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Skye, Mull, and Islay (the Inner Hebrides) are nice, but if you can push on a little further, Lewis and Harris, in the Outer Hebrides, will deliver big time. Lewis has most of the standing stones, is fairly flat and hilly, while Harris has most of the beautiful beaches and big mountains.
Both have a lot of curvy roads, plenty of sheep, and very few people, including tourists in August, yes, August.
Planning a last-minute trip to Scotland?
Top Experiences and Tours in Scotland:
- See the sights with a tour of Loch Ness, Scottish Highlands, Glencoe & Pitlochry Tour from Edinburgh
- See castles in Edinburgh: Edinburgh Castle Guided Tour w/ Fast-Track Entry
- Explore more with this tour of Inverness: Isle of Skye and Eilean Donan Castle Day Trip
Where to stay in Scotland:
Arrivals and Departures
There is no problem with transport to and from the very small town of Stornoway, which is in the northern part of Lewis and Harris (actually, it’s one big island). My wife and I flew non-stop on Loganair from Glasglow, but Loganair flies from many other locations to Stornoway.
They fly smaller planes, and it’s a short flight from anywhere in the United Kingdom, even if you have to make one stop on the way.
The Caledonian Macbrayne car and passenger ferry from Ullapool runs twice a day in both directions to and from Stornoway and takes about three hours one way. But you must get to Ullapool, which means you need a car, van, or you can take a train and bus from Edinburgh or Glasglow.
There is another ferry that operates between Uig on Skye (Inner Hebrides) and Tarbert, Harris, in the southern part of Lewis and northern tip of Harris, which takes a little over two hours and runs once a day. Check the Caledonia Macbrayne schedules to see all ferry crossings, times, and days which may change depending on time of year and weather.
Loganair is my recommendation to get to Lewis and Harris. Cheap, efficient, and a real tiny airport in Stornoway, and who doesn’t love a tiny airport?
Best Tips & Tools to Plan Your Trip
There is a bus service, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, on Harris and Lewis, and a few taxis, but your best bet is to rent a car. Of course, you could bring your own car or van on one of the ferries. Driving for most of us means, uh oh, driving on the wrong side of the road, the left side.
There are a few of those darn roundabouts, mostly around Stornoway, but they are small ones, which are the worst because people usually don’t slow down or give way.
The roads over all are good, just small, with no shoulder. Occasionally there’s only one lane, but there are a lot of passing places. Drivers for the most part were cautious and courteous. Google Map worked perfectly which indicated to me that there must be plenty of cellular towers around the island and our Airalo eSIM data service seem to find them quickly.
Here’s the rules for when you see sheep along the side of the road. First, slow way down. Second, look at their heads, and if their heads are down eating grass, you are most likely fine. But if they appear to be looking up, they will most likely be ready to walk, right into the road.
Sometimes they use the entire road to walk along at their own leisurely pace. Once I honked the horn to get some sheep to move off the road. They stopped and looked around at me as if to say, “what are you honking about, this is our road”.
I used Stornoway Vehicle Hire for a rental car, and what a kicked back business this was. They met us at the airport (someone was there when we arrived), walked us over to a very nice mid-size car, gave us the electronic keys, took a picture of my license, then I signed one form and that was it.
For return they told us to just leave the car in the airport parking lot, unlocked, with keys in the open center compartment under the dash and they would be by to pick the car up. It was a nice car except, we did have a flat tire, with no spare (most rental cars ‘now-a-days’ don’t have a spare tire).
But after a couple of calls, and some friendly help from a local, a service came fairly quickly with a new rim and tire, and we were back on the road again. We rented the car online and paid in advance, but Stornoway Van Hire appeared to have a fair cancellation policy, so I wasn’t too worried about that.
In general, it’s a bit pricier to rent a car in remote locations and the Outer Hebrides only has a few car and van hire companies.
Surprisingly, we saw several bikers and hikers. But generally, there are no places for bikes or pedestrians on the roads, so you have to be extra careful especially on the many blind curves.
The Stones and Beaches
People primarily visit Lewis and Harris for the stones and beaches. Most of the stones are on Lewis with Callanais I site being the most popular, but there are standing stones, called megaliths, all over the place.
It’s hard to explain the feeling you get as you walk around these megaliths. How old are these, who put these here, and what exactly happened at these sites? It’s all very mysterious and fascinating. The neat thing about all megalith sites on Lewis and Harris is that you can walk right up to them. Being a little superstitious, I chose not to touch them, and I watched where I walked, too.
Calanais I is about a 45-minute drive from Stornoway and it’s the largest of the megalith sites on Lewis and Harris. There’s a visitor’s center with free parking, a small gift shop, a nice little cafeteria style restaurant, and there’s no charge to visit any of the stones, anywhere on Lewis or Harris.
Hours and days the center is open vary depending on the season so check their website, but you can visit the stones anytime. I wanted to do a sunrise at Calanais I, but my wife wasn’t up for a drive at 4:00 am in the morning with there always being the possibility of clouds and rain: it’s Scotland.
After visiting Calanais I if you proceed north on Hwy A858 there are several interesting things to stop and see, such as, the Carloway Broch, an iron age round stone fortification. However, I can assure you that most of your time will be spent taking in, and experiencing, the numerous megalith sites.
