Orkney, otherwise known as the Orkney Islands, is a stunning archipelago in Scotland. This collection of islands is located off the North Coast of the Scottish Mainland. The islands hold sights and experiences you can’t find anywhere else in Scotland, so believe us when we say there are many things to do in Orkney.
The Orkney archipelago is only 10 miles north of the Caithness coast. It consists of 70 islands, only 20 of which are inhabited, making exploring the uninhabited islands in the North Sea quite an adventure! The largest island is the Orkney Mainland, with 523 square kilometres for you to explore, making it the sixth-largest Scottish island and the tenth-largest island in the British Isles.
The Orkney Islands Council, situated in the administrative Centre of Kirkwall, have ensured that the council area which contains many of the historic sites and stunning natural scenery of Orkney is preserved for travellers to see for many generations.
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Things to Do in Orkney
The expansive archipelago of Orkney is perfect for any holiday you’re planning year-round. It’s best known for its history of fertile farmland, jaw-dropping coastlines, an abundance of ancient historical sites, and many more incredible attractions.
One day in Orkney can have you visiting Viking cathedrals in the morning, having lunch overlooking the magnificent Old Man of Hoy sea stack, and then finishing the day off with tasting fine Orcadian whisky!
Many sights and hidden gems are scattered across the island, making it one of Scotland’s most popular island destinations. People are drawn to the untameable atmosphere and wilds of Orkney – what more could you want from a holiday?
From its southern tip at South Ronaldsay, through the Mainland, to the top of North Ronaldsay, we’ve covered the best things to do in Orkney.
Highland Park Distillery
The northern archipelago of the Orkney Mainland holds the Highland Park Distillery, where some of the finest whiskey in the Orkney Islands are distilled.
The Highland Park Distillery has been creating its incredible single malt whisky blend the same way for over 220 years – because why change perfection? With a paid booking, Highland Park provides visitors with a unique tour of its facilities.
The Distillery’s passionate tour guides offer in-depth insight into the specific and meticulate steps that need to be taken for each and every bottle of single malt whisky they make.
You can cap off your Distillery tour by having one of Highland Park’s incredible whisky tasting experiences. You won’t want to miss an opportunity to sample some of their best.
St Magnus Cathedral
St Magnus Cathedral is Scotland’s most northerly cathedral and a fantastic location that you can’t miss out on while visiting Orkney.
The Cathedral is known as the ‘Light in the North’ and was founded by a Viking, Earl Rognvald, in 1137. The exterior of the Cathedral is imposing and has stunning Viking-inspired architecture. But within the interior, you’ll find an atmosphere of tranquillity and warmth that exudes history.
This beautiful cathedral is an essential location for the people who live in the royal burgh of Kirkwall and will welcome everyone who visits this immense attraction.
The Orkney Museum
The Orkney Museum is the custodian of all historical knowledge in Orkney, an essential visit if you want to dive deep into the Northern Isles’ past.
The Museum has exhibits and collections documenting Orkney’s history from the Neolithic Stone Age, the Picts and Vikings, and up until today. There are even pictures and activities throughout the Museum to entertain younger visitors.
Do yourself a favour and pay a visit to the Orkney Museum; your journey through the Orkney archipelago will be better for it!
The Old Man of Hoy
Travel to the Isle of Hoy Orkney, and you’ll find something astonishing – a towering sea stack that stands 137-metres tall!
The Old Man of Hoy is a sight you can only believe when you see it in person. It’s one of the main tourist attractions in Hoy, and some experience climbers have even chosen to climb the behemoth of a sea stack. We won’t blame you for just admiring its impressive height, though.
You can have some of the most incredible views of the Old Man of Hoy and the coastline from a trail path that starts at Raywick Bay. These trails put you right on the stalwart sea cliffs and are one of the most life-changing sights you can have in Orkney – make sure to take care when there are strong winds!
The Brough of Birsay
The Brough of Birsay is one of the unique attractions on Orkney Mainland, Scotland, and is located on a small island near Birsay.
This tidal island is only accessible for about 4 hours a day before submerging when the high tide arrives. If you’re lucky enough to access the island’s shore during low tide, you’ll be treated to one of the most well-preserved Pictish settlements, with the remains of ancient Viking ruined buildings still present.
The Brough of Birsay is one of your only chances in Orkney to come and see the relics of a Viking village firsthand, an opportunity that shouldn’t be squandered while you still have it. Race the tides and explore the remnants of the Vikings who once lived in Orkney!
The island also grants brilliant views of the west coast of Orkney and is one of the best places to see puffins during the summer months.
Marwick Head Nature Reserve
Spanning nearly 20 acres, the Marwick Head Nature Reserve is a stunning habitat for the many types of seabirds of Mainland Orkney.
From kittiwakes and guillemots to purple sandpipers, this Nature Reserve will have any budding birdwatcher’s head-turning and make them almost forget about the spectacular coastline and ocean views. The seasonal carpet of colourful flowers makes this Reserve look like heaven on earth in May.
Multiple trails lead you through the Reserve and highlight the abundance of animal life here, so make some time to tour this beautiful point in Orkney.
Journey to Orkney’s First Tomb
Orkney is home to many of the oldest ritual sites and burial cairns in the UK, but none were discovered before Maeshowe!
The grassy mound is in the centre of a Neolithic hub of historic sites and monuments, undoubtedly one of the densest in the UK. Maeshowe is a chambered burial cairn said to have been constructed over 5000 years ago, a number you’ll hear quite often while in Orkney.
The cairn is also home to one of the richest collections of runic markings, a byproduct of Viking graffiti over 3000 years ago when they first broke into the tomb. You can’t forget that Orkney was ruled by Vikings long ago; there’s always a fantastic attraction around every corner to remind you!
Want a highlight in your distillery tours? The Deerness Distillery will tempt you with its impressive handcrafted gins, vodkas, and coffee liquors!
The eye-catching bottles from Deerness Distillery are instantly recognisable, and they pride themselves on being a self-made distillery, with the owners living right next door! You may be lucky enough to catch them when you visit and have the chance to chat with some of the most passionate distillers in the region.
Anyone who loves mixed drinks or mixology will be a big fan of the Deerness Distillery, so make sure to pop on by the next time you’re in Orkney.
Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn
Just past the town of Grimbister is the Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn, one of the most ancient monuments to Neolithic Orkney you can find on the Northern Isles.
You can immerse yourself in the fascinating history of this great cairn, which held the bones of man, dog, and oxen for over 5000 years! Nowhere else in Orkney evokes the mysterious and mystical images of burial rites and ancient architecture quite like the Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn.
As you pass through Orkney, these chambered cairns are well worth visiting.
Bishop’s & Earl’s Palaces
At the heart of Kirkwall sits the Bishop’s & Earl’s Palaces, one of the last remaining remnants of Medieval Orkney!
These Palaces are the perfect way to explore the Orkney’s past, especially how close they are to the St Magnus Cathedral. Explore the ruins of these big households which were built for prominent individuals like the great Haakon IV, and you’ll be able to capture a glimpse into the 16th-century world they lived in.
This Palace complex is quite unlike anything else you can see in Scotland and is undoubtedly one of the best attractions in Kirkwall.
Cubbie Roo’s Castle
The Orkney islands are just brimming with Old Norse culture and heritage, and nowhere is this more evident than in this Castle.
You can find the ruins of Roo’s Castle on the quaint island of Wyre and be awestruck at the thought of what an immense fortress this site once was. What remains are 2-metre walls of ancient stoneworks that tell the Castle’s chronicles of sieges and battles fought over the Garisay Sound.
The gorgeous views from Wyre are also a great reason to check out this prime destination filled with the presence of Vikings.
Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar is as mysterious as it is beautiful and one of the most spectacular prehistoric monuments you can find in the British Isles.
The Ring of Brodgar is packed with outstanding Neolithic sites, from the 36 surviving stones that make up the massive stone Ring of Brodgar, and the ancient burial grounds, to the large circular cut into the stone around the Ring – all of which was done 5000 years ago!
The atmosphere and presence of these particular stones make it easy to reimagine the old rituals here and are one more reason to visit the Orkney isles.
They say that the journey is sometimes more important than the destination, and Northlink Ferries makes travelling to Orkney a treat.
