Simply put, the Isle of Skye is my favorite place on Earth. With scenery that’s literally out of this world, I believe everyone must spend at least 48 hours on the Isle of Skye at least once.
Most locals on the Isle of Skye will tell you it’s impossible to appreciate the island in just a day or two. Then again, many of those same locals will urge you not to come at all, considering how the island is now one of the most visited destinations in the UK, and the island is not set up in any way for mass tourism. There are not enough lodgings, restaurants or roads to accommodate everyone. The police have had to issue statements not to come to the Isle of Skye if you don’t already have pre-booked accommodations, as they get people knocking on their door all night long asking for a place to stay.
One part of me wants to tell everyone to stay away and leave this idyllic paradise alone. The other part of me wants everyone to see it. I believe the compromise is a short visit of two days, allowing you to see the highlights and then moving on to give room for the next group. Oh, and do it without the campervan, please!
Overview of the Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye is the largest island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. It’s also the fourth-largest island in the British Isles. The three bigger islands are Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland), Ireland (The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) and the Isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Moreover, it’s the only big island in the UK accessible by bridge, which makes it a top tourist destination, especially for locals.
The local population of the Isle of Skye is about 10,000, roughly a quarter of which live in the “capital” city of Portree. Every day, thousands more flock to the island. A few years ago, cruise ships started coming to Portree, disgorging thousands more tourists at a time. Yet despite the mass-tourism, the island still has its rugged beauty and fairytale charm.
Click on the star by the name on this map to add it into your own Google Maps.
Day 1 – The Northern Loop
(60 miles of driving, 2 long hikes, several short hikes, 1 cafe, 1 museum)
This post is based on having your own car to explore the island. It doesn’t actually matter which day you do first, but I’d recommend doing the northern loop on the day of better weather. Your point of origin should be Portree to get the most out of your day. Pack a lunch with you, as there won’t be any food available until around 3 p.m. earliest, and it’s easier just to wait until dinner back in Portree. For the cheapest food, there’s a big Co-op in Portree here. Make sure you’re wearing your hiking boots, as this is the day of hiking.
The Old Man of Storr
From Portree, head northeast out of town on A855. Drive 6.3 miles and you’ll arrive at the Storr. I’d suggest getting there early (before 10 AM) to beat the crowds. At an average pace, it takes about 40 minutes to get to the viewpoint a little to the right of the rock pinnacles known as the Old Man of Storr, where you’ll get the best photographs. From there, if it’s not too windy, head to the rock formations themselves. They are only about 15 minutes away, and offer more spectacular views of the scenery, especially on a clear day. Then head back to the parking area. There are quite a few paths leading down from the Storr to the main trail, or you can just go straight down the side, as I did a couple of times. Note: If you can’t see the Old Man of Storr from the parking area, it’s not the day for this hike.
Distance from Portree: 6.3 miles.
Your next stop is Lealt Falls. There is a lookout at the top of the cliffs from where you can see the waterfalls and surrounding coastline. If you want to explore more, you can climb down to the shore and get a view of the lower falls, as well as some old buildings used to store the peat waiting for boats to take it away. It’s about 30 minutes to climb down and back up, so you might want to skip this if time is tight.
Distance from the Old Man of Storr: 5.2 miles.
Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls
Then there’s a photo stop at Mealt Falls and Kilt Rock. Hopefully the wind isn’t too strong and you’ll actually see the waterfall. Otherwise you’ll just see (and feel) the mist. Other than a view of the waterfall and cliffs beyond (Kilt Rock), there’s nothing else to do here except listen to the bagpiper in the summer and perhaps get an Angus beef burger. Take your chances stopping here, as there can be a wicked traffic jam from the buses and RVs getting stuck.
Distance from Lealt Falls: 3.4 miles.
Continue north on A855 and then turn left onto the small road with the small sign proclaiming the way to the Quiraing here. Drive carefully another 2.2 miles up this road to the parking area for the trail to the Quiraing. The hike to the end of the trail is 1.7 miles, which should take about 45 minutes each way. The main viewpoints are about 1 mile along the trail. It’s not that hard, but the difficulty level definitely increases in high winds. While it’s an hour and a half of hiking, expect it to take a lot longer, simply because of all the time you’re going to spend taking photographs along the way. It’s one of the most spectacular spots on the island, especially on a clear day.
