Aberdeen, known as the Granite City because of its predominant grey stone building material, is anything but grey. The center of Scotland's North Sea Oil Industry, it attracts well-heeled visitors from all over the world for business and pleasure. And it treats them to exciting museums, historic architecture and medieval districts to explore as well as some of the best—and most expensive—boutique fashion shopping in Scotland. Cruises from the busy port take visitors to spot marine wildlife as well as some of the most awe-inspiring offshore engineering sites in Europe.
Aberdeen's city center is studded with 18th-century architecture, and north of it, Old Aberdeen is laced with narrow, cobbled Medieval lanes. It's also packed with stories of ghosts, pirates, scientific discoveries, murders, poets, and magic. The guides for Scot Free Tours are amazing and entertaining sources of the local knowledge that brings Scotland's grey lady to life. The two and a half hour tours set off from the Mercat Cross in Castlegate, at the eastern end of Union Street, every Friday at 2 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. And, as the name suggests, they're free - though donations are never refused. You can walk up and join the tour at the starting point, but the organizers encourage you to book to guarantee a place. The same group also offers a Great Scot, a free walking tour of Old Aberdeen, Fridays, Saturdays and selected Sundays listed on their website.
The Aberdeen Maritime Museum wraps a corner of granite Shiprow in modern blue glass. But at its heart, this museum is built around a Provost's house built in 1593. This is where you can find out all about Aberdeen's shipbuilding, fast sailing ships, and the history of the port. Since a multi-million pound refurbishment and expansion toward the end of the 20th century, the museum's paintings and historical objects have been enriched with touch screen consoles that access extensive visual databases. The Maritime Museum is also is the only place in the UK where you can immerse yourself in the story of the North Sea oil and gas industries with interactive displays and multi-media presentations. And the museum's harbor viewpoint is one of the best spots in the city to watch the action of this busy, industrial harbor. The museum has a cafe that's highly rated and a gift shop with unusual nautical items. Admission is free.
If you have an interest in the darker sides of history, particularly the history of crime and punishment, you'll swoon over the Tolbooth Museum. Housed in one of Aberdeen's oldest buildings, this is probably the best-preserved 17th-century jail (or gaol as the Scots prefer) in Scotland. The displays of local history emphasize centuries of developments in penal theories and the criminal practices they were meant to combat. It's a spooky place to visit. Reputedly it is haunted. But even without ghosts, the 17th and 18th-century cells, complete with original doors and barred windows, that house the exhibits are genuinely creepy. And if that doesn't creep you out enough, you can have a look at the Iron Maiden and the blade of the city's 17th-century guillotine. Beyond criminals, this prison-house offers an insight into what faced those 17th-century irregulars and nobles who rose up against the king and the established order.
The Royal Aberdeen was founded in 1790—not as old as St Andrews perhaps but pretty august. They moved to their present location (Balgownie Links, north of the River Don) in 1888. It's a challenging and beautifully designed course where you can enjoy the salt air and pit your handicap against the sea breezes. But you'd better be good enough. To play as a visitor on this course, you need to have a handicap of no higher than 24 (men and women both). Don't worry though, if you don't yet make the grade—there are plenty of other public courses where you can pay a greens fee and book time on a course. Golf Aberdeen, part of Sport Aberdeen, manages four public golf courses, including the King's Links, just north of the city. Though you can join these clubs, visitors are also welcome, and the "pay as you play" greens fees are remarkably reasonable.
Greenhowe Marine Services, who operate crew transfer vessels for the North Sea oil platforms, also offer a range of harbor and North Sea tours. One of the most exciting is a visit to Aberdeen's offshore wind farm. There are 11 gigantic wind turbines, about two miles offshore. This may not be the biggest number of wind turbines in a wind farm, but they are considered among the most powerful in the world, capable of providing more than 70 percent of Aberdeen's domestic energy needs.
Taking this 90-minute cruise on the company's Dolphin Cruise boat is a bit of an adventure. Since they have no quayside office, after booking, you join a crew member at a safe meeting place near Commercial Quay, who then leads you on a safe path through this highly industrialized port to the boarding point.
The company also offers shorter dolphin watch and wildlife cruises that take you out among the North Sea oil industry service vessels where dolphins are known to frolic.
Aberdeen Harbour is one of the United Kingdom's oldest ports. The Romans were the first traders to visit it, and according to the Guinness Book of Business Records, it is the U.K.'s oldest established business. Torry Battery, at the southern side of the mouth of the harbor, was once fortified for protection in wartime. These days it's a park, and its car park is one of the best onshore places to watch Aberdeen's resident dolphin population along with the occasional sea otter. If you find going out into the unpredictable North Sea to watch wildlife a bit intimidating, or if (more likely) weather and sea conditions mean your harbor cruise is canceled. It's less than 10 minutes, by car or taxi from the city center or take the number 59 Northfield bus to the St Fitticks Road and walk about 15 minutes on the path along the edge of bluffs to the car park facing out into the sea.
St. Machar's Cathedral, on the edge of Old Aberdeen, is a 12th-century church notable for its stained glass and its unusual heraldic ceiling. It has a flat, wooden ceiling studded with 48 heraldic shields. The shields represent the arms of a Pope, bishops, the Holy Roman Emperor, and even Henry VIII. This ancient church is also notable for a legend (unproven) associated with it. When William Wallace was executed in London by being hung, drawn, and quartered, they say his body was distributed to different parts of Scotland as a warning to other would-be Scots who might want to take on the king of England. Some believe his arm was sent to St. Machar's and is incorporated somewhere in the fabric of the church. If you visit, perhaps you'll sense his spirit there.
The North Sea oil industry brought plenty of money to Aberdeen and loads of well-heeled visitors connected with it. As a result, for a small city, Aberdeen has some excellent shopping. There are several shopping malls filled with British and international brands. But Union Street, the city's main shopping area, also has several fabulous—and expensive—fashion boutiques, especially boutiques for men. Cruise, a designer boutique for men, women, and children, carries some seriously heavy-hitting labels—Burberry, Valentino, Jimmy Choo, Vivienne Westwood, among them. They outfit men in Vilebrequin, Gucci, Burberry, and Versace. Men's fashions at Kafka Mercantile, on Alford Place near the end of Union Street, include shirts by Engineered Garments of New York, modern casuals from Pure Indigo Blue Blue of Japan, and more cutting edge styles for young male fashionistos. Amble down Union Street and the nearby side streets and poke your nose into the small boutiques. Just make sure your plastic is very flexible.