56 Best Sights in Aberdeen and the Northeast, Scotland

Aberdeen Maritime Museum

Fodor's choice

This excellent museum, which incorporates the 1593 Provost Ross's House, tells the story of the city's relationship with the sea, from early inshore fisheries to tea clippers and the North Sea oil boom. The information-rich exhibits include the bridge of a fishing boat and the cabins of a clipper, in addition to models, paintings, and equipment associated with the fishing, shipbuilding, and oil and gas industries. The Gateway to the North gallery on the top floor is a lively introduction to the archaeology of the region, with exhibits spanning the years 1136–1660.

Balmoral Castle

Fodor's choice

The British royal family's favorite vacation spot is a fabulous fake-baronial pile, with emphasis on the "fake." Compared with Scotland's most authentic castles, Balmoral is a right royal upstart, designed in the 19th century by Queen Victoria's German-born consort, Prince Albert. That doesn't stop it being one of Scotland's most visited castles, though only the formal gardens, the ballroom, and the carriage hall, with their exhibitions of royal artifacts, commemorative china, and stuffed native wildlife, are on view.

When members of the royal family are in residence, usually from mid-August to the end of September, Balmoral is closed to visitors, including the grounds. You can take a guided tour in November and December; if the weather is crisp and bright, the estate is at its most dramatic and romantic. You're only allowed a peek inside, but the Royal Cottage is where Queen Victoria spent much of her time. You can see the table where she took breakfast and wrote her correspondence.

Around and about Balmoral are some notable spots—Cairn O'Mount, Cambus O'May, and the Cairngorms from the Linn of Dee—that are home to golden eagles, red squirrels, red deer, black and red grouse, snow bunting, and the United Kingdom's only free-roaming reindeer, some of which may be seen on the quintessentially royal Land Rover Safari Tour. Tempted by the setting? Balmoral Castle has a number of cottages (some very large) for rent by the week at certain times. These are atmospheric but can be spartan (which, believe it or not, is how the royal family likes its holidays to be).

Castle Fraser

Fodor's choice

The massive Castle Fraser is the ancestral home of the Frasers and one of the largest of the castles of Mar; it's certainly a contender as one of the grandest castles in the northeast. Although the well-furnished building shows a variety of styles reflecting the taste of its owners from the 15th through the 19th century, its design is typical of the cavalcade of castles in the region, and for good reason. This—along with many others, including Midmar, Craigievar, Crathes, and Glenbuchat—was designed by a family of master masons called Bell. There are plenty of family items, but don't miss the two Turret Rooms—one of which is the trophy room—and Major Smiley's Room. He married into the family but is famous for having been one of the escapees from Colditz (a high-security prisoner-of-war camp) during World War II. The walled garden includes a 19th-century knot garden, with colorful flower beds, box hedging, gravel paths, and splendid herbaceous borders. Have lunch in the tearoom or the picnic area.

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Crathes Castle

Fodor's choice

About 16 miles west of Aberdeen, Crathes Castle was once the home of the Burnett family and is one of the best-preserved castles in Britain. Keepers of the Forest of Drum for generations, the family acquired lands here by marriage and later built a castle, completed in 1596. The National Trust for Scotland cares for the castle, which is furnished with many original pieces and family portraits. The castle is open for guided tours only. Outside are grand yet lovingly tended gardens with calculated symmetry and flower-rich beds. There's an adventure park for kids, and the staff organizes activities that are fun and educational.

Drum Castle

Fodor's choice

This foursquare tower has an evocative medieval chapel that dates from the 13th century; like many other castles, it also has later additions up to Victorian times. Note the tower's rounded corners, said to make battering-ram attacks more difficult. Nearby, fragments of the ancient Forest of Drum still stand, dating from the days when Scotland was covered by great stands of oak and pine. The Garden of Historic Roses, open daily from April to October, lays claim to some old-fashioned roses not commonly seen today.

Duff House

Fodor's choice

The jewel in Banff's crown is the grand mansion of Duff House, a splendid William Adam–designed (1689–1748) Georgian mansion. It's now an annex of the National Galleries, housing works by El Greco, Sir Henry Raeburn, and Thomas Gainsborough. A good tearoom and a gift shop are on the ground floor.

Dunnottar Castle

Fodor's choice

It's hard to beat the cinematic majesty of the magnificent cliff-top ruins of Dunnottar Castle, with its panoramic views of the North Sea. Building began in the 14th century, when Sir William Keith, Marischal of Scotland, decided to build a tower house to demonstrate his power. Subsequent generations added to the structure, and important visitors included Mary, Queen of Scots. The castle is most famous for holding out for eight months against Oliver Cromwell's army in 1651 and 1652, thereby saving the Scottish crown jewels, which had been stored here for safekeeping. Reach the castle via the A90; take the Stonehaven turnoff and follow the signs. Wear sensible shoes, and allow about two hours.

Fyvie Castle

Fodor's choice

In an area rich with castles, Fyvie Castle stands out as the most complex. Five great towers built by five successive powerful families turned a 13th-century foursquare castle into an opulent Edwardian statement of wealth. Some superb paintings are on view, including 12 works by Sir Henry Raeburn. There are myriad sumptuous interiors—the circular stone staircase is considered one of the best examples in the country—and delightfully laid-out gardens. A former lady of the house, Lillia Drummond, was apparently starved to death by her husband, who entombed her body inside the walls of a secret room. In the 1920s, when the bones were disrupted during renovations, a string of such terrible misfortunes followed that they were quickly returned and the room sealed off. Her name is carved into the windowsill of the Drummond Room.

Glen Grant Distillery & Garden

Fodor's choice

This historic distillery on the northern edge of Rothes has been producing award-winning single malts since 1840, and it's still going strong today. An impressive visitor center provides guided tours of the distillery, revealing its distinctive blend of centuries-old traditions and cutting-edge technology, as well as offering private tastings. There's a shop and café, too. But the biggest draw here is the stunning Victorian gardens; walk along the snaking path and pass pristine lawns, rare blooming flowers, gently flowing streams, and pretty pagodas. On your walk look out for a small cave and a locked safe; these were used to store founder Major Grant's private whisky collection, so he could share a dram with his walking companions.

Glenfiddich Distillery

Fodor's choice

Many make Glenfiddich Distillery their first stop on the Malt Whisky Trail. The independent company of William Grant and Sons Limited was the first to realize the tourist potential of the distilling process. The company began offering tours around the typical pagoda-roofed malting buildings and subsequently built an entertaining visitor center. Besides a free 20-minute tour of the distillery there are various tours for more discerning visitors that include nosing and tasting sessions. Check out the Robbie Dhu bar for al fresco dining and tasy light meals with local flavor, and look out for viewings of the current Glenfiddich Distillery Artists in Residence's work.

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Macallan Estate

Fodor's choice

Beneath a vast, undulating, turf-covered roof that mimics the outlines of the surrounding moorland, the Macallan Estate is now an exciting whisky tourism hub for Speyside. The Discovery Experience tour lasts 2 hours 30 minutes and includes nosing and tasting of some of the distillery's distinctively sherry-tinctured malts.

St. Machar's Cathedral

Fodor's choice

It's said that St. Machar was sent by St. Columba to build a church on a grassy platform near the sea, where a river flowed in the shape of a shepherd's crook. This beautiful spot, now the still-beating heart of Old Aberdeen, fits the bill. Although the cathedral was founded in AD 580, most of the existing building dates from the 15th and 16th centuries. Built as a fortified kirk, its twin towers and thick walls give it a sturdy standing. The former can be seen up close by climbing the spiral staircases to the upper floors, which also affords an admirable view of the "body of the kirk" inside and graveyard outside. It lost its status as a cathedral during the Reformation and has since been part of the Church of Scotland. The stained-glass windows depicting the martyrdom of the saints and handsome heraldic ceiling are worth noting.

