Scotland's granite city of Aberdeen is in an enviable coastal location surrounded by swathes of glorious countryside. With the Cairngorms to the west, some of the most beautiful, rugged and unspoilt coast in the world, an impressive concentration of castles and rich history, and a range of outdoor adventures on offer, this region of north-east Scotland is definitely one to add to your 'must see' list!
The Aberdeenshire coast (& dolphins!)
We always rave about the beaches in Scotland, and it isn't easy to choose between them, but it's definitely true that you can find some of the best in Aberdeenshire! Long stretches of golden sand are punctuated with dramatic cliffs and rock formations, making for wonderful coastal walks. The beaches are so numerous and lovely that you'll be able to find your own haven easily and escape the crowds.
Some of our favourite Aberdeenshire beaches include those on the east coast, such as Balmedie beach and dunes just outside the city of Aberdeen. Just south of Slains Castle, the pretty bay and rocky outcrops of Collieston and the beach at Newburgh - both backed by Forvie Nature Reserve - are also beautiful places to spend time. Newburgh is great for spotting both common and grey seals and seabirds in abundance. North of here, you'll find the stunning sandy crescent of Cruden Bay and the dramatic rocky fingers of the Bullers of Buchan.
On the north coast, the long stretch of sand next to the fishing village of Sandend, and the bays at Portsoy and Cullen on the northern coast of Aberdeenshire. Boyndie Bay is another lovely sandy stretch between the villages of Whitehills and Banff. Also worth a visit are the bays around Gardenstown and Crovie, as well as the stunning clifftop walks at RSPB Troup Head (look out for gannets here, too!).
Near the fishing port of Fraserburgh, New Aberdour beach is a lovely sheltered cove with limestone caves to explore, whilst the long stretches of sand either side of Rattray Head - between St Combs to the north and Peterhead to the south - are so colourful that they have to be seen to be believed. Loch of Strathbeg is a haven for seabirds - the largest dune loch in the UK; it's located between Rattray Head and Fraserburgh.
The tiny village of Pennan nestles in a narrow gap between the sea and the steep cliffs. The drive down to the village is steep and narrow with sharp turns and will certainly put any driver through their paces, but passengers will be rewarded with dramatic views of the sea and rocky coastline below. Fun fact: This is the filming location of the popular 1983 film Local Hero - fans will recognise it as the village of Ferness, although the beach scenes were filmed over in Arisaig on the west coast.
Aberdeen beach and the surrounding coastal areas are some of the best places to see bottlenose dolphins in the whole of Europe. You can spot them from the shore - in Aberdeen itself; you can even see them from the harbour - or head out on a boat tour. We recommend Aberdeen harbour tours by Greenhowe Marine Services or the Sea Safari trips from Stonehaven.
Finally, for wildlife lovers, hikers and seaside enthusiasts alike, the route around St Cyrus National Nature Reserve is one of the best coastal walks in the whole of Scotland.
From Aberdeen, the Angus Coastal Route south to Dundee via Montrose & Arbroath is a great way to continue your enjoyment of this beautiful stretch of coast.
Food & drink
Unsurprising for somewhere with so much coast, in Aberdeenshire, it's all about fresh seafood! Although - don't despair - it's absolutely possible to get amazing food and drink in the area even if you're not a fan of fish.
In the city of Aberdeen, check out Moonfish cafe for a seafood dinner and then head for a drink in the Tippling House or Orchid cocktail bar (or both!) to round off your night. See our full destination guide to Aberdeen for more food and drink inspiration in the granite city.
The town of Huntly makes for an excellent stopping off point if you're in the middle of an outdoor adventure. You can refuel with delicious ice cream from Rizza's, legendary shortbread from Dean's and even a dram from Glendronach distillery if you feel so inclined!
Beer fans will find a range of opportunities to keep themselves entertained. Our favourites include the BrewDog DogWalk tour at this quirky company's brewery in Ellon. Six Degrees North craft beer has bars in both Aberdeen and Stonehaven.
Local is the name of the game in Eat on the Green in Ellon, where most of the vegetables and herbs used in the dishes are grown in the restaurant's own garden, and the meat is sourced from farms just a few miles away.
In Ballater in the Cairngorms, the unassuming Rothesay Rooms restaurant has received rave reviews since it began as a pop-up established in the wake of natural disaster in 2015 and has gone from strength to strength since then, with a permanent home in Ballater's Old Royal Station. Clachan Grill is also popular, serving fresh Scottish food in a relaxed environment.
