Updated on September 21st, 2023
If you enjoy exploring ancient prehistoric sites, mystical standing stones and taking in awe inspiring views at every turn, then look no further than the stunning island of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Add to that being blown away (often literally) by miles of immaculate sandy beaches which could put the Caribbean to shame, then you will not be disappointed. To help you decide where to start, here is my collection of the best things to do on Lewis and Harris.”
Isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland
After an amazing road trip, the previous year around the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, my friend Manda and I made a pact to return. We wanted to continue our journey even further north to explore the famous North Coast 500 route. On the 5th day of our Scottish Highlands adventure, we veered off the path to take a few days on the Island of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Last year our visits to the Isles of Skye and Mull had been among the highlights so we felt it was important to discover a little more if what lay across the water on this visit.
What was most confusing in our planning was to discover that it is actually one island but the largest in Scotland. Lewis sits in the north and is where you can explore atmospheric moorland, an epic coastline of steep cliffs & beautiful beaches.
It is also home to the mystical Callanish Standing Stones which date back almost 5000 years, to the time of the Pyramids.”
To the south sits its smaller conjoined sibling, Harris. We had already decided that Harris was where we wanted to spend most of our time. We had read about the endless windswept beaches, among the most stunning in the UK, maybe even the world. After having been imprisoned by lockdowns and then nursing a sprained ankle, there was nothing I wanted more than take a very long walk on a beautiful beach with the wind whistling through my hair.
And I was not disappointed!
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16 Fantastic things to do on Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Calanais Standing Stones (Callanish)
Our first stop for the trip and what must be top of everyone’s list of things to do on Lewis and Harris were the Calanais Standing Stones. Sited as one of the most atmospheric prehistoric sites in all of Scotland, these stones could have been standing here for around 5000 years. That’s older than the Pyramids of Giza!
It is still unknown why they are there, but theory is that it was once a place of spirituality and ritual. There are around 50 monoliths in total, radiating out to form a cross, with a chambered tomb at its centre. Take a trip to the Visitors Centre to learn all about their history and the theories behind how they were erected all those years ago.
We also discovered that it wasn’t the only set of standing stones. Nearby there are not one but 2 more on nearby hills. We went to explore these too, finding ourselves the only people at both.”
If you are interested in history then there are a few other sites not to miss.
Gearrannan Blackhouse Village
The blackhouses were the traditional dwellings which combined a barn with a home. They were heated by burning peat which created smoke whose only escape was through the small windows or gaps in the turf roof. However, apart from the fact that they were filled with smoke they were actually called blackhouses to distinguish them from the “white houses”. These were the newer and separated the people from their livestocks living quarters. At Gearrannan you can see a cluster of nine restored thatch-roofed houses overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Explore, stop at the café, or even opt to stay in one that has been converted into a holiday cottage!
While we’re on the subject, a visit to Arnol Blackhouse takes you back to a traditional way of Hebridean life. The house was built in 1885 and not changed since its last inhabitants moved out in 1964. Each morning they light the peat fire give a real flavour of the experience.
Dun Carloway Broch
A broch is an ancient dwelling found only in Scotland. They are comprised of a stone tower, built without mortar, and described by some as the pinnacle of prehistoric architecture. Dun Carloway Broch is said to be one of the best preserved of them all, believed to have been built around 2,000 years ago.
Despite the fascinating selection of archaeological gems to explore on Lewis, with only one afternoon here, next on our agenda was to head for a beach. We had heard that Lewis and Harris were home to some magnificent white sand beaches, so we went off to investigate.
And we were not disappointed! We chose the area around Miavaig and discovered a stunning loop road drive around its perimeter. The route was short but spectacular and slow (we needed to stop regularly for photos). First came Cliff beach, then Kneep with its water sports and sailors.
Finally, we claimed our prize as Reef Beach appeared ahead of us, resplendent in all its white sanded, aqua sea magnificence.”
This one was well worth some time to walk, explore and savour the moment. The beach is huge and would not look out of place in the Caribbean. The large sweep of sand in some lights looks pink and the water is a bright aqua blue. Along the beach we saw stranded jellyfish and then a section of razor clam shells before we felt it was time to return to the car and finish with our final stop for the day.
Bosta Beach and Iron Age House
We headed to the Great Bernera Peninsula, linked to Lewis by a bridge. And in Bosta, we found the best of both worlds, a gorgeous sandy beach and an ancient historic dwelling. Back in 1996 a whole Iron Age village was discovered here after being exposed in a storm but reburied for its protection. However, they did reconstruct one of the houses and you can visit to get a flavour of life back then. Check the details beforehand as it is not always open.
That was all we had time for in our one afternoon in Lewis and we headed back to our hotel for the night in Stornoway. However, if you have a little longer then don’t miss:
Lews Castle is an impressive gothic-revival castle which was originally built in the 1840’s for the Matheson Clan who owned Lewis. Although the grand public rooms are now open to visit, the remainder of the house has now been converted into apartments. But you can wander the public rooms and the beautiful, wooded gardens for free.
