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‘It’s better than Edinburgh!’ A day in the life of a cruise ship visitor seeing Old Aberdeen for the first time

We joined a group of German tourists to see the city through their eyes.

German tourists outside St Machar Bar in Old Aberdeen.
Passengers from the AIDAaura cruise ship went on an excursion to Old Aberdeen and St Machar Cathedral. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson.

There is nothing more exciting than exploring a city you’ve never seen before.

And this year, thousands of people from all over the world are getting the chance to discover Aberdeen.

More than 2,500 eager visitors descended on the north-east on Thursday as a pair of hulking cruise ships sailed into the city’s South Harbour.

But what would they think of the Granite City? What is it like to see the “glittering” buildings and rustic streets of Old Aberdeen for the first time?

Most of the German tourists came off the cruise ship diligently equipped with a map of Aberdeen. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson.

We wanted to experience just what a day in the life of a cruise ship visitor is like, so I hopped on a tour bus with 36 Germans to see things through their eyes.

I was there as they gazed in admiration at St Machar Cathedral, took a picture of every quirky house and had a sip of Irn Bru for the first time.

I was even enlightened about what a “proper Scottish man” looks like – but more on that later…

I first set sights on the giant cruise ship on Thursday morning. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

New harbour bursts into life as passengers set off on day out

We arrive at the bustling harbour in Torry at 8.15am.

As our photographer Kami and I are trying to find our way around, one of the staff members at the Port of Aberdeen tells me they are still getting used to it being so busy.

AIDAaura and Renaissance had just docked at the South Harbour, collectively carrying about 2,600 passengers – all gearing up to venture out into the north-east.

Dozens of Aberdeen volunteers helped passengers find their way around the harbour. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Aberdeen is the last stop for those on board AIDAaura, after a 12-day sail across the North Sea exploring Ireland, the Scottish islands and Edinburgh.

The harbour bursts into life as visitors get off the ships to look for their assigned bus.

And after a quick chat – and a few photos – with AIDAaura hotel director Christopher Röder, I join their fully booked excursion to Old Aberdeen.

The cruise ship has been sailing across the North Sea for the last 12 days. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson.

What were the visitors’ first impressions of the Silver city?

Our group is led by local tour guide Francisca Sanchez Ortiz and Cologne-born Cedric Jansen, who spend the trip sharing tales of Aberdeen in both English and German.

All eyes turn on to me when Cedric presents me as a “local reporter with rusty German, who is about to take loads of photos and speak to them all”.

I’m welcomed with some polite chuckles.

And this honest introduction will prove to be helpful further down the line when I put my dubious language skills to the test.

Other tour buses took passengers to locations in Aberdeenshire – such as Balmoral and Dunnottar Castle. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Fran explains more about the newly revamped £400 million harbour as the bus slowly makes its way through Torry before venturing into the city.

I sit next to Silvia Schroeter, from Wuppetal, who loves travelling around the world on her own – particularly on a cruise ship.

Remember her name, because she later proves instrumental.

“It’s amazing,” the 42-year-old says. “You make so many new friends and we all become like a big happy family. And there is always something to do on board.”

Many decided to take a photo at the harbour once the ship docked in Aberdeen. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Everyone is staring through the windows in an unimpressed silence as the tour guides tell them all about Aberdeen’s oil and gas industry.

But murmurs of excitement break out when the tourists spot the “castle-like” tops of the Citadel and Aberdeen Sheriff Court.

The Salvation Army Aberdeen Citadel pictured from Castlegate on a sunny day
The Citadel’s turrets proved eye-catching. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

Suddenly, everyone seems intrigued.

But Silvia isn’t charmed by the “cold granite” buildings as we traverse King Street.

Her verdict: “It’s very monotone – same shapes, same style of buildings, same grey colours – and it looks a bit dirty.”

Old Aberdeen tourists
Some of the passengers joked it’s a good thing they are not wearing heels when walking on the rugged streets in Old Aberdeen. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

King’s College Chapel first stop on tour of Old Aberdeen

Our first stop is the iconic King’s College Chapel and the Crown Tower – two of the most historic parts of Aberdeen University.

And just seconds after the group hops off the bus, the street becomes a sea of cameras and phones, with everyone eager to capture the intricate details of the building.

