For a long time Aberdeenshire was a part of Scotland that I didn't know very well despite it being easily accessible in less than a few hours from Glasgow and Edinburgh. However, over the last couple of years I've been spending more and more time in the region either on weekend breaks or longer holidays. I've gotten a good flavour of the variety of scenery and attractions on offer by basing myself in diverse locations from Royal Deeside to the Banffshire Coast and the heart of Aberdeen City itself. Every time I visit, I make new discoveries and wonder why it took me so long to get acquainted with the place.
I thought it was time to share some of my favourite things to do in Aberdeenshire either during a day, a weekend or on a longer visit. This is a list that will no doubt grow after every trip as there is so much more of Aberdeenshire I've still to explore and hopefully these ideas will inspire you to embark on your own north-east adventure.
1. GO ON A ROAD-TRIP
Weekends are perfect for road-trips and the 165 mile long Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail can easily be completed in 2 days although you will have to be selective of your stops as there is so much to see. I've completed the route twice now and particularly like visiting the cute wee fishing villages and sweeping beaches. The journey also covers nature reserves, castles, lighthouses, historical towns and even passes by the Peterhead Prison Museum mentioned below, meaning there is plenty to do for all interests. It is an easy route to navigate with a variety of accommodation choices along the way. If you want to experience the diversity of the Aberdeenshire coast, this is the way to do it.
I've written a guide to the route with some of my top recommended places to stop along the way. Since I wrote that blog post I've been back again to visit Bullers of Buchan which I had somehow managed to miss out on previous trips and it will definitely be getting added to my recommended stops. The collapsed sea cave is easily reached by a short walk from the car park and the surrounding coastal scenery is dramatic and stunning. It's also apparently a great place to see puffins although I didn't come across any. However, I was greeted by the noisy spectacle (and smell!) of thousands of other nesting seabirds.
While everyone else is off doing the NC500, the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail offers a quieter and shorter alternative in an often overlooked part of Scotland and is an ideal length for those short on time.
The new NE250 road-trip route also takes in part of the region and although I've not yet done it myself, it's one I'll keep in mind for the future and one you might consider researching if you want to see more of this part of Scotland.
2. DISCOVER SOME STREET ART
Over recent years Glasgow has become famed for its street art which has really helped to brighten up the city and boost tourism. However, it now has a northern city competitor hot on its heels looking to claim the Scottish street art crown. Aberdeen has long been known as the 'Grey City' thanks to the abundance of locally quarried granite used in the architecture. Currently the city is trying to change that perception by undergoing a colourful face-lift, with bright murals now adorning numerous walls and buildings. The street art has been created as part of the Nuart Aberdeen festival which has been running for 2 years, providing a platform for local, national and international artists to showcase their work. There are free street art walking tours every Saturday until 30th September or you can do what I did and download the map of mural locations and explore the awesome artwork at your leisure.
It's not just the walls that have received a makeover, the Painted Doors project has also seen 24 doorways transformed in to works of art and I'm personally loving all the vibrant creativity in the city at the moment.
3. EXPERIENCE LIFE IN A NOTORIOUS SCOTTISH PRISON
Just to be clear, I'm not recommending you commit a crime and get locked up for the weekend! My suggestion involves staying on the right side of the law and taking a tour of Peterhead Prison to get a feel for life behind bars. The infamous Victorian built HMP Peterhead was closed in 2013 and has now been turned in to an unlikely but highly popular visitor attraction.
HMP Peterhead was originally opened in 1888 and at that time was Scotland's only convict prison, with the intention that inmates would be used as labour to help build Peterhead's harbour defences. Up until the point it closed in 2013, it had housed some of the hardest and most heinous criminals in the country including serial killers and notorious gangsters.
I found the audio tour fascinating and a chance to meet and speak to some of the prison guards that worked in this grim institution really helps to bring the prison history to life. If you're curious about the stories, inmates and punishment that made this jail in Peterhead so notorious, a visit here is a must. It's actually one of the most interesting places I've been to in Scotland and one of my top recommendations for things to do in Aberdeenshire.
About the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival
Over recent years I've developed quite a fondness for the charming fishing villages and dramatic cliffs of the Aberdeenshire coast. The scenery is very different to the wilder west of Scotland but I've found the quaint east coast settlements, steeped in history and tradition, are generally less touristy than their west coast counterparts and offer a more authentic local experience.
When I was recently invited to explore more of the area with an opportunity to attend the annual Traditional Scottish Boat Festival in Portsoy, I quickly made some space in my travel diary. The festival was founded after successful celebrations were held to mark the 300th anniversary of Portsoy harbour in 1993. It was decided that an annual festival promoting regional maritime and cultural traditions should take place in the historic fishing port and this year marked the 25th anniversary of the Portsoy Boat Festival. As I was to find out, it is about much more than just boats...