If you're heading for the coast, the restaurant at the Kilmarnock Arms in Cruden Bay is in a stunning location right on the coastal road and a great place to stop for lunch if driving from Peterhead to Aberdeen.
As expected in this part of Scotland, Aberdeenshire is not short of distilleries either. Two excellent ones to build into your visit are Glenglassaugh near Banff on the coast and Glen Garioch near Inverurie.
For vegan, gluten-free and other dietary-friendly food, look no further than Buchanan Bistro in Banchory.
Castles & history
It isn't easy to do justice to the rich history of Aberdeenshire in a single article. Still, the concentration of castles and other historical attractions should give you a clue as to its significance. From ruins perched on clifftops to fully-furnished mansions, which still serve as family homes, the range of places to visit is sure to keep you entertained for your entire trip and future visits too!
Dunottar Castle is a clifftop fortress in such a dramatic setting that it's undoubtedly one of the most photographed locations in Aberdeenshire. It often has to be closed in poor weather, which shows just how precarious its location is. It's not far from the town of Stonehaven, so you can easily combine it with a visit there.
Slains Castle near Cruden Bay is thought to have been the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. Whilst it's been badly damaged over the centuries and continues to be battered by the elements, it still has a certain grandeur, and it's easy to see why they used it to entertain the great and the good during the 19th century.
You can see the impressive turreted structure of Crathes Castle for miles around. Artwork and historic artefacts adorn the inside, and the painted ceilings have to be seen to be believed. On a nice day, the beautiful gardens are a wonderful place to take a stroll and enjoy the castle's exterior. This is also a great place to spot wildlife, including birds and red squirrels, and there are some great forest trails for those looking for a longer walk.
Drum Castle has 700 years worth of stories to tell, and they're told beautifully in the museum and exhibitions located in the building today. Highlights include the story of the Laird of Drum, who fought alongside Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden, and the beautiful library with its collection of over 4,000 antique books. There are even secret passages to be found behind the bookcases - guaranteed to delight visitors of all ages.
The ruins of Findlater Castle are gradually being reclaimed by nature and becoming one with the cliffs in which they are set. Close to Cullen and Sandend on the north coast of Aberdeenshire, they can be accessed as part of a pretty but exposed coastal walk.
Despite its 800-year history, Fyvie Castle is incredibly well-preserved and remains one of the most impressive examples of Scottish baronial architecture with its five turreted towers and equally stunning grounds. It's home to an amazing collection of arms and armour, as well as some incredible oil paintings, and is also filled with a whole host of juicy stories, including two curses and a ghost, the Green Lady.
Craigievar Castle's distinctive pink colour means it's often used as the poster child for castles in Aberdeenshire, and it certainly grabs the attention. Visitors will not be surprised to learn that Craigievar is said to have been the inspiration for Walt Disney's castle in Cinderella. You can tour the castle and grounds, and there's a collection of art, artefacts and armour which can be enjoyed by natural light, as to this day there are no artificial lights installed beyond the ground floor of the castle.
Kinnaird Head Castle near Fraserburgh is a very different kind of castle, having the added attribute of being the location of Scotland's first lighthouse. Today, the home of the excellent Museum of Scottish Lighthouses (see below under Fraserburgh).
Not quite a castle, but close to Huntly, the beautiful Leith Hall country house is another place to add to your bucket list if you love history. Filled with curios, artefacts, furnishings and art collected by the Leith-Hay family over generations of travel and exploration, it's a delight to tour the interior with the National Trust's knowledgeable guides. And if one stately home isn't enough (when is it ever?!), the Gordon family's Haddo House has to be next on your list.
Aberdeenshire is a golf lover's paradise, with excellent courses across the area and some of the most challenging in the world to be found amongst the coastal dunes. The golfing opportunities are not limited to the coastal areas, though, with some highly-regarded parkland courses.
Championship courses include Royal Aberdeen (which hosted the Amateur Championship in 2018 and the Walker Cup in 2011). You can find Trump International among the dunes at Balmedie, and Murcar Links is also close to the city centre. Another excellent beach-side course is Cruden Bay.
If you can't get enough golf, Aberdeenshire is also within easy reach of Angus, home of the famous Montrose Golf Links and the legendary Carnoustie Links, which has hosted the Open an impressive 8 times! It was voted one of Scotland's best courses in 2018, so it is a great addition to any trip. If you'd like a golf-focused holiday, Aberdeenshire is a great place to aim for.
