Updated post: 18/04/20 | April 2020
I don’t know about you, but sometimes city life can get too much for me and makes me long to listen to the sound of crashing waves or walk amongst lush mountains. To retreat, to recharge.
Let me introduce you to my new sanctuary: Oban in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Although not exactly a well-kept secret, this harbour town slowly, almost imperceptibly, cast its spell on me. If you are curious to know why I found this place so seductive, and how to make the most of your time here, read on for the best things to do in Oban.
Why should you visit Oban?
As the gateway to the romance of the far-flung Hebridean islands, Oban is both a destination and a starting point. Set in a horseshoe-shaped bay against the majestic backdrop of Ben More, this Victorian resort is the largest port in northwest Scotland.
The aroma of sea salt blends with that of freshly cooked seafood as you stroll along its breezy promenade. To the horizon, there is a fringe of islands dominated by the mist-capped mountains of Mull. Stimulating the creative juices of artists and composers, Oban inspired Mendelsohn to write his Hebrides Overture and was one of the locations where Turner set up his canvas.
7 Amazing things to do in Oban
1. Travel to Oban on the West Highland Line from Glasgow
Although not strictly something to do in the town itself, the railway line from Glasgow alone is a good enough reason to visit Oban. The West Highland Line is one of the world’s great train journeys, travelling through a landscape of moors, liberally sprinkled with heather, soaring pine forests, lochs and mist-capped mountains.
Leaving Glasgow’s suburbs behind you, the train passes the Clyde Estuary on your left. Continuing north, it skirts around the shore of Loch London and through the Trossachs National Park.
At Crianlarich, the line splits. One branch heads north through Rannoch Moor and onto Mallaig and Fort William, a journey that is edging towards the top of my bucket list!
The western branch passes the mighty Ben Lui, the appropriately named Loch Awe and finally Loch Etive before reaching Oban.
Bag a window seat and enjoy the ride.
2. Refine your whisky palate at Oban Distillery
Oban is a town that was built around a distillery. How cool is that?
Established in 1794, Oban Distillery is one of the oldest and smallest in Scotland and produces over a million bottles of Oban single malt whisky each year.
If you can’t tell your 14-year-old single malt from your blended whisky, take the excellent one-hour Oban Distillery tour, which costs £12. It’s educational and entertaining in equal measure, and you be able to sample two expressions of their delicious single malt whisky.
What’s more, you get to keep the tasting glass!
3. Visit McCaig’s Tower, Scotland’s Colosseum
Dominating Oban’s skyline is its most famous building, a slightly bizarre, unfinished replica of Rome’s Colosseum known as McCaig’s Tower.
I love the story behind this structure. John Stuart McCaig, a philanthropist, commissioned this as a memorial to his family. His intention was that its construction would provide employment to local stonemasons during lean economic times.
However, his little piece of Italy in Scotland never reached completion. A planned 95-foot central tower was never started and only the exterior walls were completed before McCaig died. The instruction in his will for bronze statues of his family to fill the structure’s windows was ignored.
Today, McCaig’s Tower, or McCaig’s folly as it is known locally, is a walled garden from where there are panoramic views over the Sound of Kerrera and the islands near Oban bay.
Follow the signs for the ten-minute climb from Oban’s George Street to the tower. Strong calf muscles and a stronger cardiovascular system are mandatory. Entry is free.
4. Take a day trip to Mull
Taking the ferry to Mull is one of the best things to do in Oban. This is a day trip where the journey is almost as good as the destination, with close-up views of Lismore lighthouse and Ben More.
Mull is the ultimate Hebridean island fantasy fulfilment. Take the bus from the ferry terminal at Craignure to Tobermory, easily one of the most attractive harbour towns in Scotland, if not the UK.
Photograph the row of candy-coloured houses, reflected in the still water of the bay, against the backdrop of a steep cliff. Take the Cliffside walk to the lighthouse for sensational views across the bay. And if you’re in the mood for more whisky tasting, visit Tobermory Distillery.
5. Eat the best seafood in Scotland
For all you foodies out there, Oban is seafood paradise. In addition to a few highly-rated fish and chip shops, there are some excellent seafood restaurants and seafood stalls alongside the harbour.
Here are a few eating places that I tried and can recommend:
Operating out of a van parked by the harbour, McGillivray’s serve melt-in-the-mouth fresh seafood and fish. Order at the counter, take a seat at one of the wooden benches and they’ll call you when your order is ready.
I feasted on a pile of langoustines with chips and salad which came to £10. They don’t have an alcohol licence but do serve soft drinks.
Waterfront Fishouse Restaurant
For great service, harbour views and an early-evening bargain menu, head to the Waterfront Fishouse next to the CalMac ferry terminal. Until 6.45 pm they offer a two-course set menu for £14.99. Their mussels were the sweetest and freshest that I have ever had, and the entrée of rainbow trout served on a pesto risotto was simply sublime.
Julie’s Coffee House
If you need to satisfy a sweet tooth, here’s a bonus eating recommendation. Julie’s Coffee House, opposite the Oban Distillery, serves deliciously decadent white chocolate and raspberry scones as well as many other calorie-busting goodies.
6. Stroll along Oban’s promenade to Dunollie Castle
Another fantastic thing to do in Oban is to stroll along its broad promenade, breathing in a lungful of salty air whilst taking in the view of Oban bay and islands in the distance.
Walk north along the promenade toward another of the town’s landmarks, St. Columba’s Cathedral, built between 1932 and 1959. Then stop at the Oban War Memorial before reaching Dunollie Castle. Home to Clan MacDougall, who ruled over most of Argyll and the Island, these ruins date from the 15th Century.
From Oban’s harbour to Dunollie Castle it’s a pleasant and easy one-mile walk.
7. Take a sea safari
If wildlife spotting is more your thing, Oban is a great base for boat trips to view whales, porpoise, seals, dolphins, basking sharks, otter, golden and white-tailed sea eagles and more. Look out for boards advertising boat trips around the harbour or pop into the friendly tourist information office.
Oban – Final Thoughts
Oban completely seduced me and was the highlight of my nine-day trip to Scotland.
It is perfect for a long weekend break, as a base to explore the western coast of Scotland and the islands or as part of a longer Scotland itinerary. Give it a try and let me know what you think.
Where to stay in Oban
As a tourist hub, Oban is not short of places to stay. However, these do get booked up quickly during the peak summer season.
When I booked, availability was limited and I ended up at the Royal Hotel, one of the town’s Victorian hotels that is the epitome of (very) faded grandeur. However, it has friendly, helpful staff and offers a free, generous buffet breakfast.
How to get to Oban
I travelled to Oban by train. From London to Glasgow Central on the line formally operated by Virgin Trains (now Avanti West Coast), and then taking the West Highland Line from Glasgow Queen Street.
The journey from Glasgow takes just over three hours and costs from £20 one-way. Book train tickets in advance for the cheapest tickets.
Services do not run frequently and can be busy. Neglect to reserve a seat at the time of buying your ticket at your peril.
If you are driving, the quickest route will take you around 2.5 hours from Glasgow. Of course, longer and more scenic routes are available.