The Best Things to Do in Inverness, Scotland & Beyond

Inverness is worthy of its moniker ‘the Capital of the Highlands’.

Its proximity to the Scottish Highlands, Loch Ness and the Speyside whisky region makes it the perfect base for exploring some of Scotland’s most popular destinations. Moreover, with its attractive riverside setting, rich history and friendly people, Inverness is a great destination in its own right.

Make the most of your time the Highland’s only city with this travel guide to the best things to do in Inverness and beyond. Whether you want to connect with the past, enjoy some of the most majestic landscapes in the world or hunt for Nessie, I have you covered.

close up of brown highland cow in inverness scotland
Image @ 2020, Fiona Cooke

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Where is Inverness in Scotland?

Inverness is located along the banks of the River Ness in Scotland’s Highlands, at the end of the Great Glen. Home to 75,000 souls, it is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities by population.

a map showing the location of inverness in scotland
Inverness in Scotland. Map data @ 2021 Google (click on image for interactive map)

The Best Things to Do in Inverness

Inverness is small but perfectly formed city and you should be able to cover its highlights one day. To get you started, here are my favourite things to do in Inverness.

Inverness Castle

Inverness’s pink crenellated 19th Century castle, perched above the River Ness, is the city’s major landmark.

castle made from pink stone on hill
Inverness Castle

Castles have occupied this clifftop setting since 1057 and famous (and infamous) protagonists associated with Inverness Castle include Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, Oliver Crowell and Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Whilst you are not able to enter the castle, you can walk up to the plaza overlooking the river and city.  Don’t miss the statue of Flora MacDonald who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape from Scotland after the Jacobites’ defeat at the Battle of Culloden.

Due to renovation works, Inverness Castle Viewpoint is closed.

Inverness Museum and Art Gallery

If you want to learn more about the history of Inverness and the Scottish Highlands, explore the collection of artefacts at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.

VISITING INVERNESS MUSEUM & ART GALLERY

Address: Castle Wynd, Inverness, IV2 3EB

Opening hours: seasonal. Check website for information. Closed Sunday & Monday.

Entrance fee: Free

Leaky’s Bookshop

If you are the sort of person who can spend hours mooching around a dusty bookstore, then you’re in luck. Inverness is home to Scotland’s biggest second-hand book shop, Leakey’s Bookshop, which also sells feature rare and old prints, classic volumes and old maps.

Leaky’s is at Greyfriars Hall, Church Street, Inverness,  IV1 1EY

High Point Church

Next to Leaky’s Bookshop is the historic Old High Church.

church building with graveyard in inverness scotland

Keeping watch over the city from its lofty position on St. Michael’s Mount, this is where the Jacobites who survived the massacre at Culloden were imprisoned prior to their execution in the cemetery. Marks made by musket balls in the wall of the church’s tower is a grim reminder of these dark days.

Victorian Arcade

I’m not an enthusiastic shopper but if you are in the mood for a spot of retail therapy in historic style, head to the Victorian Arcade.  This covered market close to Inverness train station is home to and eclectic selection of independent shops and cafes.

You’ll find the Victorian Arcade on Academy Street, Inverness, IV1 1JN

Ness Islands Walk

There are few better things to do in Inverness than to take an evening walk along the riverside to the Ness Islands.

Follow the River Ness upstream until you reach this cluster of natural islands that are connected to the river banks by Victorian footbridges. Cross the river via the islands’ woodlands to get your nature fix without leaving the city.

path through woodland in ness islands which is one of the best things to do in inverness scotland

Time permitting, visit the nearby Inverness Botanic Gardens. Entry is free and the gardens are home to the Secret Garden, or the G.R.O.W. Project, run by adults with special needs.

The Botanic Gardens are on Bught Lane, Inverness, IV3 5SS

Best Day Trips from Inverness (& how to do these without a car!)

As lovely as Inverness is, the real treasures lie beyond the city’s boundaries.

Having a car will make getting to many of these places a piece of cake, but I travelled in Scotland without a car and managed just fine using buses, trains and day tours. If you are in a similar position, I’ll share how I travelled to each of these day trip destinations.

During my visit to Inverness, I took two day trips with the local Rabbie’s Tours who were excellent. Group sizes are small and the knowledge and humour of their drivers/guides are first-rate.

