Kirkwall in One Day

Thinking of visiting Orkney? We recommend a two-week stay: one week for the Mainland, and one for the outer isles. What’s that you say? You’re only here for one day? Never fear: we've put together the perfect guide for how to do Kirkwall in one day.

Whether you arrive by bus, ferry or cruise liner, you’re bound to be starting somewhere in the town centre. How do you know you’re in the centre? Look up, and you’ll see the striking red sandstone spire of St Magnus Cathedral. Wherever you go in the town, a glimpse of the spire is all you need to bring you back to the heart of the town.

St Magnus Cathedral Orkney
St Magnus Cathedral. Image credit: Rachel Eunson


And the cathedral really is the heart of the town – and of Orkney. Building started in 1137, to honour Magnus, a peace-loving Viking earl, murdered by his cousin and rival Håkon in 1117. Very soon after his death, miracles started to occur around his grave in Birsay, and he swiftly became hailed as a saintly figure – in due course Orkney’s patron saint. Within 20 years of his death, planning started for a great cathedral on what was then the town’s shoreline. (As you walk through our main shopping streets, you are strolling along a Norse-era beach!)

Not only is the cathedral historic, it’s also extremely beautiful. It escaped the worst of the destruction wrought on such buildings during the Reformation. Its lofty red and yellow sandstone walls, lined with ancient carved gravestones and other relics, make it a haven of peace. Excellent guided tours are available, or you can sit and simply enjoy a moment of contemplation: after nearly 900 years, the cathedral is still Orkney’s most impressive building. (And a source of inspiration for our jewellery.)

Just to the west of the cathedral are the well-preserved remains of two medieval palaces. Not many small towns can boast of one palace, never mind two! The smaller, with its distinctive round tower, is the Bishop’s Palace, built to house the retinue of the cathedral’s senior cleric. Next door is the Earl’s Palace, built in 1607 by Patrick Stewart, one of the early Scottish earls of Orkney, and a ruler of extreme cruelty. He also had extremely good taste, architecturally, and his palace is often said to be the finest Renaissance building in Scotland.

Tankerness House Orkney
Tankerness House. Image credit:


Directly opposite the cathedral is Tankerness House, parts of which were built as early as 1530, as a residence for important priests. It’s now home to Orkney Museum: not only is the building itself historic, but its contents give an amazing insight into these islands’ long history, from the Neolithic, through the Bronze Age, the eras of the Picts, the Viking and the Scots, right up to the present day.

If you don’t have time to visit all the archaeological sites around the islands, you can experience the next best thing here – and in some ways better, as you will see some very special artefacts that are stored here for safekeeping.

If you visit these three sites, you will, in just a few hours, have gained a real insight into Orkney and what makes it special. To finish off your day, we recommend a stroll along Kirkwall’s main streets – you remember, the old Viking beach?

The Orkney Museum Orkney
The Orkney Museum. Image credit:


As you emerge from the museum, long, narrow Victoria Street lies on your right. There are several shops down there, as well as a café or two, and one of the town’s top whisky bars. Turn the other way, and you will see the entrance to another similarly long, narrow street – Albert Street. (The names of these two streets give away their origins in the prosperous 19th century, when much of central Kirkwall was laid out.) Albert Street eventually turns into Bridge Street and winds its way down to the harbour. Along the way it's lined with excellent pubs, cafés and shops, which would be the envy of many a larger town.

The Longship Orkney
The Longship, 7 - 15 Broad Street


Best of all is bright, airy Broad Street, with the cathedral and Kirk Green on its east side, and the museum, town hall and some particularly fine shops on its west side. Here, at numbers 7 to 15, you will find The Longship, home to Ola’s family’s business since 1859, and still home to Ola Gorie Jewellery. Pop in and see us!

You can also shop our Orkney collection online. 

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