The Scottish Highlands are home to beautiful vast landscapes and a unique culture and history. With hundreds of hidden villages, historic towns, and a bustling city, there are many great places to base yourself and explore all that the region has to offer.
Staying in one place is a great way to slow down, relax and enjoy quality time with friends and family. Forget the stress of travelling to a new place every night and delve in deeper to the area you’re staying in. If you’re conscious of your carbon footprint, it’s also much more eco-friendly. You might even make friends with the locals and learn quirky facts and history along the way!
On top of cosy accommodation options, there is plenty to see, do, visit, and experience no matter where you decide to stay in the Highlands. From the northern untouched corners, to the dense Caledonian pine forests, you can spend weeks in the Highlands enjoying the spectacular scenery and experiencing the local culture and way of life.
1. Nairn, Scotland’s Highland Playground
Only 30 minutes away from Inverness, the pretty coastal town of Nairn is one of the sunniest and driest places in Scotland, and the perfect base for your Highland adventure. This family friendly seaside resort boasts three beautiful beaches, two championship golf courses, great shopping and some fantastic cafés and restaurants. Reconnect with nature and take a relaxing stroll through the dunes and forest at the RSPB Culbin Sands Nature Reserve nearby. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife – the Moray Firth is one of the best places in Europe to spot dolphins. Enjoy quiet country roads cycling to the 16th century Brodie Castle or visit fairytale Cawdor Castle and its stunning gardens.
Further south, see the mysterious 2,000 year old burial chambers of Clava Cairns, said to be the inspiration for Outlander, or visit the atmospheric Culloden Battlefield and visitor centre, site of the final Jacobite Rising – the last and most harrowing pitched battle to be fought on British soil.
Transport: easily accessible by car, train at Nairn Station, and from Inverness Airport
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2. Kingussie, the traditional capital of Badenoch
Just south of Aviemore, Kingussie is the capital of Badenoch, the Storylands, in the Cairngorms National Park. With ancient fortresses, unique wildlife, scenic nature trails and endless hiking opportunities, this is the perfect base to experience the true Highlands. Discover Badenoch’s immense cultural heritage at the Highland Folk Museum, Britain’s first open air museum, or explore the area’s spectacular scenery on a guided canoe trip along the iconic River Spey with Spirit of the Spey, combining wildlife, history and distilleries along the way.
Enjoy the great outdoors with many cycle trails and walks on offer. Take a walk around the beautiful birchwoods of Glen Tromie and reach the impressive historical landmark of Ruthven Barracks, which was once a stronghold during the Jacobite Rebellion and is said to be haunted by The Wolf of Badenoch. Head to the Highland Wildlife Park where you can see the resident polar bear, wolves, Scottish wildcat and red deer up close, or pay a visit to the Dalwhinnie Distillery nearby, which is the highest distillery in Scotland.
Transport: easily accessible by car, train at Kingussie Station (including the Caledonian Sleeper), or from Inverness Airport.
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3. Dornoch, the Royal Burgh
Only an hour north of Inverness, Dornoch is a lovely historic town and seaside resort, and a true little gem in the North Highlands. From beaches, golf courses and historical sites, to stunning scenery, great walks, and wonderful wildlife, you can do it all in Dornoch! Probably best known for its championship golf course, Royal Dornoch, it is a great place to tee off whilst soaking in the beautiful views that surround the green. Enjoy family time with the kids at Dornoch Beach, complete with shallow waters for paddling, sand dunes and miles of golden sands to wander along, or visit Embo Beach for breathtaking views. There is also a wealth of history linked to the town. Marvel at the beautiful 13th century Dornoch Cathedral or explore one of the Highlands’ only 5-star museums, HistoryLinks. It even has its own Heritage Trail! Further north, don’t forget to pay a visit to fairytale Dunrobin Castle, the most northerly of Scotland’s great houses and the largest in the North Highlands with 189 rooms.
Don’t miss nearby Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve for beautiful natural scenery and wildlife.
Transport: easily accessible by car, train at Dornoch Station, or from Inverness Airport.
