The city of Aberdeen is full of interesting things to do, whether you want to visit the local museums, walk in the parks, or simply sit in a coffee shop and watch the world go by. However, it is also perfectly placed to explore a wider region, with a network of public transport options and a wide variety of destinations available.
Whisky is so intrinsically tied together with Scottish culture and history, that it doesn’t really matter whether you love it or hate it — a visit to a distillery will enhance your understanding of Scotland. Aberdeenshire is well placed for a day trip to the legendary whisky-producing region of Speyside, but it also has its own delights to sample, known as ‘The Secret Malts of Aberdeenshire’. Bus tours run daily from Aberdeen, or you can put together your own itinerary — just remember not to sample the wares if you are driving!
Stonehaven and Dunnottar Castle
This is a day trip must for visitors to Aberdeen. The wee town of Stonehaven is only 15 miles (24 kilometres) south of Aberdeen, with the famous castle of Dunnottar perched on the cliffs barely two miles (three kilometres) further south. Dunnottar is a spectacular and photogenic ruin and once hid the Scottish crown jewels — the Honours of Scotland — from Oliver Cromwell’s army. Stonehaven is a quirky little town, with several excellent places to eat, a beach, a picturesque harbour and a number of interesting festivals each year, including a folk festival, Highland Games, a classic car rally, and the legendary Hogmanay fireball ceremony. As a dubious honour, it is possible that the infamous deep-fried Mars bar originated in the town too!
Catching the train to Dundee takes an hour and 15 minutes, Inverness two hours and 20 minutes, and Edinburgh two hours and 30 minutes. This makes each of these cities ideal for a day trip, with the journey itself being an added bonus, as the train passes through the beautiful Scottish countryside — especially in summer, when the extended daylight hours lets you look out across the softly lit landscape long into the night. Other options include Stirling, and its remarkable castle, high above the rest of the town.
North Aberdeenshire and the Moray Coast
The northern coast of Aberdeenshire is a fantastic area to explore, with its combination of fascinating fishing towns and villages, such as Boddam, Rosehearty, and Fraserburgh (which lands the most shellfish of any harbour in Europe), sandy beaches, or stunning cliffs. Wildlife abounds here, and it is a very good place to spot dolphins. Other local attractions include the Macduff Marine Aquarium, which is an excellent introduction to the huge variety of life found in the local seas; it is also the deepest seawater tank in Scotland. The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses is also nearby, close to Fraserburgh.
St. Andrews and Glamis Castle
If you have an interest in golf, then a day-trip to St. Andrews is a must. This famous town is not called ‘The Home of Golf’ for no reason — there are seven courses, and the first written mention of golf here occurred in 1552! St. Andrews is not just about golf though — it is also home to the third oldest university in the English speaking world, a ruined castle, several excellent shops and restaurants and, crucially, all this is within walking distance. A day-trip to St. Andrews would be more than enough to entertain, but it is only a small detour to visit the castle of Glamis, a place full of history, mystery, and legend.
Follow the river Dee west of Aberdeen, towards the rising bulk of the Cairngorm mountains, and you come to Royal Deeside. The name is a clue: ‘Deeside’ because the area surrounds the upper reaches of the river, ‘Royal’ because this is the summer home of the British Royal Family. Their castle at Balmoral is one of several in the area, which is ringed by remarkable mountains to climb and dotted with beautiful villages to explore. There is a wide range of outdoor activities to take part in, from gentle forest strolls to more energetic mountain biking, skiing to gliding.
In winter these provide a wonderland of snow sport opportunities, with downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and even sledding available. The alpine conditions of the Cairngorms attracts mountaineers, keen to bag munros. There are reindeer here, and other mountain specialist mountain wildlife include ptarmigan, mountain hare and snow bunting. When the snow goes then the forests and slopes are re-purposed, used for many hundreds of miles of trails, whether walking or mountain biking, or even pony-trekking. Following the A93 road west of Aberdeen will lead you to this outdoor adventure-playground.
To the north of Deeside is the more rugged river valley of the Don. Donside is quite different in character to its southern neighbour, and full of fascinating archaeological and architectural wonders to explore. The area abounds with castles, but there are relics of an even older time here: stone circles from the time before iron, symbol stones from the era of the Picts — their meaning lost in time. And, speaking of lost, there are also the famous road signs for the place bearing this name: Lost. There is much that can be packed into a day-trip to this area and it is quieter than Deeside; it is possible you will have many of the sites to yourself.