Aberdeen was meant to be a glancing blow, a place to catch a flight but nothing more. I only had mediocre expectations for the city, based on what co-workers had told me, so didn’t do much planning.
I flew in from Dublin in the evening and only planned to spend a couple hours exploring before hitting the road the next morning. That part of the trip went to plan, but when I came back a few days later, my flight back to the U.S. was cancelled and I ended up stranded with an extra 20 or so hours to burn. I made the most of it, and found myself thoroughly charmed by the small city.
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Known as the Granite City, Aberdeen is often overlooked (though I’m happy to see it on Airbnb’s list of trending places!). Edinburgh and Glasgow get all the urban focus, and then obviously the stunning countryside and mind-blowing islands are a huge draw. But the Aberdeenshire region has more to offer than just scotch whisky distilleries, and it’s definitely worth a day or two of your time!
I’ve already gone into detail about all the places I ate (and drank, natch) in Aberdeen so I won’t cover those in-depth here (my Aberdeen foodie post is here). But *do* know that this city’s got an interesting and great foodie scene as well! Similarly, it’s known for its street art, and I’ve done an entirely separate post on Aberdeen’s street art scene to get you started.
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When I arrived, it was a chilly, rainy, gloomy evening. I got checked into my hotel and was tempted to just stay in with my jammies and takeout, but forced myself to slap on some lipstick and try out a great dinner spot and a couple cool bars (more on that here).
Besides a rainy run in Union Terrace Gardens the next morning, I thought that was all she wrote for me and Aberdeen. I hit the road and explored a few single malt whisky distilleries (for work), the beautiful Bow Fiddle Rock and Elgin Cathedral on the coast, and luxuriated in the lovely Craigellachie Hotel.
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Where to stay in Aberdeen
I stayed in the Sandman Signature both (separate) nights and absolutely adored it. It’s a super central location, beautiful, comfortable, and the staff was very helpful. The hotel is a bit of a maze and I don’t think I ever found my room the same way twice, but I will 100% stay here any time I’m in Aberdeen!
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On a side note, I had breakfast (and a gin and tonic…don’t judge) at The Distilling House in the Aberdeen airport, and if you’re looking to kill some time this is definitely where to go. Good food and impressive drink selection.
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Things to do in Aberdeen
So let’s get down to it. I hadn’t planned much of anything or done tons of research, so when my flight was cancelled I secured my hotel and spent a half hour figuring out a few must-see places. I was blessed with a beautiful day, a bit gray at first but ended up with blue skies and sunshine.
So first I enjoyed just having a wander through the historic little downtown area with all the cool old buildings. And then I headed toward Marischal College as my first stop.
Marischal is super cool, and you’ll think you’ve wandered onto a Harry Potter set. It’s the second-largest granite building in the world, finished in 1906…though the college itself dates back to the 15th century.
I really loved the incredibly ornate details on the building. It is an interesting blend of a more austere architectural style with some Gothic laid on top. There’s a great statue of Robert the Bruce out front as well as some cool fountains that “dance”.
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I happened upon a weird festival that was being hosted at Marischal, which included a VR (virtual reality) experience and a crafts fair.
This was a cool example of getting to just go with the flow and do whatever felt right at the time, so I wandered through the fair and ended up getting a couple of really lovely handmade crafts for souvenirs!
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Union Terrace Garden
This “sunken garden” opened in 1879, and while it’s quite small it’s a lovely little green oasis in the middle of the city.
It is a bit rundown and I believe undergoing a renovation from late 2019 into 2021, but still worth a few minutes. I ran through here in the mornings and enjoyed the little alcoves of street art along with the greenery.
Marvel at the super cool street art
I would not have guessed that Aberdeen is known on the international stage for its street art! The Nuart street art festival takes place every April, with all manner of internationally-recognized street artists coming to town to contribute.
It’s super fun to discover different pieces of art throughout the city, and they make a neat contrast to the historic granite buildings…the color really pops against the gray granite. I’ve done an entire post on how you can do a DIY tour of Aberdeen’s street art, if you’re interested in seeing more.
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Enjoy the historical architecture
The main old historic area of Aberdeen is quite walkable, so wander up Rosemount Viaduct to see some of the buildings (such as His Majesty’s Theatre) and then make your way up and down Union Street. This whole area has a ton to see, little nooks to explore, and totally sparkles in the sunlight.
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As I mentioned above, the juxtaposition of these historic buildings with all the modern street art is very cool (and photographs like a dream).
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At one end of Union Street you’ll find Aberdeen Castle, which is worth snapping a few photos (and was also hosting a festival of some sort).
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St. Nicholas’s Kirk
The word “kirk” refers to a church in Scotland, and specifically the Church of Scotland. St. Nicholas is one of the best-known in Aberdeen, as a church has stood on this site since at least the 1100s. Aberdeen locals also call it “Mither Kirk” (Mother Church).
Guys, I found Jamie Fraser!!! (Okay, a century too late, or too early depending on your point of view…)
Walking through the churchyard of St. Nicholas is really lovely, and I might have missed it except Google Maps told me to cut through to get somewhere else. So definitely make sure to spend a few minutes walking around and soaking in the peaceful quiet.
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Also on the “you’ll feel like you’re on a Harry Potter set” list is famous King’s College, one of the iconic places to visit in Aberdeen. It was founded in 1495, and has beautiful ground that draw both students and tourists.
The most recognizable (and oldest) building on the campus is the King’s College Chapel with the Crown Tower, which is what I took the most photos of.
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One detail I enjoyed was that the crown on top of Crown Tower is an Imperial crown, not a royal one. What’s that mean (this American says)…?? Well the Imperial crown is a symbol of universal dominion (vs. national), and many believe that its inclusion here was meant to support Scotland’s claim to its own crown and authority vs. British rule.
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What else if you’ve got time
So for me, this covers a lot of the things that in MY opinion are must-sees. But below are a couple more things to consider…and then at the bottom I’ll speak to a few restaurants and bars that you have to try.
Pronounced “fitty”, this small fishing village on the shores of Aberdeen date back to 1398. It’s a popular stop for tour groups and DIY tourists, filled with cute little houses and quirky decoration. I suppose it’s a pretty enough walk but it’s pretty far out of the way (I went on a super long run to get here) and I’ll be honest…I didn’t really “get it”.
I did really enjoy this cat and older gentleman doing a photo shoot though.
Get to the coast
It was such a pretty day I couldn’t resist running along the beach after my visit to Footdee. Now I’ll be honest, this is not a “must do” if you have a short time in Aberdeen. But it did feel cool and local, and was a beautiful way to spend a few minutes since I was already in the area.
I found an interesting hill path back into the city that gave me a great view of the surrounding area.
Where to eat and drink in Aberdeen
I’ve written a separate post on Aberdeen restaurants and bars, so I won’t go into too much detail here. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Aberdeen’s food and cocktail scene are really great, and I loved exploring even just for 24 hours.
A few places I want to majorly shout out are Cafe 52, Bonobo Cafe, and Tippling House. Those definitely should be on your list, along with (I’m told) Moonfish, Foodstory, and Books & Beans (for coffee). Check out that post for all the delicious food pics and a detailed rundown of all the bars and restaurants!
So I think I really did a lot with only 24 hours…while I was dying to get home, I’m actually quite pleased that the cancelled flight gave me a chance to explore Aberdeen. But I’m sure I’ll be back for work at some point, so would love to know what I missed and need to catch next time! Hit me up in the comments with your thoughts.
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