The first day trip visited Culloden, Clava Cairns, Beauly and Glen Affric; the second excursion focused on the Loch Ness area.

Culloden Battlefield

Visiting the windswept moorland where the Jacobites made their ill-fated final stand is an essential day trip from Inverness.

buttercups in large field
Culloden Battlefield

Start at the superb Culloden Visitor Centre, where the tragic story of the 1745 uprising is sensitively told through a collection of artefacts and multimedia. Particularly effective is the 360-degree immersion theatre, which places you right in the heart of the battle.

Make your way to the Culloden battlefield, the site of the last major battle on British soil. Grave stones mark the final resting places of some of the 1,500 Jacobite and 50 Government soldiers who died here in 1746, and flags represent the front lines of both armies.

As Culloden is not exactly a well-kept secret, advance booking is highly recommended. In 2021, an adult ticket cost £11 (reduction if you are travelling with Rabbie’s Tours).

Clava Cairns

Close to Culloden battlefield is the Bronze Age cemetery complex of Clava Cairns. Dating back 4,000 years, these well preserved cairns were originally built to house the dead.

Clava Cairns is open year-round and is free to visit.

DID YOU KNOW?

Clava Cairns was a filming location for the Outlander series. Remember the standing stones where Claire was first brought back in time? That was filmed at Clava Cairns.

woman peering from between 2 standing stones

Beauly Priory & village

Picturesque Beauly is the perfect pit stop for lunch or coffee if you are in the area (stop at the excellent Corner on the Square). The village is also home to the remains of the 13th Century Beauly Priory and its 800-year-old elm tree.

ruins of old priory
Beauly Priory

Glen Affric

Close to the small settlement of Cannich, Glen Affric is prime climbing and hiking territory. This magical combination of ancient Caledonian pinewoods, moorland and lochs has been described as the most beautiful glen in Scotland.

fast flowing water over rocks in river
Glen Affric

I visited Culloden, Clava Cairns, Beauly and Glen Affric on a day trip with Rabbie’s Tours, which I highly recommend, particularly if you are visiting Scotland without a car.

Loch Ness & Fort Augustus

Loch Ness is unfathomably dark and deep.

Although it is “only” the second largest loch in Scotland by surface area – Loch Lomond gets that gong – it is the deepest by volume in Great Britain. Its deepest point is almost 800 feet; for context, the water in all of the lakes in England and Wales would fill its cavernous depths with space to spare.

calm water of lake with stones in foreground

Avoid the weaving motorhomes and take the old road around the loch’s scenic eastern shore, which skirts one of General Wade’s military highways, and make your first stop at Dores Beach at the northern tip of Loch Ness.

30 years ago, Steve Feltham set up home here in his camper van in an attempt to spot the loch’s most famous supposed occupant. Although he once saw something that looked like the Loch Ness Monster, he feels that “Nessie” is likely to be a giant catfish.

Continue to the Falls of Foyers and take the short woodland walk to view this 140-foot cascade set in a dramatic gorge.

The next stop is the busy village of Fort Augustus, situated alongside the Caledonian Canal, connecting Inverness to the Fort William. In addition to Fort William and Fort George, the original Fort Gus, as it’s fondly known, was one of the three forts built to ward off the rebelling Jacobites. Only the one at Fort George is intact.

Today’s Fort Augustus is a charming place to stop for lunch, has a handful of good shops and offers one of the best views over Loch Ness.

Avoiding Nessieland Monster Centre, make your way back to Inverness along the western shore at Loch Ness, stopping at Ivermoriston Falls. A short walk through woodland brings you to the falls and an old simmer house.

fast flowing river and bridge

Although I didn’t visit Urqhart Castle, I was treated to a fine view of it on a Loch Ness river cruise. This 13th Century ruined castle was blown to smithereens in 1692 to prevent it falling to the Jacobites.

ruins of old castle by lake
Urquhart Castle

I visited these attractions around Loch Ness on a day trip with Rabbie’s Tours, which I highly recommend. If you are in Scotland without a car, and left to the mercy of local bus schedules, it would be tricky to shoehorn all of these places into one day.

Scenic rail journey from Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh

A friend recommended this scenic railway journey to me. And, boy oh boy, I’m glad she did.