Catch one of these frequent trips from the ferry terminal at Scrabster or Aberdeen if you’re interested in seeing more of Scotland’s stunning coastline and wildlife. You may spot pods of dolphins and whales and even more of the immense variety of ocean animals that the Northern isles hold along your journey.
These ferries are also one of the best ways to see the Old Man of Hoy amidst the rugged cliffs of the North Sea.
The Kirkwall Marina is not only a place to relax and enjoy the gentle rocking of ships as the day slowly rolls by but an excellent place to spend a day exploring Kirkwall’s shops, restaurants, and cafes!
You can enjoy some of the Orcadian hospitality that Orkney is known for as you sample excellent fresh food and drinks and maybe even sample the traditional foods like seaweed-fed lamb, shellfish, beers, and more. Orkney maintains its heritage as a farming and livestock culture, and nowhere else is this more evident than the food you can savour here!
The Orkney Sailing Club can also be found at the Kirkwall Marina and welcomes all tourists, regardless if you’re interested in yachting or just admiring the beauty of the Marina.
Born from the need to protect the Orkney Isles during the second world war, the Churchill Barriers now offer travellers an excellent way to traverse the smaller islands of Orkney.
This narrow strip of road provides visitors with an accessible way to reach the southern tip of Orkney’s South Ronaldsay from the Mainland. This is an easy way to explore these islands, but it also provides splendid views of the surrounding landscapes.
Many people who holiday in Orkney say that island hopping is one of the most fun parts of the trip, and there’s always something interesting around every corner.
So take a trip down the Churchill Barriers, and you’ll be treated to incredible beaches, a plethora of sea life and birdlife, and even an opportunity to enjoy the shallower waters of the archipelago.
Standing Stones of Stenness
The Standing Stones of Stenness tower amongst the flat hearth between Loch Stenness and Loch Harray, providing a gateway to an Orkney 5000 years ago.
These stones could be the oldest in the British Isles and were once used in rituals and other important events during their time. And although there were once 12 of these mighty structures, the remaining four impose a sense of size and scope and evoke imagery of ancient burial rites and rituals.
The Stones of Stenness may be one of the most popular attractions in Orkney, especially with their proximity to the Ring of Brodgar.
The waters of Scapa Flow are rich with crucial naval history and contain some of the most exciting places for scuba diving exploration.
This expanse of brilliant blue water tied to Viking invasions, and was once a base for the British Grand Fleet built by the Scottish Government. It holds the wreckage of German ships from the Scuttling of the German Fleet during the Second World War.
The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, located in Hoy, also gives those who visit an in-depth insight into the many significant events at this attraction – the perfect destination for a budding historian to take advantage of!
Skara Brae Prehistoric Village
Unearth the thousands of years old Neolithic village the next time you go to Stromness in Orkney, and you can look into the remarkable lives of the ancestors who lived here long ago.
The Skara Brae Prehistoric Village was discovered during a winter storm in the 1850s, which sounds like something out of a fiction novel! You can wander and see the fascinating artefacts left behind and entertain yourself with touch-screen presentations and fact-find quizzes that make learning about this site even more fun.
The stone beds, dressers, and seats of Neolithic Orkney remind us that some things weren’t so different 5000 years ago.
Eday is often described as ‘Orkney in miniature’ because it condenses so many attractions into one place – the perfect attraction if you’re only in Orkney for a short time!
You’ll find eye-catching archaeological monuments, sublime white-sand beaches, and a wide array of sea life and birdlife. There’s ample accommodation to enjoy this island’s serenity for however long you want.
Eday Island is one small island that offers many things to do, and well worth your time to book a trip to!
Orkney is undoubtedly known for its beautiful and expansive coastline, and there is no better place to see this than the Yesnaby Cliffs!
These Cliffs are a paradise for anyone who wants to see more of Orkney’s fantastic natural beauty. On particularly windy days, the sea waves bash against the cliffside. On calmer ones, the Cliffs come alive with the sounds of birdsong.
Many walking paths take you right up to the breathtaking views, but always take care when navigating the rocky cliffside.
Gill’s Bay is the destination most travellers use to reach Orkney, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to do here!
You can find Gill’s Bay next to John o’Groats, the northmost point of Mainland Scotland and one of the most popular places to visit while exploring the northern regions of the country.