Old Aberdeen tourists
Our tour guides explained the ancient history of the King’s Quad and its importance to the university and the city. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

We take a walk through the quiet King’s Quad where my fellow explorers can have a closer look at the 19th century well and the two guarding statues of a lion and a unicorn.

Another history lesson from Fran and Cedric, and we stop for a break to soak in the atmosphere.

Some would have thought that having seen Edinburgh Castle and National Museum of Scotland, the less-famous abode of our students might be a bit disappointing.

Old Aberdeen tourists
Gabi and Peter spoke fondly of all of the adventures they’ve had during 40 years of marriage. Image: Denny Andonova/DC Thomson.

It’s official: Aberdeen is ‘a lot better than Edinburgh’

But 62-year-olds Gabi and Peter Hapke much preferred the “cosy feel” of Aberdeen compared to the hustle and bustle of the capital.

“It’s just noisy, busy and messy in Edinburgh,” Gabi, from Hamburg, says.

“Aberdeen is definitely a lot better.

“It’s smaller but that’s what makes it so nice – it makes you feel more comfortable and at home.”

Some of the passengers wanted to have a closer look at the King’s College Chapel. Image: Denny Andonova/DC Thomson.
Old Aberdeen tourists
Everybody was eager to capture the interesting architecture of the university building. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson.

She adds: “We love travelling and we’ve been to many places around the world – this is our ninth cruise.

“But it’s nothing like we’ve ever seen before. The buildings are very impressive.”

And with that, we move on to the more “modern” parts of Old Aberdeen.

What will tourists make of modern library building?

For Hartwig Grothkopp and Annette Eichenauer, the glass tower of Sir Duncan Rice Library is an interesting addition to the area’s antique surroundings.

The couple have travelled all across Scandinavia, the Scottish islands, Norway and further afield in their 33 years together, bagging one major city after another.

Hartwig Grothkopp and Annette Eichenauer really enjoyed both the traditional and modern side of Aberdeen. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

The one destination they had longed to tick off from their list was mainland Scotland.

And Old Aberdeen presented a perfect opportunity for them.

Holding a nicely folded map of the city, 63-year-old Hartwig says: “The combination of old, Medieval architecture and new modern development is what makes Aberdeen spectacular.”

Old Aberdeen tourists
Fran made sure to complement us in the end that we are all “very good walkers”. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

He continues: “The university was really impressive and the contrast with the new library is really interesting.”

And to my surprise, having heard the word “grey” accompany every description of Aberdeen so far, Annette appeared to be a fan of the “glittering” granite.

She said: “We’ve seen only a small part of the city but we’ve really enjoyed it. And we actually like the granite colours. It gives Aberdeen a bit of character.”

The group is challenged to walk into the library and look up. With an air of mystery, Fran asks us to share our thoughts after.

The design of the library was one of the highlights for many of us. Image: Denny Andonova/DC Thomson.

All 36 of us enter and the foyer was immediately filled with gasps at the library’s “waves”.

As a former Robert Gordon University student, this was the first time I had set foot into the library as well so I must admit one of the gasps was mine.

Christina Rhiem, 66, couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the elaborate interior design, giving the illusion of sailing on a small boat in a stormy sea.

Old Aberdeen tourists
After the surprise at Sir Duncan Rice Library, we all headed to the former Town House in Old Aberdeen. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

“I was genuinely surprised to see that when I walked in,” she said. “Amazing.”

Annette and Hartwig also must have been impressed by it as they quickly got their cameras out and started taking photos from every possible angle.

With such a positive response to everything they had seen so far, I just had to ask.

“Would you ever move to Aberdeen if you had the chance?” – I say with a giggle in case they think I’m joking.

Old Aberdeen tourists
Walking through this narrow path gave a feel for the area in olden times. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson.

And after a few-seconds pause, the couple answer in unison: “Yes, why not. Aberdeen appears to be everything we like, so why not consider it in a few years.”

Their favourite part from the tour, however, is yet to come.

St Machar’s Cathedral wows Old Aberdeen tourists

After a quick stop at one of the old country houses and the former Town House on High Street we reach St Machar’s Cathedral.

As Fran is explaining the history of the centuries-old place of worship, a group of regular visitors – presumably locals – amble across the kirkyard.

