Inverness ties with Belfast as my favourite city in the UK. In the case of the latter, the fondness is due to great memories of university, and the excitement and sheer fun that I had there. In the case of the former, it’s born out a sense of peacefulness and sanctuary, a personal little escape, right at the top of the country, from the business and disorientation of the rest of the world. Three years ago, I was lucky enough to form a close and lasting friendship with someone from this beautiful city, and have consequently had the good fortune to visit it on a regular basis ever since, whether by air, courtesy of Flybe from Belfast City Airport, or road via Megabus or Citylink from Glasgow.
Truthfully, despite its classification as a ‘city’, the centre of Inverness isn’t much bigger in size than a large village, yet the continuous tourist buzz in the streets gives it the illusion of something bigger. As the obvious base for travellers roaming the Highlands, eager to see the surrounding attractions of Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle or Glen Coe, Inverness is never short of visitors, and it’s a curious, but fascinating juxtaposition to feel that kind of energy in a place so geographically compact. It leaves you with the sense of almost being on holiday outside of the UK, and undoubtedly contributes in no small part to the city’s relative economic prosperity compared to other parts of Scotland.
That atmosphere is most keenly felt on High Street, probably my favourite part of the city centre, leading from the bottom of Stephens Brae down to the River Ness, with its welcoming vibe, pedestrianised status, and the role as the natural destination for Saturday street attractions and stalls (it was one of the liveliest spots to be during the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum). Being a bookworm, regular stops along the street for me always include its branches of WHSmith and The Works, while the definite must-visit venue for me and my friend whenever we’re passing is the vibrant So Coco café, its selection of luxury hot chocolates utterly second to none. From the insides of the glasses being laced with even more chocolate beyond what’s in the drinks, to the delicious array of sweets and desserts on offer, to their always-delicious Cullen Skink soup, it’s a café that always proves relaxing to sit in and watch the world going by outside.
Across the way sits the Inverness Museum, not, to be entirely honest, one of the more externally attractive pieces of architecture in the city, but containing a surprisingly engaging and comprehensive range of exhibits inside, most enjoyably its natural history selection, always a favourite area of ours given our love of David Attenborough documentaries. There’s also the opportunity to try on the tunic of a suit of armour, leaving you shocked by the sheer weight of it on your body if not prepared. And then, behind the museum, rests Inverness Castle, casting an impressive figure over the river and the west of the city, regrettably not open to the general public, but still worth a visit for a walk around the grounds, whether to admire the statue of Flora MacDonald pointing off to the distance, or to get a great view over the Ness.
Heading down from the castle and along the river via Castle Walk (almost always, for any animal lovers, offering a great lookout for spotting rabbits along the slopes leading back up to the castle) soon leads you past the Faith, Hope and Charity statues, rescued from the demolition of their former drapery store site on High Street, and now resting outside Ness Bank Church, and onto the war memorial at Cavell Gardens and the start of the Islands walk, so-named for being a strip of land separated from the main riverbank via a bridge, a pleasant mini forest trail leading on to Whin Park, and containing features such as a serpentine wood carving modelled after the Loch Ness monster, and a stone circle for performances or dance (notably during the annual Halloween walk, which sees the trail used a space for a myriad spooky attractions, actors in an array of monster-themed costumes springing out to surprise people, and holiday-themed music filtering through the trees).
Back around on the other side of the river, with both sides of the bank, like much of the greater Inverness area, boasting beautiful old hotels and B & Bs (notably the Glen Mhor, Palace and Columba), the west side is home to Eden Court theatre, one example of more modern architecture that can actually be appealing to the eye without clashing with the surrounding buildings, and a venue for both theatre and cinema performances (with Disney’s ‘Frozen’, two ‘Hobbit’ films and ‘Under the Skin’ among the movies we’ve watched there). On up from the theatre sits Inverness Cathedral, resembling a minituare Notre Dame, its interior every bit as grand and inspiring as its façade- well worth a stop for a sense of quiet and peace, irrespective of personal faith.
