My guide to the Granite City! From castles, cosy cafes, and a charming old town, these are my favourite things to do in Aberdeen…
My complete guide to the best things to do in Aberdeen.
Known as both the Granite City and the Silver City, the steely grey of Aberdeen will be one of the first things you notice when you arrive there. It’s built out of locally quarried granite, and for someone who grew up in the central belt of Scotland, I find the coolness of the colour palette in this city strange. But it’s also really quite beautiful. One thing is for sure, when you arrive in Aberdeen you’ll know about it.
When I was there it was an incredibly sunny day. That meant that all of the buildings were sparkling in the sunlight. For some reason that kept reminding me of Edward Cullen in Twilight, but in reality, it’s a result of the high mica content of the granite. So there you go!
What is there to do in Aberdeen?
Let’s just say if you visit Aberdeen for the weekend you’ll have a lot to cram in!
The city is home to two universities, a charming cobbled old town, street art, stylish eateries, and a sleepy fishing village known as Footdee. It’s well worth wandering through it for a change of pace from the bustling city centre. There are also museums a plenty, art galleries, bars, restaurants and a whole lot of cultural capital.
What is Aberdeen known for?
What can I tell you about Aberdeen? Well, apart from its striking grey exterior, it’s also a city that’s known for being built on oil money. It was once known as the off-shore oil capital of Europe and if you know someone in Aberdeen it’s likely they’re connected to the oil industry in some way or other. But, of course, Aberdeen is way more than just oil.
Aberdeen is the third most populous city in Scotland after Glasgow and Edinburgh, with a population of around 200,000. It’s sometimes referred to as the ‘the Flower of Scotland’ due to its beautiful parks and green spaces. In 2018 it was also found to be the best business in the UK to start a business in, so if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, go there!
Here are another few things Aberdeen is known for…
You might be wondering what Doric is. Well, it’s actually the Scots dialect that’s spoken in the north east of Scotland and in Aberdeen. As a relative southerner, it’s not something I’m overly familiar with but if someone says ‘Fit like?’ it means how are you? ‘Foos yer doos?’ literally translates as ‘how are your pigeons?’ and also means how are you? I love it!
Also known as butteries or Aberdeen rowies, these rolls are delight – and a weekend treat when I was growing up. They’re flatter, saltier, and denser than a regular roll but they are absolutely delicious. I would always have mine with a slather of butter on top! I even ordered buttery flavoured ice cream during my visit – more on that later!
I’ve already mentioned the granite, but did you know that it was shipped all around the UK and used to build London’s Houses of Parliament and Trafalgar Square? Another 640,000 cubic feet of Aberdeen granite went to the construction of the Forth Rail Bridge. What that means is that a lot of the buildings have a kind of flatness which is pretty unique!
Aberdeen is home to the oldest newspaper in the world, which is The Press & Journal. It was first launched in 1747 and is distributed around Aberdeen and the north east of Scotland. It’s also owned by iconic publishers DC Thomson, which is where I used to work! DC Thomson are also famous for publishing iconic comics The Beano and The Dandy.
Its ‘Castle Country’ nickname
This nickname refers to Aberdeenshire more generally, but it’s definitely worth knowing if you want to spot some castles during your trip to Aberdeen. There are 300 in the region in total with Dunnotar Castle, royal residence Balmoral Castle – complete with its famous pyramid – and the ‘pink castle’ being just a snapshot. So many castles, so little time!
Like castles? Check out my review of this five-star fairy-tale castle in Pitlochry!
Aberdeen: need-to-know facts about the city
What does Aberdeen mean?
The name ‘Aberdeen’ means mouth of the River Dee.
Is Aberdeen worth visiting?
I’d say it is! It’s got a buzzing centre in the form of Union Square for starters. If you want shops, restaurants, and a cinema all under one roof then it doesn’t get much better that this for a day out with you friends. It’s also got great connections with the railway station and bus station so don’t even have to step outside on the days when it’s blowing a hoolie!
However, if you do want to venture beyond Aberdeen city centre (and I very much suggest you do) then there’s so much on your doorstep. I was struck by the variety of things to do here, from beaches to bustle to one of the cutest – and oldest – bridges in the world, Aberdeen has it all. Add in a dash of that granite sparkle and you’re good to go!
