Scotland and Northern Ireland are amazing countries to visit and there are plenty of well-known places to explore. What if you are looking for something a bit different, somewhere unusual, less crowded? These hidden gems in Scotland and Northern Ireland will give you some inspiration of where you can go to discover something new.
I ask some blogging friends to write about their hidden gems in Scotland and Northern Ireland to share with you.
Hidden Gems in Scotland
Berneray and Luskentyre beach in the Outer Hebrides
North of mainland Scotland are the Outer Hebrides, a group of islands that are edged by white sandy beaches. The waters are turquoise and if you forget the cold temperatures you could imagine you were someone in the Caribbean or South East Asia.
Berneray beach on Berneray island is one of the prettiest beaches in the area. In fact, the Thai tourist board once used it by mistake in an advert for Thailand. In addition to the beach Berneray island is also one of the best places in the Outer Hebrides to see seals, and if you are very lucky, otters.
The next island is the Isle of Harris which is also full of amazing beaches. Along the western coast, there is one beautiful beach after the other. A full list of beaches can be found here but the ones you should not miss are Luskentyre, Seilebost and Scarista.
Luskentyre beach regularly features in Tripadvisor awards for the most beautiful beaches in the world. Despite all the acclaim, Luskentyre beach is still not well known. This might partly be because it takes time to get here.
The only way to get to the Outer Hebrides is either a domestic flight from Inverness or Glasgow or a ferry. For Berneray island and the Isle of Harris direct ferries leave from Uig on the Isle of Skye for Lochmaddy and Tarbert.
by Kristin from Adventures with Ensuite
Lesser Known road trips Scotland
Road trips may just be the best way to discover hidden gems in the UK. If you want to explore the very best of Scotland you will love these lesser known road trips around Scotland.
The North Coast 500 was introduced a few years back and for good reason has picked up a lot of love and popularity. What most people don’t know though, is that since then the Scottish tourism board have been developing some great lesser-known routes full of hidden gems.
The Argyll coastal road trip takes you along stunning parts of the Scottish coast few will get to, it runs between Tarbet and Fort William. If you love adventure, stunning sunset and delicious seafood you must make time for this road trip.
Another lesser-known gem of a road trip is the South West Coastal 300. This road trip loops around the Galloway forest park and there are endless places to bike, hike and swim as you explore. This route also includes some beautiful castles, make sure you make time to visit the Castle Kennedy Gardens.
Much of Harry Potter was filmed in the area, but not many people know that there is now a road trip to link up the best spots. If you are a Potterhead, search up the Harry potter spotter road trip. Even if you’re not a super fan, this route through Scotland is made up of a series of stunning spots you will love to see and explore.
by Emma from The Backpacking Family
Hawick in the Borders
Hawick is a town located in the Scottish Borders. It’s the largest of the Border towns and a pretty place to explore including a historic centre packed with restaurants and shops. It’s also intersected by the River Teviot.
However, Hawick isn’t just any Scottish town. An epicentre of industry in the Scottish Borders, it’s part of the Textile Trail and has a world-famous reputation for producing designer knitwear.
Giants such as Johnstons of Elgin, Hawico, William Lockie and Lovat all operate here, producing some of the finest handmade cashmere and tweed for some of the top fashion houses in the world. Yes, that includes Chanel… You can visit these mills and get your hands on some discounted designer clothing.
Pandemic restrictions permitting, you can request to book a private mill tour and see knitwear being made in action at Johnstons of Elgin. The tour takes you through the entire mill and you learn about the different steps that lead up to the finished product and the meticulous attention to detail that make this mill one of the best.
For those who enjoy a tipple, head over to the newly opened Borders Distillery. Located in a stunning restored Victorian industrial building, the distillery specialises in Single Malt Scotch Whisky, Borders Gin and small-batch vodka. You can book a distillery tour and see the distilling process for yourself (again, restrictions permitting). It also has a gift shop with a wide range of quality souvenirs.
by Francesca from Little Lost Travel
Shetland, at the very top of the UK, is not somewhere that vast hoards of tourists flock to. It feels remote and different and somewhere very special.
