Aberdeen // 10 Things to Do on a Visit to the Granite City

After four long years of renovation work, Aberdeen Art Gallery reopens its doors to the public this weekend. I was lucky enough to be invited in for a sneak peek on Monday and was thoroughly impressed by both the building and the collections it houses - so much so that I can't wait to go back and explore some more! 

To mark the gallery's relaunch, I thought I'd share some other sights worth seeing in Aberdeen, whether you've newly moved to the area or are visiting the city for the first time. The added bonus? They're all entirely free, so great if you're travelling on a budget.

Without further ado, here are 10 things to do on a trip to Aberdeen. 

10 things to do in Aberdeen - Marischal College

1. See Marischal College

The second-largest granite building in the world, Marischal College is the perfect illustration of why Aberdeen came to be known as the 'Granite City'. Designed by architect Archibald Simpson, construction began in 1837 on this impressive building which once belonged to Aberdeen University, but is now home to Aberdeen City Council's headquarters. The beautiful interior quad regularly provides a venue for a number of local events, including SPECTRA - Aberdeen's festival of light -  and the annual Christmas Village, while the rear of the building houses the Anatomy Rooms - an art studio and performance space. That said, the towering exterior of the building is worth a visit alone, with its statue of King Robert the Bruce and its newly installed water fountains.

For more impressive granite architecture, take a short walk up to Castlegate to see the Citadel, Mercat Cross and some great views straight down Union Street.

10 things to do in Aberdeen - Tolbooth Museum

2. Visit the Tolbooth Museum 

At the Castlegate end of Union Street, in one of Aberdeen's oldest buildings, the city's former jail cells now play host to the Tolbooth Museum. Chronicling Aberdeen's history, with a particular focus on crime and punishment, the displays here cover stories from Jacobite rebellion to the tragic hunting of women labelled "witch." It's a fascinating - if slightly eerie - museum, set out to retain the feel of an ancient prison, and is well worth a short visit - especially as entry is entirely free! 

(One thing worth noting: entry to the displays is via a narrow, winding staircase and there is sadly no alternative means of access.)

10 things to do in Aberdeen - Andy Scott sculptures

3. Admire Andy Scott's 'Poised' and 'Mother Earth' Sculptures

Did you know that Aberdeen is home to not one but two sculptures by Andy Scott, the creator of the famous Falkirk Kelpies? 

The first of these is just a stone's throw away from Marischal College, in the central quad of Marischal Square, where  a remarkable two-tonne steel leopard stands, 'Poised' to pounce from 15 metres above. 

The second sculpture is a little further out, in Grandholm Village on the River Don. Standing on the site of an old textile mill, 'Mother Earth' wraps herself in cloth while flanked on either side by two more leopards - important symbols of the city that feature on Aberdeen's coat of arms. It's a beautiful sculpture in an unassuming location, which really took my breath away the first time I stumbled upon it. 

It's well worth the visit to the latter sculpture, as the area is also home to the running waters of the old Woollen Mill and some pretty walks along the River Don, taking in the old Grandholm Bridge. 

10 things to do in Aberdeen - Old Aberdeen

4. Explore Old Aberdeen

Arguably one of Aberdeen's most beautiful areas, Old Aberdeen was once considered a separate burgh, but is now very much a part of the city, lying towards the north on the River Don. Full of beautiful buildings and charming cobbled streets, this area feels quaint and quiet in comparison to the hustle and bustle of the city centre, with a character all of its own. A walk through this picturesque part of Aberdeen takes in many historical buildings and photographic landmarks, including the campus of Aberdeen University and its King's College and Chapel; Powis Gates; the Old Town House; St Machar's Cathedral; Seaton Park; and the Brig O' Balgownie.

The University website offers a self-guided walking tour through some of the area, giving some interesting insight into its history.

10 things to do in Aberdeen - Zoology Museum

5. Wander Around Cruickshank Botanic Gardens and the Zoology Museum 

Technically still a part of Old Aberdeen, I felt like these adjoining attractions were worth a mention of their own. Both belonging to the University of Aberdeen, the 11 acres of Cruickshank Botanic Gardens are used for teaching and research, but are open to the public year round, providing a pretty and peaceful place to visit, whether to walk and explore the multiple gardens and their vast array of plant life, or just to sit and soak up the silence and (if you're lucky) the sun.

