There are plenty of things to do on Islay beyond the classic Scottish whisky tour. While Islay is the beating heart of of Scotland’s whisky world, there are plenty of other attractions and experiences to enjoy once you’ve fatigued from distillery hopping.
Before arriving on the island it’s best to learn how to properly pronounce Islay. The island is regularly mispronounced by visitors (along with many of its tricky to say distillery names). Locals will be surprised and delighted if you manage to pronounce Islay correctly: eyeluh.
How To Get To Islay
Islay is one of the southernmost islands of the Inner Hebridean Islands located on Scotland’s west coast. The famous Scottish whisky island is just 25 miles long and 15 miles wide, easily explored in 2-3 days.
Visitors can get to Islay by car ferry or plane. We suggest renting a car to get around Islay as the majority of the island is rustic and rural. The majority of the roads on the island are one track but since the population is just 3,000 you’ll never find yourself stressed from rush hour. Islay is also a popular destination for cyclists who can be found huffing and puffing down rural roads dotted with adorable lamb herds and hair Highland cattle.
- Islay Ferry:The most popular way to get to Islay is via one of two ferry ports: Port Ellen and Port Askaig. The ferry journey takes 2 hours and 20 minutes from Kennacraig on the mainland. You can reach Kennacraig by car from Glasgow in 2 hours and 30 minutes or Edinburgh in 3 hours. We suggest boarding the early morning ferry and sleeping over the night before in the nearby town of Tarbert. During busy tourist season from May to September be sure to book your Islay ferry in advance with local operator Caledonian MacBrayne.
- Islay Flight: Islay is also accessible via flights that connect travellers to Colonsay, Oban, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Islay flight routes are serviced by local operators Herbridean Air and Loganair.
Best Things To Do On Islay
Islay is most famous for its whisky tourism, as it plays home to nine distilleries. Islay’s whisky distilleries are considered some of the best single malts in Scotland. We suggest breaking up your driving days to explore the islands three main regions: Port Askaig to the east, Port Ellen to the south and Bowmore to the west.
A road trip of Islay will undoubtably feature sips of the finest Single Malt Scotch. We also suggest enjoying the island’s other popular attractions such as beaches, ancient churches, museums, scenic lighthouses, craft breweries, woollen mills and restaurants.
If you’re planning a holiday to Scotland’s famous whisky island you’ll need to research the best Islay hotels in advance. Bowmore is considered the capital of the island and the towns central location is a great jumping off point for those driving around. Islay hotels range from luxury resorts on scenic golf courses to historic boutique hotels and affordable family-run B&Bs.
- Bowmore Hotel: this friendly family run hotel is a local favourite. Spacious rooms offer walk in showers, comfy duvets and pretty views overlooking the ocean. Locals treat the Bowmore Hotel as their watering hole, visiting the popular Islay whisky bar for live folk music shows into the wee hours of the night. Guests at the hotel are served a full Scottish breakfast in the morning featuring haggis and black pudding. If you’re visiting Islay on a Sunday be sure to indulge in their classic Scottish roast dinner or BBQ.
- The Machrie Hotel: Islay’s top luxury hotel opened its doors in the Fall of 2018 and became an instant hit. The beautifully designed Machrie Hotel features a championships golf course, spa, cinema, fine dining restaurant and Islay’s best cocktail bar.
- Islay House: one of Scotland’s grandest Victorian mansions. Located near Bowmore on a 28 acre estate surrounded by gardens and woodlands.
- Port Charlotte Hotel: a pretty oceanside boutique hotel near Bruichladdich Distillery.
Best Islay Restaurants
Whisky aficionado’s visiting the Isle of Islay have plenty of opportunity to enjoy a fine feast. Bowmore is the island’s hub featuring everything from chippy trucks to affordable take aways and a well stocked grocery store. You’ll also find many of Islay’s best restaurants just a short stroll from Bowmore Distillery. The island’s most notable restaurants are located in award winning boutique luxury hotels. If you’re visiting during the high season be sure to book your reservations in advance.
- The Machrie Hotel: Restaurant 18 at The Machrie is Islay’s most jaw-dropping dining room, offering sun-soaked views overlooking the 18th hole. Highlights from the menu include quality Scottish steaks, squash risotto and cheese soufflé. The Machrie Hotel’s restaurant is also home to Islay’s best cocktail bar featuring a fine selection of local whisky as well as gin muddled libations.