Distance from Mealt Falls and Kilt Rock: 5.4 miles.
Single Track Cafe
Update: Sadly, the Single Track Cafe didn’t make it through the pandemic. Hopefully, another cafe will take its place somewhere nearby.
By now you’re probably feeling a bit hungry. There aren’t a lot of places to eat in this part of the Isle of Skye, but there’s one real gem you can’t miss. Return back to Staffin and make a left, heading north along the coast. The cafe has a beautiful, minimalist design and the two ladies who run it serve delicious, homemade soups and cakes. The coffee is also surprisingly good. They don’t let the tour buses stop there, so hopefully you can grab one of the few seats available.
Distance from the Quiriang: 7.1 miles.
The ruins of this 17th-century castle are slowly crumbling into the sea. There’s a small place to park and then it’s only a couple minutes to walk up to the castle, although the ruins themselves are roped off. The views around here are quite nice, and there’s a large grassy patch in case you want to have a picnic here.
Distance from Single Track Cafe: 1.9 miles.
Museum of Island Life and the Flora McDonald Monument
There aren’t a lot of museums on the Isle of Skye, but the Museum of Island Life is a must. This “open-air” museum depicts life on the island in the time of the clans (not that they’re not still around) before any modern luxuries. It has displays for living quarters, a general store, a loom and many other parts of an old island village. The museum is open 9:30 to 5 Mon-Sat and only costs £3 ($3.75) to enter. It takes about 30-45 minutes to walk around all the huts. Make sure you walk or drive up to the top of the road to get a view of Flora McDonald’s monument too before you leave. It’s only a ten-minute walk and you’ll get to know who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Distance from Duntulum Castle: 1.9 miles.
The next attraction is an optional hike to a hidden gem most locals on the island don’t even know about, and which wasn’t on Google Maps until recently. The Gold Cave! To find it, drive to Kulmuir and make a right off the main road here, then take the first right. Drive to the end of the road to arrive in the parking area outside a farm here. Walk straight through the field toward the fence, then make a left. Follow the cliff along until you get to this point here. From there, you’ll be able to see a small trail leading down to the rocks below. Walk along the rocks to the right and after a minute you’ll come to the Gold Cave. Okay, it might not compare to Fingal’s Cave, but it’s the best that the Isle of Skye has to offer. The walk takes about 20 minutes, so plan to take an hour for this hike. These directions might sound complicated, but it’s really not that hard to find. Chances are no one else will be there. Good luck!
Distance from the Museum of Island Life: 1.9 miles.
Falls of Rha
Now it’s time to see one of the biggest waterfalls on the Isle of Skye. It’s not easy to find, and there’s hardly any parking around it, but it’s very easy to get to once you have parked. Head south from the Gold Cave toward Uig and try to find parking as soon as you’ve passed over the river just before town. If you make it to the junction of the A87, you’ve gone a little too far. Now look for the trail going up along the right side of the river. It’s only about five minutes to the waterfalls, but they’re worth the stop.
Distance from the Gold Cave: 6.1 miles.
Next, head south along the A87 just past Uig and turn left here onto the little road leading to Balnaknock. Continue 1.3 miles and you’ll be at the Fairy Glen. Follow the trails and enjoy. This is probably my favorite spot in the whole wide world. It’s absolutely magical, and truly is the home of the faeries. The rock outcrop is called Castle Ewen – the castle of the faerie folk. On the back side of the castle is a small hole, which is said to be the entrance to the faerie kingdom. You’ll also see several rings of stones. Enter the spiral and follow the path while singing a song to the faeries, and leave them a gift in the center. Then walk backward out of the spiral without crossing the stones, and the faeries will grant your wish. I’ll warn you, it’s harder than it sounds. The faeries are certainly a mischievous bunch! They thrill for games like this. Who knows, maybe you’ll even see one. Just don’t go looking for them. You have to let them come to you.
Distance from the Falls of Rha: 2 miles.
St. Columba’s Isle
Finally, on your way back to Portree, stop in Skeabost for a quick walk to the graveyard on St. Columba’s Isle. This ancient cemetery is located on an island in the middle of the River Snizort, and some of the tombstones date back hundreds of years. Located here are ruins of a chapel whose stonemason is connected to the St Clements Church in Rodel on the Isle of Lewis and Harris.
