Scotland's third largest city is covered in flowers and has got miles of spectacular sandy beach. Ian McCurrach takes his phrase book and goes exploring
Seen by some as a remote city on the north-east coast of Scotland, Aberdeen, which stands between the rivers Dee and Don, is a thriving cosmopolitan city. Since the discovery of oil in the North Sea in the 1970s, Aberdeen has prospered. It is also a green city, having been the winner 11 times of "Britain in Bloom" - once it was even banned from competing. It is also one of the few Scottish cities to have a beach - a truly spectacular one - with miles of fine sand and, for those hardy enough to brave the temperature, beautiful clean waters.

Known as the Granite City, Aberdeen has a lot to offer visitors looking for cultural experiences. There is His Majesty's Theatre next to St Mark's Church and the Central Library - the three buildings are known locally as Damnation, Salvation and Education. There is plenty to do within the city itself and in the nearby countryside. But take a phrase-book. Aberdonians speak a unique dialect known as Doric (see The Lingo).

When to go

Spring is a good time to visit as the city and surrounding areas are planted with around 20 million bulbs. Most city-centre hotels fill up during the week with business bookings but it is quite easy to get a good weekend rate. Don't hesitate to ask for a deal - most hotels won't offer one unless asked - since if you persevere you can often get up to 50 per cent off the weekday tariff.

Avoid 7-11 September this year as, every two years, the city plays host to the Offshore Europe Oil Exhibition - one of the biggest oil events in the world - and accommodation is generally booked up for miles around. The City Council is currently working on the Hogmanay 2000 celebrations - contact the Tourist Information Centre (tel: 01224 632727) for details.

Getting there

It's easier than you think. By plane, Aberdeen is less than one and a half hours from London. British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) has between eight and 12 flights daily from Heathrow and Gatwick. Return fares from pounds 59 plus pounds 10 tax. BA also flies there daily from Birmingham and Manchester. British Midland (tel: 0345 554554) flies to Aberdeen from Manchester and East Midlands, prices from pounds 109. EasyJet (tel: 0870 6000 000) flies from Luton with fares from pounds 58. KLM UK (tel: 0990 074074) flies from Stansted three to four times per day. Fares start at pounds 58 plus tax.

If you want to take the train, call National Rail Enquiries (tel: 0345 484950) for times and fares. Prices from London, for example, start at pounds 62 for an Apex return with GNER. For an overnight sleeper berth it is an extra pounds 29 each way.

Aberdeen can be reached by coach from most major cities. For times and prices, call National Express (tel: 0990 808080).

Getting around

Although Aberdeen is Scotland's third largest city, with a population of 220,000, it is fairly compact and easy to get around. Most of the sights are within walking distance and well signposted. If you don't want to walk, there is a good bus service. For details, contact Grampian Busline (tel: 01224 650065). For buses going further afield, contact Bluebird Buses (tel: 01224 212266) which operates throughout the Grampian Highlands.

Taxis are a relatively cheap option here - look out for the distinctive Aberdeen City Council light-box on the roof. All taxis are licensed - there is no such thing as a minicab in Scotland - and can be picked up at a rank or hailed in the street. A word of warning though - they are relatively scarce after midnight, so to avoid a very long wait, it's best to book in advance.

Where to stay

There is a wide range of accommodation in Aberdeen, from budget through town-house smart to country-house splendour. For budget options, contact the University of Aberdeen Residential Services (tel: 01224 272660), or the Craibstone Agricultural College Estate (tel: 01224 711195). For advance bookings and advice, the Aberdeen and Grampian Tourist Board (tel: 01330 825917) offers a reservation service.

Simpson's, 59 Queens Road (tel: 01224 327777). Aberdeen's first and only "boutique hotel", decorated in a Mediterranean style, complete with Moroccan columns, palm trees and Italian tiles. Centrally located, with an excellent brasserie and health club. B&b from pounds 115 to pounds 125 double, weekend rates from pounds 60.

Norwood Hall, Garthdee Road (tel: 01224 868951). A small country- house hotel only five minutes by car from the city centre. Large rooms, and a stunning entrance hall and staircase, with listed wallpaper and a friendly resident ghost. B&b from pounds 60 double.

Ardoe House, South Deeside Road (tel: 01224 867355). Large Scottish mansion house overlooking Deeside. Old baronial splendour in original building, but corporate feel in the modern extension wing. B&b from pounds 90 double.

Marcliffe at Pitfodels, North Deeside Road (tel: 01224 861000). Modern country-house complex with 38 rooms. Up-market, five minutes from centre - everyone has been here from Mikhail Gorbachev to Tony Blair - and with conference facilities. Minimum two night stay, b&b from pounds 105 double.

What to do and see

Old Aberdeen. Wander up the Old High Street to King's College, which dates back to the 15th century. Look out for the minarets of the huge Powis Lodge Gate and visit the Old Town House, built in 1788 from a former prison dating back to 1721. From here it is a short walk to the grandeur of St Machar's Cathedral built in the 14th century, adjacent to Seaton Park, which takes you down to the river Don and the beach. Look out for the Wallace Tower and the fine granite Brig of Balgownie which are both worth seeing.

Footdee. Pronounced "Fittie", this is the old fishing town of Aberdeen, tucked in between the beach and the harbour, with tiny cottages ingeniously built around a series of squares facing inwards to protect them from the elements. In the 1880's, the houses were sold to their tenants, many of whom built an upper storey resulting in a cross between the neoclassical aspirations of the town and the simplicity of the close-knit fishing community.

The Maritime Museum (tel: 01224 337700). Open every day, pounds 3.50 adults, pounds 2.50 children and concessions. Winner of several national awards, the city's newest museum is dedicated to the story of Aberdeen, and the relationships between the people and the sea. Exhibits tell the story of fishing, shipbuilding and oil exploration. The largest exhibit is a scale model of the Murchison Oil Platform, which is housed in the circular central stairwell, reaching up to the roof. There are great views of the harbour, and architecturally, the building is a blend of old and new - part of it being Provost Ross's House, one of the oldest city houses which was the home of a former mayor, part of it being a Victorian Church, and part of it a modern steel and glass link-building.

Aberdeen Art Gallery (tel: 01224 523700). Open every day, free entry. Home to an extensive collection of 20th-century British art and host to visiting exhibitions.

Provost Skene's House (tel: 01224 641086). Open Monday to Saturday. Dating from the 17th century, this former mayor's house is a fine example of early burgh architecture. Recreates the atmosphere and living style of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Duthie Park Winter Gardens (tel: 01224 585310). Open every day, free entry. Housed in one of Aberdeen's many parks, this is the largest tropical hothouse complex in Europe.

The Beach. Miles of golden sand between the mouths of the River Don and River Dee, punctuated with breakwaters to stop erosion. Changes dramatically depending on weather. Aberdonians come here in their cars and sit or walk - it is very much a feature of local life.

Food and drink

In recent years, Aberdeen has seen numerous cafe/bars come and go. Popular at the moment for seeing and being seen are Cafe Uno on Union Street, Cafe D'ag on Crown Street, and Cafe 52 on The Green.

Silver Darlings, Pocra Quay (tel: 01224 576229). Excellent seafood restaurant overlooking the entrance to Aberdeen harbour beside the old pilot's house. Most of the walls are glazed, so great sea views. Booking recommended.

Via Milano, Galleria Centre (tel: 01224 593222). A relatively new up- market but affordable, trendy, lively Italian restaurant. Very popular, especially at weekends. Standard Italian fare in stylish surroundings. RSVP, Academy Centre (tel: 01224 625590). Housed in what was the old Aberdeen Academy, RSVP is a lively cafe-bar with an interesting "new British" menu. A jazz band plays at weekends and flavoured vodkas are a speciality.

The Lemon Tree, West North Street (tel: 01224 621610). Voted "best venue in Britain" recently (for music and theatre), there is also a restaurant which serves standard dishes and local fare to a thoroughly mixed clientele. Try "Cullen Skink" - a thick creamy smoked fish and potato soup.

The Inversnecky, Seafront (tel: 01224 596531). The place to go for Sunday breakfast, but popular at any time. Run by the Italian Vicca family since 1908, this traditional cafe hasn't changed much since it was first opened. Breakfast bargain at pounds 2.75 for full Scottish, complete with Butteries or Rowies, an Aberdonian version of the croissant. These were first baked last century for fishermen as an alternative to dry biscuits so are full of lard to stop them going off.

Out of town

As well as walking along the miles of golden sand on the beach, there are some great hikes to be done in the beautiful countryside around the city. Aberdeen is very creatively lit at night and can be best appreciated while on the Floodlit Walking Trail. For maps and leaflets, contact the Tourist Information Centre (tel: 01224 632727). The Royal Deeside Walking Week (tel: 013397 55467) runs from 29 May to 5 June and includes guided walks, ascents of Lochnagar and an entertainment programme.

The lingo

Aberdonians speak a unique dialect called Doric. Here are some useful words and phrases: "Affa" - terrible; "awa ye go" - I don't believe you; "Ay-ay" - hello; "berrens" - children; "bide" - to stay; "bosie" - a hug; "fit like?" - how are you?; "doon about the moo" - fed up; "dinna fash" - don't worry; "dinna ken" - don't know; "farty water" - sparkling mineral water; "fly-cup" - tea break; "loon" - a boy; "quine" - a girl; "pooch" - pocket; "stovies" - leftovers; "the Toon" - Aberdeen.

Further information

Tourist Information Centre (tel: 01224 632727). Tourist Board websight: www.agtb.org

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