Best Instagram spots in Aberdeen
I’ll talk more on these later but whenever I visit a new city I want to find out where the beauty spots are. Here’s a quick taster of the city locations that are good for the gram!
- Old Aberdeen – expect cobbled streets and plenty of old-fashioned charm
- The Nuart street art trail – the street art in Aberdeen is big, bold, and impactful
- Footdee – this old-fashioned fishing village is quaint, colourful and very cute
- Bonobo café – the roof garden of this vegan café is a piece of tropical paradise
- The rainbow steps in the city centre – take a seat and get ready to pose
Is Aberdeen cheap?
As far as city breaks go, I was also impressed by the number of free things there are to do in Aberdeen. I’ll talk more about this later but there are loads of landmarks in the city that you can enjoy without spending any money whatsoever. Here are a few examples…
- The famous granite mile
- Old world charm in old Aberdeen
- Leopard sculpture at Marischal Square
- Brig o’ Balgownie – Scotland’s oldest bridge
- Footdee and the nearby beach
Is Aberdeen dangerous?
It’s actually very safe. Aberdeen has named in the top 10 of the safest cities in the UK. According to reports, 70% of residents say that there’s a strong sense of community which in turn makes the city feel safe and friendly. In addition, unemployment in Aberdeen is really low at 1.8% which also adds to the city feeling safe and welcoming to tourists.
Now that we’ve cleared all that up, let’s get to the travel info you need to know!
Where is Aberdeen?
Aberdeen is located on the north east coast of Scotland and, as a port town, it faces out on the North Sea. Located in the highlands of Scotland, it’s 120 miles north of Edinburgh.
What is the weather like in Aberdeen?
Aberdeen weather, where do I start? I’m kidding! Although I’m not really. Aberdeen is the second coldest city in Scotland, coming after Perth, and I’m not overly surprised about that. It is a port town facing onto the North Sea after all, so when it’s brisk it’s very brisk! In fact, temperatures in the warmest month of the year, August, average a measly 13.9°C.
The good thing is it is on the east coast and that means it’s dryer and less wet than the west coast. So while it may be chilly you’re less likely to get rained on! Small mercies, right?
How to get to Aberdeen
Aberdeen’s location on the east coast of Scotand means that it’s also on the main east coast train line. If you want to travel direct to Aberdeen from Edinburgh, for example, it’s a doddle. You just have to sit on a train for a couple of hours with gorgeous coastal views.
I travelled to Aberdeen by train from Dundee, and it was super easy and quick. Trains are frequent and it takes around an hour and twenty minutes in total, so not long at all.
The train from Edinburgh to Aberdeen takes two and a half hours in total. The great news is that it’s direct, so you won’t have to change trains. You can get comfy!
The train from Glasgow to Aberdeen takes just under four hours in total (on average anyway) and you will have to change trains at Edinburgh if you travel this way.
Travelling to Aberdeen by bus is another great option for travellers. It’s a budget-friendly option and with the bus station connected to Union Square you’ll be right in the centre.
The bus from Dundee to Aberdeen takes an hour and 20 minutes. It’s super affordable as well, with a single coming in at £8-£13 in total. I might get the bus next time!
The bus from Edinburgh to Aberdeen takes just over three hours in total. I had a look at the Megabus website and the price is about £20-£29 depending on the service.
The bus from Glasgow to Aberdeen takes around three hours 20 minutes. On the Megabus website the journey comes in at £17-£27 in total depending on the service.
Shops in Aberdeen
As I mentioned, when you talk about shops in Aberdeen it’s all about Union Square. All the biggest shops, restaurant chains, and even a cinema can all be found under one roof right in the centre of the city. If you’d like to plan a day of shopping in Aberdeen this is the place to come. It’s also handy if the Scottish weather isn’t playing ball.
Restaurants in Aberdeen
I was really impressed by the standard of the cafes, restaurants, and places to eat in Aberdeen. If you’re looking for your favourite chains you can find all of those in Union Square – there’s a Nando’s, Pizza Hut, Wagamama, Zizzi, Pizza Express and a BrewDog.
