Islay, Scotland, is the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides and many travellers’ first gateway into the awe-striking beauty that the Hebridean islands are known for. The island is famous for its excellent range of distilleries, remarkable historic sites, and hotspots filled with culture and heritage. You’ll find many things to do in Islay, making a vacation here a must!
You’ll know when you’re in Islay when the peat and boggy heath come together and form one of the unique islands in Scotland. The Isle of Islay is home to about 3,000 people, mainly grouped around the main towns of Bowmore, Port Ellen, Port Askaig, and Port Charlotte.
The ‘whisky coast’ is an excellent trip for anyone who loves the single malt whiskies – aficionado or casual consumer. Thankfully, the Isle of Islay is easy to get to and only requires a brief ferry ride, with excellent views along the way!
Things to Do in Islay
The isle of Islay is home to an extraordinary number of attractions, and it’s no surprise that it lays claim to one of Scotland’s most popular islands to visit.
One morning could have you enjoying a traditional Scottish breakfast (complete with black pudding), learning about the island through its fascinating museums, and finishing the day with a private tasting at one of the many ‘Whisky Coast’ distilleries.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by one of the finest jewels of the Southern Hebrides. See our guide for the top things to do in Islay.
Visit the Cities of Islay
The cities within the Isle of Islay are bursting with Hebridean culture and exciting attractions. As you explore the far corners of the island, you’ll soon find that the cities of Islay are a comforting and reliable sanctuary with excellent accommodation, self-catering cottages or hotels, and amenities and Islay info for your upcoming adventures.
Each city is uniquely different but interconnected by its long history of living on a relatively sparse and ruthless island. It’s not uncommon to overhear the Gaelic language in the Southern Hebrides, so keep an ear out for this unique tongue!
We’ve listed some of the Isle of Islay’s most exciting towns and their most popular things to do!
Start big with the city of Bowmore! The administrative capital is at the centre of the Isle of Islay and is one of its most popular destinations.
Like the other major cities of Islay, Bowmore is home to many Islay distilleries, churches, and beautiful beaches. A visit to Bowmore should always include a trip to the cafes, shops, and restaurants, all with the refreshing smell of the nearby ocean.
Port Charlotte is a well-preserved and attractive town on the south-west coast of the island of Islay. It’s home to some of the most exciting attractions on the island, as well as an excellent selection of Islay whiskies.
Most notably, Port Charlotte holds the fantastic Museum of Islay Life, which gives an impeccable look into the island life of many generations on the Isle of Islay. A visitor centre, accommodation, and great restaurants in Port Charlotte are the perfect start or end to an eventful day travelling to the Southern Hebrides.
Just after Bowmore, the stunning Port Ellen is the largest town on the island of Islay and a significant port town to come and see.
Port Ellen is ideally situated between the Oa Peninsula and Kilnaughton Bay, making it an excellent location to see the immense natural beauty of the south coast. Port Ellen is the most common way to enter Islay from Kennacraig, and there’s no better introduction to Islay than the picturesque Port Ellen.
Nestled between the Isle of Islay and Isle of Jura sits the quaint Port Askiag, overlooking the Sound of Islay.
If you intend to travel to the other Hebridean islands, Port Askaig should be your first choice. Port Askaig has several excellent distilleries close to the town, and it was rated as one of the most attractive postcodes to stay in Scotland in 2014!
With some of the most peaceful views overlooking the Islay Sound between Islay and Jura, Port Askaig is a beautiful town you should not miss out on!
Discover the Kintyre Peninsula
The breathtaking Kintyre Peninsula is one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland to visit, with the Inner Hebrides islands of Arran, Islay, and Kintyre being the crown jewels.
It’s the perfect setting for any week-long holiday and one of the most popular ways to traverse the contrasting islands of the Hebrides. The stunning Isle of Arran is filled with history and a peaceful respite from working life. At the same time, the Isle of Islay is the go-to destination for anyone who wants to savour the finest variety of whisky that Scotland offers.
