Aberdeen is the ideal arty city break destination

Aberdeen has always had plenty to offer: charming architecture, leafy historic quarters, interesting museums (most of them free), and even its own sandy beach. 

But with the opening of a £333m event and exhibition complex, and the launch of several arty grassroots initiatives, it has suddenly gained a lot more to shout about. And there’s never been a better time to book a long weekend to see it all.

Start your trip at Aberdeen Art Gallery, which recently reopened after a four-year closure, having been ingeniously renovated by Hoskins Architects and Studioarc. The building is a sprawling neo-classical structure erected between the 1880s and 1920s, and a recent extension has dramatically expanded display spaces – meaning there’s three times more art on display than before – and added two sweeping terraces.

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Inside, you’ll find an eclectic and fascinating collection of works by Scottish artists such as Henry Raeburn, and James Cromar Watt, as well as pieces of international renown by the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Francis Bacon, and Claude Monet. 

I particularly liked the rooms dedicated to the sea (very apt for this windswept maritime city), and the one featuring artists’ responses to war. A bonus feature is the fantastic view of Aberdeen, a rarity in a city with no rooftop terraces. 

Next, feast your eyes on the city’s more informal art scene: eye-catching paintings and murals splashed on doorways and walls across town. The former was part of the Painted Doors initiative, founded in 2016, while the latter was a result of the Nuart Street Festival, which launched in 2017. 

Initially founded in Stavanger, Norway, in 2003 by Leeds-born Martyn Reed, Nuart has become the longest running annual street art festival in the world. Since its arrival in Aberdeen, it has brought dozens of internationally acclaimed artists to the city’s streets to create murals and installations. 

“The festival created a buzz for Aberdeen that was beyond anything I’ve experienced before,” says Jon Reid, an Aberdeen-based artist and Nuart tour guide. 

“Thousands of people came on walking tours and shared photos of the work on social media. Some people said to me it was the best thing to happen in Aberdeen since the Tall Ships visited in the early Nineties, which says a lot about how people have felt about the city in the past.”

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a street art fan, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the provocative, occasionally contentious, and often awe-inspiring works, which come in refreshingly small and large sizes. Look out for colourful LEGO infills in broken walls, created by German artist Jan Vormann, and the little grey-suited figurines by Spanish artist Isaac Cordal that are dotted all over town. 

One of the most powerful murals for me was a pair of women pushing each other away by Argentinian artist Hyuro. Despite the feud, they remain joined together by their blouses – it’s said to represent the difficult England-Scotland relationship. I also loved the haunting image by German duo Herakut of a Scottish girl extending an arm to people fleeing war, and two sinking blue, white, and black oil tankers by Polish artists M-City.

“That one sends a powerful message given the climate emergency and is a reminder that the festival is not all about pretty pictures,” says Reid. 

The oil and gas industry has done a lot for the city and created lots of opportunities, but works like these make it clear that Aberdonians are keen to change the image of their city.  

Culture aside, the city offers the tempting opportunity to take a break by the sea. The working harbour is teeming with fishing boats, and offshore vessels and mud tanks used by the oil and gas industry. But push past them and you’ll find the historic and charming village of Footdee (pronounced ‘fittie’) on the eastern end of the city. 

The former fishing village was designed by John Smith, the same architect behind Balmoral Castle, with rows of picturesque cottages looking on to communal squares. Nearby, there’s a sandy beach from which surfers valiantly brave the North Sea. Bring a thick wetsuit if you want to partake. 

Beyond the city walls, Aberdeenshire is home to castles, golf courses and whisky distilleries aplenty. There’s even more art to discover, too. If you haven’t had your fill in the city, make for the Fife Arms in the Highlands village of Braemar. Opened only a year ago by artist collector duo Iwan and Manuela Wirth, it’s housed in a building by the same architect who designed the Aberdeen Art Gallery, Alexander Marshall Mackenzie. Dotted around the 19th-century complex are 16,000 antiques, collectable items and artworks, including Freud, Picasso and one of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s captivating village scenes. It’s all rather enthralling, and, given the setting, quite unexpected.

But that’s perhaps the essence of Aberdeen – unexpected.

Upcoming festivals

Nuart: April-October 2020

Free walking tours are a great way to see the latest Nuart artworks and to find out the stories and ideas behind them. Tours run at 1pm every Saturday from April until the end of September, with extra days offered closer to the festival. But you can also be your own tour guide with this handy online map.

Look Again: June 2020

Look Again is a visual art and design celebration that sees students, emerging creatives and established professionals present new work in public spaces and venues around town.

Sound Scotland: October 2020

Sound Scotland is a festival of new music in North East Scotland.

True North: September 2020

True North is a festival of contemporary music in venues across Aberdeen.

Travel essentials

Where to stay

Sandman Signature Hotel is a somewhat sprawling but stylish and well-appointed hotel. 

Brewdog Kennels is the quirky mini-hotels arm of the Scottish craft beer empire. Choose between a studio or one-bedroom apartment above the Castlegate Brewdog bar. 

After a multi-million pound three-year redevelopment, the Fife Arms has reopened with 46 individually decorated rooms and is chic, eclectic and fun with well-mannered and super hospitable staff.​

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