How to ace Aberdeen: an expert’s guide to the Granite City

written by
Mike MacEacheran

updated 22.04.2024

With more than thirty other namesakes around the world – from New South Wales in Australia to South Africa's Eastern Cape – Scotland's Aberdeen remains the original and best, wearing its history well.

Known as the Granite City, and built on centuries of nautical heritage – herring fishing, whaling, shipbuilding, and the far more recent offshore oil boom, which took off like a rocket – the place is a shrine to the ambition of coastal life, with a rich mercantile quarter, marine climate and two sprawling universities. Whether you want jam-packed history, unbeatable golf or superb whisky, this is what you need to know about Aberdeen.

Why should I go now?

In a nutshell: culture. Never mind oil – if the city could harness its art and ambition, it'd have enough oomph to power the north. Later this year sees the reopening of the Aberdeen Art Gallery, following a £30m aesthetic expansion that will add to its impressive roster. Among the highlights of the collection – which sketches a line from Pre-Raphaelite art and Impressionism to the 20th-century Brit school – are works from Boudin, Courbet, Monet, Pissarro and Renoir. Before then, feel the weight of the city’s cultural welly during a visit to the tantalising Maritime Museum, a combo of a modern gallery and the warren-like corridors of Provost Ross’s House, the second oldest building in the city.

Aberdeen, Scotland

Aberdeen © Alexey Fedorenko/Shutterstock

What if I've only got a day?

All roads lead to 17th-century Mercat Cross, the city’s gargoyle-covered ground zero at the heart of Castlegate square, and this is where you should start your whistle-stop tour. From here, looking up at silvery granite that flickers in all weathers, follow gently ascending Union Street to ambitious Marischal College, ribbon-cut by King Edward VII in 1906 and one of the planet’s largest granite buildings. At nearly every turn, now in sight of St Andrew’s Cathedral, you’ll encounter a higgledy-piggledy tangle of granular spires, Baroque towers and imposing, slate-grey edifices.

Notwithstanding this devotion to time-worn tradition, Aberdeen also offers up some genuine guidebook surprises: its quarried granite was used to build London’s Houses of Parliament, while it’s also the sunniest city in Britain. Bet you didn’t expect that from a place plotted at a latitude north of Moscow.

Marischal College, Aberdeen

Marischal College, Aberdeen © VisitScotland

What’s all this about sunshine?

We’re not making it up. The city has an easily accessible 3km ribbon of golden curving sand where you can sunbathe, swim and surf. When the often tempestuous seas are calm – and particularly in summer – a real Aberdeen highlight is to take a dolphin-watching tour from the salt-lashed working harbour with Clyde Cruises; you might also see minke whale, basking shark and rainbow-nosed puffin.

Farther along the coast, those same sands give rise to some of the world’s best links golf courses, undulating 18-holers shorn and sculpted out of 4000-year-old machair-topped dunes. Aberdeen has a golf course for every week of the year, with two big-hitters to try – namely Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, the world’s sixth oldest, and – politics aside – the $1.5 billion Trump International Golf Links on Menie Estate.

Aberdeen beach

Aberdeen Beach © OTHMAN PHOTOGRAPHY/Shutterstock

What if I want to get out of town?

Edinburgh and Stirling both have banner-waving castles that sing on postcards, but so too does Aberdeenshire. For the melancholic whimsy of northeast Scotland, savour toothy Dunnottar Castle, a medieval fortress perched on a rocky headland south of Stonehaven on the coast. Bloodstained stories spill from its stones – not least one from 1297, when Scottish folk hero William Wallace burned an English garrison inside alive. Come around dusk, and it’s also not hard to imagine a witches’ sabbath taking place in the keep.

In the opposite direction, towards the Cairngorms National Park and Braemar, stop by the royal Balmoral Estate, where Her Majesty the Queen – most definitely not a witch – decamps to Scotland every summer.

Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire © aiaikawa/Shutterstock

What’s the nightlife like?

Victorian-era boozer The Grill on Union Street is what Scottish old timers’ pubs do best, offering little or no seating, an ornamental counter and mahogany trim. The 600-strong single malt selection is unrivaled (fact: Aberdeenshire is within spitting distance of the largest number of distilleries in Scotland), while the characters inside are just as much a part of the pub’s warp and weft.

Evidence of stranger times is on show at The Illicit Still, a gothic bar-cum-prohibition den, beautifully packed with leather armchairs, pool tables and sneering gargoyles. Finally, it's boisterous and student-packed, but Brewdog’s Gallowgate craft beer pub is where it all started for the Fraserburgh brewer that’s gone global.

Aberdeen Harbour

Aberdeen Harbour © colftcl/Shutterstock

When’s the best time to visit?

Whisky-coloured skies, blustery golden beach days, torpid rain from fish-net clouds above the North Sea – Aberdeen has a remarkable range of colour and weather. The long summer nights from May to August promise the best of the sunshine.

Meanwhile, from September to March, on nights when the skies are burning clean with stars, it’s not out of the realms of possibility that you'll witness one of the greatest, if rarest, spectacles in the UK: the northern lights (the city even has a song about it). Check out the VisitScotland website for more information on catching the "Mirrie Dancers" all around the country.

Visit Scotland logo

This feature is in partnership with VisitScotland, the National Tourism Organisation for Scotland. 2018 is Scotland’s Year of Young People, celebrating the talents and contributions of youth and providing even more ways for visitors to explore all that Scotland has to offer. Whether you’re young or young at heart there’s never been a better time to visit the most beautiful country in the world. All recommendations are editorially independent.

Explore more of Scotland with The Rough Guide to Scotland. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

Top image: Mercat Cross © Susanne Pommer/Shutterstock.

Mike MacEacheran

written by
Mike MacEacheran

updated 22.04.2024

Mike MacEacheran is a travel journalist & guidebook author based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has reported from 108 countries for National Geographic, Conde Nast Traveller, The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, The Wall Street Journal, Mail on Sunday, The Independent, Evening Standard, The Sun, The Globe and Mail, Scotland on Sunday, The National and South China Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMacEacheran

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