If you’re planning to visit the UK and Scotland specifically, driving on the 500-mile North Coast 500 should be on your bucket list. Scotland is more than just your usual trip to Edinburgh and the delicious haggis from pubs. It’s also a wonderful place full of memory, culture, and natural wonders for those willing to venture further north.
The NC500 allows you to explore the beauty of the North and the Highlands fully. From serene beaches, castles, to natural formations and wildlife, the Highlands will astound you with its treasure trove of the beautiful and the miraculous.
What is the North Coast 500?
The NC500 will take you directly to the captivating places in the Scottish Highlands in just a single route. This circular road trip starts from the city of Inverness to the extremities of Britain and back to the starting point.
However, you always have the option to start and finish wherever you want. You’re also in control of how much time you spend on your trip. But if you want to check out all the best spots on the North Coast 500, a week is more than enough to cover most of them.
This route aims to fill a gap in the Highlands’ tourism and economy and was launched in March 2015 by the National Highland Initiative (NHI) with support from Visit Scotland. The North Coast route has significantly increased profit and tourism in the Highlands area, adding about 29,000 visits in the first year of its launch.
How Long Does it Take to Drive the North Coast 500?
The North Coast 500 is a 516-mile (829 km) scenic route that takes you through some of the Scottish Highlands’ most breathtaking landscapes and charming towns. You can technically drive the route in a day, but where would the fun be in that? You wouldn’t be able to stop and enjoy all the best stops along the NC500 route.
An ideal time would be between 7-10 days, depending on how long you want to spend at each stop and how much time you want to allocate for sightseeing and activities along the way. Although you could easily see a lot in five days and delve deeper into the highlands with a full two weeks.
Should You Drive the North Coast 500 Route Clockwise or Anti-Clockwise?
Both times we have driven the North Coast 500 route we have done so anti-clockwise, which isn’t the typical route. So for simplicity’s sake, this post will detail the NC500 route clockwise.
There is really no difference between driving the route clockwise vs anti-clockwise. People typically hightail it to the west of Scotland as this is the more dramatic and what some would say “more beautiful” part, so of course, most visitors want to get there at the start of their trip. However the benefit of driving counter clockwise is “saving the best for last.”
I Don’t Have Time to drive the Whole Route, What Should I do?
If you don’t have time to drive the whole North Coast 500, you can still drive portions of the route for a few days. For the more dramatic section, head to the west of the country near Applecross. This is where you’ll find breathtaking cliffs and landscapes that seem to be from a movie seen. If you are into castles and culture we recommend driving north from Inverness towards the town of Brora to see Dunrobin Castle, enjoy a Distillery tour, and relax on the Scottish beach.
How to Avoid the Crowds along the North Coast 500?
Summer is the busiest time of year on the North Coast 500 with crowds picking up in July and August. To have the most crowd free experience we recommend visiting outside of these months. Although, we drove the NC500 in September, and the route was far from empty. To avoid crowds we recommend:
- Waking up early: Starting your day before 9am will be beneficial.
- Sticking to the east: The eastern section of the route is much quieter than the more dramatic western area of the Scottish Highlands.
- Visit in the winter: Winter on the NC500 will prove to be very quiet, though this means more treacherous driving conditions. Many operators and tourist sites will also be closed for the season.
- Get out on a hike: Most people driving the NC500 won’t venture far from their car and pull off points. The further you hike, the more alone time you will have.
Where Does the North Coast 500 Route Start and End?
The “official” start and end of the North Coast 500 is in Inverness, but you can hop on the route anywhere you please!
Do I Have to Drive the NC500?
Driving the NC500 is the most popular way to experience the Scottish Highlands, however you can also cycle, motorbike, or even walk the 500 miles.
If you are walking or biking, be careful on the single-track roads and hairpin turns. It’s best to not walk or cycle the NC500 after dark as there are very few streetlights on the route.
Campervans on the NC500
Renting a campervan for the NC500 is very popular and there are a number of campervan companies to choose from. Before renting a campervan make sure you feel comfortable driving very narrow roads with a rather large vehicle.
