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.
4. GO ON A CASTLE HUNT
Aberdeenshire is known as 'Scotland's Castle Country' with more than 300 castles, ruins and stately mansions within the region and more castles per acre than anywhere else in the UK. Obviously visiting them all in a weekend would be impossible and even choosing which ones to explore if you only have a short period of time is a struggle as they are all so unique. Personally, I've found the Castle Trail map a really handy resource if you're not sure where to start. It picks out 19 of the best sites marked on a route that navigates around Aberdeenshire from the coast to Royal Deeside. Currently I've visited 10 of the 19 locations listed and plan on completing the whole trail in the near future. You can easily visit a couple of castles in a day and several over a weekend. With a variety of dramatic ruins and historic family homes, there is enough variety for all interests and ages.
One castle that doesn't feature on the trail but is also worth a visit in my opinion is New Slains Castle near Cruden Bay, which Bram Stoker is said to have used as an inspiration for his Dracula novel after staying here in 1894. From the grand Royal residence of Balmoral to a unique castle with a lighthouse in Fraserburgh, this is definitely the best region in Scotland to go castle hunting.
5. VISIT THE MOST EASTERLY POINT ON THE SCOTTISH MAINLAND
There is some dispute about where the most easterly point in mainland Scotland actually is, but I'm on the side of Buchan Ness with its pretty red and white striped lighthouse. The other contender is Keith Inch which was once an island but now forms part of Peterhead Harbour so it really depends on whether you class an island that has been incorporated in to the harbour as now being part of the mainland, personally I think it is cheating slightly.
The headland of Buchan Ness can be reached by a small bridge linked to the coastal village of Boddam which was previously a busy fishing port until the fishing fleet was attracted to the expanded harbour facilities in nearby Peterhead. A trip to Buchan Ness can easily be combined with a visit to Peterhead Prison Museum, Bullers of Buchan and Slains Castle to make a full day of it. If you want to spend more time exploring the area, you can rent one of the lighthousekeepers cottages that have now been turned in to holiday accommodation.
6. ENJOY AN INDIANA JONES MOMENT
Burn O'Vat is an amazing natural gem in Royal Deeside which was formed approximately 14,000 years ago. The geological feature is thought to have been created when a trapped rock was caught in a spiral of water causing it to spin and carve out a bowl in the bedrock. It has been a popular attraction since Victorian times and previous to that it was used as a hideout for local fugitives, which isn't surprising as it would be pretty hard to find without the current signposts.
To reach the 'Vat' you first need to channel your inner Indiana Jones and negotiate rocks and stepping stones across a stream before entering a small gap in the rocks. It's actually easier than it sounds and thankfully there are no snakes to wrestle or deadly booby traps to avoid along the way. As you step through the gap, you enter the large water-carved bowl complete with a hidden waterfall which I personally think is a superb reward for relatively little effort.
If you want to increase the chances of having the place all to yourself, get there early or later in the day. Burn O Vat is situated in Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve so there are plenty of other walking options in the surrounding area if you want to make a full day of it.
7. JOIN IN SOME FESTIVITIES
Taking in a festival is the perfect way to fill a weekend and Aberdeenshire has an impressive year round calendar of events for all tastes. This summer I soaked up the friendly atmosphere of the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival in Portsoy and as a lover of history and the coast, it pretty much ticked all my boxes for the perfect festival ingredients.
Another local event I really enjoyed is The Braemar Gathering, the most famous Highland Games in the world which is attended by the Royal Family and a notable line up of competitors.
A festival on my list for the future is Nuart Aberdeen which celebrates street art and provides a platform for local, national and international artists to showcase their work.
Fans of comedy, music, art, science and technology, beer or pretty much anything else you can think of will find Aberdeenshire has you covered with a long list of festivals and events. Be sure to check out their annual festival programme to get some inspiration.
8. FOLLOW IN ROYAL FOOTSTEPS
I recently spent a long weekend exploring Royal Deeside, an area of mountains, expansive Highland estates, charming Victorian villages and of course Balmoral Castle, the summer residence of the Royal Family. The River Dee meanders through the area, punctuated with historic bridges and is frequented by anglers trying their luck in one of the most famous salmon rivers in the world.
This part of the country captivated Queen Victoria and you can follow in her footsteps on the Victorian Heritage Trail which takes you through some of the scenery and places that she loved the most.
One of the stops is the Royal Deeside Railway which once served generations of the Royal Family but sadly closed in 1966 and is now a walking and cycling route. However, 1 mile of the track has been restored and I recently took the 20 minute return journey by steam train between Milton of Crathes station and Birkenbaud Crossing. It's not the fastest or longest journey, but departing from the restored Victorian station and boarding the historic locomotive gives you a sense of a railway journey from a bygone era when train travel was more of an adventure.
A visit to the railway can be easily combined with a trip to nearby Crathes Castle which is one of my personal favourites.
Royal Deeside has a character all of its own and there is plenty to keep you occupied for 2 days or longer.
9. SAMPLE SCOTLAND'S NATIONAL DRINK
Whether you are a whisky fan or not, taking a distillery tour and learning about the process involved in producing Scotland's national drink can be an educational and interesting experience. Each distillery has its own heritage and unique element that helps create a distinctive dram in a crowded market. I've done quite a few tours all over the country and love learning the history of each brand and building.
There are several whisky distilleries in the Aberdeenshire area that offers tours including Glen Garioch, Royal Lochnagar, Glenglassaugh, Fettercairn and Glen Dronach. Of course the best part about any whisky tour is getting to sample the goods and I learned many years ago that you have to taste quite a few drams to find the perfect malt for you. You may just leave Aberdeenshire having discovered a new favourite to add to your collection.
10. GET OUTDOORS
Wherever I go in Scotland, I feel inspired to get outside and immerse myself in the breathtaking scenery and Aberdeenshire is no exception. From low level trails to more challenging Munros, there is a countless amount of walking options.
I've previously followed some of the coastal path which hugs rugged cliffs and sandy beaches, with some nature reserves thrown in for good measure. The easy circular Tyrie Trail at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve has the perfect mix of wildlife, plants, beautiful beach and historic church. If you're lucky you might even spot a whale from the shore.
In Glen Tanar I've completed the Fairy Lochan Route which is another easy circular route approx 3 miles long. It passes a historic church and picturesque lochan before following the river.
Mar Lodge Estate sits in the heart of the Cairngorms and is cared for by the National Trust for Scotland. It is the largest nature reserve in the UK and home to 15 Munros, including Scotland's second highest mountain which will definitely keep you busy over a weekend. For a more sedate day out, pack a picnic in Queen Victoria style and relax by the Linn of Dee or go on a guided ranger walk to discover some of the local wildlife including iconic red deer and golden eagles.
The Deeside Way is a long distance path suitable for walkers and cyclists. At only 41 miles long it is doable in a long weekend and a great way to experience the diversity of the region.
For a fun family adventure take to the treetops at Go Ape in the grounds of Crathes Castle or go dolphin spotting on a boat trip from Aberdeen harbour.
These are just some ideas for getting outdoors in Aberdeenshire and for more inspiration I highly recommend Walkhighlands which is my go to resource for walking routes of all levels in every part of Scotland.
It would be impossible to list everything that you could do in Aberdeenshire during a weekend as the region is so vast. However, hopefully this has given you some ideas and if you have a suggestion of your own be sure to add it to the comments section below.
Disclaimer - this post is in partnership with Visit Aberdeenshire who supported by most recent trip to the region. However, many of the suggestions listed are also based on places I have visited independently and that I personally feel are worth recommending
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