One of the best trips I did in 2017 – nay, one of the best trips I’ve ever done in my life – was the North Coast 500 route in Scotland. Those are big words, I know, but it’s amazing how often I think back to that road trip. Taking you on a loop around Northern Scotland, the route really has it all: amazing views, delicious food, dramatic beaches, snowcapped mountains, cute towns, and, perhaps best of all, Highland cows. The route didn’t even have a name until a few years ago, but now it’s making all the lists of best road trips to take around the world, and for very good reason. For 13 very good reasons, in fact.
I have a lot more to say about the North Coast 500 – I’d like to write posts on the best route to take as well as an in-depth packing list – but for now, I wanted to share some of my favourite photos to inspire you to take on this road trip for yourself.
Here, then, are 13 reasons why you should prioritise a road trip around Scotland’s North Coast 500. Please note that there are a couple of affiliate links in this post!
1. The views along the North Coast 500
It seemed that Helen – my road trip buddy and blogger extraordinaire – could barely drive half a mile without having to stop for photos on the North Coast 500. There were so many beautiful sights that I often needed to just put the camera down and take it all in; surrounded by otherworldly landscapes, I nearly felt overwhelmed by the beauty of it all.
This meant that we spent a majority of our five days on the route – the absolute minimum I’d recommend to drive it – screeching the car to a halt when we wanted to soak in a gorgeous view, but every single stop was worth it.
2. The beaches
Considering the UK is surrounded by water – it’s made up of 6,289 islands, after all – you’d think that more people would associate Scotland with beaches, and yet I think that aspect of the country is often overlooked. When I lived in Edinburgh in 2008 I’d frequently head to a nearby beach for a walk, and on a sunny day it was absolutely glorious. Considering the North Coast 500 is exactly that – a route around the coast of Scotland – it means that there are literally hundreds of beaches to stop at along the way.
Some are right along the road and easy to spot, while others will require a little trek to get to. Helen and I drove the North Coast 500 in early March, and we were often the only people on the beaches we visited.
3. The mountains
You’ll see so many snowcapped mountains on the North Coast 500 that you’ll quickly lose count. Some of the best mountains we saw were just outside Ullapool; the West Coast has more mountains and arguably better views than the East Coast, so I’d recommend driving counter-clockwise from Inverness so that you save the best views for last.
4. The culture
You want a taste of Scottish culture? You’ll find it in spades on the North Coast 500. As many of the towns you’ll stop in are quite small – some are more like villages than towns – you’ll always be a stone’s throw from a traditional pub. At the end of a day of driving, make sure to get yourself to a ceilidh (an event with live music and dancing) or out for a whisky tasting.
5. The animal spotting
Along the North Coast 500 you’ll spot many domesticated animals – cows, goats, and sheep – as well as some wildlife, including gorgeous deer. You might even spot whales or dolphins at sea if you’re lucky. Make sure to drive safely to avoid any collisions; everyone has to share the road!
6. The bragging rights
I know, I know… it’s never cool to brag. But c’mon, I’m not the only person who wanted to visit John O’Groats, the most northernmost spot on mainland UK, right?!
7. The towns
There are so many charming towns and villages along the North Coast 500 that it would be impossible to see them all unless you had months and months to spend. Although some may close up their restaurants and/or hotels in low season, you’re never too far from another just down the road. Please note that service isn’t great along the North Coast 500, so I recommend taking a paper guidebook with you just in case you can’t rely on electronics to get you the information you need. Lonely Planet makes a Scotland guide book, although I took a Rough Guides guide to Scotland on this particular trip!
All of my favourites, including where to stay along the North Coast 500, coming soon…
8. The castles
Scotland boasts over 2,000 castles – yes, two thousand – and so you’re bound to run into quite a few on the North Coast 500. Even for a history amateur like me, seeing these structures built hundreds and even thousands of years ago was absolutely incredible. Trust me: you’ll often feel like you’ve stepped directly into a fairytale when you’re on the North Coast 500. Or, at the very least, into a James Bond film.
9. The snow
As someone from the Canadian prairies, you’d think I’d have seen enough snow to last a lifetime. However, there was something about stopping to play in the snow – you’ll see the most of it in the Bealach na Bà pass – that gave me a huge thrill. You really do get every kind of landscape on the North Coast 500.
10. The weather
Yep, you read that correctly: the weather. Despite having a reputation for raining all the time, Scotland can have gorgeously sunny days, even in winter. When Helen and I drove the route, we experienced sun on every single day but one. The weather seemed to change a lot – think pouring rain and grey skies to bright blue horizons twenty minutes later – but this made for striking photos and, you guessed it, lots of rainbows. Even when it’s misty and rainy, it’s absolutely beautiful.
