Isle of Man travel guide: places to visit, where to stay, walks and wildlife

Two hundred and twenty one square miles of stunning landscapes, spectacular wildlife, scenic drives, old fashioned steam railways and centuries of history to explore

White fishermans cottage on a coast

The Isle of Man is a land of green glens, purple mountains and rugged shores, where ancient tales are still told. Wildlife, historical sites and cosy fishing villages abound on this humble island in the Irish sea.

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How do you get there? Where are the best places to stay and to eat? What are the best walks? Discover the answers to all these questions and more with our travel guide to the Isle of Man.

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Wander through moss-cloaked woodlands near the coastal town of Peel on the Isle of Man
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Your essential guide to visiting the Isle of Man, including how to get there, what to do and where to stay.

Where is the Isle of Man?

Set in the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man is almost equidistant from the coasts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Legend has it that we owe its position to Irish giant Finn Mac Cuill. He’s said to have hurled a handful of earth at a rival giant over in Scotland. The earth fell rather short of the intended target, dropping into the Irish Sea to form the island we see today. It must have been a big handful – for the island is 33 miles long and 13 miles wide.

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Legend and folklore on the Isle of Man

Even now, visitors soon discover that folk tales and superstitions abound on Man. As you approach the capital Douglas from the airport, remember to say ‘hello’ to the little people when crossing the Fairy Bridge, or your trip might not go as planned. Oh, and watch out for Moddey Dhoo, a black hound that reputedly haunts Peel Castle…

Another of the island’s legends gives the Isle of Man its name. The standard explanation is that it comes from the Manx Gaelic name for the island – Ellan Vannin – which translates as ‘The Island of Man’. However, the locals know it really comes from the ancient Irish sea god Manannan Mac Lir. It is said the heavy mist that sometimes covers the island is his cloak, protecting the land from invaders.


Vikings on the Isle of Man

Heather blooms on the Isle of Man
The first Vikings appeared on the Isle of Man at the end of the eighth century
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It’s a moot point whether the mist worked. Though it’s not known whether the Romans ever landed, the Irish certainly did, making the short hop across the water sometime in the seventh century – as so many do now. The first Vikings appeared at the end of the eighth century, and Man fell under Viking control in 1079. The island passed to the Scottish crown in 1266 and then to the British crown in 1764 – but it was never fully incorporated.


Is the Isle of Man part of Britain?

Sunset from a coastal cave
Enjoy a slow sunset at Glen Maye, looking west across the Irish Sea

To this day, the Isle of Man isn’t part of the United Kingdom or the European Union, but is a Crown Dependency – a self-governing possession of the British Crown, like Jersey and Guernsey.

Despite not being part of the UK, there’s a familiar feel to the place. The islanders drive on the left side of the road; there are British-looking buses, and the road signs and traffic lights are the same as on the mainland.

But there is one major difference. The pace of life on the Isle of Man is calmer, more laid back. There’s no need to rush here, as it takes under an hour to get pretty much anywhere on the island. Another difference is the prevalence of the Manx language, albeit more in the written form. A legacy of the early Irish settlers, Manx has its origins in Gaelic and is an important part of the island’s Celtic culture and heritage.

The only invaders these days are the thousands of tourists who make the crossing to experience the island’s unique charm and atmosphere. And the couple of bikes that pop over, too. (Up to 15,000 bike owners bring their machines over to the island for the TT).


Walking on the Isle of Man

Bradda, Isle of Man
Looking toward Bradda along the coastal path between Port Erin and the Sound in the south of the Isle of Man
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Most of the tourists who visit the Isle of Man are here for the walking. Despite being only around a third of the area of Greater London, the Isle of Man boasts possibly the most varied and exciting walking anywhere within the British Isles. With more than 40 percent of the island uninhabited, there’s plenty of space to feel at one with the great outdoors.

It’s often said that Man is like the British Isles in miniature. Imagine the craggy, gnarled cliffs of the north Cornwall coast, the undulating hills of the Peak District and the sandy beaches of south-east England in one compact package, and you’re there. Add one mountain that wouldn’t be out of place in North Wales or Scotland, and that’s the Isle of Man.

