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I had never visited Stornoway, the main town on the Western Isles of Scotland and capital of the Isles of Lewis and Harris before meeting Lauren, but it has now become somewhere I travel to each year and a town that I’ve become very fond of.
And although now a frequent visitor, I am still very much a tourist on these islands, discovering something new on each trip. So, from one tourist to another (with some help from Lauren), this is our guide and some of our recommendations for all the things to do in Stornoway.
Where is Stornoway in Scotland?
Stornoway can be found on the Isle of Lewis which is located in the Outer Hebrides islands to the west of mainland Scotland.
How To Get To Stornoway
There are frequent flights to Stornoway from many of the bigger Scottish cities and these can be booked through Loganair. Although flights are frequent, they are limited from the majority of locations and I feel can be quite costly unless booked well in advance.
There are two options to take using CalMac ferries. You can begin your journey from the South of Scotland, starting in Oban to South Uist before driving on to North Uist, the Isle of Harris and then the Isle of Lewis or you can catch the ferry from Ullapool directly to Stornoway.
Overlooking the town of Stornoway and probably one of the first things that you’ll spot when coming into Stornoway Harbour, either by ferry from Ullapool or by one of the many Hebridean cruises that visit the islands during summer, is Lews Castle.
Once the building that Sir James Matheson built and called home, Lews Castle is now a luxury hotel run by Natural Retreats.
The castle itself is open daily to visitors and also features a Starbucks, The Storehouse cafe, whisky bar and Outfitters shop inside.
To the back of the castle you will find Museum Nan Eilean which I mention in great detail later in this post.
Lews Castle is family-friendly and there are often activities held in the castle for children, inclusive of Sundays when the island is otherwise mostly closed, so be sure to check when visiting if anything is happening during your trip.
Outside the castle, you’ll find the sprawling Castle Grounds that are ideal for taking a stroll.
While the rest of the town shuts down to observe the Sabbath, Lews castle grounds become an extremely popular destination for visitors and locals alike.
You’ll find many people taking their dogs on woodland walks around the vast 270 hectares of trails and pathways that follow the River Creed as it winds its way down towards the mouth of the harbour. There are benches around the Castle Grounds should you need to take a seat!
Lookout for Lady Matheson’s Monument which was erected in 1880 in memory of and to commemorate her late husband.
Listen for the sound of herons and if lucky, you may also spot some seals in the waters.
If mountain biking is your thing then you will find several trails through the woodland. It’s worth keeping your wits about you if you’re walking, just in case you end up on a cycle track as they can appear from nowhere.
However, to share a piece of folklore, I remember my granny telling me stories years ago of Mac an t-Srònaich (the local bogeyman), and how he used to hide in the Castle Grounds. I still don’t like to be too close to the grounds come darkness. Just in case.
The castle grounds are also home to the popular Hebcelt Festival during the summer.
Which leads us on to the next thing to do.
This may be the reason that you’re visiting the town of Stornoway but if not and you’re planning your visit during the last few weekends in July, you’ll find the island a lot, lot busier than usual.
Hebcelt is an annual Celtic music festival that takes place within the castle grounds, bringing thousands of visitors to the islands every year. The festival is a mixture of folk, rock and Celtic music and some of the main headliners from years past include Runrig, The Proclaimers, Van Morrison, The Saw Doctors, Idlewild and more.
To coincide with the festival you will find lots of activities happening in the town such as markets, street performers, competitions and a general buzz of excitement around Stornoway.
Hebcelt tickets can sell out far in advance of the festival and considering the population of Stornoway is only around 8000 people, local establishments, hostels and caravan parks (Laxdale Holiday Park is one of the most popular during Hebcelt) which can accommodate visitors, quickly fill up.
There are several fields which allow camping but again, make sure to book as early as possible to ensure a space.
If the Hebridean Celtic festival sounds like your sort of thing then you can grab tickets over at Hebcelt
Another music festival you may have the honour of experiencing is the Royal National Mòd. This is a festival celebrating Scottish Gaelic poetry, music, song, arts and culture.
Scottish Gaelic is prominent within the Islands where you will hear it spoken often but you will also see this throughout the town on the street signs, where Gaelic is featured above the English.