Mainland Scotland is great for immersing yourself in the culture and life of the modern Scot. Still, the Inner and Outer Hebrides are where the history and tradition of Scotland genuinely lie, and the Kintyre Peninsula is your gateway to some of the most impressive sights in the country.
Finlaggen is known as the ‘Centre of the Lordship of the Isles and is one of Scotland’s most important historical sites.
In Finlaggen, the influential Clan Donald members were inaugurated, granting the Isle of Islay the nickname ‘Cradle of MacDonald’. You can see the remnants of ruins as you walk the informative trail along Loch Finlaggan, and some signs and guides will bring to life the fascinating events and deeds that took place here.
Loch Finlaggen will always be a symbol of importance to some of the most influential figures of Scottish history, and you too can relive their records at Finlaggen.
The history of Dunyvaig is filled with extraordinary details that make it a fantastic attraction to see while on Islay.
This centuries-old castle was built on top of an Iron Age fort and was occupied at various points by Clan MacDonald, MacLean, and the Campbells for many sieges. Time has rendered it a ruin now, but the sight of this attraction still very much imposes a sense of power. The ruins are jumbled, almost fused to the underlying rock, but exploring and discovering the Castle is half the fun of this visit!
You can find Dunyvaig Castle in Lagavulin Bay, a few miles east of Port Ellen.
The unspoilt sands of Machir Bay are a real treat for an afternoon walk, with spectacular views and an enchanting serenity you can’t get anywhere else.
Situated on the west coast of Islay near the town of Kilchoman, Machir Bay is a long stretch of flat sands and peaceful waves that make it the perfect spot to lay down a blanket and have a picnic.
Whether for a brief walk in the fresh air after tasting some fine whisky at Kilchoman Distillery or for a beautiful day out in the sun, Machir Bay is an excellent attraction to see when you visit Islay.
Museum of Islay Life
A visit to the excellent Museum of Islay Life is one opportunity you can’t pass up. It’s practically an essential attraction to see an in-depth look into island life.
Home to a vast and fascinating collection of books, photographs, and stories that recount the island life that was present on Islay, you’ll receive unparalleled insight into the cultural history of Islay from prehistory to today! The Museum opened in 1977 in Port Charlotte, determined to maintain the record of Islay for all to see. With over 3,000 items, including uniforms, pottery, books, and several thousand more photographs, it’s fair to say they’ve succeeded.
The Museum enhances any visit to Islay, so ensure you’ve added this top attraction to your list!
Islay American Monument
You can find the towering American Monument in the National Reserve just north of Port Ellen, a tribute to the loss of American lives off the coast of Islay in 1918.
The monument is eye-catching and reaches 10-metres into the sky! It has a stunning array of coloured stones that make up the monument. The Islay American Monument is a testament to the hundreds of American troops who lost their lives during the end of World War I and regularly sees many visitors throughout the year.
This monument is the crown attraction amongst the stunning natural beauty of the park it sits in.
Discover Islay’s Distilleries
Islay is famous for the number of notable distilleries it has tucked into every corner of its beautiful island. After a day of discovery and adventure, there’s nothing more exciting than sitting down and chatting the day over with friends or family with some of Scotland’s finest single-malt whisky.
We’ve detailed our favourite ones here, but we highly recommend you take some time to savour each and everyone you come across to get an intimate knowledge of the smoky taste Islay is known for.
You’ll never taste a more decadent flavour of whisky than at your next visit to the Laphroaig distillery.
Taking a distillery tour through Laphroaig will reveal that this whisky is more than alcohol; it is a testament to the hardiness and honesty of the Laphroaig community, who’ve kept their exceptional whisky brewing for generations.
The whisky produced here even has the Royal Warrant on its bottles, marking it as a favourite of the Prince of Wales – what more of a seal of approval could you ask for?
Lagavulin Distillery is said to be the oldest distillery on Islay – the iconic “Lagavulin” sign graces the white distillery and is sure to catch your eye.
