The Best Things to do in Aberdeen, Scotland

The 15 Best Things to do in Aberdeen, Scotland

Long sandy beaches, magnificent granite architecture, and thousands of years of history ensure that Aberdeen is one of the best city break destinations in Scotland

This is Scotland’s third-largest urban area, but the “Granite City,” as Aberdeen is better known, sees just a fraction of the visitor numbers that descend on Edinburgh throughout the year. We hope it stays that way, too, because Aberdeen is best enjoyed without the crowds. 

This is where the Scotland of old meets the fiery confidence of the modern Scottish nation. Stroll through the cobbled streets of Old Aberdeen, and you can discover centuries of history written in the stone walls, townhouses, and cathedrals. 

Down at Aberdeen Harbour, you can immerse yourself in maritime history while also seeing first-hand how the city’s offshore oil and gas wealth has transformed Aberdeen into a contemporary commercial center. 

Then, further afield, you’ll find that Aberdeen is a great launchpad for exploring the castles and nature reserves along Scotland’s northeast coastline. Cairngorms National Park is just a short drive away, while beautiful coastal towns like Stonehaven offer a welcome escape from the city. 

With so many things to see and do, you might not know where to start. That’s why we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Aberdeen for you. Try these fun and unique Aberdeen bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an exceptional time exploring this fantastic Scottish city!

15 Fun and Unique Things to do in Aberdeen

1. Delve into local history on a walking tour of Aberdeen

Best Things to do in Aberdeen: Walking tour of Aberdeen

Aberdeen is a city that’s steeped in history. Archeological finds in the area suggest that people have lived here for as long as 8,000 years, while the city itself was first granted a charter almost 1,000 years ago in 1179 AD.

You can explore this rich heritage on a walking tour of Aberdeen’s main city center sights, where a local Aberdonian will lead you through centuries of history. Tours start at the Mercat Cross, a unique symbol of the city that dates back to 1686. The cross is said to mark the traditional center of the “Royal Burgh,” which forms the historic heart of Aberdeen.

From the Mercat Cross, you’ll stroll into Castlegate, which today is a serious blend of the old and the new. Castlegate is where Aberdeen’s medieval castle once stood (it’s now been demolished, unfortunately), and you’ll learn how the city was often caught up in the endless wars between the English and Scots in the medieval period. 

The history doesn’t end there, and you’ll swiftly move on to Marischal College, where students have been educated since at least the 16th century. Marischal College is a stunning example of Aberdonian architecture, and the college is often cited as a granite landmark of the “Granite City.” 

Sights abound in Aberdeen’s city center, and walking tours might also lead you to Provost Skene’s House, a remarkably well-preserved Tudor-era mansion, or down to Aberdeen Harbour, which has been the focal point of the city’s maritime trade and history since the 12th century AD. 

Book a Street Art Guided Walking Tour


2. Explore Old Aberdeen by foot

Fun Things to do in Aberdeen: Explore Old Aberdeen by Foot

Aberdeen is a curious place to explore, and you might be intrigued to learn that until 1891, the city was divided into two distinct parts. In fact, there were two cities (or Burghs, in Scots) next to each other until an Act of Parliament officially joined them together. 

The first city you’ve already seen if you’ve explored Aberdeen’s city center area. The area around Castlegate was known as New Aberdeen, and it functioned independently. The second city was named Old Aberdeen, and you’ll find it to the north of New Aberdeen.

Aberdeen Bucket List: Explore Old Aberdeen by Foot

Old Aberdeen grew around St Machar’s Cathedral, which was founded sometime in the 6th century AD by its namesake, Saint Machar. The area grew into a city proper from the 14th century onwards, when Old Aberdeen became an important ecclesiastical center. This attracted traders and merchants from far afield, who turned the city into a wealthy mercantile hub. 

Today, you’ll find that Old Aberdeen’s charming cobbled streets and stone walls (many of the walls were stacked by hand, centuries prior) combine to create a wonderful place to explore on foot. Take in historic sights like St Machar’s Cathedral and the Old Town House, and enjoy the pleasant surroundings of Seaton Park and Cruickshank Botanic Gardens. 


3. Delve into local legend at St Machar’s Cathedral 

Best Things to do in Aberdeen: St Machar’s Cathedral
Images courtesy of VisitAberdeenshire

While you’re exploring Old Aberdeen, we highly recommend going into St Machar’s Cathedral for a closer look at this historic place of worship. Named for St Machar, who supposedly accompanied St Columba into Scotland in the 6th century AD to spread the word of Christianity, the cathedral is steeped in local legend and lore. 

