Discover the very best things to do in Fort William and beyond with this 3-day itinerary.
Formed by volcanoes and sculpted by glaciers, the Highlands are quintessential Scotland. Covering an area close to 10,000 square miles, featuring soaring mountains, vast forests and dramatic glens, and pepper-potted with crystal-clear lochs, this is home to some of the world’s most spectacular scenery.
Sitting in the shadow of Ben Nevis, Fort William is the perfect base from which to explore the West Highlands, including historic Glen Coe. Furthermore, thanks to its good transport links, Fort Bill (as it is affectionately called) is a great base if you are touring Scotland without a car.
Make the most of your time in this beautiful corner of Scotland with these fabulous things to do in Fort William and beyond. To make it easy for you, I’ve woven these into my tried and tested 3-day itinerary, using public transport. At the end of the article, you’ll find practical tips for planning your trip to Fort William, along with recommendations for places to stay and eat.
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Best Things to Do in Fort William & Beyond
Fort William 3-Day Itinerary
Day 1 (Morning): Walk in Glen Nevis
Start your first day in Fort William with a sensational walk. The 6-mile Cow Hill circular path should take you 2 – 3 hours to complete and promises unforgettable views of Fort William, Loch Linnhe, Loch Eil, the Ben Nevis range and Glen Nevis.
Although there are some steep ascents and descents this is an easy-moderate walk. Well-signposted paths are good throughout, although there are a few sections that are stony. I wore a pair of walking shoes but you could get away with doing the walk in a decent pair of trainers. A walking pole would be useful for the descents but is not strictly necessary.
This walk loops all the way around Cow Hill, where local people used to graze their cattle, and is the hill that blocks your view of Ben Nevis from Fort William. To reach the start of the walk, make your way to Fort William’s Leisure Centre on the road heading east out of town. The path begins at the foot of the hillside behind the leisure centre. Alternatively, if you have a car, you can start the walk at the Braveheart car park in Glen Nevis.
Climb through deciduous woodland of mainly birch trees before reaching open heathland with fine views of Fort William and Loch Linnhe. I did this walk in early June when the landscape was ablaze with gorse, rhododendrons, foxgloves and bluebells.
It’s not long before the path curves into the magnificent Glen Nevis and into a forest plantation of larch and spruce. There are a few benches from which to savour the views.
A fabulous walk if the weather is kind to you.
Day 1 (Afternoon): West Highland Museum, Fort William
Without a doubt, the West Highland Museum is one of the best things to do in Fort William when it’s raining. But it is so much more than a wet weather activity and I argue that it is a must-see attraction if you are in this area.
The eclectic collection of this delightfully old-fashioned museum – I loved that the information cards looked like they had been typewritten – traces the history of the West Highlands.
Arranged over eight rooms, the collection begins with a section dedicated to the World War II Commandos who received their famously tough training in nearby Lochaber. More about them later.
Other highlights include a birching table, treasures from the Spanish Armada, a collection of ancient charms, and gifts given by Queen Victoria to her loyal servant John Brown. There’s even a taxidermy room (how very Victorian!).
But the main draw of the West Highland Museum is its collection relating to the Jacobite rebellion and Bonnie Prince Charlie, familiar to anyone who’s seen a few episodes of Outlander. There are pieces of the Bonnie Prince’s kilt, quasi-religious relics that include a single hair, secret portraits, snuff boxes with his image and his death mask.
Day 2: The Jacobite steam train to Mallaig
Railway journeys aren’t much more iconic than the one travelled by The Jacobite steam train, also known as The Harry Potter Train.
This 41-mile section of the West Highland Line between Fort William and Mallaig is widely considered to be one of the great railway journeys of the world. It takes in lochs, mountains and the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, and its popularity has soared due to its appearance in the Harry Potter movies.
Leaving Fort William, The Jacobite crosses the Caledonian Canal past Neptune’s Staircase and continues its journey along the shores of Loch Eil. Forested valleys alight with purple rhododendrons herald the train’s approach to the superstar of the Fort William to Mallaig route: The Glenfinnan Viaduct. The view of The Jacobite Train puffing across the viaduct’s graceful horseshoe-shaped curve against the majestic Scottish Highlands backdrop is unforgettable.
