Lying off the coast of northeastern Scotland, the incredible Orkney Isles serve up an amazing blend of fascinating history, jaw-dropping natural landscapes and excellent wildlife spotting opportunities.
Highlighting some of the best places to visit during an exploration of the collective islands, we first step back in time with a look at the Broch of Gurness.
Updated – January 2022!
1. Broch of Gurness
This ancient and impressive Iron Age village is on the main island close to the Orkney capital Kirkwall.
During a visit, you will be able to admire one of the best-preserved broch villages in the entire country (there are over 500 dotted across Scotland).
Thanks to the excellent level of preservation, it is not hard to imagine how this intriguing location will have looked over a thousand years ago.
Wandering the village, you can clearly make out entrances to homes, different rooms and even sleeping areas!
At the heart of the village, the broch or tower stood at the centre of the community and was most likely a last protective line of defence from unwelcome visitors.
Located near the banks of Eynhallow Sound, visitors can also take in fantastic views of the nearby island of Rousay.
2. Bishop’s and Earl’s Palace
Situated in Lerwick, the ruins of Earl’s Palace date back to the 16th century and still show off some great Renaissance features.
Standing in Kirkwall before Orkney joined Scotland, this ancient Viking landmark is one of the Orkney capitals’ finest.
Found close to another gem – St Magnus Cathedral – the palace retains some character and key features with windows, entrances and turrets remarkably well preserved.
3. Old Man of Hoy
The natural landscape across over 60 different islands known as the collective Orkneys are ragged and exposed to the elements.
With huge waves smashing into the shoreline, it is no surprise that dotted around the archipelago, there are some magical sea stacks and cliffs, slowly shaped by erosion.
The sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Scotland. Paying a pilgrimage here is a must if you have taken the journey to the Orkney.
4. Ring of Brodgar
Neolithic Ring of Brodgar is one of the greatest sights you will witness on Orkney.
UNESCO-listed, this famous ring of carefully positioned rocks has stood the test of time and was part of an ancient and elaborate ritual site that also involved the Standing Stones of Stenness (mentioned later).
This stone circle really is an impressive sight. Linked to a number of ritual sites positioned nearby, the Ring of Brodgar has stood the test of time better than other historically important sites.
How people managed to move these rocks into position without the help of a heavy duty crane is very hard to imagine!
Whilst visiting Orkney, we thoroughly recommend this ancient landmark, the heart of the island.
5. Skara Brae
A former settlement, Skara Brae was an ancient thriving village. Once hidden from view, Skara Brae was uncovered during a nightmarish storm over 100 years ago.
Located close to the shoreline, the intense waves summoned by the storm caused portions of land to fall into the sea, exposing a Neolithic village.
Since that fateful night, huge sections of the Skara Brae have been carefully excavated, allowing visitors to gain a sense of village life thousands of years ago.
You can carefully walk around this invaluable site, allowing you to almost step back in time. Today, what’s left of the village can be explored as you step back in time thousands of years.
The ruins are very pleasing on the eye, with green grass lining some of the structures. From an elevated position, you will be able to look into some of the structures.
As the sea tried to claim back the village, efforts to protect the village with a sea wall unearthed more remains of this historically important site.
6. St Magnus Cathedral
Arguably Kirkwall’s most popular attraction, St Magnus Cathedral with its beautiful windows is a great landmark and holy site worth exploring.
Inside, lovely stained glass windows and the alter will immediately catch your eye.
The Cathedral has embraced elements of more modern technology, allowing it to be dramatically lit to great effect inside that shows off this stunning cathedral.
7. Standing Stones of Stenness
Used in ritual ceremonies still shrouded slightly in mystery with the more famous Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness is a magnificent stone monument.
This essential Neolithic attraction is one of the oldest of its kind found on the entire British Isles.
8. Scapa Flow
Once a British Naval Base, the body of water known as Scapa Flow was invaluable to the British Grand Fleet thanks to its premium geographic position.
At the conclusion of the First World War, many vessels, both British and German, were scuttled here, turning the water into a graveyard of sorts for some massive sea ships that once ruled the waves.
A popular attraction, the on-site visitor centre takes a trip back in time to the glory days of Scapa Flow.
By observing the exhibits, including some old imagery and archive footage, you will be able to see for yourself just how busy and packed with ships Scapa Flow used to be.
Some of the old sunken vessels can still be spotted around Scapa Flow, their rusty carcasses rising out of the water.
The cliffs at Yesnaby on the west coast of the mainland are another natural Orkney highlight.
Here, a sole sea stack, whose appearance almost defies gravity and in a million years would never get planning permission, stands isolated off the mainland coast.
10. Italian Chapel
One of the most visited places on Orkney, the archipelagos Italian Chapel was actually built by prisoners of war during WWII.
Also constructing the nearby Churchill Barriers in response to the sinking of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Bay, the Italian Chapel was built by the prisoners to use as a place of worship during their imprisonment.
Somehow turning two huts into this striking place of worship, the finished chapel is a testament to the skill of the prisoners given their limited resources.
11. Brough of Birsay
An interesting slice of history awaits visitors setting out across to the tidal island of Birsay.
A wonderfully scenic location, visitors will get to explore the remains of structures from Pictish, Norse and medieval times.
Gaining some insight into the way of life practised on the island centuries ago, key features to look out for include, the remains of an old church, a replica Pictish symbol stone and colourful wildflower growing in the surrounding area. During spring, Puffins nest close to the ruins.