The 5 most beautiful road trips in Scotland
Roads in Scotland are generally good, and driving is a great way to connect the country’s finest sights. Having a car also frees you up to head away from the main tourist destinations, whether for a stroll along a remote coastal trail or a pit-stop for fresh farm produce.
These road trip itineraries take in the epic grandeur of Skye, culture-packed Edinburgh and the whisky distilleries of Speyside. You’ll pass lush farmland, ruined castles and eerie lochs: driving gives you the opportunity to watch Scotland’s stories unfold in front of you.
Note that while some routes follow major "M" or "A" roads, others rely on smaller roads for long stretches. These are often tight and hedge-lined, with few places to overtake. In summer, meanwhile, on popular routes such as the North Coast 500, you may find that some places to stay will only accept two- (or more) night bookings. All the more reason to plan ahead, and take your time when you get here – our route durations assume some diversion to explore and regular stopovers, so the distances provided are not direct between the start and end points.
North Coast 500
Start – Inverness Castle; end – Inverness Castle; distance – 516 miles/830km; allow seven days
Scotland’s wild northern coastline is the star of the country’s most famous driving route. The North Coast 500 begins and ends in Inverness, the likeable capital of the Highlands, before making a giant loop around the region. If you follow it anti-clockwise (which means saving more of the best scenery till last), you’ll head past the moors and sandy beaches of the east coast before hitting John O’Groats and nearby Dunnet Head – Britain’s northernmost point. The north coast has a windswept beauty that gets increasingly rugged as you continue west past bogs, cliffs and crofting villages, while the views as you head down the loch-strewn west coast are perhaps Britain’s finest, offering a parade of mountains and islands.
The route has proved hugely popular, and it’s worth booking accommodations well ahead of time. Taking the route at a more leisurely pace will give you the chance to linger over fine local food like venison, smoked fish and craft beer, while activities like sea kayaking the west coast or scrambling up the lonely peaks of Assynt are a great way to throw yourself into Northern Scotland’s epic landscapes
An Isle of Skye driving loop
Start – Fort William; end – Fort William; distance – 310 miles/498km; allow four days
As long as you’re not after guaranteed sunshine, Skye has it all: great peaks, towering sea stacks, Gaelic culture and a vibrant food scene. This round-trip route from Fort William can mean taking the bridge to the island one way (passing grand Eilean Donan castle en route) and getting the ferry via Mallaig on the other.
Once you’re on the island, a classic counter-clockwise loop would start with a visit to Skye’s largest town, Portree, with its pretty harbor, before roaming the volcanic cliffs of the Trotternish Peninsula. Next, the Duirinish Peninsula offers wild hiking country and some excellent restaurants, while the jagged ridges of the Cuillin Hills are a destination in themselves for serious hikers. In between there are castles, Caribbean-looking beaches and some of Britain’s best wild swimming spots, plus side-trip ferries to the surrounding Small Isles, which offer great bird-watching.
North East 250
Start – Spittal of Glenshee; end – Spittal of Glenshee; distance – 257 miles/414km; allow four days
Northeast Scotland is famous for its whisky distilleries, Braemar (the home of the Highland Games) and Balmoral Castle (home of the Royal Family). The North East 250, a route coined after the success of the North Coast 500, takes in these big-ticket attractions, but also shines a welcome light on the rest of the region that features photogenic glens, rich farmland, and an underrated stretch of coastline.
Its southernmost point, the village of Spittal of Glenshee (a base for skiing in winter) is a good starting point, and accessible from Edinburgh and Dundee. Taking the route clockwise, you’ll head through the Cairngorms National Park, the biggest in Britain, which contains some of the UK’s highest peaks and some phenomenal hiking opportunities. The North East 250 then cuts through Speyside, before the Moray Firth coastline and the oil-rich city of Aberdeen. It’s a route of castles, beaches, appealing villages and historic estates, plus delicacies including Cullen skink (a thick, warming fish soup) and sweet, nutty whiskies. Pick and choose your distillery tour – Balvenie is a good option, as its small-group tours take in one of Scotland’s only remaining malting floors – if you try to hit them all, you’ll be here for months…
Borders historic route
Start – Carlisle; end – Edinburgh; distance – 97 miles/156km; allow one day
There are more complex road trips in Scotland – this undemanding itinerary simply follows the A7 road north from the English border past Hawick and Galashiels to Edinburgh – but there’s plenty to engage body and spirit on the way. This rolling landscape of villages and farmlands was once scarred by border raids, and finishes at Edinburgh’s hulking castle. The area’s industrial history is showcased by centers celebrating tweed, tartan and glasswork, as well as a mining museum. It’s a varied place: anglers can linger to search for salmon by the Tweed’s wooded banks, while mountain bikers have great options at Glentress and Innerleithen. Ruined abbeys and author Walter Scott’s fabulous country house, Abbotsford, are more cerebral highlights, although the undulating countryside and moor of this once debated border land is arguably the biggest hook of all.
Clyde Sea Lochs and the Argyll Coast
Start – Glasgow; end – Fort William; distance – 240 miles/386km; allow three days
Visitors to Scotland are often surprised how close the country’s biggest city is to the Highlands. Glasgow’s high culture and lively pubs are worth an overnight on any trip to the region, but don’t stay up too late – you'll want to be clear of the suburbs to see the hills turn to mountains and lochs eat into an increasingly rugged coastline. This route (combining two official tourist trails) winds north and west, taking in the popular walking country of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, plus majestic views, excellent seafood, ancient standing stones, historic towns and opportunities to go kayaking and whale watching. But the biggest hitters come at the end: Glen Coe has aching natural beauty and a grim tale of Highland betrayal, while Fort William is the striking point for Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest peak.
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