- Bowmore Hotel: The cozy restaurant at Bowmore Hotel is a favourite for locals who come here to enjoy generous plates like their grandmas used to make. The lengthy menu focuses on Scottish classics with a focus on fresh seafood, steaks and local venison. Sunday nights the restaurant serves an exclusive roast or BBQ menu.
- Lochside Hotel: Located in the heart of Bowmore, Lochside Hotel’s restaurant offers affordable local meals with a jaw-dropping ocean view. The dining room sits perched over an al fresco patio located a stones throw from the rolling waves. You’ll find Scottish pub favourites here such as Fish & Chips, burgers and Mac & Cheese.
- Peatzeria: Islay’s best pizza restaurant is located in Bowmore. The Italian restaurant offers classics like arancini, antipasti and pasta but are best known for their creative Scottish inspired pizzas. Peatzeria’s signature pizza’s arrive topped with local Islay ingredients such as scallops, lobster, crab and black pudding.
Today, there are a total of nine working Islay distilleries that are open to the public. The whisky distilleries on Islay are clustered around three areas of the island: Port Askaig, Port Ellen and the north west region near Bowmore.
Islay is without a doubt the beating heart of Scotland’s whisky scene. As the popularity of Scotch has dramatically risen in the last decade so has the tourism experience at Islay’s distilleries. Locals will tell you just a few years ago tourists would just knock on the door at a distillery to ask for an informal tour and tasting.
Today, Islay’s distilleries are fashioning themselves to offer unforgettable educational experiences for those who take the journey to sniff, swirl and sip Scotch. Several of the island’s distilleries are currently investing millions into renovating their properties to accomodate new visitors centres and tasting rooms.
If you’re a die hard Single Malt Scotch fan, try and plan your visit in late May when the island hosts the annual Festival of Malt and Music, known locally as Fèis Ìle.
Bowmore’s famous “round church” began construction in 1767. The ancient Scottish church sits perched over Bowmore’s Main Street for all to see. A year after its construction, work began on a planned village which greatly expanded the existing settlement.
Kilarrow Church has a highly unusual circular design, later copied by churches built in the 1960s. Legend has it that the circular design was intended to ensure that there were no corners inside where the devil could hide.
At the heart of Bowmore’s Kilarrow Round Church is a massive central pillar, measuring 19 inches in diameter and made of solid oak. Later, in 1830, a U-shaped gallery was added to accommodate a rapidly increasing parish population.
Today, Islay’s most famous church has a congregation of 80 people who meet here at 10am each Sunday.
The Islay Woollen Mill was first established in 1883. Since its re-opening in 1981, owners Gordon and Sheila Covell produce a wide range of textile products such as rugs, scarves, caps, tweed jackets and kilts. The Mill is a traditional family-run business using two looms that date back to Victorian times.
Fun fact for fashion and film fans: Islay Woollen Mill’s designs were featured in Hollywood films Brave Heart, Forrest Gump, Rob Roy and Far and Away. Royals have also been spotted here on their Islay holidays. Queen Elizabeth, Princess Anne and Prince Charles have all enjoyed visits to Islay’s famous mill.
Daal Terrace, 44-1496-850358
The island’s only museum is located in Port Charlotte and covers Islay’s social and natural history. The Museum of Islay Life was established in 1977 and is housed in the Kilchoman Free Church of 1843.
The museum’s mandate is to conserve and display items illustrative of life in Islay from prehistoric to recent times. The museum’s collection is made up of 2,700 objects, over 1,200 books and nearly 5,000 photographs.
Parts of the museum have been organized to resemble traditional Islay rooms, such as a humble bedroom. You’ll also find an original telephone exchange, model ships, ancient carved stones, military uniforms and an illicit whisky still.
The Cottage, 44-1496-840644
A short drive south-west of Port Askaig lies Loch Finlaggan, a place of great importance in Scottish history. Inside the lake you’ll find three islands, two of which lie close to the north shore, and play home to crumbling ancient stone buildings.
It is here where the inauguration of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles took place. The Lords of the Isles were descended from Somerland, a 12th century prince, who chose Finlaggan as their home.
The National Museums of Scotland have been undertaking archaeological excavations here for the past few years. The goal is to better understand the medieval economy, vegetation and unique feasts held at Finlaggan by the Lords of the Isles.
East of Port Ellen, past Islay’s famous Ardbeg distillery, you’ll find the ruin of Kildalton Old Parish Church. Standing in the churchyard is the famous Kildalton Cross, one of the United Kingdom’s most impressive 8th-century Celtic crosses.
