Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness – in which city should you start your Scotland holidays? Inverness might be the underdog in this lot, but don’t rule it out just because it is not as grand as Edinburgh or as lively as Glasgow. Inverness is the Capital of the Highlands and these suggestions for day trips from Inverness should convince you to consider making it your home base.
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Inverness – the Capital of the Highlands – is booming. It is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe and has a prospering economy. Slowly but surely, the city is competing with Edinburgh and Glasgow as a popular starting point for many Scotland adventures.
And I am not surprised! Inverness is a great home base for anyone looking to explore the Highlands and minimise time spent on the big roads of central Scotland. The Isle of Skye, the tall mountains of the north-west coast and the productive stills of the Speyside whisky region are just three world-famous places in Scotland that are within easy reach from Inverness.
This post contains 10 of my favourite day trips from Inverness as well as some additional suggestions for guided tours from Inverness – some places are simply better visited with your feet up and eyes out on the scenery. Read on if you are interested in:
- Self-drive day trips from Inverness,
- Day trips with public transport, and
- Guided tours leaving from Inverness.
Day Trip 1: The Essential Loch Ness Day Trip
Inverness and Loch Ness are almost inseparable and if you only have time for one day trip from Inverness, then fill it with the highlights along Loch Ness.
Things to do on Loch Ness
First, make your way to Drumnadrochit to visit Urquhart Castle, a ruined castle on the banks of the loch. The castle was built during the 13th century, played a key role in many battles and was raided many times. It was destroyed in the 17th century to keep the Jacobites from using it and never restored. In Drumnadrochit, you can also visit Nessieland and the Loch Ness Centre to learn more about the famous creature in the loch.
Next up is a cruise on the loch. Loch Ness by Jacobite runs a variety of cruises on Loch Ness that last between one and four hours. Most leave from Clansman Harbour, a few miles north of Drumnadrochit. For a one-hour cruise, you can choose between an RIB speedboat and a bigger, more comfortable cruise ship. If you’d like to combine the cruise and castle experience, I recommend the 3-hour tour which includes one hour to explore the castle ruins.
As you make your way further south, stop in Invermoriston for a little wander along the River Moriston. Its name means ‘river of waterfalls’ and it tumbles down to the loch in a series of small waterfalls – the Invermoriston Falls. The circular walk from the village car park takes about 30 minutes.
Finally, head to Fort Augustus – the small town at the southernmost tip of Inverness. The views of the loch as it expands north for over 36 km (23 miles) are impressive! Fort Augustus would also make for a great home base if you wanted to spend a few more days at Loch Ness – check out what else to do here!
How to tour Loch Ness
The best way to visit Loch Ness is in a hire car. You can get a bus to Drumnadrochit or the Clansman Hotel for Urquhart Castle and a Loch Ness cruise, but with a car, you have more flexibility to also visit Invermoriston Falls and Furt Augustus.
Day Trip 2: Active Loch Ness: Paddling and Canoeing
Loch Ness is also a fantastic destination for paddling sports – if you dare to cruise the loch in such a small boat!
Explore Highland offers family-friendly 4-hour paddling and canoeing trips on Loch Ness from its location on the Caledonian Canal, Inverness. In Your Element offers shorter excursions from its location in Fort Augustus – they do 1-hour taster sessions as well as 2.5-hour tours. Both also offer guiding and outfitting for multi-day adventures along the Great Glen Canoe Trail which spans the entire length of the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness.
Day Trip 3: Culloden Battlefield and Clava Cairns
Culloden Battlefield and Clava Cairns barely need an introduction. Anyone with an interest in Scottish history and/or Outlander has heard of these two sites just outside Inverness before – and it’s almost impossible that you are neither!
The battlefield in Culloden is where the Jacobite uprising came to a tragic end in 1745. Many people lost their lives here. You can visit the battlefield and the visitor centre to pay tribute, or join a guided walk around the battlefield to learn even more. I recommend having at least 3 hours to spend here.
Clava Cairns is a much older historic site near Culloden. The cairns are a series of round chambered tombs and standing stone circles dating back to at least 2,000 BC. Outlander fans will find delight in the tallest standing stone – but make sure you respect the site and resist from touching the stones.
There is a regular bus service from Inverness to Culloden Battlefield and Clava Cairns is only half an hour walk from there. Of course, you can also drive.
Day Trip 4: Jacobite Steam Train
The Jacobite Steam Train – also famous as the Hogwarts Express – is one of Scotland’s most popular train journeys and many people want to do it as a day trip from Inverness. Only, it’s not that easy… Public transport links to and from Fort William, which is where the train leaves from, do not necessarily match up with the train’s departure times.