The mountain is Snaefell – which is old Norse for ‘snow hill’. With a height of 620m (2,034ft) it’s mid-table in comparison to Wainwright’s Cumbrian fells; but no Wainwright walk can offer the view from the top. On a clear day, you can see England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The summit is certainly walkable, but in common with Snowdon, most visitors travel to the top using the Snaefell Mountain Railway, which has been commuting up and down since 1895. Snaefell rises up from the central belt of the island, along with 10 of the island’s 12 highest peaks. If you’re happy walking Haystacks and Hartsop Dodd in the Lake District, this area is for you.

Mountain view on the Isle of Man
View from Snaefell on the Isle of Man
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The there’s the Millennium Way, one of four long-distance footpaths on the island. It travels for 26 miles through the central belt, passing peaks such as Carragham, Beinn-y-Phott and the side of Snaefell on its way from north to south.

One of the other long-distance footpaths is perfect for lovers of the sea – the Manx Coastal Path, known as the Raad ny Foillan, or The Way of the Gull. Devised in 1986, the path hugs the shoreline and comprises 95 miles of beaches, harbours, hills and cliffs. And of course the walk can be broken into sections easily accessible at both ends by public transport.

One of the very best walks on the island is along the coast from Port St Mary to Port Erin. Walk this and you’ll be rewarded with sheer cliffs, spectacular scenery and water wildlife aplenty. Traversing over land with names like Spanish Head and Burroo Ned, the walk passes by the excellent Sound Visitor Centre and Restaurant for a stop en route. It’s not the shortest, at just over five miles, and in some sections there are some challenging rises and falls, but it is waymarked along the length as it’s part of the Manx Coastal Walk – and it has a steam train ride back to the start! (Regular Isle of Man Steam Railway services start in mid-March).

Fishing village on the Isle of Man
Port St Mary is a good place to stock up on supplies before walking a stretch of the coast path
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What is the weather like on the Isle of Man?

The Isle of Man has a bit of a reputation for being wet – and you don’t get a landscape this lush without rain – but the amount can vary across the island. There is less rainfall in the north and along the south coast, but plenty along the central hilly sections, and the heights of Snaefell are often engulfed with cloud. If you’re used to the Lakes, you’ll know what to expect. What isn’t well known is that the island often hosts several different micro-climates at same time. So if it’s raining around Peel, simply drive across to Ramsey and you could well be bathed in sunshine.


Wildlife on the Isle of Man

Sunfish swimming in the sea
Join a boat tour for a chance at spotting the elusive sunfish
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The Isle of Man is home to a wealth of wildlife, some of the most spectacular species of which live in the coastal waters around the island. Of the west coast there are soaring underwater cliffs cleft with deep, dark gullies; vast kelp forests anchored to the seabed with dragon-fist holdfasts; craterous rocky reefs; horse-mussel beds and meadows of lustrous seagrass. These habitats support conger eels, starfish, lobsters, minke whales, dolphins, octopuses, porpoises and seals all thrive in these fertile waters.

Look out too for the slategrey bodies of sunfish bathing on the surface and their shark-like dorsal fins. Mola mola are the heaviest bony fish in the world; the largest ever recorded was as tall as a double-decker bus.

The Isle of Man is perhaps best known for its basking sharks. Mouths agape and gills billowing, these giants can be seen on boat tours from Peel and a number of other destinations. These zooplankton-feeding sharks can reach up to 12m in length and weigh over six tonnes. They’re the second largest fish in the world.


Things to do on the Isle of Man

Romantic railways

A passengers' view from the window of the Manx railway steam train between Douglas and the south of the island, Port Erin.
A passengers’ view from the window of the Manx railway steam train between Douglas and the south of the island, Port Erin.
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There are plenty of attractions other than the landscapes and nature. Around the coast from the Calf (the tiny island off Man’s southern tip) is the terminus to the Isle of Man Steam Railway at Port Erin. From here is one of the best scenic rail journeys in the world. Using original rolling stock and locomotives, the 15-mile trip steams from the west to the modern capital Douglas. En route, a stop at the former Manx capital of Castletown to see the splendidly preserved medieval castle. Transfer across Douglas to the Manx Electric Railway, and Laxey is the stop for the Isle of Man’s most iconic sight – The Lady Isabella – otherwise known as the Laxey Wheel.