Museum Nan Eilean
While you’re in Lews Castle, don’t miss Museum Nan Eilean. Its most famous residents are the Lewis chess pieces, said to be the single greatest archaeological find in Scotland.
They are carved from whale and walrus ivory and thought to have originated in Norway, over 800 years ago.”
They were discovered in Uig on the west coast in the 19th century. In addition to the six chess pieces, there are interactive exhibitions on life and traditions of the Outer Hebrides to explore.
Isle of Harris
The next day we headed south to Harris. The roads got more undulating and the landscapes more dramatic the further south we went. This was only highlighted by the tussle which seemed to be going on between the sun and the rain…welcome to Scotland in the summer!
Our first destination was Hushinish beach. It sounded fairly innocuous to just take a slight detour off the main road to see a gorgeous beach. But a trip to Hushinish is so much more than that! The road immediately became a single track then at times there were hairpin bends, blind summits, a combination of the 2 at once, sheep in the road, or cows and a sharp drop either side of the road. Then there were distractions along the way, like an old whaling station, a tennis court, randomly in the middle of nowhere and then the impressive shooting lodge of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle.
Eventually, the road brought us to the beach of Hushinish. A pretty, white powder sand beach. My top tip is to go along to the far end, climb the rocks and look back to admire the view. The sea from above is the most vibrant shade of blue and stunning.
No photoshopping or filters required. Have a moment and take a breath, before you tackle the journey back in the other direction!”
Wow! That’s all I can say. Scarista is a massive, empty beach of golden powder sand which when wet looks pink. It was the perfect place to blow the cobwebs away, literally, as there was a brisk and fairly cold wind when I visited. Please note that if you plan on visiting Scotland, even in the height of summer, you need to prepare for all weather conditions…within each hour ;).
I probably spent an hour or more just walking along Scarista, taking photos, and enjoying the wind in my hair and the sand beneath my feet. There is always something very calming about the sounds of the sea.
After Scarista, we decided to continue to circumnavigate the island and went back onto the single-track roads for a bit more excitement on the east coast! This time the landscapes changed again, and it literally felt like we were driving across the moon. The undulations were gentler but with the grey rock exposed it was a very lunar landscape. Apparently, Stanley Kubrick came here to film 2001 A Space Odyssey so it wasn’t just me who saw the resemblance! One of the more obscure things to do on Lewis and Harris.
Drive the Golden Road
The next day we decided to a circle around the so called “Golden Road”. It’s not called that because it is made from gold bricks (a la the “Yellow Brick Road” in Sofia, Bulgaria), or because it is home to the most expensive houses on the island. It is named the Golden Road due to the terrain which meant building it cost a lot of money. For much of history, the tiny settlements that dot this coast were accessible only by sea, until 1897 when this road was built, linking these settlements together.
And yes, it was spectacular with gorgeous views. It is narrow with hairpins, blind summits and drops but after all the other roads in Harris that we had negotiated so far, it was similar! Once you have tackled one of these hair-raising roads, you can take on any drive!
Then an even bigger treat as we finished the drive. We were stopped in our tracks by a couple of Highland Cattle just standing in the middle of the road.”
Our next stop was Luskentyre Beach and this one has to be included on any list of the best things to do on Lewis and Harris. It has been touted by TripAdvisor to be among the UK’s best beaches. We were sceptical after the gorgeous ones we had already witnessed.
Apparently, a climb up nearby Beinn Luskentyre gives a fantastic view but as usual in Scotland both rain and sun were having a debate and I wasn’t dressed for getting stuck up on a mountain if the heavens opened and rain won.
I climbed a little way up the rocks at the end. High enough to witness the bright blue of yet another part of the Atlantic lapping the shore and make friends with a lonely looking ram I encountered admiring the view. I was keener on the friendship thing than he was and the more enthusiasm I showed, the less interested he seemed. Eventually I got the message and left him alone to continue grazing on the grass he appeared to love.
I took a long walk along the gorgeous sandy beach feeling that I was the only one who had discovered this beauty. Again, I wasn’t alone, but there so much of this beach that the few of us there could all get lost in it.
Apparently, you can walk for 3 miles when the tide is out but as it started to come in and the rain clouds lowered over the surrounding hills, it was time to return to the car.”
After all that fresh air, it was the time to hit the shops. We headed to the village of Tarbert to find gin. If you are in Harris and particularly if you enjoy a gin, then you must go and buy a bottle…or two. The glass bottles themselves are gorgeous and the gin delicious, infused with sea-kelp. They also offer tours for those wanting to delve deeper.
Harris Tweed Shop
Nowhere else in the world makes true Harris Tweed. It is a luxury, woollen cloth still handwoven by islanders using wool produced locally. The industry employs around 400 weavers across the island. The Harris Tweed shop in Tarbert is a great place to learn about the process of making this famous cloth and buy some should you fancy it. Ask about demonstrations and you may also be able to try your hand at producing some.
Practicalities of visiting Lewis and Harris
How to get to the Island of Lewis and Harris
There are flights with Loganair which arrive in Stornoway from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Manchester. You can also find a restricted service from Benbecula (also in the Outer Hebrides). However, we had my car so took the CalMac ferry from Ullapool.
