ITINERARY | 10 DAYS IN SCOTLAND
My friend and I scored a major deal on airfare to Scotland. We booked our tickets to Edinburgh (with a three day stopover in Amsterdam), but quickly realized just how BIG Scotland is, and how much there is to see! With only 10 days total (we'd fly home the on the 11th day), we knew we would have to pick just one or two areas to focus on. We decided to book our first two nights in Edinburgh, then rent a car and wing it for the remainder of the trip. We traveled in early March 2017, which is considered the tail end of the off season.
DAY 1 & 2 - We arrived in Edinburgh at 10:00a, so though we were jet lagged, we had a full day to explore this beautiful city. We took a bus from the airport to the city center (which was easy and inexpensive). We had booked an affordable little AirBnB in New Town, and spent the next two days exploring on foot. It rained or misted the entire time we were there - but we just threw on our jackets and embraced it. Edinburgh is a very walkable city, even from New Town to Old Town to Dean Village, and we also used Uber as needed. Had our trip been a little longer, I think an extra day or two here would've been nice, but 2 days was a good introduction. After all, we were excited to get out of the city to explore the natural beauty of the Highlands!
DAY 3 - We picked up our rental car and hit the road early to head to our first destination: the Isle of Skye. We decided to start here since it was number one on our list of places to see, and we weren't sure how long we would need. We didn't want to run out of time, or be rushed, so starting here seemed most logical. We had done a bit of quick research the night before, and decided we would look for accommodations in Portree, as that is the main town on Skye and has the most restaurants. Since we were traveling in the off season when many things were closed, so we wanted to make sure we had easy access to food.
A quick note on driving in Scotland: For those of us that are used to driving on the right, driving in the U.K. can be a little bit jarring. Especially when driving a stick. (Rental car companies generally have automatic cars available, but they charge a HEFTY premium, so we stuck with a manual.) Leaving Edinburgh was the biggest challenge, but we got the hang of it quickly enough. I had previously driven on the left in Ireland, Indonesia, and Australia, but it will always feel unnatural to me! Once we were out in the country, and on the Isle of Skye specifically, many of the roads are single track (one lane), so it doesn't much matter anyway. You just need to remember to stick to the left when you approach another car.
According to Google Maps, the drive from Edinburgh to Portree is about 5.5 hours, but it took us the better part of the day, as we stopped for lunch and lots of photos. As a general rule of thumb, we tried to keep our gas tank at least half full, as we were told gas stations were quite sporadic in the Highlands, which we didn't find to be completely true, but better safe than stranded. Though we had left around 9a, we arrived in Portree in the late afternoon. Some of the BnB/hotels were closed (as expected), but we found a cute place to stay right in town for a reasonable rate of 35 Euros per person. We spent the first night exploring the town of Portree and having dinner in the main harbor.
DAY 4 - It's true what everyone says: the Isle of Skye is bigger than it looks. Not only that, but many of the roads are single track, meaning driving is slow, and you might have to pull over (or even back up to a "passing place" as they're called) to let other cars pass. This day was particularly sunny (finally!), so we decided to head out to enjoy the views at Neist Point Lighthouse, about an hour drive from Portree. Of course, there are majestic views everywhere, so when you stop for photos, 1 hour easily turns into 2. When we finally arrived, we hiked down to the lighthouse, and up the coast above the parking lot for those iconic views, and spent several hours here. After lunch at Skye's oldest bakery - Dunvegan Bakery, we continued on to Coral Beach, which is in the same general area as Neist Point - about 45 minutes driving. The beach is a bit of a hike from the parking lot - maybe 30-45 minutes, but it's relatively flat and easy. You'll come across a first coral beach, but keep going, because there's a second one that is even better than the first. We spent several hours at this beach, just sitting in the sun, looking at shells, and listening to the gentle waves. On our way back to Portree we stopped to explore the harbor in the little town of Stein.
DAY 5 - We dedicated all of day 5 to driving the Trotternish Ring. We had heard this portion of the Skye is the most scenic and it's where you can find it's two top sites - the Quirang and the Old Man of Storr. Portree is located on this ring, so it was an easy start, given we were staying in town. We decided to drive clockwise, at the advice of our BnB hosts, so the car would be on the coastal side of the road as we drove. We started out by exploring Fairy Glen. I was astounded by the amount of tour buses and tourists there, and I can only imagine how busy Skye gets during the peak season. And, I love a good drone shot as much as the next person, but I have to say the drones totally killed the nature vibe for me (and definitely scared all the fairies away!).
