Inverness, Scotland is known as the capital of the highlands. It is located on the northeast coast where the River Ness ends in the Beauly Firth. Although a mid-sized city, it has a very quaint vibe. The residential streets are adorable (as are most in Scotland) but it boasts some excellent restaurants and things to do. Below I’ll share how to spend one perfect day in Inverness!
No visit to Scotland is complete without seeing Inverness. It isn’t too big, so one or two days is enough time to explore the area. This itinerary includes places to see and where to eat in the city, but also suggests some places to visit while you’re based in Inverness. To visit the places outside the city, I highly recommend renting a car. Driving in Scotland is fairly simple and is the easiest way to get around. You won’t need a car in Inverness, though.
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Inverness sits at the mouth of the River Ness and it’s name reflects that. Inverness stems from Inbhir Nis, which translates to the mouth of the River Ness in Gaelic. Archaeological data shows that humans have inhabited the area for over 8000 years! It is ideally situated and is considered the capital of the highlands for that reason.
Today, Inverness is a vibrant and beautiful small city. The population is about 40,000 people, but honestly it felt smaller than that to me. It is a great mix of old and new. Although I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the center, it was a great base to explore the area. There are several areas worth visiting near Inverness.
I don’t know about you, but eating great food while on vacation is a must for me. Because I wasn’t going to be in cities for much of my trip, I wanted to eat out while I was there. One restaurant I wanted to try was closed due to a COVID-19 exposure, bummer. However the two I did end up trying were both excellent. And it didn’t stop me from having one perfect day in Inverness.
What to know before you go
Although Inverness isn’t overtly touristy, it is still the only city in the area so it does get busy. I was there in the shoulder season (September) and there were other visitors, but it wasn’t overwhelming. I would imagine that the pandemic has something to do with that, too, though. The United Kingdom had just recently (about 3 weeks) opened to vaccinated travelers from amber list countries before I arrived.
Scotland rarely gets hot, but the summers can be warm. It was unseasonably warm when I was there, with highs in the 70s (fahrenheit) and sunny during the day. Typically it is a bit cooler, I think. Autumn is not the rainy season, but you should absolutely always prepare for rain in Scotland! The evenings and nights are definitely cooler. Just like everyone else’s advice, my recommendation is to layer up.
Inverness is easily accessible by plane, train, bus or car. The airport is just a few minutes outside the city with many rental car options. Alternatively, you can take the train or a bus directly into the city center. If you’re just going to spend time in the city, that’s a great option. However, if you plan to explore outside the city I highly recommend renting a car if you did not drive your own.
I rented through Celtic Legend and cannot say enough good things about them. It wasn’t cheap, but the level of service was worth it. They were extremely communicative in the reservation process and made sure I got what I needed. Pick-up and drop-off were both smooth. The gentleman who helped me pick up my car was actually the best. He went through every single detail of the agreement, the car, and offered tips on driving in Scotland.
As a side note, in the original iteration of this trip my husband was coming with me. We had planned to take the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Inverness! I’m bummed to not get to experience that this time, but we’ll do it on the next trip.
Marsali the Corolla hybrid took me everywhere I needed to go!
Ok so I’m going to be honest. I was fairly underwhelmed my first few hours in Inverness. I think perhaps it’s because I was tired from traveling. I’m not sure, but by the second day I had called my husband and said we definitely needed to come back! It may or may not have been related to the deep fried haggis I ate. Not going to lie, it was literally one of the top five best meals I have ever eaten. I didn’t expect it and I can’t explain it, but it’s true. So my other tip is to not forget to try haggis! You don’t need to do it to have one perfect day in Inverness, but frankly you can’t leave Scotland without giving it a taste. I don’t make the rules, I just make sure you know them :).
One Perfect Day in Inverness
One perfect day in Inverness can be a weekend day trip if you live nearby or added on to a longer scotland itinerary. For me it was the beginning of a 9 day trip. I flew into Inverness, picked up my rental car, and started my vacation from there. As a note, many of these places are only open during the day. I found that most tourist attractions (for lack of a better term) were only open 10am to 4pm or about there. This requires a bit of pre-planning when you think about how long it takes to visit and get from place to place.
Start your day with a cup of coffee from Cup & Cone. I was fortunate that this adorable little coffee shop was on the same street as my Airbnb! With your morning beverage (and maybe baked good) in tow, head out to Clava Cairns.
Clava Cairns are only about 15 minutes outside the city center but you will need a car to reach them. They’re about 4,000 years old and incredible to see. The cairns themselves are a cemetery from the bronze age and studies show it was used at two different periods in history. There are circular cairns and then there are also a few preserved standing stones. Clava Cairns are open 24 hours a day, but are definitely best seen during the day. I was fortunate enough to have beautiful sunny weather! Although it’s a lovely place, you probably won’t spend more than 30 minutes or so here. There is a small parking lot, but you will have to drive on a few single track roads to get there. My first experience of single track roads was visiting Clava Cairns!
After you’ve wandered through the stones, hop back in the car and drive to Culloden Battlefield. The Culloden Visitor Center is only open 10am to 4pm and I highly recommend booking entry to the museum in advance. The battlefield is always open and you don’t need a ticket to visit. However, the large parking lot does close when the visitor center closes. There is a smaller parking lot outside the gates if you arrive outside opening hours. The museum and visitor center was very interesting and I enjoyed walking through. If you have time, I recommend it. You could easily spend a few hours wandering the museum and battlefield.
