18 North Coast 500 Tips to Know BEFORE You Drive

If you are considering a road trip on the epic North Coast 500 in Scotland, you are in for a huge treat. The North Coast 500 in the Scottish Highlands has been dubbed “Scotland’s Route 66” and named “one of the greatest road trips in the world.” When we first learned of its existence while in the Tanzanian bush, we knew we had to drive the epic Scottish 500.

The trip that followed was breathtaking and left us wanting more. It is a place that will always require “more time” because it’s likely you’ll never have enough. The North Coast 500 is epic, and few road trips around the world even compete for its beauty. We’re here to share some important North Coast 500 tips you should know before you go! Let’s dig in.

Our North Coast 500 (Scotland) Itinerary

NC500 Map

We started our North Coast 500 trip in Inverness and ended in Applecross before going to the Isle of Skye. Since we rented our car in Edinburgh, had some spare time on our hands, and were dying to see Skye, we decided not to cross back over to Inverness from Applecross (making the whole route “complete”). The whole route below took us eight full days, but we could have easily spent three weeks. For an extended NC500 itinerary, see this post!

What is the North Coast 500?

Cameron Bikes Along A Bridge On The NC500 In Scotland
The NC500 is sometimes referred to as the “Scottish 500”

It’s okay if you’re still questioning the North Coast 500! The National Highland Initiative coined the NC500 in 2015 to boost economic activity and tourism in the many pockets of the highlands that weren’t currently benefitting from much of Scottish tourism.

The route runs for more than 500 miles to and from Inverness, the capital of the highlands, and from there, you can either travel up the east coast or head to the west and travel up. 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. Although the roads, sites, and beauty have always existed in the Scottish Highlands, it wasn’t until it was given a name that the route exploded in popularity.

Important North Coast 500 Tips To Know

Don’t Over Plan

Natasha Looks Out At Scottish Countryside Along NC500 Route

With only eight days and a gazillion things to see, we knew we would never get to everything…but we tried. We packed in a lot in just over a week. By the end, we wanted to cuddle up on a familiar couch and binge-watch Netflix. We moved guesthouses daily, packing every morning and unpacking every night. We also had an itinerary of places to visit, restaurants, and check-in times to manage with our guesthouse owners.

We were constantly late because we all wanted to stop to enjoy the scenery, take photos, and soak in the atmosphere. Beating time is a losing fight on the North Coast 500, and if I could give you only one piece of advice for this route, it would be to not overplan your trip.

So, how long does it take to drive the North Coast 500?

Brora Beach From A Drone Shot

There is no right answer to that, as it is up to you! Before we left for the North Coast 500, we had a full eight-day agenda of everything we had to see on the North Coast 500.  We thought eight days would be an ideal amount of time to see everything, but there are so many things that we missed getting to.

In an ideal world, I think two weeks would be the perfect time to experience most of the North Coast 500. If you have anything less than five days, I suggest waiting until you have more time to make the 516-mile Scottish road trip, as you may be too rushed to enjoy it.

Factor in Stops for Photos

Natasha With Our Rental Car In Scotland And Highland Cows

Just because the GPS says it will take you an hour to get from Lochinver to Ullapool doesn’t mean it actually will. The drive on the North Coast 500 is just so mesmerizing you would be crazy not to get out, take photos, and enjoy the scenery outside of your car.

If you like taking photos and videos like us, it would be advisable to consider your stops when planning your drive. We may or may not have stopped for about an hour for an impromptu photo shoot with some of the famous highland coos.

Pack Accordingly

Natasha On A Bike In Scotland

“Well, you don’t come to Scotland for the weather,” we were told by many locals. Weather in Scotland and the Highlands is unpredictable.  It could be sunshine in November and hail in May. Unfortunately, we got all the rain and thunderstorms in September with very little sun or warmth. It was okay because we came prepared for all types of weather.