The steam train then follows Loch Eilt, peppered with small wooded islands that wouldn’t look out of place in Japanese painting.
Polnish Chapel, built to serve the now deserted townships of Ardnish and Polnish, is the next landmark (it was featured in the classic Scottish film Local Hero).
Passing Loch nan Uamh, a lovely sea loch, The Jacobite makes a brief stop at Arisaig, Britain’s most westerly railway station before chugging past a lovely sea loch. In the distance, you should be able to spot the islands of Rum, Eigg and Muck and the white sand beaches of Skye. Finally, the seagulls squawk their welcome as you reach Mallaig.
In Mallaig, you’ll have plenty to grab something to eat and drink, take a few photographs or even join a one-hour wildlife harbour cruise.
Then you get to do it all over again.
Day 3: Glen Coe
The final day of your Fort William itinerary is spent taking a day trip to Glen Coe.
This spectacularly scenic glen is hugely popular with hikers, hillwalkers and mountaineers, and its moody beauty has secured its place as a location shoot for films including Skyfall and the Harry Potter franchise. Visiting it is one of the very best things to do in Fort William.
Glen Coe was also the scene of one of the bloodiest reprisals of the Jacobite uprising. In the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, 38 members of Clan MacDonald were slaughtered by government forces for the delay of the chief’s delay in signing an oath of allegiance to the new monarchs. Worse still, the architect of the massacre was Campbell of Glenlyon, who had been the recipient of the MacDonald’s hospitality just 12 days earlier.
Learn more about the Massacre of Glen Coe at the Glencoe Visitor Centre. Whilst you are there, take a look at the Pioneer of the Peaks exhibition, a nod to the mountaineers who have tackled Glen Coe’s mountains.
When you’re finished at the visitor centre, it’s time to hit one of the many walking trails that lace through Glen Coe. There are waymarked trails starting at the Glencoe Visitor Centre. Alternatively, take the easy River Coe walk that starts in Glencoe village and ends at Loch Leven next to Invercoe campsite.
There’s not much to detain you in Glencoe village. However, the Glencoe Folk Museum is worth a visit if you have an hour to spare (or if it’s chucking it down with rain).
If You Have More Than 3 Days in Fort William …
There is no shortage of things to do in Fort William and beyond if you have more time there. Here are a few suggestions.
Visit the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge
I stayed overnight in Spean Bridge, ten miles northeast of Fort William, en route to Inverness. However, it is easy to visit Spean Bridge as a day trip from Fort William.
The main attraction in Spean Bridge is the Commando Memorial, a bronze sculpture of a group of soldiers commemorating those who trained at nearby Achnacarry.
Visit the Commando Memorial by taking a circular walk along a waymarked trail.
This starts near the Aonach Mòr Hotel in Spean Bridge and follows the River Spean to the remains of a former railway viaduct and the ruins of General Wade’s High Bridge. Built in 1736 over Spean Gorge, this was the site of the first skirmish of the 1745 Jacobite uprising, in which 11 loyalists saw off two companies of soldiers.
The path then follows a short section of Wade’s military road before cutting across moorland to the Commando Memorial.
Although there is a train station at Spean Bridge, there are only three services per day. Your best bet is to catch one of the many buses that stop in Spean Bridge (Shiels Buses or CityLink).
Walk along Steall Falls
If I had to pick another Glen Nevis walk, I’d plump for the Steall Falls hike.
Considered to be one of the finest short walks in Scotland, this 4.5km walk should take you around 90 minutes to complete.
The starting point of the walk is the Glen Nevis Car Park, seven miles southeast of Fort William. To get here by bus, take the seasonal N42 Shiels Buses’ service.
Stroll along the Caledonian Canal to Neptune’s Staircase
The Caledonian Canal connects Scotland’s east coast at Inverness to Coppach near Fort William on its west coast. Built by the great Scottish engineer Thomas Telford in the early 19th Century and around 60 miles in length, the Caledonian Canal links lochs with stretches of hand-dug canals.
Neptune’s Staircase, a dramatic flight of eight locks on the Caledonian Canal, is the longest staircase flight lock in Scotland. If you’re lucky, you’ll see boats move from one end of Neptune’s Staircase to the other (this takes approximately 90 minutes).
Given more time, I would have completed the easy 3-mile walk that follows the canal from Fort William to Neptune’s Staircase at Banavie. This walk should take around one hour.