The best way to experience the Jacobite Steam Train from Inverness is to hire a car and make your way to Fort William early in the morning – it’s about a 2-hour drive. The morning service departs at 10.15 am and returns to Fort William at 4 pm. The afternoon service departs at 2.30 pm but only returns to Fort William at 8.30 pm, which is a little late for the drive back to Inverness. That’s why I advise you to take the morning service.
Tickets for the Jacobite Steam Train can sell out quickly and months in advance. They usually go on sale sometime in autumn for the following summer season. The train only runs from mid-April to the end of October. Keep up to date here.
Day Trip 5: Moray Firth to Spey Bay
The Moray coast is a popular coastal getaway from Inverness and spans some colourful seaside towns, beautiful coastal scenery, unexpected wildlife sightings and of course some castles.
I recommend leaving the main road (A96) frequently to explore closer to the coast and stop in Nairn, Findhorn and Lossiemouth. Brodie Castle near Forres is also worth a stop, especially for its Playful Gardens! The tour operator North 58 offers wildlife tours by boat out of Findhorn and Lossiemouth. You would not believe it, but this area is famous for its local colonies of bottlenose dolphins!
If boat tours are not your jam, make your way to the Scottish Dolphin Centre in Spey Bay. The centre offers educational, but land-based wildlife walks and tours. If you are lucky you might spot some dolphins from the shoreline!
This day trip is imagined with a hire car in mind, but you can also get public transport to Findhorn or Lossiemouth. Including all the stops mentioned here, the route is about 115 miles long and takes 3 hours+ driving time.
Day Trip 6: Cullen
Cullen is a small coastal town about 60 miles east of Inverness – just a little further than Spey Bay which is included in Day Trip 5! And it is one of my favourite scenic towns in Scotland! Cullen is most famous for one thing: Cullen Skink, a creamy white fish soup that originates from this area. However, there is also plenty of other reasons to visit Cullen that make it worth a day trip from Inverness.
Things to do in Cullen
One of the most unique experiences in Cullen is to walk on the Old Railway Line and across the eight-arch viaduct above the village. The views are fantastic and you might even spot some dolphins in the bay below.
You can walk wack to Cullen or continue walking towards Portknockie and Bow Fiddle Rock. The circular path first leads along the Old Railway Line out of Cullen, through the town of Portknockie, along the coast past Bow Fiddle Rock and spectacular cliffs, and finally back along the beach to Cullen. It takes about 2 hours or more if you stop for lunch or a picnic along the way. Find a trail description here.
You could also walk along the coast in the other direction until you reach Findlater Castle high on the clifftop. This walk takes about 3-5 hours leaving from and getting back to Cullen. Find a route description here.
If you like seafood, of course, you can’t leave Cullen without trying Cullen Skink. Rockpool Cafe is a popular option in the middle of town. If you’re a vegan like me, rest assured as they also have great vegan options!
Day Trip 7: The Black Isle
The Black Isle is actually a peninsula just north of Inverness. It Is quite densely populated and a rich farming region, but there is also wonderful nature to explore. It is also one of Scotland’s best places to spot dolphins in the Moray Firth.
Things to do in the Black Isle
Many people visit the Black Isle for dolphin spotting. Companies like Ecoventures, which operates out of Cromarty Bay, offer wildlife cruises by boat, but if you’re lucky you might even spot the local dolphins from Chanonry Point near Fortrose.
If you are into craft beer, check out the Black Isle Brewery which offers daily tours of the brewery.
Finally, there are several RSPB nature reserves on the Black Isle, which are worth a visit, such as the Fairy Glen (don’t mistake this for the Fairy Glen on Skye) and Udale Bay. Both are prime locations for bird watching.
Day Trip 8: Dunrobin Castle & Golspie
Castle-lovers will not get around this day trip from Inverness. While you can easily visit the new viewing platform at Inverness Castle or take a trip out to Fort George, Dunrobin Castle near Golspie is the real deal.
It is one of the largest castles in Scotland – it has 189 rooms – and looks like straight out of a fairytale. It also overlooks the sea and has a delightful garden to explore. What more could you ask for?
You can reach Golspie by train from Inverness (2h10m journey one way) and walk from there to the castle, but having a hire car is definitely the easier option.
It takes just over an hour to drive to Dunrobin Castle from Inverness and you could spend half a day exploring the castle and gardens. A nearby walk to the Big Burn Falls is a hidden gem and local favourite and takes about 1.5 hours.
Day Trip 9: Hiking in Glen Affric
As far as beautiful glens go, Scotland has certainly no shortage of them. But one of the most beautiful glens in Scotland is said to be Glen Affric – and lucky for you, it’s an easy day trip from Inverness!