- Scottish Tourer
- Wild Campers
- Just Go Motorhomes
- Outdoorsy: Operates all over the globe. Perfect for solo travelers or couples, as well as larger models that can accommodate families or groups.
The Best Stops on the North Coast 500
Located in the Northeastern part of Scotland, this lively capital city of the Scottish Highlands is where your North Coast 500 adventure begins and ends. Inverness has numerous wondrous places to check out during your trip. It is the perfect ground zero to relish the unique Scottish Highlands culture, cuisine, and music.
As a city embedded with rich history, there are myriad historical and even archaeological sites that you can visit. Add to these the bustling cultural and modern scenes- excellent restaurants, great pubs, and shops- that will keep you enthralled throughout your stay. There are also plenty of natural wonders and parks perfect for unwinding for families, kids, and couples. Luxury and budget-friendly accommodations are also available.
Well-known among these attractions is the historic site of Culloden, the Inverness Castle, Loch Ness, and the Victorian seaside resort- Nairns. The city also offers much enticement to the outdoorsy folks as it has scenic trails like Glen Affric, South Loch Ness Trail, and Meall fuar-mhonaidh. You can also join guided tours in the city that are suited to your interests, such as Distillery Tours, Whiskey Trail Tours, and an Outlander-inspired one for the show’s fans!
Where to Stay in Inverness? The Heathmount Hotel is just is 10 minutes’ walk from Inverness Castle
2. Rogie Falls
As you leave the capital city, take a moment to appreciate the wild, natural, and picturesque beauty of Rogie Falls. Rogie Falls is in the Black Water river in the county of Ross-shire. This wild wonder, amidst the rich pine forest, is only 20.6 miles away from the city of Inverness, which makes it one of the first spots you’ll stop by when you go for the North Coast 500 trip in a clockwise direction.
You can enjoy a short, scenic walk from the car park to the suspension bridge. The bridge can accommodate a few people at once (not wheelchair accessible, unfortunately). It is the perfect spot to enjoy an up-close view of the rushing falls. The recommended time to visit is in August-September if you want to see the captivating sight of leaping wild salmon. You can follow their course upstream on the long Riverside Trail if you want to see more of them. Its challenging terrain will be exciting for hike lovers and adventure seekers!
For those who want more intense vitality from the falls, you can visit after heavy rain or snow. There are also free parking spaces, available toilets, picnic areas, shops, and food stores to check out.
Where to stay near Rogie Falls? The Lochview Guesthouse for a remote location.
3. Applecross Peninsula
Suppose you’re looking for a gorgeous, remote, and tranquil place with lots of history. In that case, you can always go right in to visit Applecross, which is one of the most breathtaking places in the North Coast 500 for driving.
Applecross is home to the earliest settlement in Scotland and was mostly inaccessible for the better part of its history. Now, you can visit the historic village on two routes. You can go via the coast road from Shielding, with its stunning coast views, or through the highest road in Britain, Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle).
While staying at the Applecross Inn, you can enjoy the ambiance and serene atmosphere. The Inn is now open for booking until April 2023. You can also enjoy the delicacies and seafood from Applecross Smokehouse to delight your palates. Other activities that you can enjoy during your stay are a visit to the Applecross Photographic Gallery and Applecross Heritage Center. You can also go fishing and kayaking to experience the remote Scottish village first-hand!
This fishing town on the Loch Broom shores is one of the best places you can see in your North Coast 500 adventure. Amidst its simplicity, the natural beauty and serenity of the place will tug at your heartstrings. This place is also historical, for it is where the British Fisheries Society was founded in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Ullapool offers various adventures to those eager to discover its quaint beauty. One can hike through the vast swathe of wildlife and foliage, swim in the serene, azure waters of Ardmair Beach, climb Ullapool Hill or spelunk in the Bone Caves. One can also visit the wonders of Handa Island with its magnificent fauna, seabirds, and sandstone cliffs. A boat cruise is also an option for those who can never get enough of the sea splash and waves!
