These awe-inspiring islands should be added to every traveler’s bucket list.
From the grand Scottish peaks of Arran down to the wind-whipped Scilly Isles off Cornwall’s Atlantic coast, there are a huge variety of unique landscapes and curious histories dotting the islands of the United Kingdom. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that around 6,000 islands rest along the UK’s coastline, many of which offer a different pace change to the busy mainland. Here are a few of the best islands to explore the next time you’re in the United Kingdom.
Top Picks for You
Thanks to its high northern mountains giving way to gentler slopes further south, the Isle of Arran is often called “Scotland in miniature.” It’s a cutesy name, but Arran boasts remarkable scenery that’s more accessible than Scotland’s better-known islands, taking less than an hour to reach from the mainland by ferry.
A great way to explore Arran’s nature is the 3-hour Glen Rosa walk, an easy-going hike amid rising foothills that amble by gushing waterfalls and dense forest. For something a little more relaxing, the Arran Distillery is currently producing some of the country’s finest scotch whisky expressions, and their tours are friendly, fascinating, and finish off with a few tasty samples.
Isles of Scilly
Cornwall’s famous Land’s End sign denotes England’s most western point and one of Britain’s most far-flung locations, but the sign also points towards the Scilly Isles, 28 miles into the distance across the Atlantic. There are 140 of these scattered islands, of which five are inhabited, and life here rolls on at its own languid pace.
With little traffic, no crowded supermarkets, and not a commercial hotel in sight, Scilly is a perfect escape from the mainland and boasts a host of golden beaches that can compete with any on the shores of nearby Cornwall.
Isle of Lundy
Britain’s first self-declared micronation from 1925–1969, Lundy is a 3-mile-long island off the coast of Devon that’s had a surprisingly turbulent history despite its diminutive size. The largest island in the Bristol Channel, it’s a windswept rocky place often shrouded in fog and a natural haven where puffins outnumber humans 15:1. In fact, in 2010, Lundy became Britain’s first Marine Conservation Zone, and its variety of marine habitats include rare seaweeds, sponges, and corals (though a dive beneath the water’s surface also reveals a smattering of historic shipwrecks).
Continuing up the coast and into Wales, Skomer Island sits off Pembrokeshire and is best known for its large wildlife and breeding seabird population. Some of the species that visit the island throughout the year include Manx shearwaters, dolphins, seals, razorbills, guillemots, and oystercatchers.
With bright bluebells and pink campion blanketing most of the island, spring is a particularly colorful time of year to explore Skomer’s sheltered bays, exposed headlands, and shaded inlets. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the Skomer Vole, a unique subspecies of bank vole that’s endemic to Skomer.
The Shetland Islands are the United Kingdom’s most northern outpost and sit at the same latitude as Bergen in Norway and even further north than Sweden’s capital Stockholm. A wind-blasted subarctic archipelago, these Scottish islands actually belonged to Denmark until 1469 when Princess Margaret of Denmark married James III of Scotland.
These days, Shetland’s natural landscape teems with wildlife, and its 900 miles of dramatic coastline offers a huge amount of hiking and cycling opportunities. Summer is perfect for this, as you’ll also experience what locals call the “simmer dim”–an ethereal northern twilight where the sun never truly sets.
WHERE: Channel Islands
The northernmost island of the Channel Islands is actually closer to France than to British Jersey or Guernsey. Sitting just 10km from the La Hague peninsula in Normandy, Alderney is small in size (just three-square miles) but is dotted by Victorian forts, all constructed to dissuade the French from attacking.
Its history goes back further, though, with Roman ruins and the remnants of a fort built for Henry VIII. However, its compact size and blue sandy shores mean that cycling and hiking are the best ways to admire Alderney, especially from the lush surroundings of Fermain Bay.
Holy Island (Lindisfarne)
A mysterious and spiritual island off the Northumberland coast in northern England, Lindisfarne was an early center of Celtic Christianity when its monastery was founded around 634 by Irish monk Saint Aidan. The following century in 793, a devastating Viking raid on Lindisfarne rocked the Christian world and became regarded as the start of the Viking Age.
The ruins of the 11th-century priory still exist and can be visited, but sadly nothing remains of the original 7th-century priory. Perched up high on a rocky outcrop, Lindisfarne Castle dominates the scenery on the island, and timing a visit to Lindisfarne at sunrise or sunset can produce some remarkable photography opportunities.
St. Michael’s Mount
A spectacular cousin to the even more spectacular Mont-Saint-Michel in France, St. Michael’s Mount is a Cornish tidal island crowned by a Medieval church and castle. The island is linked to the small town of Marazion by a causeway of granite setts and has been run by the National Trust since 1954.
One unique feature is the subtropical terraced gardens that cling to the granite cliff face, with the castle towering steeply above. Rows of rosemary, lavender, and Lampranthus tumble down the terraces, where the gardens then offer widescreen views of Mount’s Bay and the Lizard.
Brownsea Island is the largest of Poole Harbour’s islands and one of the few places in southern England where indigenous red squirrels survive, largely because non-native grey squirrels were never introduced. Brownsea Island’s habitats also include cinematic heathland, lush woodlands, and a vast lagoon that’s important for overwintering and summer-nesting birds.
The island is also historically significant as the epicenter of the Scout movement when Robert Baden-Powell–a Lieutenant General in the British Army–held the inaugural Scouting encampment on Brownsea in 1907.
With the jagged peaks of the Cuillin mountains dominating the landscape, the Scottish island of Skye has some of the UK’s most dramatic scenery. A smorgasbord of ethereal moors, deep lochs, and towering cliffs, Skye attracts many visitors during the summer months and is perhaps best seen during the shoulder seasons.
From hiking to the iconic Old Man of Storr to sampling single malt whiskies at Talisker (the only distillery on Skye), there are many activities to lose yourself in. But don’t fret if you can’t fit in everything; this spot will keep you coming back for more.
WHERE: Northern Ireland
Despite being visible from the Northern Irish coast, just 150 people live on Rathlin Island. This tranquility draws visitors by ferry to a serene spot just six miles long and one mile wide.
Formed of a dog-leg L-shape, Rathlin Island has a unique appearance which is why it’s home to three different lighthouses, including the distinct West Lighthouse—Northern Ireland’s only upside-down lighthouse. And perhaps that strange shape is also why there are over 40 shipwrecks submerged beneath its wild coast.
Wales’ largest island was once called “Mother of Wales,” and its 125-mile coast is a gorgeous collection of sweeping sand dunes, quiet coves, and soaring cliffs. The Anglesey Coast Path passes flower-dotted heathland, mud flats busy with birds, and some of the UK’s finest beaches.
Through the bucolic calm of Newborough Forest lies the buttery golden arc of Llanddwyn Beach and its beautiful views of Snowdonia’s jagged outline and the hazy Llŷn peninsula. Further north is a more curious attraction: the infamous village and train station with the ultra-long name of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll.