Short Break in Orkney - 4 Day Itinerary

Taste the smoky influences in Orkney whisky, see rare birds soaring in the skies overhead, walk amongst historic sites that have stood for thousands of years and gaze out at swirling seas on a coastal walk.

You can explore the enchanting islands on this 4 day short break in Orkney. You’ll visit key Orkney points of interest, such as the fascinating historic sites of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, and discover the wonder of Orkney through the elements of fire, air, earth and water.

There are lots of unique things to do in Orkney throughout the seasons too, from seeing North Ronaldsay lambs frolicking in spring and summer to gazing at the dazzling Northern Lights in the darker months.

For more information about visiting Orkney head to or read on for our top ideas on how to fit in the highlights of Orkney in just four days, with travel information, attraction opening, maps and more.


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Mainland Orkney, Isle of Hoy, Isle of North Ronaldsay

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Explore three islands, visit key historic sites, taste local food and drink, see rare animals and beautiful natural landscapes

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Day 1 - Mainland Orkney

Your first day on Orkney begins with a visit to the famous Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

Four world-class historic sites make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney and you’ll visit them all in this itinerary, with three to tick off today and the fourth on day 3. In the afternoon head back to the main town of Kirkwall to tour a whisky distillery and explore around town.

Getting to Mainland Orkney

Fly to Kirkwall Airport.

Sail from ferry terminals near John O’ Groats or Scrabster in the North Highlands or from Aberdeen.

Find out more about getting to Orkney.

Getting around Mainland Orkney

Mainland Orkney is a large island and this itinerary covers a lot of ground. There are bus services available but for this itinerary it would be best to bring your car over on the ferry or hire a car on the island for getting around.

Find out more about getting around on Orkney.

Ring of Brodgar (earth)

Get up bright and early to visit one of Orkney’s most famous attractions – the ancient Ring of Brodgar. Sunrises here are spectacular and you’ll never forget the experience of walking amongst the standing stones in the clear morning light.

This impressive standing stone circle has stood for 5,000 years and is one of the four historic sites in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. It’s the third largest stone circle in Britain, with 27 of the 60 original standing stones remaining.

Open: all year

Ness of Brodgar (earth)

If you find archaeology fascinating, during July and August you can see a live excavation under way at the Ness of Brodgar, a huge Neolithic settlement located close to the Ring of Brodgar.

In 2003 investigations revealed part of a large building and archaeological work began in 2004 to uncover more. Visit the site to see excavations in progress or join one of the free tours to learn more about the excavation.

Open: most of July and August

Standing Stones of Stenness (earth)

At the other side of the Ness of Brodgar you’ll find the ancient Standing Stones of Stenness - the second stop on your the Heart of Neolithic Orkney tour.

Believed to be older than the Ring of Brodgar, this monument has been radiocarbon dated to around 3100 – 2900 BC.

Breathe in the fresh Orkney air as you take in the 12 stones and imagine the huge struggle that would have been involved in erecting them over 5,000 years ago.

Open: all year

Maeshowe (earth)

Stand inside this huge chambered tomb and feel the atmosphere of its still interior. Maeshowe is also part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney (site number three of four on this itinerary) and is thought to date from around 2700 BC.

This is the largest chambered tomb on Orkney. It was built using huge stone slabs, with a vast, 10 m long entrance passageway. Ingeniously, this passageway was constructed to line up perfectly with the setting sun during the midwinter solstice, which illuminates the interior of the chamber.

Inside, on the walls of the tomb, you can see the runic graffiti left behind by Norse invaders – a reminder of Orkney’s Viking past and Norse heritage.

Tip – you can only enter the tomb by booking a guided tour. Book in advance to get the time you want.

Open: all year

Highland Park Distillery (fire)

Head back towards Kirkwall where you’ll spend the evening. Why not drop your car off at your accommodation and spend the afternoon exploring the town by foot?

Head to Highland Park Distillery, a 20 minute walk from the town centre, and take a tour to learn about how whisky is crafted before sampling some signature Highland Park single malts.

Open: all year

St Magnus Cathedral (earth)

From Highland Park Distillery it’s around a 20 minute walk to St Magnus Cathedral in the centre of Kirkwall.

