Visiting the Outer Hebrides is like stepping back in time, to when things were simpler, community was king, and the landscape remained largely untouched but for a scattering of houses and farms. There’s something magical about escaping from it all, and with this in mind I’ve wanted to visit the Outer Hebrides for years.
Watching the beaches consistently feature on lists of the top beaches in the world bumped the Outer Hebrides up my bucket list, as well as taking the chance to visit these islands that aren’t (yet) as popular with tourists as the nearby Isle of Skye, despite having just as many amazing things to do and see.
The Isles of Lewis and Harris are the northernmost island in the chain of islands called the Outer Hebrides or the Western Isles, that string alongside the northwest coast of Scotland. Although Harris and Lewis are often referred to as separate isles they’re actually one island, split by historical convention and their differing landscapes.
I was far from disappointed when I finally made the journey by ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway and spent a week exploring Scotland’s largest island. Lewis and Harris are a dream come true!
Here are 11 reasons why they should be on your list of places to see in Scotland.
1. Beautiful beaches
White sand kissed by clear turquoise waters stretching for miles are hard to ignore. I’m not exaggerating when I say the beaches on Lewis and Harris are some of the best I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a few). The beaches of South Harris regularly appear on best beaches around the world lists, and it’s not hard to see why they should be added to your UK bucket list! Not to be outdone, there are some hidden gems on the Isle of Lewis, like Bosta Beach on Great Bernera.
2. Stunning landscape
When it comes to landscape the Outer Hebrides has it all. The Isles of Lewis and Harris alone have such diversity in their scenery that you’ll want your camera on hand at all times. I’ve spent hours editing photos and still feel like I didn’t take enough!
The changing light across the moonscape of Lewis was a constant source of wonder, turning the moorlands of peat from brown to purple and the rocky terrain from stone cold grey to brown or green. The barren mountains further south in Harris wouldn’t look out of place in somewhere like Iceland or Norway. There are miles of sandy beaches, jagged coastline and croft lands, not to mention the historical monuments that now look like a natural part of the landscape.
3. Friendly people
All the people we met on the island were so friendly and welcoming, and I know that can be said for a lot of places, but when you’re on a small island it really makes a difference! We didn’t feel excluded despite the strong sense of community the islanders have, and everyone went out of their way to make our mini-moon on the island special. We had some great chats about life in the Hebrides, and I truly wish I could have stayed and spoken to more people about it.
4. Extensive history
The history of the Isles of Lewis and Harris really deserves it’s own post because there is SO MUCH there. This is one of the most archaeological landscapes I’ve ever seen (ranked with one of my other favourite places, Shetland) with standing stones and historical houses that give a glimpse of life gone by.
I knew about the Callanish standing stones before I visited the Isles, but I didn’t know they’re older than Stonehenge and far more impressive. Stonehenge may be bigger, but visiting the Callanish Stones is what I imagine it used to be like to visit there when you could walk amongst the stones and really feel the atmosphere. If you do visit PLEASE don’t touch the stones, I saw a few people doing so despite the warning signs. Let’s not ruin it for the future!
Read More: Journeying Through History on the Isle of Lewis
5. Creative ventures
It’s not surprising given the inspirational landscape that many talented and artistic people have made the Isles of Lewis and Harris their home. You’ll find painters, photographers, candy and candlemakers, potters, knitters and all sorts of creative endeavours taking place across the islands, with lots of open studios to explore. I could happily move to the islands to be creative full time, if I had an artistic bone in my body!
But the one endeavour that fascinated me the most was Harris Tweed. This luxury fabric has to be made by weavers in homes in the Outer Hebrides to classify as Harris Tweed and it’s even protected by the government. We met a man making Harris Tweed in the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village who has been weaving since he was 12 years old!
6. The feeling
I can’t accurately describe the feeling I had being on Lewis and Harris, but I miss it! The sense of tranquility and escape was palatable, and not easy to find today. The roads were quiet and everywhere you looked there was space. Most of the time we could count the people on the most beautiful beaches on less than one hand, including us. Coming back to Edinburgh was a shock to the senses!
7. Food and drink
Seasonal and local produce aren’t new ideas for the islanders. There’s mouthwatering cold smoked salmon from Uig, Stornoway black pudding, scallops, hand reared beef and cheese all made locally, plus even more we didn’t come across.
Gin is having a renaissance, and the Outer Hebrides aren’t missing out with Harris Gin produced near Tarbert. You’ll also find some of the best single malt whisky there is from Abhainn Dearg Distillery.
(I was too busy eating the food to take a photo, so here’s another of the million I took of the beaches.)
Don’t let the tranquil nature of the Outer Hebrides fool you into thinking there are no adventurous things to be done. Hill-walking, kayaking, fishing, boating, surfing, sailing, cycling; that’s just a few of the adventure activities on Lewis and Harris!
Sheep, rabbits, and geese were just a few of the obstacles we avoided as we drove around Lewis and Harris. There are Highland Coos, eagles, and deer, plus dolphins, whales, and otters on the coast. All we had to do was step out our front door and we felt like we were in the wilderness.
