Kirkwall is the chief town of the Orkney Islands, which lie off the north tip of mainland Scotland. With a population in 2011 of 9293, Kirkwall has accommodation and other amenities and is the obvious base for exploring these islands.
Kirkwall is a busy working port and at first glance not attractive, but the charming old town is just behind the industrial frontage. Small freighters, fishing vessels and inter-island ferries bustle around the harbour; people stroll about their business along the narrow alleys; the crumbling medieval stonework of the cathedral catches the sunlight. And you start to relax and feel the magic of Orkney . . . then a cruise ship arrives and its 4000 passengers descend upon the place. Kirkwall and all the major sights of Orkney are mobbed when a cruise ship is in. However those visitors seldom stray from a standard circuit, so head for one of the many attractions they overlook, and return to enjoy Kirkwall in the evening after they've left.
The Tourist Information Centre is at the bus station in town centre.
1 Kirkwall Airport KOI IATA is 5 miles (8 km) south-east of town. Loganair fly to Kirkwall from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen and Sumburgh in the Shetland Islands. They also operate inter-island flights to Westray, Papa Westray, Sanday and Eday. See "Orkney Islands: Get in" for more details.
There are four ferry routes between the Scottish mainland and Orkney. The only one to Kirkwall is the Aberdeen to Shetland car ferry, operated by Northlink, which calls here several nights a week. Northbound it leaves Aberdeen at 17:00 (Apr-Oct: Tu Th Sa Su, Nov-Mar: Th Sa Su not Tu), reaching Kirkwall Hatston Terminal at 23:00 before sailing on to Lerwick for 07:30 next morning. Southbound the ferry leaves Lerwick at 17:30 (Apr-Oct: M W F; Nov-Mar: W & F not M), similarly reaching Kirkwall at 23:00 before sailing on to Aberdeen for 07:00 next morning.
For practical details and tips on using this ferry, see Shetland Islands#Get in. Points specific to Orkney are:
- Ferries to Kirkwall, from Aberdeen and Lerwick, are evening sailings arriving by 23:00, so you don't need a cabin, a lounge seat is fine. (But you need to have sorted your Orkney accommodation, as near midnight is a poor time to start looking.) Sailings from Kirkwall to Aberdeen or Lerwick are overnight so you'll appreciate the cabin, and ability to doze on board till 09:00.
- Motorists, check that you're in the correct queue of vehicles, otherwise you'll get locked in by vehicles going all the way to Shetland or Aberdeen.
- At Kirkwall you need to disembark promptly, as the ferry will soon sail on.
- Fares vary by season, but in 2022 single fares from Aberdeen might be £120 per car, £30 per adult and £14 per child.
2 Hatston Terminal is 2 miles north of town on the main road to Stromness: look for the very large wind turbine. Check-in for vehicles is at the start of the pier, check-in for foot passengers is at the end. A late-night connecting bus X10 runs from Kirkwall right to the end of the pier, back to Kirkwall, then on to Stromness - it doesn't run if the ferry's not running. Bus X1 Stromness-Kirkwall-St Margaret's Hope also passes the junction for the terminal, but the last bus is a couple of hours before the ferry.
The other three routes, described under Orkney Islands#Get_in, are:
- Scrabster to Stromness car ferry 2 or 3 times a day, 90 min.
- Gill's Bay to St Margaret's Hope car ferry 3 times a day, taking an hour.
- John O'Groats to Burwick ferry for foot passengers and cyclists only, 2 or 3 times a day May-Sept, 40 min.
Kirkwall is also the starting point for ferries between Mainland and the islands of Shapinsay, Stronsay, Eday, Sanday, Westray, Papa Westray and North Ronaldsay - see those islands for details. These sail from the piers in town centre, not from Hatston Terminal. For ferries from Stromness and Tingwall see Orkney Islands: "Get around".
Cruise ships often visit the Orkneys. They either berth at Hatston Terminal with a shuttle-bus to town, or anchor out in the bay with tenders bringing passengers ashore. The main tourist attractions get mobbed when they arrive.
June to August there's a daily bus from Inverness, which meets the John O'Groats foot-passenger ferry to Burwick, from where there's a connecting bus to Kirkwall: see Orkney Islands: "Get in".
For bus services around Mainland, see "Kirkwall: Get around".
Kirkwall has numerous car parks located in the town centre and harbour area. Parking around the harbour is free and mainly unlimited time, so it is the best place to park if you are exploring the town for a whole day. However, there can be a lack of parking in the town, even in the pay car parks. Car parks charges in summer are 1 hour - 40p, 2 hours - 80p, 3 hours - £1; winter 1 hour - free, 2 hours - 50p, 3 hours - £1.
Buses are operated by Stagecoach. Most of the Orkney Mainland buses run via Kirkwall. They are geared to shoppers and school-run, and there may be long gaps in the schedule mid-afternoon. A day-ticket costs £7.30 adult - worth it if you're doing more than a simple return. Drivers give change within reason. No bikes on the buses. The principal services are:
- Bus X1 runs right across Mainland east from Stromness, Stenness (near the stones) and Finstown to Kirkwall, then south across the Churchill Barrier past the Italian Chapel to Burray and St Margarets Hope ferry terminal. It doesn't go as far south as Burwick ferry terminal. It's hourly between Stromness and Kirkwall, every two hours or so south of there.
- Bus 4 runs between Kirkwall and the airport every 30 min M-Sa, hourly Su, taking 10-15 min. This one is regular, Su-F 06:15-19:15, Sa till 16:15 when the last flight comes in.
- Bus 2 runs from Kirkwall via Scapa and Ophir to Houton, terminal for the ferry to Hoy (Lyness) and Flotta. Five or six daily, 20 min. Also bus 5 runs from Houton to Stromness.
- Bus 6 runs every couple of hours from Kirkwall via Finstown to Tingwall, for the Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre ferries, 20 min. Only the first and last buses of the day continue round the coast to Birsay, so they're impractical for sight-seeing. You might get there on Bus 7, twice per afternoon, which runs from Kirkwall to Finstown then across the fields to Birsay, then on to Stromness.
- There's also X10 to the ferry terminal (see "Get in"), Bus 3 via the airport to Tankerness, Toab and Deerness, and Bus 9 which circles town.
- A circular tour bus Stagecoach T11 is advertised wasn't running in 2021.
Taxi firms: see list under "Orkney Islands: Get around".
- Town centre: The most attractive part of Kirkwall is its central alley, which starts as Bridge St by the harbour, turns along Albert St, then widens into Broad St with the Cathedral and palace ruins. The Kirkwall City Pipe Band often parades here on a Saturday evening. The street then narrows again to the alley of Victoria Street. Just west of the centre, circumnavigate the Peedie Sea: once a tidal inlet, it's now been enclosed into two freshwater lagoons. (Well, 2.1 if you count the little overflow pond.) Beyond the centre, Kirkwall is a modern and work-a-day place, with various marine industries sprawling along the shore.
- 1 St Magnus Cathedral, Broad Street KW15 1NX. Apr-Sep: M-Sa 09:00-18:00, Su 13:00-18:00; Oct-Mar: M-Sa 09:00-13:00 & 14:00-17:00. It was founded in 1137 but took 300 years to complete. It is an impressive Romanesque building with alternating courses of sandstone: red from Kirkwall and yellow from Eday. Probably the builders were the same as for Durham and Dunfermline cathedrals. The interior is atmospheric, dominated by red circular columns and multi-coloured textile hangings. This is a working church so it's closed to tourist visits for services, funerals, and so on. It started out as part of the RC Archdiocese of Trondheim but is now a Presbyterian parish church, so ecclestiastically it's no longer a cathedral.
- 2 Bishop's & Earl's Palaces, Watergate KW15 1PD (opposite the cathedral). Apr-Sep: Su-F 09:30-12:00, 13:00-17:30; Sa 10:00-12:00, 13:00-17:00; Oct-Mar: closed. Two ruins either side of the street. Enter the Earl's Palace, the newer one, first for tickets. The Bishop's Palace was built in the 12th century at the same time as the cathedral, but fell into ruin. It was restored and extended in the 16th century by Bishop Robert Reid, founder of Edinburgh University. Ownership then passed to the wicked, wastrel Earls of Orkney, and in the 17th century Earl Patrick decided that it wasn't grand enough, and set about building a new palace next door. He couldn't remotely afford it, even by the stratagem of lynching the landowner instead of buying the land, and by using slave labour. Adult £7, senior £5.50, child 5-15 £4.
- Orkney Museum, Tankerness House, Broad Street KW15 1DG (opposite the cathedral). M-Sa 10:30-17:00. For 3 centuries this was the home of the Baikie family from Tankerness. It now houses exhibits on Orkney from the Stone Age to the present. Free.
