Known as the ‘Granite City,’ Aberdeen is a modern port layered with reminders of its lengthy history. Get under the skin of this often misunderstood city by diving into these unique things to do.
Aberdeen is the main hub for the North Sea oil industry in Britain and one could be forgiven for thinking that oil-infrastructure dominates the city. However, that could not be further from the truth. Away from the port, it is a place with a long history that can be seen on the streets, in cultural galleries that rub shoulders with trendy bars and restaurants, and old industrial buildings sitting side by side with historic fishing cottages. Here are some of the more unique ways to experience Aberdeen.
Wander around a quirky old fishing village
Footdee is a part of Aberdeen that started life long before the concept of oil as a natural resource, or indeed any form of fossil fuel, became known. The current location of the village is at the entrance to Aberdeen Harbour, but the village was originally sited further north before being relocated. Footdee (pronounced ‘Fittie’), also known as ‘Fish Town,’ is a pedestrianized area of squares surrounded by terraced cottages, many of which are adorned with creative little plaques, art and sculptures made by the local people, giving it a quaint, old-world fishing village charm, despite the hulking architecture of modern oil industry storage units overshadowing it all.
Take a tour of castles and a brewery
The county of Aberdeenshire is mostly formed of pleasant rural communities and contains its fair share of baronial castles and forts. One of the best ways to get out of Aberdeen and visit one is on a tour to New Slains Castle, an impressive 16th- and 17th-century building built atop cliffs overlooking the North Sea. But another bonus of being in this region is the proximity of Brewdog’s brewery. The Aberdeenshire craft beer company is taking the world by storm and this tour takes a look at exactly why: the brewing process behind the drinks, as well as the chance to sample some suds fresh from the brewery taproom. More information about this tour can be found on Viator.
Try your hand at coasteering
The countryside surrounding Aberdeen is spectacular, with patches of forest and rolling moorland close by. To the south of the city, the coastline is quite rugged, which presents an opportunity to outdoor enthusiasts who like a physical challenge. Coasteering involves scrambling up and over rocks and traversing cliffs either by climbing or swimming around them in the sea. This is something that should only be done with a trained guide, who will provide the correct equipment, and will know the tidal times and the best spots where you can scramble through rock pools, explore sea caves, and cliff dive into the cold North Sea to your heart’s content.
Catch a show at The Lemon Tree
For those on the hunt for something more cultural than coastal, the Lemon Tree is one of the city’s best places to find national touring acts in the realms of stand-up comedy, theatre and live music of all genres. Check out their regularly-revolving schedule of Scottish performances, artistic exhibitions, and live music gigs either in the 550-person main venue or the 166-seat studio theatre. There are occasionally other events held here, such as the Aberdeen Gin Festival in the summer.
5 W N Street
Find captivation at Tolbooth Museum
Part of Aberdeen’s past is on display at the Tolbooth Museum, with an emphasis on the history of crime and punishment in the region, due to the fact that this museum is situated in a former gaol. Today, visitors can peek inside eerie cells – where prisoners were held during the 17th and 18th centuries – that are etched with the stories and cries of their former inmates. Execution tools that have long been banned, such as a 17th-century guillotine blade, are also on display.
Hunt for ghosts on a guided walk
Following on from the macabre setting of Aberdeen’s prison past, you might want to continue the horror by going ghost hunting. There are numerous spots around the city that are thought to be haunted and you can begin your evening with a ghost walk around town. During this, you’ll be party to eerie stories of past residents inbetween visits to some of the best-loved stately homes and buildings that are known for their ghostly goings-on. Afterwards, you can bring yourself back to reality in a local pub (highly recommended).
Explore Old Aberdeen on foot
It’s easy to forget that Aberdeen, now most associated with the oil industry, has a long and storied history. Many of the city’s highlights can be found to the north of the city centre like the Brig ‘o’ Balgownie, a 14th-century stone bridge and a good spot for a photo on calm days when the River Don is peaceful. Another intriguing piece of local history can be found in St Machar Cathedral, where it is rumoured that the arm of Sir William Wallace is buried in the building’s walls after he was hung in 1305. Reach the cathedral by walking south from the bridge through leafy Seaton Park. Further south still is the main campus of the University of Aberdeen, established in 1495. One of the oldest buildings here is the King’s College Chapel.
Convene with nature at Cruikshank Botanic Garden
Also located beside the picturesque campus of the University of Aberdeen’s King’s College are the botanical gardens of Cruickshank, which offer a hearty dose of peace and quiet close to the bustling city. Promoting the beauty of nature with a vibrant display of roughly 2,500 plants, shrubs, trees and bushes, its nooks and crannies are perfect for getting lost in. Spend an afternoon exploring the interconnected rock gardens, the sunken garden and the arboretum. A visit here could easily be combined with the experience listed above.
Saint Machar Drive
Take to the sea on a dolphin spotting boat trip
The North Sea may not be the kind of place most people want to spend much time swimming in, but there are plenty of wonderful creatures residing beneath the waves. Among them, dolphins are the cream of the crop, and you can watch them frolicking in the surf, sometimes even from the safety of the shoreline. However, the best way to see them up close is from a boat, and Aberdeen Harbour Tours offer trips out on weekends and bank holidays from spring to autumn each year.
Spot seals at Forvie National Nature Reserve
The Forvie National Nature Reserve is a protected area of shifting sand dunes 16 miles north of Aberdeen. Various paths lead walkers through the dunes and past remnants of villages that were abandoned due to the build-up of silt and sand, while the coastal cliffs break away into colourful moorland. The natural life here is delightfully eclectic, with important colonies of eider ducks, terns, wading birds and grey seals making this area their home. For the ultimate escape, check out the hidden beach at Hackley Bay.
Have a drink in a former Gothic church
Slains Castle isn’t your ordinary drinking hole. Inspired by the story of Dracula, which some people believe was itself inspired by New Slains Castle to the north of Aberdeen, this themed pub’s atmosphere is greatly enhanced by its old church setting. The pub is right in the heart of Aberdeen city centre. Try one of the Seven Deadly Sin’s Cocktails to kick things off. There is a fairly substantial food menu also, with Scottish classics like haggis, neeps and tatties, as well as pies, burgers and decent sections devoted to gluten-free, veggie and vegan dishes.
14-18 Belmont Street
Tee up at a coastal golf range
This region of Scotland is famed for its golfing opportunities, and Aberdeen is no exception, with four golf courses located right on the coast alone. You can play a few holes with a view of the North Sea or overlooking the city. The views at sunset from Nigg Bay Golf Course in particular are fantastic, with the industrial harbour’s lights reflecting off the water as ships come and go along the busy waterways.