The Outer Hebrides are the stronghold of the Gaelic Language (that’s Scottish Gaelic, not Irish), with most of the 1.1% of the population who speak the language living there, and just over half of all those on the island being able to speak the language. The signs in rural areas are only in Gaelic and it wasn’t uncommon to hear people speaking a mix of Gaelic and English, particularly when we were in Stornoway. I love languages, and I really hope this element of the culture continues to be retained at the very least.
11. Literature in real life
I love reading books about the places I’m visiting, including novels set there. While I was staying on the Isle of Lewis I read the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May. An internationally best-selling series set in the islands, full of mystery and taking advantage of the landscape and isolation to hold you in suspense. And I mean I read all three! It gave me ideas for more places to visit in Lewis and Harris and mentioned cultural and historical events I wouldn’t have otherwise known about.
You might also have heard of the Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon, which isn’t set on the Outer Hebrides but involves a stone circle, not unlike the Callanish Stones.
I thought I’d finally be able to tick the Isles of Lewis and Harris off my bucket list after finally visiting, but instead, I just want to explore the rest of the Outer Hebrides and return there!
Getting to the Isles of Lewis and Harris
We took the Calmac Ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway, but you can also go from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Tarbert. Both are car and passenger ferries. If you want to continue exploring other islands in the Outer Hebrides then you can go between Tarbert and North Uist as well.
There is an airport in Stornoway with flights from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, and Benbecula.
Getting around the Isles of Lewis and Harris is best done by driving. Rent a car on the mainland and take the ferry over, or get one on the islands if you fly in.
Most of the roads are single lane roads with passing places, although they’re not too busy. It’s hard in such beautiful scenery but keep your eyes on the road ahead!
You can also use the local bus service between main centres. If you don’t drive, consider taking a tour to help you see the best of the islands.
Where to stay
We love making a home wherever we travel, so Airbnb was the best option for us (sign up here to get travel credit from your first trip). Of course, there are plenty of hotels or hostels all over the isles. If you don’t want to drive too much, you could stay half your time in Lewis and half in Harris.
Consider accommodation outside the main areas, since you’ll want to be travelling around the islands anyway. We stayed on Great Bernera and loved it!
Read More: Journeying Through History on the Isle of Lewis
Have you ever been somewhere you can’t wait to return to? (And did you think Scottish beaches could look like the Caribbean?)
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41 thoughts on “11 Reasons to Visit the Isles of Lewis and Harris, Scotland”
The photo of you on the beach could so easily be mistaken for somewhere in the South Pacific… But I’m sure the water wouldn’t be as warm for swimming 😉 It’s funny because I just watched the first episode of Outlander today, and I am HOOKED. It would be so lovely to visit here and your photos are beautiful as always!
Thanks so much! I know it’s crazy looking at those beaches and realising it’s Scotland! The water was definitely a bit chillier though haha. I love Outlander! I haven’t actually finished the TV series but I’ve read all of the books 🙂
I had no clue that Isles of Lewis and Harris had history and stories as well…that makes me want to visit them even more. Well, the pictures of the beaches make me want to visit the isles. It’s great to visit a place with friendly locals….it multiplies the joy of travelling!
There are so many great things to see there and a lot to learn, I think you could spend a lot of time there!
I am Scottish and I have actually never been here. I would love to visit sometime. Your pictures are beautiful
Thank you! It’s a really beautiful place, I hope you get to go sometime 🙂
Such beautiful pictures of Scotland. I love those Callinish standing stones and good to know that they are older than Stonehenge. Wildlife and adventures amaze me most. Such a clear air with pure oxygen. I love it.
Thanks so much! It is wonderful to get out to somewhere that feels so natural!
You had me interested at beaches and sold on the hairy cows! I had no idea Scotland had a beach this beautiful.
Haha the cows are the icing on the cake! There are actually a lot of beautiful beaches, especially in the islands. Definitely unexpected though!
Beautiful Scotland! I haven’t really seen much of Scotland, and I hope I get to change that. Your photos make me just wanna book a flight and go ASAP (the summer months would be perfect for that). I’ll have to note it down: Isles of Lewis and Harris… and figure out the easiest way to get there! (I live in France)
Definitely do make a note! A lot of people go to the Isle of Skye but making just a little effort to go to further out is really worth it! Scotland’s not so big either :).
Oh My God. The pictures are so incredible that all I did was gaze at them and got back and gazed again! 🙂
So picturesque! The beaches, the green, the rocks and the landscapes! Loved it all. Local experiences are an icing on the cake! Loved the artist’s photo as well. Straight out of a storybook! 😀
Haha thank you! Honestly, I feel like I didn’t even capture it properly because it was so awesome. It really felt like another world!
Glad to find a post like this that goes beyond the usual stuff. Never heard of Callanish Stones before and they seem to of same category such as the Stonehenge. Seems you also managed to visit everything during perfect weather. Love the photographs… especially the phone booth out of nowhere.
