is also loads of adorable sheep running around eating and playing.. YOU GUYS THERE WERE SO MANY CUTE SHEEP! Okay so the number of photos I’ve posted probably reveals my little sheep obsession, but come ooon arent they adorable?
It’s approximately a 15 minute walk from the parking area to the lighthouse, but with all the wonderful sights around I can almost guarantee the walk will take a larger toll on your schedule. Be aware that there is a steep staircase down the first part of the trail, which can be a challenge for people with walking disabilities, FYI. You can still see quite a lot from ‘above’, though!
Although I wish we got to experience more of the western part of Skye, we had to drive straight to our hostel by Loch Ness after visiting Neist Point Lighthouse. But before we left Skye we had the most amaazing drive in the sunset along the B884 road towards Sligachan. I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful it was! The perfect end to our Isle of Skye visit.
TIP: The western part of Skye has a lot more to offer than we had time for, like loads of amazing nature and lovely villages. If you have more time than us you should consider visiting Dunvegan Castle & Gardens which looks amazing! Or the The Talisker Distillery which is also located here.
DAY THREE | Loch Ness – Edinburgh
308 km | 4 hours, 11 minutes
LOCH NESS & URQUHART CASTLE
Loch Ness was literally the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes the morning of day three. I had to enjoy the view for a while, try to take it all in. We stayed at The Lochside Hostel, which is the perfect option if you’re on a budget or if you want to socialize with other travelers on your trip. The common areas were super cozy, and you can even take a swim in Loch Ness if you want – the Lochside has it’s private beach. If you value more comfort and privacy, the Tigh Na Bruach B&B might be a better fit for you.
A short drive from our hostel was Urquhart Castle; One of Scotland’s largest castles once upon a time. It served as a medieval fortress for 500 years and played a vital role in many conflicts during this time. The government troops blew up the castle at the end of the Jacobite Risings, and only Urquhart’s ruins remains. The castle is still a beautiful sight, especially since it’s marvellous location – overlooking the Loch Ness. You have to purchase a ticket to enjoy the castle up close, but it is really worth every cent. The gift shop was also really cool! It’s a very popular destination so I recommend arriving slightly before they open to hopefully avoid the worst crowds.
If you want to really experience Loch Ness up close I suggest you take a cruise for the very best view of the loch and the castle. Who knows, maybe you’ll get to see Nessie? You can also combine a Loch Ness cruise with a visit to Urquhart Castle – the perfect combo.
From Urquhart Castle it only took us roughly 30 minutes in our tiny Ford to get to Inverness. It was the most charming town we’d seen in ages so we spent most of our day here exploring and wandering the lovely streets of the town.
Our first stop was Leakey’s Second-hand Bookshop in Church Street. Oh my gosh, I can’t even begin to describe how much we loved this place. The bookshop is enormous and is located in an old church, creating a special atmosphere not only book lovers like ourselves will appreciate. We browsed around and hung out in their comfortable couch before buying a few ones each. Worth a visit, even if you just want to have a quick look. Inverness has plenty of other stores too; something for everyone for sure.
Inverness also has a castle and we got a great view of it while crossing Ness Bridge, towards Columba Hotel. If you want the best view of River Ness and the town from above, you can visit Inverness Castle Viewpoint right by the castle. Check out The Castle Tavern for food when you’re in the area. We enjoyed some coffee and dessert at SO COCO, but they recently closed permanently, what a shame.
It’s impossible to visit Scotland without learning a little about the dark and interesting history of this beautiful country. One of the most important battles of Scottish history took place at Culloden Moor, a mere 20 minute drive outside of Inverness. The Battle of Culloden took place on April 16th 1746 and was the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising. Although the battle only lasted one hour, it was a violent and bloody one, leaving 1,500 – 2,000 Jacobites wounded or dead. The conflict was the end of the Jacobite rising, leaving Great Britain with the power, and was actually the last pitched battle that was fought on British soil.
Honestly, I probably would never have visited Culloden Battlefield if it wasn’t for Outlander’s role in making me interested in the history of Scotland. And I’m very grateful it did, because the history is really interesting. The battlefield itself is free of charge to visit, but if you want to put what you see into context there is an award winning visitor centre with both a museum, café and a shop at the grounds too. Tickets are only £11 and they include an audio tour (available in six languages).
TIP: We drove the A9 south from Culloden Battlefield towards Edinburgh, following the outer parts of Cairngorms National Park. And it was such a wonderful area! I recommend you explore more of this park if you have the chance.
Any Outlander fans who regognize this castle?? That’s right, it’s Lallybroch! When we saw it was only a 40 minute drive from Edinburgh we had to stop by before returning our rental car in Edinburgh. It was late afternoon and we got the entire place to ourselves. It felt so surreal walking around the property with no one else around.
From Midhope Castle it’s only a 15 minute drive to Blackness Castle, another Outlander location. This 15th century fortress was used to represent Fort William in Outlander (remember where Jamie was punished by Black Jack Randall in season one?).
It’s definitely possible to visit these Outlander locations without renting a car, but it’s significantly cheaper to book a tour than to order a taxi between the locations (and to/from Glasgow or Edinburgh). This one day tour offers visits to both Midhope Castle, Blackness Castle, Doune Castle (mentioned earlier in this post) and a few more. The price is really good, too!
After three amazing days on the road we returned our rental car and replaced nature life with city life in Edinburgh. We spent three lovely days here sightseeing, shopping, enjoying ourselves in wonderful Edinburgh before heading home. AAAAH what an epic trip we had!! Thank you, Scotland.