The Battle of Culloden was the last battle fought in the United Kingdom. It was between the Jacobites, those who supported the Stuart monarchy, and the British government led by the Duke of Cumberland. It was devastating, with over 1500 men dead in less than an hour, most of them Scottish. The battle itself was bad enough, but it also effectively marked an end to the Highland way of life. For years after the Battle of Culloden, British troops killed men, women, and children across Scotland. The wearing of plaids and speaking Gaelic was outlawed.
Walking through the battlefield is a moving experience. It’s quite difficult to imagine the carnage that took place in such a beautiful place. There is a monument erected to honor those killed at Culloden and there are stones for each clan (and others) scattered throughout the site. For some, this is simply another place to learn about history. For others, this is literally the site where their ancestors were killed. 1746 seems like a long time ago, but it’s only 8 or 10 generations. Please be respectful during your visit to Culloden, although a visitor attraction, it is still a mass grave for hundreds of unnamed soldiers.
After you’ve explored a bit, it will be time for lunch. If you’ve bought some groceries, just outside the Culloden Visitor Center is a large green space that would be perfect for a picnic. They also have a cafe where you can grab something to eat. Alternatively, you could head back into Inverness and find a restaurant there.
Once you’ve had lunch and returned to Inverness, go explore the Victorian Market. There are several little shops and cafes to wander in and out of. The best part is that it is inside! So it doesn’t matter if it is raining outside.
A few blocks from the Victorian Market is Leakey’s Bookshop. I love bookstores and knew I needed to stop by. It is also a fun little nod to the Leaky Cauldron from Harry Potter. The bookstore itself is stacked floor to ceiling with used books and I loved it! I ended up buying an antique map of Scotland to hang at home. Given a bit more time, I probably would have come away with several books…lucky for my bags I got there right before closing and didn’t have time to explore much!
Walking south from Leakey’s you’ll pass by the Inverness Castle up on the hill. I’m pretty sure you can pay to access a view point up there, but I did not. It is certainly beautiful and imposing up on the cliff though!
If you keep walking, you’ll come to the last stop on my itinerary for one perfect day in Inverness: Ness Islands! This is a beautiful park set in the River Ness. Cross a few of the walking bridges and you’re on islands. I walked around for an hour or more watching the river. There were fishermen, a lot of birds, and several other folks leisurely enjoying nature. It feels very secluded despite being right in the heart of the city.
Where to eat
After all of the exploring and walking you’ll be hungry for dinner! I highly recommend The Mustard Seed for dinner. Reviews are all positive and I’m glad I was able to get in. I didn’t have a reservation, but you should definitely try to get one if you are going to be there on a weekend. They have an early dinner menu, so I stopped in right at 5pm and was able to get a table. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the deep fried haggis was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
The other restaurant I ate at was Cafe 1. It was also very good! The outside doesn’t look like much, but the inside has a cool vibe. I had heard great things about the Castle Tavern. Unfortunately one of their staff members tested positive for COVID-19 the day I arrived and they closed for a few days. Next time I will try to stop in there for some great pub food!
Where to stay
I stayed at Janette’s Airbnb and it was lovely. There was easy parking (she has a garage!), it was very close to the city center, and the room itself was comfortable. The streets surrounding the airbnb had several bed and breakfasts on it, so I’m sure you could find something on Booking.com, too. I bet there are a lot of chain hotels around, too, but I found that staying in B&Bs felt much more authentic Scotland. I’m probably overthinking that a bit though.
Have a bit of extra time? Here's how to extend your one perfect day in Inverness with some day trips!
There are definitely day trip opportunities based from Inverness, too! If you have a car and one extra day, get up and head to Urquhart Castle first thing. Book your ticket in advance to make sure they have space. Explore these centuries old ruins and learn about the families that controlled Loch Ness for generations.
You can also take a cruise on Loch Ness and search for Nessie. I chose not to do that on this trip, but I think it would be a lot of fun. There were a couple of boats cruising on the loch while I was visiting the castle. The castle grounds themselves offer beautiful views of Loch Ness, though. It is situated on the shore right near the deepest part of the loch, which is 755 feet deep! If you continue driving south around the bottom of Loch Ness you’ll come across several places to stop and take photos. It is a very scenic drive even if you’re not going anywhere.
When I left Urquhart Castle I headed toward the Highland Folk Museum. I specifically wanted to visit because it was an Outlander filming location. However, it was very cool and I spent a few hours exploring. They have a replica crofters village with interactive staff where you can see what life was like in the 1700s. There is also a 1930s village which was fun to poke around in. One of the best parts though? They had Highland Coos! I sat and watched these fluffy guys for a while. When you’re done, it is just a quick hour drive back to Inverness on the A9. Or you can continue on a Scottish road trip!
There you have it – how to spend one perfect day in Inverness! I was fortunate enough to have excellent weather but I think the city would be beautiful regardless. And, I’m still dreaming about that haggis…
I hope this post has been helpful in planning your visit to Inverness and the surrounding area. Have you been to Inverness? If so what were your favorite things? Best restaurants? I’m already planning a return trip so I’d love all the recommendations!
While you’re daydreaming about vacation, check out my itineraries for Bryce Canyon & Zion National Parks, Grand Tetons & Yellowstone National Parks, a perfect day in Hot Springs, and what to know before you hike Cinque Terre. You can find my ultimate list of carry-on items here to help while you start to pack for your next great adventure.