The Out About Scotland complete guide to John o’ Groats on the north-east coast
Category: Landmark, Walk or cycle route
Suitable for ages: 5 to 10 years, 11 to 18 years, 18+ years, 65+ years
Ideal for: Couples, Families, Groups, Solo travellers
I rate it: 7 out of 10
About John o’ Groats
I think it’s fair to say that most people have heard of John o’ Groats, the northern-most point of the UK mainland with its iconic signpost overlooking the harbour, that like its twin at Lands End offers more photo opportunities than you can poke a selfie stick at.
This is a tourist attraction that’s been a favourite destination for road-trippers for many years but it exploded in popularity in 2015 when the North Coast 500 route was launched by the tourist board of the North Highland Initiative.
Since then it’s been heavily advertised as a major stopping-off point of the NC500 and each year tens of thousands of hikers, cyclists, bikers and drivers come to the site to stand on the raised platform looking out over the north sea with the isles of Orkney and Stroma forming a backdrop against the signpost that points towards Edinburgh (273 miles), Orkney (8 miles), Lands End (847 miles) and New York (a mere 3230 miles).
But is it worth visiting just to get a photo of a sticker-covered signpost? Well I’d have to say yes it is, but don’t go expecting to spend an entire day at the visitor centre. Instead, I suggest you get out and explore the Caithness coastline which is one of the nicest in Scotland (and much more photogenic than a pole stuck in the ground).
John o’ Groats is an attraction that’s been created around a single feature – the northern-most point of Britain – but if you delve a little deeper you’ll find lots of wildlife, dramatic views, and several really good walks in addition to the over-priced coffees and tourist-trap plastic mementoes.
There are actually two parts to John o’ Groats. The first is the village that’s slightly inland and is officially the most northern inhabited settlement in mainland Britain, and the second is the End of the Road harbour area where you’ll find the shops and cafes.
While there isn’t a huge amount to see in the village (unless you need a post office or want to stock up on eggs from the grocery store) you’ll find a few things to do in the harbour area where there’s an art gallery, a snack van, a couple of places to eat and a gift shop with all the Scottish-themed t-shirts, pens and tea-towels you could ever wish for.
Nearby you’ll find a tourist information point where you’ll be able to pick up a map of the area (useful for exploring the coastal walks on offer) and the brightly coloured lodges of the John o’ Groats Inn that’s been restored as part of a multi-million-pound regeneration of the area.
And of course, standing proudly in the middle of all this is the gleaming-white signpost, proudly displaying sites around the world with their distances to the most northern point of Britain. It’s just a shame then that the most northerly point is actually a bit further round the coast at Dunnet Head…
Still, if you’re in this part of Scotland I think you’ll enjoy a visit to John o’ Groats, and you’ll get plenty of opportunities to update your Instagram and Facebook photos as well.
Things to do at John o’ Groats
As already mentioned I wouldn’t bother visiting the village unless you need some shopping but the visitor centre should keep you occupied for a couple of hours at least.
Bonus points go to the owners of the site for offering free car parking (unlike its southern counterpart at Lands End) and free photos of the signpost (again, unlike Lands End) so you could just stop there for a photo before racing off to do the rest of the NC500 if you like, but that would mean missing out on the best bits of the attraction.
First off there’s an octagonal-shaped gift shop that was designed in commemoration of the man that the place is named after – Jan de Groot.
Originally from Holland, Jan de Groot settled in this part of Scotland in the 1400s where he ran a successful ferry business carrying people and livestock from the mainland to Orkney.
As his family grew his seven sons began fighting over who should become the next head of the family, so in a clever attempt to stop the in-fighting he built an octagonal house with eight doors and an eight-sided table.
The story goes that each son would enter the house via his own door and take a seat at the octagonal table – which meant none of them could ever be head of the table.
It’s not by coincidence that the gift shop is also octagonal as it’s located close to the John o’ Groats House Hotel that’s believed to be the original location of the de Groot family home, although it now provides modern luxury lodging with panoramic window views across to the isles of Stroma and Orkney.
In a way, the de Groot family business continues to this day because you can still catch a ferry to the Orkney islands from the harbour – although I’m guessing the modern diesel engine ferry crossing of 40 minutes is considerably faster than Jan de Groot’s wind-powered vessel.
If you’re not intending to take the ferry then one recommendation I’ve got for you is to pop inside the John o’ Groats Gallery and take a look at the arts and crafts made by local artists. Some of the pieces in there are lovely and would make a great memento of your time in this part of Scotland, especially the locally-sourced wood carvings.
There’s a decent cafe in the visitor centre that’s got outside seating and there’s another coffee shop and a snack van towards the harbour if you’re feeling peckish – which you will be after enjoying a walk along the coast.
There are rough footpaths heading both east and west but I think the best choice is to head west towards the Duncansby Stacks. It’s an easy walk that takes you across rolling fields of wildflowers to Duncansby Head with its old lighthouse and impressive gorge that has vertical cliffs down to the crashing waves over a hundred feet below.
You might be lucky enough to see nesting Atlantic puffin’s during their May-July breeding season but you’ll be able to see guillemots, razorbills and fulmars throughout the year as well as grey seals, sea otters and even the occasional orca.
The coastline is stunning around John o’ Groats so I’d make it your main priority, with the famous signpost relegated to just one last thing to see after an epic walk.
What I liked about this attraction
- It’s an iconic attraction that doesn’t have to cost a penny
- John o’ Groats makes for a great destination to get a ferry to Orkney and there’s a lot to see while you wait
- The wildlife and scenery around this part of Scotland are fantatsic
My top tips
- Take a walk to Duncansby Head while you’re at John o’ Groats. My Complete Guide to Duncansby Head will help you
- The signpost is horrendously busy at midday so it’s really difficult to get a photo of it. Try again early morning or early evening
- Want to look for orcas? Head to Duncansby lighthouse as it offers elevated views of the sea from the car park
Address and map
Prices and opening times
John o’ Groats is accessible 24/7, 365 days a year.
There is no charge to visit John o’ Groats
- Telephone: NA
- email: John o’ Groats official website contact form
- Website: John o’ Groats official website
Getting there: Car park on-site
Getting around: Disabled access, Easy-access paths, Pushchair access
On-site conveniences: Gift shop, Hot drinks, Picnic area, Restaurant or cafe, Snacks, Toilets
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