However, if you don’t prefer outdoor-oriented activities, you can also check out the lively pubs and the Ullapool Museum to learn more about the village’s heritage and history. The historical and aesthetic Ullapool clock is also another sight worth seeing. It is located on Quay and Argyle Streets.
Where to stay in Ullapool? The Harbour House is one of the best stays you can have on the NC500!
Located in the county of Sutherland, Clachtoll is another fishing village worth seeing in the Northern Scottish Highlands. The town is situated in an area with deep history- the parish of Assynt. Facing the Bay of Clachtoll, this little paradise is full-packed of natural scenery, from picturesque mountains to pristine shores.
You can enjoy water activities such as kayaking, rock jumping, swimming, and fishing. If you are into picnics and camping, you can do these activities in the delicate seascape of the Clachtoll Beach Campsite. It is a fun, budget-friendly way to spend time with loved ones! You can even spot some dolphins if you are lucky!
Where to stay near Clachtoll? The Smithy House & Cottages is a quaint beautiful little cottage in a fabulous area.
6. Cape Wrath
The elegant name of this location indeed lives up to what it offers. Cape Wrath is also located in Sutherland’s county, the most north-westerly area of mainland Great Britain. It is also iconic for being the area where the Scottish Northern and Western coasts rendezvous. Due to its remote geography, Cape Wrath is challenging to access as there is no direct road to it. One must catch a ferry to visit the spectacular place.
Cape Wrath, despite its remoteness, is teeming with the breathtaking swathe of the Atlantic Ocean, coastlines, and chilly wilderness. Aside from these majestic natural views, there is also a lighthouse to visit.
A cafe is also open for you to get a heartwarming coffee and pastry- just before you catch up with the bus tour. Cape Wrath is known to be a site of Special Scientific Interest and a place where rare bird species are protected.
Going to the northernmost parts of the Scottish Highlands, it’s worth visiting the northwestern village of Durness. Durness is the perfect spot for outdoorsy folks, wanderlusts, and sea lovers.
This thriving village in Sutherland boasts of its cerulean coastline, towering cliffs, bustling wildlife, luscious seaspray, and challenging Scotland hiking trails. The town’s remoteness and rich adventures here are just the perfect blends for someone who wants action and rejuvenation!
Durness is also famous for being primarily connected to John Lennon. There’s even a John Lennon Memorial Garden dedicated mainly to the famous musician! You can also check out the serene blueness of Rispond Beach and take an energizing swim.
For sports lovers, there’s the Durness Golf Club to check out. Meanwhile, hikers and outdoorsy folks can climb up Ben Stack and enjoy the majestic Sutherland view from the peak. You can also have a picturesque picnic at the Smoo Caves, and exciting boat rides into the caves amidst clement weather.
Stay nearby at the Borgie Lodge Hotel
Whenever you are not ready to leave Caithness yet, take the time to explore the town of Thurso, considered “the most northerly town in mainland Scotland” and boasts delightful places and wonders to see and experience during your North Coast 500 adventure.
Thurso has plenty of cafes, traditional shops, and restaurants where you can enjoy a one-of-a-kind gastronomic and shopping experience. There is also the famous wellhouse of Meadow Well and the Swanson Gallery to visit.
If you’re lusting after outdoor thrills, Thurso offers lots of water sports, such as surfing and kayaking. There are plenty of beaches and a guarantee of lovely countryside at Geise Farm. The family-friendly farm is one of the best ways to bond with your loved ones while enjoying the company of nature.
Stay at the charming Creag Na Mara B&B in Thurso!
9. John O’Groats & Wick
Let the refreshing North Sea Breeze embrace you in John O’ Groats! Located in Sutherland, in the northeasternmost part of Britain, this stunning village is filled with history, natural wonders, heritage, and adventures for those that enter its borders.
