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The best free things to do in Aberdeen
Aberdeen is one of the largest cities in Northern Scotland and is the perfect hub for tours throughout the Highlands. Although the city is best known for its links to the oil and gas industry it also has a vibrant nightlife and extensive shopping areas, as well as some fascinating history in the old part of the town, like Aberdeen University which dates back to 1495.
There’s also a host of beaches to enjoy, all of which offer panoramic views across the North Sea, while ferry travel to Orkney and the Shetlands is easy from the Aberdeen Ferry Terminal.
Aberdeen Maritime Museum
- Address: Aberdeen Maritime Museum, Shiprow, Aberdeen, AB11 5BY
- Website: Aberdeen Maritime Museum
- Telephone: 01224 337700
As the foremost oil and gas capital of Europe, Aberdeen has a long association both with the sea and with cutting-edge science and engineering, and this museum located in the historic Shiprow area of the city showcases the proud heritage of Aberdeen’s long sea-faring history.
Part of the building that houses the museum was once used as Lord Provost John Ross’s house in the 18th-century, although the building itself actually dates back to the late 16th-century. Luckily the National Trust for Scotland took ownership after it fell into ruin in the 1950s and it’s now jointly managed by NTS and the city council who also manages the museum.
There are actually two parts to this attraction – the old Lord Provost’s house which is built of traditional stone and a modern steel and glass building which links the provost’s house with the church next door, and I think it’s fitting that the old building contains all the traditional examples of shipbuilding, fishing, and harbour life while the new building contains all the ultra-modern offshore oil and gas exhibits.
It’s a nice touch and one of the reasons the museum is rated a four-star visitor attraction by Visit Scotland (Scotland’s official tourist board).
Inside the museum you’ll find a vast collection of exhibits that cover the entirety of Aberdeen’s sailing and shipbuilding past as well as the city’s current use as a fishing port and hub for oil exploration and extraction in the North Sea.
They’ve done a great job in making the museum interesting to all ages and you’ll find an assortment of touch screen consoles alongside more traditional hands-on exhibits, and both kids and adults will have a great time exploring the story of how this former shipping port became one of Scotland’s major economic and industrial powerhouses.
One thing that really impressed me about the Aberdeen Maritime Museum is that they’ve gone to great lengths to provide an educational element to the attraction, and they’ve done it in a way that’s both informative and fun at the same time. Something that’s not an easy task to pull off by any means.
As with all attractions like this there’s a gift shop on-site that sells a wide range of gifts, crafts, and books, and there’s a really good cafe that’s a bit of a tourist attraction in its own right thanks to the views from the wall-to-ceiling windows.
Overlooking the waterfront, the cafe serves first-class food and it’s a great place to take a break before heading into the nearby shopping area of the city with its surrounding trendy bars and restaurants.
Aberdeen Zoology Museum and Botanic Garden
- Address: Tillydrone Ave, Aberdeen, AB24 2TZ
- Website: Aberdeen Botanic Gardens / Aberdeen University Zoology Museum
- Telephone: 01224 274330
The University of Aberdeen is home to two attractions that are totally worth making the time to visit and yet they’re largely unknown about by most people who live outside the city. This is a real shame because not only are these attractions genuinely interesting but they’re also two of the best free things to do in Scotland, to my mind at least.
The Zoology Museum is located in the university Zoology Building (where else would it be?) and contains a vast number of exhibits that cover the complete spectrum of worldwide animal research, from the smallest protozoa to the largest whales.
There’s so much to see in the museum that you can easily lose yourself for a couple of hours while you examine each display and it’s a real voyage of discovery as you view specimens that have been collected from across the globe.
During your time at the Aberdeen Zoology Museum you’ll see skeletons and models of a variety of animals, from whales to snakes and everything in-between, as well as a fascinating collection of animal skulls and fluid-preserved creatures.
There are a few taxidermied animals included in the collection as well, so if you’ve got kids, taking them to this university museum is a good way to help them develop an interest in biology and the animal kingdom.
The entire collection is the result of over 200 years of university research by staff and students and it’s obviously been a work of love putting it all together, and I personally think it’s fantastic that the university has made the collection available to the general public with no entrance cost, especially considering there are over 75,000 different exhibits to view.
Even better, the displays frequently change so that new specimens are added to the permanent vertebrate and invertebrate collections so there’s a good chance there’ll be something new to see if you visit the museum another time.
Offered in tandem to the museum is the Cruikshank Botanic Garden located on the Kings College campus (click here to see a downloadable campus map), and this is another hidden gem in the city that’s well worth a visit, especially in summer.
Covering a surprisingly large 11 acres, the garden is full of species that have been collected from all over the world, and there are plenty of interesting plants to view in the meticulously well-maintained shrub borders, rose garden, water garden and arboretum – which contains an incredible 2,500 labelled plants.
The gardens are exceptionally peaceful and absolutely bloom with flowers in summer which makes it a great place to relax after visiting the busy city centre, and as it’s only 3 miles away you can easily get there by bus (see the First Bus Aberdeen route planner for details).
Balmedie Country Park
- Address: Balmedie, AB23 8XG
- Website: Balmedie Country Park
- Telephone: NA
When I first visited Aberdeen I was amazed by the number of beautiful sandy beaches that run along that part of the coastline – especially considering the city is best known for being the industrial heartland of the oil and gas industry.
I was expecting to find vast stretches of dreary, polluted sea-front but what I actually found instead was mile-after-mile of pristine sand dunes and invitingly clear sea, and the best beach I’ve discovered so far has to be at Balmedie Country Park.
The park envelopes 14 miles of coastline from Aberdeen to just north of the mouth of the River Ythan at Newburgh and is home a diverse range of animal and plant species thanks to the vast stretches of sand dunes that border the golden beaches.
There always seems to be something new to watch whenever I’ve visited Balmedie Country Park so if you’re a bird watcher I recommend you take your binoculars and camera with you.
Oh, and don’t forget to look out towards the sea because there’s a good chance you’ll catch sight of the dolphins and seals that live around this part of the coastline, although there are a fair few wind turbines just off the coast that spoil the view a wee bit.
The dunes, in particular, are a great place for kids to play games and they’ll love exploring some of the 30-foot monsters, while parents can relax on the soft sand with a picnic (although the dunes are a haven for rabbits so there’ll no doubt be quite a bit of rabbit poop to avoid).
Here’s a top tip if you visit the park – bring a plastic sledge as the dunes are steep enough to make a great slide. Who needs to wait for a snowfall when you can go sledging at any time of the year on a beach?!
Smaller children will have a great time at the playpark near the car park and if you’ve got a dog I can’t think of anywhere they’ll enjoy more than this stretch of coastline, but as there are often horse riders on the beach you might want to keep them on a lead.
Aberdeen Council have done a great job of making the park accessible thanks to the 1.7 km of wooden boardwalks that have been installed through the dunes so even if you’ve got mobility issues you’ll be able to enjoy these beautiful surroundings, and the car park is a decent size so you shouldn’t have any problems finding a space to park (although access is for cars only so forget it if you’ve got a motor home).
They’ve even installed picnic benches and barbecue fire stands so you can have a great family day out. Well done Aberdeen Council!
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