My recommended things to do in Inverness and the surrounding area
Inverness is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Scotland. It is known as 'The Capital of the Highlands' and acts as a great base for exploring the north of the country. The city of Inverness is compact and easy to explore on foot and although there are many places to visit within Inverness itself, some of the well known Inverness tourist attractions like Culloden and Loch Ness lie outside the centre.
You can travel to the city by bus or train and many attractions are walkable from the city centre but a car is advisable if you want to explore the outlying sites mentioned in this list. Inverness even has its own airport and the city acts as a gateway to countless Highland adventures whatever direction you decide to travel in once you get there.
My recommended things to do in and near to Inverness includes a mix of some of the top things to do but also some of the lesser known gems as I always aim to showcase a different side to the popular tourist places in Scotland.
I've also included a range of sight-seeing options that are within a 20 minute drive and I've marked all of the places mentioned in this handy interactive map to help you plan your itinerary.
What to do in Inverness
All of the following suggestions can easily be reached on from Inverness city centre
Inverness Museum and Art Gallery
I personally think a visit to Inverness Museum and Art Gallery is one of the best things to do in Inverness. The museum covers an extensive history of the area and is a great starting point for those interested in learning more about the different historical periods of the Scottish Highlands.
On the ground floor you will find exhibits dating back billions of years in the geology section and some amazing Pictish and Iron Age finds. Medieval Inverness, Gaelic culture and Highland wildlife are all covered on this floor too.
On the first floor the story of the Jacobites, Highland dress and weaponry all feature and there is even an opportunity to dress up if you feel inclined! Other exhibits include field sports, Inverness silver, Scottish identity, the Clearances and life in 20th century Inverness.
The museum is free to visit and is also home to a shop and cafe,
The only part of Inverness Castle currently opened to the public is the Castle Viewpoint. I was lucky enough to visit on a sunny day and was welcomed with a rainbow over the city which was just beautiful. The 360 degree view from the top is fantastic, and on a clear day it is definitely worth the admission price.
The view is the main attraction here although there are a couple of short videos on different floors to give you a breather during the climb up the tower. The video at the start which shows you the various landmarks to look out for from the viewpoint is the most interesting, I personally didn't think the other exhibits added much to the experience.
There is an entry fee and in my opinion you really are just paying for the view. I personally thought it was worth it on a clear day as I had an extensive outlook but I don't think I'd be so keen in poor weather, especially as you are quite exposed when you're outside at the top.
If you love books then don't miss a visit to Leakey's Bookshop which is housed in an old church in Inverness. It is the second largest secondhand bookstore in Scotland and is an Aladdin's Cave for bibliophiles like me.
I have lost a good number of hours of my life in here, along with a good chunk of my bank balance! I tend to gravitate towards the Scottish section which is filled with a wonder of titles from various decades and even centuries. However, there are categories to please everyone from the popular to the obscure.
The decor is quaint and cosy, with a stove to keep the interior warm on winter days. It is exactly as a secondhand bookshop should be, inviting and characterful with a distinctive 'old book' aroma.
If you are a bookshop lover then I highly recommend a visit to Wigtown in Dumfries & Galloway. It is Scotland's National Book Town and it would be easy to spend a day just browsing its many bookshops.
Inverness Cathedral dominates the riverside and as it is free to visit, it is worth popping in to view the decorative interior if you are nearby. It is not as old as many other cathedrals in Scotland as it only opened in 1869.
A leaflet at the entrance-way points out all the features of note and you can use this as a guide while you walk around. The cathedral is still a working one and also holds events such as concerts and exhibitions.
Within the grounds there is a cafe and gift shop which runs as a social enterprise. Volunteers working in the cafe gain qualifications to help build their confidence and to prepare them for employment. Choosing to eat there is a good way to support the local community.
Did you know it is possible to go island hopping in Inverness without leaving the city? Ness Islands are a group of islands in the River Ness which have handily been connected by a series of pretty Victorian foot bridges. The result is the best nature walk near the city centre in my opinion.
The total circular walk is around 3 miles although you can take a short cut if you don't want to do the full thing. The terrain is flat and easygoing so it is suitable for most abilities and benches are dotted around if you prefer to sit and take in the view.
If you need a break from the busy city centre or a peaceful respite from running around tourist attractions, this is a lovely little oasis where you can take some time out to recharge your batteries.
If you have a little longer to spare, Inverness Botanic Gardens (see below) offers a nice extension to the walk.