Aberdeen Art Gallery

Northeast Scotland's most important art gallery now has seven exhibition spaces where more than 1,000 of its treasures are displayed. There's also a penthouse gallery hosting three touring exhibitions each year. The collection contains excellent paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, porcelain, costumes, and more, from 18th-century art to major contemporary British works by Lucien Freud and Henry Moore. Scottish artists are well represented in the permanent collection and special exhibits. Local stone has been used in the interior walls, pillars, and the central fountain, all designed by the acclaimed British sculptor Barbara Hepworth.

Alford Heritage Museum

This award-winning, community-run museum, housed in an early 20th-century livestock auction mart, has a fascinating collection of local memorabilia and allows a glimpse into the history of Alford and the surrounding region.

Ballindalloch Castle

The family home of the Macpherson-Grants since 1546, Ballindalloch Castle is every visitor's idea of what a Scots laird's lair should look like. You can wander around the beautifully kept rooms and meticulously tended gardens at your leisure; you may even bump into the lord and lady of the manor, who live here all year. There's also a splendid tea shop offering large slices of cake.

Balvenie Castle

On a mound just above the Glenfiddich Distillery is this grim, gray, and squat curtain-walled castle. This ruined fortress, which dates from the 13th century, once commanded the glens and passes toward Speyside and Elgin.

Braemar Castle

On the northern outskirts of town, Braemar Castle dates from the 17th century, although its defensive walls, in the shape of a pointed star, came later. At Braemar (the braes, or slopes, of the district of Mar), the standard, or rebel flag, was first raised at the start of the unsuccessful Jacobite rebellion of 1715. About 30 years later, during the last Jacobite rebellion, Braemar Castle was strengthened and garrisoned by government troops. From the early 1800s the castle was the clan seat of the Farquharsons, who hold their clan reunion here every summer.

Thanks to the commitment of local volunteers, a remarkable 2008 renovation restored Braemar to the home it would have been in the early 20th century, complete with all the necessary comforts and family memorabilia. Further renovation through summer 2023 is aimed at sprucing up the exterior. Inside, a dozen rooms are on view, including the laird's day room with a plush daybed and the kitchen.

Off A93, Braemar, AB35 5XR, Scotland
Sights Details
Rate Includes: £8, Closed Nov.–Easter and Mon. and Tues. in Apr.–June, Sept., and Oct

Braemar Highland Games Centre

This unabashedly royalist visitor attraction is devoted to the tartan heritage of the Braemar Royal Highland Society, the organizers of the original Highland Gathering. It also dedicates time to the British royal family's connection to the event and with Braemar from the days of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert through the 21st century.

Braemar Highland Gathering

The village of Braemar is associated with the Braemar Highland Gathering, held the first Saturday in September. Although there are many such gatherings celebrated throughout Scotland, this one is distinguished by the regular presence of members of the royal family. Competitions and events include hammer throwing, caber tossing, and bagpipe playing. If you plan to attend, book your accommodations months in advance and be sure to buy tickets---and, if necessary, your car parking ticket---about six months in advance, as they do sell out.

Brig o'Balgownie

Until 1827, the only northern route out of Aberdeen was over the River Don on this single-arch bridge. It dates from 1314 and is thought to have been built by Richard Cementarius, Aberdeen's first provost.

Seaton Park, Aberdeen, AB23, Scotland

Cardhu Distillery

The striking outline of Cardhu Distillery, whose main product lies at the heart of Johnnie Walker blends, is set among the heather-clad Mannoch Hills. Established by John and Helen Cumming in 1811, it was officially founded in 1824 after distilling was made legal by the Excise Act of 1823. Guides take you to the mashing, fermenting, and distilling halls, and they explain the malting process, which now takes place on the coast at Burghead.

Off B1902, Knockando, AB38 7RY, Scotland
Sights Details
Rate Includes: From £19, Closed Tues., Wed., and Fri. in Nov.–Feb.

Castle Trail

If you return east from Corgarff Castle to the A939/A944 junction and make a left onto the A944, the signs indicate that you're on the Castle Trail. The A944 meanders along the River Don to the village of Strathdon, where a great mound by the roadside turns out to be a motte, or the base of a wooden castle, built in the late 12th century. Although it takes considerable imagination to become enthusiastic about a grass-covered heap, surviving mottes have contributed greatly to the understanding of the history of Scottish castles. The A944 then joins the A97, and a few minutes later a sign points to Glenbuchat Castle, a plain Z-plan tower house.

