Wander along the winding streets of this bustling market town, one of Britain’s most well-preserved ancient Norse settlements.
The capital of Orkney, Kirkwall, is a lovely town dotted with historic houses and independent shops. Look inside the town’s eye-catching sandstone cathedral, sip Scotch whisky and learn about the rich history of Kirkwall and the Orkney Islands at the local museum.
It’s almost impossible to miss St. Magnus Cathedral, which is easily Kirkwall’s most notable landmark. Dating back to the 12th century, this beautiful sandstone building features an interesting mix of Norman and early Gothic designs. Admire the early stained glass works, as well as the compelling 17th and 18th-century tombs housed inside.
Find the 17th-century ruins of Earl's Palace just across from the cathedral. Once the residence of despised leader Earl Patrick Stewart, the palace’s most significant feature is its elaborate 16-foot (5-meter) wide fireplace.
Your entrance ticket to Earl’s Palace also grants admission to neighboring Bishop’s Palace. Like Earl’s Palace, Bishop’s Palace mainly consists of roofless ruins. Make your way to the top of its tower staircase for magnificent views over St. Magnus Cathedral and all of Kirkwall.
Head to the Highland Park Distillery for samples of local single malt whisky. Informative hour-long tours of the distillery cover the entire process of producing the region’s smoky yet sweet malt. Learn about the processes of drying the barley in peat kilns, mashing and maturation of the product in oak casks.
The engaging Orkney Museum provides an overview of the islands’ history. Housed in a former merchant’s house, the museum includes Pictish carvings as well as intriguing exhibits dedicated to the islands’ social history. Don’t miss the pretty gardens located at the back of the residence.
Plan your visit in June to see the week-long St. Magnus Festival. One of the most acclaimed arts festivals in Britain, this event features a diverse program of literature, visual arts, dance, music and drama.
Kirkwall is one of Orkney’s main transportations hubs. Kirkwall Airport is serviced by flights from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Inverness. The town itself is located just west of the airport, where it’s accessible by bus. The harbor is connected to Shetland and Aberdeen via ferry. See the fascinating historic sites of this charming harborside town.