If you visit Scotland and want to see fairytale castles, a bustling city and towns and lots of beautiful coastal landscapes, I have got just the region for you: Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire! There are so many wonderful things to do in Aberdeenshire, pleasing history buffs, beach lovers, wildlife watchers, city hoppers and outdoor freaks alike. It would be a shame not to include it in your Scotland trip. My 3-day Aberdeenshire itinerary includes a day in the city, a day on the Coastal Trail and a day in the Royal Deeside to get you started.
Aberdeenshire is one of my favourite regions in Scotland. It has everything that I love: adventure, scenery, history, fantastic vegan food and of course street art. I visited the area for the first time 2 years ago, when my mum wanted to see a different side of Scotland – beyond the Highlands and islands. Off to the northeast coast, we went and spent a few days in Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, and Fife. You can find out more about our weeklong road trip in this post.
Now, this 3-day itinerary is going to be a lot more focused and absolutely jam-packed with ideas for things to do in Aberdeenshire. It is perfect to mix and match with a few of my other Scotland itineraries, or if you want to take it a bit slower, you could easily stretch this route to a week-long road trip to Aberdeenshire too. With that said, I only had three days to explore Aberdeenshire and managed to fit in quite a lot of unforgettable experiences!
3-Day Itinerary for Aberdeenshire
Day 1: Arriving in Aberdeenshire & One Day in Aberdeen
The quickest way from Glasgow or Edinburgh to Aberdeen is to drive north to Perth and then follow the A90 for around 80 miles – but who has ever had a great adventure on the quickest way? Instead, I left the big road behind and drove along the lower part of the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail to explore the coast south of Aberdeen.
Johnshaven is one of seven harbours in Aberdeenshire and was once one of the largest fishing communities in Scotland. The Benholm and Johnshaven Heritage Museum tells the history of that time and captures both, the spirit of the industry as well as the seaside culture surrounding it.
Today the beautiful historic coastal town is a wonderful stop on the drive up north. The village boasts beautiful harbour views and it’s worth browsing artist shops filled with local arts and crafts. Little lanes run between the small cottages near the harbour and you never know what you will find – a secret garden? a quick access to the shore? or a quirky art installation?
There is a lovely coastal path leading out to a picturesque white cottage south of the village from where you get great views over into the next bay – perfect to stretch your legs after a couple of hours in the car!
Dunnottar Castle might just be the most spectacular seaside castle in Scotland and certainly one of my favourites to photograph and learn about Scottish history. Sitting on a high clifftop on a headland near Stonehaven, the castle overlooks the sea and offers stunning views of the coast and beaches below it.
The castle is open to the public (tickets are £7), but the network of coastal trails around it is free to access – photographers will love capturing the castle and the sea from all angles. Whether you have time for an in-depth castle visit, to learn about its unique position during the Jacobite Uprisings, or just have half an hour to walk along the cliffs to take in the views, your Aberdeenshire itinerary would not be complete without visiting this castle.
Since the carpark at the castle is relatively small, it is advisable to walk to Dunnottar Castle from the neighbouring town of Stonehaven. Following the coastal path connecting Stonehaven and Dunnottar Castle, you come by an impressive WW1 war memorial and a picture-perfect viewpoint of Stonehaven. Remember that you have to walk back to your car though, so it’s best to schedule several hours for this walk!
April – September, daily, 9.00 – 17.30
October to March, daily from 10.00 (varying closing times – check website)
Stonehaven is a picturesque harbour town 15 miles south of Aberdeen. It has three large basins, which makes it the largest recreational harbour in Aberdeenshire where people keep their boats, start kayak adventures along the coast, or rent paddleboards to explore the sea.
I stopped in Stonehaven after visiting Dunnottar Castle – if you’re into fish & chips try the local fave The Bay Fish & Chips, or choose a sweet ice cream treat at Aunt Betty’s next door (vegan ice cream and sorbets available).
After checking into my apartment at Skene House Rosemount hotel (more info below), I was ready to explore as much of Aberdeen as I could. I had visited Aberdeen before – once to see the University campus, once for a gig, once for a uni workshop and just a few months ago after hiking the Speyside Way – but I never spent much time exploring the city in much detail – this was about to change!
But first, I needed lunch and paid a visit to the first vegan cafe in Aberdeen – conveniently located around the corner of my hotel. Bonobo Cafe is a worker’s co-op and dishes up everything from light or hearty cooked breakfasts to wraps, sandwiches, stews, soups and several other mains and specials. I opted for a vegan “tuna” sandwich and enjoyed it in the tranquil atmosphere of the cafe’s green roof-top garden.