My festival experience
Although the main festival takes place each year on a Saturday and Sunday at the end of June/beginning of July depending on the tides, the party officially starts the night before. On the Friday evening I was pointed in the direction of the main marquee by a gaggle of excited chattering locals as they meandered down the winding streets towards the various festival venues around the village, while I continued to pursue the source of frantic fiddle notes drifting through the warm evening air. After tracking down my destination in Wally Green, I joined the gathered crowd for the next couple of hours while we toe-tapped to some traditional tunes by Ella McTaggart and sang along with folk legend Dougie MacLean, famed for writing 'Caledonia' which has become a bit of a Scottish anthem. As the concert ended, a fiery sunset had taken over the sky and revellers with more stamina than me moved on to continue the shindig at the late night session.
With up to 16,000 people expected over the weekend, I decided to arrive early on the Saturday morning to beat the crowds and the hot afternoon temperatures predicated later in the day.
Before I got there, I naively thought the boat festival would be a small community affair but over the years it has grown in to a major event which spreads along the harbour front and back towards the centre of Portsoy. I was grateful I'd put my comfy shoes on that day!
With four distinct areas to explore, like any sensible person I started at the food fayre. The scent of various local delicacies filled the tent from fudge to gin and coffee to cheese and I was overjoyed to discover The Isle of Skye Baking Company. Being gluten free meant I was a little concerned I wouldn't find anything suitable to eat at the festival food outlets but the bakery stand had me covered with their range of gluten free goodies including fresh bread, quiches and cakes. For a very long minute I seriously contemplated breaking my gluten free diet just so I could feast on all their delicious sounding loaves - malted barley and lavender, Stornoway black pudding, bacon, onion and tomato, and Scottish seaweed with Skye ale - they all had me salivating but I resisted the temptation. Instead I made a mental note to return later when my tummy started its inevitable lunchtime rumble.
With lunch sorted I followed the swirling tunes of the Portsoy Pipe Band as they marched down to the picturesque 17th century harbour and the heart of the festival. Historic and characterful wooden boats with colourful bunting sat anchored by the pier and coracles for hire were a big hit with boatless visitors keen to get out on the water. Personally, I passed up on the possibility of a soaking but those brave enough to venture aboard looked like they were having great fun.
I'll be the first to admit that Royal Deeside is a part of Scotland that I don't know very well. Famous as a favourite stomping ground of Queen Victoria, the current Royal Family continue to enjoy their summer break at Balmoral Castle, one of many fine castles that dot the area.
The River Dee flows through the heart of the region which also encompasses nature reserves and part of the Cairngorms National Park, making it a favourite destination for lovers of the outdoors. All of this makes me wonder why, other than a visit to the Braemar Gathering, I've not spent more time getting to know this part of the country.
Recently, I was invited to stay at Mill of Dess Lodge on the Lower Dess Estate, and decided this would be the perfect opportunity to make a proper acquaintance with Royal Deeside.
Lower Dess Estate is situated next to the pretty village of Aboyne between the town of Banchory and the village of Ballater which means it is centrally located for exploring the region. Lower Dess is a relatively small estate on the north side of the River Dee which offers peaceful river walks and fishing on the doorstep.
Nearby Glen Tanar Estate has numerous walking and biking trails through Caledonian pine forests and acres of wilderness. If you prefer something different the estate also runs Land Rover safaris which from my experience in other parts of the country, can be a really fun way to get off the beaten track.
If castles are your thing, you will be spoiled for choice with so many just a short drive away. Some of the best local castle choices are Craigievar, Crathes, Drum, Kildrummy, Corgaff, Braemar and of course Balmoral, although check the opening hours and days for each castle as they do vary depending on the time of the year. For the complete Scottish experience, you can combine a castle tour with some local whisky from the Royal Lochnagar Distillery which runs tours and tastings.
Of course, you could just spend time exploring the pretty towns and villages that dot the river or follow the Victorian Heritage Trail which takes in many regal castles, estates and landmarks.
I've listed the things I got up to during my visit at the bottom of the page if you need any more ideas.
You might also like to read my recommended things to do in Aberdeenshire this weekend
On arrival we were welcomed by Anna, the Lodge Manager, who gave us a quick tour before showing us to our bedroom. By luck Mr Adventures Around Scotland and I had the entire place to ourselves which made our stay even more special.
The lodge has 10 bedrooms, a sitting area and a dining room. You can stay on a bed and breakfast basis (as I did) or book the entire lodge and even organise private catering if you prefer to eat in.
As you can see from my photos, the decor has a light and contemporary feel with some bright touches and a rustic nod to the local wildlife. The lodge is furnished to a high standard and was spotlessly clean, it really did feel quite luxurious.