The Callanish Stones are even older than Stonehenge, which just seems crazy! We were quite lucky with the weather, with some sunny days and a couple of cloudy days but not too much rain 🙂
Wow, I just returned from my first trip to Scotland and it was absolutely beautiful! I love all the photos… and that water is just so blue it doesn’t seem like it would be in the north of the UK!
It’s such an amazing place! I always feel like I can never quite capture it, so I have hundreds and hundreds of photos haha. I couldn’t get over how blue and clear the water is either!
Your photos are gorgeous – really consolidates my dream to go to the Hebrides next year!! 🙂
Thanks so much! Definitely do it :D. I want to go back and see more of the islands, hopefully soon!
Wow, I cannot believe that some of these photos were taken in Scotland, especially the ones with white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, so amazing! Your photos are stunning. I wish I had known about these islands when I was still living in the UK. These islands are a paradise for outdor lovers, want head over there right now.
Thanks so much! Hopefully if you come back to the UK you can head over there :). The water is so beautiful, although not as warm as it looks haha.
I’ve traveled all over Scotland, but not to the Outer Hebrides yet — they and St. Kilda are my top Scotland dreams! I loved your photos and descriptions. You make me want to plan a trip sooner rather than later…
Hearing that only 1.1% of the population speak Scottish Gaelic gave me serious anxiety, though. I hope they’re doing all they can to preserve the language. It could be a success story like Welsh.
I really really wanted to go to St Kilda while I was there but it was just a bit too far outside of my budget! Next time I’ll have to make sure to plan it in :).
It makes me really worried that the language will be lost as well. I was happy to hear it spoken at least a little, and do hope they do more to preserve it!
Wow there are so many beautiful places to visit in Scotland, I didn’t realise! We are from the South of England and I am determined to get my butt up north! thanks for sharing, this will deffo help with travel planning!
There are so many amazing places up here! I need to do the opposite and explore more of England haha. We can swap!
Stunning photos, Sonja! I’ve been dying to go to Isle of Harris for ages now, but something always gets in the way. Maybe in August? 🙂
Thank you!!! It is a bit further so takes a bit more effort, but it’s totally worth it. It should be pretty nice in August!
You have taken beautiful photos and provided so much information about of the islands, what a fabulous place to explore. It sounds like a lovely idyllic place to live too, with that gorgeous scenery everywhere you look, the food, friendly locals and low population, I can only imagine how wonderful it would be. Thank you for highlighting this beautiful part of Scotland I would love to visit hopefully one day.
Thanks so much! I love that Scotland has these amazing islands to explore, and so many of them that they’re all a bit different. There’s definitely a lot to see and experience and it’s well worth the extra effort to get to them. Hopefully you get to go!
What a lovely blog! I visited Lewis and Harris earlier this year and stayed with friends. So I was given a tour by locals. They took me to many a beach where I would sit and sketch since I’m an artist. I have a couple of posts on my own blog about my visit. I can’t wait to go back again!
I particularly loved Benbecula beach… and then I saw Luskentyre! I also took the ferry from Ullapool. I live in Glasgow and preferred the train-ferry route to flying since you see much more of the landscape.
Enjoy Scotland. 🙂
Thanks so much! It’s such a beautiful place it’s easy to write about and photograph! I can’t wait to go back again myself :D. I definitely preferred the ferry too, although we drove 🙂
What time of year were you on Lewis and Harris?
In May! It’s a great time to travel in Scotland as the weather is usually a bit more settled and it’s spring. Although of course it can be a little chilly sometimes still!
Great blog, Sonia! You make us wanna go to enjoy all those wonderful places you have been. I’m going to visit Scotland, soon, and I’ve just discovered the Isles of Lewis and Harris. If I can spend only ten days in the scottish country, would you recommend me to reach these isles, before visiting other places? I may want you to answer… YES!!!
Hey! Thanks so much :D. Visiting Lewis and Harris would take quite a bit out of your ten day trip, since reaching them isn’t the easiest and you’ll want a few days there to make the most of it, so it kind of depends what you want to do with the rest of your time!! It is definitely possible, but I always caution people not to try and fit too many things in. So I wouldn’t plan a lot else, just things to see on the way there and back, and plan your ferries to maybe go from/to Skye and from/to Ullapool so that you can see a bit more on a road trip that way!
Wow those beaches look absolutely unreal! Has a Bahamas look to it… I can’t believe it hah!
I went to Isle of Skye in Scotland, was also a very beautiful destination.
I know it’s crazy! Love it there.
My ancestors came from the Butt of Lewis! It us at the top end of the island ironically! On my bucket list for years. When we can travel again, it is the first place I will go to!
Thank you for your photos and comments. As someone who has visited these islands since I was a baby it helps me realise my fortuity more. I go in all seasons still and have yet to tire of it for the reasons you describe so well! April / May are the best months imo.
We visited then and I loved it! Had amazing weather, although I’m very aware that’s not always the case haha.