In the northeast of Britain is Aberdeen, Scotland’s third largest city and gateway to the Cairngorms National Park, Britain’s largest national park and home to Balmoral Castle, the Royal Family’s Scottish residence. There’s plenty to do in the city center, but it’s also a destination with easy access to more than 50 golf courses, medieval architecture, rugged cliffs and coastline, expansive landscapes, and an abundance of castles. Here’s how you can visit Aberdeen and the Cairngorms in 48 hours.
HOW TO GET HERE:
Aberdeen is a 1.5 hour flight from London. From Edinburgh, Aberdeen is 2.5 hours north via train.
TIME TO CHECK IN:
From country houses and castles to modern city center hotels, Aberdeen has a wide selection of accommodation styles to choose from. For those who prefer something in the city center, check out Citi Hotel Aberdeen. It’s centrally located, within easy walking distance to main sites and close to bus and train stations.
If you’d like to stay away from the city center, but still have convenient access to all it has to offer, Ardoe House Hotel & Spa is a restored 19th century baronial mansion located on 30 acres of grounds. And for a place to stay within the Cairngorms, Darroch Learg Hotel & Restaurant is located in the village of Ballater, just a 10 minute drive from Balmoral Castle.
Start your morning at one of Aberdeen’s wide range of independent coffee shops. Pair a cup of coffee with a baked good or pack a light sandwich to go in case you get hungry before lunchtime (get ready for lots of walking). Drop by one of the cafes around the public park, Union Terrace Gardens, like The Coffee House on Gaelic Lane, Books and Beans on Belmont Street or stop by The Craftsman Company on Guild Street. To learn more about Aberdeen’s coffee culture, check out this list of quirky and unique coffee shops.
After a caffeine boost, head five minutes down Union Street to the VisitScotland Aberdeen iCentre to meet for an Aberdeen City Tour. (Please note, this tour meets at 10 AM in the winter months of November to March. If you’re visiting during the summer months, the meeting time for the tour changes to evenings at 7 PM).
If these times don’t fit your schedule, or if you prefer to go at your own pace, you can do a self-guided tour starting at Aberdeen city center with stops at iconic buildings including the Tolbooth Museum, a former 17th century jail and Marischal College, the second largest granite building in the world.
Make your way north of the city center to Old Aberdeen, home to St. Machar’s Cathedral, the oldest building still in use in Aberdeen. For a view of the cathedral, venture into Seaton Park and take the Cathedral Walk, where the cathedral forms a backdrop among floral arrangements in spring and summer. Other notable sites include King’s College, part of Scotland’s third oldest university and Old Town House, the hub of Old Aberdeen today and back when it was built in the 1700s.
Next, head towards the coast to Aberdeen Beach. The beach is a mile long and the mile walk south along the coast will take you to Footdee, a residential and picturesque area of neatly kept cottages. Stroll through the streets of the village, which the Aberdonians call Fittie.
Right off Footdee is Aberdeen Harbor, home to The Silver Darling Restaurant. Have lunch with a view in what was previously a customs house and now serves Scottish produce, seafood, and seasonal game.
For other options, start making your way back to the city center. Esslemont & Macintosh was an iconic Aberdeen department store in the 19th century and has now been converted into two restaurants paying homage to each of its owners, The Esslemont Bar & Restaurant and Mac’s Pizzeria.
After lunch, walk to Duthie Park. See the Victorian statues and fountains and stop by play areas for children and the boating ponds. And don’t miss the David Welch Winter Gardens, Europe’s largest indoor garden and home to a collection of exotic plants, including the largest collection of cacti in Britain.
For a mid afternoon treat, The Park Cafe just outside Duthie Park serves a large selection of cakes, coffee and tea. Or for a traditional afternoon tea in Aberdeen’s West End, a favorite is at Chez Mal Brasserie & Bar, located in the Malmaison Hotel. Or just next door is The Chester Hotel for traditional scones, finger sandwiches and sweets, or check out the Corner Tree Cafe down the road.
