Scotland’s perfect for road trips. With its ever-changing coastlines, rolling farmland and epic mountain vistas, picturesque villages and historic castles, there’s so much to see and a road trip is the best way to see as much of it as possible! However, the problem often lies with how to plan it and where exactly to go, which is how the North East 250 comes in.
What is the North East 250?
The North East 250 is a road trip around the north east corner of the heart of Scotland for, you guessed it, 250 miles. It takes in the sandy beaches and rocky cliffs of the rugged East Coast, the picturesque Moray Firth with its charming fishing villages, the whisky region of Speyside, the mountainous Cairngorms, the UK’s largest National Park, and the plentiful castles along Royal Deeside, a long favourite area of the Royal Family.
How long does it take to drive the North East 250?
The best thing about the North East 250 is that it can really be as long as you like. Realistically, you could drive 250 miles in one day, but the beauty of the North East 250 isn’t really in the road itself, it’s all the things you can see and do along the way. For that reason, you would probably want a minimum of three days, but you could easily stretch that up to 7, or longer.
We recently teamed up with three other content creators to take a part of the NE250 route and see and do as much as we could in 2 days. To give you an idea of the number of things to do, we all crammed as much as we could into that time and STILL felt like we left with plenty still on the to-do list. So you can see how you could spend a long time along the route!
North East 250 starting points
Being a circular route, you can jump on the North East 250 at almost any location, but there are some more natural starting points. If you’re driving from Edinburgh or Glasgow in the south then starting in either the Cairngorms or Aberdeen makes the most sense. From the north or west, it makes the most sense to start at where the Moray Coast and Speyside meet.
We started our journey in Aberdeen, which I think was a great place to start as we headed north and got into the swing of things by visiting a lot of scenic stops not too far from each other, but it all depends on what you want to see too!
It’s also possible to add the North East 250 onto the North Coast 500 road trip, by travelling east after Inverness, or doing half of the route and then travelling to Inverness to go north, and finishing the other half on the way back south.
What you’ll see on the NE250
I’ve hinted above at what you’ll be able to see while driving the NE250 but to be succinct the attractions around the route can be roughly divided into three categories.
History & Heritage: Castles of course, plus historical homes, cultural centres and museums.
Outdoor & Adventure: Plentiful walks, mountain biking opportunities, scenic vistas and beaches.
Food & Drink: Great local Scottish produce, whisky distilleries galore, and Brewdog brewery.
Without being cliche, there’s something for everyone along the way!
North East 250 route overview
Although it’s a circular route, you can think of the North East 250 as having about five distinct sections.
East Coast – From Aberdeen to Fraserburgh
Bordering the North Sea and strewn with lighthouses, quaint coastal towns, and attractions inland like historic houses, castles, and gardens, the East Coast has plenty to get you started. Oh, and it’s the home of Brewdog brewery too!
Moray Firth Coast – From Fraserburgh to Speyside
Punctuated by numerous fishing villages that each have their own character, the Moray Firth can feel like a step back in time. Plus you can try Cullen Skink in its hometown! That’s a Scottish smoked haddock soup by the way, not a kind of animal, like I first thought when I moved here…
Speyside – From Speyside to Glenlivet
Scotland’s biggest whisky-producing region will have you trying to figure out how many distilleries is too many (spoiler alert: there’s never too many!) as well as visiting the home of Walker’s Shortbread (yum!).
The Cairngorms – From Glenlivet to Crathie
Obviously, the Cairngorms National Park has pristinely beautiful scenery and an abundance of wildlife, making it a haven for adventurers and photographers alike, but there’s also plenty of castles and the uniquely smooth whisky at the Glenlivet Distillery.
Royal Deeside – From Glenshee to Aberdeen
With the clue in the name, Royal Deeside was firstly popular with Queen Victoria but has continued to be a favourite of the Royal Family, who use Balmoral Castle as their Scottish home. Amongst other Castles, there’s also more of the natural beauty of the Cairngorms and Glenshee, Scotland’s most extensive ski centre.
North East 250 Itinerary
For those without the luxury of time, it would be best to choose the places that you absolutely want to see the most and start building your itinerary from there. Figure out where you’ll want to spend the most time and stay, and where you can drive on through with a few photo stops. I’ll be going through some of the highlights of each part of the route below to help you out!
