Occupying a shapely shoulder of land that leans into the North Sea, Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire give an authentic taste of Scotland, with dramatic coastal scenery, a rich history, and some of the finest food and drink producers in the country.
Aberdeen itself – widely known as The Granite City – has long been a visitor draw, boasting the grand architecture and cultural attractions to match its status as one of the UK’s wealthiest cities. The surrounding countryside, meanwhile, which includes the glorious Royal Deeside region, has ample appeal of its own, being dotted with more than 250 castles. All in all, it’s a hugely rewarding place to explore – this guide will help you make the most of it.
As the third largest city in the country, Aberdeen is straightforward to reach by rail. From Edinburgh it’s a mere 2 hours 20 minutes by direct train, while Glasgow sits a further 50 minutes’ ride away. Dundee is just 1 hour 15 minutes to the south of the Granite City, and Inverness is 2 hours 10 minutes to the northwest. All the above journeys give numerous options to stop at other destinations en route.
See & do in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire
This is a part of Scotland that blends cosmopolitan charm, traditional culture and majestic landscapes to winning effect, so no matter what your interests, you’ll find something to suit.
Aberdeen Art Gallery
Pulling in visitors through its neoclassical façade since 1885, Aberdeen Art Gallery houses one of the best art collections in the country, with a superb range of works covering seven centuries. Its 18 permanent collection galleries include works by everyone from Paul Cézanne and Pieter Brueghel to Damien Hirst.
First-time visitors to Aberdeen are often surprised to find a long, curved beach of golden sand within easy reach of the city centre. Walkers, wild swimmers and even surfers have plenty to enjoy – it’s previously been dubbed “Cornwall without the crowds” – and you’ll also find a good array of cafes and amusements, including a family funfair.
Fittie (or to use its official name, Footdee) is an old fishing village at the southern extremity of Aberdeen Beach, simultaneously a part of the city and a place apart. Its attractive cottages were designed by 19th-century architect John Smith – the brains behind Balmoral Castle – and a trip here today gives a unique window into the past.
Small it might be, but this previous winner of multiple Britain In Bloom awards is a veritable oasis in the west of the city. The landscaped, stream-threaded gardens were gifted to Aberdeen in 1936 and bloom to life each year with displays of rhododendrons and alpine blossom. The picturesque bridge in the heart of the gardens is a popular photo spot.
A vision of intricate, spire-topped stonework, the current Marischal College complex was the world’s second largest granite building when it was completed in 1906. The college itself dates back much earlier, however, having been founded way back in 1593. Notable alumni include Robert Davidson, the inventor of the electric locomotive.
Brig o’ Balgownie
This high gothic span across the River Don dates back to at least the 17th century – some say there was a much earlier bridge on the same spot – and for many years was the main crossing for those travelling north from Aberdeen. It’s now classified as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and has been immortalised by appearing in the Lord Byron poem Don Juan.
Formerly an independent town for more than 400 years, Old Aberdeen still plays home to many of the city’s most historic religious and academic buildings. These include King’s College – which has its origins harking back to 1495, when it became Scotland’s third university – and the triple-towered spectacle of St Machar’s Cathedral.
St Machar’s Cathedral
Named in honour of a Catholic saint who was a disciple of St Columba, this famous cathedral stands on a site that has seen religious activity since about 580AD. The cathedral itself – which, according to legend, houses the left arm of William Wallace within one of its walls – originally dates back to the 12th century, and makes for a fascinating visit.
Gordon Highlanders Museum
This five-star Visit Scotland visitor attraction is dedicated to telling the 200-year tale of this legendary British regiment, made up of “ordinary men with an extraordinary sense of duty”. The stories of the local labourers, fishermen, students and aristocrats who banded together to fight for their country are remembered here in evocative style.
The rosy-pink hue of this fascinating country house is said to have been the inspiration for Walt Disney’s iconic castle logo – although its baronial turrets are more than a mere fairytale prop. Sitting in rolling wooded countryside west of Aberdeen, Craigievar was the seat of a local noble family for 350 years.
Another remarkable 16th century castle – sitting close to the banks of the Dee and set against scenic hills – Crathes is as renowned for its walled garden, complete with 300-year-old yew hedges and seasonal blooms, as it is for its labyrinthine interior, where you’ll find a trove of painted ceilings, oak panelling and traditional tower house architecture.
Royal Deeside Railway
Breathing new life into a rural stretch of Victorian-era track formerly used by the Royal Family to reach Balmoral, this heritage railway allows modern-day visitors to make short trips along the line, hauled by old steam or diesel engines.
