On the east coast of Scotland, where the horizon sprawls and the North Sea breeze threatens to snatch your breath away, you’ll discover a city in monochrome: the Silver City.
Aberdeen is a city built from oil – its stately granite buildings and international business hub funded by a lavish and now somewhat dwindling supply from the North Sea.
Now, as the gift of the deep threatens to ebb, Aberdeen is in search of a new identity, drawing on its rich history to establish itself as a thriving centre of art and culture. Already, the Silver City feels a little less grey.
Home to 17 museums and art galleries, His Majesty’s Theatre, the recently revamped Music Hall and quirky Belmont Filmhouse, Aberdeen is also a street art canvas – with 2020 marking its fourth year hosting Scotland’s only street art festival, Nuart.
The city’s coastal location is another unique draw. From watching the ships dock in the city centre to exploring the many surrounding beaches and coastal walks, Aberdeen has plenty to offer in the way of views, wildlife and local seafood – not to mention a few impressive historical sites.
1. Absorb some culture at Aberdeen Art Gallery
Free to explore, the recently reopened Aberdeen Art Gallery (aagm.co.uk) paints the history of Aberdeen over three floors of timeless exhibitions. Many of the galleries are dedicated to Scottish artists – from Victorian painter William Dyce to Will Maclean’s stunning landscapes and the abstract works of Bridget Riley. Each gallery focuses on specific moments from Aberdeenshire’s rich history, including exhibitions depicting the city through war, the rise of female art and celebrations of the Scottish coast. In the top floor galleries, you’ll find the visiting exhibitions, while the upstairs viewing platform boasts striking views of the Aberdeen skyline.
2. Splash out at the Esslemont
A stylish glass-fronted restaurant with moody-grey interior and elegant feel, The Esslemont (theesslemont.co.uk) delivers a highly sophisticated dining experience. Ideally positioned on the buzzing Union Street, its menu offers an experimental take on a range of classic dishes, from scallops to steak and fresh haddock to haggis. On the whole, the restaurant is very reasonably priced with main meals starting at just £12 per head, and a large glass of house wine coming in at around £7.
3. Explore the Nuart street art trail
Possibly the best way to see Aberdeen is to take on the self-guided Nuart walking tour (visitabdn.com), exploring the city through all its nooks and crannies. Discover the stencilled Aberdeen leopard hidden in a car park just off Crooked Lane, and Herakut’s mesmerising mural of a red-headed girl looking out over The Green from the side of Aberdeen Market.
The next edition of the Nuart festival will take place between Thursday April 23 and Sunday April 26, but you can view the art for free all year round. Pick up a map from the visitor’s iCentre (23 Union Street), pull on a comfortable pair of shoes and start searching the granite for signs of brushstrokes.
4. Enjoy tasty tapas at Café 52
Don’t be fooled by the unassuming exterior; this little day-to-night restaurant isn’t one to boast – though it certainly deserves to be boasted about. Tucked behind Union Street in the cobbled ‘Green’, Café 52 (cafe52onthegreen.co.uk) is a rustic affair with bare-brick walls and low-hung lighting. The menu is decided daily, using locally-sourced ingredients to create fresh dishes. I highly recommend the afternoon tapas, with small-plates starting at £4.80 a portion – £14.90 for shareable platters. Tapas is served Monday to Friday between 3pm and 6pm, starting at 4pm on Saturdays, with a dinner menu to follow.
5. Step back in time with a walk through old Aberdeen
This really is the most charming area of Aberdeen. Dating back to the 14th century, this area of the city is a maze of cobblestone streets, lined with stone cottages and hidden gardens. Visit Elphinstone Hall and Kings College, the old 18th century town house now restored as a museum, and the majestic St Machar’s Cathedral, with its stained-glass windows and grey-stone clock tower – the oldest building still in use in Aberdeen. All sites are free to enter.
Once you’ve soaked up the atmosphere, duck around the back of the cathedral to take a stroll through Seaton Park’s wide grassy areas, beautiful flowers and walled garden – a tranquil end to a day’s exploring.
6. Combine brunch and beer at BrewDog
Whether you’re brunching, lunching or simply out boozing, BrewDog promises a trendy, upbeat vibe, complete with neon lights and instagrammable signs. Born in Aberdeenshire, this popular American-style drinking franchise is a must-stop for craft beer lovers, offering a rotating selection of world-class beers, from sour ales and pale ales, to stouts and lagers.
If you can’t decide what to go for – and I wouldn’t blame you – bar staff are more than happy to give their personal recommendations, or help you match your drink with one of BrewDog’s cleverly named burgers such as Cluck Norris or Temple of Seitan. Burger prices start at £10, with your chosen pint averaging under £5.
7. Admire the views from the Stonehaven coastal walk
Just 20-minutes from Aberdeen by train will take you to the seaside town of Stonehaven – home to the medieval ruins of Dunnottar Castle (dunnottarcastle.co.uk; adults £7 and children £3).
Embark upon the hour’s walk along the coastal path, bracing the fresh sea air and marvelling at the expanse of sea and sky. Pause to pay your respects at the great stone memorial, commemorating the dead in both world wars, before climbing further up the cliffs to find the castle casting a striking silhouette against its ocean backdrop.
8. Taste the sea at Bay Fish & Chips
The queues for this fish bar are out the door even on the greyest of days – but don’t let that put you off. Fresh and cooked to order right in front of you, The Bay Fish & Chips (thebayfishandchips.co.uk) in Stonehaven are award-winning for a reason. Take your pick of freshly-caught haddock or cod, then choose between having your fish breaded or deep-fried in batter. For a lighter option, you can even ask for your fish baked.
Add some homemade tartare sauce, take a seat on the sand and enjoy your fish with views across the Aberdeen coast.
Where to stay: Sandman Signature Hotel
The marble-tiled entranceway of The Sandman Signature Hotel (sandmansignature.co.uk; doubles from £79 with breakfast) sets the tone for what is guaranteed to be a relaxing retreat from the cold Aberdeen air. Each of the hotel’s elegantly styled rooms features a luxurious Glencraft mattress, flat-screen TV, spa-style bathroom and rain-effect shower, offering a miniature haven for the duration of your stay.
Sandman is conveniently located just a ten-minute walk from Union Street’s vibrant array of bars and restaurants. However, if you haven’t the energy to venture from the hotel, the Chop Grill & Bar offers a lively alternative to the Aberdeen night scene, serving an extensive menu of international dishes cooked with locally-sourced produce – not to mention delicious hand-crafted cocktails you’ll be dying to re-create.
How to plan your trip
For more information about Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, check out visitabdn.com.