We recommend you do this while on the North Coast 500. Pack for rain, sun, and everything in between to ensure you’re always comfortable. Some must-have items when traveling the North Coast 500 are a good rain jacket, waterproof hiking pants, a great down jacket, hiking shoes, and a cute warm sweater for when it’s a wee bit chilly out. Psst—Read our full packing guide to Scotland here!

And remember to throw an adaptor in your bag! Scotland uses the standard British three-prong pin. You’ll want to ensure you have an adaptor before you set out on this trip so you can always charge your cameras and cell phones, or you may be paying a premium for one at the airport.

Book Ahead

North Coast 500 Stags

The North Coast 500 route has gained popularity rapidly. When we first drove it years ago, very few people had heard of it. When we revisited it in 2022, not a single person we spoke to hadn’t heard of it. The NC500 is so popular that the supply cannot often meet the demand, and people are stuck with no accommodation if they do not plan in advance.

This isn’t one of the places you can show up and book accommodation the day before. I know I said not to overplan, and you shouldn’t, except for accommodation. I recommend that you start looking at your accommodation options and book in advance right after you know where you are going.

The North Coast 500 can get very busy between June and October, so you may need to book your hotels and guesthouses at least a few months in advance. Otherwise, you may get stuck paying a premium or (even worse) have nowhere to stay. Check out where we slept!

Don’t Rely on the Internet on the North Coast 500

North Coast 500 Stags

Before we left Inverness, we picked up a SIM card from the telecom provider “Three.” We told the employees our plan to drive the North Coast 500, and they immediately told us not to expect the data to work much in the Scottish Highlands. We could not get a great signal in most places north of Inverness. Most of the time, we had no service at all, while occasionally, we could make a phone call, and only when we were in larger towns could we get 4G.

However, many of the hotels and lodges on the NC500 have WiFi; don’t expect it to be the greatest. It will most likely be enough to check your emails and browse. We met one couple who told us they were still using dial-up because their location was remote. With this much beauty when you travel to Scotland, you shouldn’t need much internet. It’s the perfect place to relax and disconnect for a while.

Get Active on the NC500

Paddle Boarding On Brora Lake Along The North Coast 500

Don’t think that because you are doing one of the best road trips in the world, you will have to sit cooped up in a car all day. It’s the opposite! Most of Scotland’s best activities are outdoors. Fancy a paddle board or fly fishing? Well, there are countless lochs around! Mountain biking is also at its finest here, as are seascape tours, hiking trails, castle exploring, waterfall chasing, and even caving.

All of the highlights of our trip involved some outdoor activity. We loved mountain biking along the heather in Invershin with Heaven Bikes, cave exploring in Smoo Caves, and, of course, our epic time interacting with some of the many Scottish stags in Reraig Forest.

You Can Walk (Almost) Anywhere on the NC500

Scottish Highlands - Getting Active and Healthy

I should probably mention that you can walk just about anywhere in Scotland—yes, anywhere! We were shocked when locals told us this. In Scotland, without worrying about trespassing, we can freely roam around any mountains, moorland, woods, forests, grassland, fields, rivers and lochs, or coastal areas. Trespassing in Scotland is “not a thing.” Coming from the United States, where “No Trespassing” signs could be met with prosecution or, even worse – a gun nut, we think this is an amazing law.

North Coast 500

The “freedom to roam” is the general public’s right to access certain public or privately owned land for recreation. This doesn’t include houses, gardens, or military bases — you can’t camp in someone’s yard. The right-to-roam law allows people to enjoy the land and inland water for their own well-being. The only stipulation is that you must do so responsibly and safely. So, mind the sheep and close the gate!

More info on Scotland's Outdoor Access Code can be found here

Have A Drink!

Clynelish Distillery In Brora

You’ve certainly heard of Scotch Whisky. The world-famous spirit is distilled all over Scotland, and it shouldn’t be surprising that several distilleries are along the North Coast 500 route. We have visited the Clynelish, Balblair, and Glen Ord whisky distilleries—which run whisky tours around the distillery, with a tasting at the end.

