Aberdeen, often referred to as “The Flower of Scotland” for its many parks and gardens, is situated in a picturesque spot on the North Sea between the rivers Dee and Don. The capital of the Grampian region, Aberdeen is Scotland’s largest fishing port, a major center for the European offshore oil industry and the ferry port for the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Tourists can enjoy the three kilometers of sandy beaches, beautiful golf courses, shopping district, theatrical and dance performances at His Majesty’s Theatre, concerts by top orchestras at the Music Hall and a variety of arts festivals during the summer months. There are always plenty of things to do in Aberdeen day or night.
Silver-grey granite from nearby quarries gives the city a distinctive character, and when the sun shines, the mica in the stone sparkles, an effect that has led to Aberdeen’s other nickname: ‘Silver City’. Aberdeen has a number of listed historic buildings, the oldest of which dates back to the 16th century.
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1 St. Machar’s Cathedral
The Cathedral of St Machar is believed to take the place of a small Celtic chapel founded by St Machar in AD 581. The next cathedral was founded in 1136, although the earliest work in the current building dates back to the 14th century (it was completed in 1552). Note the striking towers on the west side, with their sandstone towers dating from 1518 to 1530, and the 16th-century wooden ceiling painted with coats of arms.
Adres: 18 The Chanonry, Aberdeen
Official site: www.stmachar.com
2 The University and King’s College of Aberdeen
Founded in 1494 in what is known as Old Aberdeen, the University and King’s College of Aberdeen received the charter from King James IV. One of the university’s identifying features is its massive tower (1633) and elegant stone dome, the only surviving structure of its kind in Scotland and notable for the stone replica of Charlemagne’s imperial crown that sits atop it. The 16th century oak choir stalls and wooden ceiling in the chapel have been preserved in their original form and portraits of the Stuart monarchs are carved in wood. A free zoology museum covers everything from protozoa to whales. Individual tours of the university are available on its website.
Located on the King’s College campus, 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 on this tranquil 11-acre site are a sunken garden, rose garden, shrub and herbaceous borders, and an arboretum with a fine collection of over 2,500 labeled plants.
Address: King’s College, Aberdeen
Official site: www.abdn.ac.uk
3 Brig o’Balgownie: Scotland’s oldest bridge
Walk through Seaton Park to the ornate Brig o’Balgownie stone. Built on the orders of Robert the Bruce and restored in 1607, it served as the main crossing point of the River Don. Lord Byron, who briefly attended school in Aberdeen, affectionately referred to the single-span bridge in the 10th chapter of Don Juan.
Another beautiful old bridge is Brig o’Dee. Dating from the 1520s, it is decorated with interesting coats of arms and inscriptions. It is located in beautiful Duthie Park, famous for having one of the largest winter gardens in the world.
4 The Tolbooth Museum at Castlegate
Evidence of Aberdeen’s ancient medieval city can still be seen around Castlegate, which is still the focal point of the city centuries later. Although there is no longer a castle here, the tower of the 14th-century Tolbooth (formerly the Town Hall and Jail) is Aberdeen’s oldest building and home to a museum with fascinating displays of the development of crime and punishment. Exhibits include 17th-century cells and the “Maiden,” the blade of the city’s guillotine.
Diagonally opposite and adorned with a white unicorn is the Mercat Cross , a medieval symbol of Aberdeen’s right to hold a market. The Town Cross was built in 1686 by Aberdeen’s merchant guild. Portrait medallions depict the heads of the 10 Stuart monarchs from James I through James VII, Charles I, Charles II and Mary Stuart. Another interesting nearby landmark is St. Andrew’s Cathedral . And take a walk down Union Street, Aberdeen’s bustling main street. More than 200 years old, it is a bustling street with many shops, cafes and shopping arcades.
Address: Castle Street, Aberdeen
5 Duthie Park and David Welch Winter Gardens
A flowery experience all year round, the David Welch Winter Gardens is one of Europe’s largest indoor gardens, filled with rare and exotic plants from around the world. Along with a large collection of cactus and other succulent plants, the gardens feature the Temperate House, Tropical House and Arid House, Victorian Corridor, Corridor of Perfumes, the Fern House and a Japanese Garden. The 44-acre Duthie Park features open green spaces, trees, beautiful seasonal flower beds, and graceful ornamental ponds. A bandstand hosts concerts and the summer Opera in the Park.
6 Aberdeen Art Gallery
The Aberdeen Art Gallery was built in 1884 and houses an extensive collection of paintings from the 17th to the 20th century. Scottish artists whose work is shown here include Charles Rennie Mackintosh, William Dyce, Thomas Faed, John Philip and other representatives of the Glasgow School. George Jameson, Scotland’s first portrait painter (1589-1644), also has works on display. Among the most famous are portraits by Raeburn and works by William Turner; David Hockney; and Impressionist painters, including Monet, Sisley, Bonnard, Pissarro, and Renoir.
Sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein are displayed in the well-lit hall. The museum also displays interesting collections of British silver, glass and ceramics.
