Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire: 3 days exploring Scotland’s north east

Travelling from Aberdeen’s awe-inspiring city centre through the amazing areas of Royal Deeside and the Cairngorms National Park makes for the perfect Scottish road trip.

Over three days, hiring a car and hitting the road means you can take it at your own pace, combining a city break with a country adventure, choosing exactly what you want to see and when.

All image credits: VisitScotland

Perhaps you’ll find yourself speaking a little Doric, the ancient Scottish dialect, which is still spoken here. ‘Fit like min?’ It just means ‘Hi – how are you?’

Day 1 – Aberdeen: a city like no other

Park the car and you’ll find the city centre of Aberdeen compact and easy to explore on foot. You might want to drive out to the West End and to Old Aberdeen, so you have time to squeeze in as many of the city’s wonders as possible into one day.

Find yourself admiring towering buildings and sweeping urban coastlines during the day before experiencing Aberdeen’s buzzing creative and cultural scene in the evening.

Weave through ancient streets and centuries gone by

The silver sparkling granite from the towering buildings glitters in the sunshine and is one of the first things you’ll notice about Aberdeen.

Some say it’s one of the most architecturally distinctive places in Europe and it’s easy to see why. All paths lead to the Mercat Cross in Castlegate Square, a crowning place of monarchs dating back to 1686, and a great place to begin. Head to Marischal College to see one of the most striking gothic buildings and the second biggest granite building in the world (after Escorial in Spain.) When you’re ready, meander down Union Street via the lovely Union Terrace Gardens.

One fascinating place to stop is the Aberdeen Maritime Museum which combines a modern art gallery with one of the oldest buildings, Provost Ross’s House, to tell the tantalising tale of Aberdeen’s relationship with the sea. For a piece of Aberdeen’s darker history, stop at the Tolbooth to see a well-preserved 17th and 18th century gaol complete with jail cells and barred windows.

Venture northwards to cobbled streets of Old Aberdeen. Not to sound like a broken record or anything, but the buildings in Aberdeen really are incredible. Here, you’ll find yourself staring up at majestic university buildings and imagining life as a student back when Scotland’s third oldest university was founded in 1495. The area is dotted with various student haunts, budget eateries and numerous artisan coffee shops to duck into for a flat white.

Discovering a city of the sea

As you make your way back to the harbour, feel the northerly breeze along the classic beachfront and art-deco inspired esplanade and gaze out towards the swirling North Sea. The golden coastline stretches 3 kilometres – it’s a wonderful place for urban dolphin-spotting in the summer.

Continue along the esplanade towards Footdee, an area known locally as ‘Fittie’ – try saying it with your best Aberdeen accent!

This former fishing village has oodles of 19th century appeal, lined with clusters of quirky cottages originally built for fishermen working along the harbour. Fresh seafood is still a favourite local delicacy here – try some of the catch served up in Moon Fish Café or Silver Darling.

The Gordon Highlanders Museum

Head out to the west end of Aberdeen for a wee visit to the Gordon Highlanders Museum. Described by Winston Churchill as ‘the finest regiment in the world’, the museum explores the 200-year history of this regiment, displaying twelve Victoria Crosses as well as the regimental silver, and a picturesque garden dedicated to the fallen.

A city with a distinct creative side

One thing that strikes me about Aberdeen is its incredible street art. Colourful murals adorn the walls of many impressive buildings around the city centre. There are guided walking tours with Nuart Aberdeen until the end of September 2018, but the amazing artworks are always there to be admired.

As night falls, go for some giggles at the Breakneck Comedy Club which is the biggest comedy club in Scotland with hilarious comedians taking the stage from Thursday to Sunday. Or, watch this space for the newly-refurbished Aberdeen Music Hall, due to re-open in December 2019. Aberdeen also has a jam-packed events and festivals calendar.

Don’t forget, there are many more hidden gems to discover in Aberdeen!

