What a glorious heatwave we are having right now! I am so glad I decided to ‘staycation’ this summer and this year my summer holidays were in Orkney. I went to Orkney 2 years ago and loved it so much I decided to go back; this time with my husband. This is a guide to what to do, where to go and importantly how to get to Orkney! We based ourselves in Kirkwall and traveled to other parts of the Islands from there. It is a good base to get about the Island. Hopefully, it will help with any future visits you may be planning. If I have missed anything out, feel free to drop me a comment!
Getting to Orkney
There are a few options for getting to Orkney. The plane goes from most Scottish Airports and you can fly into Kirkwall Airport. This is the most time effective method. You can then hire a car on the island, there is a car hire place just at the airport so it is very convenient. It is from here that you can also get a plane to other islands (more on this later).
Alternatively, there is a choice of 3 ferries. There are the Northlink Ferries from Aberdeen which goes between Aberdeen, Kirkwall, and Lerwick in Shetland. This is a late night ferry there and an overnight ferry going back. I went on this before, it’s not too bad. It’s a big ferry and the option for you to book a cabin or we opted for sleep-pods which were like airline chairs. It’s not an amazing night sleep you get but it’s okay. Northlink, also have a shorter ferry from Scrabster, which is at the top of Scotland. I haven’t been on this ferry but I have heard it is the ‘Rolls Royce’ of ferries.
The third option is the Pentland Ferry, it is cheaper and only takes an hour from Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope. I have taken this ferry twice and both times it has been good, there is a cafe on board and on nice days you can sit on the top deck and get breathtaking views of Orkney.
Where to Stay in Kirkwall?
This time I went we camped at the Pickaquoy Caravan and Campsite. We opted for an electric hook up and for the 5 days, it cost us about £120 for 5 nights. Which is quite reasonable. The facilities were excellent with plenty of clean toilets and showers, a lounge to sit in and 2 indoor dishwashing areas. The campsite is also within 5 minutes walking distance of Kirkwall Town Centre. With the booking we got 2 free vouchers to use at the adjacent Pickaquoy Centre on the Soft Play, Swimming Pool or Racquet Sports, unfortunately, we never got a chance to use them, but it was a great addition.
When I went two years ago we stayed in Orcades Hostel, which is just around the corner from the campsite. It is a well equipped modern hostel, that has a few private and ensuite rooms. We paid around £300 for 4 nights in a private 4-bed dorm. Which again is very reasonable.
There are of course plenty of Bed and Breakfasts and a quick google or TripAdvisor will let you find one to suit. 9 Craigiefield Park is a B&B owned by a family friend and although I’ve not stayed there it is a lovely B&B.
What To Do When in Orkney?
There is a wealth of culture, history, and activities to do when on Orkney. Pick yourself up a tourist map and if possible the Visit Scotland guide to Orkney. It is full of suggestions of things to do, both popular tourist attractions and activities that may be a little different.
The Italian Chapel
This has to be the most picturesque building on the island. The Italian Chapel was built by Italian Prisoners of War during World War 2. These POWs were in Orkney to build Churchill Barriers and wanted a place to worship. They were allowed 2 shelters which they placed the end on end and went about creating the magnificent masterpiece both inside and out! The chapel costs £3 to enter and it is worth it. It’s not a big building but it is stunning!
Top Tip- Orkney is a popular port of call for cruise liners, when they are in town the Tourist Attractions get busy as bus loads of people visit the various ‘hot spots’. Top Tip – They are on a strict time limit and quite often will get off the bus have a wee look take a photo and get back on the bus and off to the next location. My top tip is to hang back take your time and it will be possible to get some excellent pictures minus loads of people!
Skara Brae is a Neolithic village that has been preserved for 5000 years, discovered after a major storm on Orkney. It is a Unesco Heritage site. I found this place fascinating, there was a great exhibition beforehand and a replica ‘house’ to go visit before going to see the real thing which has totally been frozen in time. This place is older than the pyramids is well worth a visit! I was totally in awe. Even if history is not your bag, this is so worth a look. As with the Italian Chapel, it is often quite busy with coach trips but take your time and soak it all in! There is a cafe and gift shop on site although maybe quite ‘touristy’. It is a Historic Scotland site so it’s free entry for members and I think about £7 for non-members.
Skaill House is a mansion that was formerly owned by the laird who discovered Skara Brae. It was really interesting, there was a lot of things to do and see but not loads of reading which often older house have. There were many different time periods of different lairds documented in the house and it is worth a look, you can take your time to read through it or just do a wee fly through the visit. Admission is included in the Skara Brae admission.
St Magnus Cathedral
This is a magnificent cathedral built to commemorate St. Magnus who was killed by his brother’s chef with an axe to the head. His remains are interred here. The Cathedral is truly magnificent and I recommend you pick up one of the leaflets at the door and take yourself on the self-guided tour. Or if you are me, kindly read the leaflet out to your family as you walk around the Cathedral channeling your best Tour Guide Barbie impression. The Cathedral probably took us about 30 mins to go around.
The stained glass windows in the cathedral are breathtaking and well worth a look!
