Kirkwall is a bustling, busy town, but it's one with a historic centre full of character.
Officially a Royal Burgh since 1486, Kirkwall’s name comes from the Norse ‘Kirkjuvagr’, meaning ‘Church on the bay’, and a Viking spirit still runs through the town, focused on the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral.
Independent retailers form the heart of the town, with shops lining the main street as it snakes its way south from the colourful harbour, providing everything you need - from fishing gear to the finest local food and drink. Kirkwall is a cosmopolitan place, with a wide choice of hotels, restaurants and cafes on offer, and the town centre was even named Scotland's Most Beautiful High Street, winning a public vote in 2019.
Close to the cathedral you’ll find the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces, and the Orkney Museum is just across Broad Street. It’s a fascinating warren of exhibitions and artefacts, helping join the dots of thousands of years of history in these islands. The museum sits in-front of a beautiful oasis in the middle of town. Tankerness House Gardens is a lovely spot to soak up some summer sunshine, and you can visit the Groatie House too – built from the ballast of Pirate John Gow’s ship.
Kirkwall’s harbourfront is another spot to stop and see the world go by. Overlooked by some of the town’s best restaurants and pubs, you can watch the local fishing fleet heading in and out of Kirkwall bay. Nearby, the Orkney Distillery offers award-winning gins and tours, and the Orkney Wireless Museum is a tiny treasure trove of audio equipment from years gone by.
And you don’t have to feel cut off from nature during your time in Kirkwall’s relatively metropolitan atmosphere. The Peedie Sea is home to swans, ducks and gulls throughout the year, with a network of paths offering a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of the town centre.
There are plenty of other attractions to explore outwith the town boundary in the parish of St Ola too. Grain Earth House is a subterranean structure found in the middle of the Hatston Industrial Estate. Pick the key up from Judith Glue’s shop on Broad Street before descending the steps for a quite unique experience. Even further afield is the Wideford Hill Chambered Cairn, a Neolithic burial tomb built into the west side of the hill that overlooks Kirkwall. There is a walking route from the town and you’re guaranteed spectacular views from the summit.
Two beaches can be found in St Ola. Inganess, in the shadow of Kirkwall Airport, and Scapa, with its views over Scapa Flow, offer fresh sea air within walking distance of your traditional town amenities.
Meanwhile, whisky lovers only have a mile or two to go to find Highland Park Distillery, to the south east of the town, and Scapa Distillery, to the south west. Both offer tastings and tours and are well worth a visit.
There’s a real creative community in Kirkwall too. You can see Orkney chairs being made at Orkney Hand Crafted Furniture and Scapa Crafts, and Orcadian jewellery being created at Aurora Jewellery. Shops in town like Sheila Fleet Jewellery, Ortak and Ola Gorie stock beautiful local crafts as well.
The town is also home to the famous street football game, the Kirkwall Ba'. Four games are played every year, on Christmas Day and New Year's Day, with men and boys from the town and further afield - divided into the 'uppies' and 'doonies' - battling to push, kick, throw or smuggle a hand-crafted leather ball to their goals at either end of the main street. It's a fascinating spectacle, and one with an ancient tradition stretching back through generations of Orcadians.
Kirkwall also has all the services you’d expect from a town of its size. It’s home to the Orkney Library, world famous thanks to its social media feeds, but also a real hub offering fantastic services including internet access and an excellent archive. The Pickaquoy Centre is a first-class sports, arts and leisure facility with a swimming pool, arena, cinema, squash courts, climbing wall and much more.
Many of Orkney’s main transport services originate in Kirkwall. You can begin your island-hopping adventure here, with daily ferries to the north isles, and NorthLink Ferries sails to and from Aberdeen from the Hatston terminal. All the main bus routes operate through the town’s travel centre too. Kirkwall Airport is only a few miles east of the town and is linked by bus and taxi services.