12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Aberdeen
Aberdeen, often referred to as "The Flower of Scotland" due to its numerous parks and gardens, lies in a picturesque spot on the North Sea between the Rivers Dee and Don. The capital of the Grampian Region, Aberdeen is Scotland's biggest fishing port and, since the end of the 1960s when oil was first discovered in the North Sea, has developed into an important center for Europe's offshore oil industry and remains a ferry terminus for the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Tourists can usually be seen enjoying its 2 mi of sandy beaches, superb golf courses, theatrical and dance performances at His Majesty's Theater, concerts by top-class orchestras in the Music Hall, experimental drama productions in the Arts Center and Theater, as well as a variety of arts festivals during the summer months.
Silver-gray granite from nearby quarries gives the city a distinctive character, and when the sun shines, the mica in the stone sparkles, an effect that led to Aberdeen's other nickname of "Silver City". The area north of King's College is known as Old Aberdeen and includes the University, founded in 1494, along with several interesting medieval buildings found in the vicinity of the High Street. Aberdeen boasts a host of protected buildings, the oldest of which dates from the 16th century.
See also: Where to Stay in Aberdeen
1 St Machar's Cathedral
St. Machar's Cathedral is believed to occupy the site of a small Celtic chapel erected by St Machar in 581 AD. The succeeding cathedral was founded in 1136, although the earliest work in the present building dates from the 14th century (it was completed in 1552). Note the striking towers on the West front with their sandstone spires dating from 1518-30, and the 16th century wooden ceiling painted with coats of arms.
Hours: Daily, 10am-4pm
Address: The Chanonry, Aberdeen
2 The University and King's College of Aberdeen
Founded in 1494 in what's known as Old Aberdeen, the University and King's College of Aberdeen received its charter from King James IV. One of the college's identifying features is its huge tower (1633) and an elegant stone dome, the only remaining structure of its kind in Scotland and notable for the stone replica of the imperial crown of Charlemagne that sits atop it. The 16th century oak choir stalls and wooden ceiling in the chapel are preserved in their original form, and portraits of the Stuart monarchs are carved in wood. Self-guided walking tours of the university are available from its website.
Address: King's College, Aberdeen
3 Cruickshank Botanic Gardens
Located on the King's College campus in Old Aberdeen, the Cruickshank Botanic Gardens are well worth a visit and contain displays of interesting alpine and sub-tropical collections, as well as a delightful rock and water garden. Also of interest in this peaceful 11-acre site are a sunken garden, rose garden, shrub and herbaceous borders, and an arboretum with a fine collection of more than 2,500 labeled plants. Group tours are available (10 or more).
Hours: Apr-Sept, daily, 9am-7pm; Oct-Mar, daily, 9am-4:30pm
Address: Cruickshank Building, St Machar Dr, Aberdeen AB24 3UU
4 Brig o'Balgownie - Scotland's Oldest Bridge
A walk through Seaton Park down to Brig o'Balgownie - Scotland's oldest bridge - is well worth the effort. Built on the orders of Robert the Bruce and restored in 1607, it served as the River Don's main crossing point. Lord Byron, who went to school in Aberdeen for a short time, referred affectionately to the single span bridge in the 10th chapter of Don Juan.
Another fine old bridge is Brig o'Dee. Dating from the 1520s, it's decorated with interesting coats-of-arms and inscriptions, and is set in lovely Duthie Park, famous for having one of the largest winter gardens in the world.
5 Castlegate and The Mercat Cross
Evidence of Aberdeen's old medieval town can still be seen around Castlegate, which centuries later is still very much the focal point of the city. While there's no longer a castle here, the tower of the 14th century Tolbooth (formerly the town hall and prison) is Aberdeen's oldest building and home to a museum with fascinating displays on the development of crime and punishment. Exhibits include 17th century cells as well as the "Maiden" - the blade from city's guillotine.
Diagonally opposite it and adorned with a white unicorn stands the Mercat Cross, a medieval symbol of Aberdeen's right to hold a market. On the town cross which was built in 1686 by Aberdeen's guild of merchants, the portrait medallions show the heads of the 10 Stuart monarchs from James I through to James VII, Charles I, Charles II and Mary Stuart. Another interesting nearby landmark is St Andrew's Cathedral. And be sure to also take a stroll down Union Street, Aberdeen's busy main street. Over 200 years old, it's a bustling street with plenty of shops, cafés and shopping arcades.
6 Provost Skene's House
Sir George Skene of Rubislaw, provost from 1676 to 1685, was a prosperous merchant whose wealth came from trade with Gdansk. His former home - the oldest standing residence in Aberdeen - now houses an excellent museum with displays of locally excavated artifacts, religious paintings and displays of period costumes. Also of interest is the plasterwork in the old 17th century bedroom and the painted wooden ceilings from the same period in the picture gallery.
Address: 5 Guest Row, Aberdeen
7 Aberdeen Art Gallery
Built in 1884, the Aberdeen Art Gallery houses a comprehensive collection of 17th-20th century paintings. Among the most famous are portraits by Raeburn and works by William Turner, William Daniell and David Hockney. Impressionists such as Monet, Sisley, Bonnard, Pissaro and Renoir are also represented.
Scottish artists with work displayed here include William Dyce, Thomas Faed, John Philip, Charles Rennie MacKintosh and other representatives of the Glasgow School. George Jameson, Scotland's first portrait painter (1589-1644), also has works on exhibit. Sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein are displayed in the well-lit entrance hall. The museum also possesses interesting collections of British silver, glass and ceramics.
Hours: Tues-Sat, 10am-5pm; Sun, 1-4pm
Address: 61 Schoolhill, Aberdeen
8 Aberdeen Maritime Museum
Located in the interesting old 16th century Provost Ross's House, the Aberdeen Maritime Museum boasts an excellent collection of models, photos and paintings documenting the development of the Dee estuary's port, as well as the tough life of the whale-hunters, herring fishermen and North Sea traders. Also on display are the legendary Aberdeen clippers that American ship owners used to secure their monopoly over the trade in China tea, including the Stornaway, a prototype produced for Jardine Matheson in 1850.
Hours: Tues-Sat, 10am-5pm; Sun, noon-3pm
Location: Shiprow, Aberdeen
9 Marischal College
Founded in 1593 by George Keith, the 5th Earl Marischal of Dunnottar, Marischal College is the second-largest granite building in the world after Spain's El Escorial. Work started on the present college in 1837 with the 235 ft tall Mitchell Tower. Although now the city's municipal offices, it's well worth taking a look at this very impressive structure.
10 The Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting
The biggest parish church in Scotland is St Nicholas in Back Wynd, better known as East and West Churches after being divided into two separate chapels during the Reformation. The West Church, which was built between 1741 and 1755 in Renaissance style, contains four wall tapestries and some fine wooden carvings dating from the 17th century, while beneath the East Church lies an old crypt, St Mary's Chapel (ca. 1420), used during the 17th century as a prison for women thought to be witches. St John's Chapel, part of which originated in the 12th century, is now dedicated to the oil industry. Be sure to also explore the fascinating old cemetery.
Hours: Mon-Fri, noon-4pm
Location: Union Street, Scotland
11 The Satrosphere Science Centre
Satrosphere uses a fun interactive approach to instill in children an interest in science and discovery. Exhibits are for the most part aimed at younger kids, and it's a hands-on experience that will keep youngsters entertained while teaching them a little more about the world around them. A café and shop are also located on-site.
Hours: Daily, 10am-5pm
Admission: Adults, £5.75; Children (4 and over), £4.50; Families, £17.00
Address: The Tramsheds, 179 Constitution Street, Aberdeen
12 The Aberdeen International Youth Festival
This annual 10-day festival features daily performances by amateur groups from around the world. Although all artists are under 23, performances are always of the highest quality and includes everything from opera, orchestral, choral and chamber concerts, to dance and theatrical performances, as well as art exhibitions. Events take place across the city, including in His Majesty's Theatre, the Aberdeen Arts Centre, the Music Hall and other prominent buildings.
