Discover Kirkwall: Plan a Trip to Scotland's Hidden Gem
Scotland is a land of misty highlands, historic castles, and tartan kilts. But it's so much more than that.
If you're looking to venture beyond the usual tourist destinations, allow me to introduce you to Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkney Islands.
Ready to uncover what makes Kirkwall a must-see? Let's go!
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I may get a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through my links, at no cost to you.
Why should Kirkwall, Scotland, be on your travel radar?
Imagine a place where medieval architecture meets stunning natural landscapes wrapped in a rich tapestry of history and folklore. That's Kirkwall in a nutshell.
Getting to Kirkwall Scotland
Now that I've piqued your interest let's talk logistics. Reaching Kirkwall is easier than pronouncing some of its street names. Kirkwall is on the Orkney Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago.
As you plan a trip to Scotland, you can book a flight to Kirkwall Airport from major cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London. The airport has several car rental options if you want to explore the island on your own.
If you're more of a "enjoy the journey" type, ferries from Aberdeen on mainland Scotland are also an option.
Cruise ships dock in Kirkwall Bay just outside of town, providing a variety of fascinating shore excursions to explore the island during a cruise around the United Kingdom. That's how I first visited Kirkwall, and it's an excellent way to get a taste of what the town has to offer.
No matter how you get there, it's the first step as you plan your Scottish adventure.
Once you're in Kirkwall, consider taking a ferry from Kirkwall Pier or a short flight from Kirkwall Airport to other Orkney Islands. For a truly unique experience, take a 20-minute flight or 1.5-hour ferry ride from Kirkwall to Westray. From Westray, you can take the world's shortest commercial flight between Westray and Papa Westray. The journey lasts about 90 seconds (or under a minute with favorable winds and light luggage!).
The best time to visit Kirkwall
When it comes to the best time for a visit, Kirkwall is like a Scottish whisky - good all year round but exceptional in certain seasons.
Summer offers endless daylight (about 18 hours per day), while winter provides a cozy, less touristy experience. Local festivals like the Orkney Folk Festival in May add an extra layer of allure.
If you want to see the Northern Lights, November is usually a good time to see them dance across the sky. Or, if you're looking for a uniquely Kirkwall experience, visit over Christmas or New Year's, when the Ba takes place.
The Ba is a traditional street football game, not for the faint of heart. This historic event pits two teams, the Uppies and the Doonies, against each other in a boisterous, sprawling match that engulfs the town's streets.
Walking through Kirkwall, you may notice small holes next to each door and window. These are so the windows and doors can be boarded up for the Ba, since it's easy for them to become casualties of the game.
Originating from Viking traditions, the Ba is more than just a game; it's a rite of passage and a fierce display of community spirit. Played on Christmas Day and New Year's Day, the Ba is a spectacle that enthralls locals and visitors alike.
If you're going to plan a trip to Scotland during the holiday season, witnessing the Ba in Kirkwall is an experience that adds a whole new layer of cultural richness to your Scotland travel itinerary.
Things to do in Kirkwall, Scotland
Let's get to the meat and potatoes—or should I say haggis and neeps? Here are some must-see sights and things to do in Kirkwall.
St. Magnus Cathedral
St. Magnus Cathedral is the farthest north cathedral in Great Britain, often referred to as the "Light in the North." Located on Broad Street, this stunning red sandstone cathedral is a masterpiece of 12th-century Romanesque architecture, complete with intricate carvings and towering pillars.
But it's not just the beautiful exterior; the interior is equally captivating with its stained glass windows and ornate altars. A visit here offers spiritual solace and a journey back to medieval times, making it a must-see on any Kirkwall itinerary.
Highland Park Distillery
Whisky enthusiasts, this one's for you. Highland Park Distillery has been making whiskey for over 220 years. It offers an immersive experience into the world of whisky-making.
Here, you can take a guided tour that walks you through the entire distillation process, from mashing and fermenting to aging in sherry-seasoned oak casks. And, of course, no tour would be complete without a tasting session.
It's not just about the whisky; the distillery stands watch over Kirkwall from the high ground at the edge of town, adding a scenic touch to your spirited adventure.
The Orkney Gin Company
The Orkney Gin Company is a family-run distillery that has quickly become a shining star in Kirkwall's artisanal scene. This distillery specializes in hand-crafted, small-batch gins and is all about quality and local flavors.
Their gins are made in traditional copper pot stills and use locally sourced botanicals like sea buckthorn and heather, capturing the essence of the Orkney Islands in every bottle. The distillery offers tours and tastings, providing gin enthusiasts a behind-the-scenes look at the meticulous crafting process.
Whether you're a gin connoisseur or new to the world of botanical spirits, a visit to the Orkney Gin Company adds a spirited dimension to your Scotland travel itinerary. It was my favorite stop on our tour of Kirkwall!
The Orkney Museum
If you're a history buff, The Orkney Museum is your gateway to the rich past of the Orkney Islands.
Housed in a 16th-century mansion, the museum features a wide range of artifacts that span from prehistoric times to the modern era. Each room is like a chapter in a history book, offering insights into the island's Viking heritage, maritime exploits, and even wartime experiences. It's a fascinating educational destination that will expand your understanding of Kirkwall and the Orkney Islands.
Behind the museum, you'll find a lovely small garden. Entry to both the museum and garden is free.
Scapa Beach is an excellent option for those looking to get out into nature along the water. The sandy beach is a haven for nature lovers, offering stunning views of the surrounding cliffs and the North Sea.
While the water might be too chilly for a swim for most, the beach is perfect for a leisurely stroll, bird-watching, or even a picnic.
Bishop's and Earl's Palaces
The Bishop's and Earl's Palaces are separate buildings covered by one admission ticket.
The Bishop's Palace in Kirkwall is a medieval residence that dates back to the 12th century, built at the same time as the St Magnus Cathedral.
The palace, built for William the Old, a Norse Earl of Orkney, later became the residence of bishops, hence the name.
The structure is a fascinating blend of Norse and Scottish architecture, featuring a grand hall, a chapel, and a hidden underground chamber. While much of it is in ruins today, the palace still exudes an ancient grandiosity.
Adjacent to the Bishops Palace is the Earls Palace, a Renaissance palace that tells a tale of ambition and extravagance.
Earl Patrick Stewart built this palace in the late 16th century as a show of opulence. Its large windows, French-inspired turrets, and intricate stone carvings reflect the Earl's lofty aspirations.
However, due to the Earl's imprisonment and subsequent execution, the palace was never completed. Today, what remains are well-preserved ruins that allow you to wander through what could have been one of Scotland's grandest residences.
Where to eat and drink in Kirkwall
While in Kirkwall, you must dive into the town's culinary scene. From fresh seafood to traditional Scottish fare, Scottish whiskey to Orkney gin, Kirkwall offers something for everyone.
Make sure to try Orkney ice cream while you're there. We stopped at Sinclair's Ice Cream on Albert Street. It was some of the best ice cream I've had anywhere!
The epitome of fine dining in Kirkwall, The Foveran is known for its modern Scottish cuisine. The restaurant prides itself on using locally sourced ingredients, including seafood straight from Orkney waters.
With its elegant ambiance and an ever-changing seasonal menu, The Foveran offers a dining experience that's as sophisticated as it is delicious. It's the go-to spot for celebrating a special occasion or indulging in culinary excellence.
Lucano brings a slice of Italy to the heart of Kirkwall. Specializing in authentic Italian cuisine, this restaurant is a haven for pasta and pizza lovers.
But what sets Lucano apart is its commitment to authenticity—from hand-tossed pizzas to homemade pasta, every dish uses traditional Italian techniques. It's the perfect place for those craving a Mediterranean escape without leaving the Orkney Islands.