After Fairy Glen (which is beautiful and magical, and so green, btw) we headed to Uig. There are some great views of this little town as you wind the coastal road. In early March there wasn't much happening, but I supposed there are more shops and restaurants open during peak season.
We continued along the Trotternish ring, stopping at a beach near Staffin, before continuing on to Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls. Luckily we were one of only a few people here, so we could enjoy the views of the rugged coastline and falls. The falls are right off the parking lot - no hiking required.
We skipped the Quirang knowing we were going to be coming back on a different day, and after a quick lunch continued on to the Old Man of Storr. By this time it was 2 or 3p and the weather had become cloudier throughout the day. While you can see Storr from the main road (and various vantage points on this side of the island) hiking up the base for up-close views was no. 1 on my Isle of Skye to-do list. The higher we got the windier and colder it became, but I'm so glad we went up despite the weather. The first part of the hike is up a well marked switchbacking trail. It'll get your heart pumping, but it's not too difficult. At about the half way point, the paved trail ends, and it's all rock "stairs" from that point on. Though it was foggy by this point, we still enjoyed the dramatic views and had the trail pretty much all to ourselves. I think it took us about 2 hours (we went slowly and stopped for TONS of photos), but eventually we reached the base of Storr with it's breathtaking views. From here, you'll see the trail split to the right or left - this is a near-level loop that takes you around the entire base. I highly recommend hiking the loop - it was probably an extra 20-30 minutes, and the landscape is otherworldly. You can go right or left - doesn't matter either way. There are signs advising not to hike any further, but I think it's safe to ignore those - there is a very well worn path all the way around and it was completely safe. By this point we were freezing, so we headed back down to the parking lot. The way down took about half the time as the way up.
We got back to out BnB exhausted, but went out for a late dinner and live music at the Portree Hotel (so fun!!). While you're in town be sure to inquire if they have any bands or musicians scheduled to play - this was definitely my favorite night of the entire trip - so much fun to hang with the locals and see the pub scene.
DAY 6 - We took it a bit easy this day, as the last few had been jam packed with driving and hiking. We had lunch at a bakery in town and simply wandered around Portree. Portree is a beautiful little town and there are so many boutiques and places to shop. I highly recommend spending at least half a day here. Luckily, it was a sunny, so it was especially pleasant. In the afternoon, we headed out to Glenbrittle Beach, about a 45 minute drive, before continuing on to the Fairy Pools for a sunset hike. The Fairy Pools are gorgeous and definitely worth a stop. It's a quick and easy downhill hike from the parking lots to the pools, then you can continue along the stream towards the Cuilins Mountains for as long as you please. The color of the pools is incredible. We even saw a few crazy people swimming in the 50 degree weather. We spent a good hour or two here, and walked on quite a bit further than most of the other tourists. The hike back up to the parking lots was a bit harder (uphill), but very manageable. Again, we headed back to town for dinner.
DAY 7 - We decided it was time to move on, so we checked out of our BnB this morning, but not before spending one last day on Skye. In the morning, we drove to the Quiraing, which is stunning. If we had just a bit more time, I would've liked to hike around this area, but seeing the views from the car park were great too. We had made lunch reservations at the Michelin starred Kinloch Lodge for 1:00p, which was a 1.5 hour drive from the Quiraing, so we hit the road by 11:30 or so.
The Kinloch Lodge was absolutely stunning and so tranquil. If you get a chance, I would highly recommend staying there on your way in or out of Skye. The food was divine, and it was a huge splurge, but totally worth it. After lunch (and too much wine) we took a little nap in the grass overlooking the loch. It was a perfectly sunny day and a nice place for a little rest.
Eventually, we loaded back in our little rental and headed out to the Eilean Donan Castle. The Dunvegan Castle of Skye was closed for the season and though we had driven by Eilean Donan on the way into Skye we hadn't stopped. Unfortunately, we arrived at Eilean just minutes after they closed for the evening, but we explored the outside.
Our destination for the night was Ullapool. After chatting with locals on Skye and a Scottish traveler who was staying at our BnB, we decided we would head north to at least drive a small portion of the North Coast 500. We wouldn't have time for the entire 500 miles given we only had three days left, but everyone said Ullapool was beautiful, so we'd at least head up that far before continuing back in the general direction of Edinburgh. We took the North Coast road (vs the highway) most of the way, so it was about 2 or 3 hours from the castle to Ullapool. By the time we arrived in Ullapool, it was dark, but we found a quaint little Inn right on the water and had dinner there and settled in for the night.
