Like a local: three days in Oban
Oban is well known as The Seafood Capital of Scotland and The Gateway to the Isles, but this isn’t your grandmother’s Oban. There is so much more to discover here, where more than 5,000 years of history meets vibrant modern Gaelic culture- all against the backdrop of one of the world’s most spectacular outdoor playgrounds.
Oban really is closer than you think. You can get there from Glasgow in about three hours, whether you make the scenic drive, take a West Coast Motors bus or hop the West Highland Line, one of Europe’s most stunning train journeys. And with great deals on London to Glasgow flights (and just over an hour flight time), you can be there in just a few hours.
Ask locals for their favourite spots and you just might be surprised. Quintessential “don’t miss” sites will always make the list, but so will off-the- beaten-path spots that only a local would know about- until now.
On this jam packed three-day itinerary, our own tour guide and travel writer Michelle shares a local’s advice on the best ways to explore Oban & Lorn.
Strolling and dancing
Wake up in a charming Georgian villa overlooking dazzling Oban Bay. Built in the 18th century as a dower house for the Duke of Argyll, The Manor House is now Oban’s premiere boutique hotel.
From elegant sea view rooms to delightful blooming gardens to a snug bar perfect for savouring a wee dram, The Manor House exudes old world charm, but with all the modern conveniences, including ensuite bathrooms stocked with Molton Brown toiletries, complimentary Wi-Fi and an award winning 2 AA Rosette restaurant offering the best of Scotland’s bountiful larder. After tucking into a full Scottish breakfast (sausages, eggs, potato scones, black pudding, tomato, mushroom and beans) it’s time to hit the town.
Oban Walking Tour
Exploring the town on an Oban Walking Tour with a Michelle, a trained and insured Scottish Tourist Guides Association Yellow Badge guide, is the perfect way to start your visit to the “Wee Bay”.
You can get your bearings as you learn about the long and storied history of Oban, from cave dwellers to Gaelic warlords to Victorian entrepreneurs, as well as how the town’s 9,000 permanent residents live, work and play today. You will follow in the footsteps of Queen Victoria, Boswell and Johnson, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson as you promenade along the Esplanade and enjoy tales of dramatic lighthouses, ancient Celtic monks and legendary Gaelic giants.
War & Peace
Your visit isn’t complete without a tour of the Oban War & Peace Museum, where a captivating collection of artefacts and photographs depicts the rich heritage of this busy port town. Particularly striking are the displays that tell the story of Oban as a strategic location in World War II, when Australian, Canadian and United States aircrew and RAF Flying Boats were based in the bay. The museum, located in the historic Oban Times Building, is run entirely by volunteers, a group of veterans who call themselves “The Watchers”, and is open seven days a week. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted.
Standing watch over the entrance to Oban Bay is the brooding 15th century tower ruin of Dunollie, ancestral home of the Clan MacDougall, where a fortification has stood on this impressive 90-foot promontory for at least 1,5000 years. Today, at Dunollie Museum, Castle and Grounds, you can discover the history of Argyll through an ancient clan while you enjoy the gorgeously landscape grounds. An 18th century house sitting within the beautiful historic gardens serves as a museum dedicated to Oban and MacDougall history, and guided tours take place twice a day Monday through Saturday. Weaving demonstrations, piping performances, children’s events and Gaelic language teas are just some of the activities that you can catch throughout the season. While you are there, take time out for a spot of lunch at The Kettle Café, which serves delicious light bites and cakes using local produce and inspired by the castle.
NOTE: FOR 2020 DUNOLLIE IS TAKING TOURS BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.
Locals tip: The weather can change in an instant here on the West Coast, and even in summer it can go from sunny to cool and then back again all in the space of an hour. Leave the sandals, shorts and sundresses at home, and instead pack sturdy, comfortable footwear, a waterproof jacket with a hood or hat- and don’t forget to dress in layers.
Stroll along Oban’s shopping district for a bit of shopping. Stock up on souvenirs, soaps, tartans and work by local artists in the welcoming chocolate box shops that line historic George Street, Stafford Square, Argyll Square and the piers.