However, we were shocked when we learned that many Scots don’t actually drink whisky. Gin is a hot commodity these days, and within a few years, Gin distilleries have popped up all around Scotland. We were lucky enough to visit one of the first gin distilleries in Scotland on the route, the Dunnet Bay Distillery.

Rock Rose Gin Things To Do In Edinburgh

The gin distillery is located in Dunnet, not far from the popular John O Groats stop. It makes all-organic Gin and features local ingredients from the heather, including rock rose, which provides the name for its signature Rock Rose Gin. It’s wonderful, and we highly recommend it!

If hard spirits aren’t your thing, then head to a brewery! Yes, Scotland has those, too. The Black Isle Brewery is great for visiting and sampling some organic craft beers. The brewery is open to visits, and if they have the time, they’ll take you in the back and show you around. They also brew an NC500 IPA that is seriously delicious and perfect for drinking on the North Coast 500.

Some of the Best Distilleries on the North Coast 500:

Inside A Scottish Whisky Distillery
  1. Glenmorangie Distillery: located in Tain, this distillery is known for producing some of the finest single-malt Scotch whisky in the world.
  2. Old Pulteney Distillery: based in Wick, this distillery produces a range of single malt whiskies known for their maritime character.
  3. Clynelish Distillery: Located in Brora, this distillery produces a range of single malt whiskies that collectors highly prize.
  4. Balblair Distillery: located in the village of Edderton, this distillery is known for its range of single malt whiskies aged in various casks.
  5. The Singleton Distillery: based in Muir of Ord, this distillery produces a range of single malt whiskies known for their rich, full-bodied flavor.

The Best Breweries on the North Coast 500

  • Black Isle Brewery: based in the village of Munlochy, this brewery produces a range of organic ales and lagers using locally grown ingredients.
  • Cromarty Brewing Company: based in the town of Cromarty, this brewery produces a range of ales and lagers using locally grown ingredients.
  • Windswept Brewery: located in the village of Lossiemouth, this brewery produces a range of ales and lagers using locally grown ingredients.
  • Swannay Brewery: based in the village of Orkney, this brewery produces a range of ales and lagers using locally sourced ingredients.

Don’t Drink and Drive

A Bottle Of Talisker Storm While Looking Over The Isle Of Skye

On the topic of alcohol, I suppose I should mention that the alcohol limit for drivers in Scotland is 50 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 milliliters of blood – or almost nothing. Yes, just one cocktail, beer, or glass of wine can put you over the legal limit to operate a vehicle.

 If you are going in for a mid-day whisky tasting but still have to drive around Scotland afterward, ask the staff to wrap up your whisky to enjoy later. They are all aware of the drinking and driving laws and have nice take-home bottles to give you as a part of your tasting. They completely understand and would rather you be safe than sorry.

The North Coast 500 is the Most Beautiful Drive on Earth!

A Road Through The Scottish Highlands

And we’ve been to many places – 85 countries and counting, to be exact. We’ve seen the tides roll in on the empty beaches of Mozambique, watched the sunrise over the world’s tallest sand dunes in Namibia, and seen where the hobbits reside in New Zealand. All those places are insanely beautiful, but the Scottish Highlands are surreal. Rolling hills, dramatic cliff faces, creeping heather, deep blue lochs, and alpine forests? It’s a lot to contend with!

The North Coast 500 route packs in some of the prettiest places in the world. I even started to get just a wee bit annoyed with Cameron because he wouldn’t stop saying “WOW” every time we drove around a bend. I guess I’m trying to say to bring a camera and prepare for your jaw to hit the floor.

The NC500 is NOT 500 miles

Dunrobin Castle on North Coast 500
Dunrobin Castle

Technically, the North Coast 500 is 516 miles, but let’s be honest—500 sounds way better. You don’t have to travel the entire route to take in the beauty, though. We met plenty of visitors who came just to spend a few days traveling up from the city and either started their trip on the East or West Coast.

