Known as the capital of the Scottish Highlands, you might imagine the coastal city of Inverness to be a medley of dramatic mountains and misty lochs (lakes).
While the city certainly acts as a gateway to all the picturesque panoramas and majestic castles the region is famed for, Inverness is a delightful combination of grand architecture, verdant riverbanks, and boutique businesses packaged up into a pocket-sized area easily explored on foot.
Here are the top city attractions and best things to do in Inverness.
Explore the Old Town
Compact, quaint, and full of character, a stroll around Inverness’ Old Town is the perfect introduction to the city’s history and heritage.
Start your visit in the Victorian Market, a covered 19th-century arcade of boutique stores and independent cafés. Perch yourself outside Anya’s Café for a morning cup of coffee, or stock up on Story’s delicious range of artisan Belgian chocolates.
Next, head to Abertarff House, the oldest house in the city, built in 1593, where you’ll find a brief overview of old Inverness in a small but informative exhibition.
Later, en route to Castle Hill, be sure to pause and admire the grand architecture of Inverness Town House, the city’s town hall, before arriving at the impressive castle.
Admire the Grandeur of Inverness Castle
Towering above the city atop Castle Hill, Inverness Castle is quite the sight to behold from any angle. Whether glimpsed from the streets of the Old Town or admired fully from across the River Ness—which allows you to appreciate that it is, in fact, two buildings—it’s certainly the city’s prominent landmark.
Over the centuries, the hill has been home to various fortifications from at least the medieval period, with sieges and arson attacks forming some of its many dramatic stories, with one tale even recounted in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. The current red sandstone building occupying the city’s prime position was constructed in the 19th century.
Sadly, the part of the castle built to house the courthouse was never opened to the public. However, luckily for future visitors, the courts vacated the imposing building in 2020, and it will open to receive guests in the coming years.
Regardless, a visit to Castle Hill is still one of the top things to do in Inverness. The panoramic vistas over the city, countryside, and coast are breathtaking—especially from the north tower of the old prison.
Search for the Loch Ness Monster
No visit to Inverness would be complete without a visit to the legendary Loch Ness to try and spot the mythical Loch Ness Monster, certainly one of the most characteristic things to do near Inverness.
While sightings of Nessie have been unsurprisingly rare since stories began circulating the globe in 1933 of this large deep-water monster, various first-person accounts and unexplained evidence have made this myth one of the most famous mysteries that Scotland is known for.
Luckily, even if Nessie doesn’t appear above the waters, the serene setting on Scotland’s most famed loch, a large freshwater lake extending from the city’s River Ness to the highlands, will more than compensate.
Set sail on a cruise in one of the best lakes in Europe to breathe in the fresh mountain air, marvel at the magnificent, brooding scenery, and, of course, try to spot Nessie for yourself.
Read: Best Beaches in the UK
Pause at Urquhart Castle
Set on the forested shoreline of Loch Ness, the atmospheric ruins of Urquhart Castle are well worth a detour after trying to spot the elusive Nessie.
Built during the 13th century on top of a medieval fortification and then subsequently destroyed in the late 18th century, from afar, Urquhart can appear as a decaying relic of days gone by.
However, while its old glory has faded and crumbled, one of Scotland’s greatest historical castles is still very much visitable—you can even climb the still-standing Grant Tower for fantastic views across Loch Ness.
The video presentation at the visitor center, alongside the audio tour, will allow you to wander the ruins and envision what life was once like within the medieval castle walls.
Tour Fort George
Nestled on a headland with a prime position on the Moray Firth, just a 20-minute drive from the city, Fort George is one of the most robust fortifications found across the British Isles.
Along with the Culloden Battlefield, it’s also one of many things to do near Inverness to gain historical insight into the Jacobite rising of 1745, when Charles Edward Stuart tried to regain the British throne for his father.
Constructed in the 18th century following the rebellion and Battle of Culloden, the semi-star-shaped Fort George covers an impressive 42 acres.
During a visit to the extensive site, you’ll have the chance to tour the artillery defenses (still with their cannons), the garrison buildings and learn more about the military ammunition used during this period from those on display.
Visit the Culloden Moor
The site of the brutal Battle of Culloden, where the 1745 Jacobite Rising came to a harrowing end, is located just outside Inverness.
This important landmark is now home to an interactive visitor center, allowing you the opportunity to learn more about this fierce rebellion, which aimed to restore the Stuart monarchy to power.
As well as visiting the moor, which acted as the key battlefield, the outstanding center will allow you to gain perspectives from both sides of the battle through artifacts, displays, and letters. The most immersive and impressive part of any visit is the 360-degree theater, which recreates the battle seemingly around you.
While the Battle of Culloden lasted less than an hour, the historical importance of this event can’t be overstated, with over 1,600 killed during combat. Nowadays, the location acts as both an important monument and a significant museum dedicated to this defining moment in history.
Learn Kilt History at the Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Center
Set on the Old Town riverbank, the Scottish Kiltmaker Visitor Center is devoted to the renowned tartan national dress. As part of the Highland House of Fraser, a family-run bespoke kilt manufacturer, you’ll have the chance to learn the kilt’s culture and witness the garments being crafted.
One of the best things to do in Inverness on a rainy day is head inside the kiltmaking workshop, where kilt-makers will happily answer any questions you may have about the traditional dress, alongside demonstrations of the handmade process.
