Orkney Islands Travel Guide: Uncover Scotland’s Enchanted Archipelago (2024)
Orkney Islands, the enchanting archipelago, are nestled amidst the northern reaches of Scotland. Although its crown jewel, Kirkwall, shines as a tourism gem, there’s something across the archipelago to explore. The Orkney Islands are full of history and breathtaking natural beauty. While this section of Scotland has long been a well-kept secret, now, it’s time to unveil the hidden treasure to the world.
Orkney is a tapestry of lush landscapes and rugged coastlines. This part of Scotland offers a mesmerizing escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Vacationing at Orkney Islands means a beautiful and fulfilling experience. So are you ready? For your next trip to Orkney Islands, Scotland, here’s a detailed guide.
DID YOU KNOW? The Orkney Islands is a captivating archipelago of 70 islands with only 20 of these inhabited.
Things To Do In The Orkney Islands
- Explore Ancient Sites: A visit to the Orkney Islands calls for an adventure for history enthusiasts. This place is full of discoveries and opportunities like none other. When at the Orkney Islands, discover the Neolithic treasures of Orkney, including the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Visit Skara Brae, the remarkably preserved stone houses that offer a rare window into prehistoric times. Next, check out Maeshowe, the chambered tomb that exhibits ancient artistry and astronomical knowledge. And as the Standing Stones of Stennes align to celestial events, they hint at a deep understanding and connection to the cosmos.
- Visit St. Magnus Cathedral: The St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall is an awe-inspiring medieval masterpiece. This architectural brilliance keeps the spirit of Orkney alive. Its Gothic architecture, with soaring sandstone spires and intricate stonework, captures the eyes. Beyond that, the cathedral also holds profound historical significance and is named after the island’s patron saint. Explore its hallowed halls and get enriched by the stories of kings and commoners.
- Experience Island Hopping:When at Orkney, join the network of ferries that connect you to a tapestry of distinct destinations. Each island boasts its own unique charm and attractions, from the rugged wilderness of Hoy to the tranquil shores of Westray. Witness the wildlife sanctuaries, encounter ancient ruins, and meet friendly communities.
- Enjoy Outdoor Activities: The pristine landscapes of Orkney Islands attract outdoor enthusiasts for hiking and biking on scenic trails. The trails make up their way through rolling hills, along dramatic cliffs, and down to serene beaches. Outdoor fun here also involves birdwatching, the diverse avian life, fishing in crystal-clear waters, and spotting seals and whales as they dive around the sea.
- Discover Local History through Museums: When at the Orkney Islands, check out Orkney Museum and the Orkney Wireless Museum and learn about the past of this region. The Orkney Museum preserves the region’s diverse history, where the Orkney Wireless Museum exhibits the role of Orkney during both world wars.
- Explore Historic Sites: When at Orkaney Islands, step back in time and discover historic sites like the Italian Chapel and Travel back in time and uncover the wartime history of Orkney at fascinating sites like the Italian Chapel and Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum. Both these landmarks take back visitors to the World War II era with their artifacts, exhibitions, and stories.
- Sample Orkney Whiskey: Sample the renowned whiskey at distilleries like Highland Park and Scapa Distillery and enjoy the flavors of Orkney. You can also join the guided tours to witness the whiskey-making process firsthand.
- Enjoy Local Cuisine: Visit the local restaurants and cafes to indulge in traditional Orcadian dishes. Consider trying succulent seafood freshly caught from the surrounding waters and tender lamb reared on the islands’ green pastures. Do not forget the traditional Orkney oatcake, the hearty bere Bannocks.
- Relax on Beaches: Visit an array of beaches at Orkney and relax on their sandy shores. Scapa Beach and the Bay of Skaill are two popular choices for a tranquil escape. Whichever beach you are at, keep your eyes focused on the sight of seals basking in the sun.
- Visit Broch of Gurness: Step back in time to the Iron Age and explore Broch of Gurness on the Mainland Orkney. The ancient structures here are basically the remarkable stone towers that provide invaluable insights into Orkney’s ancient history. This archaeological site dates back to around 200 BC, and a visit here is truly captivating.
- Go Sailing: Set sail on a maritime adventure around the Orkney Islands on crystal-clear waters and witness the islands from a different perspective. A sailing adventure here will reveal hidden coves, dramatic cliffs, and secluded beaches.
- Stroll Through Charming Villages: When visiting the Orkney Islands, take some time to check out charming villages like Stromness and St. Margaret’s Hope. These picturesque villages are known for their quaint streets, cozy cottages, and welcoming locals. Visiting them is a great chance to try local delicacies, shop unique, and chat with friendly residents.
