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9 reasons to visit the Isles of Lewis and Harris, Outer Hebrides

9 reasons to visit the Isles of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Scotland’s islands have to be one of Britain’s best-kept secrets. I’d heard tales of the stunning beaches, breathtaking landscapes and unique culture you can find in the far north of Scotland, and couldn’t wait to see those postcard-worthy views for myself. I just needed some sunshine to make it perfect – and the Hebridean Isles of Lewis and Harris couldn’t have put on a better show for me on my first Scottish island trip.

Technically one landmass but split into two islands, Lewis and Harris lie at the top of the Outer Hebrides off Scotland’s west coast. Each has different landscapes, and their proximity makes it easy to visit both islands on one trip. But why should you visit Lewis and Harris? Here are nine great reasons to add these islands to your Scotland travel wishlist.

Read more: A journey through history on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides

Why visit the Isles of Lewis and Harris?

Lobster pots in the harbour at the Port of Ness, Outer Hebrides
The harbour in the Port of Ness

1. The beaches

It’s not hard to see why the beaches on the west coast of the Isle of Harris top so many of those ‘best beach in the world’ lists. With their white sands gently sloping into clear turquoise waters they could easily give islands in the Caribbean or South Pacific a run for their money (until you dip your toes in that is – the water temperatures are decidedly Scottish!).

Stunning Luskentyre beach is the star of the show, but our other favourites included Scarista, Seilebost and Horgabost beaches on the Isle of Harris as well as Ness beach on the Isle of Lewis. The coast of both Lewis and Harris is dotted with a diverse mix of sheltered coves, sandy dunes and rocky bays, so you’ll have no problem finding your perfect beach.

The stunning white sands of Luskentyre Beach on the Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides
Lovely Luskentyre beach

2. The history

If you’re interested in history and archaeology, then you’ll be fascinated by the Outer Hebrides. The islands were one of the first places to be settled in the British Isles around 8500 BC and plenty of remnants of their dramatic past still remain.

A drive along the west coast of the Isle of Lewis is a tour through the last few thousand years. There are the Neolithic standing stones at Callanish – older and more impressive than Stonehenge – the Iron Age Dun Carloway Broch, a Norse mill and traditional 19th-century blackhouse villages at Arnol and Gearrannan, one of which you can even stay in.

The historic Callanish Stones in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Callanish Standing Stones

3. The diverse landscapes

At around 840 square miles in size, Lewis and Harris pack a lot of different landscapes into a small area. Lewis is mostly flat, with miles of peaty moorlands stretching across the centre of the island which reminded me of Iceland. Then around the coast you’ve got sandy beaches and rocky headlands in the east and the deep waters of Loch Suaineabhal.

Or follow the road down to Harris and the landscape changes again, winding its way up and down hills with panoramic views down to lochs and coastal inlets. Be prepared that every journey will take longer than you think as you’ll want to make a lot of photo stops.

Landscapes in the Isle of Lewis and Harris, Scotland
On the road to the Isle of Harris

4. The food and drink

Seasonal, local produce are foodie buzzwords, but Lewis and Harris are old hands at this. They have an impressive selection of places to eat and drink, as well as lots of small-scale local producers. We followed the Eat Drink Hebrides Trail around the islands, a self-guided foodie tour which lists some of the islands’ best food producers, shops and restaurants.

Among their local favourites were Stornoway Black Pudding from Charles MacLeod, peat-smoked scallops and kippers from the Stornoway Smokehouse, handmade chocolates from Flavour, smoked salmon, cheese, tea and Hebridean Mustard. And don’t miss a drop of Harris Gin or Abhainn Dearg whisky – both run tours and tastings from their distilleries.

Harris Gin in Scotland's Outer Hebrides
My bottle of Harris Gin

5. The traditions

The islands hold their traditions close, like the Gaelic language which is still spoken and used on signs around the Hebrides. But it’s not a place that’s just looking to the past, and traditions are always evolving. Alongside traditional music you can also see modern local art, film and photography on show in the An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway.

And as for those ‘everything’s closed on Sundays for church’ stereotypes – although you won’t find as many places open on the islands as on the mainland, we had no trouble filling up the car with petrol, going out for lunch and catching our flight home on a Sunday.

St Clements Church on the Isle of Harris, Scotland
St Clements Church

6. The wild coastline

Much as I love a sandy beach, there’s something entrancing about watching waves crashing against the rocks. And the Butt of Lewis at the north-east tip of Lewis has cliffs stretching up to 80 feet high. You can get right to the edge so it’s not one for vertigo sufferers, but the views are stunning. The area sees 100mph winds and at one point was named Britain’s windiest spot by the Guinness Book of Records – so you can imagine the size of the waves.

Dramatic views from the Butt of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Looking calm at the Butt of Lewis

7. The locals

You can’t have a Scottish island post without at least one hairy Highland coo featuring, and our house came with a few of these photogenic guys as neighbours. As well as cows, you can see wildlife like red deer, eagles and otters around the islands, plus seals, dolphins, porpoises and whales off the coast – with wildlife-watching boat trips available for a closer look.

Our human neighbours were just as friendly too. There’s a real sense of community around the islands. The Islanders we met were all  justifiably proud of their home and wanted to share tips of their favourite places to visit to help make our trip special.