DAY 8 - We woke up at the Ferry Boat Inn the most incredible views of the harbor of Ullapool!! We got lucky with yet another sunny day so after our complimentary breakfast, we set out to explore Ullapool on foot. This town turned out to be one of my favorite spots. It is so incredibly tranquil. We stopped for coffee, shopped at book and antique stores, and just wandered through the harbor. I could've spent another night here relaxing, but we decided to move on to Inverness and the famous Loch Ness.
Ullapool to Inverness was about a 1.25 hour drive and it turns out Inverness is quite a large city. We drove around a bit, and ate lunch, but decided to head south down Loch Ness to find a smaller place to stay. We ended up finding a cute room in a private home just off the highway right across the road from Urquhart Castle. Annie & Simon, our hosts were wonderful and gave us tons of good recommendations for the area. We went for a walk in the hills above their property and spotted tons of deer. Then we checked out the Castle before having dinner at the Lochness Inn.
DAY 9 - We woke up the best breakfast ever! Seriously I think everyone should go stay with Annie and Simon just to experience their breakfast. Everything, and I mean everything was grown in their garden or homemade, including the yogurt and jam, and just delicious beyond words. Annie and Simon hand wrote our invoice for the night along with the sweetest little note - I just adore them! Simon had given us numerous recommendations and basically planned our remaining two days for us.
The plan was to head to Oban for the night (we booked an AirBnB the morning of), so we could tour their famous distillery, and then be close to Glen Coe for our last day before heading back to Edinburgh. We left Urquhart, and headed south down Loch Ness. It was about a 2.25 hour south to Oban, but at Simon's recommendation we decided to detour towards Malaig, stopping at the Glenfinnan Viaduct where they filmed scenes from Harry Potter, and the Silver Sands of Morar. This drive west was beautiful and worth the detour. I especially loved Silver Sands. On the way back towards the main highway from Silver Sands, we took these little teeny backroads (which I couldn't even explain, except to say just keep driving past the Silver Sands parking lots, and when you think you're going the wrong way, just keep going some more), and we saw so many gorgeous views and sheep everywhere. So. many. baby. sheep. Ugh, my heart, it was too cute.
We finally headed out to Oban, and by the time we arrived, believe it or not, we missed the final distillery tour by minutes. I felt so bad, because my friend wanted to tour a whiskey distillery and see a proper castle (Urquhart was more like ruins) and so far we had done neither! :(
Instead we headed to our AirBnB, drank wine on the patio (wrapped in blankets because it was still in the 50s) and planned where we would eat dinner. After a relaxing evening, we walked into the center and ate dinner at Coast, but Hawthorne would've been another excellent option, had it been open.
DAY 10 - Our last full day! :( We had breakfast at Abbie's in Oban, before heading out to Glen Coe. Glen Coe is all over Instagram and if you've done any research on Scotland, I'm sure you've come across it. With only one day, we knew we wouldn't have time for hiking, and would drive through and explore little stops along the road. It turned out to be raining that day, so we were fine with making quicker stops right outside the car. Glen Coe is gorgeous and despite the rain, we ended up stopping a ton. While driving through, there are one or two large "rest stop" style areas, but if you're hungry, I recommend saving yourself for lunch at Ben More Lodge - we had the most delish mac and cheese and sticky toffee pudding there, plus the owners have the sweetest dog, Izzy. We had the place to ourselves and it was a wonderful last lunch in Scotland. After spending the morning and afternoon driving and stopping, we headed towards Stirling, hoping to see the Stirling Castle. I kid you not, it closed MINUTES BEFORE WE GOT THERE. You almost have to laugh. We were probably 0 for 8 on castles and distilleries at this point.
To add insult to injury, we also discovered we had a flat tire in the Stirling Castle car park. We slowly drove to the nearest gas station to refill it, only to have it deflate again minutes later. We ended up having the tire fixed at a repair shop, before driving the remaining hour or so back to Edinburgh. We still got to Edinburgh early enough to have one final dinner in the city before headed out for our early morning flight.
Day 1 & 2 - Edinburgh
Day 3 - drive from Edinburgh to Isle of Skye
Day 4, 5 & 6 - Isle of Skye
Day 7 - most of the day on Isle of Skye, drive fro Skye to Ullapool
Day 8 - morning in Ullapool, drive from Ullapool to Drumnadroichit,
Day 9 - drive from Drumnadroichit to Oban. (With detour to Morar)
Day 10 - drive from Oban, through Glen Coe. Overnight in Edinburgh near airport