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4. Wick, the Viking settlement of the North
Transport yourself back hundreds of years to the time of the Vikings in the far north town of Caithness. Wick boasts fascinating ancient history, which you can uncover at the excellent Wick Heritage Centre, which tells the story of the town. Just 3 miles north, visit Castle Sinclair Girnigoe – a dramatic cliff top ruin shrouded in mystery, that was once even occupied by English troops. Caithness is also home to some of the most spectacular archaeology in the country with more broch sites than anywhere else in Scotland. Get an insight into how Iron Age people lived at the dramatic Nybster Broch or discover Dunbeath Broch, one of the best surviving examples of a broch in the area. If you fancy an exhilarating boat trip, head out on the water with Caithness Seacoast to see the spectacular cliffs and seabirds that make their home here. An interesting location to visit is Sinclair’s Bay, which features two castles perched at both ends. You can also try out windsurfing and sand yachting here too. Hop in the car and just a 10-minute drive south, you’ll reach Whaligoe Steps – a series of 365 steps made of flagstone and descend the cliff face in a series of zigzags.
Transport: easily accessible by car and train at Wick Station on the scenic Far North Line.
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5. Elgin, the capital of Moray Speyside
Dating from the early medieval period, the capital of Moray Speyside, Elgin, has been a bustling town for centuries. Nestled on the picturesque Moray coast and surrounded by gorgeous scenery and picturesque coastline, it is the perfect place to base yourself to explore Scotland’s world-famous whisky region.
Follow the Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere trail to uncover the fascinating stories of the Elgin Cathedral, also called the ‘Lantern of the North’. Or delve into the 222-year-old story of Scottish innovation and luxury and find the finest woollen and cashmere knitwear at Johnstons of Elgin.
Further east, don’t miss the historic Gordon Castle & Walled Gardens which has one of the oldest and largest kitchen gardens in Britain, and makes award-winning gin using botanicals grown there. Enjoy the great outdoors and venture out along the Moray Coast Trail and admire marvellous landscapes, rugged cliffs, caves, sheltered coves, fishing towns and harbours, and sweeping stretches of sandy beaches along the way. And if you’re looking for some adrenaline activities, get mountain biking at Moray Monster Trails for a thrill or two, or try your hand at surfing with New Wave Surf School.
Transport: easily accessible by car, train at Elgin Station, or from Inverness Airport
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6. Thurso, the most northerly town in mainland Scotland
Thurso in beautiful Caithness is a great base for exploring the surrounding countryside. Immerse yourself in wild nature at nearby RSPB Dunnet Head Nature Reserve with its stunning sea cliffs and coastal grassland. You might spot puffins, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes, shags, and cormorants. Thurso is also a major surfing area and even hosts the annual Scottish National Surfing Championships. You can have a go at surfing the waves with North Coast Watersports.
Take a trip to the Castlehill Heritage Centre and walk round the Flagstone Heritage Trail which celebrates the memory of the flagstone industry in this part of Caithness.
Further east, don’t miss the enchanting Castle of Mey, which was previously the Caithness home of the Queen Mother. Perched only 400 yards from the coast, it boasts incredible views across the Pentland Firth and Orkney. If you fancy a tipple or two, or just want to learn more about Scotland’s whisky and gin history, head to Dunnet Bay Distillery and Wolfburn Distillery.
Transport: easily accessible by car and train at Thurso Station on the scenic Far North Line.
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7. Fort William, the Outdoor Capital of the UK
If you’re looking for adventure and a holiday full of exciting activities, why not base yourself in Lochaber, the Outdoor Capital of the UK? Fort William is a bustling hub for getting outdoors and enjoying adrenaline-fuelled activities; from mountain biking at Nevis Range Mountain Experience, conquering the mountains of Glencoe, to open canoeing on Loch Lochy or spotting unique wildlife on a Wild West Wildlife Safari. Host of popular annual event, UCI Mountain Bike World Cup, Fort William offers the perfect terrain for tearing up the tracks with an exhilarating mountain biking experience. There are also many cycle paths and routes which you can explore whilst taking in the magnificent scenery that surrounds you. Or perhaps you’d like to explore the area by boat – Crannog Cruises offers a great water-based experience that lets you see all the sights and learn more about the area, history and geology all from their historic boats.
For something a little more relaxed, head to the Caledonian Canal for a scenic wander and make sure you visit Neptune’s Staircase – an impressive feat of engineering.
Transport: easily accessible by car or train at Fort William Station (including the Caledonian Sleeper).
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8. Lairg, the crossroads to the north
Known as the crossroads to the north, Lairg is a tranquil little village located in the middle of the North Highlands, just off the North Coast 500 route.
There’s plenty to see and do in Lairg! Marvel at the thundering Falls of Shin and witness salmons leaping upstream – one of the wonders of nature. With beautiful forest trails, you can go mountain biking, walking, and foraging with lovely views along the rocky banks of the Shin.