Tomnaverie Stone Circle
Recumbent stone circles – which is to say, stone circles that include a large monolith set on its side – are found only in one part of the UK, right here in Aberdeenshire. The Tomnaverie circle is a stirring example of the style, combining some 4,500 years of history and mystery with a setting in lowland fields close to the Cairngorms National Park.
The filmic ruins of Dunnottar Castle radiate a sense of genuine drama, its age-old, gap-toothed masonry set on an exposed clifftop crag and surrounded on three sides by rocky precipices and the salty spray of the North Sea. Its history is no less absorbing, with Mary Queen of Scots a former guest.
A short distance from of the ruins of Dunnottar Castle lies the serene, history-steeped harbour town of Stonehaven, just 15 miles south of Aberdeen but a world away in terms of atmosphere. Stonehaven Bay itself is a shapely shingle-sand crescent, while other reasons to linger include the heritage-focused Tolbooth Museum and some excellent seafood.
Bullers of Buchan
Among the cliffs, coves and crags of Aberdeenshire’s spectacular shoreline you’ll find the collapsed sea cave known as Bullers of Buchan. Now a wave-bashed natural arch, it makes for a memorable inclusion on any coastal walk; come in the breeding season to see the area’s seabird colonies. It’s located a few miles south of Peterhead.
Intimately connected to the sea – to the point where the doorsteps are regularly washed by the waves – tiny Crovie is a well preserved fishing hamlet on Aberdeenshire’s north coast. Its location, squeezed onto a narrow, sea-facing ledge beneath the cliffs, gives the place a unique look and feel.
When the Bill Forsyth-directed comedy classic Local Hero hit cinemas in 1983, it pushed the little coastal village of Pennan into the spotlight. Some four decades on, the tucked-away settlement still has plenty of period charm, with its whitewashed cottages gazing out across the Moray Firth.
Another picturesque pint-sized village on the North Coast, Gardenstown is scattered across steep sandstone cliffs and has plenty to entice visitors, from galleries and craft stores to coastal walks and sunset views. The harbour was founded back in the 1720s as a fishing base.
East & drink in Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire
A trip to Aberdeen is not complete without sampling the local eateries. Aberdeen has some of the finest cafés and restaurants serving up the finest produce. From the sweet treats baked in-house to the finest fish and chips on the coast - it will be hard to resist temptation with all the choice Aberdeen has to offer.
Despite its name, food is just one component of the multi-faceted – and rather brilliant – Aberdeen venture that is Foodstory, which not only serves top-notch (and largely plant-based) food but also stages events that range from craft workshops to reggae nights. The cafe was actually built by the team behind it, following a Kickstarter campaign.
All-day burritos crammed with smoked streaky bacon and chilli scrambled eggs. Wark Farm pies served hot with a tattie salad and piccalilli kraut. Homemade fruit tarts topped with strawberries. It’s hard not to feel hungry just thinking about this Rubislaw Terrace cafe, which also serves daily specials and salads.
As fine a reason as any to visit the Deeside town of Banchory, the Birdhouse describes itself as a speciality coffee and food shop – with the emphasis on ‘special’. The outlet makes its own sourdough daily and prides itself on serving up top-quality breakfasts, sandwiches, coffees and cakes. Resist the brownies at your peril.
A mere post-prandial wander from Crathes Castle, this family-run restaurant occupies handsome stone buildings that were once part of a farmstead. The food’s notable too, with warming, locally influenced dishes, as well as a conservatory coffee shop with scones and cakes baked in-house.
Ride Coffee House
The clue’s in the name at this popular Banchory cafe, which stands just yards from the hiking-and-biking trail that is the Deeside Way. Expect good coffee and food that’s taken seriously, from proper burgers to mouthwatering cakes – and plenty of vegan and veggie options.
Sweet tooth? You’re in the right place. There are some 40 different ice cream flavours on the menu at this Stonehaven outlet – among them strawberry meringue, chocolate pretzel and the try-it-if-you-dare Edible Hulk – as well as 24 different milkshakes and a tantalising spread of puddings, sundaes and cakes.
The Bay Fish and Chips
Previously named the UK’s best independent takeaway – to add to its countless other awards and accolades over the years – this famed Stonehaven fish and chip shop is very much the real deal, with a seafront location, a commitment to Marine Conservation Society sustainability, and fresh-to-order haddock and scampi.
A seasonal seaside booth in the little cliff-backed village of Pennan, the charmingly named Coastal Cuppie makes for a welcome sight at any time, serving up coffee, cakes, scones and other treats from its harbourside hatch. It’s usually open between May and October.
