There are some places in the world where it feels like actual magic saturates everything you see. Scotland probably has more than its fair share of these places, and the Isle of Lewis and Harris is toward the top of that list.
From archaeological sites to amazing wildlife to mystical standing stones to weirdly tropical-looking chilly beaches, the Isle of Harris & Lewis is a ton of temptations and contradictions wrapped up in one charming package. Located in the Outer Hebrides in the very north part of the country, it’s the biggest island in Scotland, and since it takes more effort to get to, it’s not nearly as crowded as somewhere like the Isle of Skye.
How to get to the Isle of Lewis and Harris
Despite the confusing name, it’s just one island, though historically split due to cultural and geographical differences.
Most people enter at either Stornoway or Tarbert. You can fly, though I’d guess ferry might be a little bit more common. We’d spent a day hiking on the Isle of Skye despite pretty crummy weather, and then were up very early to drive to Uig and catch the ferry up to Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris & Lewis. You can look at the ferry timetables here (note, these are the summer ones, so make sure you check dates), and you should be able to buy your tickets just before sailing.
I’ve also provided a TON of info at the bottom of this post to help you plan your visit—how to get there, where to stay, what to do while you’re there.
It was freezing and super windy on the boat, so we mostly stayed inside…but you can see Grandma and I trying to tough it out below! The ferry ride is nearly 3 hours, so settle in and grab a cappuccino from the snack stand.
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Soaking in the Serenity of Scotland’s Tiny Isle of Iona
Tarbert was super cute and tiny. We grabbed a quick lunch and a pint at our hotel (I think I had a smoked fish risotto, and it was DELISH). We finally found an ATM in town and also happened upon a craft festival. I found a flask covered in Harris tweed that I knew I had to get for a co-worker. Harris tweed is one of the main exports from the island, made entirely by hand in the old style and a lovely gift (or souvenir!).
Then we took off for our mini road trip.
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What to see on the Isle of Lewis and Harris
Callanish Standing Stones (or Calanais)
Located on the west coast of Lewis, the biggest draw and my reason for coming was to see the Callanish standing stones. There are actually a number of standing stones nearby though, in neighboring fields—this one is just randomly sitting out in someone’s field, and I couldn’t resist a pic (yes, you’re allowed to go into their field).
But then, BAM. That is some Outlander-level realness.
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The Callanish standing stones are one of the biggest sets of standing stones in Scotland, and are over 5,000 years old—older than Stonehenge. We don’t know for sure why they were created, but best guess is an astronomical observatory. It’s great too, because you can walk right up around the stones (not true of Stonehenge).
If you’re an Outlander fan, you might geek out a little too…they weren’t the inspiration for Craigh na Dun, but you’ll definitely feel like you’re about to travel through time 🙂
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The weather had ratcheted up to absolutely miserable levels by the time we got parked at the Callanish visitor’s center. It was probably around 40 degrees (in late August, mind you) and raining—almost sleeting—sideways due to the wind. The ground was muddy and the rain kept stabbing me in the eyes, so it was hard to get really good pictures. The upside is that there were even less tourists than normal because of the weather.
The Golden Road
Having gotten our fill of the stones, we swung back around Tarbert and then onto the “Golden Road”, around the south part of Harris.
The Golden Road is a famous scenic drive through the east coast of Harris. It’s a single-track road connecting all the tiny towns (which have adorable Viking and Gaelic names). You should have the road pretty much all to yourself. The scenery is spectacular, winding past mini fjords, dramatic coastal views, and glassy ponds. Take a peek at St. Clement’s Church in Rodel on your way, a late 15th-century church built for the local MacLeod laird.
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I’m a total sucker for these signs. We had a couple specific stops in mind, like Luskentyre Beach, but mostly we just drove around and stopped whenever something beautiful caught our eye.
And there was no shortage of stunning surprises around every corner.
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By the time we were on the Golden Road, the rain had at least cleared off and we got to see the beautiful blue sky against the dramatic landscape.
