I don’t know about you, but sometimes city life can get too much for me, and I long to escape to the sound of crashing waves or walk amongst lush mountains. To retreat, to recharge.
Let me introduce you to my new sanctuary: Oban in Scotland’s Western Highlands. This harbour town slowly, almost imperceptibly, cast its spell on me.
If you are curious to know why I found this place so seductive, and how to make the most of your time here, read on for the best things to do in Oban, Scotland. At the end of this article, I’ve included recommendations for places to eat and where to stay in Oban as well as how to get there.
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The aroma of sea salt blends with that of freshly cooked seafood as you stroll along its breezy promenade. To the horizon, there is a fringe of islands dominated by the mist-capped mountains of Mull.
Oban has stirred the creative juices of artists and composers. The town inspired Mendelsohn to write his Hebrides Overture and it was one of the locations where Turner set up his canvas.
The Best Things to Do in Oban in 2 Days
Although Oban is a small town, when it comes to things to do, it punches above its weight.
Travel to Oban on the West Highland Line from Glasgow
Although not strictly something to do in the town itself, the railway line from Glasgow alone is a good enough reason for visiting Oban.
The West Highland Line is one of the world’s great train journeys, travelling through a landscape of moors, liberally sprinkled with heather, soaring pine forests, lochs and mist-capped mountains. Leaving Glasgow’s suburbs behind you, the train passes the Clyde Estuary on your left.
Continuing north, it skirts around the shore of Loch Lomond and through the Trossachs National Park. At Crianlarich, the line splits.
One branch heads north through the wilderness of Rannoch Moor and onto Fort William and Mallaig (for a bucket-list travel experience, book a Club Room on the Caledonian Sleeper train from London). The section of the line between Fort William and Mallaig is also covered by The Jacobite steam train, aka The Harry Potter Train.
The western branch passes the mighty Ben Lui, the appropriately named Loch Awe and finally Loch Etive before reaching Oban.
Bag a window seat and enjoy the ride.
Refine your whisky palate at the Oban Distillery
Oban is a town that was built around a distillery. How cool is that?
Established in 1794, Oban Distillery is one of the oldest and smallest distilleries n Scotland and produces over a million bottles of Oban single malt whisky each year. If you can’t tell your 14-year-old single malt from your blended whisky, take the excellent one-hour Oban Distillery tour, which costs £15 (2021 price).
It’s educational and entertaining in equal measure, and you be able to sample two expressions of their delicious single malt whisky. What’s more, you get to keep the tasting glass!
Visit McCaig’s Tower, Scotland’s Colosseum
Dominating Oban’s skyline is its most famous tourist attraction, a slightly bizarre, unfinished replica of Rome’s Colosseum known as McCaig’s Tower.
I love the story behind this structure.
John Stuart McCaig, a philanthropist, commissioned this as a memorial to his family. His intention was that its construction would provide employment to local stonemasons during lean economic times.
However, his little piece of Italy in Scotland never reached completion.
A planned 95-foot central tower was never started and only the exterior walls were completed before McCaig died. The instruction in his will for bronze statues of his family to fill the structure’s windows was ignored.
Today, McCaig’s Tower, or McCaig’s folly as it is known locally, is a walled garden from where there are panoramic views over the Sound of Kerrera and the islands near Oban bay. Follow the signs for the ten-minute climb from Oban’s George Street to the tower.
Strong calf muscles and a stronger cardiovascular system are mandatory. Entry is free.
Walk up to Pulpit Hill
McCaig’s Tower is not the only viewpoint in town.
Follow the signposted walking trail to Pulpit Hill from the centre of Oban, leading you into the countryside south of the town. At Pulpit Hill, there is a fine viewpoint over Oban and its harbour with McCaig’s Tower in the background.
Take the ferry to the Isle of Kerrera
If you continue on this walking trail past Pulpit Hill, you will end up at the Kerrera Ferry.
The Isle of Kerrera is the perfect place to escape from the summer crowds in Oban, exploring its hiking trails, checking out the clifftop ruin of Gylen Castle or spending a few hours on Slatrach Bay, the islands loveliest sandy beach.
The Kerrera ferry operates year-round, although services are less frequent in winter.
Stroll along Oban’s promenade to Dunollie Castle
Another fantastic thing to do in Oban is to stroll along its broad promenade, breathing in a lungful of salty air whilst taking in the view of Oban bay and islands in the distance.
Walk north along the promenade toward another of the town’s landmarks, St. Columba’s Cathedral, built between 1932 and 1959. Then stop at the Oban War Memorial before reaching Dunollie Castle.
Home to Clan MacDougall, who ruled over most of Argyll and the Island, these ruins date from the 15th Century. An exhibition at the 1745 House Museum tells the history of Clan MacDougall and the castle.
Indulge your sweet tooth at the Oban Chocolate Company
For a first-class cocoa hit, stop by the Oban Chocolate Company (I bought a few chocolately treats for those back home which were very much appreciated).
The chocolates are all handmade in their small factory in Oban and they also have a cafe.
Visit the Oban War and Peace Museum
To find out more about the town’s history, visit the Oban War and Peace Museum, housed in the old Oban Times building, next to the Art Deco Regent Hotel. Although the museum’s collection has a strong local focus, it is also home to some not so local exhibits, including a piece of the Berlin Wall.
One of the best things to do in Oban on a rainy day.