If you’re a keen cycler, then you could also consider cycling the route rather than driving. This would take much longer of course, but there’s some beautiful scenery, and it’s a wonderful way to slow things down and take it all in.
Now that you have an idea of what you’ll be able to see in each part of the NE250, it’s time to think about creating your own North East 250 itinerary! Below are the places that we visited along the way from Aberdeen to Fraserburgh, with some hints for stops we, unfortunately, didn’t have time for. Then there are the highlights of the rest of the route, and where you can find more information to help with your planning.
East Coast: Aberdeen to Fraserburgh
We began our stretch of the NE250 from the Aikenshill House Bed and Breakfast, after driving up from Edinburgh on the Friday night. This award-winning B&B run by James and his family made a fantastic start to our trip and was just the beginning of the wonderful hospitality we experienced from people in the North East. We stayed in the Bothy, waking up to views of farmland strewn with their herd of Highland Coos (including a newborn!) and the sand dunes and sea in the distance beyond.
After a delicious breakfast and being introduced to many of the Highland Coos by name, we set off to the first of what would be many stops of the day!
The sea frames this long stretch of sandy beach on one side and dunes on the other, and with plenty of boardwalks to help you explore them. Although we only made a short stop here, I’d love to come back and stay nearby again.
Plus just to the north of Balmedie is Newburgh Beach, where you can see seals!
Brewdog is the largest craft beer brewery in Europe, and it’s based just off the North East 250 route. What began as a small operation in Fraserburgh has now moved to Ellon and expanded into an operation that currently makes 20 products, and over time has made around 400!
I was lucky enough to take a quick tour of the brewery and distillery (they make gin, vodka, and whisky too!) with Gary, the manager. His passion for his job was an awesome thing to see, and I loved chatting a bit about the history of beer in Scotland and how the craft beer scene has exploded more recently.
They do run tours and if you’re into craft beer, then it’s definitely worth fitting it into your North East 250 itinerary. In any case, they have a taproom where you can taste some of their beers and grab a bite to eat!
This former fishing village was also once a smugglers haven, with an estimated 8000 gallons of spirits being brought ashore here illegally in the 18th century. Thomas Edward Lawrence, aka, Laurence of Arabia also rented a cottage here once.
However, we came for the beautiful sea views and the award-winning Smugglers Cone ice-cream!
Continuing north along the coast took us to Cruden Bay next, where there were two sites I was particularly keen to see.
Slains Castle (also known as New Slains Castle, because slightly confusingly there’s another Slains Castle nearby!) is perched precariously on the cliffs just outside of the village. It actually began as a 16th-century tower house that was also a Scots Baronial mansion at one time, before the roof was removed in 1925 to avoid paying taxes, which leads it to the ruin it is today.
You can wander about the ruins at your leisure, but the best views are to be had from the cliffs just below the castle.
Oh, and it’s rumoured that Bram Stoker stayed nearby in 1895 and used the castle as his inspiration for Dracula!
The second stop just outside Cruden Bay is the Bullers of Buchan, a collapsed sea cave. A natural archway allows seawater to rush into the circular “pot” left behind by the cave. The surrounding cliffs are also well-known for seabird spotting, including my favourite, Puffins!
Both of the above attractions can be reached by car or by walking along the Buchan coastal path from Cruden Bay (or even Whinnyfold, further south).
Buchan Ness Lighthouse
Given the maritime history of Scotland, it’s no surprise there are plenty of lighthouses along the East Coast of the North East 250 route. Stopping to see one or two should definitely be on your itinerary, mainly because they’re usually in very picturesque locations, or you might even be able to spend the night there!
Although we didn’t stay there, we stopped by one such lighthouse, Buchan Ness, at Boddam.
Peterhead is the biggest settlement in Aberdeenshire and the main attraction here is the Peterhead Prison Museum. It was Scotland’s first convict museum and has a rather harrowing history that you can learn about through an audio tour as you walk around the prison. While it might not sound like a place you really want to spend your holiday, it was something that people constantly recommended to me when I said we were driving up this way!
We spent our second night at Saplinbrae Hotel and Lodges, in Mintlaw just off the west of the North East 250 route. I can honestly say this is one of my favourite places I’ve stayed, mostly because of all their thoughtful touches.
