Oban or Fort William?
In planning a tour of the West Highland seaboard of Scotland, most visitors are faced with the Oban or Fort William question. Which one makes the better base for exploring the area?
Both are quite substantial communities (for that lightly-populated part of Scotland). Both are sited by salt water. Both have a wide range of accommodation and things to do in and around the towns. The two places lie only 44 miles / 70 km apart by road and there is public transport. Railways and buses serve both. A cycleway (mostly) also links them. So whichever one you choose you can certainly see both places. If you are driving or touring you can also easily take the longer route between them that takes in Rannoch Moor and Glencoe and goes via Tyndrum.
Is either Oban or Fort William worth visiting?
For most tourers on a fairly usual route, notably the standard quick circular tour of Scotland - Edinburgh-Inverness-Great Glen-Glencoe etc - see that link - then Fort William lies on the itinerary anyway, at the lower end of the Great Glen. (The Great Glen is the diagonal valley running coast to coast with Inverness at the top and Fort William at the foot.) Fort William could be described as unavoidable for road tourers in the West Highlands. It’s a natural route centre.
Oban, on the other hand, is more of a gateway than a route centre. For long its role has been that of a vital ferry hub for island connections. For road travellers on a Highland tour, simply turning north at Tyndrum means you can miss Oban altogether.
So in deciding to visit either Oban or Fort William, your itinerary could bypass Oban but will be hard-pressed to avoid Fort William if you are intending to do any kind of Highland exploration.
Oban and Fort William as touring bases
Pull out the map in your sea-front hotel in Oban and you’ll see beguiling invitations in and around the place to take in Seil and the Slate Islands, Dunstaffnage Castle, Dunollie Castle, the Sea Life Centre, the local museum (Oban was an important seaplane base in WWII), the local distillery, plus a variety of fine gardens and the prehistory of Kilmartin Glen - or a dozen other things from forest walks to a former 18th-century iron-smelting site. And that’s before you’ve even started considering day trips to the islands or seal cruises or longer ventures out to the islands of the west.
Do the same with that map in your Fort William Hotel and you’ll see straight away that the place screams ‘Scotland’s Outdoor Capital’ at you. It’s in the shadow of Ben Nevis (and all that…) and as one of the wettest places in Scotland it’s a brilliant piece of branding. It’s got an all-year ski and mountain bike centre just a few miles away. The West Highland Museum in the town is interesting, as is ‘Treasures of the Earth’, a gem rock museum. (Well, more interesting than it at first sounds, anyway…)The Caledonian Canal’s big set of locks at Corpach - ‘Neptune's Staircase’ - is also interesting (there’s that word again) and further afield there are all the delights of the road to Mallaig. This route through fine Highland scenery is often labelled ‘The Road to the Isles’ and is where - for example - visitors used to stop off at Glenfinnan for the association with Bonnie Prince Charlie. Now the majority stop off for the association of the Glenfinnan Viaduct with the Harry Potter movies.
So both places have plenty of diversions and points of interest. Fort William has rugged scenery really close by. Oban probably gets better sunsets and has a more salty sea-going air.
Oban or Fort William - as towns to visit?
Both places are heaving with visitors in the main season. Fort William because you can’t avoid it and Oban because it’s a traditional resort and also where folk make their ferry connections to the Scottish islands. Oban has a fine promenade and a sense of bustle. We have a separate page on the story of Oban with lots of pictures. It’s a nice place to stroll around. Walk out as far as Dunollie Castle in one direction. Stroll around the ferry pier to watch the ships come and go - and enjoy a beer , a seafood sandwich or fish and chips. It’s that sort of a place.
In Fort William centre there is one long pedestrian-friendly street. There is no sense of connection with the sea (Loch Linnhe) because, historically, the railway cut the town off from the water. When the station was re-sited in 1975, a little way towards the edge of town, a road bypass was built between the town and Loch Linnhe.
So, while downtown Oban looks out across the water, downtown Fort William turns its back to it.
Perhaps as a consequence, whereas Oban has a sense of something going on, Fort William has, well, a long straight shopping street with visitors wandering aimlessly up and down.
That’s just how the two places developed. However, at least Fort William has the mountain of Ben Nevis at its back.
All right - enough - just tell me - Fort William or Oban - where should I stay?
If you are a keen hill-walker, climber, skier, mountain biker, marathon runner or terribly, terribly outdoorsy in any of these ways, then you will be attracted to the landscapes and facilities of the Fort William area. If you are less inclined to strenuous pursuits though, then something like the Jacobite Steam Train (which connects Fort William and Mallaig) may still also appeal. Repeat, Fort William has a good choice of things to see nearby if you make it a touring base.
The problem is that the actual town itself is a bit dreich. There’s that good Scots word to describe everything from the weather to the experience of aimlessly wandering up and down in work-a-day Fort William with not a huge amount to see right there within the town. Oh, sure, there are shops, oh, and a dog-friendly pub called the Dog and Drool. No, wait, it’s really called the Grog and Gruel.
So what about Oban?
On the other hand, Oban seems positively go-ahead and vibrant by comparison. Perhaps it’s the sea air. Or perhaps it’s the seafood. It exceeds Fort William for shopping choice. And places to eat and drink. (Oban’s dog friendly pub is The Lorne.) OK, it hasn’t got a big mountain in its back garden - but it’s got islands on its horizon and, paradoxically, always feels more, well, Scottish, somehow.
So, personally, it’s Oban every time for us. Besides, from a touring point of view, you can take in somewhere like, say, the Ice Factor at Kinlochleven or even dramatic Glencoe just as easily from Oban as you can from (slightly nearer) Fort William. Unless you need to climb Ben Nevis with an early start (or far that matter any of the other mighty hills of Lochaber); or unless you are on such a tight schedule that you have to miss Oban anyway - only under this kind of circumstance would a stay in Fort William be better than a stay in Oban.
But here’s something else to think of, accommodation-wise…
Both towns have excellent accommodation choice in the hinterland: really top flight places like Inverlochy Castle near Fort William or Isle of Eriska Hotel, Spa & Golf near Oban; or more mid-range but excellent venues such as the Holly Tree Hotel at Kentallen (between the two towns) or the Glenfinnan House Hotel west of Fort William. Choosing this kind of base means you have the benefits of a rural location though easy access to town facilities by way of shops and so on. Similarly, both Oban and Fort William have good self-catering choice in and around.
In any case you could argue that it doesn’t really matter which of the two you choose as you probably will be spending time outside them, taking in all the Highland scenic and activity stuff - especially the ‘Road to the Isles’ running west from Fort William.
I’d still choose Oban though...