Orkney's capital dates back to Norse times, in the 11th century, when it was called Kirkjuvagr (Church of the bay).
At that time the sea lapped at the steps of the cathedral, but now much land has been reclaimed. In 1486 Kirkwall was granted Royal Burgh status by King James III of Scotland.
The capital of Orkney has vibrant, independent shops and a lively night life in its many hotels and bars. It's also a transport hub for bus routes across mainland Orkney and the port for ferries to Aberdeen, Shetland and the North Isles. Kirkwall Airport - with links to Scotland, Shetland and, in the summer, Norway - is less than three miles from the town centre.
A Mecca for lovers of chain-free shopping, Kirkwall has everything you need, from boutique fashions, designer brands and locally designed clothing, to CDs and DVDs, jewellery, outdoor clothing, bread and cakes, linen, musical instruments, household goods and shoes. Privately owned grocery stores offer the kind of personal service that's largely disappeared elsewhere in Britain and stock local produce and international favourites. Artisan bakeries, butchers, chemists, banks and several cafes add to the exciting retail mix. The long and picturesque flagstone paved main street snakes down from the harbour, changing its name from Bridge Street to Albert Street and then to Broad Street as it goes.
At the heart of Kirkwall stands the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral, while nearby are the Earl's and Bishop's palaces and the Orkney Museum in Tankerness House with its splendid gardens. Carrying on down narrow Victoria Street there are more shops and cafes.
On the edge of the ancient burgh there are three supermarkets and the Pickaquoy Centre with its multi-purpose arena, swimming and leisure pools, fitness and health suites, outdoor sports pitches, a café, the New Phoenix Cinema and meeting rooms. Orkney Islands Council is based in central Kirkwall at School Place. There are several venues in the town for performance including a theatre in the fantastic new Kirkwall Grammar School, community and church halls, hotel function rooms and of course, the Pickaquoy Centre. Industrial activity takes place at Hatston Industrial Estate on the edge of town and this is where you'll also find our auction mart.
Visiting sailors can take advantage of the Kirkwall Marina, which has 95 berths.
Inside Explore Orkney
Stromness poet and author George Mackay Brown once wrote that the town's 'streets uncoiled like a sailor's rope from North to South'. Quaint closes and narrow old streets huddled between stone buildings of historical interest is the delight that is Stromness. Orkney’s second largest town is an architectural gem that inspires artists and writers and is a favourite with visitors.More
The area east and south east of Kirkwall is cattle country, with low lying and fertile farmland. Although the East Mainland doesn't have a World Heritage Site, it does have its own nature reserve, sea caves, beaches, historical sites and attractive villages to explore.More
Orkney's West Mainland hosts a collection of some of the finest archaeological sites to be found anywhere in Europe. It's home to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site, and welcomes thousands of visitors every year.More
Burray is a small island linked to the east mainland of Orkney and South Ronaldsay by the Churchill Barriers. Once only accessible by boat, the farming and fishing community is now linked forever by the causeways.More
After you cross the fourth and final Churchill Barrier, you'll arrive in the largest settlement outside Kirkwall in the east, the attractive harbour village of St Margaret’s Hope in South Ronaldsay.More
Eday is at the centre of Orkney’s North Isles and has a rich heritage and history to explore, as well as being at the forefront of research for the modern renewable energy industry.More
Flotta is an island that has changed much over the years. From its role at the very heart of Orkney's military history to the building of the Flotta Oil Terminal in the 1970s, it has always played an important part in our economy and heritage.More
Hoy and Graemsay
Orkney’s second largest island Hoy dramatically rises from the sea with mountainous moorland and glacial valleys, appearing more like a highland landscape than a typical Orkney low-lying island.More
The island's unique seaweed eating sheep, an Old Beacon featured on prime time television and the flight path for thousands of migratory birds have all helped put North Ronaldsay on the map.More
Take the world’s shortest scheduled flight and see northern Europe’s oldest house on one of Orkney’s smallest inhabited islands with a big community heart.More
Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre
Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre host some of Orkney's most magical archaeological and historical sites - with ancient brochs, cairns and tales of Vikings.More
Sanday by name and sandy by nature, the largest island of Orkney’s North Isles has beautiful sandy bays and dunes, turquoise seas and a gentle, fertile landscape.More
Shapinsay is only a 25-minute ferry ride from Kirkwall but the atmosphere of this small Orkney island can be soaked up even before you step ashore.More
Stronsay is a beautiful island to visit and to live on with magical sandy beaches backed by dunes, a stunning coastline and a main settlement with grand houses dating back to the herring fishery days.More
Westray is known as the Queen o’ the Isles and is a vibrant place to live, work and visit.More