Our Visitor guide to Aberdeen, Scotland's granite city. Isolated on Scotland's North East coast, Aberdeen is a city of contradictions, at times windswept and rain wet, in the sunlight it glistens and appeals. Includes what to see and do, hotels and history...
Scotland's third largest city, and Britain's most isolated, Aberdeen is a hard place. Hard because of the grey granite of its buildings, and hard because of the nature of its people, who are industrious, thrifty, proud and uncompromising. First impressions are often determined by the weather: when it rains it's about as appealing as cold porridge. Sometimes leaden skies hang low over a uniform greyness, and a howling gale blows in from the North Sea, but when the clouds do part and the sun shines down, the tiny mica chips, which form a natural part of granite, sparkle and glisten like a display in a jeweller's window.
Whatever the impression, it is a place that elicits a strong response. Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the northeast's most famous writer, wrote: "One detests Aberdeen with the detestation of a thwarted lover. It is the one haunting and exasperatingly lovable city in Scotland."
The oil industry has transformed Aberdeen, making it the hub for all North Sea activity. As a result the hotels are full year round and the air full of buzzing helicopters ferrying workers to the rigs. Who knows what it will be like in twenty years time when the oil has dried up.
Aberdeen lies between two rivers, the Don to the north and the Dee to the south, backed by a fertile hinterland and facing the wild North Sea, which has brought the city great wealth since the discovery of oil in the early 1970s. Its maritime history, however, dates back to its foundation as a Royal Burgh in 1124. In the past Aberdeen had strong trading links with Scandinavia and the Low Countries. Fast clipper ships, built in the city, brought tea from India and other goods from all over the world. Until some years after the Second World War, Aberdeen's lifeblood was fishing and shipping. It was the biggest fish market in the country and still lands considerable catches. Then came the discovery of North Sea oil and gas and Aberdeen became Boom City, flaunting its new-found wealth with an almost unseemly fervour. The glory years of the early 1980s may have gone, but Aberdeen still exudes an air of self-confidence and prosperity rare in other regional UK cities.
Aberdonians also have an inordinate amount of civic pride, which can verge on the overweening. This may have been enhanced in recent years by its new-found status and wealth, but has its roots in the 14th century, when the townsfolk offered protection to Robert the Bruce during the Wars of Independence. In return, Bruce rewarded the town with 'Freedom Lands' for which he had previously received rent. The money saved was diverted into a Common Good Fund, to be spent on amenities. Today this money is still used to pay for the upkeep of its many fine parks and to keep the city looking its best. This sense of pride in its parks and public buildings makes Aberdeen an extremely pleasant place to visit. It's also a very lively place, and its many bars, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres and shops are as vibrant and thriving as you'd expect in any city with money in its pockets.
Things to Do
Local Sights & Activities for Aberdeen
Aberdeen's main artery is Union Street, one mile long and built on pillars (an amazing and expensive engineering feat). The street is a fascinating mix of Victorian Gothic and modern glass and concrete and is perpetually packed with buses, cars and pedestrians. The oldest part of the city is the 13th-century Castlegate, at the eastern end of Union Street, now dominated by the 17th-century Mercat Cross, which was the focus of Aberdeen's long history as a major market town and trading centre. Opposite, at the corner of Union Street and King Street, in the Town House, is the Tolbooth which dates from the 14th century. Not only did it serve as a collection point for tolls and taxes but it was also used as the Wardhouse, housing prisoners held on remand.
A little further west down Union Street is Broad Street, where you'll find the tourist office. 50 yds beyond it, at 45 Guestrow, is Aberdeen's oldest surviving private house, the 16th-century Provost Skene's House. Its distinctive style, with boldly pointed stone and little turrets, stands out from the adjacent modern buildings. It was only the intervention of the Queen Mother which saved this little historical gem from the same fate as its neighbours. The interior features a series of ornate tempera-painted ceilings dating from 1622, which somehow survived the orgy of vandalism in the wake of the Reformation. There are also furnished period rooms and an interesting display of memorabilia, including mementos of John Brown, ghillie and companion of Queen Victoria. There is a pocket watch given to him by the widowed queen, also a silver pipe and case from the same donor. Mon-Sat 1000-1700, Sun 1300-1600. Free. Tel. 641086.
Across the road from the tourist office is the imposing Marischal College (pronounced 'Marshall'), the second largest granite building in the world, after the Escorial in Madrid. This massive neo-Gothic sculpture is loved and loathed in equal measure, but cannot be ignored. Aberdeen was the seat of two universities, the Catholic King's College (see 'Old Aberdeen' below) and the Protestant Marischal College, founded in 1593 by the 5th Earl of Marischal. The two colleges combined in 1860 to form Aberdeen University. The museum, entered through the main quadrangle and up the stairs, is open to visitors and worth visiting. It is divided into two exhibitions, the 'Encylopaedia of the Northeast', which depicts the region's distinctive culture, and 'Collecting the World', which features many wonderfully diverse items collected from around the globe. Mon-Fri 1000-1700, Sun 1400-1700. Free. Tel. 274301.
