Are you planning a trip to Orkney? Are you wanting to make the most out of your time there? It can be overwhelming to decide what to fit into a short stay. We recently went on a family trip to these beautiful islands and came up with the perfect Orkney itinerary that included all the must-visit sites. As Jonathan lived there for a number of years when he was younger, he had great insider knowledge on how to make the most of our short stay. Stunning scenery, wild beaches, world-famous prehistoric sites, beer and whisky tasting – we’ve got you covered!
How to get to Orkney:
There are plenty of options to get across from mainland Scotland to Orkney including flying, catching the passenger ferry (summer only) or the car ferry. We followed a local Orcadian friend’s advice and travelled across from Gills Bay to St Margaret’ s Hope as this was both the shortest and cheapest car ferry crossing option. Check out Pentland Ferries website for further details.
Travel from Mainland Scotland to St Margaret’s Hope in Orkney
Start the day off by taking the early morning, high speed crossing from Gills Bay to St Margaret’s Hope. It carries cars as well as foot passengers. It only takes around an hour to cross the Pentland Firth and there is an excellent little café on board with plenty of comfy seating. If the weather is good enough, go up on deck for some great views of the many islands, that make up the Orkney Islands.
Tomb of the Eagles
After arriving in the pretty bay of St Margaret’s Hope in South Ronaldsay, we recommend you head in the opposite direction of all the other tourists and take the picturesque road to the southern tip of the island. It’s only a short 10-15 minute drive to get to there. Here you will find a dramatic coastal path that leads to the 5000-year Tomb of the Eagles. Way back in the 1950s a local farmer discovered the Tomb along with a fascinating collection bones and Stone Age objects. There is a great little tour and an exhibition.
Lunch at Skerries Bistro
Just a few hundred metres away, perched high on a cliff, overlooking the ocean, you will find Skerries Bistro. With huge plate glass windows and the freshest local sea food, there is nowhere better to recharge after all that sea air. We really enjoyed the sea food platter, but there are other non-fishy dishes. Try and save room for a delicious homemade dessert.
After lunch travel north towards Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall. On the way you will pass some lovely sandy beaches and over the Churchill barriers. These causeways were built in the 2nd world war by Italian prisoners of war, to stop German submarines entering Scapa Flow and attacking the British Fleet. There are also some interesting wrecks that were used as block ships.
Stop off at Lambholm just before you cross the last of Churchill’s Barriers before reaching Orkney mainland to visit the Italian Chapel. The crowds from the ferry will have dispersed by now so you’ll hopefully have a fairly quiet visit. As a lasting reminder of their presence here, the Italians built their own Chapel within the prison camp on the tiny island of Lamb Holm. This impressive chapel was ingeniously constructed out of everyday objects and two old Nissen huts. Its cleverly painted inside to give the impression that it is made from stone using the trompe-l’oeil technique. Over the years, some of the original Italian artists have returned to carry out restoration work.
Highland Park Distillery
Next, get back on the Kirkwall road again for a short 10 minute drive towards the Orcadian capital. On a hill just on the outskirts of Kirkwall, the comforting Highland Park Distillery sign will appear, you are now very close to whisky heaven. Founded in 1798, this distillery unusually malts its own barley using locally cut peat. Take one of the tours to really appreciate the amount of work that goes into every dram, it also includes a complimentary glass of the amber spirit (booking advised). If you are looking for a whisky themed present, then try the little gift shop.
Coffee & Cake at the Judith Glue Café
Time to hit the road and take the short journey down the hill to the centre of town. There are several carparks close to the St Magnus Cathedral. Just opposite the cathedral is a perfect place for a coffee and a cake, the Judith Glue real food café. It’s not just the coffee that’s good, there is an amazing range of Orkney crafts, including jewellery, clothing and pottery. You might want to have a wander around Kirkwall and check out the Cathedral as well as the Earls Palace and Bishops Palace or save them for Day 4!
Finally, why not make a short trip to one of Orkney’s best beaches, Waukmill Bay – another short 10 minute drive from Kirkwall. If you’re lucky enough to arrive at this beach at low tide, then you are in for a big treat. There is an enormous expanse of pale sand and the water is clear and turquoise, reminiscent of the Caribbean. Close by is the RSPB Kirbister reserve, a unique habitat for birds, due to flow of fresh water into the sea from a nearby loch.
DAY 2: Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Now it’s time to explore a different part of the Orkney islands… back on the road this time to Stromness and the area known as West Mainland. This section of the island is particularly rich in history having the been given the UNESCO title of “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney”.