Travel over from mainland Scotland by boat or plane and feel like you’ve really got away from the world. This set of 15 inhabited islands, and multiple uninhabited ones, belonged to Norway until the 14th century and there’s something very Scandi about it. Even the accent here has a slight Norwegian twang.
The main reason to come to Shetland is for the bountiful wildlife that you can see here from whales and seals to Puffin and otters. It’s a fantastic place to take boat trips out to various islands that have become a haven for birdlife which is wonderful to see.
It’s a great place to get active too and there are some beautiful walks around Shetland or you can go mountain biking or kayaking to take in the countryside. There’s plenty of history on Shetland too and a trip out to the picturesque Isle of Mousa can see you clambering up the world’s oldest broch and using the original Iron Age steps to get to the top.
If you’re on a family holiday to Scotland then kids will be mesmerised by some of the Viking remains you can see on Shetland. This is a very special place and a real hidden gem.
by Nichola from Global Mouse Travels
Stacks of Duncansby
One the north east coast of Scotland near John o’Groats is Duncansby Head. It is actually a couple of miles further from Lands End than John o’Groats, so the true north east of Scotland.
When you get to the car park at Duncansby Head you will be met with the views over to Orkney, Dunnet Head and John o’Groats. There is also a lighthouse.
That might be enough for some visitors, but if you have the time, take a walk over towards the cliffs. The paths will take you to the Geo of Sclaites which look as if someone has taken a deep bite out of the cliff. The cliffs are a nesting area for seabirds and the smell can be quite pungent.
Further on you will see Thirle Door, a rocky arch and the large jagged sea stacks which are the Stacks of Duncansby. The stacks are off the coast and are tall, craggy and very dramatic.
Duncansby Head is a hidden gem in Scotland, so you won’t find crowds, so it is perfect for anyone who wants to get away in nature and explore the dramatic scenery.
by Larch from The Silver Nomad
Isle of Colonsay
The Scottish islands are the stuff of dreams. Endless sandy beaches, crystal-clear water, miles away from the rush of life on the mainland. Nothing says holiday more than an island getaway.
While some isles are busy with tourists though, others are still well off the beaten path. The Isle of Colonsay, sometimes called the Jewel of the Hebrides, is one such hidden gem on the Scottish coast.
The island is home to a tiny community of fewer than 200 people, but don’t let this fool you into thinking, Colonsay is a boring place to visit. Between the breathtaking beaches, 22 official MacPhie summits – which are like Munros, but smaller – two gin distilleries and a beer brewery, Colonsay really packs a punch.
You can hire bikes to explore the island without a car or paddleboards to cruise its coast. One of the best walks on the island leads across a tidal beach to the Isle of Oransay where you can visit a medieval priory and spend hours spotting rare birds and plants.
Visit the island’s most famous beach, Kiloran Bay, or take a walk to the breathtaking beach at Balnahard Bay (pictured).
Locals meet every weekend to clean one of the island’s many beaches and everyone is more than welcome to join. Because on Colonsay, you are not just a visitor, you become part of a tight-knit island-loving community!
by Kathi from Wild for Scotland
Isle of Mull
The Isle of Mull is a picturesque island part of the Inner Hebrides, located on the west of Scotland. It is also the fourth largest island in Britain. The island is full of rich wildlife, stunning coastlines and postcard-perfect villages, which it makes a compelling choice of destination for nature and outdoor lovers.
Isle of Mull may be a compact island but it is packed with plenty of interesting things to do.
To get a Caribbean feel, visit the beach at Calgary Bay. The pristine waters and powder sandy beaches has been one of the top attractions in the island. Climb up Ben More and soak up the views of the vast sea from the top. Located in the centre of the island, Ben More is the only Munro (Scottish mountain over 3000 feet high) in the Isle of Mull.
Explore the colourful and lively towns of Mull, the most notable being Tobermory, which is the capital of Isle of Mull, and has the largest settlement. There are also many island and wildlife boat tours that you can take from Tobermory. Don’t forget to spot golden eagles, otters, puffins and seals if you go on wildlife tours.
