With quirky villages, street art, dolphins and fine food, Aberdeen should be on your radar for your next visit to Scotland. If you were asked to describe the city, you’d probably think of granite buildings, the oil industry and probably Aberdeen Angus steak – but the city as a tourist destination to rival Edinburgh or Glasgow? Maybe not.
However, with the Nuart Street Art Festival changing the face of the city centre, Footdee’s quirky tarry sheds and dolphins swimming right up to its doorstep – the city has discovered a buoyant and well-deserved pride in itself. Here is my guide to things to do in Aberdeen.
Let’s visit Aberdeen…
Being built mostly out of granite, Aberdeen has many nicknames – the Granite City, the Silver City and (the slightly mean) Grey City, but my favourite nickname is the ‘furry boots city’.
It’s not because the weather is often blowing a freezing howlin gale, but it comes from the Aberdonian’s love of asking where you live. In Doric (the local dialect) “far aboots far div ye bide?” is pronounced, “furry boots-d’ya-bide!”.
Aberdeen might be famous for its historic relationship with the sea, but the city also sits at the mouth of two rivers – The River Dee and the River Don.
Two settlements grew at the mouths of the rivers – Old Aberdeen on the River Don and a medieval fishing settlement at the mouth of the River Dee. The city you can see today grew up between the two rivers. The local Aberdeen football team are also nicknamed The Dons. Confused yet?
Aberdeen has a Castlegate but no castle. Aberdeen’s castle was destroyed by Robert the Bruce in 1308 in the Wars of Independence. Despite this, there is now a commemorative Robert Bruce statue outside Marischal College.
This is because, as King, Bruce granted Aberdeen’s first charter over the Forest of Stocket, the profits from which led to a common good fund still in use today. Anyone else reckon Robert the Bruce felt a bit guilty about the castle?
Short on time? My favourite things to do in Aberdeen:
- Explore Footdee – a quirky & colourful fishing village at the mouth of the River Dee.
- Dine with dolphins – order fish & chips at the Silver Darling and watch the bottlenose dolphins swim by.
- Visit the Brig o’ Balgownie – stroll amongst the pretty cottages and along the River Don to the Donmouth Nature Reserve.
- Find the Powis Gate – visit Old Aberdeen to find this incredible Game of Thrones alike doorway.
- Discover Aberdeen’s street art – see artworks from SmugOne and Ernest Zacharevic, along with the Painted Doors project.
This is a paid partnership with VisitAberdeenshire
1 / Things to do in Old Aberdeen
Old Aberdeen is a wee piece of history hidden amongst the bustling modern city which surrounds it. Once a separate burgh, a visit takes you right back in time to when the city was just a small settlement on the River Don.
Now home to the University of Aberdeen, stroll up Old Aberdeen’s High Street to visit the St Machar’s Cathedral, wander around the medieval King’s College Chapel, and linger in the beautiful Cruickshank Botanic Garden.
My favourite corner of Old Aberdeen is the cute cottages on Wrights and Coopers Place – the Wrights and Coopers were joiners and two of the seven incorporated trades. At the end of the cottages is the pretty MacRobert Memorial Garden, a war memorial to Lady MacRobert, a long term benefactor to and supporter of the University.
Stroll: Brig o’ Balgownie
Formerly the Bridge of Don, the Brig o’ Balgownie is Aberdeen’s oldest bridge at nearly 700 years old – it was thought the bridge was built to carry Robert the Bruce’s troops over the River Don.
The village which surrounds the bridge is one of the prettiest parts of the city, a small hamlet row of cottages with beautiful gardens – and that all-important Sakura blossom. Follow the path along the river from the Brig o’Balgownie to the Donmouth Nature Reserve.
Find: The Powis Gate
On Old Aberdeen’s High Street is rather unusual Powis Gate, which was once the entrance to Powis House owned by Hugh Fraser Leslie of Powis, a large Aberdonian landowner.
The Powis Gate commemorates the freeing of Jamaican slaves owned by the Powis Estate. The huge gates are rather incongruous amongst the tiny medieval cottages, but stunning all the same.
2 / Thing to do in Aberdeen City Centre
Focused around Union Street and the Union Square Shopping Centre, the modern parts of the city are built around a walkable and compact city centre.
Like to shop? The best boutiques can be found on the streets leading of Union Street – try Thistle Street for from fashion and jewellery, Belmont Street for Books and Beans and the retro Belmont Filmhouse, Netherkirkgate for tiny startups, and descend the steps to The Green for cafes, cute dogs, tattoos and street art.
