Orkney, an archipelago consisting of nearly 70 islands located just 15 kilometres off the north coast of Great Britain, is perhaps one of the most interesting areas to visit in all of Scotland. With the possible exception of Malta, never have I encountered such a place with as many significantly historical ancient sites concentrated into such a small area. It was primarily for this reason that Orkney was the place I was most looking forward to visiting on our trip through the Scottish Highlands.
But the islands have more to boast than this, the wild scenery and sparse population make them one of the most magical places to visit on earth. And despite its diminutive size, there are numerous things to do in Orkney and we could have easily spent multiple weeks there.
While there are a number of companies that offer day trips from Inverness to Orkney, I would strongly suggest spending at least three days here in order to experience the archipelago to its full potential. If you’re struggling to put together an itinerary, read on to follow my expert instructions. You’re sure to leave Orkney with as much inspiration and awe as we did.
When to Visit Orkney
Before we get into the best things to do in Orkney, let’s discuss the best time to visit these northern Scottish isles. Like the rest of Scotland, Orkney sees its fair share of rain and grey days and temperatures in excess of 17-18°C (62-64°F) are considered very warm indeed. That being said, however, there are still times that are better to visit Orkney than others.
Like the rest of the country, the most popular time of year to visit Orkney will be in the summer months between July and August. This is when you will see the warmest temperatures (average highs in these months are about 16°C (60°F)), have the most accommodation options open to you, and have the driest and longest days. Some of the most popular sites in Orkney might be more crowded in the summer than in the other seasons, however, nothing is ever too overrun on the islands.
In contrast, the least popular time to visit Orkney will be in the winter months. Because of its far northern geography, Orkney sees only a few hours of absolute daylight in the height of winter. Though temperatures don’t generally dip too far below freezing (average highs are about 6-9°C (42-48°F)), the lack of light can make sightseeing inconvenient and many accommodations will close for business during this low season.
If you do visit in spring or autumn, expect more rain than in summer and some cooler temperatures. However, it will not be as cold as in winter, nor will the days be as short. Average highs in the spring and autumn months generally land somewhere between 10-14°C (50-57°F) depending on the month.
How to Get To and Around Orkney
The Orkney archipelago is, to be redundant, made up of islands, and therefore the easiest and most straightforward way to reach them is by ferry. There are a few ferries that leave from the Scottish mainland and arrive into either Stromness or Kirkwall on mainland Orkney (the largest island) from both Aberdeen and Scrabster in the north of Scotland.
The ferries depart frequently and journeys can vary in price depending on your departure location and whether or not you are bringing a car with you.
Once you are in Orkney, the easiest way to get around is by car, as there isn’t really a public transport system so to speak on the islands and most sites are fairly far-flung. If you want to rent a car while visiting Orkney, we recommend using RentalCars.com to find the best deals from all available companies. To save money on insurance, we also recommend that you take out a third-party excess policy from iCarHireInsurance to ensure that you’re covered for any accidents you may have.
If you don’t want to drive when you’re visiting Orkney, there are a few tours that you can choose from, as well. One option is to take a day tour from Inverness, and while this is an extremely long day it does allow you to see the highlights of Orkney if you’re on a tight schedule. Some tour options include this tour available on GetYourGuide or this tour available on Viator – both include all bus and ferry transportation as well as a guide.
Another option is to take a multi-day tour from Inverness which allow you to see the main attractions and some of the lesser-visited islands. Both this tour available on GetYourGuide or this tour available on Viator include all transportation, accommodation, guides and some meals.
Things to do in Orkney: Day One
A few words of advice before I jump headfirst into what will clearly be the best Orkney itinerary you will ever read: public transport in Orkney is lacking. It’s a very rural community and while the islands are small and the sites aren’t far away from each other, if you want to travel independently I would strongly suggest hiring a car. Outside of the main towns of Kirkwall and Stromness, the roads, while well-maintained, are not exactly pedestrian-friendly.
The first day of this itinerary has you exploring some of the best sites in mainland Orkney, the biggest island. No site is more than a twenty-minute drive from either Kirkwall or Stromness and some are no more than three minutes away from each other. If you only have one day in Orkney, then I would recommend just sticking to the activities listed for this first day in order to properly enjoy everything.
