Short breaks in Orkney: A 2-day itinerary

Just off the north coast of Scotland, Orkney is a group of islands with remarkable wildlife, entrancing history and dramatic scenery. Despite its proximity to the mainland, these isles feel like an escape making it the perfect short break destination.

Travelling to Orkney with NorthLink Ferries couldn’t be any easier, with daily sailings from Aberdeen and Scrabster. The 90-minute ferry between Scrabster and Stromness sails past the iconic Old Man of Hoy – a brilliant way to start your trip

We know what you must be thinking – that a short break surely isn’t enough time to see all the wonderful sites.

In an ideal world, we would recommend spending at least a week in Orkney, in order to enjoy the sights, savour the relaxed pace of island living, try the food, experience the music and see the arts and crafts from the islands.

However sometimes a short amount of time is all you have, perhaps if you’re visiting for an event or business, or if you’re taking a short detour from the North Coast 500. And with a bit of planning, and our two-day Orkney itinerary you can see our highlights of the mainland. Of course everyone’s ‘must-visit’ sites will differ, however we hope this will help you make a start to planning your ideal getaway.

MV Hamnavoe sailing past the Old Man of Hoy
MV Hamnavoe sailing past the Old Man of Hoy photo © Copyright Nick McCaffrey

Getting to Orkney

Travelling to Orkney with NorthLink Ferries couldn’t be any easier with our two available routes. You can either sail from Aberdeen or hop on a quick 90-minute ferry between Scrabster and Stromness. This shorter route sails past the iconic Old Man of Hoy – a brilliant way to start your trip to Orkney!

We highly recommend taking your car on board or renting a car once you arrive. Having a car will give you more freedom and allow you to take in the island’s glory at your own pace.

Day 1: West and Central Mainland

Birsay Whalebone overlooking the Brough of Birsay in Orkney
Birsay Whalebone overlooking the Brough of Birsay photo © Copyright Amy Leith

1. Brough of Birsay

We think the perfect way to start your exploration is with a gentle walk at the Brough of Birsay. We recommend a 20-minute walk to the Birsay Whalebone – a monument which appears as a majestic bird frozen in mid-flight. With beautiful coastal views and history to uncover, we’re sure you will enjoy this location.

The remains of a house at Skara Brae
The remains of a house at Skara Brae photo © Copyright Amy Leith

2. Skara Brae

This world-famous site is a must-see for anyone visiting Orkney and is one of the isle’s most popular attractions. Skara Brae is Europe’s best-preserved neolithic village and gives us an interesting picture of what life looked like around 5,000 years ago.

Yesnaby Castle and surrounding cliffs on Orkney's west coast
Yesnaby Castle and surrounding cliffs photo © Copyright Amy Leith

3. Yesnaby

Another superb location to appreciate Orkney’s wild landscape is at Yesnaby. This stretch of amazing cliffs, seastacks, rocky beaches and promontories are carved out of Old Red Sandstone and have been shaped by the powerful Atlantic waves below. We recommend heading south towards Yesnaby Castle, a spectacular two-legged sea stack.

Boats at Stromness Harbour
Boats at Stromness Harbour photo © Copyright Amy Leith

4. Stromness

Stromness is a distinctive fishing town with houses and jetties bustling along its waterfront and a narrow flagstone paved shopping street running through it. If you’re travelling on the MV Hamnavoe from Scrabster, this town is one of the first sights you will see of Orkney.

The Standing Stones of Stenness at sunset
The Standing Stones of Stenness at sunset photo © Copyright Charles Tait

5. Standing Stones of Stenness

The Standing Stones of Stenness – a ring of four impressive stones – was built around 5,000 years ago, making it one of the oldest stone circles in Britain! Although only four of the original twelve stones are still standing, the size and significance of the area is still possible to imagine.

The Ring of Brodgar in Orkney
The Ring of Brodgar photo © Copyright Amy Leith

6. Ring of Brodgar

We suggest ending your first day at the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of 27 standing stones. Although there are many more stones here, these stones are not as tall as the adjacent Standing Stones of Stenness. This magnificent site is the third largest stone circle in Britain and was constructed around 4,000 years ago.

If you have spare time, other recommendations include:

  • ABroch of Gurness: This Iron Age settlement was established sometime between 500 and 200BC. The heart of the site is the Broch of Gurness – a large circular structure with thick walls.
  • B – Maeshowe Chambered Cairn: This neolithic chambered cairn is possibly the most spectacular in not only Orkney, but all of north-western Europe. Maeshowe is the oldest burial tomb on Orkney’s mainland, and dates back about 5,000 years.

DAY 2: East and South Mainland

The Gloup at Mull Head Nature Reserve
The Gloup at Mull Head Nature Reserve photo © Copyright Copyright John Ferguson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

7. The Gloup

We recommend beginning day 2 at the Gloup – a striking collapsed sea cave. This location was a long sea cave until its roof caved in due to the force of the waves. This site is also a part of the Mull Head Nature Reserve, a truly remarkable area of Orkney’s coastland which you can further explore.

Dingieshowe Beach in Orkney
Dingieshowe Beach in Orkney photo © Copyright Amy Leith

8. Dingieshowe Beach

This location is one of Orkney’s finest stretches of white sandy beach and is the perfect place for a seaside stroll. The south-facing beach backed by dunes forms the land bridge which connects Deerness to mainland Orkney. This site is the perfect place to capture the beauty of the coastline.

The Italian Chapel
The Italian Chapel photo © Copyright Amy Leith

9. Italian Chapel

One of Orkney’s most beloved and recognisable sites, the Italian Chapel, looks out over the Churchill Barriers. This little church, built by Italian prisoners of war during World War II, is truly amazing for both its beauty and the story behind its construction.

Churchill Barriers
Churchill Barriers photo © Copyright Charles Tait

10. Churchill Barriers

The Churchill Barriers are a set of four causeways with a combined length of 1.5 miles. These causeways connect the Orkney mainland to the islands of Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray, and South Ronaldsay. They were originally constructed as naval defences in 1940 and were also constructed by Italian prisoners of war.

St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney's capital Kirkwall
St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall photo © Copyright Amy Leith

11. St Magnus Cathedral

We finish up our final day in the island’s capital. Kirkwall is characterful town with an excellent shopping street, restaurants and sites of interest. The heart of the area is St Magnus Cathedral which dominates the skyline of Kirkwall.

The cathedral was built in 1137 making it one of the two oldest cathedral’s in Scotland. This structure is a must-see on any trip to Orkney to appreciate both its impressive size and carefully designed architecture.

If you have spare time, other recommendations include:

  • C – Highland Park Distillery tour: the most Northerly Distillery in the Scotland, Highland Park can be found on the outskirts of Kirkwall and is well worth a visit. If you don’t have time for a tour, why not pop to their store on the Albert Street in Kirkwall.
  • D – Rerwick Head: one of the finest sites on the island to uncover Orkney’s wartime heritage. Here you can explore a gun battery camp, appreciate magnificent scenery and spot marine and bird life.

We hope that this guide will provide you with some inspiration on how to make the most of a short break in Orkney. Whether your time visiting the isles is long or short, we’re sure you will have an unforgettable experience and fall in love with the island’s beauty.

Amy LeithBy Amy Leith
A marketing student born and raised in Aberdeen with an admiration of the Scottish isles, desire to travel and see the world, a superior taste in music, enjoys cooking and socialising with family and friends.

Pin it!Short breaks in Orkney: a 2-day itinerary

Header image: Couple strolling along Orkney’s coast © Copyright Steve Mercer Productions