"FORGET oil and gas – Aberdeen today is all about dolphins, surfing and hip food vans,” beams Steve, as he swings his surfboard back into the North Sea breakers.

I’d heard “Europe’s Oil Capital” is branching out, but I wasn’t expecting dolphin viewing cafes, world-class galleries and a park that has just snatched the title of Scotland’s favourite.

I’m at the revamped Aberdeen Art Gallery now, which opened with poor timing just as Covid closed in.

Visiting proves worth waiting for, with its eclectic collections sweeping from the celebration of Royal Deeside and Scottish artists, through to French Impressionism, with lashings of space for temporary exhibitions. And there is its Hoskins Architects’ cutting-edge copper design, the upper tier spilling out into a brace of viewing galleries that open up the city skyline.

It’s a rapidly-changing view – I can make out the controversial £28 million Union Terrace Gardens finally coming together with the first of the trio of tram-shaped “pavilions” just opened as I arrive at a café.

The Gardens are bucking the old ram-a-road-through school of urban development by putting pedestrians and access for all to the fore, reconnecting the city centre at a time when many city cores are struggling.

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I find this people-first ethos continues at the Marischal Square development. The highlight is the remarkable Marischal College, the second-largest granite building in the world after the Escorial in Spain, an epic cross between a more theatrical Houses of Parliament and a soaring granite wedding cake. You can nip in for a look on a weekday.

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The area around – Marischal Square – has been thoughtfully landscaped with walkways and seating. I take a while just to admire the hulking Robert the Bruce statue towering over me in front of the college.

Nearby is Provost Skene’s House, Aberdeen’s oldest surviving private dwelling. It has been revamped and celebrates the “Hall of Heroes” of Aberdeen, swinging from various historic and cultural luminaries, right through to footballer Denis Law and singer Annie Lennox.

It’s brilliantly done, bringing in technology to bring the personalities to life. Kirsten Richardson, who works at the house, sees positivity spreading beyond its walls: “We’re part of a city on the up. For me, our universities are a huge part of the energy. Many graduates are now staying on to brighten up Aberdeen – it’s a great time to visit.”

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Next door is the Mackie’s 19.2 ice cream parlour, named as Mackie’s HQ lies 19.2 miles away. They’ve got a delicious smorgasbord of over 20 flavours. I tuck into salted caramel as I admire the suspended leopard sculpture high above me.

It’s easy to eat well in Aberdeen these days now it’s less about stuffy fine dining for expense account-toting oil executives. I enjoy a superb Thai feast at Koi Thai and a heaving shellfish platter (including Stonehaven langoustines) with a great view of the busy harbour at old-timer Silver Darling.

Aberdeen is sometimes harshly dismissed as being too dull granite grey.

Yes, the city is awash with quite remarkable granite architecture, but it is also supremely green. It’s easy to see why in 2007 it was banned from the Britain in Bloom competition as it had won it so many times. The city streets burst with fauna and there are a volley of parks.

I’m a huge fan of Duthie Park and Hazlehead Park, childhood haunts, but had never visited Seaton Park. In August it was named Scotland’s Favourite Park in a public vote. It is alive with rose gardens, walkways and benches, and a brilliant playpark.

The real winner for me are the rougher trails that snake around the winding River Don – it feels like a real slice of the country in Scotland’s third largest city. I even catch sight of an otter.

A walled garden tempts and on its fringes there is the Brig o’ Balgownie timewarp and the glorious St Machar’s Cathedral. Its epic wooden roof celebrates Scotland’s historic relationship with the rest of Europe.

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In Aberdeen, I’m always drawn back to the sea – after all, it’s got the best beach of any UK city, a three-mile plus long swathe of sand from the Dee to the Don in the north. I push along the sands I once paddled as a wean, watching a small army of surfers making the most of the breaks.

The National: Surfing is the newest sport to hit AberdeenSurfing is the newest sport to hit Aberdeen (Image: -)

I savour a slice of cheesecake from one of the new food vans that spice up the esplanade. They sprung up during Covid travel restrictions and proved so popular they’ve stayed.

My last stop is meeting my cousin, Colin McKelvie, an Aberdonian, at the new eco-friendly charity-run Greyhope Bay Cafe. It just opened this year, drawing on the joy of seeing the world’s most northerly bottlenose dolphins in the wild.

They’ve picked the prime spot, as the Napoleonic era Torry Battery has long been a renowned place to spot dolphins as they feed and frolic just outside the city’s busy harbour. We search for dorsal fins ducking in and out of the seals and seabirds.

“There is always something new happening in Aberdeen these days. We’ve been focused on oil and gas for decades,” Colin smiles. “Oil and gas are still important, but we’re also looking forward with the gallery, gardens, new restaurants, this cafe and the new cruise ship terminal taking shape just behind us.”

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