Founded by Earl Rognvald, in 1137 to house the relics of his uncle, St Magnus, the cathedral was built using vibrant red and yellow sandstone at a time when Orkney was ruled by Vikings.

Major events to look out for at the cathedral include the St Magnus International Festival in June and St Lucy Festival in early December.

Tour St Magnus and admire the beautiful stained glass windows before finding a vibrant local restaurant where you can enjoy dinner.

Open: all year

Spend the evening in Kirkwall.

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Day 2 – Isle of Hoy

With its towering cliffs and mountainous moorland, it’s easy to see why the Vikings named Hoy ‘High Island’. Visit Orkney’s second largest island and choose between two lovely walks to stretch your legs – the cliff-side amble out to the Old Man of Hoy or a challenging hike up Ward Hill.

Getting to Hoy

Orkney Ferries operate two ferry routes between the Orkney Mainland and the Isle of Hoy - either Stromness to North Hoy, or Houton to Lyness, on the east side of Hoy. Both Stromness and Houton are around a 20 - 25 minute drive from Kirkwall.

Getting around Hoy

How you get around Hoy will depend on which ferry you choose and which village you arrive in.

If you’ve travelled from Stromness to Moaness in North Hoy there is a 2 hour (one way) walk from Moaness to Rackwick (your first activity option for the day), while the 4 - 5.5 hour (return) walk up Ward Hill (your second activity option for the day) begins in Moaness.

If you’ve travelled from Houton it would be best to bring your car to travel from the east to the west side of the island.

Rackwick Bay, Isle of Hoy, Orkney

Rackwick Bay (air)

Rackwick is the starting point for the popular walk out to the famous Old Man of Hoy (your next stop), but it’s worth stopping in Rackwick itself to soak up the peaceful atmosphere of the bay and marvel at the towering red sandstone cliffs on either side of you. There’s also toilet facilities where you can stop for a comfort break.

Open: all year

Old Man of Hoy (water)

Pay a visit to Hoy’s most famous natural wonder – the towering, 137 m high sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy. Beginning in Rackwick, the three hour return walk out to the Old Man of Hoy offers stunning sea views and there is plenty of wildlife to look out for too.

Hoy is an RSPB nature reserve and there are lots of beautiful birds to see soaring around you, including puffins, hen harriers and stonechat.

Open: all year

Dwarfie Stane (earth) and Ward Hill (air)

Your second activity option for today is a visit to the fascinating Dwarfie Stane and a steep climb up Ward Hill, the highest point in Orkney at 1,570 ft.

Begin the Ward Hill and Dwarfie Stane hike in Moaness (where the ferry from Stromness arrives) and head out to visit the ancient Dwarfie Stane. Thought to date from somewhere between the Neolithic and Bronze Age era, the Dwarfie Stane is a huge, 8.5 m long block of red sandstone that has been hollowed out and is thought to have been used as a tomb.

Look inside the tomb before beginning your ascent up Ward Hill. From the top you’ll get stunning views out across the Orkney islands. Take care though, the climb is extremely steep in places.

Open: all year

Once back in Moaness, return to the mainland by ferry and spend the evening in Stromness or Kirkwall.

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Day 3 - Mainland Orkney

Your third day on Orkney takes you to the west Mainland. There’s a whole host of surprising sights to see and things to do, from discovering the area’s natural wonders and exploring your fourth and final Heart of Neolithic Orkney site, to touring a brewery and delving into Orkney’s folklore.
Skara Brae, Mainland, Orkney

Yesnaby sea cliffs (water)

The first stop of your day is a visit out to the Yesnaby cliffs to see the Yesnaby Castle sea stack bathed in the morning light.

Plan around 1 hour – 1 hour 30 minutes for your visit. There is a relative short walk out to Yesnaby Castle from the car park at the Gun Battery, along the Yesnaby coastal path.

Open: all year

Skara Brae (earth)

Your second stop this morning is the famous Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae, the final piece of your Heart of Neolithic Orkney jigsaw puzzle.

Made up of eight dwellings interlinked by passageways, Skara Brae was hidden underground for centuries until 1850, when a storm uncovered the outline of several of its stone buildings.