This distillery dates back to 1816 and has been distilling excellent single-malt whisky for just as long! Taking a tour through their distillery is unlike anything else you’ll experience, and you’ll gain a newfound respect for the complex process that makes your favourite whisky.
Out of the many distilleries you can find on Islay, putting the very first at the top of your list is a must.
The Ardbeg Distillery is one of the most remote distilleries in Islay, but your voyage to reach this distillery is undoubtedly worth the trip.
This Distillery has been making smooth single-malt whisky for over 200 years and holds one of the most significant whisky committees (larger than its actual population). The whisky also has an excellent monster theme that gives this distillery a unique and passionate flare!
Bowmore Distillery is synonymous with power and elegance, and their whisky follows suit – you won’t want to miss a tasting here.
One of the excellent whisky distilleries on Islay, Bowmore has been crafting fine whisky for over 240 years and is a top attraction for any whisky lover. A tour of one of the Islay distilleries will immerse you into a world of unique tastes and experiences as Bowmore doesn’t shy away from pushing the envelope on their whisky.
Bruichladdich is an exemplary distillery you can find when reaching the southwestern tip of the isle of Islay and holds an entirely different distillery experience.
Unlike other distilleries on Islay, Bruichladdich creates their whisky unpeated and instead draws on the bountiful Scottish barley that Scotland cultivates. Adding this distillery to any whisky circuit is necessary for this variety alone, but it doesn’t hurt that their whisky is also terrific.
For the whole experience, you can fill an afternoon by touring the southern distilleries of Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte Distillery, and Octomore, all close to one another.
Overlooking the Sound of Islay, the Bunnahabhain distillery is a beautiful destination with some of the smoothest single malt whisky available on the island.
This distillery had the honour of being 2022 Islay Best Single Malt Whisky for their unpeated 25-year-old whisky – mixing sweet cherry, caramel, dried fruit, and roasted nuts for a taste you will keep coming back to. A visit to the fantastic Bunnahabhain Distillery grants incredible views of the peaceful Sound of Islay and the smoothest blend you’ll have the opportunity to taste.
A few miles east of Port Ellen is a fascinating historical site known as Kildalton Old Parish Church and the Great Kildaton Cross.
Standing nearly 3-metres tall, the Kildaton Cross is filled with religious symbols and iconography detailing the beliefs of its carver in the 700s! You can get lost studying its profound portraiture and markings – a fascinating object for any budding historian!
The ruins of the Old Parish Church are similarly intriguing and cast a light on history that is well worth exploring.
Carraig Fhada Lighthouse.
A visit to Islay isn’t complete without admiring the incredible Carraig Fhada Lighthouse near the Port Ellen harbour.
It was built by the Laird of Islay, Walter Frederick Campbell, for his wife, Lady Ellenor Campbell, in 1832. The square design of the Lighthouse is often the most eye-catching detail and is the only example in Scotland of such a unique shape for a lighthouse!
You can’t miss it while visiting the picturesque city of Port Ellen in Islay, so we highly recommend you pay this attraction a look-see.
The Oa Nature Reserve
When you visit Scotland, a trip to Oa Nature Reserve & Peninsula deserves a full day out!
This staggering peninsula is home to breathtaking views and amazing wildlife. The views from the dramatic cliffside that overlooks the ocean, moorland and grasslands, and freshwater lochs are outstanding. You have the chance to spot golden eagles and other wintering birds that make these rocky skyscrapers their home.
For those travelling to Islay wanting to enjoy trail walks and wildlife, the Oa Nature Reserve is the number one attraction that won’t leave you wanting.
Visit the Singing Sands
Few people who journey to Islay realise that the sands here sing in the wind! If you’re near the Oa Nature Reserve, you’ll have the chance to witness a beach choir, unlike anything you’ve heard before.
Thanks to the unique composition and size of the sands in Islay, walking along the sands with the right sole creates a hum akin to an aeroplane flying overhead – fascinating! Keep in mind that conditions must be just right for this natural phenomenon to occur, so it may not happen on your first go.