For the most part a single track railway, the Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh line, also known as The Skye Line, is one of the most spectacular railway journeys in Scotland, if not Europe. What’s more, as the one-way journey time is a touch over 2h 30m, it’s easy to complete a return journey in one day.

small islands in the middle of a loch

It has the lot: soaring mountains, shimmering lochs, majestic pine and spruce forests and wild flowers a plenty. The only UK railway lines that I’ve been on that are its equal are The Jacobite between Fort William and Mallaig and the Settle to Carlisle Railway.

Time your journey to include a lunch stop in Plockton, one of the most picture postcard perfect spots on the west coast. Famous for being the setting of the television series Hamish Macbeth, Plockton is idyllic.

houses lining a scenic harbour
Plockton

A row of neatly painted cottages hugs the shoreline and the curve of its small harbour. Palm trees line its main drag and the peaks of the mountains of Wester Ross rise in the distance. It’s little wonder that the village attracts artists in their droves.

Plockton village is an easy 20-minute walk from its railway station.

HOW TO RIDE THE INVERNESS TO KYLE OF LOCHALSH RAILWAY

As of July 2021, there are a total of four trains per day in each direction Monday−Saturday. On Sundays the frequency drops to one train per day each way, though the frequency increases to two per day during the summer months.

For the cheapest fares, book well in advance to take advantage of an Advance ticket.

However, if you wish to stop at Plockton, buy an Anytime Return ticket. Although this is more expensive than other ticket types, it allows you to break your journey at no extra charge.

Elgin

Straddling the River Lossie on the south coast of the Moray Firth is the market town of Elgin, which is an easy day trip from Inverness by train. It is home to the lovely ruins of Elgin Cathedral, once rivalling St. Andrew’s as Scotland’s most important cathedral. 

ruins of old church facade

Dating from the 13th Century, Elgin Cathedral is now merely a shell, but what a glorious shell it is. Don’t miss visiting the chapter house with its extraordinary octagonal ceiling. 

VISITING ELGIN CATHEDRAL

Elgin Cathedral is on King Street, an easy walk from the train station.

In 2021, it costs £9 to visit the cathedral. Although it’s tempting just to admire it from the outside, you’d miss the Chapter House, the opportunity to examine the site’s intricate carvings and its unusual Pictish cross slab.

It is open daily, 10am until 4pm

Visiting a whisky distillery is an essential addition to your Scotland itinerary (my favourite is the Oban Distillery). Due to social distancing measures, many of the country’s distilleries have been forced to shut the doors to visitors in 2021. But not quite all.

Whilst you are in Elgin, visit Glen Moray on the outskirts of town. Take a guided tour of this attractive distillery to learn more about production of this amber nectar which finishes with a tasting of two whiskies. 

two glasses with a dram of whisky
VISITING GLEN MORAY DISTILLERY

Glen Moray Distillery is located on Bruceland Road, which is around a 30-minute walk from Elgin Cathedral.

It is open 9am to 5pm, Monday – Saturday from May to September. From October to April it is open on Satuday and Sunday. The Visitor Centre closes for two weeks over the Christmas and New Year period.

Tours take place four times a day and cost £7

Nairn

Why not break your return journey to Inverness at the seaside town of Nairn?

larhs piece of driftwood on a sandy beach
Nairn beach

Located on the Moray Firth, Nairn has the reputation for being one of the sunniest and driest places in Scotland. Sadly, not on the day I visited.

Nonetheless, it has a broad sandy beach and a pleasant harbour and is just 16 miles from Inverness.

HOW TO VISIT ELGIN & NAIRN AS A DAY TRIP FROM INVERNESS BY TRAIN

Up to 14 trains per day travel between Inverness and Elgin. The average journey time is 40 minutes. Nairn is just 16 minutes from Inverness on the same line.

If you want to combine the two towns in the same day trip, buy an Anytime Return ticket, which will allow you to break your journey at no extra charge.

Aviemore

Although I ended up staying here overnight on my way to Perth, Aviemore is another easy day trip from Inverness, a mere 36 minutes by direct train.

However, I confess I found the town a little soulless and certainly no match for its majestic surroundings. So ignore the town and its kitsch shops and make your way to beautiful Loch an Eilein a freshwater loch in the Rothiemurchus Forest, about 5 km south of the town centre.

person on paddleboard on lake
Loch an Eilein

Can You Visit the Isle of Skye and Eilean Donan Castle from Inverness?

