On my most recent visit to Aberdeen I stayed at the recently opened Sandman Signature Aberdeen Hotel for 2 nights and it is the kind of accommodation the modern traveller to Scotland expects and that the city has been crying out for.
Sitting in the heart of the city centre it is conveniently located for visiting most of the main city attractions and I found exploring on foot really easy with the occasional bus ride to reach places of interest outwith the centre.
If you have a car, you can use the hotel car park although it is on a first come, first served basis. Having your own transport means you can venture further afield in the region, personally I love the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail and exploring the outdoor scenery and castles of Royal Deeside.
I've stayed in a few places locally and this is by far the best which is why I just had to write this review. From the Instagrammable interior (yes, I really did just say Instagrammable, what has my life become!) to the quirky nods to Scotland in the decor, not to mention the superb service, hopefully you will love this place as much as I did.
From the outside, the hotel is a sprawling granite building, very in keeping with Aberdeen's grand architectural style. Previously it was part of the Robert Gordon University campus and I can't imagine many businesses would be able to take on a structure this size so I'm glad it has been preserved and given a new lease of life.
When I first walked through the entrance I was wowed by the interior, a mix of grand, colourful, funky and Scottish. Did I also mention that it is very Instagrammable! The seating area is super comfy and conveniently has wireless phone charging pads on the tables.
My check-in was super easy and friendly. I arrived quite early so I could drop off my suitcase at reception while I explored Aberdeen. When I returned later in the day to check in properly I was impressed to find that my suitcase had already been taken to my room for me.
As I made my way across the thistle carpet to my room I realised just how big the hotel is on the inside as the corridors seemed to go on forever. There are 218 guest rooms in total of various styles and I was booked in to Corporate King Room with a sofa bed.
The room was a good size and the decor had an industrial warehouse feel thanks to the copper lights, old school radiators and exposed brickwork in the bathroom. However, there was no mistaking I was in a Scottish hotel thanks to the tartan throw and funky Highland Coo and stag cushions. Photographs of local Aberdeenshire landmarks also added a regional touch.
From a smart tv to a microwave, the room was well equipped and most importantly the bed was super comfy. At my age a good night's sleep is essential so I'm becoming increasingly fussy about my hotel bed standards and I'm pleased to say this one rated highly.
Until this year I hadn't really spent any proper time in Aberdeen, my bad!
However, after visiting twice this year, I finally feel like I'm getting to know the place. I'm also going to make a bold statement - Aberdeen is on the rise as a Scottish city tourist destination and I predict over the next few years it will be competing with Edinburgh, Glasgow and now Dundee.
I made the same prediction about Dundee well before it was on the radar of the glossy magazines and before the V&A took any shape - I'd say I got that one right...
Until recently Aberdeen didn't have to think too much about tourism, it was a city that thrived thanks to the money from the oil and gas industry. After a downturn in the sector, it is having to reinvent itself and gaining a slice of the increasing Scottish tourism pie seems to be on the agenda.
As I discovered on my latest visit, there are even plenty of things to do on a rainy day in Aberdeen. I should add that there are even more things to do if the sun is shining which it did on my last visit. However, this blog concentrates on some of the best places to hide out if the weather turns driech, which it often does in Scotland!
Things to do in Aberdeen on a rainy day
David Welch Winter Gardens
I actually can't think of a better place to visit on a dreich day in Aberdeen than the winter gardens in Duthie Park. The minute you enter the giant glasshouse you are transported to a tropical climate thanks to a wave of warm air and a vision of exotic greenness.
I was really surprised at the size of the glasshouse, it is way bigger than anything in Glasgow or Edinburgh. In fact it is one of Europe’s largest indoor gardens and Scotland’s third most visited gardens which makes me ashamed to say I had never heard of it before my latest visit to the city. It is now on my list of favourite things to do in Aberdeen.
The glasshouse complex is divided up in to different areas including the Fern House, Perfume Corridor, Victorian Corridor and Tropical House among others. It also has one of the largest collections of cacti in Britain where you will also find 'Spike' the taking cactus!
There are plenty of benches dotted around the gardens along with a coffee shop which makes this the perfect place to sit and while away the hours sheltered from the weather.
Aberdeen Maritime Museum
Museums are always a great wet weather option and the Aberdeen Maritime Museum will keep family members of all ages entertained. There are loads of interesting exhibits to see and during my visit I learned a lot about the various periods of local maritime history that have helped shape the city.
A cleverly designed glass window overlooking the busy Aberdeen working harbour, makes the ever moving boats and machinery a part of the museum's story. However, what really makes the museum unique, is the display on the North Sea oil and gas industry, the only one in the UK.
The building sits on the historic Shiprow which was once one of the most important streets in Aberdeen and was first mentioned in documents in 1281. The museum also incorporates Provost Ross's House which was built in 1593.
I really enjoyed my visit here and definitely recommend it to anyone touring Aberdeen.
The Tolbooth Museum
The Tolbooth Museum is a short walk from the Maritime Museum so it is easy to combine a visit to both. Situated in one of the oldest buildings in Aberdeen, this is also one of the best preserved 17th century gaols in Scotland with original cells, doors and barred windows. It served as the prison of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire for over 200 years.
Built between 1616 and 1629, it is an atmospheric building and I found the historical displays and stories of some of the people locked up here particularly fascinating . For those interested in Jacobite history, this place will be of special interest as almost 100 known or suspected Jacobites were held here to be questioned after Culloden.
However, over the years the gaol housed a wide range of prisoners from debtors to witches and even Quakers. Poor old farm hand Charles Duff was charged with wearing tartan, contrary to the Dress Act of 1746, introduced after Culloden. The punishment was 6 months imprisonment and repeat offenders could be transported overseas to work on a plantation for 7 years.
If you do visit, try not to go alone as the Tolbooth is also said to be haunted!
St Machar's Cathedral
The Cathedral Church of St Machar can be found in Old Aberdeen, an area which is well worth walking around on a pleasant day. The church is thought to be situated on or near to the site of a previous place of worship which was founded around 580 AD by Machar, a companion of St Columba.
The first cathedral was built here around 1165, although a succession of events saw it being partially demolished, destroyed and rebuilt over the following centuries. The present building mainly dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries, although damage, restoration and additional work has occurred since.
It is the oldest building still active in Aberdeen today and I found the unique heraldic ceiling dating from 1520 particularly impressive. It is also said that after William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered in 1305, his left arm was sent to Aberdeen and is now interred within the cathedral walls.
Orkney played a vital role in both World Wars and the vast number of wartime structures that litter the landscape are testament to this fact. Its importance was mainly thanks to a body of water named Scapa Flow, a sheltered natural harbour surrounded by many of the Orkney Islands. It is also ideally situated for guarding the North Sea and these factors contributed to Scapa Flow being chosen as the main base for the Royal Navy fleet during both World Wars. The protection of the fleet was a priority and this led to numerous coastal defences and batteries being built on the islands, some of which I recently visited on the wartime themed itinerary detailed below.
Unfortunately there were many local wartime casualties, including a combined total of over 1600 lives lost from attacks on HMS Hampshire and HMS Pheasant during the First World War, and HMS Royal Oak during the Second World War. A tragic accident on board HMS Vanguard during the First World War also resulted in over 800 lives lost and the death of the first civilian through enemy action during the Second World War also took place on Orkney when James Isbister was killed in Stenness.
When I first visited Orkney I wasn't fully aware of how much the present day island life had been shaped by this dark period. After following this 1 day itinerary I felt a greater appreciation of the local impact and legacy left by this significant era of history. Tales of horror, hope and human spirit were intertwined in all the places that I visited.
ABOUT THE ITINERARY AND MY ADVICE
The itinerary is one of several autumn and spring themed day trip ideas that are being introduced by Destination Orkney over the coming months as part of their 'See You at The Weekend' campaign. I'll be trying them all out so stay tuned for lots more Orkney inspiration from me.
If you intend on following the full Wartime itinerary then I would advise some advance planning as you will need to take in to consideration opening times and book a place on the Ness Battery Tour. Due to these variables it is unlikely that your route will be exactly the same order as mine.
The day is quite intense as there is a lot to do and see but if you're short on time and want to visit all the attractions mentioned then it is doable, just be prepared for a full day out.
Alternatively, you can select a few sites to visit and take your day a bit easier or if you have more time, spread the itinerary out over a couple of days and enjoy it at a more relaxed pace.
I've included a list of the locations below, with a map at the bottom of the page. I've also provided the approximate minimum time needed to visit (although you could spend much longer at most sites) and some helpful tips at the bottom of each attraction to make your planning as easy as possible - don't say I'm not good to you...
ORKNEY WARTIME ITINERARY LOCATIONS
TIME REQUIRED - 5 MINUTES
The Churchill Barriers are a series of 4 causeways that link the 5 islands of Orkney Mainland, Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay. Today most people view them as a convenient transport connection and they have certainly opened up local work and tourism opportunities. Indeed, it is the presence of the barriers that allowed me to travel between the various islands on my 1 day itinerary with ease, yet they are probably the most significant wartime legacy on Orkney.
You just have to look beyond the barriers to the rusting remains of ships rising out the water to be reminded of the reason these causeways first came about. These ships are blockships, deliberately sunk to block the passages between the islands. Along with submarine nets they formed naval defences designed to stop German U-boats. However, on 14th October 1939, German U-Boat U-47 managed to pass the blockships at high tide and torpedo HMS Royal Oak which was moored in Scapa Flow. The battleship sank quickly, with the loss of over 800 lives.
Winston Churchill proceeded to visit Orkney and instructed the building of 4 permanent barriers. The project was a great feat of engineering as the deep water and tidal currents caused logistical problems. A shortage of labour force resulted in many Italian prisoners of war being brought to Orkney. Quarries and infrastructure including rail links and piers also had to be created.
Below the smooth tarmacadam surface that exists today, is a massive hidden layer of rocks and concrete. In fact, 250,000 tons of broken rock set in wire cages and 66,000 cast concrete blocks were used to build the barricades.