For simple day hikes, you can either drive to Dog Falls car park or as far as Loch Affric car park. Dog Falls and Coire Loch is an excellent forest walk that takes in Caledonian pine forests, a powerful waterfall and stunning views – it takes 1.5 to 2.5 hours; description here.
There are two walks from the Loch Affric car park. River Affric and Am Meallan is a pleasant but short walk to some waterfalls and takes in the gorgeous surroundings – it takes only 45 minutes; description here. The Loch Affric Circuit, on the other hand, is a bit more challenging – it’s 11 miles long and takes 4.5 to 6.5 hours – but it is also more rewarding and offers a much more diverse experience along the trail; description here.
A hire car is essential for any of these hikes. The best way to get here is to drive south along Loch Ness and turn west in Drumnadrochit.
Day Trip 10: Applecross and Torridon Road Trip
As far as road trips in Scotland are concerned, it is hard to beat the mountain roads of the north-west. The North Coast 500 is not surprisingly one of Scotland’s most popular scenic drives and many people spend at least a week on it. Fortunately, you can reach one of the most impressive places of the NC500 in a day from Inverness – the road to Applecross.
Leaving Inverness via the Kessock Bridge, you follow the A9, then the A835, A832 and A890 towards Lochcarron. Shortly after passing this picturesque seaside village, the real adventure begins. A big sign warns inexperienced drivers and campervans to choose another road, but with a regular car and strong nerves, I think you should go ahead. The Bealach na Bà road to Applecross rises to 626 metres (2,054 ft) above sea level and can be as steep as 20%. The views from the top are so worth the effort though!
Continue along the coastal road until you reach the scenic village of Shieldaig and make your way to Torridon to marvel at the stunning mountains! In Torridon, there is a lovely cafe at the general store where you can refuel and take in the scenery.
From Torridon, it is a 1.5-hour drive back to Inverness via Kinlochewe and Achnasheen.
The drive from Inverness to Applecross to Torridon via the coastal road and back to Inverness is over 17 miles and takes at least 4.5 hours driving time plus breaks.
The best guided day tours from Inverness
Now, I’m sure you expected to hear about day trips to Skye, the Speyside or the Cairngorms National Park earlier – but to be perfectly honest, there are some places where a guided tour simply makes more sense.
Day Trip 11: Isle of Skye
Theoretically, the Isle of Skye is within reach on a day trip from Inverness – but it is A LOT of driving. If I had to choose, I would prefer putting my feet up and enjoying the scenery instead of focussing on the road and navigating small country roads.
Rabbie’s offers a full-day tour from Inverness to Skye that also includes a stop at Eilean Donan Castle. The benefit of going with an experienced tour company is that they know how to avoid the crowds. Rabbie’s drivers usually adapt their route to the interests of the people in the group and put together a mix of well-known highlights and hidden gems.
Day Trip 12: Speyside Whisky Tour
Visiting the Speyside with a guided tour is a no-brainer. The area is after all most famous for its whisky and what’s the fun in visiting whisky distilleries if you can’t enjoy a wee dram (= little drink) yourself?
There are many different tours leading to the Speyside, but I like this one by Rabbie’s which includes two distilleries.
Day Trip 13: Cairngorms National Park
If you’d like to combine a tour at a distillery with a walk in one of Scotland’s national parks, this tour combining the Speyside and the Cairngorms might be the right choice. It includes a little walk in the national park as well as a visit of the world-famous Glenfiddich distillery.
Where to Stay in Inverness
There really is no shortage of accommodation in Inverness – and something for every budget.
I recently stayed at the Inverness Youth Hostel, which is a brilliant option for budget-wary travellers. It lies about 15 minutes walk from the city centre in a beautiful and quiet area. It has private en-suite rooms, great common areas and it even offers catered breakfast. It is run by Hostelling Scotland and I’ve always enjoyed staying at their hostels.
Many of my clients (did you know I can plan your Scotland holiday?) have told me about Heathmount Hotel, a lovely 3-star with a great restaurant. The hotel is just a 10-minutes walk from the city centre and has spacious comfortable rooms.
Finally, if you are staying for a few nights and want to be more self-sufficient, look into AirBnB – there are lots of private rooms and entire apartments available all over the city.
As you can see, there is really no shortage of things to do near Inverness. Basing yourself in the Highland capital gives you the opportunity to visit some of Scotland’s most beautiful and iconic landscapes and regions in a day – something you could never manage from Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Next time you visit Scotland, consider spending a few days in Inverness and exploring northern Scotland from here!
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