Visiting the Isle of Iona for Families
Iona is a magical island surrounded by beautiful turquoise seas and plentiful beaches! Of course it has played an important part in history too, with Columba’s arrival on Iona and the building of Iona Abbey. Read on to find out the best places to go when visiting the Isle of Iona.
Getting to Iona
Getting to Iona is fairly easy. You simply need to book a ferry from the mainland to Mull. There are two options for this, either the Calmac Oban-Craignure route, which needs to be booked. Or you can go on the Calmac Lochaline-Fishnish route, which is not bookable and you just drive up and get on.
A car is recommended, although there is also a bus that can get you around Mull. Once you are on Mull drive to Fionnphort and park the car in the free public car park at the top of the village. Then walk down to the ferry pier to get on the next ferry! No cars are allowed on the island without a permit, so most visitors will need to walk. If you are disabled then there is the possibility of applying for a temporary permit to take the car across. It’s only a 10 minute trip across the sea to Iona.
Accommodation For Visiting the Isle of Iona
When you’re visiting the Isle of Iona you will find plenty of places to stay. We chose to stay at the Iona Pods, but there are plenty of other options available too! You can always visit Iona for the day, but you really won’t be getting the same experience as you can when staying a night or few!
We booked to stay in the Iona Pods at the Northern end of the island. The owners are very friendly and helpful and the pods are basic but cosy and just right for a family holiday.
Each pod has beds, a small table and chairs and a kitchen area consisting of a microwave, electric hob, cutlery, crockery and pans. Washing up can be done in the main building alongside washing machine and dryer. There is also a toilet block with toilets and showers for guests use. We made good use of our picnic bench outside too, good to keep the kids messy eating outdoors. I was also glad of the free WIFI so that I could keep up with work commitments too.
The pods have underfloor heating, which meant we were extremely cosy and warm each evening! Plus it’s only a 10 minute walk to the nearest beach!
St Columba Hotel
The St Columba Hotel is situated beside the abbey and has a combination of family, twin and single rooms. With 27 ensuite rooms available, there is plenty of space for guests. Included in the guest rates is a Scottish breakfast served in the dining room with beautiful views across the sea.
There is also a meditation within the hotel grounds which is free to use for guests.
The Argyll Hotel is the oldest Inn on Iona, dating back to the 1870’s. As it’s a little older none of the rooms are the same, although all but one has an ensuite bathroom (the one without has a private bathroom next door!).
You can choose from family rooms, double and single rooms, each including tea making facilities and hairdryers.
If you have visited Iona before you may well have noticed the green shed at the North of the island. This is Iona Hostel, which consists of several rooms, including 3 rooms that sleep 2 and a 10 person room. It’s a short walk across the machair to the closest beach, which is also one of the most beautiful!
You can also request a cot and high chair in the rooms, so ideal for couples with a young child too. Plus there’s free Wi-Fi!
There are several self catering properties spread across the island. Some of the properties will even pick you up from the ferry, which is very helpful if it’s a longer walk! You can check out the self catering properties available on Iona here.
Bed and Breakfast
There are a few B&B’s on the island, a good option for couple or those staying for one night. As with the self catering properties some are further away from the ferry and will offer pick up and drop off to the pier too. You can find the B&B options on Iona here.
There is one official campsite on Iona, this is located at the South end of the island, a 20 minute walk from the ferry. There are 3 toilets and 2 showers, seeping bags are also available for hire if required. You can also enjoy a barbecue at the firepit area and meet other travellers.
Camping on the machair (grasslands) is forbidden due to the machair’s fragile nature or in fields which are for cattle or crops. Wild camping is not recommended on Iona as there aren’t many places you are able to camp off the machair and not in view of other houses. If you can find a spot tucked away on the beach this may be suitable, but you need to bury your waste very deep in the sand. Also ensure that stoves do not cause a fire by using them on rocky outcrops on the beach instead.
When visiting the Isle of Iona you will find that it’s a small island and there are only a few places to eat out. In 2021 the Martyrs Bay Restaurant and Iona Heritage Tearoom were closed, but they may well be open again in future years.
It’s also possible to buy snacks, lunch items and ice cream at the Spar shop near the ferry pier.
The Argyll Hotel is nestled in the village overlooking the Sound of Iona. They have delicious lunch and dinner menu’s with a variety of local produce, including locally sourced seafood and hogget, lamb and beef from Iona itself.
You will need to book to guarantee a table!
St Columba Hotel
A short walk toward the abbey and you will find the St Columba Hotel. Like the Argyll Hotel they have a variety of locally sourced produce from Iona itself and Mull. Plus their very own St Columba Garden Gin!
There are tables available both inside and out in the garden. Again, booking is advised to guarantee a table.
Things To Do When Visiting The Isle of Iona
Iona may seem very small, but it actually has a wealth of things to do. Particularly for active kids who like to run, cycle and play on beaches! Read through the options below to get a flavour of the Isle of Iona!
The main attraction people visit Iona for is the abbey. Iona Abbey was founded by St Columba around 563 CE. St Columba’s Abbey would have been made mainly of wooden structures, the current abbey is a Benedictine abbey founded around 1200 by the sons of Somerled, the Kings of the Isles.
It’s certainly interesting to look around the abbey and read about what it would have been like in St Columba’s time. Even as a non-religious family we are still interested in the history.
There are a variety of beaches to choose from on Iona. The best sandy beaches are those in the North or the Bay at the Back of the Ocean, next to the golf course.
We really like the the North Western beach as it has some fantastic rocks from climbing and rock pooling as well as sand and turquoise oceans. But the North Eastern beach is very similar, although a little shorter in length. They can both be reached by the paths through the machair to the North of the island. There are also fantastic views across to the Treshnish Isles and Staffa from this end of the island.