Isle of Mull is a paradise in Scotland that should definitely be added to your itinerary. Isle of Mull can be reached from Oban by a ferry and the journey time takes 45 minutes.
by Anuradha from Country Hopping Couple
Just a quick bus ride from the city of Aberdeen, you’ll find the Newburgh seal beach. This is a beautiful beach located in an estuary that is known for being home to hundreds of native seals. The nature here is absolutely stunning with lots of rare birds who live in the sand dunes. The Newburgh beach is a great hidden spot where you won’t run into crowds of tourists but more likely locals walking their dogs.
When the weather is nice this is a gorgeous spot for a nice walk on the beach or a picnic with a view of the seals. Please note that you should not get too close to the seals, as they may become aggressive if they feel disturbed. You’ll also find plenty of hiking trails along the dunes which are well-worth exploring. Close by is a restaurant with a gorgeous view where you can enjoy a drink after your hike.
Newburgh is a very small town so after you visited the seal beach, you should make a stop at the Brewdog Brewery which is located nearby. This is a well-known local brewery that offers fun tours and of course beer tastings. You can enjoy pizza at their brewery after your tour or go for a walk on the grounds.
The Newburgh Beach and the Brewdog Brewery are easily reachable by public bus. The bus departs in regular intervals and costs only a few pounds. If you are planning to come by bus, it is cheaper to get a day pass than a single ticket.
by Victoria from Guide Your Travel
Melrose, Scottish Borders
The Borders have some of the best hidden gems in Scotland with towns and villages to explore and discover. The beautiful town of Melrose is one of the prettiest.
The High Street is lined with independent shop, cafés and restaurants which leads you down to the Melrose Rugby ground. Melrose is the birthplace of the Rugby Sevens. Every spring the Rugy Sevens tournament takes places with teams coming from Portugal, France, England Nez Zealand and South Africa.
The Borders has four abbeys: Jedburgh, Kelso, Dryburgh Abbey and Melrose. All were built in the 12th Century. The Abbey in Melrose was founded by King David I in 1136, but due to its proximity to the English border is was attacked by their armies.
Left to ruins in 1590 when the last monk died, it is said that there is a casket containing Robert the Bruce’s heart buried in the grounds. The exterior of the abbey is heavily carved with gargoyles, hobgoblins, cooks with ladles and even a bagpipe playing pig.
Don’t miss the small museum next to the Abbey with a collection of artefacts dating back to medieval times that were found in the abbey.
Across the road from the Abbey is The Trimontium Museum. The area around Melrose was occupied by the Romans who built a fort named Trimontium – ‘Place of the Three Hills’ – nearby. The Trimontium Museum is dedicated to Roman life in Scotland and a fascinating place to visit. You can also visit the site of the fort, though it is now agricultural land.
Sitting next to the three peaks of the Eildon Hills, Melrose is perfect for a spot of hiking or walking over the hills. For culture lovers, 3 miles west of Melrose on the bank of the Tweed is Abbotsford House. The mansion was once home to Sir Walter Scott, one of Scotland’s most renowned writers. Take a walk in the woods surrounding it or an audio tour which leads you through the house.
If you have time, head up to Scott’s View just outside Melrose for fantastic views over the Eildon’s and the valleys.
by Larch from The Silver Nomad
Hidden Gems in Nothern Ireland
Tollymore Forest Park is located in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains in County Down in Northern Ireland. Tollymore Forest Park is not far from the seaside town of Newcastle and it is a great destination to combine with some time at the beach.
Established in the 1950s, Tollymore was the first state forest park in Northern Ireland. Prior to this, the park changed hands many times over the centuries with the various owners leaving their mark. At the heart of the park runs the beautiful Shimna River along which are stone follies, grottos and bridges.
The park features an arboretum with a wide range of species including monkey puzzles and huge redwoods. Much of the park feels natural however. There is dense woodland – evergreen and deciduous – and the park has been designated as an area of special scientific interest. Red squirrels can be seen racing up the trunks of the trees and the river carries salmon and trout.
