From undulating seaside hillscapes to mossy old-growth forests and rugged snow-kissed mountains, few landscapes capture the imagination quite like the Scottish Highlands. And while trips to this area usually include a whisky-drenched sojourn to the luxurious Gleneagles Hotel, or perhaps a long road trip to see some castles, we decided to try a new approach: a week long bike tour with Wilderness Scotland, the region’s premier cycling company. While a European bike vacation might seem like something reserved for retirees or for hardcore cyclists, trust us—the soup-to-nuts planning and turnkey attention to detail make this trip an attainable, comfortable and rewarding experience for all.
Not only will your guides outfit you with a Merida Ride 400 road bike and adjust it to your measurements, but they carry your luggage from one hotel to the next as you make your way from Inverness to Edinburgh with a handful of villages in between. Just leave your suitcase packed on your bed and it appears in the next town at the end of the day. Even if your biking experience is limited to the occasional SoulCycle class, you will come out of this trip with a new appreciation for the sport, and for the Highlands as well—trust us, there is no better way to experience every ebb and flow of this landscape than by bike. The nine stops below offer just a taste of what’s within.
Long regarded as a gateway to the Highlands, Inverness is the northernmost city in the British Isles. Don’t spend too much time here before the bike trip begins—one night, perhaps two, is sufficient, and the real fun is to be had out in the countryside—but there are a couple of local favorites to visit. Make sure to have a whisky and a haggis at The Castle Tavern, where you can see the sunset over the River Ness. And if you’re a Braveheart fan, the collection of bagpipes and ancient Highland weapons at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery are worth a peek before moving on.
Cairngorms National Park
Scotland’s larger national park (they have only two) is the beating heart of the Highlands, and it is here that you will find the most rugged terrain. The roads, luckily, are well-maintained so your cycling experience is remarkably smooth. But don’t be fooled—as soon as you leave Inverness behind and enter the national park, the gentle seaside hills give way to challenging climbs and thrilling descents.
Located just 11 kilometers east from the British Royal Family’s summer residence Balmoral, this quintessential Scottish village has a surprising royal connection. It is said that while he is in the area, Prince Charles often drives into town to run errands. For this reason, several of the shops have Royal Warrants. Don’t leave without trying the steak pie from H.M. Sheridan, the Queen’s favorite butcher, or a quick tipple at Royal Lochnagar Distillery, one of the Royal Family’s favorites.
The Royal Family’s summer residence is every bit as majestic and impressive as you would imagine it, and the good news is that from April through July, the grounds are open to the public. Once the Queen returns every August through September, they close to tourists. But for most of the summer, anyone and everyone is welcome to tour the estate’s impressive gardens and woods.
Cairn O’ Mounth
Prepare your quads. The ride up this high mountain pass is one of the most challenging in Scotland, but the views are worth it. Plus, this area once served as an ancient military route dating back to Roman times. Keep an eye out for some famous standing stones at the summit—touch them and you just might get yourself on next season of Outlander.
There aren’t many castles left in the world that have real-life nobility living in them that also welcome visitors, but Glamis, the home of the 19th Earl of Strathmore, is one of them. Also hailed as the most beautiful castle in Scotland, Glamis is the birthplace of both the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. If your legs need a good stretch after all those Highland hills, this is a great spot to do so. The expansive grounds are prime territory for a picnic or a nap in the sun, and the guided tours of the castle itself are well worth it.
This seaside Scottish city long languished as a former shipbuilding hub, but a new wave of waterfront development is turning rundown warehouses and forgotten piers into one of Scotland’s most exciting destinations. Freshly opened in September of this year is the V&A Dundee, the first V&A museum outside of London and the first design museum in Scotland. If you don’t have time to really delve into the collections—which you should, the inaugural Ocean Liners: Speed and Style show is incredible—at least pass by the exterior for a few minutes to admire the sublime Kengo Kuma architecture.
You will love St. Andrews if you love history—and there is a lot of it here. Dating back to the 15th century and considered the oldest golf course in the world, the Old Course is steeped in history and tradition, and to this day is a global epicenter for the sport. The University of St. Andrews is also one of the oldest in the world. And the ruins at St. Andrews Cathedral are some of the eeriest you’ll find anywhere, perfect for a good wander. Off the grounds, if you need a drink before moving on, consider stopping by The Criterion just a few blocks west of the Cathedral. They have the best whisky selection in town.
The Royal Mile, Edinburgh
The street that runs downhill for one mile from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace is Edinburgh’s biggest tourist attraction, lined with chintzy kilt shops and knick-knack stores of all types. But having crossed the Highlands and arriving in the Scottish capital, the Royal Mile takes on new significance. It’s a positively triumphant experience to finish your cross-country bike tour by leisurely dodging tourists all the way down—then indulging in a pint or three at one of the many pubs at the bottom of the hill.