11. The food
You know I couldn’t write a list like this and leave off the cuisine, right? I have no idea where the UK got such a bad reputation for its food – that has to stem from decades ago – because I am always completely spoiled for food choice when I travel around the UK. The food on the North Coast 500 is no exception, and you’ll find plenty of hearty meals to warm you up after a long day of driving. Think traditional stews, lots of haggis (trust me, it’s amazing), and some of the freshest seafood in the world. If you’ve never tried cullen skink before (a haddock soup), you are in for a real treat.
12. The Highland cows
I mean, C’MON. They are adorable. And they’re everywhere. We respected their distance and never walked up to any of the cows (all photos were taken from the car) although we met quite a few behind fences that were very happy about coming over for a head scratch.
13. Did I mention the views on the North Coast 500?
Insanely beautiful, right? As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, the North Coast 500 is one of the best trips I’ve ever done in my life, and I’ve recommended it hundreds of times to people in person already.
Not only that… you often get these views all to yourself. While the North Coast 500 is very busy in summer – peak season – going in low season guarantees you tons of space. You’re taking a chance with the weather, yes, and not everything will be open, but driving through mountains like the ones pictured above and just having it all to ourselves… you really can’t beat that. Just make sure to buy yourself a tartan shawl before you go like I did. 😉
I always hesitate to say things like, “Go now before everyone realises how amazing this is and it becomes overrun!”… but seriously, go now. Go right now. You won’t regret it.
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Please note that I was covering the North Coast 500 as part of an Expedia + Visit Britain campaign for their site; they asked me where I wanted to go in Great Britain, and I chose this journey. All opinions are completely my own. I used Expedia to book every single aspect of my North Coast 500 trip, including my trains from London, my rental car, and all of my hotels. For more on how to book your own trip, make sure to check out Expedia. More information on this incredible road trip, including specifics on where to stay, what to pack, and how much it costs, to come!
Have you ever heard of the North Coast 500? Is it a trip that appeals to you?
Aw! So many good memories of this trip! 🙂 xxxx
It was one of the best of my life. Let’s do another road trip!! 🙂
Omg, I HAVE to go back to Scotland next year. In addition to this roadtrip, I’d love to walk the path along Hadrian’s Wall. Oh, please let spring arrive fast!
Yes! That would be a fantastic trip!!
The scenery looks incredible! This is definitely on my Scotland wish list.
I would definitely recommend it! I hope you get there soon 🙂
I was in Glasgow, Scotland for five months this year (study abroad) and I’m already aching to go back! The North Coast 500 is my #1 reason for wanting to go back to Scotland because even though I was there for 5 months I wasn’t able to see much of the country north of the highlands. For such a tiny landmass, there’s so much to see and do!
I totally agree – there is SO much to see and do in Scotland! One of my favourite countries, hands down. I hope you get back soon!
I am heading to Scotland for the first time in May and am so excited! I won’t he going that far up north- only as far as Inverness and isle of Skye and then down to oban, but I am still pumped! Will definitely add this road trip to my list though
You are going to love it! Such a beautiful part of the world… I’m very excited for you! 🙂
This article hit me right in the feels! ? I love Scotland so much, and constantly struggle with going back or seeing the rest of the world.
Hopefully by the time I make it back there, my driving skills have improved! I had a rather disastrous car rental mishap when I was there earlier this year! ?
Thankfully, if you go during low season, the roads are pretty much empty!! 😉 I hope you get back there very soon, I totally know what it feels like to want to go back again and again…
How have I never heard of this trip? It looks absolutely incredible. Great… now I have one more trip to add to my list for while we’re living in Europe. How will I do them all?? =D
I hadn’t heard of it until a couple of years ago, but to be fair, it was only designated as “The North Coast 500” in the past few years! I definitely recommend this one if you have the chance 😀
Ooooh, this post makes me so giddy! I have long wanted to do a road trip around the UK coast – Scotland in particular – and I think that it might actually happen at the end of March! I am definitely saving this for the future, and I cannot wait to begin planning my own visit. Thank you thank you thank you! Happy 2018 to you — I hope this year brings you joy and prosperity and many new adventures 🙂 xx
Thank you so much, Veena! I hope that you get to do the North Coast 500 very soon 😀 Happy New Year!
Wow! Those views are completely stunning! Adding this to my travel dream list. Definitely agree that traveling in off-season can be the best. You get solicitude and a sense of the local culture that is often absent or dwarfed by visitors in the high-season. Thanks for all the great recommendations and beautiful photos!
Absolutely! I hope you get to do the North Coast 500 soon 🙂
Impressive post.Scotland is beautiful place to travel.Road trips are really amazing.It is really a different experience which we get on road trip.Thanks for sharing this post with us.Keep sharing.
I love this post. I’m headed to Scotland in May for part of my MA program. I hadn’t really considered renting a car in Europe before (I have an American drivers license). Was renting a car affordable?
