The North Coast 500 route has to be seen to be believed.
Established in 2014 by the Northern Highland Initiative, the creation of the route was designed to encourage more tourism to the northern region of Scotland.
According to a study by the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, between 2015 and 2016 the North Coast 500 successfully increased visitor numbers in the area from between 5% to a jaw-dropping 15%.
More and more visitors are realising the incredible opportunities that await you as you travel along the route, so we encourage you to start planning your own North Coast 500 journey that you’ll never forget.
Use this expert guide to explore the best places to stop and visit on Scotland’s North Coast 500 route.
What is the North Coast 500?
Spanning 516-miles (or 830 km) in total, the North Coast 500 has been described as Scotland’s ‘Route 66’.
Starting and ending at Inverness Castle, the route is one of the most scenic and mesmerising tours of Scotland that a visitor can do. On the North Coast 500 route, you’ll encounter challenging ascents and descents, like the Bealach-na-Ba at Applecross.
You’ll journey through the historic Scottish counties of Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland and Caithness, with plenty of opportunities to stop and admire the stunning sights along the way.
Whether you’re an enthusiast of the great outdoors or you’re a keen road-tripper, the North Coast 500 route will take you through some of the most beautiful and remote parts of the Scottish mainland.
Map of the North Coast 500
8 Top destinations
Stacks of Duncansby
Highlights of the North Coast 500 You Won’t Want to Miss
North Coast 500 Towns and Cities
Inverness is situated in a central location for visitors touring the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Naturally, this is what makes the town a great start and endpoint for the North Coast 500.
Inverness is rooted in Scottish history and is only a stone-throw away from the famous Inverness Castle. So, you won’t have to go far to take a step back in time.
Inverness will give you a fantastic opportunity to immerse yourself in traditional Scottish food, whisky, culture and the Gaelic language. It also serves as the perfect jumping-off point for exploring Loch Ness and hunting for the infamous Loch Ness monster.
Situated about 45 miles northwest of Inverness, the small coastal town of Ullapool is home to around 1,500 Scots. Even though Ullapool might seem like a small place to visitors, it’s the largest settlement for miles and acts as a hub for tourists.
With a stunning mountainous background, take some time to chill out and relax as you watch the colourful fishing boats glide through the harbour and along the rocky coastline.
John O’Groats is a small village located in the far north of Scotland, famed for being situated on the most northerly tip in the UK. The village is popular with tourists keen to visit both a far-flung location as well as taking a side-trip to the Land’s End in the southwest of the UK mainland.
On your visit to John O’Groats you’ll find a sign with the names and distances of iconic places in Scotland and across the Atlantic Ocean, making for a memorable photo opportunity.
While you’re in the area, don’t forget to take a breathtaking coastal walk and admire the dramatic cliffs at Duncansby Head.
Located on the east coast in the Scottish Highlands, the mesmerising Dunrobin Castle looks like something straight out of a fairytale. So much so that you can almost hear the medieval knights clinking armour and clanging their swords together.
Originally the seat of Clan Sutherland, visitors today can enjoy peaceful walks around the pristinely-groomed gardens and enjoy an exciting display of birds of prey that once inhabited the wild natural landscapes of northern Scotland. Don't forget to visit the fascinating museum which is home to an eclectic collection including Pictish symbol stones, displays on gold panning and coal mining.
Inside this impressive house, you can tour some of the 188 apartments including the Dining Room, laid out for an 1850's banquet, and the Library which boasts some 20,000 books on its shelves.
Castle of Mey
You’ll find the Castle of Mey on the far northwestern corner of the Scottish mainland, and prior to being the residence of the late Queen Mother, the ancient structure was in a state of disrepair. Today, the castle doors are open to visitors from all around the world.
During the day, you can enjoy a unique lunch or a quick snack at the castle’s tea room. The tea room’s delicious homemade goods and locally sourced produce have rightfully earned the Castle of Mey the ‘Taste Our Best’ certificate from VisitScotland.
Beaches, Coastlines and Natural Wonders
The Whaligoe Steps
The Whaligoe Steps are a hidden gem of the North Coast 500. Originally the steps were built into the two sea cliffs in the early 1900s for fishermen to access Whaligoe’s natural harbour.
In total, there’s more than 350 well-maintained steps that make for an exciting and unusual pit-stop located just south of the town of Wick in Caithness. Take your time, enjoy the spectacular surrounding views and mind your step!
The name ‘Smoo’ is thought to come from the Norse 'smjugg' or 'smuga' which means hiding-place or a hole.
Formed by a combination of both sea and rain water, Smoo Cave is one of Scotland’s most incredible natural wonders. Crashing waves from the ocean created the first large chamber of the cave and the smaller caves inside were formed by heavy rainfall over hundreds of years.
For the thrill seekers a guided tour of Smoo Cave is a fantastic opportunity for you to venture deep into the crevice and admire the impressive 20-meter high waterfall that drops through a sinkhole in the cavern.
Believe it or not, you don’t need to go all the way to the Bahamas to see white sandy beaches, crystal-clear water, and crisp blue skies.
A trip to any of the beaches along Achmelvich Bay are guaranteed to take your breath away.
The unique and rugged terrain along the coastline makes for exciting walks and climbs, where you’ll encounter Hermit’s Castle, an old ruined mill, and plenty of secretive hidden seaside coves.
Plan an Unforgettable Scottish Adventure
If you’re biting at the bit to get out and explore the marvels and wonders of Scotland, why not treat yourself to an unforgettable adventure with Scottish Tours?
Planning the ultimate Scottish Highlands adventure takes a lot of time and effort. So, it’s never too early to start mapping locations, contacting tour operators and booking accommodation. Getting in early could allow you to source excellent deals and make your time in self-isolation much more interesting.
We’re here to help you explore our magnificent country, and we’d be honoured to show you the most iconic locations along the expansive north coast of Scotland.
Start planning your trip to Scotland and book online today.