Inverness is the capital of the Scottish Highlands, and there is plenty to do, see, eat and drink in this city. Inverness is handily located at the start/end of the NC500. Having lived in this rapidly growing city from 2013-2017, and being a regular visitor since moving to Caithness, I felt it was finally time to write my own city guide! Included in this guide are links to travel and attraction information which are correct at the time of updating (2022), but please check before you travel, particularly in the light of Covid-19 which could cause short notice closures or limited opening hours.
THE ESSENTIALS - ARRIVING, MONEY EXCHANGE, TOURIST INFORMATION
Inverness is a well-connected city, with domestic flights to/from the Scottish isles of Lewis, Orkney and Shetland, as well as London, Bristol and Belfast. KLM operates flights to Amsterdam. There's a regular Stagecoach bus service (11A) from the airport into the city centre, which takes around 25 minutes. Buses also arrive from Aberdeen, Fort William, Thurso, Edinburgh and Glasgow. This link shows a current link of bus routes within the city. You can visit the bus station (Margaret Street) for additional help and book tickets if you are doing trips out of Inverness.
There are a couple of car hire companies, and you can either choose to collect your car from Inverness airport, or in the city centre.
The train station is located right on Academy Street, the main thoroughfare for vehicles in Inverness. There are regular trains arriving from Aberdeen, Wick, Kyle of Lochalsh (for Skye), Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London, including 1 daytime direct train, and the overnight Caledonian Sleeper. There is an abundance of taxis at the front of the station for your onward journey.
There are plenty of car parks in Inverness, and there's guidance on charges here. If you are hiring a car, please make sure that you are familiar with the rules of the road, particularly if you are taking the car out onto the smaller country roads. Anthea, a fellow Caithness writer, has written this practical guide to different aspects of travelling the North Coast 500.
Once you've arrived, if you need to change your cash into sterling, there's a centrally located Post Office on Queensgate. In the Eastgate shopping centre, Marks and Spencer also have a money exchange bureau. There is no currency exchange service at Inverness Airport. There are also the usual travel agents, banks and building societies which also may be able to offer exchange facilities - research this before your trip so it doesn't eat into valuable exploring time!
For tourist information, please head to the helpful staff at the VisitScotland iCentre - the team there will be happy to help with local tips, tour bookings and more!
SLEEPING IN THE CITY
There is accommodation for all budgets in Inverness, from hostels to B&Bs, to high-end hotels. If you visit between April - September, advance booking is essential otherwise you will end up paying over the odds, or risk not finding any accommodation in your budget. There's a growing number of AirBnBs. For good low-budget options in the off-season period, there are national brand Travelodge and Premier Inn hotels in the city, and on easily reached bus routes a short distance away. I can also recommend the Heathmount Hotel, Blackfriars Inverness (both dog friendly) and the serviced Highland Apartments by Mansley.
Inverness is a relatively compact city, with the city centre walkable in less than an hour. However, there's so much to see that you'll need much more time than this! I'd recommend doing some kind of tour to help you get your bearings and to get a basic understanding of the history of the city. Here's a list of tour ideas/sights to add to your 'to-see list:
- Inverness Castle - while you can walk up to the Castle for lovely views, it is currently closed and due to be refurbished to become a new visitor centre.
- Inverness Town House - hear the stories of the city past, present and future on a Town House tour
- River Ness - Faith Hope & Charity statues by Ness Bank Church, and Inverness Cathedral on the opposite side of the river
- Bridges - Ness Bridge, Infirmary Bridge and other pedestrian suspension bridges
- Falcon Square and Mercat Cross pillar
- Walk Inverness tour -recommended by A Highland Blend!
- Other tours are available by bike /bike hire, or by City Sightseeing Bus
- On the water: Dolphin Spirit boat tour on the Moray Firth - recommended by A Highland Blend!
- Jacobite Loch Ness 'Temptation' Tour - includes coach travel from Inverness Bus Station to sailing departure point near Loch Ness.
HERITAGE AND HISTORY
Being the Highland Capital, Inverness has a wealth of historical sights that are worth exploring. Slightly out of the city, the Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre is definitely worth a trip, but in Inverness itself, there's Outlander and Jacobite history aplenty - look for plaques everywhere with historical info - as well as at the following places:
- Abertarff House - a newly opened National Trust Property on Church Street
- Churches - Old High St Stephens Churchyard and Robertsons Mausoleum
- Dunbar Hospital (Church Street) - one of the oldest buildings in Inverness which has a history of taking care of vulnerable people.
- Leakey's - a huge independent bookshop in a converted Gaelic Church on Church Street.
- The Victorian Market - a covered market that suffered a huge fire in 1889. (also covered in Shopping section below).
