Guide to the Scottish Highlands
Okay let me first preface this by saying there is a LOT of the Highlands I have yet to explore (like all of Northeast Scotland— would love to make it to Shetland someday!), but until then, this is a list of all the places that have captured my heart.
Chris and I first traveled here two years ago (pre-baby!) and spent about ten days hiking and eating our hearts out. The great thing about the highlands is that there’s something for every pace— intense, long, arduous hikes up snow capped mountains, long 6-hour hikes across misty peaks and river ravines, shoreline strolls and even if all you ever do is drive through this part of the world, you won’t feel like you missed out at all. We fell in love, keep scheming ways to make it back regularly and is currently Chris’ number one retirement destination… we’ll see if that happens! 😉
In this post you can check out all my recommendations for favourite hikes, where to stay, coffee, scenic drives and places to eat (including health-conscious options!)
I wanted to start with this because in our two trips now we stayed at B&Bs, hostels and hotels (varying in excellence) and our favourite without rival were the B&Bs. Every single one was clean, cozy, comfortable and actually the most cost effective. Hotels and even hostels get pricey quick. Even when we tried to treat ourself to a nicer hotel in the Isle of Skye we found that though it was charming and had an incredible view of the ocean, the breakfast wasn’t great, the beds were uncomfortable and the wifi was patchy at best. Basically the moral of the story is stay in the B&Bs when possible— however they fill up FAST (probably because they are nicer and cheaper) so plan ahead.
Known as the capital of the Highlands, Inverness is the northern most city in the United Kingdom and is located at “the mouth” of the River Ness. Which basically means it’s the last bastion of civilisation before you embark into the wonder of the wildness of the Scottish Highlands.
Little Bird - In the heart of downtown, this place is small but great for getting a delicious cup of coffee and a bite to eat before hitting the trails. Favorites from Little Bird for me include the avo toast menu and the coconut flapjacks. Perks include delicious oat milk as a non-dairy. soy-free milk option.
Nourish - a vegan restaurant and therapy shop. I had their hearty lentil stew, an oat milk turmeric latte and the vegan lemon cardamom cake. All delicious. This place is special because they also offer a therapy of the day— when we were there last they were offering hypnotherapy sessions, but also specialise in therapeutic massage, yoga and aroma therapy. So fun!
Lochness - There are so. many. trails around Lochness, it’d be impossible to list them all. So I’ll just tell you what we’ve done. We took a trail starting in Iverfarigig to the Falls of Foyer and then looped back. We didn’t rush and just ambled through forests so lush and mossy I felt like I was in Brave. It was about 9 miles and took us about 4 hours. We did an abbreviated version of this hike with Danny this week starting at the Falls of Foyer and hiking about 4 miles. It was beautiful. Perks? There’s a shop at the top of the falls that makes homemade softserve ice cream. Perfect mid (or pre!) hike treat.
GLENCOE/ FORT WILLIAM
Frickin Glen Coe. If you’ve ever watched Skyfall and found yourself drooling over the scenery before uttering a Liz Lemon-esque, “I want to go to there,” this region is a must. Bare, wild mountains with rivers, streams and ravines in every nook and cranny. It’s a hikers dream.
So something you need to know about Scots and feeding yourself in the highlands— you’re in their territory now, which means you’re on their timetable. It’s not uncommon for the local eateries to keep specific hours— forget about getting breakfast after 9:45 a.m. at most places— or to show up somewhere only to find they’ve closed for the day. Don’t get annoyed, just bring some supplies if you miss the breakfast deadline or need a bite and the cafes are closed.
Seafood Restaurant (Fort William) — not actually sure if this place as a name but it’s a white and red trimmed house perched on the side of the road (unmissable as you drive to Glencoe). Michelin guide recommended (on the pricier end!) but delicious seafood. I had herb-crusted haddock on mashed potatoes and a bed of asparagus (but Danny ate most of my potatoes!) They serve you brown, warm, homemade crusty bread as soon as you sit down and you get to watch the boats go by as you eat.
Wild Cat (Fort William) — this vegan coffee shop and cafe is in downtown Fort William. V60s, matcha lattes, vegan sandwiches and bake goods abound. Oatmilk is served as standard with all lattes. Love their approach to limiting waste by not serving to-go cups. You can bring your own, otherwise you’re sitting in and enjoying this stop in full. I’ve never had vegan bake goods that tasted as good. We had: mushroom rocket soup (hoooollly cooowww! So good), walnut coffee cake, lemon drizzle cake, date cake, and the the carrot cake. Not all in one go, we visited twice because this place was that. freaking. good.
Clachaig Inn (Glencoe) — pub grub at its finest. Rustic, wood beamed, low ceiling and fireplace ablaze. My mouth still waters when I think of the mashed potatoes I had here. Probably not the best place to go if you have a ton of allergies but worth the caloric splurge. Other pros outdoor seating below the mountains.