John O’ Groats offers many activities tourists can enjoy, such as surfing, speedboat tours around the coastline, and a tour at the Castle of Mey, the official residence of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in Caithness. Other outdoor activities that you can enjoy are the three-kilometer coastal walks or a 40-minute trip to the Orkney Islands.
However, you can join an exciting distillery/brewery tour if you prefer indoor activities. There is also a gallery where you can see if you get more in touch with the local culture and art.
Consider staying at John O'Groats which provides epic sea views
10. Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe
The castles around the NC500 are out of this world. They’re majestic and historic, just like the ancient remains of the famous Castle Sinclair and Girnigoe. Located in the northern part of the town of Howick, it’s hard to miss as it’s perched close to the cliff’s edges.
This mysterious castle has a rich history and has undergone grand expansions, with its oldest parts dating back to the 15th century. It was expanded continuously until the siege of 1680 when it suffered severe damages, which made it uninhabited.
It continued to decay for 340 years, but in the early 21st century, it was restored through the Clan Sinclair Trust and became safe for visitors. Nowadays, you can access the ruins through a newly installed bridge. The castle grounds are open yearly, and they only ask for donations.
When you’re still around Sutherland, don’t forget to visit this stunning village on the eastern coast. Helmsdale is a town that is famous for its salmon fishing and herrings! So, for fishing enthusiasts, this is another excellent spot to explore. River Helmsdale offers you an abundance to catch your first Scottish salmon!
During your stay, you can go swimming at Helmsdale Beach or explore the remains of Helmsdale Castle. You can also see and buy unique and beautiful trinkets at the Gifted shop to commemorate your trip to the Highlands. Moreover, you can deeply connect with the town’s unique culture and history by visiting the Timespan Museum and Arts Centre, The Emigrants Monument, and the Helmsdale War Memorial Clock Tower.
Ever fancied staying in yurt? You can do that in Helmsdale at the Tall Pines Yurt.
12. Falls of Shin
The Falls of Shin boasts of breathtaking waterfalls. In addition to the spectacular sight, passersby can also witness the captivating leaping of salmon from the middle of May to late autumn. Salmon can be seen leaping up the shallow set of waterfalls as they prepare to spawn.
After watching this natural phenomenon, you can relax and reenergize at the onsite café before you move on to your next destination.
Brora is a village situated on the east coast of Sutherland in the Highland region of Scotland. Although quite small, with a population of just over 1,200 people, it is a fantastic place to visit in Scotland if you’re looking for a quaint, peaceful destination with many things to do in Brora.
The village is widely known for being the home of the Highland League football team, but it’s also known for its small sandy beach, wildlife viewing, and beautiful hiking. Enjoy the beach, go on a distillery tour at Clynelish Distillery, or go paddleboarding on Lake Brora!
Easily the best place to stay is at the Royal Marine Hotel!
14. Dunrobin Castle
If you’re fascinated by castles and fairytale-like scenes, don’t miss the chance to visit the enchanting Dunrobin Castle in the county of Sutherland. With its magnificent spires, turrets, and gardens, Dunrobin is a fine piece of architecture in the heart of the Scottish Highlands. This 189-room castle is the Earl of Sutherland’s magnificent seat and is rooted in medieval times.
The present castle and its sprawling, magical garden were the work of the famous British architect Sir Charles Barry during the 19th century. The garden is said to be inspired by the Palace of Versailles! There is also a museum and falconry that you can check out. The castle is open to visitors every year between April and October.
Nearby in Brora you can call a small pod home at the North Coast 500 pods.
15. Dornoch Firth & Cromarty Firth
If you love the coastal area, a trip to Dornoch Firth & Cromarty Firth must be in your list of North Coast 500 best stops. From the historic Dornoch Firth Bridge to the more modern feel of Cromarty Firth, you’ll never get tired of taking in the beautiful scenery. Be sure to have your camera ready and capture every moment.
Meanwhile, history geeks can explore numerous museums and heritage sites like the Tain and District Museum and the Nigg Old Church which dates back to the 8th century.
Boasting garden views in Dornoch Firth, Clashmore Wood features accommodation with a terrace.