Brush Up on Your Driving Skills

Traffic Jam in Scotland
This was the only road out of town, so the jam held everyone up for an hour while we waited for the police.

Driving in Scotland is no joke, and realizing that before renting a vehicle is essential. The Scots drive on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right. We are used to this after extensive driving across Africa, but many foreigners are not.

Second, instead of stoplights, most of the roads in Scotland run smoothly because of roundabouts. Yes, roundabouts. Those circle streets may make you a wee bit nervous about driving on if you’re not used to them. Well, there are tons of them in Scotland, which we realized about five minutes after we picked up our rental car at the airport. Ensure you know the rules of the road and how to navigate them before you drive here.

Drive well on the NC500

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. Every 400 meters, there are passing points to let oncoming traffic get through. The car closest to a passing point should be the one to yield. That does not mean crossing the path of another vehicle into the passing moment. If the passing place is on your side of the road you move over, if it is on their side you wait for them to approach you. Always make sure there is enough room on the road to pass.

These aren’t motorways or highways, and plenty of sheep and cattle are on the side of the road, so drive sensibly. To drive the North Coast 500, you must be patient and aware of your surroundings. Don’t drive too fast, don’t take photos while driving (yes, we saw that many times), and don’t litter – the locals don’t appreciate these behaviors. If you are uncomfortable driving yourself, you can always tour Scotland!

There is No “Right Time” To Drive Scotland’s North Coast 500

Natasha Waving At A Highland Cow On North Coast 500

Like most places, summer is the ideal time to travel the North Coast 500 in terms of weather. Scotland isn’t known for having weather like the Mediterranean, so to increase your chances of sunshine, a trip to the Highlands is best between May and August. However, everyone wants to go during this time of year, so you will likely find more people, higher prices, and low accommodation availability.

That being said, the North Coast 500 will have incredible scenery any time of the year, although the weather may change a bit. You really never know what the Scottish Gods will give you on your trip. We decided to take our trip in the middle of September in hopes of chasing the perfect fall, but instead, we experienced rain and grey skies our entire trip. It’s a good thing we packed raincoats and like editing “moody” photos.

Update: We also returned to drive the NC500 in July and got all sorts of weather - heat waves, rainy days, and everything in between. Truly plan for anything!

An NC500 Trip Can Get Expensive

Highland Scottish Cows Along Road Side

The UK is not known for being cheap, and the Scottish Highlands are no exception. A combination of transport, activities, food, and accommodation can easily set you back at least £200+ a day per person. The more lavish you go, the more expensive – and there are many lavish places to eat and stay on the North Coast 500. You can even rent a Lamborghini to do the drive if you want to go all out!

The Torridon Hotel On The North Coast 500
The Torridon Hotel

Of course, more affordable ways exist to tackle the North Coast 500. Traveling with a group of friends is sure to lower your vehicle hire fees, and if you are a couple, splitting a hotel room will help your budget. There are many hostels along the way, and each main town will have at least one supermarket for you to pick up groceries instead of eating out.

If you’re really up for a cheap adventure, you can cycle the North Coast 500, hitchhike, wild camp, and cook all your food. The silver lining for foreigners is that the British pound has taken a hit since Brexit and economic savants like Liz Truss, so your home currency is sure to go further than in previous years.

Read More: How Much Does a Trip to Scotland Cost?

Car, Camper, Bike, or Walk

An Arnold Clark Rental Car Along The North Coast 500

On the route, you have several different options for travel style. Most people will hire a car or a campervan, but you can also find some of the active bunch walking or cycling the route. We personally chose to rent a car and drive ourselves around to make the most of our time. We have a post with tips for renting a car in Scotland.

However, if I were to redo it, I would love to cycle the North Coast 500 one day. Make comparisons online before you arrive in Scotland to get the best rates on car rentals. When we landed in Scotland, we picked the car up right from Edinburgh Airport.