It’s the best place to gather local information or news about the Orkney islands before catching the ferry up to South Ronaldsay or Mainland Orkney! You’ll get to navigate the Pentland Firth, home to dolphins, seals, and whales; a special treat to see as you begin your voyage.
If you are not in the mood to catch a plane to Kirkwall Airport, a quick ferry ride from Gill’s Bay along the Pentland Firth is just what you need to start exploring Orkney.
Known locally as Papay, Papa Westray is one of the northernmost islands of Orkney. This hidden gem of the Orkney Islands contains numerous attractions that make it perfect for a day trip.
To reach Papa Westray, you can catch the world’s shortest flight. This quick journey takes you from Westray and Papa Westray in an astonishing 90 seconds! This leaves you plenty of time to fully discover the must-see sights of the island, including spectacular wildlife, ancient stone houses, coastal views, and Papa Westray’s cultural events like art galleries and music performances.
Papa Westray is also known for its fertile land, and farms are a common sight as you travel through the island. Check out the farm of Holland, a historic complex filled with information about the culture of farming on the island.
Visit the Italian Chapel
As you make your way up to Orkney Mainland from the smaller islands like South Ronaldsay, don’t forget to come and see Lamb Holm and the Italian Chapel.
This beautiful Chapel has an incredible story; Italian prisoners were brought from North Africa to Lamb Holm during WWII. Here, they built the Italian Chapel with permission from the camp priest, and soon they had constructed one of the most unique chapels on the island.
Travellers from all over have fallen in love with the Italian Chapel, and it regularly sees over 100,000 guests yearly! The Chapel has also strengthened the relationship between Orkney and Italy, making it a proud monument for both cultures.
Broch of Gurness
There are many impressive Neolithic monuments in Orkney, and the Broch of Gurness is undoubtedly one of the most staggering.
This Iron Age attraction boasts the ruins of an ancient village, with 14 stone buildings collected near a giant broch tower. The Broch of Gurness is over 2000 years old, a unique period to explore while on Orkney.
The Broch also offers unparalleled access to those coming to see it, and you can freely explore the Iron Age ruins, immersing yourself in what it would’ve been like walking through this village 2000 years ago!
Corrigall Farm Museum
Spend some time exploring this 19th-century Victorian-style Orkney farmhouse and you’ll gain an insight into the way of agricultural life that is slowly shrinking in Orkney.
The Farm Museum has many interesting exhibits that were once part of the farming lifestyle, such as a kiln, horse-drawn machinery and wagons, and even a working barn. As you enjoy these olden-age artefacts, you’ll also likely smell the distinct peat-fueled fire that still keeps the Farm Museum warm.
Orkney’s history is intrinsically tied to farming, so a trip to the Corrigall Farm Museum is necessary for anyone who wants a deeper knowledge of the islands.
Orkney Folk Festival
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Stromness, Orkney, during the end of May, then treat yourself with a ticket or two to the Folk Festival!
The Festival takes place over a weekend and holds some of the best local and international artists and performers of the Orkney Isles. Highlights include the Blazin’ Fiddles, Belt Hid Oot, Bruce Mainland, and the Driftwood Cowboys! You can mingle and chat with the friendly locals while absorbing the incredible atmosphere and music of the Festival.
One of the best ways to experience Orkney is through the great culture and people, so definitely consider buying a ticket to this lively Festival.
Orkney Wireless Museum
Founded by the late Jim MacDonald, the Orkney Wireless Museum contains an expansive collection of electronics from radios, maps, and other transmission devices.
The Wireless Museum is a great way to learn about the fascinating history of how electronics and transmission technology boomed during WWII, focusing on its impact on events in and around Orkney, like at Scapa Flow.
It’s a great place to take your family and children, with activities and electronic games scattered throughout the exhibits of the Museum.
Orkney Fossil & Heritage Centre
Travel back millions of years ago and experience the evolution of Orkney at the Fossil & Heritage Centre, complete with a massive collection of artefacts!
The Fossil & Heritage Centre introduces you to how Orkney was 350 million years ago and presents fossils and a remarkable geological collection, which then takes you through the many significant historical and heritage events of Orkney. There’s no better way to gather a complete view of the islands than a trip down to the Orkney Fossil & Heritage Centre!