Visit the site to learn more about what life may have been like in Neolithic times and grab lunch in the visitor centre café or head on to the Orkney Brewery (your next stop) to choose a tasty meal from the Tasting Hall café menu.

Open: all year

Orkney Brewery (fire)

The Orkney Brewery is just a short drive away from Skara Brae at Quoyloo. Take a tour of the brewery to discover how their signature ales are crafted before sampling a taste of their golden beers and dark ales. Most breweries offer a soft drink alternative for drivers, but you can always pick up a bottle to take home for another time?

Open: all year

Marwick Head (water)

Enjoy an afternoon stroll around the circular coastal walk at RSPB Marwick Head nature reserve and look out for beautiful birds including fulmars, razorbills and kittiwakes. In the summer months you can also see up to 25,000 nesting seabirds in the cliff ledges.

Open: all year

Orkney FolkLore and Storytelling Centre (fire)

If you’re in the area in the evening its worth checking out the calendar of events at the Orkney FolkLore and Storytelling Centre. Hear tales from Orkney’s past as you sit by the peat fire.

Storytelling evenings beginning at 8pm while story courses and family events are available throughout the day. You can also book guided heritage walks of Stromness and Scapa Flow.

Open: all year

Spend the evening in Kirkwall, ahead of your flight to North Ronaldsay tomorrow.

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Day 4 – Isle of North Ronaldsay

Fly from Kirkwall to North Ronaldsay, the most northerly island on Orkney. On the island you can visit the North Ronaldsay Lighthouse, the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory and see the famous North Ronaldsay sheep, an ancient native breed that eat seaweed on the shore.

Getting to North Ronaldsay

Check Loganair’s Orkney inter island timetables for flight details and booking information.

Getting around North Ronaldsay

At 4 miles long by 1 mile wide, North Ronaldsay is perfect for exploring by foot or by bike.

One of the lovely walks on the island is the North Ronaldsay circular walk, which follows the circumference of the island. This is a long walk - it covers 12 miles and takes 6.5 – 7.5 hours to complete, though you could tackle part of it for a shorter adventure.

If you fancy cycling, the North Ronaldsay Trust offers bike hire by prearrangement. Bikes and helmets can be ready for you to pick up straight from the airport.

Sheep Dyke (earth)

Beginning at North Ronaldsay airport, follow the North Ronaldsay circular walk out to the coastline and on towards North Ronaldsay Lighthouse (your next stop).

Walk northwards till you reach the drystone Sheep Dyke which surrounds the shore of the island. One of North Ronaldsay’s most famous features, the Sheep Dyke is 13 miles long and 2 metres high and was built in 1832 to keep the native sheep on the shore, where they spend the majority of the year grazing on seaweed.

This ancient breed can trace its roots back to the Neolithic era, and is highly prized for its wool and meat. Look out for these star residents as you follow the route around the coastline.

Open: all year

North Ronaldsay Lighthouse (fire)

North Ronaldsay Lighthouse is one of the island’s most famous landmarks. This is the tallest land-based lighthouse in Britain at 42 metres high.

Book a lighthouse tour to learn more about this distinctive building and how the lighthouse keepers used light from fire to keep nearby sailors safe. While you’re there, walk out to visit the Old Beacon, the lighthouse’s predecessor, which is located nearby at Dennis Head.

There’s also a lovely café at the lighthouse, where you can stop for something tasty to eat, as well as a shop, where you can pick up local crafts and gifts, and a wool mill, which is your next stop.

Open: please check opening. Tours can be booked in advance.

A Yarn from North Ronaldsay (earth)

Located at the lighthouse, A Yarn from North Ronaldsay turns the raw North Ronaldsay sheep fleeces into high quality yarn. Book a tour of the mill to learn about the process for producing felt from raw wool.

Open: please check opening. Tours can be booked in advance.

North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory (air)

As well as offering a range of accommodation options, the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory also has a restaurant and bar, where you can enjoy something to eat and drink, as well as a shop selling local crafts.

Located to the south of the island, the observatory was set up in 1987 to study the birds that visit the island each year. A huge array of beautiful, and often rare, bird species visit the island as they migrate in the spring and autumn months. Pay attention to the skies as you explore the island – you never know what you might spot!

Open: all year

Spend the evening in North Ronaldsay or fly back to Kirkwall.