Port of Kirkwall
Situated on what's known as the "Mainland" of the Orkney archipelago, Kirkwall is the capital of a group of about 70 islands north of Scotland. The town was founded around 1035, and was declared a Royal Burgh in 1486 by King James III. Kirkwall's most famous landmark is nearly the 900-year old St. Magnus Cathedral, built from beautiful pink and yellow sandstone. Its towering spire dominates the town, even from the water.
Settlements on Orkney's mainland go back to 3000 BC. You can see remains of that civilization at Skara Brae, as well as cairns (man-made piles of stone), Bronze Age stone circles and Iron Age roundhouses, at different sites around the island. The richness of the Orkney's Neolithic past has earned it UNESCO World Heritage status.
Vikings arrived in the eighth and ninth centuries and left their mark, too. The name Kirkwall is derived from the old Norse name Kirkjuvagr, which means "Church Bay." The original town is considered to be one of the best-preserved examples of an ancient Norse settlement.
Follow the streets, which snake around this town built of gray stone, and you'll find shopping, dining, banks and more, as well as a museum and historic sites.
This ancient town is abundant with beautiful historical sites, from the 900-year-old St. Magnus Cathedral to neolithic stone circles
Chilly winds are common here, so bring a sweater
Catch a lunch of local seafood in town, then take a tour to nearby Skara Brae or Maes Howe
Find a Cruise to the British Isles & Western Europe
Top Kirkwall Itineraries
11 Night Europe - Northern Cruise
Hamburg, Invergordon, Reykjavik, Reykjavik, Isafjord, Akureyri, Kirkwall, Hamburg
12 Night Europe Cruise
Southampton, Greenock , Kirkwall, Dublin, Liverpool, Cobh , St. Peter Port , Southampton
28 Night Baltic Jewels & the Midnight Sun
Stockholm, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Gdansk, Rostock , Copenhagen, Aalborg, Stavanger, Eidfjord, Bergen, Bergen, Bergen, Geiranger, Tromso, Kirkwall, Edinburgh
10 Night Europe - Northern Cruise
Copenhagen, Bergen, Bergen, Geiranger, Alesund, Lerwick, Kirkwall, Reykjavik
12 Night Europe - Northern Cruise
Hamburg, Lerwick, Akureyri, Isafjord, Reykjavik, Reykjavik, Kirkwall, Hamburg
Where You're Docked
You'll end up in any of three locations:
Kirkwall Pier: Smaller ships dock at the most convenient spot. After a 400-foot walk on the pier, it's about 10 minutes walking (slightly uphill) to the cathedral; shops, restaurants and other services begin when you hit the shore.
Hatston Quay: Larger ships dock at this facility two miles outside of town. It's Scotland's longest deep-water commercial berth, about a one-minute walk to reach the spot where excursion buses wait. The ferry terminal has toilets, drink-vending machines and a parking lot. For most ships, the town operates a shuttle service to the tourism office in the city center.
Anchored: If berths aren't available, some lines anchor in the bay and use tenders to serve the port. It amounts to about 15 percent of all cruise ships.
For a list of ships stopping at Kirkwall and where they will dock or anchor, check the Orkney Islands Council Marine Services website.
A scattering of restaurants are located just up from Kirkwall Pier, at the intersection of Bridge, Shore and Harbor streets. A pub called Helgi's (14 Harbour Street; open 11 a.m. until late) serves local brews. There's not much to be found around Hatston Quay.
Good to Know
St. Magnus Cathedral is a popular spot for weddings, so if you're exploring the town, we recommend checking it out first to see whether it might be closed for a wedding, so you can plan accordingly.
There can be chilly winds at places like Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar, so you might want to dress in layers.
If you decide to drive, remember that the Scottish drive on the left-hand side of the road. Be particularly careful when you make a right turn, because you have to cross oncoming traffic. Be cautious crossing streets, too.
On Foot: It's an easy 10-minute walk into the heart of Kirkwall from the Town Dock. Don't attempt it from Hatston Quay. Once you're in the town center, all the sites are very walkable, and some of the main shopping streets are pedestrian zones.