Standing Stones of Stenness
There is no better place to start than the Standing Stones of Stenness. It is believed that the origins of this stone circle go back at least 10,000 years, when it was used for rituals/sacrifices celebrating the dead. In more recent times it was tradition for couples to hold hands though a hole in the ‘Odin Stone’, during an engagement ritual. Unfortunately, this stone was destroyed by an angry land owner in 1814, fed up with people trespassing. An image of the stones has even been used by Van Morrison on one of their album covers.
Ring of Brodgar
Continuing with the standing stone theme, very close by is the Ring of Brodgar. This stone circle consists of 27 stones and is perfectly situated between the Lochs of Harray and Stenness on a thin strip of land. Made famous in modern times by Billy Connolly running around these stones naked to celebrate the summer solstice.
Maeshowe Chambered Cairn
Nearby, you’ll find Maeshowe, a Neolithic chambered cairn which is undoubtedly connected with these two stone circles. If you wish to visit, booking online is required as visitor numbers are very limited. We found that the most interesting things about the cairn are the Viking graffiti and the solar alignment within the cairn design. At sunset, during the winter solstice, the sun shines through the passageway and throws golden light on the back wall.
Lunch at Ferry Inn
If you would like to experience some top Orcadian food in a cosy atmosphere, then you can’t do any better than the Ferry Inn in Stromness. Overlooking the harbour, this pub style restaurant serves amazing fish and chips, plus Orkney beef and lamb. There is also a great selection of Orkney beers and spirits. In the evening it’s possible to catch some live folk music.
Continue the Neolithic theme after lunch by visiting the world famous Skara Brae village. The village was discovered in 1850 after a wild storm exposed part of a stone wall. This small collection of houses is Europe’s best-preserved example. It’s even possible to see the stone beds where the inhabitants slept. A reconstruction of one of the houses gives a great insight into what life must have been like. There is also an excellent visitors’ centre, café and gift shop.
You can see why the Neolithic people chose this site to build their village right next to beautiful Skaill Beach. It’s a large sheltered sandy bay with rock pools at low tide and crystal-clear water. In more recent times visitors have chosen to build interesting stone structures.
If you decide to visit Skara Brae, your ticket will include entry to Skaill house which is just adjacent to the site. It’s a 17th century mansion once home to the local Laird who originally discovered Skara Brae. The setting is amazing and inside there are some interesting artefacts including captain cooks dinner service. It’s also very kid friendly with a ‘find the Viking’ treasure hunt.
DAY 3: Old Man of Hoy or Beer tasting, Cake and Sea Air
A trip to Hoy really is a must but of course, it will very much depend on the weather. Due to a change in weather, we were unable to travel across to the island, however, having been there previously, here’s the low down on making it to this Scottish Bucket List site! You’ll want to set aside an entire day for this trip so as to make the most of it.
This impressive 449 ft (137m) sea stack stands rises proudly out of the Atlantic ocean just off of Hoy. It was first climbed in 1966 (not for the fainthearted!) and is one of the tallest sea stacks in the UK.
You can reach the island of Hoy by ferry from Stromness to Moaness (passengers only) or with your car from Houton to Lyness (advance booking strongly advised). Depending on where you ‘land’, you can walk across the island to Rackwick and follow the path to reach the Old Man or park up/get a taxi straight to Rackwick for a shorter walk to the famous landmark.
Alternative Day 3
So if the weather is causing havoc with your travel plans and you’re unable to make it to Hoy, here’s another suggestion for a fun day exploring Orkney
Brough of Birsay
Check out this amazing hermit crab!
Birsay Bay, in the northern tip of Orkney mainland, is a short drive north from Stromness and it’s well worth the trip to experience the tidal island of the Brough of Birsay. Although it’s currently uninhibited, there are remains of a Viking village as well as a working lighthouse. It’s important to check the tides before your visit, so that you can cross the concrete pathway at low tide. On your way over, look out for life in the many rock pools – we found a fantastic hermit crab (check out video above), mussels and a starfish. Once you are across, it’s possible to explore the island on foot although watch out for the steep cliffs if you head towards the northern shore near the lighthouse. Back on the Orkney mainland near the car park, there is the start of a great coastal path (Skiba Geo) that features a whale bone and an old fishing hut.
Birsay Bay Tearooms
Perfectly situated, only a short walk from the Brough of Birsay and the ruins of the Earls Palace, this café is great for a treat. Inside there is huge glass window which gives a superb view over the ocean. There is a great selection of home bakes and savoury bites. This is a very popular place for locals and tourists alike, so it might be a good idea to book ahead if you plan to eat here.
The road sign for this village has become very popular to photograph, personally I don’t quite understand why, lol? You’ll pass by it when driving from Brough of Birsay to Quoyloo.
