Dive right into harbour life in Scotland’s third largest city, Aberdeen, with our whistlestop guide
In July 1909, Harry Houdini prepared for a run at Aberdeen’s Palace Theatre by throwing himself cuffed and chained into the city’s harbour. Emerging triumphant from the icy waters moments later in front of huge crowds, the great escapologist duly ensured his shows were a sell out.
That Houdini chose the harbour as the setting for such a stunt in Aberdeen is unsurprising. The water dominates Scotland’s third largest city, which sits between where the rivers Dee and Don meet the North Sea. The harbour is the UK’s oldest surviving business (King David I of Scotland granted local bishops the right to levy tithes on ships in 1136), and work recently began on a £350 million expansion into the Bay of Nigg.
It isn’t the only part of Aberdeen that is being redeveloped. The 16th-century Provost Skene’s House conversion into a museum will coincide with the adjacent Marischal Square project that features restaurants, coffee shops and the Residence Inn by Marriott hotel. Aberdeen might be called the Granite City, but its future clearly isn’t set in stone.
Explore an old fishing village
Begin a whistle-stop tour of Aberdeen at the top lip of the mouth of the River Dee in the area known as Footdee – or ‘Fittie’ to the locals. Laid out by Balmoral Castle architect John Smith, this former fishing community is full of cobbled lanes, picturesque stone cottages and driftwood sheds that face inwards away from the wild seas.
Go dolphin spotting
Across the estuary at the high vantage point of Torry Battery, bottlenose dolphins jump around in the harbour mouth. During the summer months, an RSPB van can often be found in the car park off Greyhope Road. The staff can provide you with telescopes and binoculars to help better catch sight of these graceful mammals.
Learn about the sea
After a bracing blast of North Sea air, head to Aberdeen Maritime Museum to further explore the city’s fascination with waves. Housed in a building that partly dates back to 1593, artefacts include nautical fine art and ship models, as well as a flight simulator to test whether you have what it takes to become a pilot on the local oil rigs.
Eat a whale
For a traditional lunch, tuck into fish and chips at the flagship branch of The Ashvale. Customers who polish off ‘The Whale’ (a 1lb battered haddock fillet) receive a certificate plus either a free dessert or a second Whale – as if you’d need it. Walk off lunch in nearby Duthie Park, home to the tropical glasshouses of the David Welch Winter Gardens, one of Europe’s largest.
Stroll through nature
A lovely afternoon walk can be had around the mouth of the Don. Begin amid the roses and rhododendrons of Cruickshank Botanic Garden, then head along The Chanonry to the Cathedral Church of St Machar, whose walls are rumoured to contain William Wallace’s left arm, before strolling through the flowerbeds of Seaton Park (a gold medal winner in 2017’s Britain in Bloom awards). Head west to follow the riverside path to Brig o’ Balgownie, a 17th-century bridge featured in Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan.
Meet the Highlanders
The Gordon Highlanders Museum celebrates the regiment that Sir Winston Churchill called the world’s “finest”. A main chronological display charts the Highlanders’ involvement in 224 years of military history, including the French Revolution and two World Wars, while other rooms contain everything from Royal Doulton mugs to an AK-47 rifle.
Have a wee dram
From the lively atmosphere and extensive range of malt whiskies to the reclaimed stained glass and signs warning you to “mind yer heid” on the low ceiling, Old Blackfriars is every bit the hearty Aberdeen watering hole. Visit on Thursdays for a traditional Scottish hootenanny.
Sample fine local dining
Situated in a former customs house on the harbour for 32 years, The Silver Darling has been extensively refurbished. The award-winning seafood menu remains with the catch of the day as fresh as they come. Granite Park’s à la carte menu also makes inventive use of local favourites such as Peterhead cod and skirlie (an oatmeal dish), adding a Mediterranean or Asian twist.
Enjoy a spot of culture
At His Majesty’s Theatre, touring musicals and comedy shows share the stage with performances by the various national companies. At the other end of Upperkirkgate, sister venue The Lemon Tree hosts gigs and comedy in more intimate surroundings.
Book into a homely hotel
In 1892, store owner William ‘Raggie’ Morrison paid £1,225 to build a home on King’s Gate. One of the most ornate and striking residences in the city centre, it today houses the equally highly regarded Atholl Hotel. Full Scottish breakfasts, a leafy terrace and a bar amply stocked with malt whiskies make for a comforting stay.
Run to the hills
If you’re en route to the Cairngorms, consider a stay at Macdonald Norwood Hall Hotel a few miles outside Aberdeen. Built on the site of a 15th-century castle in 1881, the feature suites and the double AA-rosette-awarded Tapestry Restaurant have views across seven acres of grounds.