Towns & city
The city of Aberdeen is, of course, the focal point of Aberdeenshire. You can read more about what to see and do in Aberdeen in our dedicated destination guide.
Other towns worth visiting in Aberdeenshire include Fraserburgh, a fishing port at the very north-east corner of the Scottish mainland. As well as a beautiful 17-mile stretch of sandy beach, a few lovely places to eat and drink and a community-run heritage centre, Fraserburgh - which was home to Scotland's very first lighthouse, at Kinnaird Head Castle - is also the location of the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. Fraserburgh also has the dubious honour of being the record-holder of the British mainland wind speed record - a whopping 144mph! When you look at its location, it's easy to understand why.
Located near the ruins of Dunottar Castle, the harbour town of Stonehaven is also among the more major settlements in Aberdeenshire outside the city of Aberdeen. There's a striking war memorial in the town with great views of the countryside, beach and out to sea, and a compact museum dedicated to the history of the area located in the old tollbooth. Grab yourself an ice cream or other sweet treat from Aunty Betty's or fish and chips from The Bay Fish & Chips, and take a stroll along the promenade if it's a nice day!
Peterhead is another busy fishing port, home to the Buchanhaven Heritage Centre dedicated to local history and culture and not far from the popular tourist attractions, including Slains Castle. The Peterhead Prison Museum in the town guides visitors through life in this enormous Victorian institution and covers its varied history from opening in the 1880s until it closed in 2013.
Inverurie sits further inland towards the beautiful Bennachie hills at the confluence of the Rivers Ury and Don, an excellent location from which to reach many of the best castles in Aberdeenshire. One of Europe's largest livestock sales, the Thainstone Mart, takes place here, and you can visit the medieval ruins of Kinkell Church.
In the north-west of Aberdeenshire near the boundary with Moray, the town of Huntly is the home of several historic attractions, including Huntly Castle and Leith Hall country house and gardens. This is a great place to stop and refuel as part of a day enjoying the great outdoors, as it's home to some excellent sweet treats in the form of Rizza's ice cream parlour and Dean's shortbread.
Something of a hub for outdoor adventures is the pretty village of Aboyne, which among other things, boasts an excellent golf course and the Deeside Activity Park, where you can choose from fishing, archery, clay pigeon shooting, 4x4 adventures, quad-biking and go-karting.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and the great thing about a Scottish road trip is that you can choose to stop off and visit as many of the other towns and villages in the area as you like.
Although this article covers a range of sub-topics, there are a few activities, experiences and places to visit in Aberdeenshire which don't sort neatly into one of the categories above. It would be remiss of us not to mention them, though, so here is a selection of the other wonderful things to do in the area.
For watersports, Cullen Sea School on the northern coast offers a range of activities, including kayaking, paddle boarding and sailing.
For a bird's eye view of the area, head to Deeside Gliding Club at Aboyne, which is the UK's best wave soaring site - the altitude record of a staggering 38,600ft was set here. You can book a trial lesson and enjoy soaring over the Cairngorms with incredible views of the coast and into the mountains.
Outdoor enthusiasts should head to Lochter Activity Centre near Inverurie, where there's everything from archery and clay pigeon shooting to go-karting, zorbing and segway. Outdoor adventures are, of course, in abundance throughout the Cairngorms National Park, part of which is in Aberdeenshire.
For a maritime-themed day out, head to the Salmon Bothy Museum at Portsoy, which covers the history of fishing and the relationship with the sea in the area. Visit The Boatshed, also in Portsoy, to see traditional boat-building methods in action. You can even take part in workshops to learn the tools and techniques for yourself.
Family-friendly days out can be found at Wynford Farm Park at Kingswells, Macduff Aquarium and the Grampian Transport Museum in Alford. TheMill of Nethermill, near the village of Pennan, is home to Millshore pottery and a shop selling other local crafts and antiques. You can also visit and say hello to the herd of Highland cows at Aikenshill House, just outside the city of Aberdeen.
Art-lovers must ensure they pay a visit to Duff House near Banff. This Georgian mansion is part of the National Galleries of Scotland and houses a changing series of art exhibitions.
As well as being a huge part of the economy, fishing is also a great activity for visitors to Aberdeenshire. River fishing in the River Don is particularly good, well known for salmon and sea trout, but the River Dee and Deveron are also popular with visitors and locals alike. Sea fishing in the North Sea is also very popular.