73-75 Skene St, Aberdeen AB10 1QD, website
I continued my city trip by seeking out more green spaces of Aberdeen. The area of Old Aberdeen bursts not only the University of Aberdeen campus (which I knew only too well from a previous visit) but is also home to the Botanic Garden and Seaton Park. The park is a must visit for anyone who loves flowers and greenery. It features landscaped gardens, floral displays, a woodlands area, a walled garden and much for space for leisure and play. If you cross the park and follow Don Street north towards the River Don, you will eventually end up in Balgownie, a beautiful heritage neighbourhood of Old Aberdeen. A must see is the Brig o’ Balgownie and the surrounding cobbled streets – it’s like stepping back in time.
Back in central Aberdeen, I went from old to new. Aberdeen can be quite a grey city as most of the buildings in the city centre are built from light-grey granite stone. While this would not bother anyone on a sunny day, it can be a bit monotonous on a dreich (rainy) day – but luckily Abedonians have found a solution for that. Every year, they invite local and international artists to join the Nuart street art festival and add more splashes of colour to the grey cityscape. Nuart has put together a handy street art trail map which you can follow to see the large murals across the city centre. However, also make sure to keep an eye out for other pieces of street art. The Painted Doors project, for example, shines a light on local artists who are invited to decorate a door with their art.
While following the street art trail, I came across the Aberdeen Inspired Night Market, a food market held at The Green throughout the summer and stopped for some street food for dinner.
Day 2: One Day on the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail
Sights and activities rub their shoulders along the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail – it really is jam-packed with things to do! Since I only had one day for my coastal road trip in Aberdeenshire, I had to choose wisely where to stop. The below suggestions are things I enjoy doing, but you might like different activities – make sure to check out some alternative things to do in northeast Scotland here.
The coast of Aberdeenshire is certainly not shy of sandy dunes and endless beaches, but if you had to choose just one beach to visit, and you are into wildlife experiences, make it Newburgh Beach!
After a short walk through the dunes beyond the golf course, you reach the sandy banks of the River Ythan and can spot many different kinds of birds. The real attractions lies a bit further down the river though, and you will be able to hear it before you can see it. Walk on to meet the local seal colony!
The seals gather on the opposite side of the river, giving you the opportunity to observe the animals without actually disturbing them or running the risk of going too close – just remember to bring your zoom lens and binoculars to get a close-up look!
Bullers of Buchan
A short drive along the coastal trail, past the harbour town of Cruden Bay and the ruins of Slains Castle, make sure you stop at an unassuming car park marked for the Bullers of Buchan. Beyond the tiny village of the same name, a short coastal path leads to a collapsed sea cave – you can still see the sea-facing entrance! The cliffs here are truly spectacular – considering it was a sunny Saturday, I could barely believe that I was the only person here! I sat for a long time, starting out into the blue, listening to seabirds on the rocks below me and the waves crashing in. If you want tranquillity, this is the spot for you!
Buchan Ness Lighthouse
The Scottish east coast may not have as many lighthouses as the west coast and the islands, but the lighthouses of Aberdeenshire certainly make up for the lack of numbers. On my last visit, I stopped at the breathtaking Rattray Head lighthouse, which stands on a rock out in the sea, and learnt more about Scottish lighthouses at the Lighthouse Museum in Fraserburgh.
This time I visited Buchan Ness Lighthouse in Boddam, a red and white lighthouse that stands 118 ft (36 m) high. It was built a long time ago to safeguard ships arriving in Boddam harbour, and still flashes its light today. However, the buildings around it also serve as a unique self-catering accommodation. You can’t enter the lighthouse grounds, however, a path leads around it, offering stunning views of the lighthouse as well as the coast around it.
Lastbus Works Canteen
When it comes to vegan food, the rural coastal towns of Aberdeenshire are not as well versed as Aberdeen, and so my search for vegan-friendly fare led me to an unassuming small village in land, New Pitsligo. A few miles from the town, surrounded by trees, fields and nature, I made halt at the Lastbus Works Canteen. Located in a round tree house structure, it is a hippie’s dream come true. The inside is like a colour explosion and – it might sound cheesy, but – the owner Jessica is surrounded by a warm aura that makes you feel at home instantaneously.
There are only two choices of food – a warm vegan soup with bread or a variety of cakes and puddings. I had a lovely rhubarb crumble with vanilla ice cream, using rhubarb grown by Jessica’s friends. I could have lingered for hours, discovering the quirky decorations inside the cafe and watching Jess and her family running the business with dedication and spirit. A totally unexpected gem in the countryside of Aberdeenshire!
Note, that the cafe is now closed for summer season, but it will open for a set period around Christmas and also again next summer. Check out their website and social media for updates!