Renting a car is SUCH a great way to see Europe, especially the UK. We went for a large SUV so the rental was quite high, but I think if you’re fine with a car it’s not too bad. Just keep checking around for deals! Also check to see which countries need an international driver’s license… you don’t have to do a test or anything, just apply online and pay around $25 (at least for Canadians, I assume it’s the same with the US).
I actually rented an automatic car in Scotland last May.
I’m an American over 25 yrs old, so all I needed was my drivers license & passport.
It came out to about 500 usd for 8 days. Also, if you pay with a debit card you have to put a deposit of £200 (with Enterprise)
Hope this helps!
Any chance of cutting back on the exclamation marks!!! And the emojis? Although I see the other commentators use them…
You’re offended/annoyed because I use exclamation marks and smiley faces when I’m thanking people in the comments of my own personal blog?! Ha ha wow, that’s a first!! To answer your question… nope!!! 😀 😀 😀
No. My comment was about your writing style in your article. I mentioned other commenters as they seemed to have a similar writing style to yours. I’m neither offended or annoyed. I quite like your blog. I do wonder how much of the dust-dry Scottish humour you missed on your trip as you have clearly so missed the point of what I said.
Just for shits and giggles, I searched for exclamation points in this post. There are five in 1,500 words, with one emoji. And after six years of living in the UK, including Scotland, I am very aware of both English and Scottish humour – there’s no need to be so condescending. Maybe you didn’t catch on that I was being sarcastic in response to your sarcasm 😉
To be honest, these kinds of exchanges always make me sad because you say you like my blog, and yet the only time you comment is to criticise, even if it’s masked with attempted humour. Not only that, you do it anonymously. Forgive me, but I would just never think to do that to another person when they’ve so clearly put a lot of work into something, and shown nothing but respect in that work.
Anyway, take care!!!!!!!!!!! 😀 😀 😀
Absolutely love it!
I’m not sure if it’s the North Coast 500, but I’ve certainly heard of some roadtrip which I saw featured on the BBC Travel Show!
I absolutely adore Scotland, ‘cos it’s worth it!
I love Scotland, too! Such an amazing country. I definitely recommend this road trip if you get the chance 🙂
Those views are unbelievable ( and the cows are sooo cute)! I would love to do a road trip like this one day!
We should do one together one day 🙂
This is my favourite part of mainland Scotland. For years hardly anyone bothered going that far north and so I had pretty much to myself and although I liked it quiet I felt bad that people were missing out. Now it’s being marketed as a roadtrip it’s sure to get more popular, but as it still seems so far away to most people I doubt there’s any danger of it becoming ‘over-run’.
I agree, I don’t think it will become overrun, but I’m sure it will gain popularity over the years as more people find out about it! Such a fantastic part of Scotland, I hope to return one day…
I’d been following you on Instagram before this particular trip of yours, but this was what hooked me. (I think part of it was because that’s when you first started doing stories?) Scotland has always been one of my top dream destinations, but I’d never heard of the North Coast 500. It went on the list last March and after reading this and seeing your stunning pics, I want to go SO BADLY! This seems like a true Scottish experience – not just hitting up pubs and checking out the main tourist attractions like you see so often. I really hope I get to do this some day, and if I do, it’ll be because you inspired me, Brenna! In the meantime I’ll look forward to more posts about your experience there.
What perfect timing! The pictures are lovely. We have just read this blog and it is where we are planning a trip in June. We would love to hear about the places you stayed. Thank you so much.
I hope you get there, Pam! It’s a fantastic road trip 🙂
I admit, I hadn’t heard of this before! But I do love a good road trip, and this one looks incredible!
I definitely recommend this one! It’s absolutely stunning…
I’ve been dying to go back to Scotland ever since I went over 10 years ago, but I didn’t get a chance to go to the Highlands. Thank you for the tip! I will definitely do this road trip!
I’m sure you’ll absolutely love it! 🙂
Ever since seeing this post I’ve been mentally gearing myself up to take the same one! Obsessed with those views and I love road trips! Would definitely love tips and tricks for this kind of journey, even though I only have the time to plan it for June! Hoping it’s not too busy!
It’s such a great journey! I definitely recommend it… I’m sure June would be busy but very beautiful 🙂
I live in Scotland and hadn’t even heard of this! I’m so glad I have come across your blog. Originally, I was looking at others places in Europe to visit but this post has opened my eyes to the beauty and adventure that is much closer to home. I’m currently learning to drive (which is one of the biggest challenges I have faced yet) and if I pass I definitely want to schedule this trip with a friend. All the est – Amy x
Aw, that’s amazing, Amy! I really hope you try the North Coast 500, it remains one of the best road trips I’ve ever done. 🙂
Well you have done it now, my wife stumbled across your blog a couple of weeks ago and said to me, you never told me that the north cost was so beautiful. The reason she said this was my last job as the manager of a team engineers in Scotland I had to travel all over Scotland. So tomorrow we set out on the NC500 in a motorhome.