Fort William is a magnet for devotees of the Scottish Highlands and especially for those who love open air pursuits. Known as the ‘outdoor capital of the UK’, the town and surrounding area are packed full of things to do in all seasons. Here’s our guide to the best of the best.
The most popular attraction in Fort William is also the biggest. Standing at 1,345m (4,412ft) tall, this hulk of a mountain is the highest in the UK and attracts 125,000 visitors to its slopes every year. Fortunately you don’t need to be an expert mountaineer to make it to the top, as a pony track constructed in 1883 is now the most common ascent route. Advanced climbers will need to come prepared to tackle the impressive North Face and its 700m (2,300ft) cliffs, with appropriate footwear and a good level of fitness. Make sure you check the weather forecast too, as conditions can change rapidly, with snow possible all year. A good place to start is the helpful visitor centre in Glen Nevis; it has information on the mountain and local area, as well as toilets, a shop, picnic benches and car park.
Scotland is well known for its whisky, and with each area producing a unique flavour and style, there are over 130 distilleries to choose from. The Ben Nevis Distillery can be found in Lochy Bridge, to the north of Fort William, and was licensed in 1825. There’s a helpful visitor centre and three different levels of tour, including the obligatory tasting. Booking ahead is advisable as this can be a popular experience (and maybe book a cab home too).
Full of fascinating displays, this museum is a must-visit if you come to Fort William. Founded in 1922 – when the museum had neither a building, nor a collection – the West Highland Museum showcases items along themes such as Archaeology and Victoriana, all dedicated to life in the Highlands. There’s a fantastic collection of Jacobite artefacts too. Housed in a former bank, the museum is right in the centre of Fort William, so come for the free entry, and free wifi.
Neptune’s Staircase is a wonder of engineering. Eight gates on the Caledonian Canal form the longest ‘staircase lock’ in Scotland, and raise the waterway 19m (62ft) over a quarter of a mile to transfer boats between sea and canal. It still takes vessels about 90 minutes to get through the hydraulic gates, but this is much improved from the half day it used to take when they were powered by hand. Admire Thomas Telford’s design as you tackle the Great Glen Way; a charming long-distance hike past Fort William’s best attractions.
Visit this hotel, restaurant and art gallery in one, in the heart of Fort William. The Lime Tree An Ealdhain (meaning ‘place for creativity’ in Gaelic) has a couple of fascinating touring exhibitions each year, and is an award-winning cultural and dining venue. The boutique hotel and its restaurant have been excellently reviewed, and the menu boasts fresh, seasonal dishes, incorporating the very best in locally sourced ingredients. The hotel is the perfect starting point for all the outdoor activities Fort William has to offer – or stick to the hotel grounds for a relaxing afternoon.
From May to October the West Highland Railway Line plays host to the Hogwarts Express steam train, or The Jacobite as it’s also known. Running from Fort William to Mallaig and back, the route is stunning whatever the weather. It’s been called ‘the most beautiful railway in the world’ many times; add in this special steam train and it’s an experience not to be missed. The Glenfinnan Viaduct (also known as the ‘Harry Potter bridge’) with its views of Loch Shiel is breathtaking.
The Nevis Range Mountain Experience is home to the UK’s only Mountain Gondola, a glorified ski lift with spectacular views. At the top of the ride is the Snowgoose Restaurant and Bar, alongside an expanse of stunning upland with many trails and viewpoints along the way. In winter this is a magical snow-covered landscape and a magnet for snow sports enthusiasts. Stop for a hot chocolate at the Pinemarten café, before burning it off on the slopes. Or come in June to marvel at the daredevil bikers in the Mountain Bike World Cup.
Fort William is home to some of the most stunning scenery and wild landscapes in the UK. It boasts mountains, incredible waterfalls and stunning views at every turn. Outdoor activities are available for every level of fitness, so don’t overlook the opportunity to try something new. There’s a wealth of expertise at hand, and trained instructors will be only too glad to help you achieve your climbing or skiing goal. Whether you come to Fort William for one activity in particular, or in order to be spontaneous, get outside, breathe in the fresh air and enjoy yourself.
These recommendations were updated on September 17, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.