From Marischal College, head down Upperkirkgate, past the Bon Accord and St Nicholas Shopping Centres, and up Schoolhill to the city's magnificent Aberdeen Art Gallery, a most elegant building of marble steps with a pillared gallery overlooking a central well. At the top of the stairs stands a showcase of lovely Meissen china. There are changing displays of costumes and applied arts. All the big names are here; there's a Degas bronze, and paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monet, Pissarro, Millais, Legros, Sargent, Sisley, Russell Flint, Holman Hunt, Landseer, Augustus John, Raeburn, McTaggart and Sir George Reid, amongst many others. William Roelofs' large oil of Waterlilies is a fitting rival to Monet. There are also several works by Joan Eardley, who lived near Stonehaven. A large number of the paintings were bequeathed by local granite merchant, Alex MacDonald, in 1900. Downstairs is a white-walled circular room which commemorates the 167 people who lost their lives in the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster in 1988. There's also a well-stocked shop, café and craft gallery. Mon-Sat 1000-1700, Sun 1400-1700. Free. Tel. 646333.
West of the Art Gallery are the sunken Union Terrace Gardens, which make a pleasant escape from the traffic on Union Street. Here, at the end of Union Terrace, stand three buildings at right angles: the Central Library, His Majesty's Theatre and St Mark's Church, always known locally as 'Education, Damnation and Salvation'. They are obligingly pointed out by a huge statue of William Wallace, brandishing his sword.
At the West End of Union Street, Bon Accord Terrace leads south into Justice Mill Lane, home to many of the city's best bars and nightclubs, and also to the Satrosphere, a fun-focused hands-on science and technology discovery centre. Apr-Oct Mon-Sat 1000-1700, Sun 1330-1700, Mar-Nov Mon-Fri (closed Tue) 1000-1600, Sat 1000-1700; Sun 1330-1700. £5, £3 children/concession. Tel. 640340.
Anyone interested in military history should not miss the Gordon Highlanders Museum at St Luke's in Viewfield Road, which is off Queen's Road (buses 14 or 15 from Union Street). Apr-Oct Tue-Sat 1030-1630, Sun 1330-1630. £2, £1.50 concession. Tel. 311200.
Aberdeen Harbour Sightseeing
From the Castlegate, Shiprow, a steep cobbled street, leads down to the harbour and the gleaming glass and steel of the excellent new Maritime Museum, which traces Aberdeen's long seafaring history from earliest times up to the present day. In the entrance is a list, up-dated daily, of ships in harbour. The Lloyd's register is there if you ask. As you go up the stairs (there's a lift, if needed), the first things that you will see are the lenses from Rattray Head lighthouse. The sounds are authentic: the cry of seagulls and the crash of the sea on shale. A huge board lists all the ships built in Aberdeen from 1811 until 1991, including the famous fast clippers. Most dramatically, down the stairwell hangs a model of an oil rig. The methods in use in oil and gas exploration and production are explained. The auditorium (which has an induction loop system) features good explanatory videos. There is a hands-on children's area and a layout of bunks. The museum spills over into the adjoining Provost Ross' House dating from 1593, the oldest building in the city, which now houses the Tourist Information Centre. There's also a shop and a good licensed café. Museum details: Mon-Sat 1000-1700, Sun 1200-1500. Free. Tel. 337700.
At the foot of Shiprow is Market Street, which runs the length of the harbour. It's still a busy place and on any one day you'll see a huge variety of vessels from all over the world. Follow your nose and the screech of seagulls down to the fish market, where fish has been landed and traded since the 13th century. The best time to see it is early in the morning, before 0800. At the northeast corner of the harbour is the old fishing village of Footdee (pronounced 'Fittie'), which is interesting to explore and an easy walk from Market Street, via Regent and Waterloo Quays and York Street, or south from the Beach Esplanade. Ask at the tourist office about guided walks, or pick up one of their leaflets.
At the southern end of Market Street, North Esplanade leads to Duthie Park, a 10-minute bus ride from town, on the banks of the Dee. The park features a beautiful rose garden, known as 'Rose Mountain', which is best seen in summer. Also in the park are the Winter Gardens, a gigantic hothouse full of tropical plants and birds. It covers an amazing two acres and is possibly the largest of its kind in Europe.