Noup Head Lighthouse
In the Northwest corner of Westray is the beautiful Noup Head Lighthouse, a lighthouse that practically sits on the world’s edge.
The Noup Head Lighthouse is a stunning attraction because of its prominent white-and-gold look and the out-of-this-world views from the 85-metre tall cliffside that the Lighthouse sits on.
Taking a trip to the Lighthouse is not for the faint of heart, however, as the trail takes you close to the cliffside and has a few more challenging portions. The view more than makes up for this, though, but tread carefully when you consider this fantastic journey to the world’s edge.
You can find one of the fascinating natural sights you can see on Orkney in the Mull Head Nature Reserve – The Gloup.
This collapsed sea cave is named after the Old Norse word for chasm, “gluppa”, and makes for some of the most dramatic scenery on the island. The ocean waves still crash through the Gloup, and the sounds of these crashing waves ethereally echo up the 80-foot drop.
For an even closer look, you can hire a small boat to take you into the sea cave, where you can see this peculiar attraction from an entirely new perspective.
Loch of Stenness
The Loch of Stenness and Loch of Harray dominates the middle of Orkney and is crammed full of things to do and see.
Loch Stenness is connected to the ocean and hosts fantastic wildlife on full display. When you visit this serene Loch, you can see birdlife, otters, seals, and much more as you explore the perimeter.
Historical sites are also abundant throughout the immediate surroundings of Loch Stenness and include incredible attractions that take you back 5000 years into Orkney’s history.
Fernvalley Wildlife Centre
On the northern end of the Orkney Mainland sits the Fernvalley Wildlife Centre, the perfect destination if you’re interested in seeing exotic animals while in Orkney.
The Wildlife Centre is home to a wide variety of different animal species like lizards, lemurs, meerkats, and many more for you to come and see! The Wildlife Centre also allows you to be a keeper for a day for a fee, where you can learn how they aim to conserve and take care of the inhabitants so that they live long and prosperous lives.
End a fantastic tour of this Centre by stopping by the Tea Room and sampling some of the excellent teas and cakes they offer.
The Kitchener Memorial is quite a remarkable attraction that holds brilliant views of the seascape that it overlooks.
This Memorial was built in honour of Lord Kitchener, who passed in June 1916 aboard the sinking HMS Hampshire. It’s an incredible monument to his memory and commands your attention amongst a vibrant and scenic area of Orkney.
You’ll undoubtedly be impressed by the Kitchener Memorial’s setting, and the walk to reach this monument is worth it.
Betty’s Reading Room
If the weather is dampening your travel plans in Orkney, consider a trip to the cosy attraction that is Betty’s Reading Room!
This is undoubtedly one of the hidden gems of Orkney and is easily missed as you travel through Tingwall, but eagle-eyed travellers will spot the welcoming signs that guide you into the Reading Room. This attraction is in honour of a woman named Betty, who was a dear friend to the community and known for her love of reading.
The room is packed with books and sofas, perfect for anyone who has had a stressful day and wants to unwind with a good book as they enjoy the rainy days of Orkney.
Keen to try some of the delicious whisky in Orkney, then Scapa Distillery is one place you should have on your to-do list.
Each sip grants you a taste of the untameable wilds that the windswept Orkney is known for, making it the perfect souvenir to accompany you home after you finish your travels. You’ll find the Scapa Distillery is influenced by its island heritage and the incredible history in the waters of Scapa Flow.
This Distillery is also one of the very few that still create their whisky by hand, offering a more traditional and practised finish to their fine blends. Stopping by the Scapa Distillery is a must if you want to expand your whisky palate!
Hoxa Tapestry Gallery
Handcrafted by a mother and daughter, the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery is one attraction that stuns you with incredibly detailed and meticulous art unlike anywhere else in Orkney.
The Gallery offers the opportunity to take home replicas and originals of some of the beautiful tapestries on show. A portion of the proceeds goes to supporting the continued art and crafts culture of Orkney. You’ll be sorely tempted to grab one of them to take home – that much is certain.
Stop by the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery if you find yourself on the island of South Ronaldsay in Orkney – you won’t regret it!
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- Things to do in Isle of Mull
- Things to do in Isle of Skye
- Things to do in Kirkwall
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