Although there are other locations where you can enjoy singing sands, there are only a few in Scotland and only one on Islay!
The Parish Round Church of Kilarrow is a unique attraction in Bowmore, the island’s capital.
The round church was built in 1767, and its unusual circular design grants many a great attraction to visit while exploring the town of Bowmore. Best of all, the Kilarrow Church is a functioning round church, meaning you can see the stunning interior and the curious architecture that makes the church exist whenever you choose to seek it out!
A trip to Kilarrow Round Church will certainly charm anyone who comes across it, so make sure to add it to your list of things to do.
Wandering the Oa Peninsula, you may be lucky enough to spot the lonely Soldier’s Rock, a titanic sea stack that rises from the ocean.
No natural trail is complete with an excellent view, and while the high seaside cliffs grant spectacular views of the islands, there is nothing as impressive as Soldier’s Rock. Nearby you can also enjoy sights of the ruined town of Grasdale as you ascend to the ledge overlooking the sea stack. Be warned: the wind is occasionally quite heavy, so always remain a safe distance from the edge.
Soldier’s Rock is one of the most popular attractions that grace the beautiful island of Islay, so taking an afternoon to check it out is a must!
Treat yourself to Islay Wines
The rare winery in Islay is a treat amongst the many types of single malt whisky, and Islay Wines has just the thing to switch things up on your tour through the ‘Whisky Coast’.
Home to a wide range of excellent wines, from sweet whites to deep reds and everything in between, a trip to Islay Wines guarantees a great atmosphere and a wonderful evening. You can find Islay Wines in Port Ellen, so it’s the perfect way to cap off a day of adventuring throughout the Isle of Islay.
Stop by Islay Wines if you’re passing through Port Ellen or staying here for a few days, and you certainly won’t regret it.
Kilnave Chapel & Cross
Sitting on the northwest of Islay in the expansive estuary of Lord Gruinart are the ruins of Kilnave Chapel & Cross, your view into the Medieval past of Scotland.
The ruins of this haunting chapel are right next to the beach and are a short trek to reach. And although the Kilnave Cross has been severely weathered, it’s still easy to spot when exploring the rest of the church. The Chapel was burned down in 1598, but its history reaches much further back, with the Cross dating back to the 5th century!
The Northwestern region of Islay has many unique attractions, and the Kilnave Chapel & Cross are some of its best.
Islay Natural History Trust
Dedicated to preserving the wildlife and geology of Islay, The Islay Natural History Trust is one of the most informative groups on the island. It provides many activities for you to do if you’re interested in conservation.
Take a natural history walk with members of the Natural History Trust and become an expert on every bit of wildlife or plant you come across. The Trust also organises talks and activities for children to teach them about the importance of the island and its history, complete with examples and exhibits!
You can find the Nature Centre in Port Charlotte, your gateway to a superior insight into Islay’s wildlife.
Rinns of Islay Lighthouse
The Rinns of Islay Lighthouse sits off the west coast of Islay on the island of Orsay, a perfect retreat from the bustling isles and Mainland Scotland.
Not only is the Rinns of Islay Lighthouse a magnificent lighthouse, but it grants stunning views of the Atlantic beyond it. The Lighthouse even doubles as an additional accommodation option for those who love the idea of peace amongst the singing winds and crashing waves.
It’s a dream of many people to visit or stay at a unique attraction, and the Rhinns of Islay Lighthouse is an excellent choice if you fully want to explore the isles of Islay.
If you’re coming to Islay to see the wondrous natural landscapes and fauna, stop by Loch Gruinart.
It’s one of the top wildlife sites in Scotland and has a wide array of habitats and farming operations. There is no better location on Islay to admire the many species of birdlife that call this island their home, especially the hen harriers, white-fronted geese, and many more! You may even be lucky and see great finds like Greenland barnacles and even otters!
You can drive or cycle through this sanctuary – a must include in any vacation to Islay.
