48 hours in Braemar & Ballater
Splendid scenery, luxury hotels and even a dram, or two – there’s much to enjoy in these pretty Highland villages so beloved by royalty
Located 16 miles apart on the banks of the River Dee, the Victorian villages of Braemar and Ballater have long had connections with royalty. And, surrounded by magnificent mountain ranges, coursing rivers and purple-hued moorlands, it’s easy to see why Queen Victoria chose this picturesque region as the location for her Highland holiday home.
Though Balmoral Castle remains popular among tourists (it’s open from April through to early August), in September during non-Covid times it’s the celebrated Braemar Gathering that draws a crowd to the area – and visitors (including the Queen) flock to marvel at the caber toss, hammer throw and fiercely competitive tug of war.
Competition aside, it’s the breathtaking Highland scenery that really captures the imagination. The area is dotted with clear, still lochs and beautiful mountains (Lochnagar inspired Lord Byron’s poem Lachin y Gair) and walking trails are popular and plentiful. For history and adventure in abundance, look no further...
Places to visit in Braemar & Ballater
Just a short walk from the village itself, Braemar Castle bears the scars of Scotland’s turbulent political history. Built in 1628 as a hunting retreat for the 2nd Earl of Mar, the castle was destroyed during the first Jacobite Uprising of 1689 and rebuilt as a rebellion stronghold (after the Earl had changed sides, of course).
Later, it fell into the hands of the Farquharsons of Invercauld, who eventually transformed the castle into a family home, complete with antique furniture by Chippendale and Hepplewhite. The grounds currently feature a thought-provoking installation by Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed – a huge multicoloured neon sign reading ‘Everything is going to be alright’.
Royal Lochnagar Distillery
Producing some of Scotland’s most exclusive whiskies, the historic Royal Lochnagar Distillery (dating back to 1845) is located close to the royal retreat of Balmoral Castle, around halfway between Braemar and Ballater.
Guided tours cost from £17.50 per person, and visitors can marvel at the elegant Speyside-shaped copper stills and vast oak casks, followed by a dram of the distillery’s award-winning 12-year-old Single Highland Malt. Cheers to that!
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Places to shop in Braemar & Ballater
Just a short walk from the Braemar Highland Games Centre and grounds (highlandgamescentre.org), this fine art gallery and workshop is the perfect place to pick up a souvenir. Specialising in works by Scottish artists and collaborative exhibitions, the gallery also doubles as a printmaking workshop and an ad hoc performance space for local musicians and bands.
Bruce of Ballater
It’s easy to spend an hour or two leafing through the treasures in Ballater’s former Art Deco Regal Cinema. George Bruce’s antiques and vintage shop (formerly his parents’ home-furnishings business) is heaven for those with an eye for the unusual. Spot everything from kitsch advertising memorabilia and collectable ceramics, to Edwardian fireplaces and antique walking sticks.
While away a quiet afternoon by browsing the shelves of this old-fashioned bookshop in the heart of Ballater. Alongside an impressive array of Scottish bestsellers and local history books, visitors at Deeside Books can also peruse antique tomes, first editions and out-of-print reads.
Places to eat in Braemar & Ballater
Restaurateur Ros and classically trained French pastry chef Mathilde met while working together at Braemar’s prestigious Fife Arms hotel, and set up Hazelnut Pâtisserie earlier this year. From their contemporary cafe space, the pair offer elegant pâtisseries, plus delectable sandwiches and quiches at lunchtime.
The Bothy Braemar
With views of the tumbling Clunie Water, The Bothy Braemar is a cosy and comfortable cafe, perfect for refuelling after a morning’s ramble in the hills, and serves delicious coffee, sandwiches and homemade cakes. For outdoorsy types, it also shares a premises with outdoor clothing specialists Braemar Mountain Sports.
Now settled in its new home at Ballater’s Old Royal Station, the Rothesay Rooms was the brainchild of the Prince of Wales. His wish was to drive tourism to Ballater after severe flooding and a serious fire hit the town in 2015.
Recommended in the Michelin Guide, this fine-dining establishment is decked out in traditional Highland fashion, and shines a spotlight on seasonal, locally sourced and sustainable ingredients.
Places to stay in Braemar & Ballater
The Fife Arms
Flamboyant Victoriana meets contemporary flair at The Fife Arms, a romantic retreat created by the founders of the global art gallery Hauser & Wirth. Visitors can spot works by Freud, Picasso and even Queen Victoria, plus a flying taxidermy stag in the hotel’s neighbouring bar. Expect lavish rooms, decadent food and surprises at every turn.
For a cosy base in Braemar, No 2, a four-bed Victorian house, is great for families and groups. It includes a contemporary kitchen, a relaxing sitting room, a snug and even a wooden weather observatory built by Prince Albert – the ideal spot for a quiet sundowner.
Darroch Learg Hotel
This traditional 10-room hotel is perfectly situated for exploring Ballater and its surrounding walking routes. Darroch Learg Hotel's interiors are a considered take on Highland style, and the pretty Victorian conservatory is a lovely setting for afternoon tea.
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