Did you know Aberdeenshire is home to over 50 golf courses and also home to the highest 18-hole golf course in Scotland at 1,205 feet above sea level? If you’re a golfer, swap out visiting Duthie Park and afternoon tea, with an afternoon at one of the many courses. Braemar is the name of the highest course, meanwhile Royal Aberdeen is one of the oldest in the world founded in 1780 and Portlethen is just a 20-minute drive south of Aberdeen city center.
It’s time for dinner. If you’re golfing, check out each golf club’s respective clubhouses for their evening menus or head back to Aberdeen city center. Moonfish Cafe serves innovative and modern British cuisine with a view of medieval streets and the Kirk of St. Nicholas. Also in the city center are Howies, Vovem Meat & Liquor and The Fishmarket at Soul.
If your visit is during summer, the Aberdeen City Tour begins at this time. If you decided to do the walking tour on your own, you can skip this and discover Aberdeen after dark for desserts and cocktails.
For dessert, don’t miss Mackie’s 19.2 ice cream parlor, named for the number of miles from the farm where the ice cream is made. Choose from more than 20 handmade flavors in a cone or sundae with endless toppings and sauces. For a drink, stop by Orchid - this award-winning cocktail bar is also home to Porter’s Gin micro-distillery.
It’s time to drive to the largest national park in Britain, the Cairngorms National Park. This is just over an hour drive from Aberdeen city center. On the way, you can choose to visit one of Aberdeenshire’s more than 260 castles before heading to Balmoral.
Balmoral Castle is the Scottish home of the Royal Family and is only open to the public during select times of year - check here for the 2020 opening schedule. Some castles you can visit before Balmoral Castle (or instead, if the castle isn’t open during your visit) include Dunnottar Castle, Craigievar Castle and Crathes Castle.
Less than half an hour's drive south of Aberdeen city center is Dunnottar Castle. The rock upon which the castle sits dates back 440 million years and was once home to one of the most powerful families in Scotland. It’s position on a cliff provides unforgettable views. About mid way from Aberdeen to Balmoral Castle is Craigievar Castle, said to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle. Or visit Crathes Castle, a 16th-century turreted castle.
Make your way to Balmoral Castle if it's open during your visit. The castle has been the Scottish home of the Royal Family since 1852 when Prince Albert purchased the property as a gift for Queen Victoria. When the Royal Family are not in residence, you can visit the grounds (the castle sits on 50,000 acres of land), gardens and castle ballroom. Stop by the cafe for a snack or head directly to lunch.
Next, head seven miles east to Rothesay Rooms for lunch. The restaurant is part of His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay’s charity, The Prince’s Foundation, and was opened after flooding and fire occurred in the village in 2015. This fine-dining restaurant serves seasonally-inspired, locally-sourced Scottish food made with ingredients from local suppliers.
Time for a drink that impressed even Queen Victoria. Head to the Royal Lochnagar Distillery, just one mile away from Balmoral Castle. Book the Royal Lochnagar Distillery Tour for a guided tour of the distillery, plus a dram of the Royal Lochnagar 12 Year Old at the end of the tour and see why it was issued a Royal Warrant.
Take a hike along Loch Muick, 30 minutes south of the distillery. Make your way towards the west side of the loch to see Glas-allt-Shiel (also known as Widow’s House), a hunting lodge built for Queen Victoria that became her retreat after the death of Prince Albert.
If you prefer to visit a traditional Scottish village in the Cairngorms, head to Braemar. Stop by the local shops and Braemar Highland Games Centre, home to the annual Braemar Gathering for Highland games. There’s also an exhibition at the center to learn all about the history of games.
And if you’re game for more adventurous activities, explore deeper into the Cairngorms. A little over an hour and a half north of the park is Loch Morlich, known for offering sailing, windsurfing, stand up paddleboarding, kayaking and canoeing. And Loch Insh further south offers watersports in addition to skiing and snowboarding.
Head back to Aberdeen city center for dinner or stay in the Cairngorms at the Fife Arms in Braemar. This former Victorian coaching inn turned luxury hotel is home to The Flying Stag, known as the social center of the village and The Clunie Dining Room, showcasing the art of wood-fire cooking, both open to the public for dinner.
Afterwards, check out the Fife Arms’ bar, Elsa’s, inspired by fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s love of pink, for a cocktail to end the day.