Aberdeenshire is a region that is often surpassed by tourists in favour of the Scottish Highlands, which is surprising because there are some utterly fantastic things to do in Aberdeenshire.
From quaint mountain villages, haunted castles and atmospheric ruins, to hip breweries, estate-to-plate cuisine, and beaches teeming with wildlife- this region is riddled with hidden gems.
I recently spent time travelling this lesser-explored region, and so I’ve put together this article on some of the best things to see and do. As well as the popular must-sees, I’ve included some of my personal favourites which are a little off the beaten track.
I hope you enjoy exploring this bonnie region as much as I have!
Must-Visit Castles In Aberdeenshire
Aberdeenshire is known as Scotland’s castle country and is home to The Castle Trail– a scenic drive that takes you to some of the region’s most spectacular castles. Here are my personal recommendations for the best castles to visit in Aberdeenshire, along with a little bit of history to entice you to visit!
Kildrummy Castle was built for the Earls of Mar in the mid-1200s as a stronghold, and played a role in the Scottish Wars of Independence and The Jacobite Rising of 1915.
When Robert the Bruce was defeated at the Battle of Methven in 1306, he sent his wife (Elizabeth de Burgh), daughter (Majorie) and two sisters to Kildrummy Castle under the protection of his younger brother, Sir Neil Bruce.
His actions enabled the women to escape, however, Sir Neil was captured by the English forces. He was sadly executed for treason- and was hung, drawn and quartered at Berwick-Upon-Tweed.
You can actually see this scene play out in the Netflix film, Outlaw King, although a different castle was used in the film.
Kildrummy Castle was besieged many times during its lifetime, and was under the control of Edward, Hammer of the Scots, at one time- so the history here is mind-blowing.
Why I love it: Kildrummy Castle is one of the largest castle ruins I’ve explored in Scotland- it’s certainly impressive! An information board at the castle shows what it once would have looked like, which makes it easy to understand why Robert the Bruce sent his family there for protection.
Pronounced ‘crath-iss’, this castle is an utterly gorgeous tower house famous for its spectacular Scottish Renaissance painted ceilings.
The land that Crathes Castle stands on was gifted to the Burnett family by Robert the Bruce. The castle was built later, during the 16th century.
Today it is in the safe hands of the National Trust For Scotland– and a visit to the castle and grounds is the perfect family day out.
Set within 530 acres of woodlands and fields, there are abundant nature trails, and a Wild Wood Adventure Playground for the kids!
As you wander through the castle, admire the painted ceilings and original pieces of furniture owned by the Burnett family.
There is also a lovely walled garden with yew trees that date back to 1702! You could easily spend the day here basking in the history.
Dogs are allowed on the grounds and in the cafe, but they are not allowed inside the castle.
Why I love it: The castle looks like something out of a fairytale, and in certain light it has a pinkish tinge. The interior of the castle is also gorgeous; the painted ceilings certainly make it a bit different, and interestingly one of the previous owners had verses from the Geneva Bible painted on the ceiling.
The Geneva Bible was the first mass-produced bible, and by 1560 it was adopted by the Scottish Kirk. By 1579, the Scottish Government made it a requirement that households above a certain income had to purchase a copy. The Laird went one step further and had it painted on his ceiling!
Scotland Travel Tip:
I recommend purchasing a membership with the National Trust For Scotland if you plan on visiting a few of their attractions. They care for many of the castles in Aberdeenshire, including Crathes Castle, Castle Fraser, Fyvie Castle, and Drum Castle. If you visit 3-4 of their properties, this pays for the pass. You also get free parking at their properties.
Castle Fraser, in my opinion, has one of the most stunning exteriors of all the castles in Scotland.
The castle began as a tower house in the 16th century and was added to over the centuries. As a result, the castle is an amalgamation of styles that fit together timelessly to create a unique and striking castle.
The best view is from behind the castle, which is actually the side you approach the castle from the car park. Inside the courtyard, there is a tea room with outdoor seating- a wonderful place to enjoy a cup of coffee and a sandwich before touring the inside of the castle.
The castle was built by the 6th Laird of Fraser, Michael Fraser. The history of this castle is a little more subtle than other castles in Aberdeenshire, however, one of the most interesting displays is Major Smiley’s Room, featuring artefacts from World War II.
In 1946, the castle was gifted to Major Smiley and his wife, Lavinia Smiley, by her father. Major Smiley was captured early during the war and spent most of WWII as a prisoner in Nazi war camps.
Inside the castle, you can see the letter that was sent to his wife to notify her that he was missing. Imagine receiving that kind of letter- it’s just mindblowing.