My final stop before returning to Aberdeen for the night was one of Scotland’s most iconic coastal towns. Nestled on a narrow ledge of land, Crovie was built by crofters who were displaced after the Jacobite Uprisings and the Highland Clearings. They made the most of it and built a village that could only be accessed by boat or on foot from the neighbouring village of Gardenstown. Today there is a narrow road for local access, but visitors have to leave their vehicles at a (free) car park above the village.
The descent to Crovie is steep and involves a lot of steps, but it’s worth the effort to get a sense of what life would have been like by the coast before cars. Still today, some locals use pushcarts to transport their shopping from the resident’s car park to their cottage, since the street in front of the cottages is too narrow for cars.
Many of the cottages in Crovie have been turned into holiday cottages, which can be rented via AirBnB – wouldn’t that make for a fantastic seaside holiday?
Other beautiful coastal towns in this area include Pennan (of Local Hero movie fame), Gardenstown, Banff and Macduff, Portsoy and Cullen – but those must wait until a longer trip on Aberdeenshire’s coastal trail!
Day 3: One Day in the Royal Deeside
Royal Deeside is one of Scotland’s most iconic landscapes – so beautiful that Queen Victoria bought an estate in this area and built a castle, which has been the Queen’s summer residence ever since. The Royal family visits Balmoral Castle every summer, and with them, come many visitors who want to see what all the fuss is about. Again, there are many more things to do here, but I recommend you see at least one castle, take a scenic walk or hike and try some of the fantastic local produce.
There are many castles in the Royal Deeside – in fact, many of the 19 castles on Aberdeenshire’s Castle Trail are located here! Since I visited Balmoral Castle before (read more here), I chose to see a different style of castle this time. My choice fell on the iconic pink Craigievar Castle, which supposedly inspired Walt Disney to make his castle pink as well.
Craigievar Castle was first built in 1570, although the top 3 floors with the decorative turrets, roofs and viewing platforms were added around 50 years later when it was bought by the wealthy merchant William Forbes. The descendants of the Forbes family lived here until the 1960s but eventually sold the estate and castle to the National Trust of Scotland, who maintains the castle today.
While the grounds are freely accessible, the castle itself can only be visited with a guided tour. Our guide Paul told fascinating stories about the castle’s owners, the pieces of furniture and art inside, and pointed out various hidden rooms and doors. It was such a brilliant tour and at the end, we visited the viewing platform at the top for stunning views across the estate. It might just be my new favourite Scottish castle!
Costs: £3 (car park) + £13/£9.50 concession (guided tour)
Fri – Tue, 10.30 – 17.00 (Last entry/Tour 16.00)
July-September, daily, 10.30 – 17.00 (Last entry/Tour 16.00)
Grounds: All year, daily, dawn to dusk
Other castles in the area that are well worth a visit include Balmoral Castle, Crathes Castle, Drum Castle, Castle Fraser and Braemar Castle.
Spider on a Bicycle
After an eventful morning at the castle, I headed for lunch at Spider on a Bicycle in Aboyne. The cafe is located in the old train station and offers a variety of breakfast dishes, lunch items and freshly baked cakes – several of which are vegan. It was really busy the day I visited and they had already run out of their soup and stew of the day, so I went for an open takeaway sandwich, cake and coffee instead. Bring your Keepcup and reusable bamboo cutlery for an eco-friendly picnic!
Station Square, Aboyne AB34 5HX, website
Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve
I had visited the Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve near Ballater before – then it was early summer and we opted for a leisurely walk around Loch Kinord. This time I had a little less time and wanted to channel my inner explorer. I followed the Burn o’ Vat path, a loop trail that leads to a dramatic geological feature known as the Vat in the middle of the woodlands.
Water carved out this bowl from the rock surrounding it, but today it is merely a trickle – not less impressive though! The entrance to the Vat looks like big boulders blocking the path – don’t be discouraged, simply climb through the gap and you will enter the stunning Vat!
Allow around 45 minutes for the whole loop trail. You could also cut your walk short, walk straight to the Vat and back, or take a more leisurely walk on the Culblean circuit (trail description).
If you’re not pressed for time, stop in the historic town of Ballater which is a beautiful example of a Victorian railway town. When it’s time to leave the Royal Deeside behind, make your way up and over the Snow Roads a scenic drive through the southern Cairngorm mountains and past the Glenshee ski resort.
Descending back down from the mountains you may have left Aberdeenshire behind, but images from an eventful 3-day road trip around the region will stay with you for the rest of your life!
