Seriously… This is Scotland? White sands and turquoise water sparkled glamorously in front of me, there was barely a cloud in the sky and I could feel my skin burning already. This was more like the Caribbean, I gawped. On this day, at the end of May, the Isle of Iona was a tropical 27 C. But unlike those tropical hotspots, Iona’s bustle was no more than a steady trickle of tourists mulling around. I had absolutely struck gold. This beautiful day was one of the best I had in Scotland, and here’s how you can get the best out of a day trip to Iona as well.
Best things to do on a day trip to Iona
Historical sites, culture, art, natural beauty and more, Iona has so much to offer visitors. Here are my suggestions of what to do if you’re here for just the day.
Explore some of the stunning beaches in Iona
You won’t believe your eyes when you reach Iona’s beaches (especially on a sunny day, which admittedly can be rare). Head north out of the village past the Abbey and you’ll reach two beauties within a mile or so at Iona’s northernmost tip, which are rarely ever crowded. All my photos in this post are from there. On the western side of Iona are some more beautiful white sand beaches, though a tiny bit busier. Go south-west out of the village to reach them.
Hike up Dun I, Iona’s highest point
It’s only 100m high but the views from the top are stunning with little effort needed! The official way is a left turn a few hundred meters after the Abbey, but most of the gates/tracks on this side of the main path will get you there if you miss it (like me – I did it coming from the opposite direction and went through a gate closer to the beach). Allow yourself an hour and a half (which includes lots of time to enjoy the views) to get there and back to the Abbey.
Visit Iona Abbey and the other holy sites
Iona has been a sacred site for 1500 years and is one of the oldest Christian centres in Europe. Iona Abbey is the focal point of this. An abbey has been standing on this site for over 1000 years, having faced Viking raids, a takeover by the King of Norway, and so on. With all this history and cultural significance, it’s easy to see why Iona Abbey and its surrounding buildings are a must-see. Plus it’s beautiful! The Abbey is a short walk north out of the village. Closer to the village is another set of ruins of a nunnery that you can walk around as well.
Iona has a lot of classy shops and galleries along the main street, full of locally-made, artisanal gifts and products. There are a few more on the path towards the Abbey, too. If the weather’s bad this is a great way to dry off or spend some time before the next ferry comes. There are some eateries in this area too.
This is the order in which I did the activities as well – I headed north to the beaches first then worked my way back to the village centre, branching off and doing each of the other things as I walked past them. Get the earliest ferry possible to maximise your day here!
How to get to Iona
You can get a ferry to Iona from Fionnphort. The most south-westerly village on of the Isle of Mull, Fionnphort is only a mile or so away from Iona and the ferry runs between the two approximately every half an hour from 8.30am-6pm during the summer. It costs a very reasonable £3.40 return. You can’t take a car there, but it wouldn’t be worth it, anyway. There’s a free car park a short walk away, signposted at a left turn in the road on the main street before you reach the dock, and a paid one right by the dock.
How to get to Fionnphort
It’s a bit of a mission to get to Fionnphort – you have to take the ever-so-slightly terrifying A849 road, which starts from the ferry terminal at Craignure. If you’re not used to single track roads with oncoming traffic appearing far too quickly out of blind corners, then you’ve got an experience on your hands!
This was my first time driving such roads and I can’t exactly say I enjoyed it. But I got used to it after a while. In my opinion the Isle of Mull has the most difficult roads in all of West Scotland, so once you’ve mastered them everywhere else will feel easier in comparison.
Oh, and as a result, don’t expect this 35 mile drive to take less than an hour. This is no bad thing, though, because the landscapes are gorgeous.
If you don’t have a car there are arranged tours that go there, and cycling would be a great option. There are some buses to Fionnphort as well.
Accommodation in Iona
Most people just spend the day on Iona like I did, but I really regret not spending the night there. Plus there are a surprising number of options for accommodation on Iona. The best value is Iona Hostel (pictured above). Set in an absolutely beautiful location, it’s a short walk from the beaches (around 10 minutes), and around 20 minutes from the ferry and village. A bed in one of their shared rooms is around £20 a night. It’s a good idea to book as far in advance as you can in the summer, especially, as there aren’t many rooms and it’s understandably popular. Or you could wild camp, of course.
Accommodation in Fionnphort
The main street of tiny Fionnphort (it has an even smaller population than Iona at 80 residents vs 120) has several B&Bs. But the best option in my opinion is the fantastic Fidden Farm Campsite, a mile or so down the road past the free car park. It’s a big site set right on the beach and is an amazing place to watch the sun set. This was the view right outside my van on the night I stayed there:
There are also highland coos in this whole area – I just love these guys!
It costs £10 a night to stay at Fidden Farm. You can just turn up and get a pitch on the day, though I imagine it gets busy in the summer – I recommend calling them up 01681 700427 to ensure you can get a spot, and the same goes for all accommodation in this area.
I don’t recommend wild camping with a campervan in Fionnphort itself. There isn’t anywhere to park overnight (it’s banned in the two car parks there), and there aren’t many roadside spots either – just passing places which need to be kept clear. And one of the best beaches in the area is a campsite anyway. However, there are some good spots a little further afield or if you’re willing to go the extra mile on foot.
Got some extra time?
Although this post is about what to do on a day trip to Iona, I hope you can see that in actual fact one day doesn’t really do this beautiful place justice. It’s one of my biggest regrets of my trip to Scotland – I’m just imagining how beautiful the sunsets and sunrises must be on those empty white sand beaches! Then more time to enjoy the views, the ocean, more time to find all the little beaches that are tucked away here (St Columba’s Bay the Bay at the Back of the Ocean…), to dawdle around all the buildings and ruins…
And at just 1 mile away from the Isle of Mull, Iona must be a dream to sea kayak to (on a calm day!). And best of all, there some amazing beaches just off the coast that you really could have all to yourself. Bring your tent and do some wild camping along the way and there’s surely no better way to pass a few days. Slow down, and embrace what’s there fully; that’s my plan for next time I go and it’s also my suggestion to you. Bliss!