Complete guide to the NC500

Places to Go

Complete guide to the NC500

Scotland is home to many incredible sights and stretches, but none so famous as the North Coast 500 – or NC500 for short.

A map of the North Coast 500 in Scotland

Scotland’s rugged answer to ‘Route 66’, this sprawling web of roads has been delighting visitors since 2014, when it was created to draw people to this incredible part of Scotland – and boy, did it work! People come from all over the country to drive, ride, and cycle this iconic loop, making it one of Scotland’s top bucket list experiences.

From foodie pitstops to wild swimming destinations (the ultimate way to cool off during your tour), you’ll find a bit of everything in our guide to the NC500…

 

Find out more

What is the NC500?

When to tour the NC500

Wildlife

Towns and villages

Beaches

Places to visit

Things to do

Places to eat

 

What is the NC500?

A bird's eye view of the famous Kylesku Bridge along the NC500 in Scotland

As the name suggests, the NC500 is a 500-mile (516 miles to be exact) route that winds around the top section of Scotland’s stunning mainland, taking you through six regions and past a number of the country’s best beaches and historic sites.

Although it’s been likened to the great Route 66 highway in America, the NC500 is a series of roads that make up a spectacular route in Scotland’s magical north. The giant loop is mostly coastal, taking you past some of the biggest and most beautiful scenes Scotland has to offer, from sweeping beaches to towering mountains.

The famous loop begins at Inverness Castle on Scotland’s northeast coast, although you can start anywhere you like along the route. The loop is traditionally followed anti-clockwise, but this can be altered too, offering you two totally different ways of experiencing this incredible stretch – the perfect excuse to visit multiple times!

If you’re wondering how much time you should set aside for the NC500, it’s a fairly broad answer as it really depends on how much time you would like to dedicate to the spectacular route. Five days are thought to be the minimum, while eight to 10 days ensure you can take your time and sink into a relaxed pace as you enjoy all the loop has to offer.

In terms of the roads themselves, you can expect a broad range, from gloriously long and open roads to single track lanes.

When to tour the NC500

One of the NC500 roads running alongside Loch Eriboll in the Scottish Highlands

Whether you love a winter getaway or a summer holiday, the NC500 is a year-round destination, with each season promising its own temptations. Summer improves your chances of good weather and more eateries/attractions being open, while winter promises fewer people and a beautifully wild and rugged atmosphere. It is worth checking weather forecasts in the winter months and planning ahead.

Wildlife

From salmon to stags, the NC500 is home to some incredible local wildlife, some of which you can even see from the road!

 

Highland cows

A Highland cow in the Scottish Highlands along the NC500

Perhaps the most iconic of Scotland’s locals, a tour of the NC500 wouldn’t be complete without Highland cow spotting (or Heilan Coo in Scots). These red-headed beauties are dotted throughout the Highlands, making them nice and easy to find. If you want some guaranteed sightings though, Applecross Peninsula is home to some of the oldest Highland cows in the world – you even cross the Bealach na Bà pass (the pass of the cattle) to reach them! Your camera roll will quickly fill with luscious locks and pink noses as you travel – there’s just something about these russet faces you can’t help but fall in love with!

 

Scottish red deer

A close up of a Scottish red deer

Alongside Highland cows, red deer are the second most famous faces in Scotland – and can be found across the Highlands as well as on tins of shortbread. Masters at hide and seek, these bonny bucks can be slightly harder to spot, but they are well-worth the extra attention. They prefer the more rugged or covered terrains, so make sure to keep your eyes peeled as you travel through the blush-coloured heather. Take extra care when travelling through these areas, as deer are known to dart across the roads.

 

Dolphins, minke whales, and orcas

A dolphin eating a fish off of Black Island in the Scottish Highlands

A large portion of the NC500 is coastal, which means it’s not just landlubbers you’ll be spotting during your trip. Dolphins, minke whales, and seals frequent the waters around Scotland’s northern tip - with orcas making an extra special appearance in the spring and summer months - providing a fascinating cast of marine wildlife to look for. While you might be lucky and spot these oceanic mammals from the beach or clifftops, venturing out on a boat trip promises heightened chances of a sighting – not to mention a totally new perspective of Scotland’s dramatic coastline and waters.