Getting to & getting around Aberdeenshire
Did you know that Aberdeen has an airport with over 40 direct connections to other cities in the UK and Europe? Arriving in the UK via a small airport will save you time walking from your gate to the exit and also at passport control. Who wants to waste time at the airport! Aberdeen Airport is only 6 miles from the city centre and there are regular buses heading straight for the city centre. or you could rent a car right there.
If you can’t find a flight that suits your schedule, you could also travel to Aberdeen by train or bus from either Glasgow or Edinburgh, which both have much bigger airports with plenty of international and overseas flight connections.
As this itinerary is written with a rental car in mind, your best option to get around Aberdeenshire is to rent a car – either from Aberdeen (airport or city) or straight from Glasgow or Edinburgh when you arrive. Driving in Scotland can be tricky if you’re used to driving on the right side of the road, especially when you find yourself on the narrow roads of the Scottish mountains. Choosing a visit to Aberdeenshire kills two birds with one stone – it’s a beautiful part of Scotland, and the big roads leading up from Glasgow and Edinburgh give you the opportunity to get used to driving on the other side. The drive from Glasgow to Aberdeen takes about 3 hours; from Edinburgh to Aberdeen you should expect to drive 2.5 hours.
You could also travel around Aberdeenshire on public transport, but a car gives you greater flexibility and choice of locations to visit. Many attractions, like castles or nature walks, are off the main roads and can only be reached by car. Driving in Aberdeenshire is easy though and I always just used Google Maps for navigation. As you drive to the more rural parts of Aberdeenshire, roads become smaller and can be quite windy and steep at times – it is always good to just take your time and let other cars pass if they are faster.
Where to stay in Aberdeen
Skene House Rosemount in Aberdeen
Aberdeen is in a fantastic central location to explore the rest of Aberdeenshire. Hardly any place in Aberdeenshire is ever more than 1.5-hour drive away from Aberdeen, so if you prefer to have a home-base over moving hotel every night, I highly recommend staying in town for a few days.
I stayed at the Rosemount branch of the lovely boutique apartment hotel Skene House. They also have a few other locations nearby. Skene House Rosemount is located in the trendy Rosemount neighbourhood, in easy walking distance to central Aberdeen and Union Street, but also easy to get to by car. The hotel has free parking available, which is an added bonus if you plan a road trip!
I stayed in a one-bedroom suite, which had a lounge and kitchen area as well as a separate bedroom and a bathroom with a walk-in shower. I love having all this space to retreat to, especially because I like hanging out in my hotel room to refuel but don’t want to lie down in my bed necessarily. The kitchen area was a nice added bonus, which made it easy for me to prepare quick road trip snacks and wash my reusable cutlery, food containers and coffee cup at the end of the day.
The hotel is nearby all the restaurants and pubs you could ask for; Bonobo, the vegan cafe, is 5 minutes down the road, my favourite Italian restaurant in Aberdeen, Rustico, is just a 15-minute walk away, and the food market at The Green was also just a 15-minute walk home – perfect location if you ask me!
Other places to stay in Aberdeenshire
If you prefer not to drive back to Aberdeen at the end of the day, I can recommend the following places to stay in Aberdeenshire;
Carmelite House in Banff (Coastal Trail north)
For a night up on the coast, I highly recommend Carmelite House in Banff. Located in a historic building in the centre of Banff, the hostel is nearby the beautiful waterfront and harbour of Banff and just a short walk from local restaurants and attractions. Book it here.
Loch Kinord Hotel in Dinnet (Royal Deeside)
If you are looking for a traditional hotel in the Royal Deeside, look no further than Loch Kinord Hotel. Just a short drive away from the bustling town of Ballater, but equally close to the tranquil Muir of Dinnet Nature Reserve, this hotel is in a fantastic location allowing you to make the most out of your visit to the Royal Deeside! Book it here.
AirBnB in Laurencekirk (Coastal Trail south)
Since I swung by the newly opened V&A Dundee on my way to Aberdeenshire, I spent a night in Laurencekirk to break up my drive from Glasgow to Aberdeen. I booked a lovely room via AirBnB and my host Lauren made me feel right at home. My room was spacious, tastefully decorated and had a view out into the green front garden. It was a quiet spot, perfect to gather my thoughts after an eventful drive to Aberdeenshire and prepare for my journey ahead.
Not that I needed any more convincing, but I have hopelessly fallen in love with Aberdeenshire again. This 3-day Aberdeenshire itinerary only just scratches the surface of all the things to do in this region of Scotland. For now, Aberdeenshire is still fairly off the beaten track, but I can’t imagine that this will stay like this forever!
If you love fairytale castles, street art, vegan food, tranquil nature and stunning coasts – what are you waiting for?
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Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by VisitAberdeenshire and Aberdeen Festivals. However, all opinions are my own.
All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.