Day 2: Castles and coasts 

After a day in the city, it’s time to boot up the satnav for a road trip along Aberdeenshire’s coastline, which promises history and eye-popping seascapes as well as lots of castles. Hardly surprising in an area known as ‘Scotland’s Castle Country!’

Secrets of the Aberdeenshire coast

Follow the coast south of Aberdeen and enjoy the open road along this beautiful coastline. Stop at Stonehaven to watch the busy harbour with visiting boats and yachts passing through. The town has a fascinating history, not to mention an amazing ice cream shop, Aunty Betty’s. If you bring your dog, there is also special doggy ice cream for your pooch too!

Two miles south of Stonehaven lies Dunnottar Castle, a dramatic clifftop ruin perched around 160 feet above the North Sea. A place which holds many secrets of Scotland’s past, this castle has lived through some turbulent times – fights between Wallace and Cromwell, and the Jacobite Risings. The ruins comprise a 14th century tower house and a palace.

This is one of the most amazing castles I’ve ever seen – the breeze from the exposed coastline and the dramatic cliff edge overlooking the ocean makes it an absolute dream castle for any photographers and history buffs.

Hop back in the car and drive North West for a spot of lunch at Crathes Castle. Here, enjoy home-baked treats in the café, exploring the pretty gardens, and the Go Ape! treetop adventure course for anyone craving some adrenaline.

And, at Aberdeenshire Highland Beef stop to say hello to the resident Highland coos!

Walk into a fairy tale

If there’s ever a good reason to stop the car, it’s to see a pink castle. Continue along the A980 for around 30 minutes and you’ll find Craigievar Castle, the fairy tale castle that is thought to have inspired Walt Disney.

It’s easy to see why with the riot of turrets, towers, and pristine high ceilings. Its interiors combine a blend of ancient antiques and homely furnishings from the family who inhabited the castle until the 1960s. There’s also a lovely woodland walking route with amazing views.

Discover the royal history

Next up, the world-famous Balmoral Castle, a firm favourite with the Royal Family.

The estate has been in the family since 1852, the year Prince Albert purchased the castle for Queen Victoria after she fell head over heels in love with the area. Enjoy a stroll around castle gardens, visit the ballroom and admire family photographs from generations past to present. Relax with a coffee and a cake in the café, with views over to the castle.

The Old Royal Station in nearby Ballater was originally built for Queen Victoria so the Royal Family could travel to Balmoral by rail. The station has now been transformed into a stunning dining experience called The Carriage, which is a wonderful place for afternoon tea or a bistro dinner.

Another dining option is the lovely Rothesay Rooms, where you’ll find delicious seasonal Scottish menus showcasing the finest flavours of the region.

Find more castles in Aberdeenshire along Scotland’s Castle Trail.

Day 3: Landscapes and lochs of the Cairngorms

Now it’s time to stretch the legs. Drive around this corner of the Cairngorms National Park, with forests and landscapes well worth stopping at to explore. By car, you can reach some of the more far-flung spots and see what this amazing part of Scotland has to offer.

Explore an ancient forest

Begin your day with a stunning drive along the A93, following the River Dee and passing through the Glen Tanar Forest. Stop at Glen Tanar Estate for a stroll around the private loch and take in the views from the beautifully restored Victorian Boathouse.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, you could even try cycling, mountain biking, pony trekking or fishing in the grounds of the estate.

Lochside wanders

Driving back towards Ballater and then southwards, stop to take a walk around the mysterious Loch Muick. This 12.5-kilometre circular route offers amazing mountain views over the loch, and great trails with a few detour options if you want to see some waterfalls.

Visit in the autumn and you might be lucky enough to catch the red deer in the hills during rutting season, as these majestic creatures put on a captivating performance for mates towards the end of September.

After all that fresh air, it’s time to head back home and start planning your next Scottish road trip.

For more inspiration, check out the Road Trips Guide by VisitScotland. You can also read our Edinburgh  One Day Road Trip Guide to learn more about southern Scotland.

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