It’s difficult to separate fact from reality, and it’s possible that the church itself was founded by St Machar, who is said to have visited here in 580 AD. The original church was built over, time and time again, and it’s said that beneath the walls lie part of the remains of the legendary Scottish independence fighter William Wallace, whose body was quartered and sent to different parts of Britain after his execution. 

Step inside, and you’ll love the layers of history and heritage within. But intriguingly, St Machar’s Cathedral is no longer actually a cathedral. It’s technically known as a “High Kirk” because after the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century, the catholic cathedrals were dissolved. 


4. Visit Provost Skene’s House – Aberdeen’s oldest townhouse

A visit to Provost Skene’s House is one of the top things to do in Aberdeen. This remarkable building dates back to 1545, making it the oldest townhouse in Aberdeen. The house is named for Sir George Skene, the Provost of Aberdeen who lived here in the 17th century, and inside you’ll be able to find out what life was like in centuries past for Aberdonian citizens. 

The house was often slated for demolition, but it’s always clung on, and in 2019 it underwent a huge refurbishment that cemented its place on Aberdeen’s skyline – hopefully for many more centuries to come. 

The refurbishment involved the creation of a wonderful new exhibition space that’s devoted to telling the stories of famous Aberdonians past and present. In the Hall of Heroes, you can learn more about the past occupants of Provost Skene’s House (who tended to be wealthy, elite Aberdonians, of course), as well as local heroes like Lord Boyd Ord (a Nobel laureate) and footballing legend Denis Law, the only Scottish player to ever win the legendary Ballon d’Or award (which is given to the best player in the world!).  


5. Admire the city’s artistic side at Aberdeen Art Gallery

Must do things in Aberdeen: Aberdeen Art Gallery
Images courtesy of VisitAberdeenshire

One of the best Aberdeen attractions is the Aberdeen Art Gallery. This prestigious institution is home to a “Recognized Collection of National Significance,” which features an extensive collection of artwork the city has been collecting since the gallery first opened its doors in 1885. 

Aberdeen Art Gallery is home to hundreds of works of art spread across a total of 18 exhibitions. The artwork spans some seven centuries of art history and includes works by artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Raeburn. The exhibitions are divided into unique topics and areas of historical interest, covering periods like the “Art of Empowerment,” “French Impressions,” and the “First World War Remembered.” 

You’ll find the Aberdeen Art Gallery is located within one of the city’s finest granite buildings too, which anyone with a love of architecture would also consider to be a work of art in itself. The building dates back to the 19th century, and the original granite exterior has been extended through multiple additions and conversions. The most recent was a four-year-long refurbishment between 2015 and 2019 which brought Aberdeen Art Gallery into the modern era. 


6. Learn about Aberdeen’s military history at The Gordon Highlanders Museum

Cool Things to do in Aberdeen: Gordon Highlanders Museum
Images courtesy of VisitAberdeenshire

If you’re a history lover wondering what to do in Aberdeen, then plan a visit to The Gordon Highlanders Museum. Aberdeenshire, with its rugged mountains and windswept coastline, has long been known for producing some of Britain’s hardiest soldiers, and few have claimed so much glory as the Gordon Highlanders.

The Gordon Highlanders were formed from Aberdeenshire recruits by the Duke of Gordon in 1794, and they’ve since become an enduring symbol of Aberdeen. This infamous army regiment has over 200 years of history, and they’ve served everywhere, from France and Spain to India and Afghanistan. Their legacy continues to this day, although the modern regiment is now an amalgamation of the Gordon highlanders and several other historical regiments from northern Scotland. 

You can find out more in the excellent Gordon Highlanders Museum, which explores the history of Aberdeen’s local regiment, its victories, and defeats through the stories of those who served and fought. 


7. Be shocked by the history of crime and punishment at The Tolbooth Museum

The Tolbooth Museum is one of the darker things to see in Aberdeen, but this unusual attraction is a must-see if you’re fascinated by crime and punishment. The Tolbooth Museum is set within Aberdeen’s former prison, or “gaol.” 

The building itself is another example of the city’s fine architecture, and with a history dating back to the 1600s, it’s also one of the oldest buildings in Aberdeen. But the magnificent exterior hides a troubled past. Venture inside the museum, you’ll learn more about the many unfortunate prisoners who were held here in centuries past. 

The Tolbooth Museum is set within the restored prison cells of the gaol, where you’ll hear the moving first-hand stories of prisoners, including those who were tried and often executed for witchcraft in the 17th century. You’ll also learn about the Jacobites, a group of rebels who tried to overthrow the monarchy in 1715, then again in 1745, before you’re then shocked by the instruments of torture and execution on display in the old cells. 


8. Explore Aberdeen Harbour and Aberdeen Maritime Museum

What to do in Aberdeen: Aberdeen Harbour

Aberdeen’s coastal location means that the city is inextricably linked to the North Sea. The Aberdeen Harbour is the largest seaport in Scotland, and for centuries, it’s linked the city to trade routes across the world. 

The harbor dates back to 1136 AD, but it’s very much modern and in use today. Head down to the wharves, and you never know which ships you’ll see calling into port, while the harbor area is a lively, history-laden destination offering a glimpse into Aberdeen, old and new. 

Must do things in Aberdeen: Aberdeen Harbour

To learn more about Aberdeen’s rich maritime history, then you’ll also want to visit the Aberdeen Maritime Museum. Located on Shiprow, the most historic part of the harbor, Aberdeen Maritime Museum is set over four floors of detailed and interesting exhibitions. 

You’ll learn about the earliest shipbuilding techniques and fishing industries that developed in Aberdeen many centuries ago before seeing how the harbor developed into a shipbuilding center from the 16th century onwards. The top floor offers superb views over Aberdeen Harbour, while the latest galleries offer a modern insight into the offshore oil and gas trade that’s made Aberdeen rich. 


9. Enjoy the golden sands of Aberdeen Beach

Aberdeen Things to do: Aberdeen Beach

Aberdeen is a coastal city, and the golden sands of Aberdeen Beach are one of the city’s best natural attractions. Coastal cities aren’t rare in the United Kingdom, but it is rare to find such a long, sandy beach so close to such an extensive urban area. 

Aberdeen Beach starts by Aberdeen Harbour, from where it gently curves its way north toward the River Don. The long road that runs parallel to the seafront is known simply as The Esplanade, and it’s lined with shops and leisure parks and busy with sightseers, joggers, hikers, and cyclists. 

In summer, the beach is glorious, but remember, this is the North Sea. If you’re not used to the chill, then it’s going to feel cold all year round. That doesn’t stop the locals from jumping in, though, and there’s even an annual Boxing Day Swim on December 26.


10. Admire the views from the Girdle Ness Peninsula

Unique Things to do in Aberdeen: Girdle Ness Peninsula

The Girdle Ness Peninsula overlooks the mouth of the River Dee, the natural entrance to Aberdeen Harbour. One of the most fun things to do in Aberdeen is to admire the views from the eastern end of this landmark location!

The peninsula’s strategic location means it’s long been the first and last marker for ships leaving or entering the harbor. Overlooking the blustery North Sea coastline, it’s not hard to imagine how many ships were lost on the rocks here, even so close to home. 

To make things safer, the 37-meter-tall Girdle Ness Lighthouse was designed and built by Robert Stevenson in 1833. The lighthouse is now fully automated, and you’ll love how the lighthouse keeper’s cottages can be rented out by tourists!

A short walk along the peninsula from Girdle Ness Lighthouse brings you to another of the best sights in Aberdeen. Since 1860, the Torry Battery has overlooked the entrance to Aberdeen Harbour, and while the guns have long since been removed, the ruins are an important “scheduled monument.” 


11. Join a harbor and dolphin cruise

Fun Things to do in Aberdeen: Harbour and Dolphin cruise

The North Sea is a vital link to Aberdeen’s heritage, and there’s no better way to experience this force of nature than by joining a harbor and dolphin cruise during your stay in the city. 

Cruises run almost all year round, but remember, they are weather dependent. This is Aberdeen, though, and the captains will go out even if it does seem a little blustery to visitors (they’re used to it!). A typical cruise lasts one hour, starting with a tour of Aberdeen Harbour before venturing out into the North Sea. 

Aberdeen Bucket List: Harbor and Dolphin cruise

This is prime dolphin watching territory, and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot these wonderful marine mammals feeding in the bay. There’s a resident pod of dolphins that live in the area, so the chances are high that your captain will find them. 

Interestingly, you can also join an offshore wind farm tour. This cruise also departs from Aberdeen Harbour and takes you into Aberdeen Bay, where you’ll sail among the monstrous wind turbines providing power for the mainland. 