Visit Inverlochy Castle
A little further northeast of Neptune’s Staircase are the ruins of Inverlochy Castle.
Built in the 13th Century by the Comyn family, Inverlochy Castle was abandoned when their sworn enemy, Robert the Bruce, ascended the Scottish throne. The castle was later reoccupied and was the scene of two bloody battles in 1431 and 1500. It was finally abandoned in 1654, replaced by Fort William.
Inverlochy Castle is an extension of the Neptune’s Staircase walk from Fort William. It is also served by local and CityLink buses. If you are travelling by bus, it’s just off the main A82.
Down a dram at Ben Nevis Distillery
Let’s face it; no trip to Scotland is complete without visiting a whisky distillery (I highly recommend the Oban Distillery).
The good news is that Fort William has its own distillery, Ben Nevis Distillery, just under two miles northeast of Inverlochy Castle. The bad news is that due to social distancing restrictions, in 2021 many of Scotland’s distilleries, including this one, are closed for visits.
In better times, the Ben Nevis Distillery offers two tours from which to choose.
Climb Ben Nevis
For many people, climbing Ben Nevis will be the number one reason for visiting Fort William.
It takes between seven and nine hours, up and down, to climb Britain’s highest peak. Whilst you don’t need specialist equipment to scale Ben Nevis’s popular north face, it is a tough climb. In the latter section, steps give way to slippery shale and rocks, and visibility is frequently poor.
Not for me. Give me a whisky distillery any time.
Take a gondola ride up the Nevis range
Are you looking for spectacular views and clear mountain air but are not able or willing to climb Ben Nevis? Then why not take a gondola ride up Aonach Mòr, Scotland’s 8th highest mountain.
It takes the gondola 15 minutes to ascend from the base station at 100m to the top gondola station at 650m. From the top station, there’s a choice of two easy walks or you can simply enjoy the view.
To reach the gondola station by bus, take the N41 Shiels Buses’ service (in the direction of Roybridge). The journey should take around 25 minutes from Fort William.
In 2021, it cost £12 for a return ticket on the Nevis Range Mountain Gondola.
Plan Your Trip to Fort William
When is the best time to visit Fort William?
Fort William is a year-round destination.
To say that Scottish weather is unpredictable is putting it mildly, but visit between May and October for the best chance of dry(ish) days. In midsummer, there’s also the advantage of long days.
Take heed of an old Scandinavian saying “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” and come prepared. Even if the forecast predicts sunny days ahead, pack a waterproof, layers and a decent pair of waterproof shoes. Scotland is not known for heat waves.
When I visited in June, the weather was mixed but decent and the countryside was lush and in full bloom. If you want to see wildflowers at their best, May – June is the best time to visit Fort William.
Come winter, we’re talking snow season and the Nevis range is a hugely popular destination for both skiers and snowboarders. However, unless you are an experienced hillwalker, you should avoid hillwalking in winter, especially if you have your sights set on climbing Ben Nevis.
How to get to Fort William
One of my main reasons for choosing Fort William as a base to explore the West Highlands of Scotland is that it has excellent bus and train links. Here’s all you need to know about getting to Fort William (I’ve also included information for car drivers).
Getting to Fort William by train
If you are arriving in Fort William by train you’re in luck. The town is one of the stops on the West Highland Railway from Glasgow.
Thought to be one of the most scenic routes in the world, the train travels along the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond and through the bleak wilderness of Rannoch Moor. It’s quite a ride.
The line splits at Crianlarich, with one branch going to the lovely town of Oban (one of my favourite Scottish towns) whilst the second veers northwest to Fort William.
The train journey from Glasgow to Fort William takes around 3 hours 45 minutes. If you book in advance, a one-way ticket will cost from £33 (2021 price). The cost will increase if booked closer to the date of travel.
On this trip to Scotland, I took the Caledonian Sleeper all the way from London Euston to Fort William. There’s something special about leaving London by night and waking up in the Scottish Highlands.
The train station at Fort William is just north of the town centre, adjacent to the main A82 road.
Getting to Fort William by bus
If you are setting out from destinations that aren’t on the West Highland Line, notably Inverness and Glen Coe, you will need to catch a bus.