Get back in touch with the Scottish landscapes at Ferrycroft Visitor Centre with displays, kids activities and more. There are also two walks that start from the centre; Ord Hill Archaeological Trail and Ferrywood, both featuring immense scenery and views to enjoy.
Enjoy the great outdoors on a canoe trip to remember with Go Wild Highland Canoe or visit Loch Shin for a splendid lochside stroll or a bit of fishing. If you look out onto the loch, you might even spot ‘Broon’s Hoose’, a peculiar little house on a tiny island.
Transport: easily accessible by car, train at Lairg Station, or from Inverness Airport
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9. Strontian, a hidden gem on Loch Sunart
Head on a short ferry crossing near Fort William to Corran and you’ll reach the West Highland Peninsulas, a true hidden gem. Overlooking Loch Sunart, the village of Strontian is a magical place to be. Reconnect with nature and take a stroll through beautiful ancient oak woodlands to the Garbh Eilean wildlife hide, where you might see otters, seals, and herons. Climb the scenic hill of Beinn Resipole for stunning views, or go a guided canoe trip at sunset along the loch with Otter Adventures. Further away, you could head to the Ardnamurchan Lighthouse – the most westerly point on the British mainland and the only lighthouse in the world to be designed in an Egyptian style. You might even spot some dolphins or basking sharks. Don’t miss the magnificent sands of Sanna Bay while you’re there and visit the Ardnamurchan Distillery for a tour and tipple or two. If you prefer relaxing, visit Kingairloch Beach and soak in the picturesque views towards Loch Linnhe.
Transport: best accessed by car.
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10. Ullapool, the picturesque fishing town of the West Coast
Nestled on the shores of Lochbroom, Ullapool is the perfect base for exploring the north west Highlands. Take a stroll on Shore Street with its pretty white-washed cottages overlooking the sea. Visit the excellent Ullapool Museum & Visitor Centre and find some uniquely independent shops, from art and crafts to bookshops and the famous Highland Stoneware Pottery. Head further north to the spectacular North West Highlands Geopark, or follow the stunning trails at the Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve and see rocks that are over 3,000 million years old.
Get your adrenaline pumping on a guided rock climbing experience on the towering mountains, or try out sea kayaking, exploring sea caves and sandy beaches with Kayak Summer Isles. For a chance to spot whales, dolphins and seals, explore the Hebridean Whale Trail on a boat trip to the beautiful Summer Isles. Further south, soak up the tranquillity of the Leckmelm Shrubbery and Arboretum or marvel at the dizzying depths of Corrieshalloch Gorge with its spectacular waterfalls. Don’t miss a trip to the spectacular Inverewe Garden and Estate at Poolewe, one of Scotland’s most beautiful gardens.
Transport: easily accessible by car, bus, or ferry from the Outer Hebrides.
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11. Inverness, the capital of the Highlands
Last, but not least, Inverness is a jewel of a city in a beautiful Scottish mountain and riverside setting.
A compact, cosmopolitan city with a lot of heart and all the wonders of the Highlands on its doorstep, it’s the perfect place to base yourself. It will give you the best of both worlds, combining the city’s bright lights and vibes with the stunning natural landscapes of Loch Ness.
Take a wander through the city centre, marvel at Inverness Castle and Inverness Cathedral – dedicated to St Andrew, and discover great museums, galleries, and shopping. For peace and relaxation, stroll along the riverside paths around the Ness Islands or visit the Inverness Botanic Gardens.
How about some monster hunting? Take a trip from Inverness to Loch Ness for your chance to spot the elusive Nessie, or explore one of the country’s most iconic ruins, Urquhart Castle.
Enjoy the great outdoors and explore the mountains and glens of this ancient landscape, from the stunning Glen Affric National Nature Reserve to the Loch Ness 360 Trail, looping the entire circumference of Loch Ness. You could also go canoeing along the beautiful Caledonian Canal following the Great Glen Canoe Trail or experience mountain biking on the Kelpies Trails at nearby Abriachan Forest.
Transport: easily accessible by car, train at Inverness Station (including the Caledonian Sleeper), or from Inverness Airport.
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That was just a taste of what’s on offer. With such vast landscapes, there are plenty more amazing towns and villages to base yourself for your perfect Scottish Highlands holiday. From spending quality time with family and getting to grips with the local culture and heritage, to being part of the community and enjoying a relaxing getaway in Scotland, basing yourself in a Highland town is a great option.
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