Towns and villages

Whether you fancy a bit of shopping or a pitstop and a slice of Dundee cake, the NC500’s charming towns and villages make for a wonderful place to pause and soak up Scotland’s immersive culture.

 

Inverness

River Ness running alongside the city of Inverness along the NC500

Traditionally the start and end of your journey, Inverness is well worth an extended visit as there is much to discover throughout the city. Home to the iconic, red-bricked Inverness Castle (which will be opening again in 2025 as a brand-new experience) and fabulously close to the famous – and oh-so-mysterious – waters of Loch Ness, there is much to see and do around the Highland’s epic capital. Walk along the banks of River Ness, marvel at the incredible heights of Inverness Cathedral, or stop by Leakey’s Bookshop for the largest collection of second-hand books in Scotland.

 

Applecross, Wester Ross

Looking down the valley towards Applecross from the Bealach na Bà pass on the NC500 in Scotland

Wonderfully remote and boasting phenomenal views, Applecross (known locally as ‘the street’) is a unique village steeped in history. There are only two roads into Applecross: a coastal drive and Bealach na Bà pass, one of the highest roads in Britain that promises lofty heights and Alpine hairpin bends. The village itself suits its nickname of ‘the street’ as the white-washed cottages stand in line as they look out across the water. Stop off at the Applecross Inn for a refuel with a view, or embark on a walk to visit the local herd of Highland cows.

 

Gairloch, Wester Ross

The beautiful white Rua Reidh Lighthouse near Gairloch on the NC500

A beautiful village that enjoys easy access to some seriously awe-inspiring beaches, Gairloch is a stunning spot to pause along your journey. Stop for a picnic and wild swim at Redpoint and Big Sand beaches, enjoy a fascinating distillery tour with Badachro Distillery and walk up to the tumbling sights of Victoria Falls.

 

Durness, Sutherland

The steps leading up to the Sango Bay viewpoint in Durness with the sand and sea beyond

Boasting connections to The Beatles (it’s thought to have inspired the song In My Life) and an impressive array of wildlife and spectacular scenes - not to mention a local shop that stocks everything under the sun, from local bakes to truffle mayo! - Durness is a superb example of Scotland’s dramatic offerings. Etched into the nearby limestone cliffs, Smoo Cave is a jaw-dropping local attraction, with tours offering a fascinating glimpse into the depths of this vast cavern. Continuing your coastal adventures, Durness is home to two beautiful beaches, with Balnakeil beach promising miles of white-gold sand and undulating dunes. 

 

Thurso, Caithness

Sheep grazing on Dunnet Head in Thurso on the NC500

Scotland’s northernmost mainland town, Thurso offers a swathe of shops and eateries, making it a very popular stop-off during the NC500. The town boasts three castles, a towering lighthouse on Dunnet Head, and an ancient church, providing historians with plenty to explore, while its coastal locale tempts beachgoers from all over – Thurso plays host to a variety of surfing championships.

Beaches

With a staggering selection of sandy sweeps, the NC500 is the perfect opportunity to tour some of Scotland’s best beaches.

 

Balnakeil beach, Durness

The reaching golden sands and sand dunes of Balnakeil beach on the NC500 in Scotland

Nestled between Durness and Cape Wrath (don’t worry, the name comes from the Old Norse for ‘turning point’), Balnakeil beach is as far north as you can go on mainland Scotland and enjoys rugged scenery and simply spectacular views. West facing, this crescent of white-gold sand enjoys a peaceful setting and unbeatable sunsets, making it very popular with those looking forward to a lazy day amidst the sun, sand, and sea.  

 

Melvich beach, Melvich

The golden sands and headland at Melvich beach on the NC500

Golden sands, rolling dunes, and totally dog friendly, Melvich beach is the perfect place for a leg stretch while touring the NC500. Spread out on the soft sands with a picnic full of Scotland’s delicacies or enjoy the surf this pretty beach is known for.

 

Achmelvich beach, nr Lochinver

Looking across the white sands of Achmelvich beach at the turquoise sea

Featuring Scotland’s famous bone-white sands and rocky backdrop, Achmelvich beach makes for a rather spectacular sight. It’s deliciously secluded, with buckets of character and charm – not to mention the turquoise waters that lap against the shore. Seals, dolphins, and even minke whales are known to pass through here, while the twitchers amongst you will want to keep your eyes open for black- and red-throated divers.