Old Aberdeen Sightseeing
A 20-minute bus ride northwest of the city centre, on the banks of the Don, is the beautifully preserved suburb of Old Aberdeen, with its cobbled streets and peaceful atmosphere. An independent burgh until 1891, Old Aberdeen is clustered around St Machar's Cathedral, with its soaring twin spires. The cathedral was founded in the sixth century and is one of the oldest granite buildings in the city, dating from the 15th century. It is also one of the few examples in the country of a fortified cathedral. Legend has it that Machar, a follower of Columba, was sent to establish a church at a place near the sea where the river was shaped like the crook on a Bishop's crozier, hence its site. Inside, the heraldic ceiling is particularly impressive. Daily 0900-1700, free, services on Sun at 1100 and 1800. Tel. 485988. Next to the cathedral is the Cruickshank Botanic Garden, with beautiful floral displays. May-Sep Mon-Fri 0900-1630, Sat-Sun 1400-1700; Oct-Apr Mon-Fri 0900-1630. Free.
A short walk south of St Machar's is King's College, founded in 1495 by Bishop Elphinstone. The most notable of the college buildings is the 16th-century King's College Chapel, with its distinctive crowned spire. The interior is remarkably well preserved and features some rare and beautiful medieval woodcarving in the ceiling and choir stalls. Mon-Fri 0900-1700. Free. Tel. 272137. The King's College Visitor Centre houses a multimedia display on the university's often turbulent history. Mon-Sat 1000-1700, Sun 1200-1700. Free. Tel. 273702. There are guided walks around the cathedral and University from June-August, leaving from King's College on Wednesday at 1900 and Sunday at 1430. The guides are extremely helpful and well informed.
Just to the north of St Machar's Cathedral, on the banks of the Don, is Seaton Park, another of the city's fine open spaces. North of the park, the Don is spanned by the Brig o' Balgownie, completed in the 14th century with money from the Common Good Fund. It is the oldest Gothic bridge in Scotland, and over the years has charmed the likes of Byron. On the north bank of the Don is Bridge of Don, home to the city's two finest golf courses, the Royal Aberdeen and Murcar.
The Aberdeen Beach Sightseeing
Between the mouths of the rivers Don and Dee, and less than a mile east of Union Street, is Aberdeen's beach, a two-mile stretch of glorious golden sand. But though the northeast gets a large share of Scotland's sunshine, don't expect to sunbathe comfortably as the beach is exposed to the bitter North Sea winds. And as you watch parents coaxing their reluctant children into the water, note that a few miles offshore, oil rig workers are being warned of the dangers of perishing in these freezing seas.
At the southern end of the esplanade is Aberdeen Fun Beach, a huge leisure complex with multi sports facilities, swimming pool, bar and cafés, ice arena, multiplex cinema, nightclub and Scotland's largest permanent fun fair. Nearby is Pittodrie Park, home of Aberdeen FC. The northern end of the long, long beach is backed by a succession of golf links.
Bars and Nightclubs in Aberdeen
The Prince of Wales, 7 St Nicholas La, just off Union St, Tel. 640597. The best pub in the city, with a great selection of real ales and a real flagstone floor. Also does very cheap bar food and gets very crowded. Traditional fiddle music on Sun evenings.
There are lots of trendy bars in Justice Mill Lane, off the West End of Union St, which fall in and out of fashion, but Bex is a perennial fave.
Café Society, 9 Queen's Rd, opposite the youth hostel. A bit of an oil workers' pick-up joint, but has a good beer garden and serves food till 2200.
Cocky Hunters, 504 Union St. Very popular with students and young professionals, and features regular live music.
The Globe, 13 North Silver St. Down-to-earth café-bar which serves decent food at lunchtime.
Ma Cameron's Inn, Little Belmont St. The city's oldest pub, though the old bit now constitutes only a small section, serves food at lunch and early evening.
In the same street is The Old Town School, which is more of a modern theme bar but has a good selection of ales and does food.
O'Neill's, 9 Back Wynd. An Irish theme pub which serves decent grub, a good selection of Irish beers, stout and whiskeys, and has live folk music at weekends. Wild club upstairs (see below).
Under the Hammer, North Silver Street, along from The Globe, a basement wine bar which attracts a more mature crowd. Open evenings only.
Aberdeen also has numerous nightclubs to choose from, most of which close at 0200. Pick of the bunch is Ministry of Sin, 16 Dee St, Tel. 211661, off Union St. The faithful congregate in this converted church for a heavenly mix of cool sounds and atmosphere. Popular with students and oldies. Often has big-name guest DJs and open 7 days.
The Works, 9 Belmont St. Subterranean and sub-twenties, sweaty and lively kind of a place. Open Thu-Sat till 0200.
Oh'Henry's, 20 Adelphi Close, just off Union St. Very studenty and therefore very retro (70s and 80s).
The Pelican at the Metro Hotel, Market St. Basement club featuring live indie bands and guest DJs. Open Thu-Sat.
O'Neill's, 9 Back Wynd. Upstairs in Irish theme pub. Nominal cover charge gets you a wild, raucous night of Irish music till 0200. Lots of stamina needed, hence the younger crowd.