12. Visit Stonehaven (on Hogmanay, if you can!)

Must do things in Aberdeen: Stonehaven Dunnottar Castle

A 30-minute drive south of Aberdeen brings you to the coastal town of Stonehaven, which we think you’ll agree is by far one of the prettiest destinations in Aberdeenshire. Stonehaven is a typically rustic harbor town, and it’s thought that the small fishing port here has been used since the Iron Age. 

You’ll love the fresh sea air when you stand down by the quay, while the tidal beach is always awash with boats and fishermen sorting their catch or preparing for the next outing. Take a two-mile walk south of Stonehaven Harbour, and you’ll then come to Dunnottar Castle. Here, you’ll be awed by the dramatic ruins of a medieval castle precariously perched on a rocky peninsula jutting out into the North Sea. It truly is a sight to behold and one of the very best sights in the Aberdeen area.

While Stonehaven makes for a fantastic visit any time of the year, it really comes into its own during the New Year. The town is famed for its Hogmanay celebrations, when locals prepare giant fireballs, set them alight, and march through the streets of Stonehaven swinging them before throwing them into the harbor. 

Book a Dunnottar Castle Day Tour


13. Enjoy a wee dram of gin at the City of Aberdeen Distillery

Best Things to do in Aberdeen: Wee Dram of Gin at the City of Aberdeen Distillery

After all that Aberdeen sightseeing, there’s nothing better than winding down with a wee dram of the local gin!

This is Scotland, and although Aberdeenshire is home to some of the most iconic single malt whiskey distilleries in the world, we recommend visiting the City Of Aberdeen Distillery for its gin. In a country dominated by whiskey, founders Dan and Alan have spiced up the drinks trade with an impressive range of locally distilled gins.

The City of Aberdeen Distillery was the first distillery to open within the city limits for some eight decades, and since they started distilling their gin just five years ago, they’ve made a name for themselves as one of the best local producers in Scotland. 

They’ve been refining their craft and products ever since, and on a gin tour of the distillery, you can try their Scottish Bramble Gin, Thyme for Rosemary Gin, or their signature Aberdeen Gin (which is the “Official Gin of Aberdeen City”).


14. Take an adventurous road trip to Cairngorms National Park

Cool Things to do in Aberdeen: Cairngorms National Park

Follow the A93 highway west of Aberdeen, and within an hour’s drive, you’ll reach the edge of Cairngorms National Park. This is one of the most underrated road trips in Scotland, as this old military road takes you through some of the best scenery and landmarks in Britain’s most northerly national park.

Traveling from Aberdeen, you can stop to cross the Cambus o’ May Suspension Bridge on foot, over the River Dee. Pictish Stones await you in Milton of Tullich, before you pass Balmoral Castle, which is the Royal Family’s personal highland estate. Braemar Castle is a marvelous example of highland defensive architecture, and marvelous views await you as the road traverses high passes toward Glenshee. 

You can turn around and drive back along the A93 to Aberdeen, or you can continue south toward Perth, then join main roads heading back north to turn your road trip into a circular loop. 


15. Explore the Aberdeen Coastal Trail

Must do things in Aberdeen: Aberdeen Coastal Trail

The Aberdeen Coastal Trail is a glorious road trip that traverses 165 miles of spectacular coastal scenery. This is one of the must-do things in Aberdeen, although you’ll need at least four days to really experience all the stops on the route.

The Aberdeen Coastal Trail starts in St Cyrus, to the south of Aberdeen. Explore beaches and coastal scenery as you drive north to Stonehaven, then onwards to Aberdeen. 

Aberdeen Bucket List: Aberdeen Coastal Trail

From the city, you’ll continue north along the coast, stopping at Cruden Bay and Slain’s Castle (a supposed inspiration for Dracula’s castle), then onto the Banffshire Coast, where you’ll call into Crimond, Fraserburgh, and Macduff. The road trip ends in Portsoy, a harbor town known for its ice cream, salmon, and yearly boat festival. 

There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Aberdeen. What’s your favorite thing to do in Aberdeen?


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Author

  • Richard Collett

    Richard is an award-winning travel writer based in Southwest England who’s addicted to traveling off the beaten track. He’s traveled to 75 countries and counting in search of intriguing stories, unusual destinations, and cultural curiosities.

    Richard loves traveling the long way round over land and sea, and you’ll find him visiting quirky micronations and breakaway territories as often as he’s found lounging on a beach (which is a lot).

    When he’s not writing for BBC Travel, National Geographic, or Lonely Planet, you can find Richard writing for the Wandering Wheatleys or updating his off-beat travel blog, Travel Tramp.

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