Address: Town House, Aberdeen
Where to Stay in Aberdeen for Sightseeing
Attractions in this Scottish port are a bit scattered, but most are within walking distance of the ferry landing and rail station. Union is the main street, so any hotel close to it will be handy to restaurants and most attractions. King Street heads north to the university, the botanic gardens, and St. Machar's Cathedral, all within walking distance of Union Street. Here are some highly-rated hotels in Aberdeen:
- Luxury Hotels: A few blocks north of Union Street, Skene House Whitehall has suites with kitchenettes, free parking, and breakfast, but no elevator. In the same neighborhood, Hilton Garden Inn Aberdeen City Centre has large rooms and is also close to restaurants, shops, and the theater. Skene House Rosemount has apartment-style accommodations, with free parking and breakfast, close to Union Street but quiet at night.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Jurys Inn Aberdeen is right by the train station and ferry landing, handy to restaurants, shopping, and the airport bus, which stops at the hotel's front door. Premier Inn Aberdeen City Centre Hotel is just north of Union Street, near the Tolbooth Museum and Aberdeen Art Gallery, and an easy walk to the railway station. Just north of Union Street, Holiday Inn Express Aberdeen City Centre has free parking and includes breakfast.
- Budget Hotels: Although it's a 10-minute walk from Union Street, Beeches Aberdeen has a bus stop directly in front of the inn and includes free parking and breakfast. Mercure Aberdeen Caledonian Hotel is on Union Terrace, in the heart of shopping and restaurants and an easy walk to attractions. Right at the harbor, near the bus and train stations, Ibis Aberdeen Centre is across the street from the Maritime Museum and a few steps from Union Street shops.
Surrounding Area: Easy Day Trips Around Aberdeen and the Grampian Mountains
Run by the National Trust for Scotland, Crathes Castle is a classic example of a Scottish baronial style castle. The tower house with its small oriel windows, pretty corner towers and windows of varying sizes, was begun in 1553. Its upper stories are worth a tour, if only for a glimpse of the beautifully painted wooden ceilings dating from 1600. The figures depicted in the Room of the Nine Nobles - typical of the decorative work of the time - are the ancient heroes Hector, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, three Old Testament characters and three famous rulers, including King Arthur and Charlemagne. The castle also has its own ghost in the Green Lady's Room, where the ceiling is also painted decoratively. In addition to lovely gardens, the castle has a café, gift shop, an adventure playground and treetop trekking.
Hours: Apr-Oct, daily, 10:30am-5pm; Nov-Mar, 11am-4pm
Admission: Adults, £12.50; Families, £29.50
Address: Banchory, Aberdeen and Grampian
The Highland Folk Museum
This unique open-air museum in Newtonmore is a mile long, 80-acre site dedicated to portraying the traditions and lives of Scotland's Highland clans. Exhibits include a salmon smokehouse, an old mill and a thatch-covered Black House typical of the Western Isles. Set amidst the lovely Cairngorm Mountains, it's a fun interactive display of much of what makes Scotland such an interesting place to visit.
Hours: Apr-Aug, daily, 10:30am-5:30pm; Sept-Oct, daily, 11am-4:30pm
Address: Kingussie Rd, Newtonmore
Queen Elizabeth II's summer residence in Scotland has come to embody the Neo-baronial style of the Victorian era. The estate was first mentioned in documents in 1484 and, after Queen Victoria bought it in 1852, she commissioned the Aberdeen architect William Smith to implement plans drawn up by her husband Prince Albert. Inside the castle, the Ballroom with its paintings and other objets d'art and also a collection of coaches are open to the public, but only when the royal family isn't in residence. The extensive parkland is ideal for a relaxing stroll.