The park is popular with visitors of all ages. There’s a good play ground for children next to the car park and there are several trails to follow through the forest of varying lengths. There is a campground at Tollymore Forest Park – ideal for those looking to stay a little longer at this North Irish hidden gem.
by Annabel from Smudged Postcard
Downpatrick, Northern Ireland
Only a 30 minute drive from Belfast in northern Ireland in the province of Ulster is the parish of Downpatrick and the historic town of Downpatrick. The main attraction here are Down Cathedral, the Down Country Museum, and the graveyard of Down Cathedral. In the graveyard you will find the grave of the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick.
Saint Patrick’s grave has been visited on religious pilgrimages and by travelers for centuries. He is buried along with the bones of St Brigid and St Columcille (or St Columba). Together in one grave then are the three most important saints in Irish history.
The enormous migration from Ireland at the turn of the 19th century meant that Irish people leaving their homeland would scoop a thimbleful of soil from St. Patrick’s grave to take with them. In 1900 an enormous stone was placed across the grave with “Patrick” engraved upon it.
The graveyard of Down Cathedral also contained a 1000 year-old High Cross. A replica now stands there but you can see the real High Cross in the Down Country Museum. It is housed in the old jail only 100 meters away.
Down Cathedral is well worth a look. This 15th century masterpiece contains elements that have remained intact. The Mayer of Munich stained glass windows show the life of Saint Patrick. Finally, don’t forget to call in at St Patrick’s Centre in the middle of the town. It’s a great introduction to the life of Saint Patrick before you visit his gravesite.
There are some great B&Bs and small hotels in Downpatrick to extend your stay in the area and explore further. These include Ballymote Country House and Quay Hill.
by Monique at Trip Anthropologist
Bangor, Northern Ireland
Bangor once was a big tourist destination in Northern Ireland with not just locals but people travelling across for weekends from Scotland and the mainland. This was before cheap package holidays and air travel when the town boasted outdoor swimming pools and roller coasters along its coastline.
These days, however, it is more low key, but it no doubt shared the same coastal beauty with a large marina, a seafront fun park, and it marks the start of the famous North Down Coastal Path walks following some of the most scenic stretches in the country.
Bangor Northern Ireland also has some historical significance in the region, and the museum, located at Bangor Castle, shares all sorts of exhibits about the town’s Christian heritage, Bangor Abbey, among other interesting tidbits.
Otherwise it’s just a nice town to explore with lots of natural beauty in it’s 2 town centre parks, Ward Park and Castle Park, and the serenity of the Victorian Walled Garden. It is also easy to reach just 20-minutes down the main train line from Belfast, and 15-minutes from Belfast City Airport. Many visitors will also use it as a base for further travel in the scenic region of County Down.
by Allan from It’s Sometimes Sunny in Bangor
The Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland
The Dark Hedges was a once-hidden gem in Northern Ireland but has now become more well-known due to the popular TV series, Game of Thrones, where it was featured. Now many tourists visit and you should plan an early arrival to see them without the crowds.
It is a free attraction open 24 hours a day as it is a public street. It features an avenue of over 150 beech trees that were planted by James Stuart to create an impressive entrance to his new house, the Gracehill House, built in 1775.
What makes this place so unique is how the trees form a mysterious path up to the house resembling a magical fairytale. The road is also supposedly haunted by a Grey Lady who is believed to have died mysteriously many centuries ago.
If you are a fan of the Game of Throne series, you will see the street featured in Season 2, Episode 1: On the King’s Road. The Dark Hedges is located 42 miles from Belfast and you can either drive there or take the famous Game of Thrones tour to see them.
by Jackie from Jou Jou Travels
I hope you have enjoyed learning about some of the amazing hidden gems in the UK to explore and visit when you are having a holiday in the United Kingdom.
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Larch lives a semi-nomadic life. Her life changed 20 years ago when a silly accident left her with restricted use of her right arm and neck and was told she would never work again. She turned her life around, retrained herself and set up as a self-employed website designer. This allowed her to work wherever she was in the world. Her passion for travel led her to start up her travel blog The Silver Nomad, to inspire over 40s to explore new destinations and expand their horizons. In 2019 Larch qualified as a CAA Drone Pilot which she combines with her travels.