WHETHER you arrive by ferry or by air, Stornoway’s panoramic natural harbour takes your breath away, just as it must have done for the Vikings who sailed in more than 1000 years ago.

But there’s so much more to the Hebridean capital than just great views. Indeed, this bustling port on the Isle of Lewis has a thriving arts, culture and food scene that puts many bigger mainland towns to shame.

It’s also a place to soak up Gaelic hospitality, history and tradition, while appreciating the ever-changing terrains of this magical, wind-swept isle.

Historical Highlights

Known as Stjórnavágr, or “steering bay” in Old Norse, Stornoway was founded by the Vikings in the early 9th century, people have inhabited Lewis for around 5000 years.

The main street, Cromwell Street, is named for Oliver Cromwell, whose forces fought to take control of the town in 1653.

Owned by the Mackenzies of Seaforth for more than 200 years, Lewis was sold to Sir James Matheson for £190,000 in 1844. The new laird built Lews Castle, which still overlooks the bay, as well as many of the island’s roads and schools.

With its sheltered harbour and strategic location, Stornoway played a key role in both world wars. On New Year’s Day 1919, HMY Iolaire – Gaelic for eagle – sank in the harbour, killing at least 205 men returning home from the First World War.

Oban guide

According to the 2011 census, 43 per cent of residents in greater Stornoway speak Gaelic. More than 8,000 people now live in the town, employed mainly in the tourism, textile, seafood and offshore industries.

Things to do

First things first, get your bearings with a jaunt around the harbour. You’ll see boats of all shapes and sizes, from the huge CalMac ferry - Loch Seaforth - that transports locals and visitors to and from Ullapool, to fishing boats, lifeboats and pleasure crafts that populate the various piers and marinas. The Sail Stornoway festival takes place every July, attracting hundreds of boats from all over Scotland and beyond.

As you take in the sights and smells of the seafront there are plenty of places to stop for coffee, snacks or fish and chips. It’s also worth walking up to the headland at the Holm Point end, where the poignant memorial to the Iolaire disaster stands.

The walk along the seafront also takes you straight to An Lanntair (lanntair.com), the arts, culture and community hub that opened in 2005. A theatre, cinema, live music venue, art gallery, dance studio and more, it also has a fantastic café bar and shop, and with a full programme of events and exhibitions all year round, there’s always something to see. Forthcoming highlights include the Dark Skies Festival, in February 2019, which features an eclectic mix of music, visual art and science.

Oban guide

It's also well worth popping into the Town Hall to see the newly-installed Harris Tweed Story, told by the authority (www.harristweed.org) that certifies the world-renowned fabric with its famous orb. Looms take centre stage alongside different types of products and a visual and audio guide that helps explain what makes the tweed, which can only be woven on Harris or Lewis, so special.

Lews Castle (lews-castle.co.uk) deserves a whole day of your time. Home to the excellent Museum nan Eilean and some of the mysterious Lewis Chessmen, it has a full programme of exhibitions reflecting island life and history, including the current one, which focuses on the Iolaire. The stunning grounds, meanwhile, make for wonderful walking no matter the season, with the trees – a rarity on the island – providing welcome shelter from the wind. If you’re feeling lazy, a guided Segway tour (segwayhebrides.com) is the ideal way to whizz around. There’s a great café, too, which has “the best scones in Stornoway”, according to Jan Patience.

It’s worth remembering that many people on Lewis are very religious and consider Sunday to be a special day of the week. Most commercial activity stops, and the vast majority of businesses are closed, though ferries and flights now operate.

Where to eat

The Café Bar at An Lanntair is a relaxed affair that serves delicious food from 10am till 8pm, complete with great sea views. The chowder, made with local ingredients, is a hearty meal in itself.

Seafood fans are certainly spoiled for choice in Stornoway. Upmarket Digby Chick (digbychick.co.uk), run by chef-proprietor James Mackenzie, showcases the best of locally caught fish and shellfish. The Minch turbot served with mussels and chive butter is simply sensational, and the early bird menu offers great value at £24.50 for three courses.

Oban guide

If it’s a good fish supper you’re after – and who isn’t? – Cameron’s on Point Street doesn’t disappoint. CalMac also serves up excellent fish and chips in comfortable surroundings on the ferry to and from Stornoway. The macaroni cheese also gets five-star reviews.

HS-1 at the Royal Hotel (royalstornoway.com) on Cromwell Street offers tasty burgers and wraps, served in a cosmopolitan, buzzy atmosphere, and for those who like their food spicy, the popular Thai Café lets you bring your own bottle.

For coffee and cake, Lewis resident Kathryn Lamont Smith is a big fan of the Blue Lobster on the waterfront. “I love this place,” she says. “As well as being my favourite café, it is also a lovely gift shop.” Kopi Java, on Cromwell Street, meanwhile, pulls in locals and visitors alike with its gourmet coffee and hot chocolate. The empire biscuits aren’t half bad, either.

Where to shop

Harris Tweed Hebrides (harristweedhebrides.com) on Cromwell Street is the place to go for all your tweed needs, from beautiful tailored jackets, trousers, waistcoats and skirts, to accessories and home interiors.

The lovely Hebridean Hobby Centre (hebrideamhobbycentre.co.uk), also on Cromwell Street, has a full range of crafting materials, from wools and fabrics to modelling kits.

You’ll also want to stock up on the local food before you leave, from the world famous, geographically protected Stornoway black pudding made by Charles MacLeod (charlesmacleod.co.uk) and sold from the shop in Ropework Park, to the exquisite smoked salmon from the family-run Stornoway Smokehouse on Shell Street (stornowaysmokehouse.co.uk).

The Good Food Boutique (thegoodfoodboutique.co.uk), back on Cromwell Street, has an array of quality deli foods from home and abroad, and also serves great coffee.

Where to stay

Seafront: Stornoway Bed and Breakfast Ltd (stornowaybedandbreakfast.co.uk), just minutes from An Lanntair, mixes it up with a beautiful traditional exterior and contemporary décor inside. Rooms from £94.

Luxury: Natural Retreats Lews Castle (naturalretreats.co.uk) has beautiful apartments in the castle grounds, overlooking the harbour, from £165 a night.

Mobile: You can be king of the Hebridean road in this modern camper van, complete with fitted kitchen, which sleeps four. Comes with parking. From £50 a night. Listed on Airbnb.co.uk.

Famous faces

BBC Scotland and Alba presenter Cathy Macdonald is from Stornoway, as is actor Hans Matheson, who has appeared in TV shows such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Tudors and Jericho.

Hollywood screenwriter Aeneas Mackenzie, writer of films including They Died With Their Boots On, Ivanhoe 1952 and The Ten Commandments, was born in Stornoway in 1889.

Things to do nearby

If you do only one other thing on Lewis, visit the extraordinary Neolithic standing stones at Calanais, 12 miles west of Stornoway. Truly unforgettable.

The amazingly preserved broch at Carloway, 16 miles from Stornoway, is more than 2000 years old and offers a unique insight into Iron Age life.

The stunning white sands at Uig, on the west coast of Lewis, seem to go on forever, rivalling even the best beaches on nearby Harris.