The capital of Orkney has vibrant independent shops and a lively night life in its many hotels and bars. It is 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.
The main shopping street is a mecca for those who favour chain-free shops and it stocks everything you need from boutique fashions, designer brands and locally designed clothing to CDs and DVDs to jewellery, outdoor clothing, bread and cakes, linen, musical instruments, household goods and shoes. Privately owned grocery stores with personal service of a type that has largely disappeared elsewhere in Britain, stock local produce and international favourites. Artisan bakeries, butchers, chemists, banks and several cafes add to the mix. The picturesque long main street lined with flagstones snakes down from the harbour, changing its name from Bridge Street to Albert Street to Broad Street as it goes.
At its heart, on the Kirk Green 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 fitness and health suites, outdoor sports pitches, a café, the New Phoenix Cinema and meeting rooms. Orkney Islands Council is based in Kirkwall at School Place. There is also an auction mart and industrial estate at Hatston. There are several venues in the town for performance including a theatre, community and church halls, hotel function rooms and the Pickaquoy Centre.
Kirkwall 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.