Perhaps the first place the day tripper should look is along the Great Glen and down the 23 miles of Loch Ness. Apart from searching for Nessie the Loch Ness Monster, those on a day trip from Inverness can also visit Urquhart Castle, and the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition, both at Drumnadrochit. This is a short distance from the city, and continuing the journey along the loch is rewarding, with stunning views and photo opportunities, including Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Great Britain. Other attractions include the village of Fort Augustus, the Clansman centre, and Neptune’s Staircase, a series of eight lock gates allowing the Caledonian Canal to descend to sea level. Another option is to take a boat tour along the water itself, allowing the traveller a different view to that normally experienced from the shore.
Scotland is full of castles and, while there are several options relatively close to the city of Inverness, it is worth driving a little further on a day trip in order to see one of the most photographed and iconic, Eilean Donan. This castle sits on an island, has appeared in many movies, and often appears on packaging or advertising for Scottish products. Combine a trip to the castle with exploring the Isle of Skye, passing the famous Five Sisters of Kintail mountains, seeing the jagged ridgelines of the Cuillin hills, or simply slowly wandering along an empty stretch of coast beachcombing, before picking up some fish and chips in Portree.
Closer to Inverness, the Royal Burgh of Nairn is perfectly placed for exploring. It is renowned as one of the driest and sunniest places in all of Scotland, and has several miles of sandy beaches close by. Cawdor castle and gardens are close by, as are several world-class golf courses, including Castle Stuart. Nairn itself offers several places to eat and to shop, a promenade to walk along and gaze out to the Moray Firth beyond, river walks, and various activities, including wild dolphin spotting.
Follow the road north from Inverness and you will find picture-perfect seaside villages, each with a character of its own, golden sands, archaeological wonders, and beautiful walks. The Seaboard Villages of Shandwick and Balintore offer the visitor a glimpse of the gentler side of Scottish scenery, despite the bulk of Ben Wyvis looming inland. Look out for otters and also the Mermaid of the North. For lovers of architecture, Tain is fascinating; while it is Scotland’s oldest Royal Burgh, many of the buildings were constructed in the late 19th century and designed by the Maitland family of architects. Head along the coast and stop off at the Glenmorangie distillery for a tour and wee dram, then cross over the Dornoch Firth and visit the ancient town of Dornoch, with its 13th century cathedral, castle, and beautiful local beach walks.
Due to its superbly central location, day trips from Inverness can be taken in virtually all directions. Heading south and east will take the visitor into the vast wild area of the Cairngorm National Park. Aviemore is a good place to pause, whether for a meal or to join the Strathspey Steam Railway. When there is snow on the ground, other possibilities include winter sports, such as skiing or snowboarding. The Reindeer Centre offers visitors the chance to see the only free-ranging herd of reindeer in the UK, and to get close to the friendly creatures themselves. It is also possible to combine these activities with visiting one of the many Speyside distilleries.
Heading along the Great Glen towards Fort William gives another option for the day tripper, to either continue driving the Road to the Isles, all the way to where it ends in Mallaig, or to leave their vehicle (or depart the bus) at Fort William, and join the “Harry Potter train.” This route is one of the finest in Scotland, and the train journey has been voted the best in the world on more than one occasion. Both road and rail cross iconic landscapes, with soaring peaks, deep dark lochs, majestic forests, sudden bays and islands, close up views of the wildlife, and a wealth of heritage and culture. Mallaig is an excellent place to pause and find some food, before the return journey.
The northern islands of Orkney are full of wonders, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, with the majestic stone circles of the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, the unique tomb of Maeshowe and one of the best preserved stone age villages in the world, Skara Brae. Other places to visit include the beautiful Italian Chapel, decorated by Italian prisoners of war to a stunning standard, the Churchill Barriers, built to protect the natural harbour of Scapa Flow, and the ancient red sandstone Viking cathedral of St. Magnus. All of these sites — and the traditional warm hospitality of the Orcadians themselves — are within range of a day trip from Inverness. Just remember to check the times of the ferry sailings if you’re planning to drive the route yourself.