We were given the newly refurbished family rooms, which include a large double bedroom, a smaller connected town room, and a bathroom I want to replicate in my own house because it looked awesome and that shower was AMAZING (seriously!).
The children’s room had an inbuilt black-out blind (crucial for us travelling with a baby who’s not so keen on sleep) and a few books and toys, as well as a toy chest in the dining room where we were able to eat a delicious locally sourced meal early enough to get the baby into bed on time.
Nearby you’ll find Aikey Brae Stone Circle, with large standing (and fallen) stones. After the popularity of Outlander, what Scottish trip would be complete without a stone circle?
Rattray Head Lighthouse
Full disclosure, the road to this NE250 attraction is a bit of a nightmare, and I’m not sure we would have attempted it had we known, or at least, we would have been more prepared!
Rattray Head Lighthouse is uniquely located out in the ocean, accessible by boat or a causeway at low tide. After driving down the pothole-ridden (read: crater-filled) road we weren’t exactly sure which way to go but followed the obvious path towards and across the rock-strewn sand before the beach opened out in front of us, and it was a beauty.
The lighthouse was smaller than I thought, but I would have loved to come here at sunset or sunrise to see it in some fantastic light and spend some time wandering along the beach. We were the only people there and it felt like we could have stepped back in time!
If you can, give yourself some extra time here if the weather is right and you want to explore more. After driving that road, it’s worth more than a quick stop really! But wrap up because it can be breezy too!
Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh
We reached Fraserburgh! And continuing along our lighthouse theme, we started at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses where we had a bite to eat in their onsite cafe, before wandering through the exhibition, where you can see lighthouse lenses and lights up close, and learn more about the importance of lighthouses to a country like Scotland. There are fun activities to keep kids interested too, so somewhere to consider when Baby B is older!
However, the main attraction is Kinnaird Lighthouse, the oldest on mainland Scotland, that was built INTO a 16th-century castle. You can see this unique site on a guided tour run by the museum.
Fraserburgh Heritage Centre
Just next door to the Lighthouse Museum is the Fraserburgh Heritage Centre, which is well worth the visit too. Although Fraserburgh has an extensive fishing history and is still a major port, there is much more to the town’s past than this.
- The town played an important part in both World Wars and became home to many Polish citizens after WWII.
- Bill Gibb, the renowned 1960 and 70s fashion designer was from here
- There was extensive involvement in the Jacobite Rebellions
And this is just a tiny few of the exhibits we were able to see! There are also lots of activities to keep children interested so it makes for a great stop for families. I was so impressed by the passion of the manager Chris, who came to meet us and show us around, and I’d really urge you to pay them a visit!
Extra stops along the East Coast route
Of course, we didn’t have time to stop at everything along the east coast of the North East 250 route. There really is SO MUCH to see, and each person’s trip will be a little different, based on what their interests are.
For example, here are just a few of the things we missed:
If you’re into golf, then the East Coast has plenty of places to tee off with coastal and inland courses offering beautiful views.
- Cruden Bay Golf Club
- Banchory Golf Club
- Peterhead Golf Club
- Fraserburgh Golf Club
- Deeside Golf Club
We unfortunately missed out on a few sites early on in the route, because travelling with a baby means you can’t always do everything you might want to! If we’d had the luxury of another day than we would have been able to add these places in too. They’re all close together so you could hop from one to the other easily.
This picturesque 16th-century castle is in ruins, but it’s an impressive sight and has been described as one of the most beautiful castles in Scotland.
Run by the National Trust for Scotland, these re-created renaissance gardens are known for their geometric and floral designs. Basically, an Instagrammers dream! There’s also a more rugged woodlands area and the Museum of Farming Life.
Another National Trust property, Haddo House, is a luxurious stately home where you can take a tour of the house, holding an extensive art collection, and wander around the grounds. Lavish homes like this can be an interesting contrast to the ruined castles you’ll also come across in Scotland!
The rest of the North East 250
If we were to continue around the NE250 on this trip then we would have ventured along the Moray Firth Coast, followed by a sharp turn south through Speyside towards the Cairngorms, and then swung a left back towards Aberdeen, through Royal Deeside. As part of this Scotlanders campaign, however, my fellow Scotland content creators took on these legs, but I’ve put together some of the highlights below to help you out with your planning, plus links to their more extensive content.