Inverness Botanic Gardens
Inverness Botanic Gardens is not a very big attraction so it won't take long to look around but it is free to visit and also makes a good rainy day option. Personally, I found combining it with the Ness Island walk worked well for a nature themed morning.
There is a tropical glasshouse, cactus house and a garden area to explore. On a chilly and slightly dreich Inverness day, I did find the glasshouses with their warm, humid temperatures and exotic plants a nice wee sanctuary!
The Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Centre
I'll put my hands up to having discounted the Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Centre on my previous trips to Inverness as I was worried I would find it a little too 'touristy'. However, on my most recent trip to the city, I decided to stump up the £2 entrance fee to find out exactly what it was all about.
It is easy for bloggers and writers to publish lists of top things to do in a place without ever having visited themselves, I see it all the time. Personally, I think it is important for me to have first hand experience of places that I write about so I can give accurate and honest advice. Even if something is not my cup of tea, I will still investigate if I think it will be of interest to my readers.
In this case I was right and wrong. The exhibition is definitely aimed at tourists who are caught up in the romance of the kilt and are happier to overlook the flaws than a local would be. The video and displays are dated and the exhibition is quite small. Saying that, I did learn some new facts about the kilt and the highlight is watching the kilts being handmade in the workshop behind the glass window.
The exhibition has so much potential, there is plenty of interesting history and content, but it needs a complete overhaul to bring it up to 21st century visitor attraction standard. Its only £2 entry so you don't have much to lose but I can't help feeling that it is easy money for them as it seems there has been no changes in what looks like decades! My own feeling is there should be more effort to provide a quality visitor experience as tourists to Scotland deserve better for their money.
Abertarff House is the oldest house in Inverness, dating back to 1593. The town house has seen several owners including the Frasers of Lovat and the Commercial Bank of Scotland.
In 1963 the bank gifted the building to the National Trust for Scotland who restored the house and let it out as offices. In 2018 it opened to the public, although when I visited only one room was open which had some display boards about the history of Inverness.
I believe there are plans to open more of the building to the public, with a cafe proposed for the site, so keep an eye out for future updates.
The Caledonian Canal is a 60 mile long route that connects four lochs with man-made waterways. Construction of the canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1803 to link the west and east coast of Scotland, allowing vessels to avoid the risky journey around Cape Wrath.
The famous engineer Thomas Telford subsequently produced the plans for what is recognised as an impressive feat of early 19th Century engineering, now protected as a Scheduled Monument.
A towpath runs along the canal which begins near to Inverness city centre. Telford Street is a good place to start as you can watch the boats going through the locks but you can join the canal path at any point and walk as far as you like. If you have a bike it is also perfect for cycling.
If you fancy a holiday with a difference then I highly recommend travelling the length of the canal either in a self hire boat or on a multi-day cruise. I've done both and they are some of the most memorable experiences I've had in Scotland.
Climb Craig Phadrig
Translated to 'Patrick's Rock', there are 2 circular trails (1.25 and 1.5 miles) that lead through woodlands and up to a viewpoint looking across the Beauly Firth. This is a fairly easy walk that has some extra historic interest.
At the top of the trail are the grassy ramparts of an ancient hillfort which may have been the seat of the Pictish King Bridei. The fort is thought to have been built during the Iron Age around 300 BC before being abandoned and later reoccupied by the Picts.
Although much of the view from the top is obscured by trees, you still get the impression of why this location was chosen as a fortification. Settlers would have had an extensive panorama across land and water in every direction.
I love an easy but rewarding walk that combines nature and history so this short excursion is right up my street and is a nice escape from the hustle and bustle around the centre of the city.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN INVERNESS
If you are looking for something to do during the evening in Inverness you could take in a show at Eden Court which has a theatre and cinema. For live music head to Hootannany pub and music venue, or for a more traditional pub experience pop along to The Castle Tavern.
I've not quite managed to do everything I want in Inverness yet, so here are a few more ideas of things to do that are still on my list -
Things to do near Inverness
These are my suggestions of things to do within a 20 minute drive of the city centre.
Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre
Culloden Battlefield is the most significant site in the area and unsurprisingly the most popular tourist attraction around Inverness. The battlefield itself is free to visit and always open to the public, however I highly recommend combining it with a trip to the on-site National Trust for Scotland visitor experience. You really will appreciate the history and learn so much more if you do.
There is an admission fee and car parking charge unless you are an NTS member but I think it is worth every penny. You will learn all about the events that led to the 1745 Jacobite Rising which came to a tragic end on the surrounding moor on 16th April 1746. You can also see artefacts, stand in a 360 degree battlefield immersion theatre which is very atmospheric and take a guided audio tour of the battlefield itself. There is also a nice cafe and gift shop.