Hours: Apr-July, daily, 10am-5pm
Admission: Adults, £11; Children (5 -16), £5; Families, £28.50
Address: Balmoral Estates, Ballater, Aberdeenshire
The Braemar Gathering
Many visitors are drawn to beautiful Braemar on the first Saturday in September for the Braemar Gathering, an event that members of the Royal Family often attend and even take part in. Many of the 20,000 or more spectators turn out in traditional Scottish costume, the women in their tartan dresses and the men in kilts and plaid. Tossing the caber, a sport unique to Scotland, is one of the most spectacular events at the gathering, and sees burly men throw hefty trunks of young fir trees from a vertical position, all to the accompaniment of bagpipes (tickets sell out well in advance, so attendance requires some forward planning). The history of the Braemar Gathering, the Scottish equivalent of the Olympic Games, is well documented in the Braemar Highland Heritage Centre.
Location: Braemar, Aberdeenshire
This delightful castle with its small towers, crowstepped gables, round oriel windows, quaint conical roofs, ornamental stone cannons and decorative zigzag console is proof that fairytales do come true. The estate was first mentioned in documents dating from 1457 when owned by the Mortimer family, and today this towering seven-story residence stands as a symbol of authority and wealth, as well as practicality. Wood for building was in short supply in the Highlands, so architects exploited every inch of space under one small roof. The plasterwork in the Great Hall, the huge Stuart coat-of-arms above the fireplace and the carvings on the wall paneling were created in Renaissance style. A secret flight of steps leading up to a small room above a window in the Great Hall forms a part of a complicated system of stairs within the tower.
Hours: Grounds - Daily, 11am-5:30pm; Castle - Various, depending upon season
Admission: Adults, £12.50; Families, £29.50
Address: Alford, Aberdeen and Grampian
Five families have played a part in the history of Fyvie Castle, and its five towers bear their names: the Preston Tower, Meldrum Tower, Seton Tower, Gordon Tower and Leith Tower. Scottish monarchs stayed here at the beginning of the 12th century when it was only a wooden fort. It was reinforced in the 14th century by stonewalls and corner towers. Now in the hands of the National Trust for Scotland, the castle contains many valuable paintings, including 13 works by Raeburn, as well as Brussels tapestries and a collection of weapons. The superb gallery on the second floor of Leith Tower is the castle's showpiece.
Hours: Garden and Grounds - Daily, 9am-sunset; Castle - Summer, daily, 11am-5pm (winter hours apply)
Admission: Adults, £12.50; Families, £29.50
Address: Turriff, Aberdeen and Grampian
Britain's tallest and largest mountain range, the Cairngorms are home to the country's largest expanses of native forests and are widely regarded as one of Scotland's most stunning places of natural beauty. Crisscrossed by clean rivers and lochs, as well as moorland teeming with wildlife, it's a popular place for hikers and skiers (slopes are situated to the west of Braemar).
The highest peak in the Cairngorms National Park is Ben Macdui (4,300 ft), while Cairn Gorm (4,084 ft) itself boasts one of the most spectacular high-level footpaths in Scotland, accessible year round by chairlift. The summits of Braeriach, Cairn Toul and The Devil's Point probably offer the most impressive views. Heather moorland, partly wooded with birch trees, provides good breeding grounds for rare bird species such as ospreys, ptarmigan, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, dotterel, snow bunting and merlins. Mammals such as the pine marten and reindeer, introduced from Swedish Lapland in 1952, can sometimes be seen in Glen More Forest.
Aviemore, Scotland's leading ski resort, is nestled between the Cairngorms and the Monadhliath Mountains. It also serves as a good base for excursions into the surrounding countryside, including the 3 mi Allt Mhor Forest Trail, one of many walks in Glenmore Forest Park. The Landmark Highland Heritage and Adventure Park is one of Scotland's most popular sightseeing attractions and features a treetop trail, nature center, an operating steam-powered sawmill, Clydesdale horses and a children's adventure playground. Also within walking distance of Aviemore is the Rothiemurchus Forest, a birdwatchers paradise with Scottish crossbills, crested tits, capercaillie and black grouse. Loch Garten Reserve, a protected area where extremely rare ospreys breed, can be reached via the superb Strathspey Railway that links Aviemore and Boat of Garden.