A Guide to Vacationing on the Orkney Islands

Guide to Orkney Islands
Photo: Martin McCarthy/Getty Images

Stuck in the North Sea just beyond the tip of Scotland, the Orkney Islands often fail to register with tourists. Too often, they're excluded from the map of Europe’s worthwhile hot spots. And with a latitude of 59ºN, they’re certainly not tropical: you won’t find white sand beaches and hammocks strung up between coconut trees here.

Instead, this scattered archipelago of 70 islands — two thirds of which are uninhabited — has a time-worn, slightly mystical charm of its own. On the Orkney Islands, travelers will be rewarded with storm-battered cliffs, ancient stone circles, and ominous-looking “sea stacks,” which rise from the churning blue water like swords (and are of particular interest to geologists and archeologists).

They might feel far-flung, but for travelers, these islands are entirely accessible. There's a thriving capital with shops and tour operators, frequent ferry service connecting the islands, and Europe’s highest concentration of ancient Neolithic sites (all of which are open to visitors). Ready to plan a trip? Here's everything you need to know about a journey to the Orkney Islands.

Visit an ancient site

Mainland (the largest of the Orkney Islands) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, and it’s packed with prehistoric treasures. Start off with a visit to the Ring of Brodgar (a stone circle built around 2500 BC), which predates both Stonehenge as well as the Egyptian pyramids. Somehow, 27 of the original 60 stones have stayed standing after all this time, and the experience of walking around these ancient monuments is nothing short of breathtaking.

Nearby Skara Brae is a preserved Stone Age settlement that was uncovered in 1850 when a particularly violent storm blew away all the sand that had kept it hidden for centuries. Here, you can make out walls and furnishings that were hand-laid by humans more than 5,000 years ago. And if you like the idea of sleeping alongside the prehistoric ruins, it’s possible to rent an apartment inside Skaill House: a lovely 17th-century farm manor that sits 600 feet from the archeological site.

Take a coastal hike

With the raging North Sea beneath you, and a particularly vibrant wildflower display occurring each spring, the Orkney Islands make for very memorable hiking. On western Mainland, you can walk the rugged coastline on a 10-mile path that takes you right to the edge of the cliffs, and offers fantastic views of the sea stacks, (those teetering rock formations hewn from the island by the waves). For something more guided, book a tour with the private company Orkney Uncovered, which offers themed expeditions all over the islands.

Take the world’s shortest flight

Once you’ve made it to the Orkney Islands from mainland Scotland (via either ferry or plane), there are plenty of ways to get around. Travelers can jump on a bus, catch additional ferries, or head off in a rental car. But much like the Faroe Islands to the north, there are also inter-island flights, operated by a Scottish airline called Loganair. Among the destinations (Eday, North Ronaldsay, Sanday, Stronsay) is a 1.7-mile route that connects Westray to Papa Westray. At just under two minutes, it’s officially the world’s shortest flight.

Spend the night in Kirkwall

The capital of Orkney, Kirkwall, is a city rich with culture and history — records show it was an important trade center as early as the 11th century. Today, it’s a bustling commercial hub, with restaurants, bars, theaters, and a nice mix of shops selling locally designed jewelry, crafts, and apparel. At St. Magnus Cathedral (a Viking-era sandstone cathedral dating back to 1137), visitors who sign up for a guided tour are permitted to climb the bell tower. Among Kirkwall's many lodging options are the family-run Ayre Hotel and the Victorian-themed Kirkwall Hotel, the latter of which overlooks the marina.

Beyond Kirkwall, it’s also worth taking a ferry over to Stromness, the second most-populated town in Orkney. With its rows of tiny, centuries-old stone houses set against the water, it boasts one of the dreamiest harbor views in all of Europe.

Go camping in the summer

With so much open space, it’s unsurprising that many travelers want to sleep under the stars during the warmer months. Book a glamping pod or campsite at Wheems Organic Farm, an eco-lodge on a 200-year-old working farm. The property faces the sea on the island South Ronaldsay, offering unparalleled views of the surrounding cliffs and, depending on the time of year, the Northern Lights. While the property’s winning feature is its remoteness, a four-lane causeway still connects it to Mainland, so you’re never more than a 15-minute drive back to Kirkwall.

Drink Scottish whiskey

In true Scottish fashion, there are whiskey distilleries on the Orkney Islands. Several, actually. But the most famous of them is Highland Park, the northernmost distillery in the United Kingdom. Highland Park’s single malt has won numerous awards and accolades (because they’ve been making the stuff since 1798, no one is really questioning their expertise). During a tour of the facilities, visitors learn all about how the barley is steeped in water fresh from a nearby creek, and aged in Spanish oak casks seasoned with sherry. And yes, the tour ends with a tasting.

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