Here’s what else you should get up in the City Centre.
Walk: Aberdeen Street Art
The buildings in Aberdeen’s granite city centre might sparkle in the sunshine but brightening things up, even more, is Nuart, Aberdeen’s street art festival. Running since 2017, the Nuart Festival is in partnership with from Aberdeen’s twin city, Stavanger in Norway where the festival originated.
Boasting artworks from SmugOne (famous for the St Mungo mural in Glasgow) Jan Vormann’s lego walls and Herakut on The Green, Ernest Zacharevic’s giant seagulls, and Nimi and RH74’s green lady, you can find all the street art on Nuart’s Aberdeen street art map. Aberdeen’s street art now gives Glasgow a run for its money.
However, Art is not all about big pieces – you will also spot miniature artworks all over the city – try and find Darth, Yoda and Princess Leia in one of Aberdeen’s laneways.
Also brightening up the city is the Painted Doors project which sees Aberdeen’s doorways turned into works of art – more are popping up all the time. You can find all the doors on this Painted Doors map.
Visit: The Nuart Festival
Marvel at: Marischal College
Marischal College is probably Aberdeen’s most iconic building and the second-largest granite building in the world (the biggest is Monasterio del Escorial, once home to the King of Spain) it was built to house the University and is now the Council offices.
A mix of gothic and austere architecture styles, Marischal College was built between 1835 and 1906 and renovated back to its sparkly silver glory in 2011.
On a sunny day, Marischal College sparkles – this is due to the local granite containing a lot of mica – a shiny silicate mineral. Granite also built the Forth Rail Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and the Terraces of the House of Parliament.
Visit: Aberdeen Maritime Museum
Housed in a higgledy-piggledy set of buildings on the waterfront, the Maritime Museum tells the story of Aberdeen’s relationship with the North Sea – from fishing, fast sailing boats to the oil platforms the city now serves.
My favourite part of the museum was the story of Thermopylae. Launched in 1868, the Thermopylae was the fastest sailing boat ever made, no boat has yet broken its speed record from the UK to Australia in just 63 days. The Maritime Museum is free entry.
More museums to visit:
- The Gordon Highlanders Museum – telling the story of the ‘finest regiment in the world.
- The Tolbooth Museum – one of the best-preserved 17th-century gaols in Scotland.
- The Zoology Museum – containing around 75,000 animal specimens.
Find: Provost Skene’s House & Andy Scott – Marischal Square
Provost Skene’s House is one of the city centre’s oldest buildings. Built in 1545, the house is now a museum showing how people lived in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries and boast impressive painted ceilings. The house is currently closed to visitors, but the exterior is worth a visit.
Next door to Provost Skene’s House is the new Marischal Square, home to Mackie’s Ice Cream and Poised a sculpture by famous Scottish sculptor Andy Scott – you will know him best for the Kelpies at Falkirk.
Leopards have long formed part of Aberdeen’s heraldry – two leopards were once gifted to the city by King James I after the city underwrote the expense of his stay in captivity in England. You can spot more leopards on Union Bridge on Union Street and on Aberdeen’s coat of arms. No one is really sure whether the leopards were actually real.
3 / Things to do in Aberdeen Harbour
Carrying 5 million tons of cargo, North Link ferries to Shetland and home to huge boats heading out to the oil platforms, you can’t miss Aberdeen’s harbour on the River Dee. Hiding amongst the industry are bottlenose dolphins, quirky fishermen’s cottages and a rather excellent seafood restaurant. Let’s explore Aberdeen’s harbour.
Discover: the quirky village of Footdee / Fittie
The fishing village of Footdee is one of Scotland’s wee hidden gems. Designed by architect John Brown in 1809 to house Aberdeen’s fishermen, Footdee is a pretty village of ‘butt and ben’ cottages set around two inner squares.
My favourite part of Footdee are the cottage’s quirky Tarry Sheds which were added in the 19th century, as drying shed for fishing nets and as outhouses – Footdee originally had no running water and you can still see the old colourful water fountains all over the town. The sheds are now mostly used as summer houses.
Locally Footdee is also called Fittie – the names of the village are uncertain, either coming from the Church of St Fittick half a mile away or from the ‘Foot’ or mouth of the River Dee, or in Doric, the ‘Fit’ of the Dee – hence Fittie!
Spot: Dolphins in Aberdeen Harbour
Did you know that Aberdeen is one of the best places in Europe to see Dolphins? There are usually around 20 dolphins in the harbour (we spotted four in just 10 minutes) but you can see up to 50 – along with babies! The best place to watch the dolphins is from the Torry Battery and Girdleness Lighthouse.