Take a day trip to Mull
Taking the ferry to the island of Mull is one of the best things to do in Oban. This is a day trip where the journey is almost as good as the destination, with close-up views of Lismore lighthouse and Ben More (Ben Mor).
Mull is the ultimate Hebridean island fantasy fulfilment.
Catch the bus from the ferry terminal at Craignure to Tobermory, easily one of the most attractive harbour towns in Scotland, if not the UK. Photograph the row of candy-coloured houses, reflected in the still water of the bay, against the backdrop of a steep cliff.
Take the cliffside walk to the lighthouse for sensational views across the bay. And if you’re in the mood for more whisky tasting, visit Tobermory Distillery.
Take a boat trip to Staffa, Iona and Mull (or Treshnish)
To see three islands in one day, join a boat trip from Iona, operated by Staffa Tours.
33 miles west of Oban, uninhabited Staffa is one of Scotland’s most romantic islands.
It is best known for the basalt columns on its southern side, which the sea has carved into dramatic caverns. The most famous of these is Fingal’s Cave.
Lying barely a mile off the southwest tip of Mull, the sacred isle of Iona has been a mecca for Christian pilgrims for several centuries.
Staffa Tours also operates a day tour to Treshnish, Tobermory and Staffa. The Treshnish Isles are known for their rich wildlife, particularly seabirds, puffins and seals.
Go on a sea safari
If wildlife spotting is more your thing, Oban is a great base for boat trips to view whales, porpoise, seals, dolphins, basking sharks, otter, golden and white-tailed sea eagles and more.
Look out for boards advertising boat trips around the harbour or pop into the friendly tourist information office.
Try sea kayaking
If you are feeling more adventurous, why not try your hand at sea kayaking?
The waters around Oban are perfect for sea kayaking, even if you are a complete beginner. Sea Kayak Oban offers day trips and two and five-day courses.
Most of their trips launch from the beach in Oban, 50m from their base on Argyll Street. Check their website for further information and prices.
Explore Oban Harbour
There are few better things to do in Oban than to stroll around its harbour.
By day, boats and ferries go about their business. By night, the illuminated McCaig’s Tower provides a dramatic backdrop. Any time of day, locals and visitors alike walk along the waterfront, stopping to eat eating their fish & chips or an ice cream on one of the benches
Eat the best seafood in Scotland
For all you foodies out there, Oban is seafood paradise. In addition to a few highly-rated fish and chip shops, there are some excellent seafood restaurants and seafood stalls alongside the harbour.
Recommended Places to Eat in Oban
Here are a few eating places that I tried and can recommend.
Operating out of a van parked by the harbour, McGillivray’s serve melt-in-the-mouth fresh seafood and fish.
Order at the counter, take a seat at one of the wooden benches and they’ll call you when your order is ready. I feasted on a pile of langoustines with chips and salad which came to £10. They don’t have an alcohol licence but do serve soft drinks.
Waterfront Fishouse Restaurant
For great service, harbour views and an early-evening bargain menu, head to the Waterfront Fishouse next to the CalMac ferry terminal.
Until 6.45 pm they offer a two-course set menu for £16.99. Their mussels were the sweetest and freshest that I have ever had, and the entrée of rainbow trout served on a pesto risotto was simply sublime.
Julie’s Coffee House
If you need to satisfy a sweet tooth, here’s a bonus eating recommendation.
Julie’s Coffee House, opposite the Oban Distillery, serves deliciously decadent white chocolate and raspberry scones as well as many other calorie-busting goodies.
Where to Stay in Oban
As a tourist hub, Oban is not short of places to stay. However, these do get booked up quickly during the peak summer season.
When I booked, availability was limited and I ended up at the Royal Hotel, one of the town’s Victorian hotels that is the epitome of (very) faded grandeur. However, it has friendly, helpful staff and offers a free, generous buffet breakfast.
Here are some other places that I have found that are good choices if you are visiting Oban:
Premier Inn – I love a good Premier Inn and, in all honesty, if I had known that one had opened in Oban I would have chosen to stay there. For me, this chain strikes just the right balance between price point and product and its breakfasts are one of the best out there. Oban’s Premier Inn is adjacent to the train station.
Glenburnie House – In an excellent location on Oban’s seafront, this guesthouse has excellent reviews.
Backpackersplus Hostel – Budget accommodation is hard to come by in Oban but this hostel in a lovely converted church is conveniently located and has great reviews.
How to Get to Oban
I travelled to Oban by train.
From London to Glasgow Central on the line formally operated by Virgin Trains (now Avanti West Coast), and then taking the West Highland Line from Glasgow Queen Street. The journey from Glasgow takes just over three hours and costs from £20 one-way.
Book train tickets in advance for the cheapest tickets.
Services do not run frequently and can be busy. Neglect to reserve a seat at the time of buying your ticket at your peril.
If you are driving, the quickest route will take you around 2.5 hours from Glasgow. Of course, longer and more scenic routes are available.
Is Oban Worth Visiting?
Although Oban is not exactly a well-kept secret, it manages to retain an air of tranquillity, which is all too rare nowadays.
Despite its size, there are enough things to do in Oban to occupy the most restless soul for two days. As a bonus, the town is home to some of the best seafood to be found anywhere.
Oban is perfect for a long weekend break, as a base to explore the western coast of Scotland and the islands or as part of a longer Scotland itinerary.