Distance from the Fairy Glen: 13.6 miles.
That completes your circuit of the northern peninsula of the Isle of Skye. By now it’s probably around 6 p.m. Time to head back to Portree for dinner and rest. Another 5.7 miles, for a total of about 60.5 miles of driving this day. I’m sure you’re exhausted from all that hiking!
Day 2 – The Rest of the Best
(121.9 miles of driving, 4 short walks, 3 beaches, 3 ruins, 2 restaurants, 1 castle, 1 tannery)
Note: Bring your swimsuit and a towel this day.
Once again, you’re going to want to get started early this day to beat the crowds. Your first stop is the Fairy Pools, and they get BUSY! To get there, head south on A87 to Sligachen (where you can stop and view the Old Bridge if you want), and make a right onto A863. Drive 7.0 miles, take the left fork here to Carbost, and then another left here where it says “To Fairy Pools.” Drive carefully down this one-lane road and you’ll arrive at the parking area of the Fairy Pools. The trail follows two miles of the river, but it’s the first mile which is the most spectacular.
This is where you’ll need your swimsuit. You’ll be able to see the spot where there’s a pool you can jump into, and then swim under a rock ledge into the waterfall. If you have trouble finding it, watch the video below. Don’t worry, swimming under the rock wall is a lot easier than you might think. The pool is also plenty deep enough to jump into. I’m not going to lie. The water can be very cold, but it isn’t always. The first time I went in, it was freezing. The next time, it was just moderately cold and actually comfortable in the warm weather. Either way, don’t let that hold you back. Just go for it!
Distance from Portree: 20.4 miles.
After the Fairy Pools, head back toward Carbost and turn left. In a couple minutes you’ll arrive at the Talisker Distillery. You can check out the showroom, or take a tour for £8 ($10). Some distilleries in Scotland are free, but this is still worth it. One amazing fact is that the distillery can be operated with one single employee at a time. I wasn’t able to take any photos, but this wasn’t because of trade secrets. With all the alcoholic vapors in the air, the last thing you need is some clumsy tourist dropping their phone or camera onto a metal plate and causing a spark. At the end of the tour, you’ll have a complimentary whiskey tasting, or you can purchase a flight for some more samples.
Distance from the Fairy Pools: 5.1 miles.
The Oyster Shed
After Talisker, walk or drive up the road to the Oyster Shed for the best seafood on the Isle of Skye…or maybe Scotland for that matter. They have a million oysters growing just a couple hundred meters away. Every morning they go out to collect some and then serve them fresh throughout the day. They’re open from noon to 5:30 p.m. most of the year. Depending on what time you left in the morning, you should be arriving just after they open. Good thing too, since they get busy. You obviously have to try their oysters (£1 each), but the rest of their food is delicious too. I’d recommend the smoked salmon fillet.
Distance from the Talisker Distillery: 0.3 miles.
Talisker Bay Beach
Now it’s time for another walk. Continue down the road that the Oyster Shed is on until you get to the end. Park the car and walk down the trail to the beach. This secluded bay is one of the least visited on the island, but I thought it was also one of the most beautiful, especially with the waterfalls coming out of the cliffs into the sea in the distance. Take care as the trail can be very muddy. It’s about a mile out to the beach, so the stop will probably last about an hour.
Distance from the Oyster Shed: 4.6 miles.
Dun Beag Broch
Next, retrace the roads back toward Sligachen and make a left onto the A863 toward Dunvegan here. Drive 8.7 miles north until you arrive at the parking lot here. Park, cross the road and climb the path to find the ruins of Dun Beag broch. A broch is an ancient dwelling, or perhaps fortification. This one hasn’t preserved as well as the Dun Carloway Broch on the Isle of Lewis and Harris, but it’s still worthy of a photo opportunity.
Distance from Talisker Bay Beach: 14.7 miles.
You can either stop at Neist Point next, as it’s on your way, or you can make your way back here at the end of the day to see the best sunset on the island. I’d recommend the end of the day, but it will add a lot of extra time and driving to your day. To get there, head north toward Dunvegan on A863, turn left here and follow the road all way out to the lighthouse. It should take about 30 minutes. You can walk the trail out to the lighthouse (0.7 miles), or walk out along the top the cliffs for the best view. I’d recommend the cliffs, as the lighthouse is a little dilapidated and nothing to write home about.
Distance from Dun Beag Broch: 18.4 miles.
Now drive back to the A863, turn left and continue up to Dunvegan Castle. You can pay £12 ($15.10) to walk around. Personally, I haven’t done it and I’ve been told it’s overrated. Instead, you can head down the road a couple minutes to a little parking area here and then walk back along the shore to get the best view of the castle.
Distance from Neist Point: 12 miles.
Another lesser-known beach is just up the road from Dunvegan Castle, although it was recently featured in Netflix’s Outlaw King movie about Robert the Bruce. The beach is full of beautiful coral flakes. It’s about a mile to walk to the beach from the parking lot, so this is another hour in your day. You can always skip this or Talisker Bay if you’re a slow walker or only want to see one beach.
Distance from Dunvegan Castle: 3.8 miles.
When you’re done at Coral Beach, make your way back to Dunvegan, turn left and continue 3.5 miles to the junction toward Stein here. Just after the road turns at a right angle, the first building on the right is Skyeskyns – the only operating tanning facility in the United Kingdom. You can take a free tour there to see the whole tanning process, and upstairs you can find some wonderful souvenirs if you’re interested.
Distance from Coral Beach: 12.3 miles.
After the tour, continue north on the road, making a left at the fork. At end of the peninsula, you’ll find Trumpan Church, a ruin with a chilling history. The view is also fantastic from here. There are some trails you can explore as well if you still have time.
Distance from Skyeskyns: 3.9 miles.
It’s probably around dinnertime by now. You can wait until you get back to Portree (25.7 miles away) or you could stop at Stein Inn, the oldest inn on the Isle of Skye, for some of the best fish and chips anywhere. To get there, just head down the road a couple minutes from Skyeskyns. You can’t miss it.
Distance from Trumpan Church: 4.3 miles.
Your day is almost over unless you’ve decided to save Neist Point for last. On the way back to Portree, make sure you get a photo of the Fairy Bridge just before the junction back onto the A850. It’s where the Fairy Flag was exchanged and is integral to the history of the island.
Distance from Stein Inn: 4 miles.
At last, you have the final 18.1 miles back to Portree. Hopefully it’s not too late to get dinner if you didn’t stop in Stein. The total driving distance for the day is 121.9 miles without detours (or mistakes), but you can save 21.4 miles if you skip Neist Point. I hope you’ve enjoyed your tour of the island. Let me know if there are any places you found which you think should be on the list, and feel free to share your photos with me.
The Isle of Skye in One Day
If you only have one day to visit Skye, you should still go. You just won’t be able to make it to all the destinations. In one day, I would recommend using the above itinerary to get to the Fairy Pools, Talisker Distillery, Oyster Shed, Sligachen, the Fairy Glen, Quiraing and Old Man of Storr, in that sequence or backward. Just remember that the Oyster Shed is only open from noon to 5 (hours vary depending on the month). With this itinerary, you’ll get to the two busiest locations (Fairy Pools and the Storr) first and last, and hopefully will miss the biggest crowds. Try to arrive at the Isle of Skye on a day with good weather, as the Quiraing and Old Man Storr are not really worth it when the cloud cover is too low. You just won’t see anything. If you’re driving your own car, the full mileage for this one-day trip, starting from Portree, is roughly 87 miles.
Transportation on the Isle of Skye
The easiest way to get to and explore the Isle of Skye is through one of the bus tours. Personally, I’d recommend Haggis Adventures, such as their Hebridean Hopper Adventure Tour which also covers central Scotland the Isle of Lewis and Harris. You can also make your way to the Isle of Skye and then take a bus tour just on the Island itself.
It is possible to take a bus all the way to the Isle of Skye from Edinburgh. First, you would take the CityLink 900 from Edinburgh to Glasgow, running every 15 minutes for £1 to £3. Then the CityLink 915 or 916 from Glasgow to Portree (or another town on Skye you’re staying at) leaves three times a day for £42. For about the same price, you can also take the bus to Fort William, jump on the Jacobite Express (Harry Potter Express) to Mallaig, catch the ferry to Armadale and then take the bus to Portree. You can read about that trip in my original post on the Isle of Skye.