Address: 61 Schoolhill, Aberdeen
Official site: www.aagm.co.uk/Venues/AberdeenArtGallery/aag-overview.aspx
7 Provost Skene’s house
Sir George Skene of Rubislaw, provost from 1676 to 1685, was a prosperous merchant whose wealth came from trading with Gdansk. His former home – the oldest permanent home in Aberdeen – now houses an excellent museum with displays of locally excavated artifacts, religious paintings and 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 Guestrow, Aberdeen
Official site: www.aagm.co.uk/Venues/ProvostSkenesHouse/psh-overview.aspx
8 Crathes Castle
Run by the National Trust for Scotland, Crathes Castle is a classic example of a Scottish castle style castle. The tower house, with its small bay windows, corner turrets and windows of various sizes, was begun in 1553. The upper floors are worth a tour, if only for a glimpse of the beautifully painted wooden ceilings 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 a spirit of its own in the Green Lady’s Room, where the ceiling is also decoratively painted. In addition to beautiful gardens, the castle has a café, gift shop, an adventure playground and treetop trekking. Crathes Castle is around 25 minutes’ drive from Aberdeen city center and can be reached by bus and a short walk away.
Location: Banchory, Aberdeen and Grampian
Official Site: www.nts.org.uk/Property/Crathes-Castle-Garden-and-Estate/
9 Aberdeen Maritime Museum
Housed in the interesting 16th-century Provost Ross’s House, the Aberdeen Maritime Museum contains an excellent collection of models, photographs and paintings documenting the development of the Dee Estuary harbour, as well as the hard lives of the whalers, herring fishermen and North Sea traders. Also on display are the legendary Aberdeen clippers used by American shipowners to secure their monopoly on the Chinese tea trade, including the Stornaway, a prototype produced for Jardine Matheson in 1850. The museum also has exhibits on modern oceanic pursuits and is the only one in the UK with displays about the North Sea petroleum industry.
Location: Shiprow, Aberdeen
Official site: www.aagm.co.uk/Venues/AberdeenMaritimeMuseum/amm-overview.aspx
10 Craigievar Castle
This magnificent castle, with its small towers, step-stalls, bay windows, conical roofs, ornamental stone cannons and decorative zigzag consoles, is proof that fairytales do come true. The estate was first mentioned in documents dating back to 1457, when it was owned by the Mortimer family, and today this towering seven-story residence stands as a symbol of authority and wealth, as well as practicality. Timber for construction was scarce in the Highlands, so architects exploited every inch of space under a small roof. The plasterwork in the Great Hall, Stuart’s huge coat of arms above the fireplace and the carvings on the wall are made in the Renaissance style. A secret staircase that leads to a small room above a window in the Great Hall is part of an intricate system of stairs in the tower.
Address: Alford, Aberdeen and Grampian
Official site: www.nts.org.uk/property/craigievar-castle/
11 Balmoral Castle
Queen Elizabeth II’s summer residence in Scotland epitomizes the Neo-Baroque style of the Victorian era. The estate was first mentioned in documents in 1484, and after Queen Victoria purchased it in 1852, she commissioned Aberdeen architect William Smith to carry out plans drawn up by her husband Prince Albert. In the castle, the dance hall , with its paintings and other art objects and also a collection of coaches , are open to the public, but only when the royal family is not in residence. The extensive parkland is ideal for a relaxing stroll.
The nearby town of Braemar is wonderful to explore but is most famous for its annual sporting event, the Braemar Gathering. Known as the Highland Games , this Scottish equivalent of the Olympic Games has been held here every autumn since 1832. If you can’t make it to the games, visit the Braemar Highland Heritage Center which has exhibits on the history of the games and Scottish traditional sport. Balmoral and Braemar are just over an hour’s drive from Aberdeen, but well worth it if you have a car.
Location: Balmoral Estates, Ballater, Aberdeenshire
Official site: www.balmoralcastle.com
12 The Aberdeen International Youth Festival
This annual 10-day festival features daily performances by amateur groups from around the world. While all performers are under the age of 23, the performances are always of the highest quality and include everything from orchestral, choral and chamber concerts to opera, dance and theater performances, as well as art exhibitions. Events take place all over the city, including at His Majesty’s Theatre, the Aberdeen Arts Centre, the Music Hall and other prominent buildings.
Address: Town House, Aberdeen
Official site: www.aiyf.org
Where to Stay in Aberdeen for Sightseeing
Attractions in this Scottish haven are a bit scattered, but most are within walking distance of the ferry terminal and train station. Union is the main street, so any nearby hotel is convenient to restaurants and most attractions. King Street heads north to the University, 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. Hilton Garden Inn Aberdeen City Center is in the same neighborhood and has large rooms and is also close to restaurants, shops and the theatre. Skene House Rosemount has apartment style apartments, with free parking and breakfast, close to Union Street, but quiet at night.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Jurys Inn Aberdeen is near the train station and ferry terminal, convenient for restaurants, shops and the airport bus, which stops right outside the hotel. Premier Inn Aberdeen City Center Hotel is located just north of Union Street, near the Tolbooth Museum and Aberdeen Art Gallery, and within walking distance of the train station. Holiday Inn Express Aberdeen City Center is located just north of Union Street and offers free parking and breakfast.
- Budget Hotels: Although a 10-minute walk from Union Street, Beeches Aberdeen has a bus stop directly outside the inn and offers free parking and breakfast. Mercure Aberdeen Caledonian Hotel is located on Union Terrace, in the heart of shops and restaurants and within walking distance of attractions. Ibis Aberdeen Center is near the harbour, near the bus and train stations, opposite the Maritime Museum and a stone’s throw from Union Street shops.
More Must-See Destinations near Aberdeen
Visitors traveling to Aberdeen from Edinburgh, along Scotland’s east coast, should stop to see Dundee, Scotland’s fourth largest city, on the north bank of the Firth of Tay. Nearby St Andrews will appeal more than golfers and Fife has its own attractions. Head west through the vast Cairngorms National Park to reach Inverness, gateway to Scotland’s spectacular Highlands, and to the Great Glen, a series of lochs that includes the most famous of them, Loch Ness.