The best time to see dolphins is in the afternoon and on an incoming/rising tide which brings in the food for the dolphins – the dolphins in the harbour eat both salmon from the Dee and saltwater catch – no wonder they are some of the biggest dolphins in Europe!
RSPB staff and volunteers provide information on the dolphins from Thursday to Sunday at the Torry Battery from 11am-6pm – they even have binoculars for you to borrow.
You can also watch the dolphins as you dine on Michelin recommended fish at the Silver Darling Restaurant at Porca Quay. Did you know a ‘silver darling’ is actually a herring?
Visit: RSPB Dolphinwatch
When to visit Aberdeen
Aberdeen is known as Scotland’s sunniest city (although this is disputed by Dundee) and on a good day in Scotland, the cities buildings just sparkle. I always recommend visiting Scotland in the shoulder season – April, May and September are often our best months weather-wise.
If you want to see the sakura blossoms in Old Aberdeen then visit in May. There are also 9 festivals throughout the year which might help you choose when to visit. Here are my favourites:
- Granite Noir (February) – Aberdeen’s crime writing festival
- Jazz Festival (March) – 10 days of Jazz and Blues performances
- Nuart (April) – a celebration of street art and culture
- Dolphin Fest – a celebration of Aberdeen’s dolphins
- Look Again Festival (June) – a festival which invites you to explore the city
- True North (September) – Aberdeen’s music festival
Where to stay in Aberdeen
- The 4 star Aberdeen Altens Hotel is a comfortable business hotel on the south side of the city. With a spa and pool, huge rooms and comfy beds with all the amenities including wifi and Nespresso machines along with a bar on site, it is a good value stopping point for visiting the city. Book the Aberdeen Altens Hotel*.
- More places to stay in Aberdeen* (affiliate link)
How to get to Aberdeen
- By train / Bus – there are direct trains from both Edinburgh and Glasgow to Aberdeen with Scotrail. The journey time is between 2.5 and 3 hours. You can also catch the Megabus or the National Express coach service.
- By air – There are flights to Aberdeen airport from most UK airports – thanks to the oil industry. You can fly to Aberdeen from Cardiff, Bristol, Humberside, London, Manchester, Newquay, Norwich, Southend, Southampton, Durham and Belfast, and onwards in Scotland to Kirkwall in Orkney and Wick and Shetland, as well as flights across Europe.
- From the airport – The Jet Service 727 will take you into the centre in around 40 minutes for £5 return. Service 747 will also take you to Montrose, Stonehaven, and Peterhead.
- By road – Aberdeen is around 2.5 hours northeast of Edinburgh and Glasgow. You can also get to Aberdeen by the Angus Coastal Route.
Where to eat in Aberdeen
- The Silver Darling – housed in a former customs house, the Silver Darling serves up exceptional fish & chips from Peterhead and shellfish from Fraserburgh. With a view overlooking the mouth of the River Dee watch out for big ships leaving the harbour and pods of dolphins feeding in the bay. It is one of 9 Aberdeen restaurants in the Michelin Guide.
- Vovem Meat & Liquor – like steak? Then head to Vovem, Aberdeen’s newest steakhouse. With sharing cuts, Argentinian grilling, Highland cattle cuts, and Scottish wagyu from Dunblane, Vovem hits all the meat lovers boxes. Veggies and fish eaters are also catered for – try the Scottish langoustines.
- Foodstory – run as a community cafe, Foodstory is one of Aberdeen’s gems. Serving mostly plant-based food, their menu is also mostly gluten-free. Upstairs Foodstory sells veg boxes and zero waste refill goods.
- Mackies 19.2 – made with milk and whole fresh cream, Mackies ice cream is some of the best in Scotland. Try their new flavours at their first ice-cream parlour, Mackies 19.2 is located 19.2 miles from the family farm where they started making ice cream more than 30 years ago. Did you know that Mackie’s make ice-cream for Aldi supermarkets?
….and finally, don’t miss trying an Aberdeen Rowie / Buttery. Made originally for sailors, a buttery is kind of like a croissant if it were made with lard and salt (it kept them moist at sea) a rowie is now often eaten as an breakfast treat – try them with raspberry jam. How do you eat your rowie?
Dolphins, quirky fishing villages & some of the best fish i’ve eaten in a long time… Aberdeen, you are a bonnie haddie!
Love, from Scotland x