Museum Nan Eilean
A modern extension built to the back of Lews Castle currently holds the Islands museum which is funded by Western Isles Council (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar) among others. The museum offers an interactive insight into the culture, history and diversity of life for those living on the Islands from prehistory to present day. The museum also features artefacts from history, some of the infamous Lewis chessmen, to more of the current influences such as the Nike and Vivienne Westwood tweed collaborations.
The museum is closed on Thursdays and Sundays.
Entry is free.
This Scottish Baronial Tower, which reaches heights of over 85 feet on top of an already 300-foot high hill gives you some of the best views over the town of Stornoway.
Despite the beautiful views, we are not to forget that this memorial in remembrance of those that were lost during the war and Iolaire disaster.
A short distance from the town of Stornoway is the Iolaire Memorial to remember those lost on the Islands, and one of the UK’s, greatest maritime disasters.
Having just passed the centenary of this disaster, you may see frequent mention and reference to it throughout the town.
On the fateful night of January first 1919, shortly after the New Year Bells, the H.M.Y Iolaire struck the infamous rocks, the ‘beasts of Holm’ while taking many sailors back to their loved ones following the end of WWI.
205 men were lost that are known and can be accounted for although the number may be much higher, many families and villages lost their men and this sorrow is still felt to this day.
Take time to also visit the Iolaire Memorial at South Beach, Stornoway Harbour.
The ‘Sheol Nan Iolaire’ commemoration shows the outline of the H.M.Y Iolaire ship, in actual size and is built with 280 wooden posts, one for each man aboard the ship of that fateful night.
79 posts are painted white as a visual representation of the survivors.
As the tide comes in each night and covers the memorial, those markers light up blue apart from those 79 posts depicting survivors, which turn red.
It is a beautiful and poignant piece of art.
Stornoway Town Hall
I would consider this the most prominent building in the centre of Stornoway and it was always my favourite, having more ornate details than most, turrets and the clock tower.
I fondly remember the days that An Lanntair was within these walls but it is now mainly used as a venue location and for private functions.
Today, you will find craft fairs, markets, music shows and weddings being held in Stornoway town hall. It is also the home of the Stornoway Historical Society.
A mini Harris Tweed visitor centre has also been opened within Stornoway Town Hall in which visitors can join in on an audio and visual presentation into the history of Harris tweed and see the looms at work.
An Lanntair (The Lantern in Scottish Gaelic) is a cinema, art gallery, cafe, gift shop, multi-arts centre in Stornoway.
I would consider An Lanntair as one of the main hubs in Stornoway among tourists and locals.
Shopping in Stornoway
One question I am often hesitantly asked is ‘what shops are in Stornoway?’, and while the island may feel in the back and beyond, rest assured that there is still ample shopping opportunity.
While many of the locals (myself included) are still missing popular shops such as Woolworths, and more recently Murdo Macleans (the only department store in town) there have been signs of regeneration when it comes to shopping in Stornoway.
For those coming from the mainland, there will be some familiar names such as Boots, Superdrug and Argos. These stores may not be as widely stocked as those on the mainland but I do find that the Superdrug in Stornoway offers a lot of options that I struggle to find elsewhere.
There are many shops in Stornoway but one area that I find limited is clothes shopping, especially for the younger generations, however, there are options with Peacocks (to be found in The Co-op), Influence, M&Co and Underground for men.
Make your way through ‘The Narrows’ and the coloured buildings to find some of the shops below.
Delights – This is a lovely homeware and gift store who also sell some artisanal foods. There is a small cafe within the store but tables are limited.
The Blue Lobster – I love the homeware at The Blue Lobster. They have a very blogger/Etsy aesthetic, and if you are a blogger, or read blogs, you will know what I mean by that.
Bethesda Hospice Charity Shop – My favourite shop in Stornoway. If you appreciate mid-century modern furniture as I do, you will find it here in droves. And at a spectacularly low cost to boot.
Aladdin’s Cave – There are no limits to what is sold in Aladdin’s Cave and I wouldn’t know where to begin in describing it. From the mundane to the truly bizarre, it’s a shop you have to see to believe.
