Kirkwall is a historic town centred around its magnificent Medieval Cathedral, Earl’s and Bishop’s Palaces. Opposite the Cathedral is the 16th century Tankerness House, which now houses an excellent museum. Here you can see some of Orkney’s most important archaeological finds, before venturing out to visit the sites where they were uncovered.
The town has a lively retail centre, with many independent shops selling food, craft and fashion products. There are sports facilities, bars, restaurants and pubs, some of which stage regular live music sessions. In midsummer Kirkwall is the main base for the St Magnus Festival, and there are many other cultural events and concert staged throughout the year, including a popular Science Festival in September and a Folk Festival in May.
Exploring further afield
Kirkwall is an excellent base for exploring Orkney, with many of the islands’ important historical sites, beautiful nature reserves, beaches and coastal walks in easy reach. The open landscape of rolling hills, heather moorland, dramatic cliffs and sandy beaches has inspired many artists, musicians and writers over the centuries.
Just ten miles from Kirkwall is the world-famous Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, where you can visit the tomb at Maeshowe, the incredible stone circle the Ring of Brodgar, and Europe’s best preserved Stone Age village at Skara Brae.
There are many other remains of Stone Age and Bronze Age settlements on the Mainland, as well Medieval buildings dating to when the Norse Earls ruled these islands.
Those interested in more recent history, in particular from the two World Wars when Scapa Flow was the home of the Royal Naval fleet, can find much of interest to visit too. The Scapa Flow Visitor Centre at Lyness on the island of Hoy (boats from the West Mainland daily) and Stromness Museum have interesting information and artefacts from the early 20th century, and the famous Italian Chapel and Churchill Barriers built during the Second World War are about 8 miles south of Kirkwall.
Scapa Flow is one of the top wreck diving sites in the world, with ships from the German High Seas Fleet scuttled after the First World War and many other fascinating wrecks. The remains of HMS Royal Oak are a designated war grave and diving is prohibited. There are a number of local dive companies based in Stromness.
Buses operate from Kirkwall to routes across mainland Orkney and the harbour is port to ferries from Aberdeen, Shetland and Orkney’s North Isles (Shapinsay, Eday, Westray, Stronsay and Sanday). Kirkwall Airport, is about three miles from the town centre.
Orkney’s second largest town, Stromness, is around 17 miles from Kirkwall and there is a regular bus service between the two. With its dramatic views across to the hills of north Hoy, steep, winding cobbled streets and harbour, this is a town for wandering and taking in the sea views glimpsed between traditional stone houses. Stromness is also home to the Pier Arts Centre, which houses a nationally important collection of modern British art, the European Marine Energy Centre and a Campus of Heriot Watt University, and is the departure point for Northlink boats to the Scottish Mainland, the north of Hoy and dive trips.