A modern European oil city built on the back of a rich maritime heritage, Aberdeen is the energetic kingpin of northeast Scotland. While the boom times may come and go, the dynamic coastal metropolis never ceases to thrill with its free museums, outdoor adventures and natural attractions right on the city’s doorstep.

Even when bracing against biting winds from the North Sea, visitors can dive indoors to take in globally renowned art, old-fashioned seaside amusements or steamy tropical plants. Here are the 15 best things to do in Aberdeen.

Browse 700 years of creativity at Aberdeen Art Gallery

Transformed after a massive renovation between 2015 and 2019, the revitalized Aberdeen Art Gallery displays a remarkable collection of fine and decorative art, including paintings by acclaimed French Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites such as Aberdonian William Dyce.

Begin your tour of the elegant neoclassical building in the central Sculpture Court, where eye-catching works dot a checkerboard floor amid sleek marble columns. Boldly designed art deco ceramics and glassware are one floor up, while the top-story South Terrace lets you sneak a peek of the city’s rooftops.

Slurp on a cone at Mackie’s 19.2

Who says you need a balmy climate to enjoy a scoop of the soft stuff? Aberdeenshire dairy farm Mackie’s has been concocting an inventive lineup of ice cream flavors since 1986 with the help of nearly 300 black-and-white Holstein milking cows.

Named for the distance in miles from the farm to its location in the city center, Mackie’s 19.2 ice cream parlor serves a calorie-crammed assortment of cones, sundaes and build-your-own milkshakes, with choices ranging from raspberry ripple and honeycomb to decadently sweet Scottish tablet.

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Historical Torry Battery at Nigg bay of North sea, Aberdeen, Scotland
Wrap up warm and watch the dolphins play at the mouth of Aberdeen Harbor near Torry Battery © Anastasia Yakovleva / Getty Images

Spot dolphins at Torry Battery

The city’s 19th-century former artillery is one of the best places in the UK to catch sight of bottlenose dolphins from the shore. You can glimpse them year-round feeding and playing at the mouth of Aberdeen Harbour, especially between the orange breakwater and the lighthouse.

To warm up, there’s a small coffee hut at Greyhope Bay, where plans are underway to convert shipping containers into a viewing center with a cafe, story trail and tours. Remember to bring binoculars, and keep your eyes peeled for other wildlife like otters, seals and gulls.

Hit the rides at Codona’s

When it comes to classic seaside thrills, Codona’s checks all the boxes. The retro beachfront amusement park is packed with summer rides like bone-jangling disco waltzers, spinning bumper cars and a stomach-flipping pirate ship. For panoramic city views, take a turn on the Grampian Eye big wheel or get hoisted up the Dead Man’s Drop Tower before plummeting back to earth.

Throughout the year, Lewis Hamilton wannabes can test their skills on the outdoor go-kart track, while indoors you can shoot your on-screen enemies in a 4D simulator or try your luck on old-school claw machines. Book ahead for bowling. For everything else, just turn up.

Encounter pioneers at Provost Skene’s House

Dating to the mid-16th century and reopened in 2021 following a major revamp, Provost Skene’s House showcases the people who have made Aberdeen. The turreted stone building contains a raft of interactive exhibits celebrating the achievements of more than 100 trailblazing residents, from scientists to sporting legends to writers.

Visitors to the free museum can learn about the likes of profoundly deaf pro percussionist Evelyn Glennie or Leslie Benzies, the brains behind Grand Theft Auto. Don’t forget to cast your vote for the next person to be added to the Hall of Heroes.

Surf the North Sea in Footdee

Called ‘Fittee’ by Aberdonians, former fishing village Footdee is a cute huddle of tiny mid-1800s cottages and narrow lanes perched at the entrance to the harbor. It was laid out by city architect John Smith and added to by his son William, who went on to design the Queen’s Scottish hideaway, Balmoral Castle.

Footdee also marks the start of Aberdeen Beach, an expansive sweep of sand stretching north, and a popular spot to catch a few waves. Pitch up at the Scot Surf trailer for boards and lessons.

The rain-soaked cobbled streets of Aberdeen at night illuminated by street lights
The beautiful cobbled streets of Aberdeen are a pleasure to explore both day and night © Susanne Neumann / Getty Images / iStockphoto

Stroll the cobbled streets of Old Aberdeen

A lively ecclesiastical and academic hub since the Middle Ages, this historic quarter clusters around King’s College, founded in 1495 and part of the University of Aberdeen. On Wednesdays in term time, you can hear the university’s choir sing during services in King’s College Chapel, whose tower is topped with a striking imperial crown.

Nearby St Machar’s Cathedral is famed for its 16th-century heraldic ceiling, whose 48 shields represent kings, bishops and the Pope. Peaceful paths in Cruickshank Botanic Garden wind among roses, an arboretum and a herbaceous border.

