There's something magical about the Scottish Highlands. Exploring our surroundings means discovering a bounty of natural beauty, from life-affirming landscapes to free-roaming wildlife. It's not for nought, after all, that Robert Burns wrote "my heart's in the Highlands" way back in 1789. Visit our stunning corner of the world and, chances are, it will find a place in your heart too.
Best of all, it's easier than ever to experience the Highlands for yourself. Launched in 2015, the North Coast 500 driving route promises countless sightseeing opportunities as it trails through the counties of Caithness, Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, and Inverness-shire.
What should be in the unmissable stops on my North Coast 500 itinerary?
You can take the North Coast 500 easy by car, or take on a challenge by cycling the full 516 miles. there are, after all, plenty of stunning Scottish hotels to rest your weary legs at the end of the day. Either way, you should take in these show-stopping sights…
Scotland boasts more than 6,000 miles of coastline, so as you might expect, it's blessed with some truly stunning beaches. With its crescent of cream-white sand and ample wildlife, Achnahaird ranks among the best, so make sure you add it to your "must-see" North Coast 500 itinerary.
You'll find Achnahaird Bay in Wester Ross, slightly west of the planned route
Visiting a flight of stairs might not sound very exciting, but Whaligoe Steps are special. Not only do they conceal a rich and interesting history, but they're surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery Caithness has to offer.
The steps themselves were built in the mid-18th century to help workers access the natural harbour below. Brave their steep, zig-zagging descent, and you'll be richly rewarded. As the steps reach the sea, sheer coastal cliffs rise on three sides, enclosing a secluded cove. From here, you can explore its enigmatic sea cave, marvel at its waterfall, or do a spot of birdwatching – the cliffs are home to many a tern and kittiwake.
Whaligoe forms part of the North Coast 500 route and is located about 20 miles south of John o'Groats.
This one hardly requires any planning at all. In fact, it's just over the water from Inverness Castle, where the North Coast 500 begins.
To get to the cathedral from the castle, simply cross the Ness Bridge and head south on Alexander Place. It's about a 10-minute walk, if you take it easy.
You'll know the cathedral when you see it. With its distinctive red stone construction, the building stands as a prime example of Gothic Revival architecture. Venture inside, and you'll be greeted with vast granite arches and some stunning stained glass – including the impressive west window, one of the largest examples in the whole of Scotland.
Fancy a spot of lunch? There's a café on site that serves home-baked cakes and afternoon tea, as well as a range of specials made using locally sourced ingredients.
OK, this one's cheating a wee bit. It's not <i>technically</i> on the route, but it's well worth a detour. And we should know – Loch Sunart is ours, and yours if you visit!
Here, beautifully clear waters are watched over by craggy hills and sweeping skies. Rocky shores are flecked with seaweed, swept in by ocean currents – as are marine fish, which provide ample feeding opportunities for our local seals and dolphins. Overhead, you might hear the distant cry of a golden eagle, while otters hunt and glide in the water below. It really is a wildlife spotter's paradise and an unmissable stop on your North Coast 500 itinerary.
To get here, plan a diversion where the route passes between Lochcarron and Loch Dughaill. From here, you can follow the coast south along the A87 and A82. It's a breath-taking drive – with a short ferry trip between Corran and Ardgour – and you can expect a warm Scottish welcome when you get here.