By Bus: Stagecoach operates a public bus route, the T11, which is designed to take tourists to Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar, with time to sightsee at each spot before the bus departs again. Catch it at the Kirkwall Travel Centre on W. Castle Street near the VisitScotland tourism office.
By Taxi: Several taxi services operate in Kirkwall, including Craigies (+44 (0)1856 878787), Bob's (+44 (0)1856 876543) and Kirkwall Taxi (+44 (0)1856 876972). Craigies is the largest operation and can accommodate wheelchair passengers; it also offers mini-vans available for up to eight passengers. We highly recommend booking any taxi tour well in advance of your trip.
By Rental Car: Many travelers to Orkney prefer to drive themselves, so it's essential to book ahead if you're planning to rent a car. W.R. Tullock (Castle Street; +44 (0)1856 873212) is the agent for Avis, National and Europecar, with downtown pickup available. Orkney Car Hire also has rentals available in town (Junction Road, not far from the tourist office; +44 (0)1856 872866)
Orkney Cycle on Tankerness Lane, rents bikes at a reasonable rate.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The pound is Scotland's currency. It's comparable to -- and interchangeable with -- the British pound. You'll find convenient ATMs at the Royal Bank of Scotland (1 Victoria Street) and Clydesdale Bank (2 Broad Street) -- a short walk from the cathedral. For currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
English with a strong Scottish accent is what you'll hear on Orkney. But you'll encounter many place names that reflect the Viking heritage. As late as the 19th century, a version of Norse was spoken there, rather than Gaelic.
Food and Drink
There's a bounty of great ingredients in Orkney, including beef and sustainably fished crab, lobster, scallops and salmon. Add to it a tradition of high-quality dairy products, and you know you can dine well. Add to the mix award-winning beers, several cheese-makers, local ice cream, oatcakes (we even found a sundried-tomato version) and Orkney Fudge. The fudge comes in several flavors, including one with Highland Park whisky. You'll find it in gift shops. Be sure to duck into a bakery, too, to check out the vast array of tempting goodies. We bought wonderful shortbread at Argo's Bakery (44 Albert Street).
Traditional Scottish dishes include haggis -- sheep's heart, liver and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal and spices, cooked in a sheep's stomach and traditionally served with a shot of whisky; tatties and neeps (mashed potatoes and turnips) and black pudding (blood sausage with oatmeal).
Judith Glue Real Food Cafe: This is a great resource for all sorts of food gifts, and it offers a cafe at the rear. You'll find lots of tasty choices using high-quality local ingredients, including salads, homemade soups, sandwiches, quiche, stuffed baked potatoes, an all-local cheese board and the "Orkney Smorgasboard," which gives you a taste of seafood, meats, cheeses, oat cakes, bere bannock (a type of local barley cake) and chutney. Don't forget to check the specials board, and if you have room, go for the Orkney fudge cheesecake. (25 Broad Street; +44 (0)1856 874225; open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday)
Strynd Tea Room: If you need a nice cuppa, The Strynd Tea Room is a great choice, and it also serves a delicious assortment of baked goods, including scones, and lunch items. (Broad Street, near the cathedral; +44 (0)1856 871552; open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
This establishment dishes up traditional Scottish fare, as well as burgers, fish and chips, and vegetarian dishes -- all adhering as much as possible to fresh, local, organic ingredients. This pub also offers free Wi-Fi for customers. (14 Harbour Street; serving food noon to 9 p.m.; 18 and older only)
Renowned jewelry designer Ola Gorie lives on Orkney, and her exquisite -- though pricy -- silver jewelry is a great souvenir choice. Gorie draws on Norse symbols to inspire her work. You'll find pieces at the Longship shop, 7 Broad Street, across from St. Magnus Cathedral.
Orkney is a center for fine crafts, and the Orkney Craft Trail offers an online guide to artists around the island. We would have loved to take home a traditional Orkney Chair, made of wood and woven straw. Alas, these hand-crafted masterpieces sell for thousands of dollars.
When in Scotland, go for the Scotch! Many whisky labels never make it to the United States, so sip and experiment. Scotches made on the islands tend to be more "peaty" or smoky from the peat used as fuel in the production process. You might even want to visit Highland Park, the world's most northerly whiskey distillery (see below). You'll also find a number of Orkney-produced beers and ales.