There's even an augmented reality trail app which can be downloaded onto your phone.
While you can explore a lot of Inverness on foot for free, please consider supporting local arts and leisure attractions:
- Inverness Botanic Gardens - think of this as a mini Kew Gardens, which is free entry (donations welcome). A really relaxing place to enjoy in the summer including a tropical and cactus house.
- Eden Court Theatre and Cinema - a cultural centre with the latest cinematic and arthouse films, plus an excellent programme of dance, music, comedy and theatre. The venue also hosts craft and food fairs throughout the year! Due to Covid-19 Eden Court is currently closed, but please do check the website for reopening details.
- Ironworks - a live music venue with a regular programme of tribute acts, Scottish trad music, and bands such as Feeder, the Happy Mondays and Primal Scream! Due to Covid-19, at the time of writing indoor live music events are not permitted.
- Inverness Museum and Art Gallery (IMAG) - explore local culture and history in both permanent and temporary exhibitions. It is recommended that you book your visit in advance.
- Hootenanny often has live music and has a great atmosphere! Due to Covid-19, at the time of writing indoor live music events are not permitted.
- Inverness Creative Academy - Studios for artists and creatives, there's often an art exhibition on display! See more here
ACTIVITIES FOR FAMILIES
Inverness is a great city for getting families of all ages outdoors and exploring!
- Parks - Whin Park and Bellfield Park both have excellent outdoor play equipment; Whin Park also has a mini-railway and boating pond.
- Inverness Ice Centre - offers public skating sessions throughout the year. Please check the opening times in advance.
- Inverness Leisure - a 25m competition pool and leisure pool including flumes and wave pool. Due to Covid-19, bookings must be made in advance.
- Inverness Crazy Golf - the whole family can be challenged by a 12-hole crazy golf course (April - October only)
- Inverness SkatePark - next to Inverness Crazy Golf.
The WalkHighlands website is your friend here - I find it an invaluable guide of walking routes anywhere in Scotland!
- Ness Islands & Caledonian Canal - Taking in both the river Ness and the Caledonian Canal, there are lovely views out to the Moray Firth and to the inland hills.
- Craig Phadrig - a lovely forest walk leading up a short steep climb to a Pictish fort site with an amazing view west to Beauly and Glen Affric.
- Inverness Campus - Opened in 2016, this is a lovely college campus for a walk, cycle or skating session! The resident swans and their cygnets are always a big attraction in springtime.
- The start/endpoint for long-distance walks: Great Glen Way |South Loch Ness Trail | Loch Ness 360
Inverness is the hub of the Highlands, with many residents of the Islands and less populated places often coming to the city to do their shopping. The Eastgate Centre houses Marks and Spencer, Superdry, Waterstones, Lakeland, and many other national chains. There are also a couple of large retail parks outside of the city. The pedestrianised High Street has suffered in recent years, but if you're looking for a classic Highland souvenir, there are shops including Isle of Skye Candles, Judith Glue and House of Aran. Church Street has a wealth of independent traders including the legendary Leakeys Bookshop. The Victorian Market is well worth a wander through as well- look up to spot a unique model railway in action!
EATING AND DRINKING
I could easily write a separate guide just about the dining scene in Inverness, but for now, I'm going to keep it short and sweet (ish) with just my recommendations of independent places (please check opening hours and make a booking to support local hospitality businesses)
- Cafes/Daytime Eating: Cafe Artysans | Rendezvous Cafe | Velocity| Blend | Girvans | Am Bothan
- Modern-European: Mustard Seed | The Kitchen | Rocpool | McBains by the River
- Fine-Dining: Chez Roux Restaurant @ Rocpool Reserve (see my review here)
- American: Scotch & Rye
- Pizza: Cheese & Tomatin | Black Isle Bar
- Thai: Thai Dining
- Chinese: SHIMCA (see my review - I think this is Inverness's best kept secret!) | Hou Hou Mei
- Tapas: La Tortilla Asesina
- Turkish/Mediterranean: Aspendos | La Le
- Bars/pubs: Black Isle Bar | Hootenanny | MacGregor's | Castle Tavern | Heathmount | Rose Street Foundry
- Sweet stuff: Perk (Coffee & donuts) | Miele's Geletaria (Ice cream) | The Milk Bar (Coffee and ice cream) and Cup and Cone (Crown area) | XOKO (Bakehouse and coffee bar)
- Out of town: Cawdor Tavern (Pub/scottish) | Saffron (Indian)
Whether you're a Highland local or a visitor, I hope that my guide to Inverness is useful, and helps you discover new places!
All information is correct at the time of writing. Please check opening days/hours before you travel, particularly in the light of Covid-19 which could cause short notice closures or limited opening hours.