Braemar is a small village in Aberdeenshire located next to the River Dee. The village is a popular tourist destination due to the number of outdoor activities on offer with hikers using the village as a base to explore Glen Tilt, Glen Dee, Glen Derry and Glen Feshie.
The annual Highland Games Gathering is held in Braemar on the first Saturday in September which is traditionally attended by members of the royal family.
Review of Braemar
The Cairngorms national park in the east Highlands of Scotland is home to a wide variety of outdoor activities, and a huge number of visitors are drawn to the area throughout the year.
Whether it’s mountain biking on the Glenlivet Estate, snowboarding at the Glenshee ski centre, sailing down the River Dee or climbing Ben Macdui, you’re bound to find something that at least one member of the family is going to enjoy (unless you’ve got a Kevin the teenager in tow).
The number of tourist attractions in this part of Scotland makes it difficult to decide where to go if you’re just visiting for a quick break but one place that I keep returning to time and time again is the area surrounding the picturesque village of Braemar.
This part of Aberdeenshire is sparsely populated yet easy to get to with the city of Aberdeen only an hour and a half away and Dundee and Perth more or less the same.
There are lots of reasons to make the journey and hill walkers will have a great time on the many trails that criss-cross the countryside while kayakers will enjoy the gentle waters of the River Dee which meanders its way past Braemar from the slopes of Ben Macdui to its final destination at Aberdeen harbour.
The region surrounding the river is known locally as Deeside – or to be a bit more exact Royal Deeside – as it’s the area where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were known to have holidayed and where they eventually set up their semi-permanent home at Balmoral Castle.
Braemar meanwhile is a quaint wee place, slightly tarnished with the commercial trappings of a thriving tourist trade but with an olde-worlde charm that feels a million miles away from Scotland’s towns and cities.
The village is approached on the A93 from either the east or the south, with the southern stretch of road passing through Glen Clunie and the Cairnwell Pass and the eastern stretch passing Balmoral Castle, but both routes offer stunning views at every twist and turn.
If you’d rather explore the area on foot you’ll be able to reach it from the west by walking through Glens Tilt, Dee and Feshie, or you can embark on a bit of a tricky hike from the Spittal of Glenmuik which lies to the east.
In summer these routes offer some of the best hikes in Scotland but in winter they’re really only an option for the most hardened hill walker due to the climate.
Braemar is the third-coldest place in Britain and holds the crown for having the lowest winter temperature since records began with an astonishing -27°C recorded in 1982. Summer temperatures meanwhile average a balmy 25°C but even so, the average annual temperature hovers at around only 7°C.
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Coupled with more than 150 rainy days each year and a micro-climate that brings in biting winds from the mountains, a winter walk in the wilds of Braemar definitely needs to be approached with caution.
If you intend to drive to Braemar you’ll find a decent-size paid car park in the village centre with toilets nearby and a couple of local shops around the corner. A little way up the road is the bridge crossing the Clunie Water and across the road is the Fife Arms hotel and a bike hire shop.
Once you’re in the village you’ll find there aren’t a huge number of activities on offer other than a few cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops but I have to give a big shout out to the two huge old hotels located at either end.
The Fife Arms and the Invercauld Arms are typical traditional old buildings that are furnished with more Highland memorabilia than you can shake a spurtle at, and both offer delicious traditional Scottish food and a mightily impressive collection of Scotch whisky.
If you’re staying overnight at either hotel you’ll have ample opportunities to explore the surrounding area and in addition to the too-many-to-mention walking trails you’ll find a collection of outstanding castles all within an easy drive.
Things to do in Braemar
The village centre has its own ruined Kindrochit Castle (and it really is just a few small ruined walls – nothing to write home about to be honest) while the much more impressive Braemar Castle is located close to the River Dee around a mile to the north of the village centre.
Braemar Castle is a 17th-century fortress that was built in 1628 by the Earl of Mar. Today it’s a community-run castle (the only one in Scotland) that’s open for guided tours and it also features extensive grounds and children’s activities.
The much larger Balmoral Castle is located just nine miles from the village further along the A93 but unfortunately the Queen’s private residence isn’t always open to visitors (at least it wasn’t in February when the photos on this page were taken) but if it’s open when you drive past you might like to stop for a look.
While the majority of the castle is closed off to the public a fair-sized section is set-up for exhibitions and the huge grounds and gardens are open for tours.
If you arrive and find the castle is closed don’t feel left out as you’ll find a whole heap of other fortresses if you follow the Aberdeenshire Castle Trail which covers the majority of the Cairngorms.
Even if you don’t explore the countryside around Braemar the castle trail is worth making the journey for as some of the biggest and best historic attractions in Scotland can be found along the route.