With historical exhibits, a dedicated documentary, and plenty of tartan costumes on display, you’ll certainly come away with a newfound admiration for these beloved outfits worn with pride across the nation. You may even have Scottish roots yourself, in which case a visit here is a good chance to have garments made in your own tartan.
Relax in the Botanic Gardens
On the west side of the River Ness, a 30-minute stroll from the Old Town, the city’s Botanical Gardens highlight a vastly different range of flora from what you’ll spot elsewhere in the Scottish Highlands.
The garden’s gem is undoubtedly the Cactus House, an expansive glass-roofed greenhouse that is home to various succulents and cacti species, including Agave and Crassula.
Further delights include the Tropical House, where the hot and humid temperatures are a far cry from the usual weather outside, allowing colorful plants from as far afield as South America to bloom.
Wander past pineapple plants and bright bougainvillea to the soundtrack of a tumbling waterfall before exploring the native species planted in further gardens.
Feel like a Royal at Cawdor Castle
With countless castles across Scotland vying for your attention, choosing which to visit is no easy undertaking. However, the decision is simple regarding Cawdor Castle, a must-visit private fortress constructed in the 14th century.
Renowned as one of the top things to do near Inverness and merely a 20-minute drive from the city, this picturesque and near-perfectly preserved castle will leave you in awe. The short journey from Inverness offers a glimpse of the rolling hills and striking countryside that the Highlands are famed for, and on arrival at Cawdor, the stately grounds continue the show.
Once you’ve crossed the drawbridge to enter the medieval turreted castle, you’re in for a royal treat inside as you explore the principal rooms. The Old Kitchen, complete with copper pots, and the bedroom decorated with Flemish tapestry, part of the 17th-century extensions, are particularly fascinating.
The castle is connected to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, although it was actually built after the play was written.
Marvel at the Inverness Museum & Art Gallery
In the shadow of Inverness Castle, the vastly more modern glass-fronted Inverness Museum & Art Gallery provides one of the top things to do in Inverness to gain insight into the history of the city and Highlands.
Hosting both permanent and temporary displays, the galleries focus on local artists, with a sprinkling of work from other regions, which span both historic paintings and modern crafts.
Meanwhile, the museum offers informative insight into the history and traditions of the Highlands and Jacobite rising, with exhibits and artifacts focused on geography, flora and fauna, traditional dress, and history from as far back as the Neolithic period.
Admire St. Andrew’s Cathedral
Just beyond the castle, the striking St. Andrews Cathedral, also known as Inverness Cathedral, happily welcomes visitors—even to the ornate choir area at the rear.
While the cathedral isn’t as old as many others in the United Kingdom, its prime position on the west bank of the River Ness and Victorian Gothic architectural style make it one of the area’s most beautiful buildings. This makes it one of the best things to do in Inverness if you want to understand the city’s more recent heritage.
You’ll notice some wonderful features as you pay your respects inside, such as the patterned floors, varnished red pine vaulted ceiling, and the original stained glass windows.
There is also a quaint café at the cathedral, where you can enjoy a coffee and home-baked cake before continuing to explore the city.
Pay a Visit to the Prehistoric Clava Cairns
Shrouded in mystery and wrapped by woodland, the Bronze Age Clava Cairns are among the most intriguing things to do in Inverness for those interested in archaeology.
Just six miles to the east of Inverness, you’ll find the Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Balnuaran of Clava, one of the finest preserved historical sights in all of Scotland. Dating back to around 2000 BC, this cemetery complex is quite the sight to behold.
With three circular cairns (burial rock mounds and markers) that were used as ancient graves, and further stone markers to explore, the site offers a fascinating insight into ancient burial traditions.
Sample Whisky at the Glenmorangie Distillery
For those with a penchant for Scotch whisky (spelled without an ‘e’ in Scotland), there are plenty of traditional inns and pubs in Inverness in which to enjoy a tipple. However, for a deeper dive into the nation’s famed industry, head 50 minutes north to the Glenmorangie Distillery.
As the largest whisky-producing region in the country, the Scottish Highlands are notorious for their complex single malts. Thus, taking a tour of this award-winning distillery, in operation since 1843, is certainly one of the best things to do near Inverness—especially for lovers of fine malt and bourbon cask whisky.
During the hour-long tour, you’ll have the chance to understand the steps of this age-old distilling process. An expert guide will answer any questions you may have as the aromas of spirits from nearby casks linger in the air.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an authentic whisky experience without a tasting direct from the source, so the visit is rounded off with a couple of drams (a Scottish word for a small measure of whisky) of the good stuff.
Take a Day Trip to Dunrobin Castle
Just over an hour’s drive north of Inverness, Dunrobin Castle is one of the most stately in the Scottish Highlands. While it might seem there are castles in every corner of the country, Dunrobin is particularly noteworthy as it’s one of Scotland’s oldest great houses, which has been inhabited continuously since the 1300s.
Situated in Sutherland and just seconds from the North Sea, the castle has been home to many notorious names, including the Dukes of Sutherland. Indeed, the current owner is, in fact, the 25th Earl of Sutherland.
The grand white spires give the castle something of the feel of a French château, also reflected in the manicured gardens inspired by Paris’ Versailles.
While wandering the exquisite grounds, you’ll encounter blossoming flowers framing fountain pools and expert falconry demonstrations, all set against the azure backdrop of the Moray Firth. For the finest views of the gardens, be sure to admire the vistas from the castle’s balcony.
While there are 189 lavishly decorated rooms inside, only a small portion are open to the public; still, you’ll want to allow a few hours to tour the interior and grounds.
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