Destination name: Aviemore, Scotland
Destination nickname: The Heart of the Highlands
In the eastern Scottish Highlands, about three hours north of Edinburgh by road
Primary active pursuits
Aviemore is located in the northwestern corner of Cairngorms National Park in a broad valley carved out by the River Spey as it meanders through heather moorlands and forested foothills of the Cairngorm Mountains, Britain's largest mountain massif. The variety of landscapes in the park and surrounding area make Aviemore an excellent base for both land and water activities, including hiking, skiing, rafting, and canoeing.
Frequently likened to the Arctic, the Cairngorms plateau is ideal for hiking (or hill walking, as the Scots call it). This rugged landscape contains several of Scotland's highest peaks, including four with heights of over 4,000 feet. The highest peak in the Cairngorms (and the second-highest in Britain) is Ben Macdui, at 4,296 feet.
Cold and snowy in winter, the Cairngorms are also a popular destination for snow sports. Three major ski and snowboard areas are located within the national park. Half an hour from Aviemore, CairnGorm Mountain is the most popular resort, with the highest elevation and most reliable snow in the region. About an hour east of Aviemore, The Lecht is good for family skiing, while Glenshee near Braemar (about two hours from Aviemore) has the most lifts (22) and runs (36). The Cairngorms' winter landscapes also offer plenty of opportunities for backcountry skiing and snowshoeing.
Aviemore sits at the heart of the Strathspey (or Speyside) region, whose swiftly flowing rivers – including its namesake, the River Spey – provide excellent opportunities for fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and rafting. The region contains numerous tranquil lochs, including Loch an Eilein, renowned for its beauty, and Loch Morlich, with its popular sandy beach.
Much of the Strathspey landscape consists of heather moorlands and broad swathes of forest that are home to an abundance of bird species and native wildlife, such as pine martens and badgers; a variety of wildlife watching tours are available. The Abernethy Forest Reserve is home to the Loch Garten Osprey Centre, which offers views of these impressive birds of prey roosting. Many miles of trails wind through Abernethy and other nearby nature reserves, providing abundant hiking and mountain biking opportunities, while Strathspey's paved country roads also invite cycling. There are bike rental shops in Aviemore and various other locations.
Just outside Aviemore, the Rothiemurchus Estate – known for its extensive pine forests and native wildlife –is one of many activity centers and outfitters in the area offering a variety of outdoor recreation, including horseback riding, mountain biking, canyoning, paintballing, quad biking, and archery.
In winter, there are groomed cross-country ski trails at Glenmore Forest Park near Aviemore and The Slochd in nearby Carrbridge.
The ski season generally runs from December to April. For other activities, the shoulder seasons of late spring and early fall tend to have the most reliable weather, and are more likely to be free of midges – tiny insects that can be major irritants at the height of summer. Hikers heading into the wilderness during the deer stalking season – July 1 to October 20 – should check that no hunting is taking place along their planned route. A good resource is Outdoor Access Scotland's Heading for the Scottish Hills webpage.
Other Recreational and Cultural Gems
The Speyside region is known for some of Scotland's best Scotch whisky. Tours and tastings are available at several distilleries, including Glenlivet, Dalwhinnie, and Tomatin. Another destination for whisky fans is Tomintoul, the highest village in the Scottish Highlands where The Whisky Castle has been selling malt whiskies since 1904. More than 500 varieties are available for purchase and, in many cases, tasting.
Aviemore is the southern terminus for the Strathspey Steam Train, a restored railway that makes a leisurely 90-minute roundtrip journey along the River Spey, with dining available on board. CairnGorm Mountain has the UK's highest (and Scotland's only) funicular railway, which transports passengers to an elevation of more than 3,500 feet near the summit. The Cairngorms are also home to the UK's only free-roaming reindeer herd; viewing tours operate daily from the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre in Glenmore.
On the eastern side of the Cairngorms, about 50 miles from Aviemore, lies the Balmoral Estate, a favorite private residence of the British royal family since the early reign of Queen Victoria. Although most of the interior is private and off-limits to visitors, the grounds, gardens, and exhibition areas are open regular hours during spring and summer.
Lodging and Dining Summary
Aviemore lodging options range from backpackers' hostels to four-star hotels and lodges. Bed-and-breakfast accommodations and self-catering rentals are particularly abundant. Various casual and fine dining restaurants highlight local meats and produce, while classic pub grub, pizza, and Indian food are also available. Additional lodging and dining can be found in other Speyside towns, including Grantown-on-Spey, Kingussie, and Newtonmore.
Best Single Reason to Visit
The Highlands, where Scottish nature, history, and hospitality combine in an enchanting mix. There's something timeless and irresistible about spending the day outdoors before settling in by a cozy fire with a wee dram at the end of the day.
The website of the Cairngorms regional tourism board, is a good starting point for information about accommodations, dining, and activities in the area. Information specifically about the national park, including wildlife, hiking trails, conservation programs, and events can be found here.