Everything you need to know for a memorable road-trip along the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail
Everyone has a landscape that they are drawn to, a setting where they instantly feel at home. It could be the mountains, forests, or even the bustle of the city - for me, it has always been the coast. A couple of summers ago I decided to travel around the entire periphery of mainland Scotland on a 6 week road-trip. As this was only enough time to get a taster of the many coastal gems around the country, I mentally noted all the places I wanted to return to and explore more thoroughly at a later date.
One of those places was the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail, which I only became aware of thanks to brown tourist signs along the road-side. Post trip research provided little information on the route other than an online leaflet which I printed off. This seemed a bit strange given the obvious amount of investment in signage.
So last year while everyone else was off doing the North Coast 500, I opted to return to Aberdeenshire and follow the suggested 165 mile route. This was effectively the second time I'd been along this stretch of coastal road but this time I had more opportunity to visit places.
I loved it even more the second time around and made lots of new discoveries although I still didn't manage to spend as much time as I would have liked in some places - Banff being one. However, having completed the journey twice I have gotten to know it well enough that I feel confident my own suggested highlights along with the official literature will help you get the most out of the route.
There is so much diversity along this small edge of the country and I recommend setting aside 3 - 5 days so you can experience as much as possible. The following highlights are not a comprehensive guide and you should leave enough time to make your own discoveries but these are the places I think shouldn't be missed - grab a cup of tea, there's a lot to take in!
For more ideas, check out my guide to things to do in Aberdeenshire
St Cyrus Nature Reserve
HIGHLIGHTS - NATURE, BEACH, EASY WALKING TRAIL, HISTORIC CHURCH
The first stop on the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail and indeed my first stop, was the National Nature Reserve at St Cyrus. I parked up at the visitor centre where I picked up some leaflets and had a look at the board where members of the public note down their wildlife sightings. I was jealous of those that had spotted whales off the shore during the summer, and although it was unlikely I would see one as it was too late in the season, I was optimistic of spotting a peregrine due to the numerous recent comments about sightings.
One of the leaflets in the centre provided details of the Tyrie Trail, an easy circular walk of just under a mile through the reserve which is home to more than 300 plant species. I opted to follow the trail, adding in a slight detour to the Sand of St Cyrus, a beautiful beach that stretched as far as I could see in either direction, with some quirky driftwood shelters dotted along the sands.
The trail leaves from the visitor centre and heads over a bridge built by a troop of Gurkhas as a community training project. Stone markers on the ground lead the way through the reserve which was full of fungi during my autumn visit but must be teeming with wildlife in the spring and summer. Before the trail heads back to the visitor centre, it passes the Nether Kirkyard. I love exploring old churches so just had to stop off for a quick look around the atmospheric ruin which sits in the most picturesque spot below some towering cliffs. I was also rewarded with a peregrine falcon, shrieking and circling overhead. From here it is a short walk back to the visitor centre where you can share your wildlife sightings.
As you head back look out for the former ice-house which is now a quirky looking holiday home.
Fowlsheugh RSPB Reserve
HIGHLIGHTS - VERY LARGE BREEDING SEABIRD COLONY, SCENIC CLIFFTOP WALK
ST CYRUS TO FOWLSHEUGH
DISTANCE - 16 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 30 MINS
I didn't stop off at the Fowlsheugh RSPB Reserve on my latest road-trip along the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail as it was the wrong time of year to spot the vast amount of seabirds that can be seen perching on the cliff edges during the breeding season from late April until the end of July. However, I did take a walk along the clifftop path on a previous visit during the summer and it was a complete assault on the senses, thanks to the noise and smell!
The spectacle of over 130,000 breeding seabirds is a really memorable one and at the right time of year, RSPB Fowlsheugh should definitely be one your Aberdeenshire coastal stop offs. It is one of the largest seabird colonies on mainland Britain and some of the birds to look out for include guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, puffins and fulmars. Take binoculars and you can also scan the sea below for local marine mammals. The clifftop path is fairly easy walking, just be careful of going too near the edge as it is a long drop to the sea below!
HIGHLIGHTS - HISTORIC CASTLE, ICONIC SCENERY
FOWLSHEUGH TO DUNNOTTAR CASTLE
DISTANCE - 2.5 MILES APPROX DRIVING TIME - 5 MINS
One of the most photogenic (and photographed!) castles in Scotland is Dunnottar and this is a popular stopping point along the coastal trail. I would love to tell you more about visiting the castle but I've yet to look inside due to bad timing on my part, something I really need to rectify.
Previously home to the Earls Marischal, one of Scotland's most powerful families, the castle has a colourful past involving some of the most famous figures in Scottish history. Today it is one of Aberdeenshire's most popular tourist attractions.
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