Maeshowe Chambered Cairn
The Maeshowe Chambered Cairn is considered one of the best-preserved Neolithic tombs of its kind in Europe. Dating back more than 5,000 years, it is an ancient burial site. Perhaps the most fascinating thing, however, are the remnants the Vikings left when they discovered the cairn. Nearly 3,000 years after the tomb was erected, the Viking invaders left their mark within it with some interesting Norse graffiti. I guess some things will never change.
One of the biggest disappointments of our trip to Orkney was the fact that we weren’t able to tour this ancient neolithic tomb. I was unaware that they only allow a finite number of people in per day and that it is essential if you’re travelling in peak season, as we were, that you book at least two weeks in advance. Learn from my mistake and make sure you can visit this fascinating archaeological site.
Standing Stones of Stenness
As anyone capable of a simple Google search will know, standing stone henges are fairly ubiquitous in Scotland and particularly in Orkney. What makes the Standing Stones of Stenness especially interesting, however, is that they are believed to be the oldest still standing henge in Britain. Originally consisting of up to 12 stones, all arranged in a perfect circle, only four stones remain in this ancient site. While archaeologists are still relatively unsure of their purpose, it is impossible to deny their magnificence.
Ring of Brodgar
The Ring of Brodgar is located just a few paces away from the Standing Stones of Stenness and it is probably the most awe-inspiring stone ring in Orkney. We got there early and were able to walk around the 104-meter circle in the company of only one other couple. The smallest stones in the henge stand at 2 meters tall with the largest clocking in well above 4 meters. While only 27 of the original 60 stones remain, this is the third-largest stone circle in Britain and visiting the ancient site is one of the best things to do in Orkney.
Skara Brae might be the site I was most excited to see on our travels through Orkney. Dating back to 3180 BCE, this perfectly preserved Neolithic village is older than the Pyramids of Giza and is colloquially known as the “Scottish Pompeii.” The story behind its discovery is fascinating as well…after a devastating wind storm in 1850, a local farmer assessing the damage to his fields found that the wind had mostly uncovered this ancient village. The visitor centre at Skara Brae houses an excellent exhibit of the discoveries that have been uncovered here and it is one of the things you absolutely cannot miss when you visit Orkney.
If visiting all of these archaeological has left you a bit peckish, consider visiting the Orkney Brewery. This award-winning microbrewery offers a great tour where you can sample three of it’s six fantastic beers and also quite a good restaurant. While you can find the beers brewed here on tap at most pubs in Orkney, it is really great to visit and find out how it’s all made. Perhaps the most famous beer to come out of the brewery is the Dark Island Reserve — a stout that boasts roughly 10% alcohol by volume, it won the high honour of the best beer in the world in 2011. It’s not cheap, but it’s truly phenomenal. All in all, a visit to this local brewery is one of the best things to do in Orkney.
Things to do in Orkney: Day Two
After a long day previously exploring the main sites on Mainland Orkney, the second day of this Orkney itinerary sees you visiting the southernmost island in the archipelago: South Ronaldsay. This small island also boasts a number of archaeological sites and also a really fantastic restaurant.
Banks Chambered Tomb (The Tomb of the Otters)
Another Neolithic cairn, the Banks Chambered Tomb is one of the most recent discoveries in Orkney as excavation only started in 2010. We, unfortunately, weren’t able to tour this site as the man who ran the tours was on holiday in Skye for the entirety of our time in Orkney. The cairn contains five chambers and is notably filled with hundreds of ancient otter skeletons. Also, the visitor centre is located within probably the best restaurant in Orkney, Skerries Bistro. They serve delicious, freshly caught local seafood and it is well worth spending a leisurely lunch here while enjoying the gorgeous view.
The Tomb of the Eagles
I first visited the Tomb of the Eagles with my family in 2004 and besides Skara Brae, this was the site I was most anxious to visit on our trip to Orkney. Similarly to Skara Brae, this 5,000-year-old tomb was discovered by a local farmer in the 1950s. A visit to the Tomb of the Eagles is by far one of the absolute best things to do in Orkney, as it is an important site and can give incredible insight to how life was lived thousands of years ago.