- 3 Orkney Wireless Museum (call sign GB2OWM), Kiln Corner, 1 Junction Rd KW15 1LB (at roundabout by harbour). M Th-Sa 10:30-13:00 and 13:30-16:30, W 10:30-13:00. In the early 20th century radio technology developed rapidly, and was a lifeline to remote islands like South Ronaldsay. Jim MacDonald (1927-1988) grew up there and amassed a great collection, including rare prototypes and secret-squirrel military kit. And here they are. By donation.
- 4 Highland Park Distillery, Holm Road KW15 1SU (on A961 one mile south of town), ☏ . Apr-Sep: daily 10:00-16:00; Nov-Mar: M-F 10:00-16:00. The world's most northerly Scotch whisky distillery (just edging nearby Scapa Distillery), producing some 2.5 million litres a year for blend and a variety of single malts. These are more peaty than the Scapa whisky. Founded in 1798, it's now owned by Edrington Group of Glasgow, who also produce Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark, Macallan & Glenrothes, as well as vodka and rum. Longer & pricier tours than the basic involve sampling more whisky: so imagine the £250 tour? Basic one-hour tour £10.
- 5 Scapa Distillery, KW15 1SE (on Scapa Flow 2 miles S of town, follow A964). Apr-Sep: M-Sa 09:30-17:00 & Su 12:30-17:00; Oct-Mar: M-F 09:30-17:00. Founded in 1885, though with occasional lapses in production, the present facility dates from 2004/5 and turns out a million litres a year for blend or single malt. It's only slightly peaty, the chief single malt bottling being the Scapa 16 year old. Short tour £10, 45 min, long tour £20, 90 min, booking recommended. The distillery is today part of Chivas which is part of Pernod Ricard.
- 6 Grain Earth House is an Iron Age chamber, circa 1000 BC, entered by a 5-m underground passage. It was probably part of a larger settlement but is now engulfed by Hatston Industrial Estate on the north edge of town. Free to enter, but you need to collect keys from (and return them to) Judith Glue's Knit Shop at 25 Broad Street during business hours (M-Sa 09:00-21:00, Su 10:00-18:00). The chamber is at the corner of Swordfish Rd and Dakota Rd.
- 7 Wideford Hill Cairn is a stone cairn similar to Maeshowe, built around 3000 BC. The interior has been closed to public access so you can only view the "stepped" exterior. It's set into the hill two miles west of Kirkwall, follow Old Finstown Rd not the main road.
- 8 Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn is a similar smaller burial chamber from 3000 BC. You need to crawl down the passageway into the chamber. It's a mile further west along the Old Finstown Rd and free to enter anytime.
- 9 Rennibister Earth House, circa 1000 BC, is a stone-lined underground chamber accessed by a hatch and a ladder. In it were found the bones of six adults and a dozen children, who may have been interred later. It's 3 miles west of Kirkwall on A965 towards Finstown, in a farmyard. Free to enter any time.
Festivals and events
- Norwegian Constitution Day on 17 May each year commemorates Orkney's historical links, with a parade and guests from Norway.
- Orkney Folk Festival is held in late May.
- St Magnus International Festival, founded in 1977 by a group including Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, is a week-long arts event in late June.
- Orkney County Show is an agricultural show in Bignold Park in August.
- Orkney International Science Festival is first week in Sept and most events are free.
- Mull Head Reserve and the Gloup, Deerness Peninsula (9 mi (13 km) east of Kirkwall via A960; bus route 3). Take a 5.6-km or 9.2-km hike around a head land to see beautiful cliffs and the Deerness Brough (not accessible as of Sep 2022). The track can be very wet. Appropriate footwear is recommended. The Gloup is a 20-m-long section of a cave carved by the sea that has been exposed by the land collapsing above it. The Gloup is a short, accessible walk from the car Park. An unstaffed visitor centre near the car park has displays and toilets.
- Rerwick Head, Tankerness (9 mi (13 km) east of Kirkwall via A960, turn left after the airport on Tankerness Hall Road; bus route 3). A short walk takes you to a post-apocalyptic landscape of crumbling concrete remains of a gun battery and army camp from the Second World War. Most of the buildings are open, but can be hazardous. The shoreline has extensive and fascinating slate formations.
- Orkney Golf Club is on the main road a mile west of town. Red tees 5386 yards, par 69, visitor round £25.
- Pickaquoy Leisure Centre west side of the Peedie Sea has a gym, pool and fitness classes. You can pay-as-you-go without membership.
- Cinema: New Phoenix Cinema is within Pickaquoy Leisure Centre.