On his return from the war, running the 3600-acre estate was his day job. Lavinia Smiley also had a huge part in restoring the castle, which took her 30 years. When her work was complete, she gifted the castle to the National Trust For Scotland, so that it could be enjoyed by future generations.
Why I love it: Quite simply- it’s a beautiful, homely castle and I would quite happily move in tomorrow! My favourite room is the Hall, which was restored to its original style during the 1900s. Castle Fraser is a wonderful castle to photograph, and eating lunch in the courtyard is a truly special experience.
Slains Castle (also known as New Slains Castle) is famously known as the inspiration for the castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Today it is a spectacular cliffside ruin overlooking the North Sea. Built in the 17th century, Slains Castle once belonged to the Earls of Erroll, the title given to the Hay clan.
Slains Castle has a history linked to the Jacobite Rebellions of the 18th century.
Nathanial Hooke was a secret agent sent on behalf of Louis XIV of France to instigate a Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland in 1705. He used Slains Castle as his base on several occasions, touring Scotland gathering military intelligence for a French/Jacobite invasion of Scotland. The proximity of the castle next to the North Sea made it a good base for conducting top-secret business.
This castle looks fantastic from the sky, and is popular with drone enthusiasts (please follow all rules and guidelines from the CAA if you fly a drone in Scotland).
Why I love it: After reading The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, Slains Castle shot to the top of my bucket list. The book is based at Slains Castle during the 18th-century, during the Jacobite Rising of 1708. This book brings the castle to life- so I recommend reading it before visiting if you can!
Read more: 70 Books About Scotland You’ll Love
Built sometime during the 13th century by William the Lion, Fyvie Castle served as a royal stronghold before being sold on to a number of Scottish clan families- five in total: the Prestons, Meldrums, Setons, Gordons, and Leith families. It is said that each family built a tower- although the accuracy of this is debated.
Fyvie Castle is one of the most haunted castles in Scotland, and has some of the most gruesome tales to tell.
There’s a death mask of a hanged murderer on display in the library, and a previous resident buried in the castle walls.
There have been numerous ghost sightings in the castle, including the Green Lady (aka Dame Lilias Drummond) who was betrayed by her husband for not producing a male heir, a trumpet player who died of a broken heart after he lost his lover, and an old butler.
There’s also the chilling tale of The Weeping Stones of Fyvie.
You can only explore the castle by guided tour; be sure to check on the National Trust site for tour times. They also run ghost tours around Halloween.
Fyvie Castle also has the largest collection of Raeburn paintings outside a museum or art gallery.
Why I love it: Of all the castles I’ve visited in Aberdeenshire, Fyvie Castle has the most interesting stories! The guided tour is fantastic- one of the best I’ve experienced in Scotland. This castle is a must-see.
Drum Castle is one of Scotland’s oldest tower houses, and has over 700 years of history including links to the Jacobite rebellion and Robert the Bruce.
The Royal Forest and original tower were gifted to the Irvine family by Robert the Bruce. You can see the last remnants of the oak forest that Robert the Bruce gifted the family today.
A Jacobean mansion house was later added, and the lower hall was reconstructed into a library that contains 4,000 books!
Please note access to the castle can only be done via tour– these run throughout the day with the last tour at 3.15 pm. More information can be found on the Drum Castle page on the National Trust For Scotland website.
Outside the castle, there is a 16th-century chapel tucked in the woods. The Garden of Historic Roses is a must-see for garden lovers, and you can spot red squirrels, badgers and deer in the ancient oak forest.
This is another Aberdeenshire castle you can easily spend the day at- pack yourselves a picnic or order something to eat from their tea room and soak up the majestic atmosphere of the castle and grounds.
Why I love it: Drum Castle is a hidden gem that many people miss on their travels around Scotland. A highlight is that the tearoom is located in the historic kitchen, so you can enjoy a meal in a gorgeous historic setting!
Dunnottar Castle is a vast, tumbling ruin set upon a cliff- and arguably the most famous castle in the region of Aberdeenshire.
It’s located in Stonehaven, just south of Aberdeen, and as well as entertaining colourful sunsets, it also has a colourful history. Famous visitors to Dunnottar Castle include Mary Queen of Scots (who once visited with her son, the future James VI), William Wallace and King Charles II.
William Wallace once captured the castle from the English. The English garrison took refuge in the church and Wallace set fire to it, killing them all and destroying the castle.
During the 17th century, a small garrison held out against Oliver Cromwell (who was Lord Protector of England) and his army for eight months and saved the Scottish Crown Jewels from destruction. The jewels had been lowered down the cliffs to a local woman pretending to be collecting seaweed. She escaped with the crown jewels safely intact!
Dunnottar Castle is also one of the most romantic places in Scotland and is a popular location to get wedding photos taken in Scotland.
