If you’re planning a trip to the far north of Scotland, you may be wondering if there are enough things to do in Orkney to justify a visit – especially for multiple days. This archipelago consisting of nearly 70 islands located just 15 kilometres off the north coast of Scotland is perhaps one of the most interesting areas to visit in all of the country.
Spending 2 or 3 days in Orkney exploring the countless archaeological sites, charming towns and striking wild beauty is the perfect way to experience the peace, tranquillity and history of these islands. Boasting a dramatic coastline, pastoral images and neolithic remains that are older than the Pyramids of Giza, Orkney makes for a wonderful Sottish island destination.
If you’re wondering what to do in Orkney, use this guide to help you plan up to 3 days exploring this gorgeous archipelago.
Best Time of Year to Visit 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.
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 come to 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.
Getting To & Around the Orkney Islands
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.
The ferry journey is absolutely beautiful in itself and it will allow you to get great views of the Old Man of Hoy – a sea stack on the island of Hoy south of Orkney Mainland.
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 suggest browsing Renta to compare prices from many major companies.
If you don’t want to drive when you’re visiting Orkney, one option is to take a multi-day tour from Inverness which allows 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.
13 Best Things to Do in Orkney: A 3-Day Itinerary
Day 1 – Explore the Heart of Neolithic Orkney
The first day of this itinerary has you exploring some of the best sites in mainland Orkney, the biggest island. The collection of four major sites (Maeshow, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness and Skara Brae) are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.
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, making it one of the top things to see in Orkney. Dating back more than 5,000 years, it is an ancient burial site.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing, however, is 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 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.
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 these islands and it is one of the best places to visit in 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 some of their 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 – an ale that boasts roughly 10% alcohol by volume, it has won countless accolades at various prestigious beer awards. It’s not cheap, but it’s truly phenomenal.
Day 2 – Explore Kirkwall
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.
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.
Wander Around Kirkwall
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. Also make sure to take in the lovely St Magnus Cathedral, which is located next to the Orkney Museum and is the oldest cathedral in Scotland.
There are also 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.
Highland Park Distillery
One of the best places to visit 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.
Day 3 – Explore South Ronaldsay
After a long day previously exploring the main sites on Mainland Orkney, the second day of this Orkney itinerary sees you crossing the Churchill Barriers across Scapa Flow to the southernmost island in the archipelago: South Ronaldsay. This small island also boasts a number of archaeological sites and also a really fantastic restaurant.
The Tomb of the Eagles
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 most interesting places to visit 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.
Unfortunately, this museum is temporarily closed for 2023 and it’s unclear when it will reopen. However, it is one of our favourite sites in Orkney and could open up again in the future.
After working up an appetite walking out to visit the Tomb of the Eagles, it’s time for lunch! Skerries Bistro is a fantastic option on South Ronaldsay and it serves a lot of fantastic and fresh local seafood.
When we visited here, we started with delicious creamy seafood chowder, had beautifully seared scallops and a seafood platter for mains and polished it all off with a freshly baked strawberry and rhubarb crumble.
The food was absolutely delicious and our only regret was discovering this place on our last day meaning we couldn’t make a repeat visit!
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 see in Orkney.
Orkney Wine Company
Located right next to the Italian Chapel, the Orkney Wine Company is an excellent place to visit in this area. They sell a range of wines and liquors all made by hand and from natural ingredients grown on the island.
They’re very generous here with tastings and will allow you to sample a number of wines or liquors before you make a decision.
If you’re looking for a unique experience, then consider visiting the Deerness Distillery. Located in the far east of Mainland Orkney, this is a great place to stop on your drive back to Kirkwall. This small, family-run distillery not only makes their own whisky, but they also do spirits like vodka and gin, as well.
Where to stay in Orkney
The main city of Kirkwall is arguably the best place to base yourself when exploring Orkney. Centrally located to be able to explore the top attractions of the archipelago and also situated near a number of great restaurants and pubs, there are lots of places to choose from when you’re searching for accommodation.
However as Orkney is a small island, we do recommend booking accommodation in advance as the good places go quickly. So if you’re wondering where to stay in Orkney, have a look through these top suggestions:
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.
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.
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While there are many more things to do on these beautiful islands, 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.
Are you planning to a trip to Orkney? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments below!