The Best Castles Along the North Coast 500 Route
There are many castles along the North Coast 500 route (or not far off of it) that you may want to visit!
- Castle of Mey
- Dunrobin Castle
- Eilean Donan Castle
- Inverness Castle
- Slains Castle
- Cawdor Castle
- Dunvegan Castle
The Best Beaches on the NC500
- Balnakeil Beach
- Dornoch Beach
- Dunnet Bay Beach
- Oldshoremore Beach
- Brora Beach
Tips to Make The Most Out of The NC500
- Plan your route and make accommodations in advance, especially in the summer. The NC500 is a popular route and accommodation is limited. Come without reservations in August and you might be sleeping in the car.
- Take your time and allow for plenty of breaks. The NC500 is a long drive and there are many scenic stops and attractions along the way. They are all well worth a stop and photo ops.
- Know how to drive in Scotland – or learn quickly! The roads on the NC500 can be winding and narrow, and you’ll need to pay extra attention while driving in Scotland.
- Respect the local wildlife and environment. The NC500 passes through some of the most beautiful and unspoiled areas of Scotland. Watch for livestock on the roads!
Fun Experiences on the North Coast 500 Route
- Have a Drink at the Black Isle Brewery
- Rock Rose Gin Tour
- Explore Smoo Caves
- Zip Line Adventure with Golden Eagle Zip Line near Durness
- Visit Corrieshalloch Gorge
- Canoe with Ewe Canoe
- Take to the hills with Colin Murdoch from Reraig Forest
Extend Your NC500 Trip to the Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye probably has the best scenery in the whole of Scotland and can easily be added onto a North Coast 500 trip. It’s a short drive from the Applecross Peninsula and offers plenty of things to do.
We recommend spending 3-4 days on the Isle of Skye alone, however, even if you only have one extra day it’s worth adding it onto your Nort Coast 500 Route.
Transport Around Scotland
Most trips to Scotland will start and end at Edinburgh Airport. The best way to travel around Scotland is with a rental car, especially if you’re traveling with a group. Driving in Scotland is no joke and it’s important to realize that before you rent a vehicle. For starters, the Scots drive on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right.
Second, instead of stop lights and signs to idle at most of the roads in Scotland run smoothly because of roundabouts.
Third and most important – the roads on the North Coast 500 are often small single track roads fit for just one vehicle at a time. There are passing points every 400 meters or so to let oncoming traffic get through. The car closest to a passing point should be the one to yield. Book your rental car far in advance to get the best rate, you can always cancel later if you find a better rate!
My favorites to look at are:
- RentalCars.com: Provides comparisons for car rentals in Europe.
- AutoEurope: I can often find deals here for car rentals in Europe.
- Discover Car Hire: Searches rental car prices around the globe.
Internet in Scotland
If you want to stay connected while in Scotland, I recommend picking up a Sim card and purchasing data when you arrive. We personally purchased 12 GB of data for £20 with Three.
Their coverage extended into patches of the highlands and allowed us to at the very least check our emails, Instagram, and Facebook each day. Other comparable telecom companies in the UK include O2 and Vodafone. You will not have service the entire route.
When is the Best Season to Drive the NC500?
High season (July-September)
Like most places in Europe, Scotland’s high season runs from July to mid-September. This is when you will find the best weather as noted above, but also crowds. Days are longer, the weather is warmer, and hotel and car rental prices are at their highest. Accommodation along the NC500 can book up quickly, make sure to book well in advance.
Shoulder Season (May-June and Late September-November)
We’ve traveled to Scotland during the shoulder season and loved it. The weather is cool, the leaves are orange and yellow, and the vibe in the air is wonderful. This is also when we’ve found great deals on car rentals and guesthouses. However, popular places like Glasgow and Skye were very busy. We saw sunny days, but also had a lot of those rainy Scotland overcast days.