Gaze at street art on a walking tour

Vivid murals and imaginative graffiti splash spaces across the city during the annual Nuart festival. Past works have ranged from Bortusk Leer’s multicolored monsters in the rooftop garden of the St Nicholas Centre to Fanakapan’s smiling yellow balloons that seem to pop out of the wall of a medical building.

Throughout the summer and early fall, free guided walks take in the highlights, including gigantic paintings covering entire facades as well as more bijou, hidden pieces of art. Tours begin at the Bon Accord mall.

Paddle a canoe around Rubislaw Quarry

Opened in the 18th century and filled with water since its closure in 1971, this craggy hole is a legacy of Aberdeen’s granite heyday. The 459ft quarry supplied much of the glittering silver stone used to build the city and also provided material for the construction of the Houses of Parliament and Waterloo Bridge.

Weekend canoeing sessions run by Adventure Aberdeen allow you to explore the crater-like cavity, whose jagged walls are now encased in thick vegetation. Instruction, boat rentals and flotation devices are included.

A view of one of the alleys in Duthie park with river Dee on a background, Aberdeen, Scotland
The beautiful expanses of Duthie park are popular with both locals and visitors © Anastasia Yakovleva / Getty Images / iStockphoto

Explore the David Welch Winter Gardens

Skirting the edge of the River Dee, Aberdeen’s beloved Duthie Park has been drawing visitors to its bandstand and boating ponds since 1883. Within the park, the Winter Gardens are a cozy – and free – retreat from vigorous blasts of North Sea weather.

Tropical, arid and temperate glasshouses show off an aromatic array of rare and exotic plants, including lush ferns and a vast collection of cacti and succulents. Don’t miss the small Japanese peace garden outdoors, designed by Takashi Sawano to commemorate those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII.

Discover Aberdeen Maritime Museum

Aberdeen’s fortunes have been driven by the sea, whether through fishing, shipbuilding or the North Sea oil and gas industry. The four stories of hands-on exhibits at the free, glass-fronted Aberdeen Maritime Museum include artifacts celebrating the city’s nine-century history as a global trading hub.

The highlight? A detailed 30ft-high model of an oil platform, which gives you an up-close look at the workings of an offshore rig. Before you leave, check out the panoramic harbor views from the museum’s top floor.

Taste gin at the City of Aberdeen Distillery

Aberdeen’s first distillery for 80 years opened beneath a stone railway arch in late 2019. Specializing in small-batch gin, the business infuses its booze with fruity flavors like tangy lemon and Scottish bramble.

Discovery tours teach ginophiles about the city’s distilling heritage and continue behind the scenes to explain the production process. For tutored tastings, sign up to a 90-minute masterclass led by the head distiller, where you’ll have plenty of opportunities to sip – or glug – a few samples.

Crathes Castle and Walled Garden
Take a breather as you cycle the Deeside Way and stop to admire Crathes Castle © Colin Hunter / Getty Images

Cycle the Deeside Way

Connecting Aberdeen with Ballater in the mountainous Cairngorms National Park, the 41-mile Deeside Way is a multiuse trail combining stretches of old railway line with quiet rural roads. Beginning in Duthie Park, the path heads west, taking in sights such as the ruins of an 11th-century church in Dalmaik.

Other pit stops include Crathes Castle, a 16th-century turreted delight with painted ceilings and a walled garden. Community-run beCyCle lends out bikes free of charge, and B&Bs are dotted along the route if you want to break up the journey.

Wander beneath tall trees in Foggieton

Less visited than neighboring Countesswells forest, this peaceful pocket of woodland west of the city contains a couple of gently winding paths. Hikers can listen out for singing birds on the Warblers’ Trail, a half-mile loop through a regenerated area of forest featuring young native trees like willowy silver birches.

The slightly longer Ladyhill Trail weaves among towering 150-year-old beech trees and patches of blackberry and raspberry bushes where you can grab your fill in summer and fall. Paid parking and cafes are available in the nearby village of Cults – the latter stocked with fluffy scones and cakes.

Plunge into Stonehaven’s outdoor pool

Just 15 miles south of Aberdeen, the coastal town of Stonehaven is home to an Olympic-size open-air pool, right by the beach. Open late May through early September, the 1934 seawater swimming spot was saved from imminent closure in the 1990s thanks to the efforts of a determined community group.

Today you can take a dip in the heated water or stretch out on a lounger on sheltered sun terraces. Wednesday midnight swims in the height of summer let you perfect your crawl to the beat of disco tunes. Stonehaven is a handy 20-minute train ride from Aberdeen.

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The 14 best places to visit in Scotland

Nov 19, 2023 • 10 min read