However, if you’re looking for something a little more unique there are also plenty of places to try. Bonobo Café, The Craftsmen Company and the Long Dog Café are just a few, which I will talk on later. There’s also a great selection of vegan restaurants in Aberdeen!
- Read my blog post on the best cafes in Aberdeen here
Bars in Aberdeen
One of my favourite bars in Aberdeen is multinational craft beer company Brew Dog. It’s a bit of a local success story, having originated out of Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire in 2007. Brewdog’s first bar quickly followed, opening in Aberdeen in 2009. I’m not a craft beer fan myself but they also have cider, wine, and other drinks on offer – their pizzas are also pretty tasty too. If you’re looking for a relaxed bar in Aberdeen then Brewdog might be it!
What’s on in Aberdeen?
Looking for special events or festivals happening in Aberdeen? Come on in…
Aberdeen International Comedy Festival
Held in October each year, this event promises to help you ‘find your funny’ with an array of acts performing. I generally only watch comedy once a year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and I didn’t know Aberdeen had a comedy festival. However, it brings together favourites from the fringe alongside well-known names such as Katherine Ryan and Jack Dee.
Aberdeen Highland Games
Want to get a real taste of Scotland? Come along to the highland games here in Aberdeen to see traditional games such as tossing the caber, tug of war, and the hammer throw. There’s also a pipe band championships and solo piping competition. In normal times the event attracts anywhere between 8000-15,000 people so it’s a really popular event.
This annual street art festival in Aberdeen is definitely something I would like to time my next visit around. The Nuart project in Aberdeen is responsible for all of the amazing street art in the city. During the festival, artists will create brand new murals and the public can even participate in some of the making – like with this super cool ‘Stuck Up’ mural!
What can you do for free in Aberdeen?
The short answer: lots! When I was in Aberdeen I pretty much just paid for my meals and everything else was free. There’s so much on your doorstep that just doesn’t cost a penny.
The Leopard sculpture
You’ve probably heard of the Kelpies, right? They’re the famous sculpture of two horse-heads that are located in Falkirk, Scotland. Why I’m talking about them is that there’s a sculpture in Aberdeen by the artist behind the Kelpies, Andy Scott, and it’s a beauty.
Located in Marischal Square, the Leopard isn’t on the same scale as the Kelpies, but it’s still incredibly striking. Made out of steel, the sculpture sits atop a plinth 15 metres up in the air and, slightly unnervingly, looks as if it’s poised to jump down at any second. Hence the name of the sculpture, ‘Poised.’ It’s definitely one my favourite sights in Aberdeen!
I legit had no idea about Old Aberdeen before I arrived. I thought the city was steely grey granite from start to finish, but that’s actually not the case. Cobbled streets and old-world charm are what awaits you in Old Aberdeen, which is the old university district. It’s a little bit of a hike to get there on foot but, trust me, you will not be disappointed!
Old Aberdeen was once its own burgh which explains why it has its own vibe. I just loved wandering around waiting to see what the next corridor would reveal. There’s the King’s College building, Old Aberdeen Town House and rows of cute and charming cottages.
My favourite sights in Old Aberdeen are the impressive Powis Gates, with their ‘miranet’ towers. The gate was erected by a former owner but now leads to halls of residence.
Aberdeen City Beach
Want a breather from wandering the streets of Aberdeen city centre? Then head to the beach where you can blow off all those cobwebs. And when I say blow them off I mean it. Both times I’ve been to the beach here there’s been a really stiff breeze! If you’re feeling particularly hardy you can head down to the sand and enjoy a spot of sunshine – or just do what I did and enjoy moseying along the promenade alongside some gorgeous views.
There were loads of people splashing about in the water and a few more with surf boards and the like. There’s a van just next to the promenade that was offering lessons for a whole host of watersports. If you’re feeling energetic feel free to get stuck in!
The golden sands stretch out for a over a mile in length, curving along the coast between the harbour and the mouth of the River Don. However, the beach is also very well catered to in terms of amenities. Directly across the road you’ll find the Queens Links Leisure Park, where there are a number of places to eat and drink. There’s also an amusement park with a big wheel, pirate ship, and plenty of other fairground rides. And if you’re looking for a bit of green space for a budget-friendly picnic lunch, head to the Queens Links.