Along the way we spotted a few dolphins and were told to keep our eyes peeled for a Minke whale which had been seen in the area over the last few days. The perfect way to start the journey!”
Getting around Lewis and Harris
There are buses which run every day except Sundays and connect all the main villages across the island. Check out Traveline Scotland for all the details. If you’re feeling energetic, then you can also explore on foot or on a bike. You could choose to follow the Hebridean Way which covers 200 miles across 10 of the islands in the archipelago, including six causeways and two ferries.
Alternatively, take the option I did. Part of the beauty of this trip was having the ability to go off-piste and uncover some real gems. And for this, you need a car. Either take your own or hire one locally from Car Hire Hebrides.
If you don’t feel comfortable with any of these modes of transport, then you could opt to take a tour. For multi-day and multi-island tours then here are a few options:
If you only have one day then check THIS ONE out for Lewis and all its historic sights. Alternatively, if the spectacular landscapes of Harris sound more like your cup of tea, then have a look at THIS ONE.
If you do choose to drive yourself then my advice is to make sure you fill up with petrol before arriving on the island as fuel prices will be cheaper. Also, filling stations are not always readily available so keep an eye on your fuel levels so you can top up if required when you pass one.
The bad news is that most of the roads are single track & winding with sharp bends & blind corners.”
The good news is that they are generally tarmacked and in good condition. Here are a few tips for driving the roads of Lewis and Harris.
- Keep left.
- Stop to let vehicles pass.
- Stop and wait at the designated ‘Passing Places’ if you see any traffic coming.
- Look out for ‘Passing Places’ so you know where they are if you need to reverse.
- Cross to the right, even if there is a ‘Passing Place’ there.
- Create a queue. Pull in to let others pass (that way you enjoy the drive so much more too!).
- Park or drive on the verge or park in ‘Passing Places’.
- Make others reverse a long way back.
So now I’ve whetted your appetite for all the amazing things to do on Lewis and Harris, next is to plan your stay.
The Outer Hebrides benefit from the effects of the Gulf Stream which make temperatures milder than expected but you can still get hit by brisk cold Atlantic winds and four seasons in one day, at any time of year! April to October is generally the best, with June offering up to 22 hours of daylight. But if you choose to visit between September and October, you could really strike it lucky and see a display of the Northern Lights!
If you’re into wildlife, then July and August could bring sightings of sea birds, seals, and dolphins but also the midges can be annoying between May and October. They are at their worst at dusk, so be prepared for an early evening attack!”
However, if you do choose to visit in the summer months, you will have to book well in advance for a full choice of accommodation and dining options.
And a note about Sundays…
Sundays are sacred on the Isle of Lewis and Harris. And they are taken very seriously. When ferry services said they were starting up on a Sunday, there was apparently civil unrest. Some of the clergymen said they would lie down in the road to stop it from happening.
Most places shut on Sunday. That includes shops, restaurants, petrol stations & pretty much everything. Hotels are open for business and dinner, but you will need to book. We didn’t, and the only place open was the excellent Temple Café by Scarista Beach. We queued for over 30 minutes for soup, cake, and a slice of pizza for our dinner. Get there early on a Sunday and stock up!
Where to stay on Lewis and Harris
It wasn’t our first choice as we were keen to head out of Stornoway as soon as we could, but we booked a few months ahead for August and choice was already limited. The Stornoway Caladh Inn served us well and is centrally located in town.
However, for the remaining two nights we stayed at the excellent Dunarain Bed and Breakfast and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. The house stands alone just outside Tarbert overlooking a small loch. The owners’ John and Marlene are exceptional hosts. From the impeccable cleanliness to the dram of whiskey left in the room every day, make it a great find. However, add to that the incredible homemade bento box breakfast, including an option for porridge with sultanas soaked in whiskey, maple syrup and cream (yes, I was a little greedy with all the extras!). Also included are homemade preserves (try the lemon curd), smoked mackerel pate, muffins and crackers with cheese.
All the produce which isn’t made by the lovely Marlene is sourced locally, if not in Harris, then at least in Scotland.”
Where to eat on Lewis and Harris
We were slightly disorganised and hadn’t realised that we would be there at the weekend. Or that Sundays would be so impossible. Therefore, of all the things to do on Lewis and Harris, eating the amazing food wasn’t something we could make the most of. Apart from the Dunarain breakfast that is!
Don’t make the same mistake, book ahead and potentially avoid Sundays altogether. I did get a chance to eat at Talla Na Mara near Luskentyre which was great. Based in a Community Centre, attached to an art gallery and with superb views. It also serves a tasty burger!
So, I hope I have been able to convince you of all the amazing things to do on Lewis and Harris! I also hope when you visit you come away as I did with a huge sense of awe at the stunning landscapes you have witnessed, the history you have touched and beaches you have been blown away by…literally! One last note, the Isle of Lewis and Harris is not somewhere you can discover in a hurry. But if you do choose to follow in my tyre tracks and drive, once you’ve ventured down one narrow, windy, hilly road, you can tackle any of them. Have confidence, drive slowly, take your time, stay alert and enjoy the views. All 3600 of them. Everywhere!
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