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Orkney Islands Tourism And Travel Guide
3.2° C / 37.7° F
April to September
2 to 3 Days
Orkney is an archipelago of 70 islands scattered like pebbles in the Northern Isles of Scotland. Separated from the Scottish mainland by just a few kilometres of ocean, the Orkney Islands are sparsely populated with only 20 of the 70 islands inhabited. However, the region has seen generations of different tribes who have been settling here for thousands of years and have left behind their footprint in the ancient monuments and stone formations that can be seen here. The largest island, known as ‘the mainland’, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and consists of Stone Age settlements from the time of the Vikings. Visitors to Orkney will be able to experience history, culture and exciting outdoor activities all in one location on their trip to these enticing group of islands. To know more about what truly drives tourism in Orkney, check out this travel guide.
How to Reach
Kirkwall Airport is situated on the mainland of Orkney and operates Loganair flights to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow on the Scottish mainland. FlyBe flights operate between Aberdeen and Kirkwall Airport. There are no direct international flights to Orkney; overseas travellers can fly to Aberdeen, Edinburgh or Glasgow first and then catch a flight to Orkney. Make sure to carry minimal luggage with you since flights to Orkney are operated on very small planes.
There are three main ferry operators between Orkney and the rest of Scotland.
- Pentland Ferries for passengers and vehicles. Runs every day – between Gills Bay and Margaret’s Hope on the island South Ronaldsay (takes about an hour)
- NorthLink Ferries – between Lerwick and Kirkwall, onto Shetland (6 hours), Aberdeen and Kirkwall (6 hours), and between Scrabster and Stromness (90 minutes).
- John O’Groats Ferries for passengers only – between John O’Groats and the port in Burwick, South Ronaldsay, followed by a coach transfer to Kirkwall (40 minutes). This service only runs between May to September
Weather & Best Time to Visit
Spring (April – May) & Summer (June – August):
After the cold and wet winters, April arrives with gorgeous weather and brings in the crowd of tourists with it, which continue to grow in numbers as the summer months begin. All the shops and restaurants are teeming with locals and visitors alike during this time, and the entire region appears vibrant and lively with daffodils in bloom wherever your eyes can see. The maximum temperature in spring ranges around 12⁰C, which rises to an average of 15⁰C during the summers. Bird watchers will find these months particularly delightful, when birds, especially puffins, can be seen nesting on almost every cliff. Due to large influx of visitors, it is advisable to make prior booking arrangements if you plan a trip during springtime and summers.
Autumn (September – October) & Winter (November – March):
Autumn and winter are the off-season in Orkney. Most of the tourist attractions remain much less crowded during these months, which can be a good thing for those looking for some time alone. Bird watchers can enjoy the migratory birds during the autumn months, but as winters approach, the weather gets colder with frequent chances of rainfall. The minimum temperature averages around 7⁰C in autumn and around 2⁰C in winter. The most interesting part of planning a visit during winters is the chance to witness the Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights.
Things to Do
Tour the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’:
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kirkwall. It has a spectacular concentration of Stone Age monuments that are a history and archaeology lover’s delight. The burial ground of Maeshowe, the Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness are the biggest highlights of this region.
Visit the Excavation Site at Ness of Brodgar:
The Ness of Brodgar is a small island located between two lakes in Orkney that was the site of a major settlement between 3500 BC to 1800 C. It was recently revealed by the World Heritage Site to be a treasure trove of Stone Age artefacts that are possibly hidden beneath the ground. Only about 10% of the total area has been excavated and there have been spectacular finds discovered already that prove the people living in Orkney during this time were a sophisticated community. The digs only happen for around 6-8 weeks each summer and this is a great time to visit and explore the region for yourself.
Take the World’s Shortest Flight:
The inter-island flight between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray in Orkney has been deemed the shortest flight in the world. At just under 2 minutes, the flight covers a distance of around 3 km and is often considered a fun activity to try by most tourists.
Where to Shop
Unlike most high-end tourist destinations in Scotland, the highlight of Orkney’s shopping scene is the independent stores, handmade crafts and a variety of local businesses that make up the soul of this place. Aurora, Sheila Fleet and Longship are where you’ll find some of the best Orcadian jewellery. For local artworks and crafts that you want to bring back home with you, head to Hoxa Tapestry Gallery and Judith Glue. Don’t forget to pay a visit to the Orcadian Bookshop as well for a brilliant selection of local books and newspapers.
Where to Eat
The Orkney Islands boast incredible restaurants that serve delectable dishes made from the highest quality, locally-sourced ingredients. Foveran is Orkney’s star restaurant and the best place to dine in comfort on the islands. Try the traditionally prepared steak with haggis and whisky sauce, and the North Ronaldsay lamb. Hamnavoe Restaurant specializes in traditional Orkney seafood fare served in an intimate and cosy atmosphere. The Shore is an exceptional setting where fresh seafood forms the highlight, but there’s also exquisite lamb, beef and pork dishes to choose from. For delicious pub food and an evening of drinks, head to Helgi’s; and Birsay Bay Tearoom for brilliant pastry and light snacks.