Footdee is a pocket-sized former fishing village in Aberdeen that you might not even know was there unless you looked for it. Pronounced Fittie by locals, Footdee is located in the east of the city – around a 25-minute walk from the centre – and is a real a change of pace.
Footdee was first created in the 1800s to rehouse the local fishing community, and that’s why a lot of the houses are single storey – apparently fishermen didn’t want to live upstairs for superstitious reasons. Interesting! All of the houses were designed to face inwards to protect them from the sea and because of that it almost feels like a teeny tiny walled city.
As soon as you step into it it’s like everything has gone into miniature, like you’ve somehow wandered into Lilliput from Gulliver’s Travels. Comprising around 80 houses in total, the houses are small and cute and all lined up in rows, each with a ‘tarry shed’ opposite in the inner section of the space. As you walk through the streets you’ll notice that all lot of the tarry sheds are decorated in lots of cheerful and quirky ways! There are cute decorative touches, benches, and picket fences painted in an array of pastel hues. It’s a little piece of Instagram heaven and I just loved how different it felt to the rest of Aberdeen!
Looking for some seriously awe-inspiring architecture in Aberdeen? Ding, ding, ding… Marischal College ticks all the boxes. It’s an ornate, gothic, granite masterpiece.
So what do you need to know about Marischal College then? Well, it was built in 1835 and
is reported to be the second largest granite building in the world. Fact fans, the largest granite building in the world is the Escorial in Spain. Marishcal College said to symbolise the zenith of the city’s granite working industry. You can’t not be impressed by this building. In terms of the buildings that I saw in Aberdeen, it’s definitely the jewel in the crown.
The building is currently the HQ of Aberdeen City Council, which seems like a pretty good deal as far council headquarters go, but it’s actually on loan on the University of Aberdeen. I arrived just as the sun was fading late on in the day and it really did look stunning.
Street art in Aberdeen
I’m a huge fan of street art. Every time I’ve written about Dundee I’ve always included the Open/Close street art trail in Dundee. Apart from anything else, the trail enables to you discover secret corners of the city that you might not otherwise see. So when I heard there were painted doorways in Aberdeen I was super keen to see them!
The street art here is created as part of the Nuart Festival, which has been running since 2017. I love everything about the Nuart festival’s aims. It’s all about enabling people to engage with visual art in more accessible and ordinary ways, rather than having it hidden away in an art gallery where you feel like you can’t breathe too loudly. Right? As they so eloquently put it on their website, “It is the street that acts as the grit in the oyster that eventually makes the pearl. Street art is the vandal with a PhD.” Beautiful words.
You can do Nuart Aberdeen walking tours with people who are part of the project to take a deeper dive into the street art as you wander around the city. I would have loved to do this but unfortunately when I was in Aberdeen the walking tours weren’t running.
If you do get a chance I would definitely try and do one of the tours as they sound awesome! However, I also enjoyed just wandering around and discovering the street art for myself.
Brig O’ Balgownie
Like a bit of history? Don’t mind a long walk to get there? Well, then the Brig O’ Balgownie in Aberdeen may be right up your street. Located in the north of the city, it’s a 13th century bridge that spans the River Don in Old Aberdeen. The bridge is rumoured to have been commissioned by that familiar Scottish icon, Robert the Bruce, or someone called Bishop Cheyne back in the 14th century. It’s also reported to be the oldest bridge in Scotland.
The bridge is characterised by its gothic arch and, coupled with the cobbles and scenic river views, it’s a really tranquil spot to press pause and soak up. The tiny village of Balgownie is really pretty and quaint and there are some nature walks alongside the river, if you’re not out of steam by then. That’s one thing to note – it is a bit of a hike to get out here.
I made the mistake of deciding to walk all the wall out to Brig O’ Balgowinie. Well, actually, I tried to catch the bus but it didn’t stop at the bus stop and just left me hanging! It will take around an hour to walk from the Brig of Balgownie from Aberdeen city centre and it’s not a particularly scenic route. However, that’s more than made up for when you finally arrive!
