The Orkney Islands are located in northern Scotland, just north of mainland Britain and while you might have heard of the Sottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye, there are many reasons why you should visit the Orkney Islands in Scotland. It’s not just for the breathtaking landscapes!

The Orkney Islands are made up of seven main islands and over 100 smaller ones. They were settled by Vikings around 800 AD and became part of the Kingdom of Scotland in 1266.

Orkney Islands In Scotland - Landscapes

Why should you visit the Orkney Islands? 

Well, they’re home to some of the oldest history in the world, beautiful sandy beaches, an incredible cathedral, and interesting museums. You can go hiking, golfing, kayaking and fishing.

And if you love fresh seafood then the Orkney Islands are a dream destination for you.  

So what is there to do in the Orkney Islands? Here are the best things to see and do:

Visit Kirkwall and St Magnus Cathedral 

Kirkwall is the main city of the main island in Orkney. The downtown is small and easy to walk around in less than 30 minutes or so, with cute shops and a colourful harbour. Trust me, you can’t get lost.

You shouldn’t miss the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral dating back to the 12th century. St Magnus Cathedral is the only cathedral in Scotland to still contain the bones of its patron saint and it is free to visit.

And if you need to keep warm try some of the best whiskey at Highland Park Distillery and on a sunny day enjoy the local Orkney ice cream.

Orkney Islands In Scotland - Magnus Cathedral

The Orkney Islands In Scotland – Magnus Cathedral

Eat some of the freshest seafood of your life!

I love seafood and have eaten plenty of it in my lifetime, but I must say the scallops I had when visiting the Orkney Islands were hands down the best I’ve ever had.

Lobster, crab, and different types of fish, you will have plenty of choices on the menu.

In fact, the food in Scotland is something to get excited about! Don’t miss these 12 most popular foods to try in Scotland.

Orkney Islands In Scotland - Best Seafood in Scotland

The Orkney Islands In Scotland – Best Seafood in Scotland

Visit The UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Skara Brae 

There are a few neolithic sites on the Orkney Islands, and perhaps the best way to start exploring them is with a visit to Skara Brae. 

It might sound unbelievable, but this site has been here long before the Great Wall of China or the Egyptian pyramids were built. It’s even older than Stonehenge. Skara Brae was a thriving village. 

Step back 5,000 years in time to explore this best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe that clearly shows how people used to live in nine subterranean stone homes which were connected by tunnels and lit only by whale-oil lamps.

Skara Brae has set opening times and I recommend pre-booking your tickets online here. You can also visit Skaill House, a historic manor house located very near to Skara Brae, and it’s the largest of the Orkney Islands.

Tickets start at GBP 10.50 pp.

Orkney Islands In Scotland - Skara Brae

Follow the journey of life and death at the Orkney Islands – See the Ring of Brodgar vs Standing Stones of Stenness

The next two neolithic sites are best understood together.

The Stones of Stenness today consist of four upright stones up to 6m in height in a circle that originally held 12 stones. These amazing megaliths sit at the start of the Brodgar peninsula. 

Their function is unclear, but our best guess is that they were involved in activities and ceremonies celebrating the relationship between living. Possibly for Summer Solstice celebrations.

The Ring of Brodgar is the next eyebrow-raising place to see.

One theory is that the Ring of Brodgar embodied a symbolic area for the dead, while the Standing Stones of Stenness represented life. The procession from Stenness to Brodgar, therefore, could be seen as a symbolic journey from life to death.

visit orkney islands in scotland ring of brogdar

Visiting the Ring of Brodgar in the Orkney Islands in Scotland

The Ring of Brodgar is a massive stone circle, originally consisting of 60 stones – 36 survive today and you can get pretty close to them.

Orkney Islands In Scotland - Ring of Brodgar

The Orkney Islands In Scotland – Ring of Brodgar

See Viking carvings inside Maeshowe 

Maeshowe is the finest chambered tomb north of the Alps and a must-see on your visit to the Orkney Islands. It was built around 3500BC and the entrance includes a guided tour here. 

From the outside it looks like a giant mound covered in grass, but once you enter you find a chamber that was built by someone super skilled.

At the winter solstice, the sun shines through the entry tunnel, illuminating the entrance of the main cell. How prehistoric people managed to build this still amazes present-day engineers.

Of course, the highlight for many visitors is the carvings on the walls from Vikings that broke into the tomb, probably searching for treasures. They left many messages carved into the stones inside. 

Orkney Islands In Scotland - Maeshowe

The Orkney Islands In Scotland – Maeshowe

The Orkney Museum

The Orkney museum was founded in 1814 by Sir Robert Gordon who wanted to preserve the history of the islands. Today, the museum has more than 30,000 objects and displays them in three main galleries and it is the perfect place to pop in if you get a rainy day while visiting.

The Orkney Islands feel different from other parts of Scotland and there seems to be a lot of connection to the Viking times here.

The museum tells the story of Orkney, from the Stone Age to the Picts and Vikings, right through to the present day.

Italian Chapel & Churchill Barriers

For something different, drive down to the Italian Chapel and learn more interesting facts about WW2 at the Orkney Islands.

The Italian prisoners of war were allowed to create a Catholic chapel to remind them of their motherland. The Neo-Baroque facade on the background of the greenery is stunning, but for £3.50 you can also enter and see the colourful decoration inside the chapel.

Orkney Islands In Scotland - Italian Chapel

The Orkney Islands In Scotland – Italian Chapel

Facing the chapel, you’ll be able to see one of the Churchill Barriers. 

The barriers were constructed during World War II as a defensive measure to prevent enemy ships and submarines from entering Scapa Flow, which housed the bulk of Britain’s fleet at the time.

Today there are 4 causeways built here on the Orkney Islands.

And that’s it! Our 7 reasons to visit the beautiful Orkney Islands in Scotland.

How to Get to the Orkney Islands

You can fly here, (the best flight deals are on Skyscanner), or take a ferry, but I recommend joining a tour to see all the main highlights of the Orkney Islands.

I did a 5 Day Northern Coast & Orkney Tour with Rabbies in July 2022 and it was a fantastic way to see not only the Orkney Islands in Scotland but the Scottish Highlands, lowlands, and the stunning NC500 scenic driving route too.

In fact, Rabbie’s offers mini-coach tours all over the UK and Ireland. Click here to browse Rabbie’s Tours. Use promo code NOMAD5 at checkout to receive a 5% discount on any UK/Ireland trip with Rabbie’s.

Our trip with Rabbie’s started and ended in Edinburgh. If you need more information on how to spend a few days in this exciting city, check out our blog on 10 Best Things to do in Edinburgh

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