 

Sango Bay, Durness

White sands, rock formations, and blue waters at Sango Bay on the NC500

A heady mix of rugged coastline and golden sand place Sango Sands amongst the best of Scotland’s beaches. The towering outcrops provide shelter from the elements, while Smoo Cave sits around the corner, ready and waiting to see how quickly it can drop your jaw. There are some stunning walks nearby too, making this dramatic stretch of coastline ideal for those looking for a mega leg stretch after a day on the open road.

Places to visit

From ancient castles to monumental natural landmarks, the NC500 is the perfect way to tour some of Scotland’s most fascinating sights and sites.

 

Dunrobin Castle, Golspie

Looking out over the grounds at Dunrobin Castle on the NC500 in Scotland

Looking like it’s fallen out of the pages of a fairytale, Dunrobin Castle is one of the Highland’s oldest and most popular castles. The enchanting castle resembles a French château, with the wild landscapes of the surrounding Highlands providing a magical contrast to the Disney-like fortress. The gardens are just as magnificent as the castle, and feature daily falconry displays during the spring and summer months.

 

Smoo Cave, Durness

The giant entrance to Smoo Cave in Durness on the NC500

From smugglers, Vikings, and highwaymen to ancient inhabitants and possibly even a water kelpie or two, Smoo Cave boasts a wonderfully varied history. The name is thought to derive from the Norse ‘smjugg’ or ‘smuga’, which means a hole or hiding place – a very apt name considering the cave’s previous uses. Entrance to the cave, which just so happens to be the largest mainland cave in the British Isles, is free, making it a superb sightseeing opportunity. If you want to learn more about the cave’s fascinating past, you can join one of the guided tours, which cover everything from the cave’s jaw-dropping geology to its intriguing history.

 

Duncansby Head, Wick

The iconic coastline and Duncansby Stacks at Duncansby Head in Scotland

When we think of Scotland’s most north-easterly tip, our minds quickly turn to John O’Groats, but Duncansby Head takes the Dundee Cake in both geography and geology. This dramatic stretch of coastline boasts some of the most astonishing rock formations in Scotland, with Thirle Door and the Stacks of Duncansby and Geo of Sclaites promising utterly unbelievable views. Head to John O’Groats first for an obligatory selfie, before continuing on to Duncansby Head to explore this incredible patch of Scotland on foot.

Things to do

Whether you’re an avid walker or watersports enthusiast, the NC500 is full of fun activities to add to your holiday itinerary.

 

Hike Stac Pollaidh

The towering peak of Stac Pollaidh in the Scottish Highlands

If you’re looking for a hearty walk, then the NC500 is the place to be. Home to a mammoth assortment of hills, mountains, and lochs, there’s something for every walker in the Highlands. If you only have time for one hike though, we recommend turning your boots towards Stac Pollaigh (or Stac Polly, as it’s also known) on the west coast. Short but steep, with incredible views at its summit, this hill really does have it all. There are a few routes to the top (or as close to the true summit as you’re happy to climb), although starting from the eastern side is the most common. Enjoy reaching views out over Assynt, the Summer Isles, and Achiltibuie, with Loch Lurgainn adding a stretch of blue to the panoramic.

 

Cycle around Ullapool

A bike leaning against a tower of lobster nets in Ullapool

If you’re driving around the NC500, why not swap four wheels for two as you embark on an unforgettable cycle ride? You don’t even need to take bikes with you, as there are many places around the route that offer bike hire. One of our favourite spots to embrace the delights of pedal power is Ullapool and the surrounding coastline. There’s a fabulous mix of terrains, from road and track to mountain biking, giving every rider something to enjoy. Ullapool Bike Hire has everything you could possibly need, including e-bikes and mountain bikes, and a collection of routes the whole family can enjoy. Cycle out to Ardmair beach, around Lock Archall, or down the fast-paced Cuileig Path – there is something for everyone!

