The North Coast 500 is a 516-mile scenic route along Scotland’s northern coast that begins and ends in the city of Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands. Learn how to plan the perfect North Coast 500 road trip.
The Luxury Wanderer team recently reviewed a return flight from London Heathrow to Inverness in British Airways Club Europe Domestic - and while the flight may have underwhelmed, the Scottish Highlands were an incredible experience
The Highlands covers a vast area of Northern Scotland, and you could explore endlessly. We chose to the follow the “NC500” – North Coast 500 – which is essentially a circular route that starts & finishes in Inverness (the ‘500’ representing the number of miles of the route) and we added the Isle of Skye to the itinerary as a two day detour. The route largely hugs the coast and is well signed and easy to follow.
Follow our top tips below for a spectacular road trip through the Highlands!
When to go
Summer is, for obvious reasons, the most popular time to visit–long days and mild weather making for the best combination to enjoy your visit. If you can time your trip to late August/early September when Scottish schools are back in session, you may find it slightly less busy. If you’re lucky, ‘off-shoulder’ months of October, April and May can be pleasant; if you’re not it can be bleak, wet and cold. For most travellers driving in the Highlands in winter is best avoided if possible.
Inverness is the traditional gateway to the Highlands, and is well connected by plane (flights from London Heathrow (British Airways, which TLW recently reviewed) and Gatwick (Easyjet) and train (one or two direct services a day from London Kings Cross, and connecting services via Edinburgh). You could also fly into Aberdeen, Edinburgh or Glasgow but these airports are all a few hours’ drive from the Highlands.
Other than a handful of scenic but slow trains running up and down the line from Inverness to Thurso, and a few buses, there isn’t much public transport, so you’ll need a car to fully explore the Highlands. Be warned that car rentals are substantially more expensive in the Highlands given the location, and like everything else can be fully sold out well ahead of time. Some rental companies aren’t open on weekends so be sure to check ahead of time that you’ll be able to pick-up your car.
TLW highly recommends you rent a small automatic car (despite the premium over a manual transmission) – you’ll be grateful for its size & for not having to change gear on very challenging roads which involve a lot of stop-start driving. If you’re not comfortable driving a manual (stick-shift) this is not the time to learn!
Driving in the Highlands
Distances seem small in the Highlands, especially to those used to covering a vast number of miles in a day on open roads. While technically the speed limit for most A-roads is 60 mph, you’ll be lucky to average 20-30 mph on the steepest and most winding sections of road, so plan accordingly. It’s very unlikely you’ll be using cruise-control in the Highlands – especially in the North & West where single-track roads are the norm (more on this below) hence there’s little need for a fast or high-powered car.
Single Track Roads
Single track roads are a pervasive feature of the NC500 – especially in the North and West where even A-roads feature large distances that are single track. With a bit of practice, patience and courtesy the system works well. Essentially there is only one lane which features frequent ‘passing points’ for you (or oncoming traffic) to pull into to allow one car to pass.
When you see oncoming traffic ahead, the general rule of thumb is that whoever is closest to the passing point on their side of the road pulls in and allows the other to pass. Use of common sense means this rule doesn’t always apply (e.g. it’s good driving practice to allow those heading up a steep hill to have right of way, and likewise sometimes it makes sense to allow a large lorry or camper-van to have right of way). Take your time, and you’ll be just fine.
A word of warning to those prone to motion-sickness – the twisty, winding and stop-start driving caused by single-track roads in the North and West of the Highlands means it takes a cast-iron stomach to sit in the back of the car as a passenger.
Pre-trip research revealed a consensus that the NC500 is best driven in a counter-clockwise direction from Inverness; i.e. first heading up the east coast, and returning via the west coast – we’d endorse this recommendation for a few reasons. First, the roads on the east coast are bigger and typically dual track the whole way, so it’s a good way to get accustomed to driving in the Highlands. Secondly, the scenery gets progressively more spectacular as you head west – so although the east coast is very beautiful indeed, it would be somewhat anticlimactic to finish the drive on this side of the country.
A potential itinerary to start your planning (note that this includes an extension to the Isle of Skye so isn’t the classic NC 500 circular route) would look something like:
Day 1: Inverness to Dornoch (44 miles)
Day 2: Dornich to Thurso via John O’ Groats (98 miles)
Day 3: Thurso to Durness (70 miles)
Day 4: Durness to Inverloch (53 miles)
Day 5: Inverloch to Ullapool (37 miles)
Day 6: Ullapool to Broadford via Sheildag (and the Bealach na Ba pass*) (120 miles)
Day 7: Isle of Skye circular drive (126 miles)
Day 8: Broadford to Inverness (88 miles)
A note on Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle) – this is a winding & very demanding drive on single track road, serving as Britain’s steepest mountain pass with exceptionally steep gradients and tight switchbacks, and should only be attempted in fine weather by experienced drivers.