And speaking of chocolate box, follow the Scottish Chocolate Trail- you will know you arrived when you see the whimsical collection of famous paintings reimagined with chocolate! The Oban Chocolate Company is sure to satisfy your sweet tooth, with dozens of hand made varieties of candy, loaded Belgian waffles, hot cocoa and ice cream. Indulge in a cuppa and a treat in this bustling and comfortable café overlooking the bay.
Whether you are a connoisseur or merely curious, have a browse in the Oban Whisky and Fine Wines Shop, where an expert can help you pick out something that is sure please your palette. Learn to tell the difference between the Highlands and Islands “uisge beatha” and browse their selection of rare and collectible whiskies.
Locals tip: The Iona Shop near the Railway Pier is an Oban institution. They stock a fine collection of Scottish made jewellery and gifts for all tastes, featuring famous designers such as Sheila Fleet and Celina Rupp in designs inspired by ancient Celtic symbols and the West Coast seascapes. For three generations, this family run shop has welcomed visitors from all over the world, but it’s also where locals go when they are looking for that special something.
Award winning dining
A meal at Etive is a fine dining event, but it’s not at all stuffy. Chef John McNulty and sommelier David Lapsley practise the fine art of perfect pairing- the best of Scottish produce with expertly chosen wines, cocktails and whiskies. In their Land & Sea pairing menu, Scotland's larder shines through with beef, venison and seafood offerings. Is your mouth watering yet? Because it will be when your beautifully plated feast arrives at the table.
After dinner, head down to The View for a truly memorable night twirling and leaping into the wee hours at a traditional ceilidh. Enjoy an informal evening of Scottish music as talented performers guide you through the dances. If you don’t want to join in the ultimate Highland party, just sit back and enjoy the views with a whisky, gin or beer and soak in the bagpipes, accordion and dancing.
Hit the water or take to the open road
For more than 5,000 years folks have been sailing the seas around Oban, and it’s still a marvellous way to experience the West Coast from a different perspective. From Caledonian MacBrayne ferries and water taxis to wildlife watching cruises, kayak trails and whirlpool adventures, there are plenty of ways to get out on the water.
Hit the (kayak) trail
Another fantastic way to get out on the water is in a kayak. Oban, one of the world’s premiere sea kayaking destinations, is a terminus for the Argyll Kayak Trail, which runs along 150 km of majestic coastline, lochs, kyles and islands amongst porpoises, otters, sea eagles, seals and more. You can tackle the entire trail or take an easier paddle on the sections near Oban, which is also on the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail on the “Lord of the Isles” section that goes to Mallaig.
Sea Kayak Oban runs trips around Mull, Iona, Colonsay, Jura and more, and, for experienced paddlers, the more challenging Falls of Lora and the Gulf of Corryvreckan. For the kayak newbie, they offer courses for all levels. If you didn’t bring your kayak or gear, don’t worry; you can hire whatever you need, including single and tandem sea kayak rental and full sea outfitting.
Explore by car
More a landlubber than a water baby? Fear not, there are other brilliant ways to explore Argyll! You can hit the road for a day trip by car or take a luxury private Imagine Alba daytour led by an expert driver guide on an outing catered especially for your pace and interests. Explore the Isles of Lismore, Luing or Easdale, Loch Etive, Arduaine Gardens, Glencoe, Dunstaffnage Castle, Castle Stalker or St Conan’s Kirk like a local as your guide treats you to highlights, hidden gems and culinary delights. If you need help planning a self drive trip, Imagine Alba also offers popular and bespoke turn by turn itineraries.
Locals tip: You can’t leave The Seafood Capital without participating in a long-standing tradition- devouring a fish supper al fresco overlooking the bay. Forget best in Oban- chippies here vie for the title of best in Britain. The fish and seafood is served up fresh from Scottish waters and made with love by generations of families. The only question is…will you have salt and vinegar or salt and sauce with that?
Not quite ready for bed? Après your fish feast, stroll down the waterfront for a relaxed nightcap and live music from nationally renowned singer songwriters. Located in Oban’s newest luxury hotel, Brew & Co at Perle boasts a stylish, yet laid back atmosphere, where their expert baristas and mixologists concoct tempting treats that will tickle your taste buds, from cocktails to smoothies to artisan teas and coffees.