 

Go seal-spotting with North Coast Sea Tours

Two seals on the rocks during a boat trip with North Coast Sea Tours in the Scottish Highlands

If you’re eager to spot some of Scotland’s bountiful wildlife, a boat trip could be just the ticket. Setting sail from Lochinver on the NC500, North Coast Sea Tours offers several boat tours, all of which centre around the majesty of Scotland’s bonny north coast. The wildlife spotting tour is perfect for those playing a game of Scottish wildlife bingo, with the likes of dolphins, seals, porpoises, and minke whales frequenting the area, while the sunset tour watches as the coast swaps tranquil blues for fiery reds and streams of gold as the sun sets around you.

 

Get outside with Liquid Footprints

People kayaking with Liquid Footprints in the Scottish Highlands

One of the many family-run companies to be found along the NC500 is the adventurous Liquid Footprints near Inverness, famous for its exceptional range of outdoor activities, from sea kayaking to gorge scrambling – and even skiing in the winter months! The friendly and oh-so-knowledgeable guides will lead you through your chosen activity, ensuring you enjoy the Scottish Highlands safely, offering up tips, tricks, and titbits of local knowledge as you go.

Places to eat

When it comes to the NC500, vehicles aren’t the only things on the road that need a good refuel. Luckily, this Highland stretch is full to bursting with great cafés, restaurants, pubs, and delis for that all-important pitstop.

 

Walled Garden Café & Restaurant, Applecross

Looking down the garden path at the pretty Walled Garden Café in Applecross

Enjoying an absolutely magical setting, Applecross Walled Garden is the perfect place to stop and replenish, especially if you have the dog with you. The café/restaurant menu is packed with delicious, homemade fare, with many of the ingredients coming from the garden itself. The Walled Garden is best enjoyed in fair weather and booking is recommended, especially for larger parties. From haggis to Applecross mackerel, there’s something for every taste in a beautiful garden setting.

 

Shorehouse Restaurant, Tarbet

Looking across the cove at the Shorehouse Restaurant in Tarbet

Family-run since 1977, Shorehouse is another Scottish eatery that boasts a phenomenal setting. As close to the sea as you can get while remaining dry, this charming seafood restaurant promises stunning sea views and a mouth-watering menu to match – with much of the oceanic offering coming from their very own boat. Sup on fresh Scottish salmon from Loch Duart, smoked mackerel from the Summer Isles Smokehouse, or opt for the catch of the day to see what the boat’s brought in.

 

The Inver Inn, Inver

The traditional white-washed exterior of The Inver Inn in Inver

One of Scotland’s many hidden gems, The Inver Inn is the perfect place to sit back and relax after a day on the winding roads of the NC500. A roaring fire is there to warm you up in the winter months, while a lovely pub garden offers sun-soaked drinks in the fresh, Scottish air. The menu boasts a wide variety of dishes from local Scottish delights such as Creel-caught langoustines to delicious stone-baked pizzas – they even provide a meal for the pooch! Sit back with a glass of whiskey and enjoy the wonderfully welcoming atmosphere at The Inver.

 

West Coast Delicatessen, Ullapool

The welcoming shop front of West Coast Delicatessen in Ullapool on the NC500

If you’re looking for somewhere to stock up on local goodies to enjoy on the road, look no further than West Coast Delicatessen. A true celebration of Scottish food and drink, you’re sure to find something to your liking here, whether it’s a button-popping filled roll from the café or a giant hamper filled with every Scottish treat imaginable, from local cheeses to dip-worthy whiskey sauces. Oh yes, whether this is your destination or a stop along the way, there’s no better place to enjoy a real taste of Scotland.

 

Cocoa Mountain, Balnakeil

The tree-lined outdoor seating area at Cocoa Mountain on the NC500

Scotland might be known for its whiskey, but did you know it also enjoys its fair share of chocolatiers? For those travelling the NC500, a sweet-toothed stop at Cocoa Mountain near Durness is a chocolate-covered must. Not only are you supporting one of the most remote chocolate makers in the country, but you get to enjoy a vast array of mouth-watering chocolates as you do so. Pick up a collection box and sample your way through the lot, or opt for your favourite with the oh-so-tempting bars and shards. From white, milk, and dark to dairy-free, there’s a chocolate for every toothsome taste here – not to mention a lip-smacking hot chocolate for those cosy evenings.

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