Other things to do in Aberdeen
Provost Skene’s House
It’s one of Aberdeen’s oldest buildings and is an example of medieval burgh architecture. It’s set right next to Marishcal Square, surrounded contemporary buildings, which just makes its old-world charm stand out even more. But, firstly, let’s ask: what exactly is a provost?
Well, in Scotland a mayor is known as a provost. The building is named after Sir George Skene, who was a wealthy merchant and served as Provost of Aberdeen between 1676 to 1685. While it’s now one of the city’s most well-known buildings, at one time the house fell into disrepair and was nearly demolished in a slum clearance in the 1930s. Luckily, it wasn’t, and the building was reopened as a museum in 1953 by the Queen Mother.
True story: during my trip to Aberdeen I ended up having ice cream for dinner one night. You wouldn’t think I was in my thirties would you? However, when I tell you that it was ice cream from Mackies 19.2 in Aberdeen it might make a little more sense – why wouldn’t you have this for every meal of the day?! Mackies is a Scottish ice cream brand, but what I didn’t know was that Mackies originated out of Aberdeenshire all the way back in 1986.
Mackies 19.2 is located in the trendy Marischal Square in Aberdeen – just next to the famous leopard sculpture by Kelpies artist Andy Scott. There’s a huge selection on offer, with everything from banoffee, to lemon meringue, to Scottish tablet flavour. I ummed and ahhed for ages but eventually went for one with a local feel – Aberdeen buttery and jam flavour, in a chocolate dipped cone, and with a flake. It even had chunks of buttery in it!
You can sit in and enjoy your ice cream, waffles, or sundae from one of the colourful booths in Mackies 19.2 or do want I did and just wander around the city as you eat.
Want to find out more about the Scottish foods you should to try when you’re here, which includes Scottish tablet? Read my post of 25 Scottish foods you need to try right here!
Mackies 19.2 address: 7, Marischal Square, Broad Street, Aberdeen AB10 1BL
The Silver Darling
This is a stylish seafood restaurant that is located right at the edge of Footdee and the seafront. If you want your dinner with a view then definitely come here, because it looks gorgeous. Even the building itself is lovely, it has battlements and everything.
Unfortunately, when I was there it was closed. On Thursdays it’s open at lunch and at dinner but is closed during the in-between time, which of course is when I rocked up. I just stood there staring at the menu and wishing those doors would open, because it all sounded heavenly. If I went back I would definitely have a hard time choosing between the seared Shetland scallops, seafood platters, mussels, and the local catch of the day. Yum!
If you want to stop by the Silver Darling after a wander around Footdee then don’t do what I did – check the opening times first! It’s open all day on Saturdays and Sundays but during the week it’s 12 midday to 2pm and 5pm to 9pm, with the exception of Fridays where lunch goes on until 2.30pm. Next time I’m in Aberdeen I will be here with bells on!
The Silver Darling: Pocra Quay, Aberdeen AB11 5DQ
Other places to eat in Aberdeen
There’s a whole lot of hype about Foodstory in Aberdeen. That definitely made me want to visit to see what all the fuss is about. It’s often pitched as one of the best cafés in Aberdeen and it comes with all the tell-tale hipster vibes: décor made out of recycled materials and a menu made up of vegetarian and vegan dishes. My visit wasn’t perfect but I did really love the food. The salads are delicious and the cakes also looked yum!
I’m a sucker for eggs benny so when I saw that this one had a vegan alternative made with smoked tofu I knew I had to try it. When I arrived, I was directed upstairs to their roof garden, which was a little slice of heaven. Picture turquoise painted wood, leafy plants, and fairy lights dotted around the place! The vegan eggs benedict was awesome and alongside the friendly service made this one of my favourite places I visited during my trip!
The Long Dog Café
I really wanted to include The Long Dog Café in my list because it’s probably not a place that you’d just stumble upon of your own accord. However, it served me up one of my best breakfasts in Aberdeen, and that was a bacon naan. It came with a duel combo of spicy firecracker sauce and tzatziki which was so yummy. The décor is cute as a button and, as the name suggests, it’s dog friendly so you can bring your pooch along with you for the win.