Kirkwall in Scotland is the largest town in the Orkney Islands and sits comfortably in the heart of Mainland Orkney. This far north destination is your gateway to a spectacular journey in one of the most remote places in the UK. There’s no doubt that there are many things to do in Kirkwall, that’s for sure!
The name Kirkwall comes from the Old Norse meaning “Church Bay”. It’s the ideal basecamp to return to when discovering the Orkney archipelago and has an astonishing number of accommodation options, like the Kirkwall Hotel. It’s easy to reach, with most people using the comprehensive ferry services from John o’Groats in the Highlands or catching a flight from Aberdeen or Edinburgh.
With so many unique attractions, you should seriously consider coming to Kirkwall when planning your next adventure in Scotland.
Things to do in Kirkwall
You won’t be lacking in activities and things to do in this quaint town, and it’s recommended that you at least take a few days exploring the city and royal burgh before seeing more things to do in the Orkney archipelago.
This royal burgh, a fact that is still referenced in modern roadsigns, is famous for its historical museums, art galleries, harbour, and ample shops and restaurants. Outside the town centre, you’ll be treated to spectacular views, religious sites, standing stones, cruise ships, and the untamed wilderness you only see in the Orkney Islands.
It can be a bit overwhelming deciding what you should and shouldn’t see here. Read our guide for the top things to do in Kirkwall!
Explore the Town Centre
Kirkwall is the administrative centre of Kirkwall and a cultural melting pot with influences from the Scottish Mainland and Norse heritage. It’s not uncommon to stumble across beautiful buildings or streets and discover that it’s from the age of the Vikings!
There’s a lot of local historical interest to visit within walking distance, and locations like Broad Street, Kirkwall Harbour, and Harbour Street in town are filled with restaurants serving fresh seafood and local brews.
From the early Iron Age to the Pictish and Vikings, the Orkney Museum holds the secret of Kirkwall’s past!
The Museum, managed by the Orkney Islands Council, holds an extensive collection of historical artefacts like Viking helms and photos of ancient cairns that will delight all ages. Children will especially get a kick out of one of the best history museums in Orkney.
Bishop’s & Earl’s Palace
These twin palaces are stunning to behold and are evidence of Kirkwall Harbour being a bustling Norweigan port before it joined Scotland.
The Earl & Bishop’s Palace are exceptionally well preserved, and it’s easy to immerse yourself back in the 13th century. Bishop’s Palace is of great renown and famous for being the resting place of Haakon IV of Norway, with Earl’s Palace coming a bit later.
St Magnus Cathedral
Dominating the skyline of Kirkwall, the beautiful St Magnus Cathedral is undoubtedly one of the most famous attractions in Kirkwall and Orkney.
Known as the ‘Light in the North’, this cathedral is the northernmost cathedral in Scotland and was given to Orkney by King James III. Founded by the Viking Earl Rognvald, you can come to appreciate its magnificent height and architecture in Kirkwall. Its stained glass windows and cut stone interior are the stuff of legends so don’t miss out on it when you visit!
Orkney Wireless Museum
The Orkney Wireless Museum is one of international importance – Name one other museum dedicated to preserving wireless communication history!
One of two museums in Orkney, it holds radios and devices over 100 years old! You can listen to a crystal set, play tennis on the oldest computer game, and learn how wireless communication helped troops in World War II.
Grain Earth House
Before traditional long houses, the prehistoric people of Orkney lived in large earth houses. You can come to see this Iron Age dwelling near Kirkwall when you visit.
This 3000-year-old settlement is made of stone and leads into an oval home, giving you an accurate view of what life was like all those years ago. You can’t miss out on this ancient attraction on the west side of Kirkwall, found on the Hatston Industrial Estate.
The Tankerness House Gardens
Want some respite from the bustling town of Kirkwall? Taking a trip to the Tankerness House Gardens will recharge your batteries.
When the sun is shining, it’s the best place to soak up the sun and admire the flower and plant displays. Just opposite St Magnus Cathedral, this ancient garden used to belong Baikie family, but now this 17th-century garden is yours to explore.
Wideford Hill Cairn
This 5000-year-old chambered cairn is one of the best examples of Neolithic design and construction that you’ll be able to see in Scotland!
Within its chambered walls, you’ll see the many chambers that once held prehistoric scratch art that Neolithic people etched onto the stone. It’s a genuinely fascinating cairn that sits just outside Kirkwall.
Highland Park Distillery
Even coming to as remote a place as Orkney, you’ll still be able to taste fine Scottish whiskey at the Highland Park Distillery.
This distillery prides itself on making its smooth single malt blend as it did 220-years-ago – because why change perfection? You can tour this living testament to Orkney’s heritage, but don’t forget to book a tasting session right after!
One of the many ways to travel to Kirkwall is through Kirkwall airport.
Kirkwall airport also has flights to many other islands in the Orkney archipelago, so it’s your gateway to the many principal north islands near mainland Orkney. Airplane-spotters will also love the unique selection of smaller aircraft that take off and land at this remote airport!
Drive Down the Causeway
The Causeway is your road to the many smaller islands that dot the south of Kirkwall, and what a splendid drive it is!
This long road used to be a barricade wall during the Second World War to stop the ships from invading the island – now that’s practical. You’ll see shipwrecks, beautiful clear waters, and even picturesque beaches along the drive to islands like Lambhold, South Ronaldsay, and more.
The Brough of Deerness
Sunny summer day? Come to the Brough of Deerness for an extraordinary coastal walk with unparalleled views.
The Brough of Deerness is just east of Kirkwall, and a short drive is all you need to reach this prime attraction. With mighty sea stacks like the Brough of Deerness and fascinating sights like the Gloup, you’ll want to come back here whenever possible.
Ring of Brodgar
Follow the road west of Kirkwall, and you’ll eventually come across the Ring of Brodgar.
Out of the 60 standing stones that once stood, only 36 remain and date back to over 5000 years ago! The Ring of Brodgar is undoubtedly one of the most important Kirkwall historic sites on Orkney. These ruins are mysterious, but perhaps you’ll discover their origin while on the Orkney Islands.
A mere mile from Kirkwall, Scapa Beach is one of those places that you have to add to your bucket list!
Scapa Beach is a famous beach in Orkney and frequently sees visitors in summer. The beach overlooks the Scapa Flow, a historic area holding oil tankers, large warships, and more. Today, it’s filled with windsurfers, kayakers, and swimmers!
Nothing beats the golden sands of Waulkmill Bay during low tide, a short trip from Kirkwall to the West Mainland of Orkney.
The sands seem to stretch forever and become the perfect place to soak up the sun and enjoy the peaceful serenity of these remote islands. A trip to Waulkmill Bay is necessary when the weather’s good.
Cuween Chambered Cairn
The Cuween Chambered Cairn grants a look at the world 5000-years-ago, complete with the remains of people, dogs, and oxen.
An ominous atmosphere in the Cuween Chambered Cairn makes it a great place to explore for those seeking thrills and mysteries. Around the Cairn sits one of Scotland’s earliest agricultural communities, with even more cairns and ruined settlements to see!
Orkneyinga Saga Centre
Nestled near the town of Orphir is the Orkneying Saga Centre, where you can learn about the Norse Earls who ruled Orkney.
You can experience their audiovisual interactions and learn the histories of some of Orkney’s most prominent heroes. Nearby, you can explore a Norse community’s Round Church and ruins.
This quaint chapel can be found just south of Kirkwall and is an attraction with a highly unique history!
Italian prisoners of war created this picturesque church from the local log timber in the area. They were allowed to have a church of their own to worship in, so the Italian Chapel was born.