There are some stunning beaches a short distance from Stornoway on Lewis off of B895 that are mostly deserted and have good parking. Garry Beach, near the end of the B895, just a little way on the single-track portion, is perfect for a beach picnic and walk.
However, heading south out of Stornoway on the A859 to the beaches of Harris, although a little bit more of a trek, and more sheep too, is where the unbelievably spectacular beaches are.
It is an easy day trip from Stornoway to the beaches of Harris on a mostly curvy drive south on Hwy A859 passing through the very small town of Tarbert. On A859 most of the single track with occasional passing places occur on Harris south of Tarbert, with an occasional single lane bridge.
It’s impossible to miss the beaches of Harris. Many are right alone A859, or a short detour off of A859. I have surfed my whole life and have been to many beaches all over the world, but I have never seen anything as beautiful as the beaches of Harris.
The scale of the beaches is breath taking, they all seem to have fine white sand, and the water is clear. If the sun is out the water is a beautiful turquoise color near the shore framed by blue water further out. If you want to take a dip it will be a short one because the water is a little cool.
I did see some kayaking and standup paddleboarding, but it was fairly deserted everywhere we stopped. My suggestion is a walk, picnic, and a nap on the beach. For the answer to which is the best beach to visit? The answer is any, and there are several.
The vast expanse of Niasabost Beach was especially stunning, with plenty of room to spread your blanket or towel. And after your nap, it is a short uphill stroll to a single megalith stone called MacLoeld’s Stone and what a view you get from there.
Back in Stornoway there is a lot to discover so make sure to leave time. Stornoway is a tidy, safe, and laid-back place. There are plenty of little boutique type shops and it’s easy walking in the small downtown harbor area. There is some interesting architecture here and there and no high-rises that I noticed.
A small stroll out of the more commercial area of Stornoway into the more residential area you will find a lot of interesting 1800s and early 1900s built large homes with well-manicured yards as well as some small parks.
Stornoway is one of those places that you feel must have had a vibrant past before everyone left for Canada and America in the early 1900s. The fishing and tweed, as in Harris Tweed, industries are not what they used to be with tourism playing a bigger role in the island’s economy.
Off of Bayhead Road in Stornoway is a pedestrian bridge that crosses over the Bayhead River that will take you to Lews Castle. The 1800s built castle is mostly used for special events but it is possible to visit the lower floors if no events are occurring.
There is a nice café and gift shop, and the upper floor offers short-stay rentals. There’s some interesting history around who the castle was built for, Sir James Matheson, and the Chinese opium trade. The grounds around the castle are great for walking with a lot of picturesque views.
It is easy enough to find accommodations in Lewis and Harris with pretty much everything on the many commercial accommodation’s websites. Over the last few years I have been using booking.com, which has a very broad selection to choose from in and close to Stornoway as well as more remote cottages accommodations all around Lewis and Harris.
My wife and I stayed in a very nice duplex apartment on a quiet street several blocks from the center of Stornoway. It was called 10 Berisay Place, which is the address of where it is located.
I don’t often single out a particular property because, as we know, things change over time, but this place was bar-none the most well-equipped place I have ever stayed, and everything worked; I mean everything. It was spick and span clean, and the owners were spot-on communicators, including a nice handwritten welcoming note.
I should mention that I saw several RV, called caravan, parks as well as tent camping sites all over Lewis and Harris.
Eating Out and In
You don’t have to go too far to find a coffee, tea, and pastry café, sandwich shop, or sit-down restaurant in Lewis and Harris. Stornoway itself has several places. For a second cup of coffee and a sweet I recommend the Artizan at 12 Church Street.
The sandwiches are good at Artizan too. For dining out, on two different occasions, HS-1 Café Bar at 81 Cromwell Street, was delicious; and it was mussels, fries, salads, and a bottle of chardonnay both times.
There are numerous pubs in Stornoway which have great beer, whiskey, and pub food like lamb pies. The problem with pubs is that they are non-smoking inside, which is a good thing, but that means everyone goes outside to drink and smoke, or near the door, which turns the immediate area into a cloud of cigarettes smoke.
And if you are down wind sitting comfortably on a bench, it’s a bit unpleasant trying to enjoy a good stout or single-malt.
Eating in is a great option, even if you don’t have an apartment. Takeaway is quite popular, and the supermarkets are very well stocked. My wife and I shopped at the Tesco on Ferry Road but there’s a couple of easy to find Co-ops in Stornoway.
Tesco and Co-op open early and stay open well into the evening, so if you arrive late, there is no problem getting supplies, and they sell beer, wine, and spirits too.
Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland fits into my ‘easy travel’ category with an enormous amount of returns. First, it’s a people friendly place. Everyone seemed to be cheery and up-beat and it’s neat that you commonly hear Scottish Gaelic, which is when you say to yourself, or travel companion, “what language is that”?
Lewis and Harris gives you the feeling that you have discovered an easily accessible and fun place that offers great historical and cultural experiences, fabulous sightseeing, and lots of relaxation. There’s no rush on Lewis and Harris and the sheep certainly know that.
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Author Bio: Jerry Olivas is a travel writer and photographer focusing on “do-it-yourself” adventures worldwide. Some of his work can be found on European Travel Magazine. He has lived and worked in England, Italy, and Israel and is based in Carlsbad, California USA.
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