Moray Firth Coast: Fraserburgh to Spey Bay
While we didn’t traverse the Moray Firth Coast on this trip, I have been before absolutely loved it. Charming fishing villages hug the coastline in the shadow of the hills behind them. Pennan, Crovie, and Gardenstown (locally known as Gamrie) are all worth the stop. We actually stayed in a cottage on the seawall at Gardenstown and had a fantastic time exploring the area.
Further along the coast you’ll encounter Banff, with its beautiful sea views once again, Portsoy, with its fabulous ice-cream, and Cullen, the home of the Scottish classic, Cullen skink soup. Don’t miss Bow Fiddle Rock just near Portknockie, or the Scottish Dolphin Centre once you reach Spey Bay.
You can watch Kim’s YouTube video of the Moray Firth Coast on North East 250 here.
Speyside: Spey Bay to Tomintoul
The next leg of the NE250 takes you through Whisky and Castle country. Over half of the whiskies produced in Scotland are made here, thanks to the water source of the River Spey. Two of the best-selling single malt whiskies in the world are also produced in Speyside – Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. Unlike whisky produced on Islay, off the west coast of Scotland, the whiskies you’ll find here are described with a heavier emphasis on their fruitiness, sweetness, or nuttiness. Dependent on your love of whisky, I’d recommend at least one stop or several!
Here are some of the distilleries along the way:
- Glenfiddich Distillery
- Glenfarclas Distillery
- Glenlivet Distillery
- Aberlour Distillery
For a different take on the whisky industry, you can also visit the Speyside Cooperage, where they make and repair over 100,000 casks that are distributed all over Scotland to hold whisky.
In addition to being a whisky-lovers paradise, the North East 250 route from Speyside down to the Cairngorms has several castles to visit, like Gordon Castle, Balvenie Castle, and Ballindalloch Castle. Then there are the natural attractions like Linn Falls, and well as historic bridges at Craigellachie and Aberlour, with the latter also being the home fo Walker’s Shortbread!
Glenshee, the Cairngorms & Royal Deeside to Aberdeen
This part of the North East 250 route transverses some of Scotland’s most epic scenery, including the road between Tomintoul and Cock Bridge, which is one of the highest main roads. There are most castles to see, including Drumin Castle, Blairfindy Castle, and Corgarff Castle.
At Crathes you’ll find the uniquely pink-tinged Crathes Castle, that looks a bit like something out of a Disney fairytale. Here you can detour south towards Glenshee Ski Centre, stopping at Braemar for yet another Castle and the Highland Games Centre.
Back north the circular route of the NE250 continues through Royal Deeside. Visit the Royal residence at Balmoral, the Victorian Village of Ballatar where the Royal Family patronises many businesses, and stop off at Drum Castle before finishing up at Aberdeen.
You can find out more about this part of the North East 250 route on Neil’s website, Travels With a Kilt.
What time of year should you do the North East 250
Scottish weather is unpredictable, to say the least, but when people ask me when to visit Scotland I usually say around May. The spring means things are warming up (maybe!) and the weather can be a little more settled at this time of year. Plus most attractions that close over the winter period are opening again ahead of the busy summer season. You’ll be treated to the brilliant yellow of the rapeseed fields and the gorse bushes, plus lots of spring flowers too.
However, you can, of course, come at any other time! It can rain at any time of year but to be honest, Scottish scenery suits a bit of rain. Just be aware that the roads of the North East 250 that run through the high elevations of the Cairngorms can be subject to closure due to snow if you plan a winter trip!
Where to stay on the North East 250
On the North East 250 accommodation isn’t a problem, with so many different places to stop and various options to suit all sorts of budgets and expectations.
- Unique accommodation like staying in a lighthouse!
You can check out the NE250 website for partner accommodation along the route.
You’ll probably have gathered from this post of epic proportions that there’s a ton of stuff to do along the North East 250 road trip. It would be impossible to do it all unless you’re planning a VERY extensive trip in this area. However, with even a week, you’d be able to see many of the locations that we all stopped off at and enjoyed. So are you ready to plan your next Scotland road trip?
Disclaimer: We were invited to take part in this road trip adventure by North East 250, but as always, you can trust that all opinions are entirely my own and any recommendations are based on my own experience.