You start your tour at the visitor centre, where they give a 15-minute talk about what has been discovered and let you handle actual ancient artefacts. The tomb itself is about a mile’s walk from the centre and is incredibly scenic, but make sure to dress appropriately! Even if the day starts as sunny, the weather can turn at the flip of a switch and you can easily get soaked in a matter of minutes. It happened to me. Twice.
The Italian Chapel
Orkney was a strategic area during WWII and there is an incredible amount of history on the islands solely relating to that, the most famous of which would probably be the Italian Chapel. Built by Italian POWs who wanted a place to worship, this chapel is truly a fantastic piece of both art and history and a visit is one of the top things to do in Orkney.
Wrigley and the Reel, Kirkwall
After a long day exploring the sites of South Ronaldsay, I would definitely suggest spending an evening listening to some local live music at Wrigley and the Reel in Kirkwall. Operating as a music store by day and as a bar by night, this local gem has some sort of live performance nearly every night of the week in the summer months. We spent many happy hours here drinking whisky and listening to a local jam session, enjoying some familiar tunes along with traditional British folk songs. This is a great way to experience a more local side of Orkney and if you like music, I can’t recommend a visit more.
Things to do in Orkney: Day Three
With the first two days in this itinerary jam-packed with visits to archaeological sites, I would recommend spending your final day exploring Orkney’s capital “city” of Kirkwall. A charming town with a lot of history, there are many things to do in Kirkwall and can easily be explored on foot.
Highland Park Distillery
One of the best things to do in Orkney is to take a tour of the Highland Park distillery. Even if you’re not a whisky fan, this may well be one of the best single malt distilleries to visit in all of Scotland. Highland Park is one of only a handful of Scotch distilleries that actually malts their own barley. The basic tour is affordable as well: for £10 you get an hour tour and history of the distillery and two drams of different whiskies to sample. You also get to leave with a special whisky glass.
The Orkney Museum
If you want to find out more about the history of Orkney from the Neoliths to the Vikings to its position in the Second World War to life in the present day, head to the Orkney Museum. Like many museums in the UK, this museum is entirely free to visit and is one of the best things to do in Orkney.
After your distillery tour and museum visit, if the weather is fine, take some time to stroll along the harbour and through the picturesque streets of Kirkwall. There are a number of cute shops and cafes to pop into as well as some charming local pubs. In fact, if you’re caught in the middle of a downpour (which is not uncommon) wait out the rain in a pub and chat to some of the incredibly friendly locals. You will almost always find someone who is willing to share a pint and some stories with you.
Where to stay in Orkney
The main city of Kirkwall is the best place to base yourself when exploring Orkney. One great option for accommodation is Airbnb and there are a number of fantastic place such as this private cottage in central Kirkwall.
Aside from the small number of Airbnbs on Orkney, there are also some great hotel options. However as Orkney is a small island, we do recommend booking accommodation in advance as the good places go quickly.
Best Budget Option: Kirkwall Youth Hostel
Kirkwall Youth Hostel is a great budget option to explore the islands. They offer both dorm beds and private rooms and come with high ratings, is very clean, and has a great and helpful staff. Click here to see the latest prices for Kirkwall Youth Hostel!
Best Mid-Range Option: Heatherlea
Also located in, Kirkwall, Heatherlea is a lovely bed and breakfast to stay at if you’re looking for a bit more comfort during your stay in Orkney. They have a range of rooms available and also include a full Scottish breakfast in their rates. Click here to see the latest prices for Heatherlea!
Not what you’re looking for? Then click here to browse the best deals for hotels in Orkney!
While there are many more things to do in Orkney, these are some of the top attractions to see if you only have a short period of time. It is one of my favourite places in Scotland and they deserve to be explored to their fullest.
Before visiting Orkney make sure you have a valid travel insurance policy. We personally used World Nomads for our three days in Orkney however it’s important to read the policy details to ensure it’s right for you. Click here to get a quote from World Nomads!
Have you been to Orkney? Are you planning a visit? Let us know in the comments below!