Loads were amazed by the site of the St Machar’s Cathedral graveyard. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson
A tourist taking a picture of St Machar Cathedral in Old Aberdeen.
Others were more impressed by the flat oak ceiling, which is decorated with a large number of impressive heraldic shields representing the monarchies of Europe. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Among them is an elderly man donning a traditional suit with a kilt.

“This is a proper Scottish man, ja?” – one of the German ladies next to me asks with a nod of approval. “Very good, very good.”

All 36 heads turn to the man as he makes several trips across the yard, unintentionally distracting the group from Fran’s enticing tale about the historic landmark.

Annette later tells me the church’s graveyard was her favourite part of the tour.

Old Aberdeen tourists
Many visitors to the churchyard are in the process of compiling their family tree and come in search of an ancestor’s grave. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

The cathedral is heaving when we walk in, with dozens of foreign languages and different accents echoing around the building.

Judith Norman, an elder at St Machar’s Cathedral, tells me they have had so many busloads of tourists and north-east groups come in that day, she has now lost count.

Probably hundreds of people visited the cathedral that day – to the delight of church members. You might be able to spot me in the green blazer. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Around 30,000 people visited the cathedral in 2022 and they’re on course to match that this year.

Judith added: “It’s lovely to see the place so appreciated.

“When it comes to visitors from other countries, it’s that sense of respect for this living cathedral that has been here for centuries.

“Even with the foreign language being some sort of a barrier, you can feel their appreciation. You can see it in their beaming smiles.”

We all took interest in finding out more about St Machar’s Cathedral and its rich history. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

‘A rustic Scottish pub of traditions’

It is only right that a long and hard day of work will finish with a dram or a pint of Tennent’s – so we go to the nearby St Machar Bar.

Described as a “rustic Scottish pub” in AIDA’s itinerary, it was intended to present the country’s traditional bar culture at its finest.

And so it did.

I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a pint of Tennents after all? Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson
Even the pub attracted some photography enthusiasts with its “rustic Scottish” look. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson.

Previously tired members of our walking group are now laughing with the lad behind the bar over a “wee drink”.

Some opted for a glass of whisky, while others tested their tastebuds with local craft beer and a Guinness.

Just when I thought I’ve had my share of surprises for the day, my new friend Silvia strikes again.

She comes out of the pub with a can of Irn Bru and a smile on her face.

There were fears staff won’t be able to fit the whole group – but it all turned out well at the end. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

What did Silvia make of her first sip of Irn Bru?

“It’s like I’m drinking a chewing gum,” she says. But she means it as a compliment.

“The man behind the bar said I can’t come to Scotland and not try Irn Bru so here I am. Not sure I can drink this every day though.”

Silvia has been my dedicated translator throughout the whole day when my “rusty” German doesn’t do the trick.

Silvia was the only one to brave the sweet taste of Irn Bru – and I will always praise her for it. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Her bubbly, cheerful personality made us the perfect team to turn everyone in the group into a friend happy to chat.

She once again comes to my aid when I am speaking to Gabriele and Bernd König, from Saxony, whose favourite part of the tour is the pub.

“The city centre is not for us,” says 68-year-old Gabriele. “Small shops, narrow streets, local markets – that’s what we like and Old Aberdeen gave us that feel.

“And the architecture is beautiful – it’s like the buildings are glittering in the sun.

“Best thing was the pub though – what a place.”

Gabriele and Bernd Konig had a dram of Highland whisky Jura and a pint of craft beer to celebrate the successful walk in Old Aberdeen. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

Trip zu ende – but memories will remain

And before we know it, we are back on the bus to return to the ship.

This time we take a different route through the industrial area in Torry while Fran tells us more about the city’s strong ties with oil and gas – and Sir Ian Wood’s philanthropy.

She also points out all of the Nuart murals along the way as proof of how progressive and creative Aberdeen is.

My group of 36 German tourists – now friends – are filled with cheer, which can be seen on each of their glowing faces.

Old Aberdeen tourists
We all left Old Aberdeen with new friends and many memories. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson.

There is a sadness as we part ways at the harbour and I wish them a safe trip back to Hamburg.

As I am just about to leave, Gabriele and Bernd pull me aside once more.

“Whatever you write in your article, say that we think it’s green, clean, with lots of trees, and that street art festival is fantastic. Make sure you write we really liked it here.”

Don’t worry, Gabriele. I most certainly have.

What do tourists REALLY think of Aberdeen city centre?