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Skara Brae in Kirkwall

Discover Kirkwall, Scotland : Top 13 Historical & Cultural Attractions (2024)

Kirkwall is the largest town in Mainland Orkney, Scotland. This northern gem invites travelers and explorers on a remarkable journey in one of the most remote regions of the United Kingdom. Well, being remote doesn’t mean fewer opportunities and comfort. In fact, Kirkwall has some of the best tourism opportunities, be it in the name of exploration or accommodation. This place is ideal for a holiday getaway with history, Viking heritage, and vibrant modernity.

Visit Kirkwall and immerse yourself in the echoes of Viking life. The architecture, street names, and local dialect will surely leave a beautiful impression in your mind. This ancient Norse settlement seamlessly blends the old and the new in a picturesque Scottish setting. Let’s discover.

A visit to the Historic and Cultural Kirkwall, Scotland

Here’s all about 13 Things to Do in Kirkwall.

1. St. Magnus Cathedral

St. Magnus Cathedral is a magnificent 12th-century medieval structure nestled in Kirkwall. This masterpiece of architecture is a symbol of Orkney’s rich history and is dedicated to St. Magnus Erlendsson. As the cathedral dominated the skyline of Kirkwall, it attracted both locals and visitors. Its exterior boasts intricate stonework, towering spires, and beautiful stained glass windows. Also known as the Light in the North, its serene interior, adorned with historical artifacts, is equally impressive.

2. Orkney Museum

Formerly known as Tankerness House Museum, the Orkney Museum is perhaps the best place to visit in Kirkwall. This captivating repository of Orkney’s heritage and culture covers stories from the Stone Age through the Picts and Vikings and today. A visit here is peeking back into prehistoric times. The museum collection comprises artifacts, artworks, and archaeological finds. Exhibits here focus on Orkney’s Neolithic past, Viking influences, and maritime history. It is an educational and enjoyable destination for history enthusiasts. It also has a garden outside.

3. Highland Park Distillery

A beautiful and remote distillery, Highland Park Distillery is an exciting place to visit in Kirkwall. The distillery has been crafting award-winning whisky for over 220 years and still is a local favorite. The Highland Park Distillery boasts an Orcadian character and is popular for its balanced and flavorful single-malt Scotch. A visit here allows you to sample different varietals or take guided tours to witness the whisky-making process. The atmospheric aging warehouses here are truly mindblowing.

4. Skara Brae

About half an hour from Kirkwall, Skara Brae is an ancient Neolithic village, basically a stone-built Neolithic settlement. This landmark dates back to around 3,000 BCE and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is home to well-preserved stone dwellings, passageways, and artifacts and is quite a remarkable place amongst history and archeology enthusiasts. A visit here allows enthusiasts to step back in time and imagine the daily routines of its ancient inhabitants.

5. Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar is a stone circle and a Neolithic henge, about 20 minutes from Kirkwall. This mesmerizing place comprises 27 standing stones arranged in a near-perfect circle that has stood for over 4000 years. In between the circles is a central monolith. The ring of Brodgar is speculated for its significant ritual or astronomical significance, but its exact purpose is still a mystery. It is undoubtedly one of the most visited attractions in Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, and Scotland.

6. Maeshowe

An ancient chambered tomb nearly 18 minutes from Kirkwall, Maeshowe is a fascinating archaeological wonder. It is known to be built around 2800 BCE and has a Viking connection to it. From its Neolithic carvings to impressive architecture and the Norse runes, along with graffiti from the 12th century, adorn its walls. This design and astronomical alignment of this ancient chambered tomb also suggest a deeper significance, perhaps tied to solstices. Do take some time to check out this place near Kirkwall.

7. Italian Chapel

A beautiful and highly ornate Catholic chapel, the Italian Chapel was built during World War II. This remarkable testament to human creativity and resilience was built by Italian prisoners as a power of art and faith amidst adversity. In about 65 years of its establishment, it has become an enduring symbol of peace and hope around the world. The chapel was built using simple materials, and a glimpse of this landmark simply soothes the mind and heart. For some time of peace and rejuvenation, visit this landmark near Kirkwall.

8. Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces

Built-in the 12th century, Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces (17th century) are the only episcopal palaces ever built in Norse Scotland. Today, the spectacular ruins of two remarkable residences are frequently visited by tourists. These striking landmarks served as the residence for Orkney’s bishops and showcased medieval architecture. A visit here will introduce you to well-preserved ruins, grand halls, and unique features of past and evolving architecture.

9. Shop for Orkney Crafts

Kirkwall is popular for its Orkney crafts, and you’ll find a wealth of unique, locally-made products. When in the town, shop for jewelry inspired by Orkney’s natural beauty, handcrafted pottery, and more such local treasures. Some of the popular places to shop for local craft in Kirkwall include Longship, Orkney Craft Association Shop, Sheila Fleet Jewellery, Peedie Sea Pottery, Kirkwall Farmers’ Market, Scapa Crafts and Orkney Arts and Crafts Cooperative. All of these places offer a diverse range of Orkney crafts and allow visitors to discover jewelry, textiles, ceramics, and much more.

10. Grain Earth House

Grain Earth House is an underground Iron Age chamber supported on stone pillars in Kirkwall. This remarkable archaeological site dates back to 3,000 BCE, around the Neolithic era. It is, in fact, one of the best-preserved ancient dwellings in Orkney. This subterranean structure, carved into the earth, has a low entrance passway that is open and free to visit around the year. It is two meters under the surface, at the end of a five-metre-long curving. It was first uncovered in the early 1800s and since then has been a sight of curiosity. To visit here, one needs to first uncover the early 1800s. On your visit here, be ready since your knees will get dirty, prepare yourself for some suffocation, and make sure you bring a torch.

11. The Tankerness House Gardens

The Tankerness House Gardens in Kirkwall, Orkney, are a tranquil oasis in the heart of the town. These beautifully landscaped gardens offer a serene escape, featuring well-tended flowerbeds, lush greenery, and winding paths. With its charming benches and peaceful atmosphere, it’s an ideal spot to relax and enjoy the outdoors. The gardens are also home to a variety of local and exotic plant species. The gardens are accessible when the Tankerness House is open. Visitors can access it either through the museum or by the gate in Tankerness House Lane. The best time to visit the gardens is during the spring or summer season.

12. Orkneyinga Saga Centre

Orkneyinga Saga Centre is located less than 10 miles from mainland Kirkwall. It is a captivating attraction for history enthusiasts. It tells the story of the Norse Earls of Orkney via audio-visual display and through the Orkneyinga Saga. A visit here will allow you to learn about the past at this fascinating archaeological site. There are multiple engaging exhibits, multimedia displays, and storytelling that bring to life the saga’s tales of Viking conquests, chieftains, and legendary figures. A visit here is surely an educational experience.

13. Brough of Deerness

Last on our list of best places to visit in Kirkwall is Brough of Deerness. Nestled less than half an hour away from the mainland, Brough of Deerness is best visited on a bright sunny day. This archaeological site features a rocky promontory that exhibits the ruins of an ancient Pictish and Norse settlement. A visit here allows enthusiasts to explore the remnants of stone buildings, including a chapel and a tower. Apart from its historical significance, Brough of Deerness is also popular for its breathtaking coastal views.

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