Simply put, the Isle of Skye is my favorite place on Earth. With scenery that’s literally out of this world, it’s a destination which I believe everyone must visit at least once.
Overview of the Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye is the largest island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. It’s also the second largest island in the UK, after the Isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides (not including the two “mainland” islands of the UK). Moreover, it’s the only island in the UK accessible by a bridge, which makes it the top tourist destination, especially by local Brits.
The population of the island varies quite a bit due to the massive influx of tourists during the summer months, and the need for hospitality staff to accommodate them. The official count is about 10,000, roughly a quarter of which live in the “capital” city of Portree.
Day 1 – The Northern Loop
PLEASE NOTE: Many of the locations on this itinerary won’t even show up on Google Maps, and some are in the wrong locations! Click on the “here” links for exact directions, and have fun.
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 PM 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.
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 times. Note: If you can’t see the Old Man of Storr from the parking area, it’s not the day for this hike.
3.4 miles ahead is another photo stop at Mealt Falls and Kilt Rock. Hopefully the wind isn’t too strong and you’ll actually see the waterfall. Otherwise you just see (and feel) the mist.
Continue north on A855 another 3.2 miles, 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 miles along. 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 most spectacular spots on the island, especially on a clear day.
When you finish with this hike, you have an optional hike to a hidden gem most locals on the island don’t even know about, and which certainly isn’t on Google Maps. The Gold Cave! To find it, continue west 4.4 miles on the one-lane road through the center of the island, and then turn north (right) back onto A855. Continue another 4.0 miles north to the road in Kulmuir here. Make a left, and 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, although chances are no one else will be there. Good luck!
Next, head 5.9 miles back south along A855 5.9 miles. Just past Uig, 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 backwards 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.
That completes your circuit of the northern peninsula of the Isle of Skye. By now it’s probably around 6 PM. Time to head back to Portree for dinner and rest. Another 15.9 miles, for a total of 51.8 miles of driving this day. I’m sure you’re exhausted from all that hiking!
Day 2 – The Rest of the Best
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 9.3 miles 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 4.2 miles carefully down this one-lane road and you’ll arrive at the parking area of the Fairy Pools. The trail continues two miles along the river, but it’s the first mile which is the most spectacular.
This is where you’ll need your swimsuit. You should be able to see the spot where there is 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. Last year when I went in, it was freezing. This year, it was just cold, and actually comfortable in the warm weather. Either way, don’t let that hold you back. Just go for it!
After the Fairy Pools, head the 4.2 miles back toward Carbost and turn left onto the road you took from Sligachen. Drive 1 mile and you’ll arrive at the Talisker Distillery. You can check out the showroom, or take a tour for £8 (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 electronics or some clumsy tourist dropping their phone onto a metal plate and causing a spark. At the end of the tour you’ll have a complementary whiskey tasting, or you can purchase a flight for a bit more.
After Talisker, walk or drive up the road another 0.4 miles 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. Depending on what time you left in the morning, you should be walking up 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.
Drive toward Sligachen and make a left onto the A863 toward Dunvegan here. Drive 8.7 miles and find parking here. To your right, climb the path to find the ruins of Dun Beag broch. This one isn’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.
The next stop is Neist Point. Usually I’d say to get there at the end of the day as a final stop, but I just can’t find a way to put that into the itinerary without adding lots of extra driving and time. To get there, head north toward Dunvegan on A863, turn left toward Neist Point here and follow the road 10.7 miles all way out to the lighthouse. Should take about 30 minutes. You can walk the trail out to the lighthouse (0.7 miles), or head right from the parking lot out to the cliffs for the best view. I’d recommend the cliffs, as the lighthouse is a little dilapidated and nothing to write home about.
Now drive back to the A863, turn left and continue 2.2 miles up to Dunvegan Castle. You can pay £12 to walk around, but 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.
When you’re done with Dunvegan, return 0.9 miles, veer left and continue 3.5 miles to the junction toward Stein here. Make a left and drive 3.9 miles to where the road turns at a right angle. Make the right and the first building 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.
After the tour, continue north on the road 3.9 miles, 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.
It’s probably around dinner time by now. You can wait until you get back to Portree (25.7 miles away), but you could also stop at the 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 from Skyeskyns. You can’t miss it.
Also on the way back to Portree, make sure you get a photo of the Fairy Bridge 3.5 miles from Stein 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.
Finally, on your way back to Portree, stop in Skeabost for a quick walk to the graveyard on St. Columba’s Isle. I need you to check it out, as I forgot to myself, and I’ve been told by several people it’s worth a visit. I’ll see it the next time I’m on the Isle of Skye, but it should be on this list.
At last, you’ll be back in Portree. Hopefully not too late to get dinner if you didn’t stop in Stein. Total driving distance for the day is 107.3 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 backwards. Just remember that the Oyster Shed is only open from noon to 5. 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 at them. 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.
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. I’d recommend Tour Skye for that.
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 other 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 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.
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
- Sligachen Caravan & Campsite – center of Skye
- 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…