There are a handful of exceptionally high-end hotels along the NC500 route but they were fully booked on this visit – so typically we stayed in a mix of lodges, bed and breakfasts as well as self-catering properties booked through AirBnB, none of which were especially memorable or worthy of recommendation.
Travelling in the era of Covid-19 means things are different – but cynically we wondered if some of the drastic policies we saw on display along the NC500 weren’t more designed to make life a little easier for our hosts. Check-in, for example, was typically a narrow window in the late afternoon or early evening (e.g. 5pm to 6pm) and check-outs were early too – sometimes as early as 9am. Several establishments asked us to strip all the bedding “for Covid reasons” – and breakfast typically ran on a strict, pre-booked regime – no time for lazy breakfasts when on holiday in the Highlands!
Scotland has a mixed reputation for food – and certainly you can find deep-fried Mars bars and black pudding if you’re looking for it. But it’s also home to some of the finest produce in Europe – especially seafood, game and beef. That said, eating well can be challenging on the NC500, simply because demand can far outstrip supply for decent places to eat in most villages and towns, and typically if you haven’t booked in advance you’re unlikely to be able to arrive at your destination and stroll into a restaurant, which does remove a lot of the spontaneity that comes with exploring new places.
This is less of an issue if you’re staying in self-catering accommodation – most of the bigger towns on the route will have a Tesco for all your groceries, and smaller places typically feature a Co-op supermarket. Even the smallest village often has a Spar grocery store, but you should plan ahead if you’re staying in one of the small villages as supplies may be limited.
You should also note that opening hours can vary enormously – and many of the more casual food places can close as early as 6pm.
TLW tip: the Tesco Finest range features some high-quality products for a supermarket – handy for nibbles and snacks, as well as pre-made sandwiches which were a lifesaver on days where there was nowhere obvious to stop for lunch.
Two standout dining options were humble ones too – legendary pies served by the side of the river at The Larder in Lochinver and astonishingly fresh fish, landed that morning & cooked in a caravan to perfection at the Seafood Shack in Ullapool – both are highly recommended.
A caffeinated side-note: great coffee is hard to find along the NC500. Plenty of mediocre spots serving weak or burnt espresso (and avoid Cocoa Mountain at all costs) which made the discovery of The Birch Cafe in Portree on the Isle of Skye a revelation – this could be the best coffee north of Edinburgh and is well worth a detour!
It would be easy to spend weeks in the Highlands, but whatever your route make sure you don’t skip these sights:
- Dornoch – one of the most well-preserved Highland towns with beautiful beaches and sandstone period buildings (including a cathedral).
- Dunrobbin Castle – perched on the coast with gardens down to the sea, the picture perfect home of the Duke of Sutherland (and reportedly the inspiration behind the Disney castle).
- Castle Varrich (a scenic and relatively easy 30 minute hike from the village of Tongue). Mysterious ruined outpost, with spectacular 360 degree views.
- The drive along Loch Eriboll to Durness – jaw-dropping vistas as you follow one of the most scenic drives in the UK.
- The drive from Durness to the Kylesku Bridge – more incredible Highlands scenery on this sensational and unforgettable drive.
- Knockan Crag National Nature Reserve – if you only do one ‘geological’ walk this is it – fascinating & interactive walk showcasing the unique make-up of the Highlands strata.
- Ullapool – enchanting Highlands fishing village set on Loch Broom.
- Isle of Skye – a mini version of the Highlands – well worth a detour for spectacular landscapes, cliffs and lakes – plus whisky distilleries!
- Inverness/Loch Ness – Inverness is a striking city that is particularly beautiful when strolling along the banks of the Ness towards the loch.
This list barely scratches the surface, and for those interested in walking or hiking the Highlands is something of a paradise with walks and hikes for every level of fitness to be found nearly everywhere. Watch this space for more specific hiking suggestions on our next trip!
Final Note from The Luxury Wanderer Team
Ironically, the introduction of the NC500 branding has seen a surge in visitor numbers and in many ways the NC500 is a victim of its own success – in high season traffic is heavy in places and it’s worth emphasizing again accommodation and dining options are in very scarce supply.
This is not a trip to do spontaneously, you’ll need to plan and book well in advance (up to a year in some cases) to be sure to secure the full TLW experience – so get planning for next summer’s Highland fling as an unforgettable time in Scotland awaits!