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Did you know that Scotland has white sand beaches and turquoise waters?? That was a shock to me, and when I first saw photos of the beaches on the Isle of Harris & Lewis, it was hard to believe that they were taken up in one of the northernmost parts of Scotland. They looked like Caribbean beaches!
Sadly, due to the weather, we only got to see a shadow of their tropical-looking glory, but were still wow’ed by the beautiful blue tones against the sand and the craggy rocks.
I kept making us stop off on the side of the road to take pictures, it was so beautiful. I think my dad was getting annoyed at a certain point 🙂
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Consistently named one of the best beaches in the UK, Luskentyre boasts miles of white sand and gorgeous turquoise waters (even on a cloudy, cold day like we visited). Because of the weather, we had the place to ourselves.
I really am a sucker for this kind of moody, atmospheric sea scene. But doggone, it was cold! We were losing the light, so I was sad the colors didn’t pop as much, but it’s easy to imagine how this looks when graced with a bit of sunlight.
By this point we were cold and hungry and it was getting toward sunset (single-lane roads and dark don’t mix well), so we headed back to Tarbert. We decided to have dinner at our hotel, splurging a little—but it was SO good! The next morning we caught the early ferry back to Skye, then drove all the way down to Elgol on the south coast for an amazing boat trip to Loch Coruisk.
Have I convinced you to visit the Isle of Harris and Lewis immediately?? I completely fell in love with its scenery, its peacefulness and yet wildness at the same time. We only had a day there, but you could easily spend a few days or a week exploring everything it has to offer!
How to plan your trip to the Isle of Lewis and Harris
- You can fly or take the ferry (timetables here at the CalMac site, check summer or winter). For taking our car over, it was 12.60 pounds per person round trip, so for the four of us it was about $108 USD. Make sure you get there ahead of time, the ferry closes 30-45 minutes prior to sailing.
- We stayed at the Hotel Hebrides, which was lovely. It was 180 pounds per night for a 4-person family room (about $280 USD at the time). It’s always harder to find 3- and 4-person rooms, and more expensive.
- We ate both lunch and dinner at the hotel and they were super good, and it’s a great place to have a pint in the middle of the afternoon as well.
- Airbnb wasn’t huge there yet, but it would be a great option now and you’d get to maybe spend some more time with locals.
- You definitely need a rental car, unless you’re with a guided tour. We brought ours across on the ferry.
- Remember that you’re way up north, so daylight hours (even in the summer) will be more limited.
- I’d definitely recommend visiting in the late spring, summer, or early fall though—things really shut down in such a small place, so you’d miss a lot and the weather would be even more miserable.
What to see
- Callanish Standing Stones (see opening times/days here); it’s free to visit, and there’s a cafe and visitor’s center
- St. Clement’s Church
- Walk around Tarbert
- Drive the Golden Road, stopping whenever something catches your fancy
- Luskentyre Beach
What we didn’t see but wish we’d had time for
- There is a HUGE amount of history here to explore besides the Neolithic standing stone monuments, including Iron Age brochs (circular towers, like Dun Carloway) and well-preserved 17th-century blackhouses. You can also watch the traditional Harris tweed be made.
- More beaches! Try Bosta Beach or Great Bernera.
- There’s a huge craft scene here, from painters to textiles, potters, knitters, etc. Get yourself some famous Harris tweed, but look for individual artists to support as well.
- Visit the brewery and distillery on the island.
- Visit the Lewis Chessmen, amazing Viking carvings made of walrus tusk.
- Get active—there are tons of things to do, from hiking to cycling to sailing to fishing!
- See the wildlife, including Highland cows, otters, seals, dolphins, red deer, and more.
- There are tour operators who can help you get a great experience of different activities on the island, you can check out more on the official website.
- Join a boat trip to St. Kilda. The island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a gorgeous archipelago that was abandoned by its inhabitants in 1930 when they could no longer survive there.
You might like some Irish & English landscapes too:
- Driving Ireland’s Beara Peninsula
- Exploring England’s Jurassic Coast
- The Breathtaking Dingle Peninsula
- A Perfect Day Trip: Stonehenge, Salisbury, & Stourhead Gardens
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