Tickets for most plays and concerts can be booked at the box office, next to the Music Hall on Union St, Tel. 641122. Open Mon-Sat 1000-1800
Cinema: Among the city's mainstream cinemas is Virgin, Tel. 572228, a huge 9-screen complex on Beach Esplanade; and the Odeon, Tel. 916422, on Justice Mill Lane.
Theatre: His Majesty's, Rosemount Viaduct, Tel. 637788. Aberdeen's main theatre, with a programme featuring opera, ballet, musicals and panto. Music Hall, Union St, Tel. 632508.
The main venue for classical music concerts, as well as big-name comedy acts. Capitol Theatre, 431 Union St, Tel. 583141. Venue for smaller touring rock and pop bands. Aberdeen Arts Centre, 33 King St, Tel. 635208. Stages a variety of theatrical productions and exhibitions, and also shows arthouse movies.
The Lemon Tree, 5 West North St, Tel. 642230. The hub of the city's arts scene, with a wide and varied programme of events, including live jazz and folk, comedy and contemporary drama. Also has a good café/bar-restaurant.
Aberdeen to Banchory
The first sight of interest heading west from Aberdeen is Drum Castle, three miles west of Peterculter (pronounced 'Petercooter'). It's a combination of a 13th-century square tower, Jacobean mansion house and later Victorian additions. It was given to one William de Irvine by Robert the Bruce for service rendered at Bannockburn and was in the family's hands for over 650 years, until it was taken over by the National Trust for Scotland in 1976. There's a beautiful walled garden and a trail through the 100-acre ancient Wood of Drum which forms part of the castle grounds. Easter-Jun and Sep Sat-Mon, Wed and Thu 1230-1700; Jul and Aug daily 1100-1700; gardens Easter-end Sep daily 1100-1800; grounds open daily all year. Castle, gardens and grounds £8, £5 concession, car park £2. Tel. 01330-811204.
A few miles southeast of Peterculter is its sister village, Maryculter (pronounced 'Marycooter'), where you'll find Storybook Glen, the northeast's answer to Disneyland. This very attractive and tasteful 'theme park' is a great place to take the kids and features giant tableaux and lifesize characters from many childhood fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Daily Mar-Oct 1000-1800; Nov-Feb weekends only 1100-1600, £4.85, children £3.50. Tel. 01224-732491.
Aberdeen Hotels & Accommodation
Macdonald Ardoe House is a wonderful baronial hotel about four miles from Aberdeen. Well recommended.
Aberdeen Northern Hotel - an art deco style hotel in central Aberdeen. Good food and friendly staff.
Simpsons Hotel, 59 Queen's Rd, Tel. 327777, address@simpsonshotel .com 37 rooms. Very stylish, modern hotel with a Mediterranean look and feel. The attached restaurant has won many plaudits for its excellent Scottish/international cuisine (see 'Eating').
The Station Hotel is of course close to the bus and train stations; in need of a bit of redecoration, but the food is good.
Skene House Holburn Suites in Aberdeen can offer suites for the price of a room.Continental breakfast is included.
The same applies for their suites at Skene House Whitehall and Skene House Rosemount.
The Norwood Hall Hotel in on the south side of Aberdeen - a very good traditional hotel.
Craiglynn Hotel, 36 Fonthill Rd, Tel. 584050, www.craiglynn.co.uk 8 rooms. Intimate and comfortable Victorian house close to the town centre, also has a good reputation for its food.
Aberdeen City Hotel, reasonable rates for the centre of the city.
Cults Hotel, 328 North Deeside Rd, Tel/Fax. 867632. 6 rooms. 4 miles from the town centre on the A93 to Deeside, good value.
Speedbird Inns, Argyll Rd, Dyce, Tel. 772884. 99 rooms. Large, purpose-built hotel chain at the airport; good value. Late Rooms Availability for Speedbird Inn in Aberdeen
Next door is the Crynoch Guesthouse, No 164, Tel. 582743 and Dunrovin Guesthouse No 168, Tel. 586081 on the other. Along the way you'll find the Applewood Guesthouse, No 154, Tel. 580617.
There are also numerous small, family-run guesthouses along Great Western Rd: Aberdeen Springdale Guesthouse, No 404, Tel. 316561; Fourways Guesthouse, No 435, Tel. 310218; Kildonan Guesthouse, No 410, Tel. 316115; and The Noble Guesthouse, No 376, Tel. 313678.
Hostels and Campsites
Aberdeen Youth Hostel is at 8 Queen's Rd, Tel. 646988, a mile west of the bus and train stations (take buses 14 or 15 from the bus station). It's open all year till 0200 and has 116 beds. The nearest campsite is Hazelhead Caravan Park & Campsite on the A944, with a swimming pool nearby. Take buses 14 or 15 from town. Open Apr-Sep.