If you plan to visit the centre and the battlefield allow at least 2 hours, although some people have told me they spent nearer 3 hours. Allow for more time if you plan to visit the cafe too.
Due to some shocking behaviour I have personally witnessed and other incidents I have heard about, I really feel the need to add this - please remember that the moor is a war grave and should be respected as such. Other issues have been caused by the 'Outlander effect' which is responsible for an increased surge of visitors to Culloden. This Clan Fraser grave has had to be sealed off more than once due to fans leaving the marked footpath to visit the Fraser Stone, often to leave items. This frequent behaviour has sadly caused erosion around the memorial.
So firstly, please stick to the paths to prevent further damage and remember that the stone markers are symbolic and not the site of an actual grave. More importantly, please remember that well over 1000 very real men and boys died at Culloden, the fictional characters in Outlander were not among them. The best way to pay your respects to the people that actually died during the battle is to acknowledge them all and stay on the marked walkways to preserve the site and keep it open for future generations.
Clava Cairns is close to Culloden so a combined visit to both attractions makes for a good morning or afternoon itinerary. The prehistoric site is free to visit and comprises four cairns and three stone circles.
Some of the monuments date back 4000 years to the Bronze Age although they were not all constructed at the same time. Neolithic fragments suggest that there was an even older settlement here.
It is thought the cairns were built to house the dead and the site in general was used for some ritual purpose. Now roofless, it is possible to step inside the cairns and use a bit of imagination to think what they would once have looked like. The two largest cairns are aligned with the midwinter sunset and on the shortest day of the year, sunlight illuminates the entrance passageways.
Although some people wrongly claim Clava Cairns was the inspiration for Craigh na Dun in Outlander, it is still a very atmospheric place.
Loch Ness Cruise
I'm going to be completely honest here as I've been on a couple of different Loch Ness cruises. Personally, I found the basic sightseeing cruise to be quite boring. The scenery around Loch Ness is not that interesting - just my point of view before you shoot me down! Going by the TripAdvisor reviews, lots of people do enjoy it but I always wonder how much of that is to do with ticking Loch Ness off a romanticised Scottish travel bucket-list and not having been on any other loch boat trips to compare it with.
I can tell you now that there are many more visually spectacular lochs in Scotland where you can take boat trips. Some that will really take your breath away and have the added bonus of spotting wildlife. If you can move away from the 'must visit Loch Ness' tourist mindset and venture out to other parts of Scotland you will see what I mean!
However, if a Loch Ness boat trip is a must then I recommend joining a cruise that includes a stop at Urquhart Castle which is an interesting attraction to visit. For me this was a much better experience and I enjoyed it way more than the basic cruise.
Loch Ness by Jacobite offer a variety of cruises, most of which leave from Dochgarroch Lock, about 5 miles from the city centre although there are other options leaving from Inverness Bus Station. In peak season I highly recommend booking in advance as spaces get filled quite quickly.
Munlochy Clootie Well
The Munlochy Clootie Well is probably the most unusual tourist attraction in the area. Situated in the Black isle, a short forest walk takes you to a clootie well which were places of pilgrimage in Celtic times. The tradition involved pilgrims leaving offerings at a holy well, often in the hope of having an illness or ailment cured.
'Clootie' or 'cloot' is Scots for a rag or strip of cloth. Some practices involved wetting a cloth belonging to the sick person in the well before hanging it nearby. It was believed (and still is by some) that as the cloth rots away, the illness would be cured. Other practices would simply involve tying a rag to a tree as an offering.
Today the forest surrounding the well at Munlochy is covered in cloots. These days I'm pretty sure they have been left by a mixture of those that continue to make a pilgrimage to the site and tourists that simply want to add their own contribution to the weird and wonderful collection.
I have mixed feelings about this ancient and magical site. I totally respect those that have some belief about the healing powers of the well or regard the site as a holy one. However, one issue I have is with the sheer amount of items that have appeared over recent years. Many are made of synthetic material which won't rot, going against the traditional beliefs about a cure and they are also having a negative impact on the trees. This has led to clean up days been organised to protect the forest from damage.
Having seen the items that have been left, I suspect the majority of clothing and offerings are being left by tourists who have no real understanding of the meaning of the site to those that have been making pilgrimages to the well for centuries.
Munlochy Clootie Well is a special place that is worth visiting but if you wish to leave a cloot as an offering then please make sure it is made of natural, biodegradable material. If you are just visiting out of curiosity then learn the history, enjoy the atmosphere, take some photos but refrain from adding anything to the forest just for the sake of it.