Why I love it: This castle looks spectacular at sunrise and sunset- especially when viewed from the southwest looking out towards the ocean. It also has a pretty cool history, and not many people know this but you can find Scotland’s oldest Pictish fort just north of the castle!
Craigievar Castle is currently closed for a massive conservation project, but is set to reopen in 2024 (date pending). The grounds are still open, however!
Known as the ‘pink castle’, this castle is popular with Instagrammers.
Construction on the castle started in the 16th century, and was later completed by William Forbes in 1626. It remains virtually unchanged since then, so stepping inside this castle really is like stepping back in time!
It was a family home until the 1960s, and now it’s in the care of the National Trust For Scotland.
Why I love it: Cragievar really is the fairytale castle of Scotland- it’s just stunning and so much fun to photograph.
Balmoral Castle has been the Scottish holiday home of the Royal Family ever since it was purchased for Queen Victoria by her husband, Prince Albert.
Each year the grounds and gardens, as well as exhibitions, open up to the public. It’s important to note that you cannot tour the entire castle- the ballroom is the only room open to visitors.
If you book online in advance you also receive the audio tour complimentary. If you buy tickets at the castle the headset costs £5 to hire. Booking in advance is recommended, as tickets do sell out, especially during the summer.
A unique tour that you can book is a tour of the Balmoral Highland Pony Stud. For a group of up to 8, it costs £600- certainly not the cheapest of tours but you’ll have the unique opportunity to learn about this rare breed and their life on the estate. You’ll also get to meet the estate’s foals and mighty stallions- a once-in-a-lifetime experience for horse lovers.
Why I love it: It’s the history of this castle that makes it special. It was obviously one of Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite places, as she chose to spend her final days here.
More Things to Do in Aberdeenshire
Braemar is a beautiful and charming mountain village located in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park. It’s home to the Braemar Highland Gathering, one of Scotland’s most famous highland games.
Things to do in Braemar include:
- Have lunch or dinner at Farquharsons Bar and Kitchen
- Visit the Braemar Chocolate Shop
- Go shopping at the Braemar Gallery, Braes O’Mar Gift Shop and McLean of Braemar
- Braemar Castle (currently closed due to conservation work but scheduled to reopen in August 2023).
- Treat yourself to a luxurious stay at The Fife Arms
Why I love it: It’s the perfect example of a mountain village- surrounded by thriving nature, bubbling brooks, cute wee cottages, and comfy pubs. It’s the perfect place to spend a few days to get away from it all- whether you are looking for a tranquil winter escape or visiting during the warmer weather. Of course, the Braemar Highland Gathering is a must-see if you’re visiting in September!
Scotland Travel Tip
A trip to Aberdeenshire pairs well with a visit to Moray. Check out my blog post on things to do in Moray!
Ballater is a mountain town popular with tourists and skiing enthusiasts.
I recommend having brunch or lunch at Orka Artisan Cafe, which is dog-friendly and has a yummy, light lunch menu, and delicious baking. Then go for a stroll around the town. Deeside Books is a must-visit for book lovers, and there are plenty of gift and homeware shops if you wanted to do some shopping.
Why I love it: It’s a small town and easily accessible on foot. There are lots of lovely gift shops, and the bookstore is great!
Potarch Cafe & Dinnie Stones
Potarch Cafe is located on the Ballogie Estate, which is home to many of the ingredients they use on their menu.
We ate breakfast here once, and it was SUPERB. I had the Ham, Egg and Tatties (Pomme Anna, pork belly, mixed house pickles, poached egg, hollandaise) and the Haggis had the Rarebit (Two pieces of sourdough bread, Scottish cheese, Scottish beer, mixed house pickles, side salad).
Located just outside the cafe you’ll find the Dinnie Stones– a pair of lifting stones, made famous by strongman Donald Dinnie.
They have a combined weight of 332.49 kg (733 lbs/52 stone) and only 7 people have been successful at the ‘bridge challenge’- carrying one stone in each hand across the width of the Potarch bridge (5.22 metres).
Why it’s worth visiting: You are quite literally eating food off the estate- ingredients are fresh, ethically sourced, and delicious! This is a fantastic spot for foodies and the Dinnie Stones are another interesting reason to visit.
Watch a sheepdog demonstration
Did you know that Border Collies originate in the borders of Scotland? I didn’t- until we watched a sheepdog demonstration at Aberdeenshire Sheepdogs!
Considered to be the smartest breed of dog, it’s incredible to see these dogs at work, herding a group of Hebridean Sheep through cones and into pens.