From Dunnottar Castle to Crathes, Blair and Glamis castles, and Scone Palace to Elgin Cathedral, there’s a wealth of places to visit if you’re a history lover – with an added bonus that visiting them all is a great way to explore this part of Scotland.
If all that castle-hunting is a bit much there’s one other reason to visit Braemar and that’s the Braemar Gathering which is held annually on the first Saturday of September.
This world-famous event is the highlight of the Highland games calendar and features a collection of pipe bands, Highland dancers and athletes, food stalls, music and gift stalls, but it’s the traditional Highland games that are the star of the show.
The Braemar gathering has a history dating back over 900 years but its modern roots can be sourced to the Victorians who founded the Royal Highland Society in 1832. Due to the close proximity of Balmoral Castle, Queen Victoria took patronage of the society in 1848 and to this date the games are attended by various members of the Royal family with HM The Queen making a regular appearance.
It gets booked up early so you won’t get in unless you book well in advance but take my advice and get yourself a ticket at the next available opportunity.
The massed pipe bands and games including military tug-of-war and tossing the caber are a real spectacle and are all part of a guaranteed brilliant family day out, and they might even be enough to tempt Kevin the teenager to put his phone down for a minute or two.
- The scenery. While Braemar is a nice wee village it’s the surrounding countryside that’s the real attraction here. The stunning mountain scenery, thick woodland and sweeping hills make for a superb outdoors getaway that’s hard to beat anywhere else in Scotland. Take a look at the official Cairngorms National Park website for further details.
- The Aberdeenshire Castle Trail is probably the best way to go sightseeing in Aberdeenshire. Balmoral Castle is one of the highlights but there are loads of other fortresses to wander around as well.
- The Highland gathering is one of, if not the best Highland games event in Scotland. There are a new exhibition and visitor centre at the entrance and the event is a wonderful day out. It’s a bit pricey to get in though so bear that in mind if you’ve got a large family (grandstand tickets are around £35 each).
- The road south on the A93 towards Braemar rises quite steeply and in winter it’s often slippery with snow and ice. I’m listing this as a point to note as I nearly careered into the verge a couple of years ago. Slow down or leave the journey for later in the year.
- There are a couple of nice wee cafés in the village centre and as the prices are fairly reasonable I wouldn’t bother taking your own food if you’re just there for the day. If staying overnight I recommend the Fife Arms which is a lovely old hotel with a superb restaurant.
- You’ll find a really good walk from Braemar along the River Clunie and the Queen’s Drive – so called because it was Queen Victoria’s favourite carriage drive.
Click the map for directions
Photo gallery and video
Things to do near Braemar
- Braemar Castle. Braemar, Ballater AB35 5XR. 13-minute walk. 17th-century castle located a mile outside Braemar village. Originally the home of Clan Farquharson, it is now a community-run tourist attraction that is open for guided tours.
- Lecht Ski Centre. Cock Bridge, Strathdon AB36 8YP. 40-minute drive. Ski centre that offers runs for children and adults from beginner to advanced level. The centre has a young children’s learn-to-ski park, ski lifts and an equipment hire shop.
- Ben Macdui. Ballater AB35 5YJ. 5-hour walk. The 4,295-feet mountain offers a good choice of walking trails to the summit. Ben Macdui is the second-highest mountain in Scotland after Ben Nevis.
- Glenshee Ski Centre. Old Military Rd, Ballater AB35 5XU. 13-minute drive. Expansive ski centre that features multiple ski runs for all experience levels, a snow sports school, cafés and equipment hire facilities.
- Balmoral Castle. Balmoral Estates, Ballater AB35 5TB. 13-minute drive. Scottish baronial-style castle that is the royal family summer home. Balmoral Castle and grounds are open for public tours when royalty is not in residence. Visitors can also enjoy safari tours, a gift shop and a café.
More places to visit in The Highlands
- The Highland Wildlife Park – Highland: Complete Visitor GuideSitting in around 260 acres of beautifully managed parkland in the Cairngorms, the Highland Wildlife Park showcases some of the wildlife that can be found in the mountains and wilderness areas of Scotland, as well as several species that are currently endangered in mountainous regions all over the world.
- The Cairngorm Mountain Funicular – Highland: Complete Visitor GuideThe Cairngorm mountain is the UK’s sixth-highest and is well-known for being Scotland’s premier snowsports destination.
- The Glenfinnan Monument – Inverness-shire: Complete Visitor GuideThe Glenfinnan Monument sits at the north-east head of Loch Shiel where it has commanded spectacular views of the Highland landscape since its construction in 1815.
- The Complete Guide to Free Attractions in The HighlandsDiscover the best free attractions in Scotland with my list of free attractions in The Highlands