Wardlaw Mausoleum was built in 1634 as the burial place for the Lovat Frasers. If you are interested in the local history of inverness and the surrounding area then you will soon discover Clan Fraser of Lovat has dominated the region for centuries. Outlander fans have increasingly been drawn to the mausoleum thanks to the large part Clan Fraser played in the Outlander books.
Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, known as 'The Old Fox' is perhaps the most infamous historical figure from the clan. He was known to be devious and during the Jacobite Rebellion he hedged his bets by professing support of the Jacobite cause while telling the British he sided with them. In the end the government didn't believe him and he was arrested after Culloden. He was put on trial in London and was the last person to be executed by beheading in Britain.
It was believed his remains were in a coffin placed in the mausoleum but a recent forensic investigation found the bones inside belonged to the remains of five people, none of them Simon Fraser. It has created an intriguing mystery about the final resting place of 'The Old Fox'.
I found viewing the lead coffins in the crypt to be a bit eerie. In fact the mausoleum is quite atmospheric in general. The building had fallen in to disrepair but has undergone a restoration project and although it is free to visit, donations help with ongoing plans to maintain the building.
You can only access the interior on a guided tour which it is best to arrange in advance using the details on their website or you could take a chance and call at Pilgrim Cottage next to the gate and someone will let you in if they are available.
Beauly Priory was founded about 1230 by the monks of the reclusive Valliscualian order. This was one of three Valliscualian priories founded outside of France but unfortunately there is not much remaining today apart from the shell of the church.
Another priory was founded in Pluscarden near Elgin and I highly recommend visiting Pluscarden Abbey if you get the chance as it is still fully operational today. While many of these historic buildings are in ruins, Pluscarden gives you a very real glimpse of how impressive these buildings once were and what life is like for the monks that stay there.
Beauly Priory is free to visit and there are some interesting features to look out for like the effigy of Clan Chief Kenneth MacKenzie, buried there in 1491, and the ornate tomb of his Victorian namesake. There is a holy basin on the wall just inside the door and the surrounding graveyard has some historical carved stones.
The Gaelic name for Beauly actually means 'place of the monks' and Beauly originates as Beau lieu, French for 'beautiful place' in case you were wondering!
Beauly is a pretty wee town so even though it won't take long to explore the priory, there are some nice local shops and cafes to visit.
Wherever I go in Scotland I am always on the lookout for a nice walk where I can get a nature fix. It doesn't have to be an epic hike, just somewhere quiet with beautiful scenery and if it has a bit of history or folklore thrown in then all the better.
Reelig Glen just outside Inverness ticks all those boxes and is what I class as an easy but rewarding walk. The forest walk is around 1 mile long so it is a fairly short trail and apart from some steep uphill sections, the going isn't too difficult.
The circular walk takes you through a magical green gorge and across the Moniack burn. The mossy glen is home to some of the tallest trees in Britain and I definitely had to do some serious neck stretching to look all the way up to some of the tree tops.
The Fraser family owned the land for 500 years and planted many of the old trees here until they sold it to the Forestry Commission in 1949. James Baillie Fraser arranged for a stone bridge and grotto to be built in the glen in the 1840s to provide work for local people that were struggling during the clearances. Look out for them as you cross the burn.
Building them took longer than anticipated because every day the workers would return to find their previous day's work undone. Obviously this kept them in employment for longer and it led to the glen becoming known as 'The Fairy Glen' as who else could have been meddling around during the night?
Robertson's Farm Shop
Everyone loves a Helian' Coo and I'm forever getting asked where you can see them in Scotland. Surprisingly they are not as common as you might think but for those visiting the Inverness area, I recommend a trip to Robertson's Farm Shop in nearby Beauly.
They have 3 Highland cows next to their shop - Jamie Mackenzie Fraser, Katie-Morag and Heather. Inside the shop you will finds lots of Helian' Coo themed gifts as well as local produce. They also have a small petting farm with a variety of animals including alpacas, pigs and donkeys that you can visit for an admission fee.
You can also sponsor some of the animals including two of the Highland cows which helps cover the costs of looking after them.
Hopefully my blog post has given you lots of original ideas of things to do and places to visit in the Inverness area. I recommend basing yourself there for at least a few days to allow you to visit the places I've mentioned and explore all the other gems that are nearby.
If you need some personal help to plan your trip to Scotland then I offer a variety of Scotland Itinerary Planning Services and would be delighted to hear from you.
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