Helgi's is where locals and visitors alike go for a laid-back, cozy dining experience. Known for its diverse menu that includes everything from burgers to seafood, Helgi's offers something for everyone.
The restaurant is famous for its fish and chips, often touted as the best in Kirkwall. With its welcoming atmosphere and hearty portions, Helgi's is ideal for casual dining with friends and family.
Harbor Fry has you covered if you're looking for quintessential British comfort food. We stopped by on a whim, and it was so good!
This popular fish and chip shop on Bridge Street is a staple in Kirkwall's food scene, drawing crowds for its crispy battered fish and golden fries.
What makes Harbour Fry special is its no-frills approach to classic British fare, focusing on quality ingredients and perfect execution. It's the ultimate destination for those seeking a quick, satisfying meal that hits all the right notes.
Where to stay in Kirkwall
Staying in Kirkwall makes for a perfect base for your Orkney travel adventures. When it's time to decide where to stay in Kirkwall, here are my suggestions.
The Kirkwall Hotel
The Kirkwall Hotel is a historic gem on Harbour Street, offering guests picturesque views of the boats sailing by.
Established in the 19th century, the hotel exudes old-world charm, from its Victorian architecture to its antique-filled interiors. While the building may be historic, the amenities are up-to-date, ensuring a comfortable stay.
The hotel's restaurant is a local favorite, known for its seafood specialties and classic Scottish fare. If you want to stay in the heart of Kirkwall with a touch of historic elegance, The Kirkwall Hotel is the place to be.
The Ayre Hotel is a family-run establishment that prides itself on warm hospitality and personalized service. The hotel is near Kirkwall Harbour and offers easy access to local attractions.
The rooms are spacious and well-appointed, providing a comfortable base for your Kirkwall adventures. The on-site restaurant serves up traditional Orkney dishes with a contemporary twist. With its friendly atmosphere and convenient location, Ayre Hotel is a solid choice for exploring Kirkwall and beyond.
Tips for Planning Your Trip
Before you pack your bags and your sense of adventure, here are some quick tips:
Weather: Be prepared for Scotland's unpredictable weather. Pack layers, including a waterproof jacket and sturdy walking shoes, as the weather can change quickly. Carrying an umbrella or a hat can also come in handy.
Local customs: Embrace the local customs and culture of Kirkwall. Engage with the friendly locals, respect their traditions, and be mindful of the rich Orkney Island heritage. Feel free to ask the locals for recommendations or insider tips.
Explore beyond Kirkwall: While Kirkwall offers plenty to see and do, consider exploring the surrounding areas and islands. Renting a car or joining guided tours can allow you to discover Orkney's stunning landscapes, historical sites, and beautiful coastlines.
Discover Orkney's unique history: Take the time to learn about Orkney's unique history and archaeology. Visit the remarkable sites of Neolithic Orkney, such as the prehistoric village of Skara Brae, the Neolithic chambered cairn of Maeshowe, and the Ring of Brodgar's standing stones to gain insights into the ancient locations of historic Scotland.
Try local cuisine: Take the opportunity to savor the local cuisine. Sample Orkney's famous seafood, including freshly caught fish and delicious scallops. Explore the delightful cafes and restaurants in Kirkwall, indulging in traditional Scottish dishes and locally sourced ingredients.
Respect the environment: Orkney is known for its pristine natural beauty, so it's essential to respect the environment. Follow designated paths, clean up after yourself, and be mindful of wildlife and their habitats.
With these tips, you can make the most of your visit to Kirkwall and ensure a memorable experience in this charming Scottish town.
The bottom line
Kirkwall is more than just a dot on the map; it's a gateway to an authentic Scotland travel experience.
With its unique attractions, delicious food, and welcoming locals, Kirkwall deserves a spot as you plan a trip to Scotland. So why wait? Discover this hidden gem for yourself and elevate your Scotland travel game.
Want more Scotland travel inspiration? Check out our other Scotland travel blog posts!