Corgarff Castle

Eighteenth-century soldiers paved a military highway north from Ballater to Corgarff Castle, an isolated tower house on the moorland with a star-shaped defensive wall that's a curious replica of Braemar Castle. Corgarff was built as a hunting lodge for the earls of Mar in the 16th century. After an eventful history that included the wife of a later laird being burned alive in a family dispute, the castle ended its career as a garrison for Hanoverian troops. The troops were responsible for preventing illegal whisky distilling. Reconstructed barracks show what the castle must have been like when the redcoats arrived in 1746.

Craigievar Castle

Pepper-pot turrets make Craigievar Castle an outstanding example of a tower house. Striking and well preserved, it has many family furnishings, and the lovely grounds are worth exploring, too. Craigievar was built in relatively peaceful times by William Forbes, a successful merchant in trade with the Baltic Sea ports (he was also known as Danzig Willie).

A980, Alford, AB33 8JF, Scotland
Sights Details
Rate Includes: £13, Closed Oct.-mid June, Mon.–Wed in mid-June–Aug., and weekdays in Sept.

Cruickshank Botanic Garden

Built on land bequeathed by Miss Anne Cruickshank in memory of her beloved brother, Alexander, the 11-acre Cruickshank Botanic Garden at the heart of Old Aberdeen has a peaceful water garden and lush greens ideal for lounging—when the weather allows—and beautifully tended subtropical and alpine collections. Botanical tours are available.

Duthie Park

These 44 acres were donated to the people of Aberdeen by a Miss Elizabeth Crombie Duthie in 1880. An excellent place to while away an afternoon, whether it be the sunniest or foulest day, it has a boating pond, a bandstand, playgrounds, and a popular conservatory café selling creamy ice cream. In the beautifully tended Winter Gardens (tropical and arid conservatories), you'll find fish ponds and free-flying birds among the luxuriant foliage and flowers. The park borders Aberdeen's other river, the Dee.

Polmuir Rd., Aberdeen, AB11 7TH, Scotland
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free

Elgin Cathedral

Cooper Park contains a magnificent ruin, the Elgin Cathedral, consecrated in 1224. Its eventful story included devastation by fire: a 1390 act of retaliation by warlord Alexander Stewart (circa 1343–1405), the Wolf of Badenoch. The illegitimate son of King David II (1324–71) had sought revenge for his excommunication by the bishop of Moray. The cathedral was rebuilt but finally fell into disuse after the Reformation in 1560. By 1567 the highest authority in the land, the regent earl of Moray, had stripped the lead from the roof to pay for his army. Thus ended the career of the religious seat known as the Lamp of the North. Some traces of the cathedral settlement survive—the gateway Pann's Port and the Bishop's Palace—although they've been drastically altered.

Fochabers Folk Museum & Heritage Centre

Once over the Spey Bridge and past the cricket ground (a very unusual sight in Scotland), you can find the symmetrical, 18th-century Fochabers village square. The old Pringle Church is now the home of the Fochabers Folk Museum, which boasts a fine collection of items relating to past life of all types of residents in the village and surrounding area. Exhibits include carts and carriages, farm implements, domestic labor-saving devices, and an exquisite collection of Victorian toys.

Glenfarclas Distillery

Glenfarclas is one of Scotland's few remaining family-owned distilleries, passed down from father to son since 1865. That link to the past is most visible among its low buildings, where the retired whisky-still sits outside: if you didn't know what it was, you could mistake it for part of a submarine. The tours end with tastings in the superlative Ship Room, the intact lounge of an ocean liner called the Empress of Australia.

Off A95, Ballindalloch, AB37 9BD, Scotland
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Tours from £7.50, Closed Sun. July–Sept. and weekends Oct.–June

Gordon Chapel

One of the village's lesser-known treasures is the Gordon Chapel, which has an exceptional set of stained-glass windows by Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Look out for the Good Shepherd, carrying a newborn lamb around his neck.