At the Southern end of the island you will find St Columba’s Bay where it’s widely accepted that Columba first arrived on the island. This bay is filled with millions of perfectly rounded pebbles, which are a lot of fun to rake through finding interesting stones! Also try spotting Iona marble in amongst the pebbles. White rocks with green flecks of Serpentine.
There are smaller beaches along the Eastern coast, with one small but popular beach just South of the ferry pier. It’s lovely and sandy with rock pools too, but can get busy during the day on weekends and holidays.
You can bring your own bikes across to cycle along the roads on the island. We brought the kids bikes over as it can be hard going walking along tarmac roads. But you can also hire adult bikes from Iona Crafts just up from the Spar.
Cycling is not permitted on the machair grassland as you can damage the delicate ecosystems. However you can easily cycle along the roads across the island and leave the bikes at the roadside against a fence or wall off the road. Nobody will ever steal them, little islands are lovely like that!
Iona is the perfect island for walking! Just up from the pier there is a noticeboard with a map showing the walks on the island. We attempted most of them and the kids enjoyed getting around the island with different places to explore and discover.
One of the easiest walks is to the top of Dun I. This is the highest point on Iona and accessed by a small gate on the left in the field after the Iona Pods entrance. Follow the path up the hill to get an amazing view across the island and far beyond!
Other walks include across to the beaches to the North and to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. Walks across to the marble quarry and St Columba’s Bay. The kids favourite longer walk was to St Columba’s Bay, which was just over an hour walk from the pods at the North (kids went on bike until the gate at the golf course). It’s a nice walk over the moorland to the South and St Columba’s Bay is beautiful with all its rounded pebbles.
Another option is taking one of the boat trips offered from Iona. There is a sailing ship that looked amazing with boat trips around Iona called Alternative Boat Hire, alongside Staffa Tours and Staffa Trips who run trips out to Staffa and sometimes the Treshnish Isles too.
We’ve previously visited Staffa and the Treshnish Isles on other trips, so didn’t book this time. But if you haven’t been I would highly recommend the boat trips!
Shopping When Visiting the Isle of Iona
For such a small island there are plenty of shops! We even saw one child written sign with a box selling Iona marble that they had collected for 50p a piece. It was very sweet to see the beginnings of entrepreneurship!
Just up the road from the ferry pier is the Spar shop. This is the only little market shop on the island. Despite being fairly small in size, it’s well stocked and you can find an amazing amount of products! From fresh fruit, bread and bakery items, to tins, packets, meats and bathroom supplies. We had a few emergencies when we needed items such as suncream and plasters, fortunately they were able to be found in the shop!
You can also buy single ice creams from the freezer here too!
St Columba Larder
The tiny little shop of St Columba Larder is full of delicious organic produce and many Iona and Mull produced foods. There is also a small craft shop at the back of the shop where you can buy a variety of interesting craft pieces.
At the front there is also the possibility to buy sandwiches, soup, coffees, tea and baking.
The Iona post office is of course the place to go for postcards and to send any parcels and letters. However you can also buy a variety of hand knits, stationery and other gifts items in the shop part of the post office too.
The post office is along the first road on the right up from the ferry pier.
Just up from the Spar shop is the Iona Craft Shop. Outside you will see hire bikes (enquire inside about renting) and inside you will find a shop filled with beautiful items!
There are gorgeous hand knits and felted items and beautiful wools to buy and make your own items at home. There is plenty of stationery and art supplies, stunning prints and gifts, ceramics, plus various kids craft items and toys.
We loved everything in this shop, it’s definitely a good bet for finding a gift to take home with you!
The Aosdana gallery is situated in the Columba steadings which you pass along the road toward St Columba’s Hotel and the abbey.
The gallery is beautiful with stunning jewellery designs. Most of the designs are inspired by Iona and surrounding islands, including Staffa. You will find beautiful, original designs in silver, along with various Iona pebbles and marbles set into pendants.
Iona Community’s Welcome Centre Shop
Across from the Abbey is the Iona Community’s Welcome Centre Shop. Here you can find a variety of literature, including the Iona Abbey Worship Book, Scottish history books and kids books.
You will also find lots of gift items including clothing, hats and gloves, trinkets, Celtic jewellery and maps. Definitely worth having a browse through all the items on display!
Iona Gallery and Pottery
The little Iona Gallery and Pottery is just past the Welcome Centre Shop on the left. I only saw it open once when we walked past during our week stay, but I believe you can contact them to find out opening times.
Online you can also buy prints and the Iona artists calendar, which looks beautiful!
Oran Creative Crafts
Oran Creative Crafts is beside Aosdana in the converted St Columba steadings. This is a craft workers cooperative producing a range of gifts. You can find cards, candles, prints, weavings, knitting, crochet and fused glass.
There are quite a few smaller inexpensive pieces here that might be fun for kids too.
Finley Ross Ltd
The Finley Ross Ltd shop at Martyrs Bay advertised opening hours of between 2-4pm. We never actually passed the shop at this time so didn’t manage to visit. It does appear to have lots of lovely gift items, including plenty of puffin themed products to buy.
Iona Abbey Shop
The Iona Abbey shop can only be accessed by paying to visit the Historic Scotland Abbey. There are various Iona and abbey related gifts in the shop.
If you have Historic Scotland membership you can book tickets for free. Worth buying membership if you are visiting several places around Scotland, including the more expensive sites of Edinburgh and Stirling. You can also get discounted entry with English Heritage, Manx or Cadw, and free entry for renewals of these.