Islay House Square
Established by Walter Campbell in the 1790s, the Islay House Square is now a hub for entrepreneurial ventures and excellent shops ripe for exploration.
You may find your next souvenir at the Islay House Square, as the Square is home to a batik store, marmalade store, and several excellent Islay ales and gin brewers! While you’re in Bridgend, the Islay House Square is a great place to come and pursue traditional Scottish produce and craft shops.
Islay Woollen Mill
One of the most curious attractions near Port Askaig, the Islay Woollen Mill, is an excellent place to learn about the fascinating process of creating wool. It’s also one of the best places to pick up a keepsake from your trip.
The Woollen Mill was first established in 1883 and reopened in 1981, providing visitors with various excellent woollen products from blankets, scarves, and other accessories. You’ll likely catch one of the owners, Gordon and Sheila Covell, on-site and find they are thrilled and excited to chat about the finer details of owning a loom.
Port Askaig is a top location to visit while you’re on the Scottish island of Islay, and the Islay Wollen Mill is the cherry on top!
Cultoon Stone Circle
The Cultoon Stone Circle brings to life an intriguing look into a world 3000-years-ago – complete with a mystery of why its builders never completed it.
Out of the 15 holes dug to erect stones, only three were eventually filled before work had ceased on the site. Historians are fascinated about why the work stopped, and theories ranging from clan disagreements, changes in beliefs, or mysterious disappearances are possible solutions! Why not visit the Stone Circle and craft your theories?
Islay’s rich history is on full display with a visit to the Cultoon Stone Circle, making it one of the best attractions for those visiting Islay.
Tormisdale Croft Crafts
Make sure to take some time and visit one of Port Charlotte’s hidden gems, the quirky and fantastic Tormisdale Croft Crafts!
This unique shop is filled with not only fabulous gifts and souveneirs but also some incredible traditional Islay quilters. If you’re looking for a new silken scarf, wildlife paintings, handmade canes, or even staghorn work, then a trip to the Tormisdale is undoubtedly going to please.
Scotland is filled with talented people and it’s permanently displayed here at this west coast isle store in Islay.
The stunning town of Bridgend is one of the many great attractions you can find while exploring Islay, just off Loch Indaal.
The verdant woodlands of Bridgend Woods are a pleasure to behold, and it’s a great way to spend an afternoon seeing the peaceful wildlife and flora. The Woollen Mill is also nearby, which serves as an excellent way to cap off a rejuvenating walk through Scotland’s picturesque woodlands.
The Bridgend Woods are a fairytale wonderland, and it’s not uncommon to see curious red squirrels and other woodland critters watching over you.
Old Kiln Cafe
Keen for a hearty meal as your tour the ‘Whisky Coast’? The Old Kiln Cafe at the Ardbeg Distillery is ideal for fueling up before heading out onto the road.
This cafe is famous for its delectable assortment of light and tasty meals, including homemade soups, sandwiches, and excellent coffees and desserts. If you’re willing to go traditional, the Old Kiln Cafe’s staple is their clootie dumpling. This dumpling dessert is packed with raisins and currants – perfect after a hearty meal!
You don’t know a place until you’ve had its food, and the Old Kiln Cafe is your way of understanding Islay.
Try Pony Trekking on Islay
As you navigate the island of Islay, you’ll undoubtedly encounter adorable ponies along your travels. Lucky for you, pony trekking is one of the best ways to experience the natural landscapes of Islay.
Multiple farms offer pony trekking on the north and south of the Island of Islay, so you’ll always be near at least one place that provides the experience. The best part is that the ponies take you to places you otherwise couldn’t find by car or are too far to walk, all while being some of the most friendly creatures you’ll meet on the island!
Don’t miss out on one of the most exciting and unique activities you can partake in a while on the Isle of Islay.
Kayak through Islay’s Coves
One of the best ways to experience the wondrous small island of Islay is with an intimate kayaking trip.
From the excellent harbours dotted around the island, you can only reach many hidden coves and islands with a personal kayak. You won’t receive a more intimate encounter with Scotland’s seaside flora and fauna than from aboard your kayak.
For families and friends, you can fill a whole day of fun kayaking around the island’s fabulous lochs and shores.
Enjoy Boatrips Around Islay
For a different perspective and bolstering sights, booking a boat trip around to see the views of Islay is essential.
From sea stacks and staggering cliffsides, there is no parallel to the views you’ll get from aboard a boat on the rocking waves. Better still, many of the incredible wildlife near Islay is only willing to show themselves once you enter their domain – dolphins, seals, whales, and much more!
You’d be doing yourself a disservice by not voyaging out to the seas around the island of Islay.
Catch a Ferry
You may be wondering how to reach the stunning Isle of Islay, and the answer is more straightforward than you would think – ferries!
As with the many British Isles, from Northern Ireland to the Outer Hebrides, many ferries run between the Scottish Mainland and Scottish Islands. You can reach Port Askraig or Port Ellen through the popular Caledonian MacBrayne and be treated to spectacular views of the islands and waters.
Catching a ferry is a unique and terrific way to start a journey to the Isle of Islay, so make the most of this experience.
When in Islay, there’s no better way to enjoy the natural beauty of the island than a spot of flying fishing!
Islay Guided Fly Fishing treats visitors to try out the quick-witted and exciting sport of fly fishing. Quick casters and bespoke anglers will love the tours given by this local company, and you’ll be able to fish for brown trout, sea trout, and salmon.
If you’re interested in fishing, there’s nothing better than a trip or two with the experienced guides of Guided Fly Fishing.
Isle of Jura
Should you want to expand your horizons past the gorgeous island of Islay, look no further than the nearby Isle of Jura.
The Isle of Jura is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Islay and easily accessed through a ferry from Port Askaig. The Isle of Jura also has many excellent whisky distilleries, soaring mountains, and a mere population of about 200!
The untamed Isle of Jura is lovely and a perfect addition to anyone who has an appetite for more of Scotland’s wilderness and wildlife.
Celebrate The Islay Festival
If you happen to be on the Isle of Islay during the latter end of May, consider attending the lively and musical Islay Festival.
The Islay Festival brings to life what Islay is most famous for – whisky! You can enjoy whisky nosings and tastings, traditional Scottish music, and a fantastic atmosphere. The Festival isn’t even limited to the grounds, and you’ll often find campfires lit across the nearby beautiful beaches of Islay.
The Islay Festival combines great whisky distilleries with an unforgettable atmosphere, so grab a ticket if you’re on the island during the last week of May.
In between Islay and the Scottish Mainland sits the small island of Gigha, and on it is one of the most beautiful gardens in Scotland.
The Achamore Gardens are home to rare and extraordinary plants, including Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Hydrangeas and Fuchsias. There’s even an entire bamboo forest for children to traverse and find their way out of! You may have to catch a ferry from Port Ellen or Port Askaig to reach the Isle of Gigha, but the trip is well worth it if you have a free day.
Why not take a romantic walk through the lush and exemplary Achamore Gardens? You won’t regret it.
The sunsets you can see from Saligo Bay are legendary, with rosy pink shades dappling the sky above before twilight begins.
Near the town of Ballinaby, Saligo Bay sits on the far west coast of the island and draws many visitors with its white-sand beaches, calm waves, and, of course, spectacular sunsets. If you’ve come to the lovely island of Islay with a partner, a trip to Saligo Bay as the sun sets will set anyone’s heart fluttering.
The disappearing sun of Saligo Bay is the perfect place to propose or reaffirm your love, right on the doorstep of Islay.
Other Things To Do in Scottish Isles
- Things to do in Arran
- Things to do in Harris
- Things to do in Isle of Lewis
- Things to do in Isle of Mull
- Things to do in Isle of Skye
- Things to do in Kirkwall
- Things to do in North & South Uist
- Things to do in Orkney
- Things to do in Portree
- Things to do in Shetland
- Things to do in Stornoway