The Kildalton Cross stands 2.65 metres high and is made from a single piece of local green stone. The cross is assumed to have been carved at the end of the 700s. The preservation of the historic cross is mind boggling, as it has been exposed to Islay’s wet and windy weather for over twelve centuries.
The east face of the cross features a series of bible characters and scenes such as angels, David killing the lion, and pretty peacocks eating grapes. On the left hand arm look closely and you’ll find a scene depicting Cain murdering his brother Abel. The right arm shows the sacrifice of Isaac. Below the ring which links the cross’s arms together is a depiction of the Virgin and Child flanked by a choir of angels.
Islay Ales Brewery
Islay Ales is the only brewery on the Isle of Islay. It was founded in 2003 by Paul Hathaway, Paul Capper and Walter Schobert. The trio focus of crafting quality ales for the Hebridean islands of Islay, Jura and Colonsay.
The popular Islay brewery is located near Islay House and shares a parking lot with a quilt maker and other artisans. Islay Ales is a four barrel brewing plant that produces craft beer in cask and bottle conditioned formats. You’ll never find a beer here that has been pasteurized or filtered. The Islay brewery’s flagship Big Strand Craft Lager can be enjoyed at many of the island’s top restaurants, bars and pubs.
If finding a beautiful beach is on your list of things to do on Islay, be sure to enjoy a short walk to Machir Bay. Located on the rugged northwest coast of Islay, Machir Bay is accessed by a small rural road a short drive from Kilchoman Distillery.
Also referred to as Kilchoman Beach, Machir Bay is easy accessible with a petite parking lot close by. Visitors can enjoy strolling along two kilometres of sandy beach and a picturesque bay ideal for watching sunsets. On the south end you’ll find a trail going up the cliffs to Kilchiaran Bay, passing Dun Chroisprig, an Iron Age fort, and Grannies Rock.
Portnahaven is located on the very southern tip of northwest Islay. The wee village was built during the 16th century as a hub for fishing and crofting.
Today, visitors drive to Portnahaven to photograph the town’s picturesque bay, which offers views of the Rhinns of Islay lighthouse, built in 1825. Animal lovers should be sure to stroll along the rocky shore as this is where the local seals come during the day to sunbath and play.
If you’re road tripping around Islay you’ll enjoy watching thousands of sheep munching fresh grass across the island.
Known in Scottish Highland history as the “sheep of the Clearances,” when the island’s 18th century landowners found raising large flocks of sheep more profitable than the rents of small farmers, the Cheviot sheep is a hallmark of Islay’s farms today.
Travellers arriving into Islay on the Port Ellen ferry sail past a lighthouse tower that sits perched on a rocky headland. The lighthouse tower was originally built in 1832 by the Laird of Islay, Walter Frederick Campbell in loving memory of his wife who died at the age of 36 the same year. Carraig Fhada Lighthouse has an unusual square design, the only of its kind in Scotland.
A trail leads from the shore out onto the headland and directly to the base of the lighthouse. The path can be submerged at high tide so plan your visit accordingly. Carraig Fhada Lighthouse is not usually open to visitors so admire it from a distance. The best time of day to visit Islay’s famous lighthouse is at sunset. When the last rays of sun hit the white walls of the lighthouse they appear to glitter and gleam.
Islay’s American Monument was built on a 429 feet high cliff on the Oa Peninsula in 1920 by the American Red Cross. Designed by architect Robert Walker, the monument commemorates the loss of two troop ships in 1918, the Tuscania and the Otranto. The American Monument overlooks the very spot where the Tuscania originally sank. If you’re an enthusiastic hiker and have a penchant for jaw-dropping views, it’s one of the best things to do on Islay.
The monument is built in the shape of a lighthouse and can be reached via a half hour walk through a pretty meadow, dotted with hairy coo (Highland cattle). While a visit to the American Monument offers a somber history lesson, the scenic views of the cliffs at Mull of Oa will take your breath away.
Isle of Jura
Jura is a popular day trip from Islay, accessible on a short ferry through Port Askaig on the east coast.
One of the most celebrated writers of the 20th century once called Jura home sweet home. Orwell travelled to Jura to find the peace and quiet he needed to complete his most famous work, 1984.
The untamed island is one of the wildest places in Scotland, featuring soaring mountains, whisky distilleries and a swirling whirlpool. Jura’s population is just 200, who are wildly outnumbered by the over 5,000 wild deer that live here.