Low Season (November-April)
The temperatures are cooler during the low season in Scotland and you stand a very strong chance of getting caught in a rain (or snow) storm. If you plan to travel to Scotland during this time you absolutely need a packable rain jacket, travel umbrella, and waterproof boots. The upside is you’ll find low prices and low numbers of tourists. If you are in Scotland over the holidays make sure to take part in the festivals around the cities!
Where to Stay on the North Coast 500?
Kingsmills Hotel – Inverness
Pretty much every North Coast 500 road trip starts or ends in the highland capital of Inverness. Accommodation is limited for the demand, but those lucky enough to book in advance can score rooms at the Kingsmills Hotel. Kingsmill is one of the best places to stay in the city. The hotel offers wonderful service based out of a 17th Century residence.
Natural Retreats – John O’ Groats
This is probably one of the coolest places to stay when it comes to accommodation in Scotland. These glass-faced self-catering apartments are located in the most Northernly town in Scotland, John O’ Groats, on the British Isle.
Old Drynie House – Black Isle
This was actually the first “true” bed and breakfast we have stayed at together (even after 60 countries!). It was a splendid experience and the character of a well run Scottish bed and breakfast makes it a must for anyone traveling the North Coast 500.
Royal Marine Hotel – Brora
Upon arrival at the Royal Marine Hotel, you’ll be treated to classic Highland hospitality before being led to your lovely and comfortable home away from home. Unwind in your well-equipped guest room or venture outside to explore the grounds or the beautiful beach that is only a few minutes away.
What to Pack for the NC500
Wondering what to wear in Scotland? The country’s weather is pretty notorious so it’s only natural that the question of what to pack for Scotland comes up a lot. With that in mind, you should be prepared as you’ll end up spending much of your time in Scotland outside enjoying its beautiful cities and breathtaking landscapes.
Scotland is brimming with old walking paths, ancient mountains, deep lakes, winding roads, rocky coastlines, castles, millions of sheep, barrels of whisky, and charming towns it’s the perfect place to lose yourself. It should be no surprise that Scotland is one of our favorite countries in the world. It’s more or less the big brother to Ireland with grander landscapes, prettier cities, more history, and one hell of a culture — kilts and bagpipes are awesome.
Wildlife to Be Aware of In Scotland
- Highland Cows: Wildlife in Scotland is so vast. Obviously, there is the highland cow which is an iconic picture of the highlands. You’ll find them all along the route! Be careful and watch for them crossing the road.
- Stags and Deer: Deer and Stags are fairly popular across Scotland and there is still a huge hunting community
- Puffins: Puffins can be found from late March and early April until August and nest on coastal clifftops. The biggest colony is on the island of St Kilda, but they could be spotted on the eastern cliffs from North Berwick to Berwick-on-Tweed and also from Galloway to Wick. When driving along in Scotland, it is not uncommon to see birds of prey across the sky either!
- Midges: Not sure how much you would class it as wildlife, but I’ve mentioned midges already but these deserve it again. Before we traveled to Scotland, I didn’t realize how bad the midges actually would be, and they can be wretched depending on your season of travel (particularly in the summertime). Grab some smidge if they are driving you crazy.
Plan For Your Trip
- Protect Your Trip: We don’t travel without travel insurance, nor should you. You never know what can happen while traveling, so it’s best to be prepared. HeyMondo provides excellent short-term and long-term travel insurance plans.
- Find Cheap Flights: Sign up for Going (formerly Scotts Cheap Flights) to get notified when prices get low.
- Book a Rental Car: We use Discover Car to book all our rental cars! You can also read our top tips for renting a car abroad here.
- Travel Adapter: Make sure you find a good adapter to keep your personal electronics charged. Otherwise, you may be paying for a cheap one once you land. Purchase one here.
- Travel Backpack: We like the Nomatic Travel Backpack for our travels. Check the price here.
- Our Favorite Travel Shoes: Our answer to this question is always ALLBIRDS! Check them out on their site!
- Get a Travel Credit Card: We travel worldwide for free because we have leveraged our spending into points. See why you should get a travel credit card and how you can do the same with our favorite travel credit cards.