Aberdeenshire Sheepdogs is run by Gary and Michelle Bruce. At their farm, you’ll meet their team of dogs- Kim, Floss, Teeick, Shep, and Kye, the cutest wee collie pup!
Why I love it: This is such a unique experience and where better to see a sheepdog demonstration than the birth country of the Border collie?
Explore the historic fishing village of Footdee
Footdee (pronounced ‘fittie’) is a historic fishing village full of quirk- and a must-see when visiting the city of Aberdeen.
From the colourful gardens to the jumble of garden ornaments, humourous signs, and repurposed household items hanging from the trees; Footdee feels like a deeply personal village, full of character and cheer.
The residents are all so lovely- they’ll give you a friendly hello when you pass by. They take great pride in their colourful neighbourhood, and are welcoming to those who explore it.
Why I love it: This village is a piece of living history. It is both quirky and charming, and fun to just wander through the squares and look at the colourful gardens and cheeky signs.
Finzean Estate and Farm Shop
Just after we visited the Finzean Estate Farm Shop it was named one of the best 32 cafes and restaurants for breakfast by The Guardian– which is well deserved!
The food, two words = fresh and INCREDIBLE. The Haggis loved his Stornoway black pudding and free-range poached eggs; my granola, yoghurt and honey was delicious.
Not only do they have a mouth-watering menu, but they also have a large shop filled with artisan gifts, local beer and gins, books, and groceries. We ended up purchasing some fresh produce and ingredients to have a home-cooked meal at our accommodation that night.
There was even a dog pen for Angus to run around in while we enjoyed our breakfast!
Why I love it: I’m obsessed with this wee farm shop, which has an excellent menu, gift shop, and selection of produce.
Tomnaverie Stone Circle
Tomnaverie Stone Circle surrounds a burial cairn dating to around 4,500 years ago.
It is one of two stone circles that features a recumbent stone (a stone lying on its side) in Aberdeenshire. No one knows for sure what stone circles were used for in Scotland, however, if I hazard a guess, they would be used for rituals- particularly at sunrise or sunset, for the common reason that many of the stone circles in Scotland appear on hills.
Why I love it: This stone circle is impressive compared to many other stone circles I’ve seen in Scotland. The recumbent stone is also interesting- it’s fun to theorise why it was placed on its side.
Newburgh Seal Beach
As you may have guessed, Newburgh Seal Beach is a fantastic beach for seal-spotting! Located just 20 minutes north of Aberdeen, this beach is home to a colony of around 400 seals.
From the car park, follow the path up over the sand dunes for spectacular views of golden cream sand and wild sea. Keep your eyes peeled for seal heads bobbing up and down in the waters!
I cannot wait to bring Alex back to this beach when he’s older- it’s a great beach for kids and dogs, with sand dunes to explore and the perfect spot for a picnic!
Grab some goodies from Trellis Cafe (their Rolo Brownie- O.M.G) and head on down to the silky sands with bonnie views.
Why I love it: This beach has some of the loveliest sand dunes I’ve seen in Scotland. There’s also a variety of birdlife for twitchers.
Bullers of Buchan
The Bullers of Buchan is a collapsed sea cave, 30 metres deep, where the ocean runs through a natural archway. If you’re visiting between May and July you may be lucky enough to spot a puffin! They nest high in the cliffs- be sure to bring some binoculars with you to give you a better chance at locating them.
The Bullers of Buchan is located just off the A975, north of Cruden Bay. Park in the Bullers of Buchan car park (it’s free) and walk the well-defined path toward the coast. The Bullers of Buchan is located close to Slains Castle, so you can easily combine these two activities.
Why I love it: On a nice summer’s day, there’s nothing better to do than sit on the grassy banks and watch seabirds mull about the cliffs and breathe in the salty sea air.
Explore whisky distilleries
A great rainy day activity (or general activity), Aberdeenshire is home to a small number of distilleries that offer tours, including:
- Fettercairn Distillery
- GlenDronach Distillery
- Glen Garioch Distillery
- and the Royal Lochnagar Distillery
Be sure to book tours well in advance because they do tend to sell out!
Do a brewery tour
Scotland is known for its whisky distilleries, but did you know Aberdeenshire also has a thriving brewery culture? The region is home to several breweries and microbreweries that offer tours and/or tastings, including Brew Toon, BrewDog in Aberdeen, and Burnside Brewery.
If you’re not interested in doing a tour but wish to sample these local brews, many supermarkets and farm shops will sell the local ales.
Scotland Travel Tip
The Haggis and I have fun sampling the different beers and gins from each region when we travel around Scotland. We make it a game that whenever we visit a new area, we’ll visit a farm shop or local supermarket to see what local gin and beer they have for sale. We then enjoy them back at our accommodation!