Stromness is the second biggest town on mainland Orkney with narrow winding streets and lovely old houses. Very Picturesque! There are a few nice shops here, I recommend a stop at the bakers’ shop. There is also the Pier Arts Centre in the town which has ever-changing exhibitions. The exhibition was the works of Margaret Tait. Which were a collection of poems and videos. Now, I really did try to get involved and engaged with her work but it just wasn’t my thing. Sorry, Margaret! Definitely worth a wee walk around the building it’s a beautiful open airy space.
The Orkney Museum
This museum is dedicated to Orkney through the ages from the Iron Age, right up to the modern day. There were loads of exhibitions over several floors including excavations from Viking graves found on the island. There was a lot of information to take in so it may take a while to go round or you could just focus on the areas you are interested in. There are beautiful gardens as well to wander around.
Kirkwall its self is a super wee town. There are lots of wonderful wee shops from the quirky and independent to Poundland and Boots. It’s the place to head if you need to buy ‘essentials’. There is also a Tesco, Lidl, and Co-Op in Kirkwall which are super handy for those who opt to self-cater.
Loganair offers a Sightseer flight, which is a trip from Kirkwall Airport to Westray, Papa Westray and back again. The flight between Westray and Papa Westray is the World’s shortest scheduled flight taking about 2 minutes. The island hopper flight allows you to see Orkney from the air as well as a flavor of the other islands. The only thing with the flight is that it can only be booked on the day if there are any spaces on the flight. So you cannot guarantee a space on the plane. My husband went on this flight and said it was amazing. Worth looking into.
Marwick Head/ Kitchener Memorial
Lord Kitchener who is famed for his Britain Needs You! Poster died off the coast of Orkney after his boat HMS Hampshire hit a mine. There is a large memorial built to him, with the recent addition of a wall of all the names of all the men who lost their lives too. This is also an RSPB site to spot birds, we spotted some Gulliemots and 5 Puffins. It is quite a walk to get to the memorial but the views from it are worth it! Just along from Marwick Head is the Brough of Birsay which is a small island that is only accessible from a causeway at low tide. Unfortunately, we were here at the wrong time and so couldn’t get on the Island. I did, however, get to go last time and got to see puffins up close.
Ring of Brodgar
Ring of Brodgar is a stone circle that predates Stonehenge. The good thing about this compared to Stonehenge is you can actually walk quite close to the stones and not pay a fortune to view them from miles away. There is a collection of around 30 stones although there formally was around 60. Amazing to see something that has been there for thousands of years.
The Churchill Barriers were built during World War 2 as a blockade to protect the British Naval Fleet. Although they are quite simply massive blocks of concrete there is something quite artistic about them. Near the Churchill Barriers, you will also be able to see some ship masts and shipwrecks from both WW1 and WW2. I recommend a visit to Scapa Bay, there is a small hut here that tells the tragic story of HMS Royal Oak.
The Orkney Distillery
This was only open a few days when we visited. The Orkney Distillery is the home of Kirkjuvgar Gin and this is their new purpose-built distillery. Read my more in dept review of the distillery here. I would recommend you prebook the tour or if not you can pop into the shop/ bar.
This is another gin distillery, there are 3 on the island! Deerness Distillery makes Sea Glass Gin and Into the Wild Vodka. You can read more about my visit here! This distillery tour must be pre-booked but there is a really great shop here that you would be able to drop into.
Of course, this is only scratching the surface of what there is to do and see in Orkney. For example, there are 2 Whisky Distilleries, Highland Park, and Scapa Distillery. There’s more History in Maes Howe and the Tomb of the Eagles. And there are many other islands to discover!
Where to Eat and Drink
West End Hotel
It was a warm and sunny day in Kirkwall my husband and I decided we would try and find a beer garden. Easier said than done. The first place that advertised a Beer Garden was essentially a smoking shelter. The second was in the shade. The third did not let you take alcohol into the beer garden. The forth had no seats and so Goldilocks and her husband here were about to go back to our tent via Lidl and make our own beer garden when we tried the West End Hotel. It is a little away from the main thoroughfare but totally worth it. There is a lounge bar with a well-stocked Gin Menu and cocktail list as well as a quiet, sunny beer garden! Hurrah! We ended up going back here a few times and it was so quiet! Well worth a visit!
We asked a few locals where we should eat and they all recommended Helgis. Unfortunately, it was always fully booked for food. We did stop in here for a drink and they had a great selection of real ales, local ales, cocktails, and spirits. Very friendly staff too!
The Reel is situated in the shadow of St Magnus Cathedral. It is a music shop, music school, cafe, bar and venue all rolled into one! It is owned by Scottish Folk Singers the Wrigley Sisters. There seems to be live music on every night. We went when it was the Fiddle and Accordion group. This may not be my first choice of music but it was fantastic such good vibes! I highly recommend going for one night. We did go in an afternoon and ordered some Nachos, which in all honesty weren’t the greatest I’ve had but edible.
I went here for dinner last time I was in Kirkwall and we ended up back here again this time. The food here is yummy and reasonable. The portions are massive too. The restaurant has a conservatory out the front that looks onto the harbor which is beautiful. I had the steak fajitas which were very very good but the seafood platter also looked amazing!
Hopefully, this guide has answered some of your questions and gave some ideas about Orkney. I recommend the Visit Orkney website for more information and I am happy to answer any other questions you may have in the comments! Also, you may have been to Orkney and have other recommendations for me, add them in the comments!
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