- Take the world’s shortest Flight: When at the Orkney Islands, do not miss a chance to take the world’s shortest flight, a unique experience. A flight operated by Loganair on a brief 1.7-mile route connects the islands of Westray and Papa Westray. As it takes less than two minutes, it is the official title of the world’s shortest flight. This quick is undoubtedly fun, memorable, and one of a kind. As it hops between these two picturesque islands, the bird-eye view of the stunning Orkney landscapes below is worth noticing.
- Camp at the Orkney Islands: When at the Orkney Islands during the summers, consider camping under the stars for an ultimate outdoor adventure. One excellent option is Wheems Organic Farm, an eco-lodge situated on a 200-year-old working farm on South Ronaldsay Island. Camping here means sleeping the night facing the sea with the breathtaking views. Or, camp during winter, and if you are lucky, the Northern Lights will charm your stay.
Orkney Island Festivities
- Drama Festival (February): This eagerly anticipated annual is a spotlight on local theatrical talent. It draws theater groups and enthusiasts from across the islands and beyond to enjoy a diverse range of dramatic performances. Orkney Folk Festival (May): This beloved event resonates with the soulful rhythms of traditional folk music. As it celebrates the rich cultural heritage of the islands, musicians and artists gather to create a harmonious tapestry of folk music and culture.
- Magnus Festival (June): This cultural jewel in Orkeny honors the legacy of St. Magnus, a patron saint of the island. The festival celebrates arts in all forms, including music, literature, and visual arts. It hosts events like captivating concerts, thought-provoking literary discussions, and inspiring visual art exhibitions.
- Orkney Science Festival (September): It is a gathering of inquisitive minds, bringing scientists, researchers, and science enthusiasts together. The festival involves engaging talks, interactive workshops, and hands-on activities for attendees of all age groups.
- Orkney Storytelling Festival (October): This delightful celebration is all about the ancient art of storytelling. The festival invites visitors to immerse themselves in a world of words, tales, and traditions. It hosts storytelling sessions, workshops, and performances by both local and visiting storytellers.
- Ba’ Game (Christmas and New Year’s Day): Not a traditional festival, but this captivating and historic street football game that has been played in Kirkwall for centuries. As the fierce match between the Uppies and the Doonies begins, the honor of victory adds excitement to the air. This unique event is steeped in tradition and is quite fun to watch.
- Orkney Blues Festival (November): As the soulful sounds of blues music echo in the islands, it brings close a huge crowd. With live performances by both local and visiting blues artists, venues around Orkney come alive in the rhythmic and emotive tunes of the blues genre.
How to Reach the Orkney Islands?
By Air: Loganair, Scotland’s airline, offers convenient air travel to Kirkwall Airport on Mainland Orkney. The flight operates from Glasgow, Inverness, and Aberdeen. The flight also connects London and Birmingham through Loganair’s services.
By Ferry with a Vehicle: If you want to bring your cars to Orkney, then book a passage on NorthLink Ferries. The ferries depart from Scrabster, near Thurso on Scotland’s north coast, and take approximately 2 hours. The service is available 2 to 3 times on weekdays and twice a day on Sundays. For more details, contact NorthLink Ferries.
By Ferry without a Vehicle: If you want to travel without a car, choose John O’ Groats Ferries as an alternative option. They operate ferries from May to December, with 2 to 4 departures daily, depending on demand. The journey takes approximately 40 minutes. For more details, contact John O’Groats Ferries.
Getting Around in the Orkney Islands
By Air: Loganair (the Scottish Airlines based at Glasgow Airport near Paisley) operates flights from Kirkwall Airport on Mainland Orkney to several isles in the archipelago, including Sanday, Stronsay, Westray, Eday, North Ronaldsay, and Papa Westray. It is a quick and scenic way to island-hop.
By Ferry: Orkney Ferries Ltd. operates a huge network connecting various islands within the Orkney archipelago. From Kirkwall, hop on to ferries for reaching islands like Eday, Papa Westray, Sanday, Stronsay, Westray, North Ronaldsay, Shapinsay, Flotta, Hoy at Longhope, Lyness, Rousay, Egilsay, and Wyre. You can also join the private ferry service from Stromness to Hoy.
Best Time To Visit The Orkney Islands
- Spring (March to May) has longer daylight hours and milder temperatures. It is the best time for birdwatching, and since the season is less crowded, it offers a peaceful visit. The Spring season also covers the landscape in vibrant colors.
- Summer (June to August): It is the most popular time to visit Orkney due to the pleasant weather. Since daylight lasts for a long, it allows exploration late into the evening. It is also the prime time for many cultural experiences via events and festivals. Outdoor enthusiasts interested in hiking, camping, and coastal walks must visit around the summer season.
- Autumn (September to November): Early autumn boasts relatively mild weather and the stunning autumn colors changing the landscapes. It is when the islands start experiencing fewer crowds than summer.
- Winter (December to February): It is the quietest and least crowded season in Orkney. If conditions are right, it is the best time for stargazing and a chance to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis).