Ancient castles, dramatic mountains, warming whisky, diverse wildlife, picturesque seaside villages, abundant seafood, scenic golf courses and stunning coastal landscapes: The North East 250 is Scotland’s most recently-launched driving route and might be our best-kept secret. This circular route begins and ends in ‘the Granite City’ of Aberdeen, and offers an unforgettable drive through a stunning variety of scenery in Aberdeenshire, Speyside and Moray.
Leaving Aberdeen behind, the route takes you to Royal Deeside, the birthplace of Scottish tourism. Since Victorian times, this wonderfully diverse area has attracted visitors for its royal heritage and enchanting scenery.
Before starting your castle-hopping tour in Deeside, we recommend a short but worthy detour via Stonehaven to visit Dunnottar Castle. This striking clifftop fortress was once home to one of the most powerful families in Scotland – the Earls Marischal – and is situated in a spectacular location overlooking the North Sea.
Continuing on to the lush landscapes alongside the River Dee, the route offers the opportunity to pass through many of the charming castles on Scotland’s official Castle Trail, which includes romantic Medieval ruins with gothic towers and heavy stonework, and grand country houses with period features and some of the finest examples of Scottish Baronial architecture. From lesser-known yet charismatic structures such as Drum Castle and Crathes Castle, to grand estates such as Balmoral Castle, this area teems with history.
Visit the splendid castle where the Queen spends her August holidays, where you can listen to fascinating stories about the Royal family while wandering around the castle grounds, taking in the variety of smells from its wonderful lush gardens, and marvelling at the sublime architecture. With the sound of River Dee in the background, Balmoral is certainly a sight to take one’s breath away!
Royal Lochnagar Distillery is also nearby, so don’t miss the opportunity to pop in for a dram of this fragrant, fruity malt whisky.
Bordered by the breathtaking slopes of the Cairngorms National Park, there are many opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors in this area. Travel onward to Braemar where you could take a tour to the heart of the Cairngorms with Braemar Highland Experience or, if you enjoy hillwalking, you might be tempted to go on a Munro-bagging spree. If you’re after something a little more relaxing, head to Glenshee Ski Centre for glorious views to the hills while sipping a warm beverage at the café.
From Deeside, follow the scenic Snow Road to Grantown-on-Spey, which takes you on the highest public road in Britain. Surrounded by the incredible dramatic landscapes in the eastern Cairngorms, the Snow Road has photo-posts at three installations which reflect the landscape.
Before reaching Grantown, pop in to the Visitor Centre in the Glenlivet Estate near Tomintoul and go for a wander through the estate on foot or wheels. Hire a mountain bike from The Coffee Still Cafe and follow single track trails surrounded by the striking backdrop of the Cairngorms.
Now you are on the Speyside Malt Whisky Trail, where you can sample a wide variety of Speyside single malt whiskies. We recommend beginning your experience in Dufftown, the whisky capital of the world, where you can visit the world-famous Glenfiddich Distillery or join an exclusive tour at The Balvenie Distillery. The imposing ruins of Balvenie Castle, one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland, sit nearby.
From here, travel onward to the quaint village of Craigellachie and stop at The Quaich Bar at the Craigellachie Hotel, which sells an impressive collection of over 600 malts!
However, there is far more to Speyside than whisky. Visit Ballindalloch Castle, “The Pearl of the North” – surrounded by imposing hills. With the tumbling waters of the Rivers Spey and Avon flowing through the grounds, the setting is truly magnificent. Or learn more about a 200-year old weaving tradition by visiting Knockando Woolmill, which still continues to produce woven fabric using its historic looms.
Head north to the majestic Moray Firth – a coastline that was voted one of the world’s best by National Geographic. Visit lovely towns and villages all along the coast; Nairn, Forres, Findhorn, Lossiemouth, and Cullen all have spectacular beaches and a unique character.
To get up close and personal with the Moray Firth, we recommend a wildlife boat trip with North 58˚ Sea Adventures in the eco-village of Findhorn. Look out for the local bottlenose dolphins, grey seals, harbour porpoises, minke whales and maybe even orca! Nearby, enjoy a leisurely day at East Beach in the pretty town of Lossiemouth.
Golf lovers could also spend a day at The Moray Golf Club, designed by Old Tom Morris and considered to be one of the finest links courses in Scotland.
Heading inland, you could visit nearby 13th-century Elgin Cathedral. Even as a ruin, it’s one of Scotland’s most ambitious and beautiful medieval buildings.
Travel to the Scottish Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay and be treated with sightings of a wide variety of wildlife. With interactive exhibitions and daily walking tours, this is a great option for those seeking to learn more about the rich marine life diversity in the Moray Firth.
As you carry on eastward, don’t forget to stop in Cullen to taste Cullen Skink – a delicious, chowder-style soup made with smoked haddock which will warm your bones! You could then walk it off with a scenic stroll to the unique rock formation of Bow Fiddle Rock. Located in Portknockie, a small clifftop fishing village on the Moray coast, Bow Fiddle Rock is the perfect spot to capture some stunning holiday photographs.
As you continue your journey around the North East 250, you will drive along the rugged and dramatic coastline of north east Scotland with its secret bays, panoramic viewpoints and lovely towns.
On your way you could visit Duff House, a stately country house designed by Scottish architect William Adam in the 18th century. The house boasts a fantastic collection of paintings and furniture from the National Galleries of Scotland.
As you continue past the fishing towns of Fraserburgh and Peterhead you will enjoy wonderful views of the expansive coast. You will soon reach Cruden Bay, home to a sandy blue flag beach and a sweeping expanse of pink sands and dunes. Cruden Bay is also home to one of the oldest golf courses in the world: The Cruden Bay Golf Club.
Nearby is New Slains Castle – an atmospheric ruined castle built in 1597 by the Ninth Earl of Erroll to replace Old Slains Castle. It is often said that this magnificent sea-girt courtyard palace gave Bram Stoker the inspiration for Count Dracula’s castle while staying nearby in 1895.
A little further south you might want to visit the unique and lovely village of Collieston, surrounded by jagged cliffs and rocky bays. The village dates to the 1500s when it was a thriving fishing village. Today Collieston is a quiet but wonderfully picturesque place, and the ideal spot to have an ice-cream on a sunny day and admire its idyllic sheltered beach.
Dazzling as the coast is, it is also worth travelling inland and back in time to visit some of the most impressive structures in the Aberdeenshire Castle Trail. 13th century Fyvie Castle is a stunning example of Scottish Baronial architecture, and for some contrast – travel to the charming ruin of Tolquhon Castle at Tarves, or quirky 15th-century Castle Fraser.
Before reaching your final destination of Aberdeen, you could visit the Dog Tap in Ellon, the on-site taproom for BrewDog brewery. What better way to enjoy BrewDog beer than in the place where it was born? Take a DogWalk tour around the 30,000 litre brewhouse as you take in the smells and sounds of this mammoth site. And of course, have a taste of this worldwide favourite craft beer.
Complete your journey in the bustling, port city of Aberdeen which boasts unique architecture, a captivating history and a lively social scene.
Take the opportunity to wander through Old Aberdeen and the collection of pretty old buildings that make up the university, such as Kings College and Elphinstone Hall. You could also walk to Castlegate, where the castle once stood, and gaze at the remarkable architecture in this area, including the Mercat Cross, St Nicholas Church and the Provost Skene’s House.
After a wander through quirky, cobbled Belmont Street with its wide variety of pubs, cafes, and fun little shops, visit the grand neo-gothic Marischal College – the second largest granite structure in the world.
For a unique night out, you could dine at MUSA, a restaurant serving fresh contemporary cuisine, which also hosts live music nights and showcases local art. The setting is an old 19th-century church. As a partner bar of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, you could have one last dram to choose from MUSA’s massive selection of whisky or partake in their whisky tasting sessions. For a nightcap, head to the cool and relaxed setting of Blue Lamp, a central Jazz bar offering live music and comedy throughout the week.
Whether you’re a history buff, whisky obsessive, hiker, foodie, munro bagger, wildlife-lover, or just want to kick back and relax – the incredible diversity of the North East 250 caters to absolutely everybody. As the booming popularity of the North Coast 500 draws visitors to the far north of Scotland, why not head for the equally impressive north east? For now, you’re likely to have this very special corner of Scotland almost to yourself.
Katia Fernandez Mayo
P.S. If you’d like to experience the magic of north east Scotland for yourself, our self-guided North East 250 itinerary includes carefully-selected accommodation, car hire, sightseeing and dining recommendations, and everything you’ll need to have an unforgettable holiday in Scotland. Send us an enquiry and start planning your trip today.