A Highland Coo in the Outer Hebrides
Our friendly neighbour

8. The artistic side

Something about the scenery when you visit Lewis and Harris makes you want to pick up a paintbrush, so it’s no surprise many talented artists and craftspeople have made their home on the islands. Harris Tweed is best known, and I couldn’t resist buying one of the beautiful jackets, which have to be woven by hand at home in the Hebrides to earn the name.

You’ll also find painters, photographers, jewellers, potters, knitters and writers around the islands. And author Peter May set a whole trilogy of books on Lewis. Fans of the series can check out some of the locations featured in them around Lewis and Harris.

Harris Tweed, Outer Hebrides
My Harris Tweed jacket

9. The feeling of space and peace

For city-dwellers like me, space, peace and quiet are all scarce resources. But the Isles of Lewis and Harris have plenty of them to spare. Even on Luskentyre Beach on a sunny Saturday in the middle of August, we counted at most 25 other people.

Imagine a beach like that transported to Cornwall and you wouldn’t find a spare patch of sand. Outside of Stornoway the islands’ roads are quiet and there’s so much space to explore – deserted coves, coastline, moorland, lochs and acres of countryside. It’s the perfect place to stop, leave your stresses behind, relax and unwind for a few days.

Seilebost Beach on the Isle of Harris
So much space at Seilebost Beach!

The details

Getting to the Isles of Lewis and Harris

There’s an airport in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis with flights with Loganair from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and around the UK. There’s also a ferry from Ullapool on the Scottish mainland to Stornoway and from Uig on the Isle of Skye to Tarbert on Harris. And you can travel on to other Outer Hebrides islands via the Leverburgh–Berneray ferry.

Getting around the Isles of Lewis and Harris

There is a bus service on the islands, but it’s not very frequent and you can’t get everywhere by public transport. So if you want to explore and stop off where you like, it’s best to hire a car. There’s a car rental desk at Stornaway Airport or you can pick up a car at from the ferry terminals in Stornaway or Tarbert, but book in advance as there’s limited availability.

Roads on the Isles of Lewis and Harris
An Outer Hebrides road trip

We used Car Hire Hebrides and paid £190 for four days in August. Driving in the Outer Hebrides usually means lots of single lane and winding roads, but there are plenty of passing places. Traffic’s normally pretty light but you might have to share the road with a few sheep.

Where to stay on the Isles of Lewis and Harris

There are only a few hotels on the islands, but there are plenty of guesthouses and self-catering rentals. We stayed in a four-bedroom house* overlooking the sea in the hamlet of Brue on the west coast of Lewis, which cost £887 for four nights.

Or if you’re looking for a wow-factor place to stay, the Gothic-style Lews Castle in Stornaway has a range of bedrooms and one-, two- and three-bed apartments located on the upper floors of this Victorian castle. They’ve been beautifully renovated and come with locally sourced furnishings, and some rooms have views of Stornaway harbour.

Gothic Lews Castle in Stornaway
Lews Castle

Looking for somewhere to stay in the Outer Hebrides?*

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Nine reasons to visit the Isles of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland – stunning beaches, unspoilt countryside, great food and unique culture | Isle of Lewis | Isle of Harris | Outer Hebrides travel guide | Scotland's islands | Places to visit in ScotlandFood, culture, beaches and more – 9 reasons to visit Lewis and Harris in Scotland's Outer Hebrides islands  | Isle of Lewis | Isle of Harris | Outer Hebrides travel guide | Scotland's islands | Places to visit in Scotland

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Douglas Ross

Saturday 6th of March 2021

Coming over in August this year, your article is a fantastic advertisement and cant wait to get there myself and enjoy the Island.

Lucy Dodsworth

Monday 8th of March 2021

Hope you have a great trip!

CAROL A MACCALLUM

Sunday 26th of April 2020

HL Lucy. I am so glad you have discovered where I come from. CNIP especially. Best Regards from the out her herbridies, CAROL. . ,

Anna

Saturday 30th of December 2017

Looks amazing! Do you have any suggestions for accomodation, by any chance?

Lucy

Wednesday 3rd of January 2018

We stayed in a big house on Lewis (review and links in this post: https://www.ontheluce.com/airbnb-favourites-ii-berlin-amsterdam-annecy-hebrides/) but Stories My Suitcase Could Tell may have some hotel and other options (she's from the islands so was my local expert!).

andrea

Thursday 14th of September 2017

awsome post Lucy. I was wondering about the temperature of the water, could you say?

Lucy

Friday 15th of September 2017

It averages around 13 or 14ºC (56ºF) in August/September so it's a bit chilly for swimming!

invertedsheep

Sunday 30th of October 2016

I'm sat at my laptop organising my photos from Harris and Lewis into a Flickr album and this pops up on Twitter! Of course, I had to click and read. I love your photos and agree with everything you say about these islands. I really wanted to buy something made from Harris tweed whilst I was there, but didn't want to get clothing. Then I saw cushions in the Temple Cafe in Harris made from tweed and knew that was what I wanted. I bought the material and got it made into cushions for the seats/bed in my camper van. Now I have a memory of Harris with me everywhere I go and I get to use it all year round. I'm looking forward to reading your next posts on Harris and Lewis.

Lucy

Monday 31st of October 2016

So glad to bring back some good memories of such a gorgeous place! Love your Harris tweed cushion idea, it's lovely to have little reminders of places you've been. It's taken me an age to sort out all the hundreds of photos I took in the Hebrides but should have another post on Harris coming up next month.