The Zoology Museum, meanwhile, delves into the animal kingdom with some 75,000 specimens, including permanent and changing exhibitions. The museum is open Monday to Friday (9am-5pm) throughout the year and is free to visit.

10 things to do in Aberdeen - Footdee

6. Walk Through Footdee and the Beach Esplanade 

Footdee - better known as 'Fittie' to local people - lies between the beach front and the harbour in Aberdeen and was once a small but thriving fishing community. These days, the village-like collection of cottages are a mixture of residential properties and holiday homes, with a mishmash of sheds and outhouses covered in quirky, eye-catching decorations. The area is full of character, with artists' studios to visit and lots of funny little details to admire and explore. Tucked away at the mouth of the River Dee, the neighbourhood is easy to miss but well worth making the effort to find.

From Fittie, there is a lovely walk along the length of the beach esplanade - all the way to the River Don, if you want - taking in Codona's amusement park, the Beach Ballroom and a number of nice local cafes along the way. There are almost always surfers off the shore riding the waves and you might even spot our local dolphin pod, if you're really lucky. 

10 things to do in Aberdeen - Maritime Museum

7. Visit the Maritime Museum 

There's a bit of a maritime theme going on here and that's because so much of Aberdeen's industry - past and present - is tied up with the sea, be that through fishing or oil and gas. Aberdeen Maritime Museum - on the city centre's Shiprow - tells the story of the city's deep connection with the sea, with a large number of exhibitions, interactive displays and a great view over the busy working harbour.

I must confess, I wasn't overly enthusiastic about the idea of a Maritime Museum the first time I visited, but I was pleasantly surprised and actually really enjoyed it. The displays are informative and engaging; there are lots of fun, hands-on exhibits to try out; and I really appreciated the insight into life on an oil platform - a work-life reality for so many people in and around Aberdeen. It's a particularly family-friendly museum, with disabled access to most of the building which is open daily with free entry. 

10 things to do in Aberdeen - Duthie Park Winter Gardens

8. Visit Duthie Park and the Winter Gardens 

One of my favourite places to visit as a child, I have fond memories of Duthie Park and the David Welch Winter Gardens, with its huge outdoor slide and the indoor garden's talking cactus, family of terrapins and McPuddock the mechanical frog.

As an adult, I enjoy a visit just as much, though it's a walk around the perimeter of the park, a visit to the Japanese Garden, and a wander through the cactus collection that I most appreciate today. The Winter Gardens are one of the largest indoor gardens in all of Europe and a very pretty place to spend an afternoon, particularly if seeking refuge from the rain. An ideal place to visit at any time of year, there's plenty to admire - for both grown-ups and children alike - and a nice cafe space to enjoy an ice-cream or cup of coffee.

10 things to do in Aberdeen - Nuart

9. Take a Nuart Tour

Each April, for the last three years, Aberdeen has hosted an international line-up of artists who have left their mark on the city's streets. As part of the Nuart festival, urban artists from across the globe have visited and brightened up Aberdeen with their impressive pieces of work, ranging from huge painted murals to hidden installations of Lego.

Free, guided walking tours take place on a weekly basis from The Green, led by a group of volunteers who really know their stuff when it comes to these works of art. Details of these tours can be found on their website and, having previously enjoyed one myself, I cannot speak of them highly enough. That said, if you can't make it along to an organised tour, there is a map available online so you can track down all the pieces yourself.

10. Visit Aberdeen Art Gallery

Last, but by absolutely no means least, is the newly renovated Aberdeen Art Gallery. Four years of hard work behind the scenes have created a stunning space, with three floors containing around nineteen galleries, two cafes, a rooftop terrace, a gift shop and a library.

The gallery has expanded from its previous 300-item display, to over 1000 to view today. From historical paintings to contemporary neon lights, from life-size sculptures to intricately detailed crockery, there is a vast array of work on show, in all shapes, sizes and artistic styles. Equally pleasingly, much of the gallery is hands-on and interactive, with family conversation prompts and child-friendly activities, from a draw-your-own-still-life space to a portrait pod where you can dress up in costume and pose for a photo which then appears on a gallery-like wall.

It really is a stunning space with so much to explore and its central location makes it ideal to visit, whether you've got hours to properly peruse, or just a spare half an hour to fill in town.

The gallery opens to the public this weekend with a ticketed event, but regular hours and free opening begin on Monday. If you only do one thing on this list, get yourself down to Aberdeen Art Gallery and check it out. It really is a venue for Aberdeen to be proud of.


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