In the heart of Scotland’s wild northwest, past the lochs, rivers and twisting highways of The Trossachs National Park, is the coastal fishing town of Oban. During the summer, Oban is a popular destination for travelers because of its ferry terminal, fresh seafood and charming vibe and hosts up to 25,000 visitors per day in peak season. But Oban isn’t the only attraction in this part of Scotland. Join us as we explore this amazing town and the surrounding Scottish Highlands.
Gateway to the Scottish Isles
The ferry located in the heart of Oban offers access to many Scottish Isles including the beautiful Skye and historical Iona, where many early Scottish kings are buried. If you only have time to check out one isle, take the direct ferry route to Isle of Skye. You can drive your rental car aboard and spend the day exploring arguably the most beautiful place in all of Scotland. The Isle of Mull is another stunning place to visit and also has a direct ferry line. Ferry tickets can be purchased online ahead of time and are highly recommended.
The Sights of Oban
The town itself boasts historical points of interest, stunning vistas, delicious restaurants and a festive pub scene. Spend a day touring the sights and taking in the breathtaking views of the Isle of Mull across the narrow strait. Highlights are McCaig’s Tower, which is modeled after the Roman Colosseum, the Oban Distillery established in 1794 (and home to world-famous scotch), and a walk along the waterfront harbor. For the best panoramic views of the town and surrounding islands, visit Pulpit Hill. While you’re there taking in the incredible scenery, don’t miss the stone monument with a map pointing out points of interest including isles, castles and towns close by. Dunstaffnage Castle, a 13th century fortress and one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland, is also two miles to the north of town and open everyday to visitors.
Eat the Seafood
Oban is known as the ‘Seafood Capital of Scotland,’ so you can’t go wrong trying the local fare at any restaurant in town. The Waterfront Fishouse Restaurant is a favorite offering good food and amazing views. The Oban Fish and Chip Shop is another solid choice for fish and chips, crab sandwiches and daily seafood specials.
Hit the Road
Oban is a great home base for exploring the northwest region of Scotland with many hotels and its proximity to interesting places nearby. 45 minutes up the road, most of which parallels the pristine blue waters of Loch Linnhe, is Fort William featuring the ruins of Old Inverlochy Castle and the Inverlochy Castle Hotel (similar name, two different places), a luxurious castle with old-world charm and five-star amenities, along with several B&Bs and a quaint downtown are near the waterfront.
Ten minutes west of Fort William you’ll find the Glenfinnan viaduct. Famous for its cameo in Harry Potter, the viaduct is part of the West Highland Line that stretches from Glasgow to Fort William and was completed in 1894. If you time it right, you can watch the train, powered by steam engine and modeled after the original 19th century design, cross the viaduct from a viewing area. A lot of tourists gather here and parking can be tough, but if you drive another five minutes down the road to Glenfinnan Station, you’ll get an up close view of the steam engine and no crowds to compete with. The station also has a small museum about the history the West Highland Line and how it was built.
Eat with the Locals
About an hour north of Fort William, past the junction to Isle of Skye and off the A887, is a unique experience recommended to me by a local Scot. The Redburn Café, located just off the highway before the town of Dundreggan, is definitely worth a stop for a coffee or home-style Scottish breakfast. They use fresh, organic ingredients from the farm behind the café and everything is delicious. The best part is that you can purchase food and feed highland coos in the pasture outside, allowing you to get up close and personal with these giant and gentle creatures. Be sure to make a stop at the restroom sink on your way out…they are messy eaters!
Glencoe’s Highland Peaks
Another must-see is Glencoe with its dramatic rocky peaks and winding valley carved through the mountains. Take the A82 east past Glencoe Village, a small town where backpackers, hikers and skiers meet before taking on their outdoor endeavors. From there, be prepared to use the many parking lots off the side of the highway to take photos of the striking scenery. The views last for miles and there are numerous trail heads and vista points to take in the views and go for a hike. There aren’t many towns or gas stations around these parts, so if you explore this area make sure to pack the car with water, snacks and gas.
Have a Pint at a Roadhouse
For those feeling adventurous, make a stop at the King’s House Hotel…if you can find it. Located in the middle of nowhere in the heart of the Highlands, King’s House Hotel is part hostel, part tavern and part campground, with an eclectic mix of guests ranging from extreme sports enthusiasts to backpackers and travelers just passing-through. While the smell is musty and the décor feels like a ski lodge from the seventies, the beer is cold, the food is surprisingly good and the company is joyous. Stop in for a pint or a meal, you’ll definitely be glad you did and have a story or two for back home.
From King’s House Hotel, you can continue north to Inverness, a thriving northern city near Loch Ness and its infamous monster. From there you can take your road trip to the next level and complete the North Coast 500, a route designed by the North Highland Initiative to spread the love across less-visited parts of the northern Highlands and showcase its splendor. The route starts in Inverness and encompasses all of northern Scotland.