Back in the centre, and other worthwhile attractions include the charming Victorian Market, accessed by its main entrance on Academy Street and by a series of side entrances, a gorgeous miniature labyrinth of niche and traditional shops and random little treasures and curiosities, Leakey’s second-hand bookshop, a library-sized treasure trove of hard-to-find tomes complete with its own sit-in café, and of course Falcon’s Square and Eastgate shopping centre, home to a particularly cosy Waterstones and, for me, the obligatory stop in HMV. Another nice coffee spot in the centre, meanwhile, is Coffee Affair on Church Street, whenever I fancy somewhere other than So Coco. And of the city’s nightspots, Hootananny, also on Church Street, is probably the most distinctive, its two floors and live music usually a good guarantee of an atmospheric night out.
Other pleasant features of the city centre include its series of ‘bouncy’ bridges connecting one side of the river from the other, nicknamed as such for the springy sensation while walking across them, along with the rich wildlife to be seen along the Ness and its banks, from rabbits to herons, and the succession of classy restaurants on offer around town, including my personal two favourites, Rajah, a basement-level Indian eatery on Post Office Avenue, serving probably the nicest lamb I’ve ever had outside of my late gran’s frequent lamb chop dinners for me and my brother when we were growing up, and Little Italy on Stephens Brae, a thoroughly charming, friendly little venue offering up truly delicious Italian dishes- sadly, they’ve recently closed their adjacent Tapas restaurant, but the main venue remains a delight to visit. On the same Brae, meanwhile, small comics and memorabilia shop Dynamic Duo goes some way to making up for the sad loss of Heroes For Sale on Church Street, one of the first shops I ever visited during my initial visit to the city. It’s nice to see another second-hand comics venue replace it, albeit on a reduced scale.
Outside the centre, Inverness, given its Highland location, is home to some truly stunning outdoor trails and walks, not least the imposing Craig Phadrig to the west, looming over the city and accessible via a gradual uphill walk through a series of suburbs across the river. Secluded, relaxing, and offering some great views back down over Inverness, it’s the perfect retreat into nature away from the already-peaceful city below. Meanwhile, Carnac Point offers a great view out to the Kessock Bridge and the sea beyond, and a nature reserve trail leads back from that vantage point towards the city centre.
But for my two favourite parts of Inverness, hands down, I have to elect the Crown area and the spectacular Beauly Firth. The former, the site of my friend’s family home, is neatly tucked away up Stephens Brae and around the corner, so as to almost feel like a remote, picturesque little village of its own, despite only being a minute’s walk from the centre. From the architecture of the old Midmills college, to the clocktower of Crown primary school, to the charm of the local Heathmount Hotel, the area, colloquially known as the Hill, is, in my opinion, the most beautiful residential part of Inverness (though I also have a personal fondness for the Haugh, and the gorgeous home of my friend’s aunt, the location of many lovely dinners and warm fires, and probably the cosiest front room I’ve ever been in, particularly in the run-up to Christmas).
The Firth, on the other hand, is natural beauty at its most extraordinary. The culmination of a canal walk up from the city centre, it’s an expansive, awe-inspiring body of water stretching as far as the eye can see, a spot that took my breath away the first time my friend brought me there, having expected nothing like it at the end of our walk. The best time to see it has to be at sunset in the early summer, the red and orange glow in the sky reflecting magically on the water beneath, and creating the illusion, briefly, of a lake of fire, reaching out to the horizon and beyond. It’s beyond beautiful.
The Firth and the Crown, then, sum up my overall impression of this enchanting city, the capital of the Highlands. Unexpected beauty, both natural and residential, hidden away out of obvious sight, awash with a buzz and glow both exciting and relaxing, and providing the perfect little refuge and escape whenever life elsewhere gets a little bit too much. Long may I continue spending time there. Long, long indeed.