The Fife Arms
This beautifully restored coaching inn now offers five-star hospitality in the historic Cairngorm village of Braemar, with gorgeous accommodation, a spa and no less than five food-and-drink venues, including The Flying Stag public bar and the elegant Clunie Dining Room, known for its wood-fired specialities.
A much-loved and high-quality cafe in the Deeside village of Crathie, Tàrmachan focuses on regional produce and seriously good coffee. Expect to be fed well: suppliers include a nearby organic fruit and veg grower and a local butcher that sources wild venison. Be aware that it’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The Highlanders Bakehouse
Another Crathie institution – and also shut on Mondays and Tuesdays – the Highlanders was named Artisan Cafe of the Year in the 2021 Scottish Enterprise awards, which tells you all you need to know about the coffee, bakes and brunches on offer. The Sunday roasts, meanwhile, which include a cracking veggie option, are not to be missed.
Stay in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire
A trip up to Scotland’s northeast is about more than just enjoying the surroundings. The region also offers some excellent accommodation options, whether you’re here for the bustle of the city, the scenery of the coast or the wide-open views of the countryside. From charming boutique properties to tried-and-tested international brands, you’ll find plenty of choice for a memorable night’s stay.
The Fife Arms
The aforementioned Fife Arms offers a high-end accommodation option in the Cairngorms town of Braemar, with a total of 46 individually designed rooms and suites, all exuding the traditional character of the region. The majority of the rooms are dog-friendly, so you can pamper your four-legged friend at the same time.
Ferryhill House Hotel
Based in an attractive, century-old family home, this Aberdeen hotel has just nine rooms, as well as a recently refurbished public bar and a restaurant with a conservatory. Rooms are modern and comfortable and – even more appealingly – the hotel offers packages to combine your stay with golf and whisky experiences.
Residence Inn by Marriott
If you’re familiar with the Residence Inn brand, you’ll know what to expect from this stylish city-centre property, namely self-contained suites and studios for long-stay guests. Perks include full kitchens, spacious working areas and even a grocery delivery service. Business travellers, families and pet owners all welcome.
The Chester Hotel
An upmarket choice in Aberdeen’s West End, the 72-room Chester Hotel prides itself on high-comfort touches such as Egyptian cotton sheets, designer toiletries and rainfall showers. Take your choice from the Classic or Grand room categories, or splurge on one of the luxurious top-floor Club Rooms.
Tahuna Bothies provide exquisite self-catering accommodation for a couple seeking a romantic getaway, or a group of four seeking quality time together as friends or family, in high spec, cosy bothies that offer unrivalled views over the Aberdeenshire coast. Huge floor-to-ceiling windows frame the stunning sunrise, while you can watch the sun sink below the horizon over a glass of wine in the private outdoor dining area.
If you find yourself with a spare day or two in Aberdeen or Aberdeenshire, you’ll find the region holds no shortage of interesting one-off attractions, all of which can easily be factored into wider holiday itineraries. These are six of the best.
A six-mile loop walk from the village of Crathie leads you into the Balmoral Estate, where you can explore the famous cairns erected in memory of different members of the Royal Family. Most date back to the reign of Queen Victoria. The circuit includes sweeping views of the Deeside region, as well as the baronial bulk of Balmoral Castle itself.
Braemar Chocolate Shop
Pander to your inner Charlie Bucket by visiting this award-winning chocolatier, where the delicacies are not just handmade onsite but created to offer “a taste of Scotland in chocolate”. This means ingredients that range from the expected (Scotch whisky) to the eccentric (local cheese). A brilliant little store.
Don’t be misled by its sparse exterior and plain walls. This isolated tower house – beautifully situated in the Cairngorms National Park, behind a star-shaped perimeter wall – has a past that has seen it act as everything from an aristocratic home to an 18th-century army base. Reconstructed barrack rooms give visitors a taste of being stationed here.
Whether you’re into history or hillwalking, the mountain village of Braemar is one of Aberdeenshire’s choicest spots. Ringed by woodland, it plays home to a 17th-century castle and – and on the first Saturday of September, in normal times at least – the Highland games of the Braemar Gathering.
Count them if you can. A huge colony of around 400 grey and common seals make this sandy beach one of Scotland’s top wildlife draws. It’s found around 20 minutes north of Aberdeen, at the mouth of the Ythan River, where eider ducks, oystercatchers and terns add to the spectacle.
Were these crumbling clifftop ruins, located around eight miles south of Peterhead, the inspiration behind the tale of Count Dracula? It’s known that author Bram Stoker came here in the 19th century, and modern visitors will still find a rare atmosphere clinging to the castle’s moody battlements.