- Craft shops are Ortak Jewellery on Garrison Rd (daily 09:00-17:00) and Longship at 13 Broad St (M-Sa 10:00-17:00). Orcadian Bookshop at 50 Albert St is open M-F 09:00-17:00, Sa 10:00-17:00.
- Supermarkets are Tesco, Lidl and Co-op, side-by-side on Pickaquoy Road A963, 400 yards south of the bus station. There's another Co-op in the centre of town.
- Takeaways include Harbour Fry on Bridge St, and Willows Chinese on Willow Rd.
- Strynd Tearoom The Strynd +44 1856 871552, M-Sa 10:00-16:00. A cosy tearoom in an alley beside the cathedral, good cakes.
- Kirkwall & St Ola Community Centre Broad St +44 1856 871552, M-Sa 09:00-16:00. Popular cafe opposite the cathedral.
- Trenabies 16 Albert Street, M-Sa 08:30-17:30 & Su 11:30-15:30.
- Cafelolz The Strynd, Tu-Sa 10:00-15:00.
- Pomona Cafe 9 Albert Street, M-Sa 08:00-17:00, Su 10:00-16:00.
- Dil Se, 7 Bridge Street KW15 1HR, ☏ . Daily 16:00-23:00. North Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine.
- Busters Diner 1 Mounthoolie Place, daily 16:30-20:30.
- Empire Chinese 51 Junction Rd, daily 12:00-14:00, 17:00-23:30.
- Hotels: see Sleep for restaurants at Orkney Hotel, Kirkwall Hotel and Ayre Hotel.
- Pubs include Standing Room Gin Bar, Torvhaug, Skippers, Bothy Bar and Auld Motor Hoose.
- Try the local whisky, and the beer from Orkney Brewery on the north Mainland near Skara Brae.
- 1 Kirkwall Youth Hostel, Old Scapa Road, KW15 1BB, ☏ . Hostel with 56 beds including 21 twin bed rooms. In weary old wartime prefabs, but good facilities and small rooms.
- Orcades Hostel, Muddisdale Road (Just west of supermarkets), ☏ . A high quality, family-run hostel. All of the rooms are en-suite and the kitchen and living room are stylishly decorated. Especially nice double rooms.
Lots of small B&Bs in Kirkwall. All the hotels are independent and family-run, with no chains. There's no stand-out "Splurge" hotel, but prices can be steep in mid-summer peak periods.
- Avalon House, Carness Road, KW15 1UE, ☏ . Small B&B at north edge of town.
- Albert Hotel, 7 Mounthoolie Place KW15 1JZ (200 yards north of bus station). Decent friendly hotel, with bar & restaurant.
- 2 Ayre Hotel, Ayre Rd KW15 1QX (overlooking harbour), ☏ . Comfy spacious hotel, probably top choice in Orkney.
- 3 Kirkwall Hotel, Harbour St KW15 1LE (facing ferry jetties), ☏ . Family-run 36-room hotel. from £160.
- Lynnfield Hotel, Holm Road KW15 1SU (A961 south), ☏ . 3-star hotel on south edge of town next to Highland Park distillery.
- 4 Orkney Hotel, 40 Victoria St KW15 1DN, ☏ . 3 star in 17th-century building.
- Apartment 76, 76 Junction Rd KW15 1AR. A self-catering first floor apartment, sleeps four (one double, two singles). The same firm lets five other apartments around Orkney. £525 per week.
Out of town
- The Foveran, KW15 1SF (on A964, 3 miles south of Kirkwall). Family-run restaurant with rooms - eight of these, en suite.
- 5 Horrie Farm Holiday Apartments, Garralanga Rd Tankerness KW17 2QU (2 miles southeast of airport), ☏ . Two spacious apartments surrounded by farmland teeming with wildlife. £70.
- Scapa Flow Lodges are on Scorradale Rd near Orphir.
As of Oct 2021, Kirkwall has 4G from all UK carriers but it's patchy; EE is especially poor. Only Three and O2 cover the airport.
- Kirkwall is within easy reach of the rest of Orkney. Top sights on Mainland are Stenness with its neolithic remains, Stromness the old fishing port, and the road across the Churchill Barrier past the Italian Chapel.
- Beyond Mainland, visit one of the other islands for a tranquil contrast: Shapinsay is the closest.
- The ferry north takes you to Lerwick in the Shetland Islands.
- Or return south to the Scottish mainland - which you'll have to do to reach the Hebrides and other Scottish islands.