Just across the bay from Oban lies the scenic Isle of Kerrera, so named by Norse invaders in their language for “island of coppiced trees”. Today, the trees have given way to pasture for sheep and cattle, and a sparse population of only 30 something residents live on the island, which measures seven by two kilometres and is divided into a south and north half.
Locals tip: Swing by The Food from Argyll at the Pier Café in the ferry terminal before you head out and pick up a picnic lunch featuring quality Argyll produce like smoked salmon, cheeses and beef, as well as vegan and gluten free options.
You can reach the smaller north part of Kerrera via a short ferry ride from Oban’s North Pier for a short stroll around Hutcheson’s Monument, a Victorian memorial to one of the founders of the Caledonia MacBrayne ferry company. Enjoy the views back to Oban and across to the Isle of Mull.
If you fancy a bit more of a hike, catch the south Kerrera ferry just down from the Manor House, and attack the 11 kilometre walking trail that circles the island and visits the moody ruins of Gylen Castle. (If you don’t fancy a long walk, the castle is not too far from the ferry). Built in the late 1500s by Duncan MacDougall and burned in 1647, the castle, known in Gaelic as “Caisteal nan Geimhlean”, is remarkably well preserved, and its location on a rocky peninsula atop steep cliffs is particularly dramatic. The island, which seems to be unspoilt by modernity, teems with wildlife, so be on the lookout for otters, sea eagles, wild goats and Sika deer, not to mention intriguing geology and sea views for days. Take several hours to soak up the island tranquillity and decompress.
Another option are the Slate Isles. The Bridge over the Atlantic takes you to the bucolic isles of Seil, Easdale, and Luing. The ferry to Luing leaves regularly from North Cuan, Seil, which is 16 miles south of Oban and is served by bus service. You can take your car, but keen cyclists may want to rent a ride at Luing Bike Hire- at only six miles long and relatively flat, a bike is the perfect way to see this historic and beautiful island.
Stop at the beautifully designed Atlantic Islands Centre, where you can learn about the history and geology of the islands, along with art exhibitions and a local history and genealogy reference library. Visit the gift shop, which showcases work from local and regional artistes and follow your nose to the café and fuel up with yummy hand baked goodies or a hot lunch.
A wee dram
One of Scotland’s oldest and last remaining urban distilleries, Oban Distillery offers an immersive sensory whisky experience that is well worth the time, even if don’t consider yourself a fan. The basic one-hour tour gives you a fascinating and entertaining behind the scenes look at traditional whisky making and insights into what lends the uisge beatha its particular tasting notes, finishing with two samples from the Oban malt whisky range. If you are a real whisky enthusiast, upgrade to an exclusive private tour or tasting event.
For more than 25 years, the Macleod family has been serving 100% locally caught seafood in their pier side location with its iconic red roof. Ee-usk, which is, appropriately enough, the phonetic pronunciation of “fish” in Gaelic, has garnered world wide renowned from the likes of international travel guru Rick Steves. Lobster, crab, langoustines, mussels, oysters, scallops and fish from the cold, pure waters of Scotland’s West Coast arrive to the restaurant live from the pier just yards away, and everything is prepared freshly and simply, complete with one of Oban’s most picturesque seaside views. Locals love the seafood platter- that way we don’t have to decide on just one thing.
The best view in town
After dinner, make the 15-minute walk up to McCaig’s Tower to take in a famous West Coast sunsets. What started out as an eccentric Victorian folly is now considered the crowning glory of the Wee Bay. The Tower was built at the turn of the 20th century by a local boy turned self made millionaire, who designed a monument high on Oban’s Battery Hill meant to rival the Coliseum in Rome, ostensibly to employ masons during the winter months. But when he died, construction stopped, leaving only the shell of what was meant to be a much larger structure. For decades nature reclaimed the tower, but residents have claimed it back, transforming the spot into a peaceful garden with a platform where you can take in the best view in town. Watch the sun set over the islands, and be sure to bring your camera.
Locals tip: Markie Dans on the Esplanade is one of Oban’s hottest late night live music venues. Quench your thirst with local ales and one of Argyll’s largest single malt selections and take advantage of the beer garden, which overlooks the bay. Local and national acts take to the stage on weekends playing favourite covers and originals.
To help plan your visit, we've put together Imagine Oban, a collection of our best tips, suggestions and links from everything from transportation to accommodation to dining.