CityLink buses serve Fort William’s bus station, which is adjacent to the train station and next to an enormous Morrison’s supermarket.
Services between Glasgow and Fort William operate about eight times a day and the journey time is a little over three hours. Tickets cost from £20.
Glasgow-bound buses also serve Glen Coe.
Buses run from Inverness around seven times a day. The journey time is a touch over two hours. Reckon on paying around £12 for a one-way ticket.
Getting to Fort William by car
If you are touring Scotland by car, the main road artery serving Fort William is the A82.
The A82 takes you all the way from Glasgow, passing Loch Lomond and Glen Coe en route. Without stops, the journey should take you about three hours depending on traffic.
If you are travelling from Edinburgh to Fort William you have a couple of options. You can travel west to Glasgow and then follow the A82 to Fort William.
Alternatively, take the A84 via Stirling through the Cairngorms National Park, an equally scenic route. And as you will eventually hit the A82 you don’t miss out driving through Glen Coe mountain pass.
From Inverness, taking the A82 to Fort William should have you there within a few hours.
Visiting Fort William on a day tour
If you want to see the best of the area around Fort William but don’t have enough time for an overnight stay, why not join an organised day tour (or multiday tour)?
Here are a few options that I have found through GetYourGuide, which offers free cancellation up to 24 hours before your tour date.
Alternatively, take a look at one of the tours offered by Scottish operator Rabbie’s. I have done a few of their day tours, which were excellent. Group sizes are small and the knowledge and humour of their drivers/guides are first-rate.
Here are a few tours to the Glen Coe region that are worth considering:
- From Glasgow: Loch Ness, Glencoe & the Highlands – 1-day tour
- From Edinburgh: Loch Ness, Glencoe & the Highlands – 1-day tour
Where to stay in Fort William
Fort William has a range of places to stay, including hotels, holiday rentals and bed and breakfasts, which line the main Achintore Road (A82) south of the town centre. If you don’t have a car, check where your B&B is located; some of these establishments are a considerable distance out of town.
I’m a fan of this British budget hotel which offers comfortable, if basic, accommodation at affordable prices in great locations. This Premier Inn is a solid budget choice – Fort William’s accommodation can be pricey in high season – located on the other side of the train and bus station.
Although the room was a little tired, it was clean and functional and offered unbeatable value. Recommended.
Here are a few alternative accommodation options that I have found that are well worth considering
This guest house, which has excellent reviews, is in a great location, on the main road and is less than 5 minutes walk from the town centre and train and bus stations. Rooms have a fridge and tea / coffee making facilities.
Where to eat in Fort William
Little Fort William punches above its weight when it comes to cafes and restaurants. Here are places that I tried and can recommend.
This was my favourite place to eat in Fort William. A cracking combination of friendly service, great ambience and first-rate food. My main of sea bass wrapped around a crab meat roulade on a bed of sweet potatoes and seasonal vegetables was outstanding.
Advance booking is recommended.
Address: 103 High Street, Fort William
Another highly recommended restaurant in Fort William, opposite The Ben Nevis. A small but perfectly formed menu, including excellent fish and chips.
Try their own-brew, Sandals & Sausage Dogs American pale ale.
As The Geographer doesn’t take bookings from June to September, get there early for a table or be prepared to wait.
Address: 88 High Street, Fort William
The Wildcat café is wildly popular for very good reasons. This guilt-free vegan restaurant has a carefully curated menu, excellent coffee – ask to try their filter coffee of the day – and super friendly staff.
Set yourself up for the day with their hearty bowl of porridge with cinnamon, apple and raisins.
Address: 21 High Street, Fort William
Morrison’s Supermarket café
For a freshly cooked full Scottish breakfast for under £6 and surprisingly good machine coffee.
Address: An Aird, Road (near the bus station and train station)
Why You Should Visit Fort William
Hand on heart, Fort William is not the most attractive Scottish town that you will visit.
Although its main street is pleasant, its waterfront has been wrecked by traffic roaring along the adjacent dual carriageway. This is a pity as Fort Bill could be so much more than it is.
That said, the town is surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery that the Scottish Highlands has to offer. Add to that Fort William’s excellent transport links, which place other destinations, near and far, within easy reach if you are touring Scotland without a car.
For these reasons alone, Fort William is an essential part of any Scotland itinerary.