The Manx Glens

Lush glen on the Isle of Man
Glen Maye is one of 18 National Glens on the Isle of Man
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On a bright spring morning, or a sultry summer’s day, it’s worth exploring one of the Isle of Man’s 18 National Glens. These deep green valleys plunge from hill to coast, winding through waterfalls, caves and rock pools, all kept in a semi-natural state by the Manx Government. Many first became tourist attractions in the Victorian era. Glen Groudle, for example, once boasted a small zoo, dancefloor and bandstand. Other notable glens include Glen Helen, with stately trees; Glen Maye, with lush green plant life; and the steep Dhoon Glen, with 190 steps, and a 40m waterfall. visitisleofman.com

Basking shark tours

Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus)
Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus)
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Basking sharks can strain up to 2,000 tonnes of water per hour. These zooplankton-feeding sharks can reach up to 12m in length and weigh over six tonnes. They’re the second largest fish in the world. Witness them in action on a Manx Sea Life Safari boat trip from Peel on the Isle of Man’s west coast. manxsealifesafari.com

The National Folk Museum, Cregneash

Panoramic view of cottages, Cregnesh, Isle of Man, British Isles
Visit the old crofting cottages at Cregnesh
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If you are only on the island for a day, head to the south-west to visit The National Folk Museum at Cregneash. It shows what life was like in a 19th-century Manx crofting community, with demonstrations of traditional farming, wool dying, weaving, blacksmithing and more. manxnationalheritage.cregneash

The House of Manannan, Peel

Coastal town on the Isle of Man
Peel sits on the west coast of the Isle of Man
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When the weather is wet, The House of Manannan in Peel is hard to beat. Using state of the art displays, the centre explores the island’s Celtic, Viking and maritime heritage and traditions. The building itself is based on Manx vernacular architecture. There’s enough here to captivate all ages. visitisleofman.com/house-of-manannan


Where to stay

The Arches

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The Arches is a B&B, yes… but that’s like saying a Ferrari is a car. It’s a five-star boutique experience with spa baths and a heated indoor swimming pool – perfect after a long walk or exploring session.

Ballachrink Farm

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On a farm with uninterrupted views to Barrule and Snaefell, Ballachrink is a peaceful and spacious farmhouse. It’s a great base for the north of the island, with excellent walking and birdwatching.


Where to eat

A Manx Kipper curer
A Manx Kipper curer holds a rack of oak smoke herrings – in the Isle of Man, they are often eaten for breakfast
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14North, Douglas

14 North
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Located in a 19th-century former timber merchant’s house, this is a family-run restaurant dedicated to showcasing the finest produce of Manx farmers, fisherman and artisans.

The Swiss House, St Johns

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The Swiss House certainly looks different. Inside, the delicious food is cooked on a charcoal grill. Located in the stunning surroundings of Glen Helen, with Rhenass waterfall close by.

Fish and Chips, Peel

Quayside Fish and Chip Takeaway
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Once bought, it’s a quick walk to the top of the harbour to sit and eat your fish and chips while watching the boats.

Manx Kippers, Peel

They have been the island’s delicacy since around the 1870s, and once smokehouses could be found all around the island. Today, the two remaining curers are based in Peel – the spiritual home of the kipper. Many restaurants on the island serve them, too. Or you can have them posted to you direct – order from manxkippers.com


Getting There

You can fly from more than 20 airports across the UK, and you can hire a car from the airport at Ronaldsway or use the extensive public transport network.

If you go by ferry, you can tour the Isle of Man in your own car. The Steam Packet Company operates services to Douglas from Heysham in Lancashire, Liverpool, Dublin and Belfast. The journey from Liverpool takes around 3½ hours. Fares vary.

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Contrary to popular belief, there’s no ban on caravans on the Isle of Man, although you do have to apply for a permit from the Island’s Department of Local Government and the Environment with details of your stay.