Scottish Highlands Area Map
The Scottish Highlands region is vast, measuring more than 11,000 square miles in length. There are so many cities, towns, regions and islands in between, it can be overwhelming deciding where to start exploring, let alone where to stay. And the farther north you travel, the more remote and wild the Highlands become. The best way to orient yourself is to pinpoint the major gateway cities. From there, you'll get a better sense of the distinct areas that surround each city and what attractions they offer.
Inverness is the main city of the Scottish Highlands and the most well-connected in terms of transportation. Not only do main highways A9 and A82 run through Inverness, but plenty of trains and buses as well. If you're short on time, Inverness is by far the best place to stay since many of the region's can't-miss attractions, including Loch Ness (6 miles southeast) and Cairngorms National Park (less than 30 miles southwest), are a short drive away. What's more, you can find some pretty great shorelines close by. Moray Firth, an inlet connected to the North Sea, offers spectacular coastal scenery (best seen by hiking the Moray Coast Trail), while the popular Nairns Beach is situated in one of the sunniest places in Scotland.
Fort William in the western Highlands, about 65 miles southwest of Inverness, is part of Lochaber. Considered the outdoor capital of the U.K., Fort William offers plenty of adventure within the immediate vicinity. Lots of travelers make Fort William their home base when exploring Ben Nevis (the tallest mountain in the U.K.), which towers over the town. If you plan on hiking Ben Nevis while in the Highlands, you should probably stay in Fort William as the hike normally takes travelers all day to complete. Additional popular sights are also easy to reach by car from Fort William, including Glenfinnan (16 miles west) and Glencoe (16 miles south). If you don't want to hike Ben Nevis but still would like to take in the unbeatable views, consider a ride on the Nevis Range Mountain Gondola or hike to the Steall Waterfall. This hike, which passes through the Nevis Gorge, is much less intensive and time consuming than Ben Nevis, clocking in at less than 3 miles roundtrip (in comparison to Ben Nevis' 10 miles).
Aviemore, around 30 miles south of Inverness, is the main town in Cairngorms National Park. If you want to spend a night or two in the park, Aviemore is the best place to stay. The town is both a popular ski destination and summer vacation spot in the Highlands, so expect accommodations and amenities galore in comparison to other towns in the park. Aviemore is also closest to some of the park's biggest attractions, including Loch an Eilein (5 miles south), Loch Morlich and the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre (both 8 miles southwest).
Oban, situated about 110 miles southwest of Inverness and 45 miles south of Fort William on the western coast of Scotland, is considered to be the "gateway to the isles," so it's a good idea to stay here if exploring Scotland's islands is your main priority. From here, you can take a ferry to the Outer Hebrides, Inner Hebrides and Argyll & The Isles and Mallaig, which connects to Skye. The main highway that runs through Oban (AB16) connects with A85 north, which runs right to Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park.
Part of what makes Scotland so geographically unique is the cluster of islands located not too far off its coasts. Isle of Skye is perhaps the most known island of the bunch, being the largest of the Inner Hebrides group. The Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides Islands are located off of the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. The Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands are located off the northernmost tip of mainland Scotland and can be accessed via ferry leaving from Thurso (located about 20 miles west of Duncansby Head). The islands are also known for housing some of the most beautiful beaches in Scotland.