Glencoe Cafe — coffee is okay, but the bake goods and homemade soup is where its at. Skip the coffee, get a cuppa Scottish tea.
Again, picking one hike in Glencoe is impossible, but here are three to get you started listed from easiest to most challenging.
Signal Rock Trail - 2 miles round trip. No incline, just a pleasant dander in the valley along the stream through the woods. Lots of mossy trees, winding paths and great views of the mountains. We did this one with Danny on a rainier day because we didn’t want to be out too long. It didn’t feel like a compromise just because it was short.
Hidden Valley Trail - this one is probably the most popular and for good reason. The history behind this trail is that it was where the MacDonald clan in Glencoe hid their cattle, up in the mountain so they wouldn’t get stolen! It’s an upward amble following one of the many beautiful streams from the mountain tops. It is steep, you do have to cross the water and there are parts that feel a little precarious, but Chris climbed this one with Danny on his back the whole way. Definitely doable. Not sure how many miles round trip but it took us just shy of four hours going at a slow pace (snack break included at the top).
Pro tip: go in the morning before all the tourists get there! It gets crowded fast but is worth it for the views and gorgeous scenery along the way.
Buachaille Etive Mor — 8.25 miles and it took us the full 9 hours but it was amazing. You walk in a gradual incline through the wild and barren parts of the mountain. Stunning views, endorphin-pumping, endurance hike that is worth every step.
Pro tip: invest in hiking boots. It’s all rock (as are many the good mountain hikes) and by the end of the walk our feet were shredded. Went and splurged on hiking boots the very next day so we could actually enjoy the following next five days of hiking without wanting to die!
ISLE OF SKYE
This island has my heart. It’d be impossible to mention this place without telling you that the drive up to your ferry port (because you have to drive your car onto a ferry for a 30 minute ride to get there) is STUNNING. Tons of the scenes from Harry Potter were filmed there, you can even see the Hogwarts Express steam past you as you drive by. The island where Dumbledore was buried and many more sights are to be seen (if you care about such things, as I do!)
Your ferry port is in Mallaig. Buy your tickets for the ferry, park your car in line, and then go grab a bite at the local chip shop while you wait. Probably still the best scampi supper I’ve ever had. Pro tip: DO NOT FEED THE SEAGULLS. Unless you want to reenact a Alfred Hitchcock scene.
Single Track Coffee — located at the upper most point of the island this place is the site of a Grand Designs home and is run by two women— one in charge of the coffee, the other makes fresh bake goods aaaaallll day. They also sell local art. I bought a print there that I still have hanging in my home. Really tasteful and beautiful stuff.
Pie Skye Cafe — oh my goodness guys. We only got to eat here the last day (again, it was always closed when we were coming and going from our hikes!) and we were so sad we didn’t find it sooner. A whole restaurant devoted to sweet and savoury pies (Americans think what we would call pasties!) They also sell homeware goods and it’s a lovely place to sit and enjoy a respite from all your walking.
Three Chimneys — feel like I have to mention that there IS a two-star Michelin rated restaurant if you’re feeling super fancy.
The Storr — this hike is around that steeple shaped mountain you see all over instagram. Trust me, you haven’t seen an Instagram picture yet there compares to the real thing. Tourists usually just hike up to the base of the steeple and back down, but if you’re feeling adventurous the trail goes on up over the mountains even higher. This was my scariest hike the whole trip because a storm rolled over the peak just as we reached it make it nearly impossible to see three feet ahead, making the rocks wet and slippery and there ARE some dangerous falls if you’re not smart. But it was still such an incredible experience walking through this cloud literally on top of the world. There are no words for how majestic (and terrifying) I found it.
The Quiraing — An absolute must. This was my favourite hike of the whole trip. It takes you all the way up to the top of one of the highest peaks, and it’s a relatively easy trail. It’s 4 miles and takes about 2 hours.
The Fairy Glen — Short and sweet walk around these cone shaped hills. Super easy and beautiful. A little over a mile but you feel like you’re a hobbit.
The Fairy Pools — huge tourist destination, but if you follow the official trail you’ll lose 90% of them. So beautiful. A collection of pools that are clear and blue from fresh mountain water streaming and pool on its way down from the mountain. Bring your swimsuit. You’ll wanna swim (even if it’s freezing!) it’s about 5 miles and took us 3ish hours.
I think I’ll leave my guide at this for now. But I think it’s worth mentioning that even if you don’t ever do any of the official hikes, even if you just drive around and stop and walk whenever you see something that looks fun, it’s worth it. We walked every where we could, explored every coast that looked fun, climbed up every hill that seemed like it had a good view and ate every cake that was offered to us. Just do it. You won’t regret a single bite or step.
Here’s video of our time in the highlands two years ago. Sad to be leaving tomorrow!