The work began in May 1940 and was completed in September 1944. Today, two of the barriers have been listed by Historic Environment Scotland as structures of national importance and a powerful reminder of Orkney's wartime past.
TIPS FOR VISITING
TIME REQUIRED - MINIMUM 45 MINUTES ALTHOUGH YOU COULD SPEND MUCH LONGER
My first proper stop of the morning was on the island of South Ronaldsay, easily reached from Mainland thanks to the previously mentioned Churchill Barriers. On the west coast of the island, Hoxa Head overlooks the The Sound of Hoxa, one of the main approaches to Scapa Flow.
Extensive coastal batteries were built on the surrounding islands of Flotta and South Ronaldsay to defend this strategic Orkney location and it is here that the substantial ruins of clifftop batteries that were operational during both world wars can still be found.
Coastal defences are a common feature on Orkney but those at Hoxa Head are among the best ones to visit as there is still an extensive amount of structures remaining with evidence of gun emplacements, observation towers, an accommodation camp and more. I should add that many of the buildings are in a dangerous condition, with some partially collapsed so it is not recommended or advisable to explore inside.
The complex of batteries extends over 700m around the headland and has been listed as a Scheduled Monument. A battery was first installed here during the First World War which included gun and searchlight emplacements, engine room, shelters, accommodation and observation posts. At the end of WW1 the battery was decommissioned and the guns sold for scrap, I'm sure in the thinking that they wouldn't be needed so soon after!
With the arrival of another World War, the defences had to be rebuilt, and a second gun battery known as Balfour Battery was constructed and the whole site extended. Mothballed in 1943, the site was finally abandoned by 1950. I for one hope we never need defences like this again.
TIPS FOR VISITING
TIME REQUIRED - 10 - 20 MINUTES
The Italian Chapel is a building I don't think I'll ever tire of visiting. I've been several times now and have noticed something new on each occasion. There is a reason it is one of Orkney's most popular attractions drawing over 100,000 visitors each year.
Essentially the Chapel is constructed from two Nissen huts which have been transformed in to a small but beautifully formed sanctuary. The building came about after a request from Italian prisoners of war who were captured in North Africa and brought to Orkney to assist with the building of the Churchill Barriers. Many of them were based at Camp 60 on the island of Lamb Holm and wanted their own place of worship.
The request for a chapel was agreed and the prisoners undertook the construction work and interior decoration during their spare time. One of the prisoners, Domenico Chiocchetti, was an artist and he was responsible for a large part of the design. He was assisted by Giuseppe Palumbi, a blacksmith, and Domenico Buttapasta, a cement worker, among many others.
The Italian Chapel is stunning and a testament to their devotion and talent. It is hard to believe all the intricate detail was mainly fashioned from scrap material, concrete and some bought items from the prisoners welfare fund.
After the interior was completed, the prisoners started work on the exterior. Standing before the ornate white facade, there is little evidence that the building actually consists of two very plain Nissen huts. Head around the side and the back of the chapel to fully appreciate what basic shelters they were working with.
The Italian Chapel was actually only in use for a short period and has been restored and preserved over the years since which I for one am glad of as not many beautiful things rise out of the horror of war.
I've just returned from a winter city break in Aberdeen which has left me feeling all festive. I'm still getting to know the city, so it was great to have a few days to explore some of the sites, discover cute cafes and I even started my present shopping which is making me feel all smug as I'm usually a last minute person.
Being a city means that Aberdeen doesn't shut down for the winter and I found countless ways to spend my time including a free lunchtime concert, a visit to the Botanic Gardens and museum trips among many other activities. In fact, I've written a blog post all about the indoor activities that I discovered during my latest trip to Aberdeen.
However, one of the main reasons for this trip was to embrace the seasonal spirit at the Aberdeen Christmas Village and Market. The Village has an extended footprint this year and boasts the stunningly dramatic backdrop of Marischal College. With regional businesses and community groups at the heart of the event, it was nice to visit a Scottish Christmas market that supports and champions local talent.
Here are a few of my reasons to visit the Aberdeen Christmas Village this year...
1. SHOP FOR LOCAL GOODS AT THE CHRISTMAS MARKET
No Christmas Village would be complete without a festive market and Aberdeen is no exception. However, I was delighted to find out that a new market supporting local makers had been introduced for 2018 which is the kind of shopping I enjoy.
I don't know about you, but I'm more than a bit weary of seasonal events in other parts of the country that feature numerous stalls selling the same mass-produced items year after year. It is refreshing to see a Scottish city embrace local talent as their main shopping focal point.
Christmas in the Quad takes place within the impressive courtyard of Marischal College and the cute little cabins are all home to businesses from the North East of Scotland, with a small stage also providing a platform for local musical talent. It is the perfect chance to pick up a unique gift while supporting local enterprises. The market runs from Thursday to Sunday until Sunday 23rd December and the line-up changes every week so there are new opportunities to buy a varied range of regional arts. crafts, food and drink each weekend.
I combined a shopping excursion to the Christmas Village with a trip to the Aberdeen Etsy pop up market and managed to find some really unusual locally made presents. Although the Etsy market is finished for now, it is worth keeping an eye out for other makers events in the city.
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