If you want flexibility, you can rent a car. On the first trip, I found a 7-day car rental for £56. On the other trip, my friend rented the car for closer to £100 for 7 days. It just depends on the time of year and what’s in stock. Edinburgh Airport to Portree is 235 miles by the shortest route, and the two days driving around the Isle of Skye, based on the above itinerary, will be about 158 miles. Altogether with no detours, the trip will be about 630 miles. Make sure your rental plan includes this much mileage, or more if you plan to explore further. The Isle of Skye, after all, is only one of many legendary locations in Scotland. As to gas, every car is different, but the Fiat I used on my second trip cost £60 for 690 miles of driving.
Once to get to the Isle of Skye, if you don’t have a car, it’s still easy to get around. There are buses all around the island. You can find their timetables here, or printed out at many of the hostels on Skye. It’s also extremely easy to hitchhike on the Isle of Skye. The two times I did so last year, I was picked up instantly by very friendly drivers. But then again, nearly all of Scotland is truly friendly, which is just one of the reasons why I love the country so much.
The Best Lodging on Skye
The Isle of Skye quite possibly has more B&Bs than it has houses for local residents. Verily, many residents rent out their house as a B&B, cooking fantastic Scottish breakfasts each morning for their guests. However, if you’re a budget traveler like me, you can stay in any of the Isle of Skye’s numerous hostels or campgrounds.
Portree is the center of activities on the Island, and definitely the best place to stay. Aside from the hostels and hotels, there are some great self-catering accommodations in Portree to choose from.
You can also find a great list of independent accommodations at IsleofSkye.com.
I’ve personally stayed at the Portree Independent Hostel and Skye Backpackers, both of which are excellent! Book in advance, especially in the summer. Bus tours use the hostels, and they can be (usually are) full weeks in advance. Prices range wildly, but start at about £10 a night (off-season during the week). I honestly don’t know how high they go, but if you’re a couple, it might be cheaper to score a B&B. Here’s a list of some of the hostels.
- Skyewalker Hostel in Portnalong – voted best in Scotland
- Skye Backpackers in Kyleakin – part of MacBackpackers
- Broadford Backpackers
- SYHA Broadford Youth Hostel
- SYHA Glenbrittle Youth Hostel – near the Fairy Pools
- SYHA Portree Youth Hostel
- Portree Independent Hostel – used by Haggis Adventures
- Sligachen Bunkhouse – center of Skye
- The Cowshed Bunkhouse – in Uig near the Fairy Glen
- Dun Flodigarry Backpackers Hostel – northern tip of Skye
Campgrounds are a great way to save money, especially if you’re a walk-in. Just remember the midgies can be particularly fierce on the Isle of Skye. Have mosquito nets and spray available, and hope for strong winds which keep the midgies away. Most of the campgrounds have shower facilities, but no kitchens. The price is around £7-10 per night, per person (slightly cheaper if you’re a walk-in).
You also have the option of using services at a hostel for a small fee. Portree Independent charges £2 for using the showers and kitchen, and Skye Backpackers is £2.50 for facilities plus camping in their backyard. Wild camping is also legal anywhere on the island unless otherwise posted. I’ve stayed at Torvaig and Glenbrittle, both of which were great (except for the midgies).
- Torvaig Caravan & Campsite – outside Portree
- Glenbrittle Campsite – near the Fairy Pools
- Staffin Caravan & Campsite – top of Skye
- Kinloch Campsite – near Dunvegan
- Ashaig Campsite – bottom of Skye
However you explore the island, the bottom line is you absolutely must have the Isle of Skye on your itinerary if you’re coming to Scotland, or Europe for that matter. Hopefully you’ll agree with me that this is the most beautiful place in the world. If not, well…
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If you’re visiting Scotland and looking for more to do than just visiting the Isle of Skye, here are some other activities you might enjoy.
- A Day of Adventures with Nevis Range in Fort William, Scotland
- What It’s Like to Take the Hogwarts Express in Scotland
- Is a Day Tour from Edinburgh to Loch Ness Worth It?
- Edinburgh Excursions: Spending an Afternoon at Go Ape Peebles
- 10 Activities for The Perfect Day Trip from Edinburgh
- Explore the Isle of Lewis and Harris to See Scotland’s Best
- A Cruise is the Best Way to Explore Loch Ness
- My Amazing Week on the Hebridean Hopper with Haggis Adventures
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
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