If you want to try walking the route, you can get support at World Walkers and find others who have done it. If you are a confident cycler and want some route planning, check out the North Coast 500 website. We would love for anyone to take this route regardless of budget. No matter what, the beautiful views of the Scottish Highlands are for everyone to enjoy.

Search and Compare Prices for Rental Cars

Where to Go on the North Coast 500

Checking the map on the North Coast 500

There are hundreds of places to stop on the North Coast 500. A few of the highlights are:

  • Inverness: This city is the starting point of the North Coast 500 and is known for its rich history, stunning castle, and beautiful surrounding countryside.
  • Ullapool: This charming port town is a great place to stop for a bite to eat and to take in the breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and sea.
  • Torridon: This area is home to some of the most stunning landscapes in the Highlands, with towering mountains, glistening lochs, and ancient forests.
  • Durness: This small village is located on the far northwest coast of Scotland and is known for its beautiful beaches and breathtaking views.
  • John O’Groats: This is the northeasternmost point of mainland Scotland and a popular stop on the North Coast 500. It’s a great place to take in the rugged coastline and spot wildlife such as seals, dolphins, and whales.
  • Inverewe Garden: This beautiful garden is located on the shores of Loch Ewe and is home to a wide variety of plants and flowers from around the world.
  • Dunrobin Castle: This stunning castle is located near the village of Golspie and is known for its beautiful gardens and rich history.
  • Nairn: This town is known for its beautiful beaches and is a great place to relax and take in the stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
  • Fort George: Just off the route, this historic fort was built in the 18th century and is now a popular tourist attraction. It offers guided tours and stunning views of the surrounding area.
15 BEST Stops on the North Coast 500 Route (Scotland)

When is the Best Season to Travel to Scotland?

Natasha Hiking in Scotland
Hiking in Scotland
High season (July-September)

Like most European places, Scotland’s high season runs from July to mid-September. This is when you will find the best weather, as noted above, and crowds. Days are longer, the weather is warmer, and hotel and car rental prices are at their highest.

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 we also had a lot of rainy, overcast days in Scotland.

Low Season (Late November-April)

The temperatures are cooler during the low season in Scotland, and you have a strong chance of getting caught in a rain (or snow) storm. If you plan to travel to Scotland during this time, you 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, participate in the festivals around the cities!

Plan For Your Trip

About Natasha Alden

Natasha is the co-founder of The World Pursuit. She is an expert in travel, budgeting, and finding unique experiences. She loves to be outside, hiking in the mountains, playing in the snow on her snowboard, and biking. She has been traveling for over 10 years, across 7 continents, experiencing unique cultures, new food, and meeting fantastic people. She strives to make travel planning and traveling easier for all. Her advice about international travel, outdoor sports, and African safari has been featured on Lonely Planet, Business Insider, and Reader’s Digest.

Learn more about Natasha Alden on The World Pursuit About Us Page.

3 thoughts on “18 North Coast 500 Tips to Know BEFORE You Drive”

  1. If you want to eat out in Ullapool, Inchnadamph or Lochinver forget it after 8 pm. Inchnadamph hotel rarely open, we spent a week in a cottage close to it and it was most unwelcoming with a private function notice up all week. May bank holiday weekend in Ullapool and campground full yet both chipshops closed or closing by 8.30 on the Saturday night. Lochinver, Peets, not serving after 8.30, Culag Hotel busy but kitchen closed.
    I live in the Highlands and have to say the quality of service is pretty poor and if you want to eat late North of Perth you’ll probably struggle. Obviously making lots of money if the don’t need to stay open and provide a service. Thank goodness for hardworking people in the Chinese takeaway in Ullapool or we would have gone hungry.

  2. I would suggest that given a choice you avoid the 3 mobile network. O2 or BT will give you better coverage outside Inverness.
    How do I know? I live here, my husband has 3 and I use BT, I get far better and wider reception than he does.

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