You can visit the Isle of Skye and Eilean Donan from Inverness but this is a long day trip.

It’s a two-hour drive from Inverness to Eilean Donan and a further half an hour to the Skye Bridge. And that’s before you’ve had a chance to take a look the attractions on Skye.

I met other travellers who had taken a day trip to Skye and Eilean Donan Castle. Although they gave the excursion glowing reviews, they said that it was very tiring.

Planning Your Visit to Inverness

How to get to Inverness

Inverness has an airport, a 20-minute drive from its city centre from where there are regular flights to hubs in the UK as well as Dublin and Amsterdam.

For a more carbon footprint friendly option, take the take. It’s a 3 ½ hour journey from either Edinburgh or Glasgow and Inverness is a stop on the Caledonian Sleeper from London.

Megabus, CityLink and National Express all operate services out of Inverness bus station. I caught the bus from Fort William which took just over two hours.

If you are driving, Inverness is linked to Glasgow and Edinburgh by the A9, to Fort William by the A82 and to Aberdeen by the A96.

Where to stay in Inverness

As a major tourist hub in Scotland, accommodation in Inverness can be pricey, particularly if you are travelling alone. If you plan on taking day trips from Inverness by train or bus, base yourself in Inverness city centre. It is also where you will find many of the city’s best pubs and restaurants.

Mid-range

Travelodge Inverness City Centre

Compared with other accommodation choices in town, the Inverness Travelodge was a bargain when I booked my stay. I was slightly nervous about what to expect and, whilst there were zero frills, it was clean, functional and very central. And did I mention that it was a bargain?

hotel bedroom with bed chair and desk
breakfast room in hotel with table and chairs and self service area

Premier Inn Inverness Centre (River Ness)

In all honesty, this is my preferred budget hotel chain but was more expensive than the Travelodge when I booked. This Premier Inn has a riverside setting – some it its rooms overlook the river and Inverness Castle – and has garnered great reviews.

Budget

Black Isle Hostel

If you are travelling on a tight budget, take a look  at this hostel which was recommended to me by someone who had a long-term stay there. Whilst the Black Isle Hostel isn’t much to look at from the outside, it’s reportedly clean and comfortable and in a central location.

Splurge

Bluebell House

Another centrally located accommodation choice, Bluebell House has attracted stellar reviews for its service, cleanliness and breakfasts.

Where to eat in Inverness

For breakfast

The Red Pepper (92 Academy St.)

Very friendly café next door to the Travelodge that serves tasty breakfast rolls or a Full Scottish washed down with a great mug of coffee.

The Rendezvous Café (14A Church St.)

As a film buff I had to try out this café, the walls of which are decorated with a frieze of a film reel of the Hollywood greats. Try their Scottish smoked salmon and poached egg on toast, served with super strong coffee.

Arrive before 9 am to grab a table

For dinner

Fig & Thistle (4 Stephens Brae)

Bistro with friendly service and an encouragingly small menu plus a small selection of specials. Their pan-fried sea bass with crab, chilli and tomato risotto was a delicately balanced marvel. And don’t get me started on the crème brûlée.

La Tortilla (99 Castle St.)

Head to the oldest Spanish restaurant in Scotland for first class service and authentic Spanish cuisine.  The fresh-off-the-boat calamari practically melted in my mouth.

Number 27 (27 Castle St.)

A few doors down from La Tortilla, this is a great choice for a bistro that won’t break the bank. Choose their Highland Chicken, which is wrapped in Parma ham, stuffed with haggis and served on a bed of black pudding mash. Only the local gin was more divine.

Black Isle Bar (68 Church St.)

Inexpensive casual eating for a wide selection of organic beers from the local Black Isle Brewery and top-rate pizza.

Why You Should Visit Inverness, Scotland

Inverness has something for everyone. Although the elusive Nessie attracts many visitors to the city, it is so much more than this.

Not only is this friendly, attractive and compact city packed with charm, it’s also one of the best places in Scotland to become better acquainted with the country’s turbulent history. Epic Highland landscapes are within easy reach, even to those of us that don’t have a car.

If that’s not enough, the city has been voted the happiest place to live in Scotland on more than one occasion. Let this pick of the best things to do in Inverness put a smile on your face.