A local’s guide to Aberdeen: 10 top tips | Travel

Welcome to Granite City

Scotland’s third-largest city is known as Granite City, and has a wealth of beautiful architecture: either on the Granite heritage trail or just by having a wander around and looking up. Styles and eras vary greatly, from the three Victorian domes of His Majesty’s Theatre, the Central Library and St Mark’s Church, to the neo-gothic Marischal College, and the brutalist tower blocks – which have inspired accessories by local design collective Look Inside. While you’re taking in the refurbished Aberdeen Art Gallery (among other events, a Martin Parr photography exhibition runs until 23 February 2020), check out the 28 different-coloured granite columns in the main hall – they came from quarries around the area.

Stroll the sandy shore

Balmedie beach at sunrise, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, UK

Balmedie beach at sunrise. Photograph: Dan Tucker/Alamy

Aberdeen is also called “the silver city with the golden sands”, and has fantastic beaches. You can walk the coastal stretch from Footdee, a fishing village at the mouth of the large harbour, to the dunes at Balmedie in around three hours, then get the 54 bus back into town. Close to the harbour, Aberdeen Maritime Museum (free) offers a great way to learn about the city’s relationship with the sea – from the early days of clippers and shipbuilding to the North Sea oil and gas industry – and includes a 1:33 scale model of an oil rig.

Independent eating

Food Story Cafe in Aberdeen

Food Story Cafe. Photograph: Scott Arthur

For a vegan dinner Foodstory Cafe on central Thistle Street is a laid-back space, with live music, workshops and pop-up shops, such as plant sales. It serves wraps, soups, raw brownies and bowls filled with chilli, sushi or falafel – and it’s BYOB in the evening. Spin-off zero-waste cafe, Food Story Zero, is on the university campus in Old Aberdeen, an area that’s worth a wander. More centrally, Melt 2 calls itself the “home of grilled cheese” and does toasted sandwiches with gooey cheese, pickles, meats (including haggis) or veggie chilli (from £4). The Green is home to the monthly Inspired Nights street food market in warmer months (restarts April 2020); Cafe 52 serves tapas and modern British (mains £10) in an atmospheric old building; and try Contour for coffee and cake.

Walk the arty streets

Hold Fast Hope mural by Snik on Shore Brae, Aberdeen

Hold Fast Hope mural by Snik on Shore Brae. Photograph: Sally Anderson/Alamy

There is a wealth of street art across Aberdeen, a lot of which was created as part of the Nuart street art festival, which takes place every April. It has been a big deal for Aberdeen since it started three years ago – with works created around the city by an array of international artists. Download a map of the art here and look out for (in particular) Jan Vormann’s Dispatchwork – several small Lego installations in the walls around The Green, the city centre marketplace – and the Glöbel Brothers’ mural on Willowbank Road gable end, in the style of a retro advertisement. Free walking tours also run from January to September. Other festivals on Aberdeen’s calendar include the Spectra festival of light in February, Dance Live in October, and the Sound festival of new music in November.

Seasonal (and very local) ice-cream

Mackie’s minted brussels sprout ice-cream

Mackie’s minted brussels sprout ice-cream

For a taste of something truly Aberdonian, ice-cream maker Mackie’s has a cafe on Marischal Square, called Mackie’s 19.2 after the distance in miles to the family farm and factory in to the north-west. The company is always coming up with new seasonal flavours – for Burns Night this year it created a remarkable haggis and orange marmalade edition, and last Christmas it was minted brussels sprouts, gingerbread and Christmas pudding flavours. There was also a special rowie (a buttery roll, like a savoury croissant) and jam version, made for Aberdeen Performing Arts, which runs three local theatres.

Discover indie designs

Look Again Project Space

Look Again Project Space. Photograph: Grant Anderson

Lesser-known art spaces have been popping-up around the city in recent years. Among them is the Look Again Project Space on St Andrew Street, which was an empty shop that has been repurposed as an exhibition space. It showcases contemporary art and design by local artists through an initiative with Gray’s School of Art, part of the Robert Gordon University. Five minutes away on Queen Street, the Anatomy Rooms artists’ studios run public events, such as makers’ fairs and workshops, as well as classes and performances by in-house contemporary dance company City Moves. On Rosemount Place, the independent, artist-run Kekun Studio runs exhibitions and workshops.

Go to hospital

Treasure, by Stacey Hunter, at Suttie Arts Space.

Treasure, by Stacey Hunter, at Suttie Arts Space. Photograph: Mike Davidson

You wouldn’t normally think about going to see art in a hospital but Aberdeen Royal Infirmary has a fantastic changing collection on display on its corridor walls, as well as a dedicated in-house gallery, the Suttie Arts Space. It’s run in conjunction with the Grampian Hospitals Arts Trust and is open to the public as well as patients.

Unique shopping

Aberdeen Art Gallery

Aberdeen Art Gallery. Photograph: Mike Davidson

Curated Stories on Claremont Street, at the western end of main drag Union Street, does a range of Scandi-inspired gifts and clothing, plus antiques – and hosts pop-up shops from the likes of vintage homewares seller Hume. Back on The Green, independent clothing boutique Hanon sells limited-edition trainers and T-shirts printed for Nuart. There are also lots of unique items being sold in the new Aberdeen Art Gallery shop – prints from Martin Parr’s Think Of Scotland exhibition, as well as jewellery made from reclaimed granite from the old, pre-refurbished gallery space.

Beer and bicycles

Six°North Aberdeen exterior Micro- Brewery

Six°North Photograph: PR

With beers called Peloton, Velo and Bombini, it’s no surprise that the owner of Belgian-style microbrewery Six°North, Robert Lindsay, is a keen cyclist who also runs a cycle sportive as part of the Midsummer Beer Happening, which takes place a few miles south in Stonehaven each June. The brewery first opened south of the city in 2013, and five bars followed across Scotland, starting with the one on Aberdeen’s Littlejohn Street. The intimate bar serves bar snacks such as poutine and brisket wraps. This is a good area for a mini local-brew crawl, with two Brewdog joints nearby, as well as a bar run by Fierce Beer, which also does daily tours of its brewery close to Aberdeen airport.

Dolphin spotting

Aberdeen Bay Bottlenose Dolphins

Photograph: Rick Wood/Alamy

Last used for defence in the second world war, the historic Torry Battery site is now a popular spot for dolphin watching. A pod of bottlenoses live at the mouth of the harbour and can be spotted throughout the year. The view from here also takes in the promenade, where Aberdeen meets the North Sea. It really feels like the edge of Scotland – the next stop is Norway. There are also seabirds, seals, otters and whales to spot. A project called Greyhope Bay is planning to add a viewing platform, a cafe and outdoor exhibits to the battery, and hold special events.

Where to stay
In a listed building off Union Street, the new Citi Hotel has en suite twins from £30. Citi Hostel next door has dorm beds from £15.75. Rooms and dorms are modern without being corporate (breakfast £5 extra).

Best time to visit
Summer months at this latitude mean long, light-filled days. But winter can be great for (sometimes snowy) walks, perhaps with a wee dram to keep warm. The east coast of Scotland is drier than the west.

Getting there
Trains from York to Aberdeen take five hoursfrom £67.50 one-way; from London King’s Cross around 7½ hours, from £36.50. The Caledonian Sleeper from London takes 10 hours, from £100 return in a reclining seat, or £280 return in a cabin.

Margaret Sweetnam is the communications manager at Aberdeen Art Gallery

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