The Good Food Boutique – The local deli where you can buy all your cheeses, meats, olives, bottles of vinegar and oils. They also sell packaged teas and foods which make lovely gifts.
Influence – A long-standing shop in Stornoway, Influence sell womenswear and some homeware among others.
The Baltic Bookshop – The local bookshop, which is across from the library. I would consider The Baltic Bookshop a mix between newsagents and bookshop. Here, you can pick up cards, pens, papers, sweets along with a selection of books and trinkets. Be sure to head up to the back to the dictionary to see what the “word of the day” is.
K J Macdonald (Kenny Froggans) – Primarily a pharmacy, you will also find a selection of beauty, perfumes, homeware, children’s goods and some of my favourite locally made Sandwick Bay Candles, among others.
Sportsworld – Sportsworld sell some clothing and shoes, sports and fishing equipment.
An Lanntair – The best stockist of Rifle Paper Co products that I have come across in Scotland. They also sell a lot of locally made items and are a great store for gifts.
Lewis Loom Centre and Harris Tweed Hebrides – You will come across many tweed shops in The Outer Hebrides and we are proud of the heritage and hard work that goes into making it. Whether you are looking to buy tweed cloth itself, or some already made products, there is no short supply when it comes to shopping but make sure to look out for that all-important Orb from the Harris Tweed Authority for authenticity.
VisitScotland iCentre – Head here for maps, postcards and tourist information.
Black Pudding – Black pudding (Marag dubh in Scottish Gaelic) is a bit of an institution in Stornoway and often heralded as the best in the world. Three of the most popular are as follows, Charley Barley, MacLeod and MacLeod and Willie John – If you have tried Stornoway black pudding, let us know which you think is best!
Supermarkets in Stornoway
There are 2 supermarket options available in Stornoway; The Co-op and Tesco.
I would consider The Co-op to be the largest supermarket in Stornoway although not often the most competitive in price.
Tesco is most easily accessible to those travelling to Stornoway by ferry as it is directly opposite when departing the ferry car park. Tesco is a popular option and this store can be very busy.
Lastly, you can find a smaller Co-Op on Cromwell Street in the town centre. This Co-Op is the only supermarket in Stornoway without designated parking but there is a pay and display car park in Perceval Square just across the road.
Wherever it is you choose to shop, make sure to add some locally made Stag Bakery products to your basket!
Notably, their morning rolls which are our absolute favourite. They may be more expensive than your branded names, but they are worth it.
Petrol Stations and Parking in Stornoway
There are two main car parks (although there are others) that you will find used in Stornoway.
Perceval Square car park – There is a very small fee when using this car park, you will also find local markets in Perceval Square.
South Beach Car Park – By the harbour, this is the largest car park and is free.
Spar – Spar is next to the Co-op just out of the town centre
Engebret Ltd – Close to the Sports Centre and is the only station open for a limited time on Sundays
Gordons – If you can make your way out to Back, approx 8 miles out of Stornoway town centre, the petrol cost is significantly less.
Fun Things To Do In Stornoway For The Family
The Isle of Lewis Sports Centre is a dual sports complex with use by the Nicolson Institute school but is also available for use by the public. The Sports Centre offer a variety of facilities including; climbing wall, swimming pool (separate pool for younger children), squash courts, running track, astroturf and fitness centre and health suite. There is also a cafe in which parents can sit whilst watching either the pool or climbing wall.
Adventure Island Softplay – A multi-level soft play area for children which includes a cafe.
Bayhead Playpark – Just along from the castle grounds and town centre, offers a wide variety of activities and fun for the family such as; Playpark, Skatepark, Tennis Courts, Rugby Club, Bowls and Crazy Golf.
Stornoway Golf Club – An 18 hole golf course within the Lews Castle grounds
Beaches – Of course, one of the things that The Outer Hebrides are best known for are the beautiful and tropical-looking beaches and luckily, when on an island, you don’t have to travel far to find one. Please see our post on the best things to do on the Isle of Lewis linked below for more information on some of our favourite beaches.
Segway Hebrides – Segway Hebrides offer tours around the castle grounds for groups of up to 5.
Haven’t yet booked your accommodation? I have listed 5 of the largest Stornoway hotels to help you get started!
Please take care to check availability and make early bookings if visiting the Outer Hebrides during the summer months or for the HebCelt Fest as accommodation can book quickly during these times.
All hotels are within a 10-minute drive to Stornoway airport and only a short distance from the ferry terminal.
The Royal Hotel
The Royal Hotel Stornoway is a traditional harbourside hotel and is a great location to stay if you are looking for ease as it is located by the centre of town but also connected to two of the most popular eating establishments; The Boatshed Restaurant and HS-1 Cafe Bar.
The hotel boasts of views across the marina, towards and with views of Lews Castle, so you couldn’t hope for nicer views over the water.
There is a range of rooms available from single to deluxe and as mentioned above, the decor is traditional and rooms come with WiFi, tea and coffee facilities, TV and some toiletries are also provided in the en-suite free of charge.
Free car parking is available to the rear of the hotel and breakfast is included in the cost.
The Cabarfeidh Hotel
The Cabarfeidh is Stornoway’s only hotel with a 4* rating which is set a short distance out of the town centre, not far from the Castle Grounds and the Stornoway golf club.
This hotel has 46 bedrooms for guests which all come with bath and shower en-suite. Again, I consider this hotel to have quite a traditional decor and comes with WiFi, tea and coffee facilities, TV, luxury toiletries and breakfast which is included in the price of your stay.
A benefit of The Cabarfeidh Hotel is the free access to the on-site Fitness Studio along with the surrounding gardens.
Free car parking available and accommodation is pet friendly.
The Caladh Inn
The Caladh Inn Stornoway boasts of 68 en-suite bedrooms and is located within the town centre.
It is the closest hotel to both the ferry terminal and Stornoway airport along with one of the major supermarkets if that is of benefit to you during your stay.
The Caladh Inn is connected to the Eleven restaurant which offers carvery and buffet dining at a very reasonable cost.
Room rates include breakfast, WiFi, tea and coffee facilities and TV.
This hotel is pet friendly with free on-site parking and offers lift access.
The Crown Inn
The Crown Inn is a small family run business based in the town centre which overlooks the marina and has 16 en-suite rooms, restaurant and lounge bar.
It has been newly refurbished and the restaurant has a great and extensive food menu with beautiful views over the harbour.
Make sure to read the sign outside The Crown Hotel Stornoway as it has a lovely (although not condoned) story of a 14-year-old Prince Charles’ antics.
Room rates include breakfast, WiFi, tea and coffee facilities with biscuits, TV and some toiletries are also provided.
This hotel is pet friendly with free parking available.
The County Hotel Stornoway is located right in the middle of town which is great for those visitors who plan on mainly walking and cycling during their stay.
There are 14 en-suite bedrooms available for booking and room rates include breakfast, WiFi, tea and coffee facilities and TV.
The County offers a more varied selection of meals in the Seasgair restaurant from Indian, Italian and Scottish.
I believe the hotel is currently being modernised but some areas may still seem a little dated at the moment.
Limited parking available to the rear of the hotel.
Book your stay at The County Hotel
Find the best prices for a stay at the County Hotel in Stornoway
Didn’t have a hotel in mind for your stay? You can always book one of the many bed and breakfasts, guest houses or Airbnb Stornoway options if you are looking for a more unique experience!
It may not be everything, but hopefully this post will help provide you with a starting travel guide to Stornoway.
This is a great opportunity to explore Scotlands West Coast and begin your adventure in the Capital of the Outer Hebrides.
Check out our post for hidden gems in The Outer Hebrides when doing the Hebridean Way and our post of some of the best things to do on the Isle of Lewis including the infamous Callanish / Calanais standing stones and Blackhouse Village.
If your trip includes a weekend you may want to take a look at our post of what to do in Stornoway on a Sunday to get an insight into what you can expect!
One of the most amazing things to do when visiting the Outer Hebrides is definitely taking a trip to visit St Kilda. You can book your tickets online and the boat excursion leaves from Leverburgh in Harris.