Just 11kms south of the Brough of Birsay and you’ll reach the Orkney Brewery (10 minute drive). Established in 1988, this once microbrewery has grown and now exports its gorgeous bottles of beer worldwide. Housed in a converted Victorian school, there is a gift shop and a super restaurant for lunch. The ingredients are sourced locally, and dishes are Orkney inspired. I recommend booking onto one of the guided tours which takes you through the brewing process. Afterwards there is the chance to test the delicious beers for yourself in a relaxed bar area.
Yesnaby Sea Stacks
If you are unable to visit the island of Hoy to see the old man, then this place is a must. It’s an easy 10 minutes drive (11 kms) from the Orkney Brewery. It’s a dramatic sight on a breezy day. The furious sea throws itself against the towering sea cliffs below, with such might, that spray is thrown over the top into your face. It’s wild and invigorating all at the same time. There is an impressive sea stack known as the ‘castle’ which is home to wild flowers and sea birds.
DAY 4: Walks & Beaches
Exploring east mainland and Kirkwall. No day in Orkney is complete without some serious beach time. Being an archipelago of over 70 islands, Orkney is blessed with a huge number of fantastic beaches – some are sandy while others are rocky.
Just a short drive from Orkney’s capital, this beach is a popular place for locals to relax on a sunny day. There is a proper paved carpark close to the main road and toilets right next door. Clamber over the impressive sand dunes and discover a beautiful bay with pale sand and clear blue water. There is a shallow slope down to the water so it’s safe for swimming, should you be lucky with the weather. At low tide there is a good expanse of sand to enjoy, great for young and old alike.
Slightly out on a limb, drive the 7kms from dingieshowe beach to reach the Gloup. It’s an interesting name and a fascinating natural feature. Over thousands of years the sea eroded the soft rock of the cliff face creating a sea cave, until the roof collapsed, and it became a dramatic chasm in the earth. It’s 25 metres deep and filled with sea water so don’t get too close to the edge! There is also a spectacular cliff path which gives great views of the sea and local flora and fauna.
Lunch at Sheila Fleet Kirk Gallery & Café
You’ll be getting hungry after all the sea air and exercise, so why not drive to Tankerness (15 km away or 20 mins drive) and check out Sheila Fleet’s latest offering? Housed in an old church, this is a superb place to have lunch or just a coffee and a cake. The interior is a lovely mix of the original building and modern quality furnishings. There is an amazing menu with some traditional Orcadian recipes such as bere bannock. If you have a sweet tooth, the cakes are to die for (we know, we tried them). And don’t forget the spacious gallery which shows off jewellery that is influenced by Orkney’s rich history and unique landscape. It is also possible to have a tour of the adjacent jewellery workshop.
Earls Palace and Bishops Palace
After lunch, make the short 10 minute drive from Tankerness past the airport to Kirkwall and explore some ruins with an interesting story. Just across the road from the St Magnus Cathedral is the Earls Palace, originally constructed by Patrick Stewart the Earl of Orkney in 1607. He was disappointed by the standard of accommodation provided by Bishops Palace, so he commissioned his own home. Unfortunately, he didn’t own the land where the Palace stands, so he had the owner executed! He lived here until he himself was executed in Edinburgh for treason in 1615. What’s left of the Bishops Palace is just next door – it dates from the 12th century and was home to the bishop of St Magnus Cathedral.
St Magnus Cathedral
Britain’s most northerly Cathedral. It is impossible to miss the centrepiece of Kirkwall; its huge spire almost touches the clouds. Constructed from red sandstone in the 12th century, it was owned by Norway and the first bishop was the Norseman William the Old. Interestingly it’s not owned by the church, but by the town of Kirkwall and even has a dungeon. The interior is as impressive as the exterior with huge stone circular stone pillars reaching into the heavens and ornate stained-glass windows.
Kirkjuvagr Orkney Distillery
To round off the day, a visit to Kirkjuvagr (pronounced kirk-u-vaar) is a must. As a contrast to the ancient Cathedral, the distillery bar is housed in an ultra-modern architect designed building, not out of place in a trendy city centre. You can sit at a table overlooking Kirkwall harbour, sipping artisanal gin, watching the world go by through the huge floor to ceiling windows. It feels decadent. After tasting something from the menu, you may wish to take a distillery tour to discover the gin making process for yourself. There is also a cool shop selling lots of unique gin related gifts.
So there you have it, 3 or 4 perfect days in Orkney! If you prefer to make up your own itinerary then be sure to check out our post on Orkney’s must-visit sites.