FROM the minute you arrive in Orkney, you can tell you’re somewhere different – and utterly captivating.

The archipelago’s dual heritage, Scots and Norse, gives the place unique feel, while the stunning landscapes, Neolithic settlements and vibrant contemporary culture all add to what make the islands so special. It’s perhaps little wonder Orkney was recently voted the best place to live in the UK.

Kirkwall, the capital, is a bustling mix of this old and new, an ancient Norse settlement – you can still see evidence in the architecture, street names and dialect – built around magnificent St Magnus Cathedral. It also has great shops, restaurants and museums a plenty, as well as a thriving arts scene. The downside? How to fit it all in during a short visit.

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Historical highlights

Kirkwall – meaning “church bay” in Norse - gets an early mention in the ancient Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga. By 1046 it was a busy market and farming settlement. Work on St Magnus Cathedral was started in 1137 by Norse Earl Rognvald – in honour of his uncle, St Magnus - with construction of the nearby the Bishop’s Palace starting a few years later.

In 1468, James III acquired Orkney for Scotland, and by the 16th century, the town was the administrative capital of Shetland, too.

The story and fortunes of the town are closely connected to its harbour. Traditionally, fishing and agriculture were the main employers, although more recently tourism, renewable energies and food processing have also made Kirkwall, which has a population of 9300, prosperous. Orkney is the UK’s most popular destination for cruise ships, welcoming more than 140 a year.

What to do:

A walk along Harbour Street, which extends right along the waterfront, helps you find your bearings on arrival in Kirkwall. Take Bridge Street to find another of the main thoroughfares of the town, Broad Street, home to St Magnus Cathedral, the town hall, the tourist information centre and Orkney Museum.

Known as the “light of the north”, it’s hard to overestimate the beauty and charisma of this cathedral (stmagnus.org) that belongs to the people of Orkney. Build in magnificent, luminous red and yellow sandstone, the most northerly cathedral in the UK also has some of the most beautiful stained glass you’ll see anywhere.

Yards away sit the ruined Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces (historicenvironment.scot); the Bishop’s section is the town’s oldest domestic building, built in the early 1100s when Kirkwall was a thriving Norwegian town; the Earl’s part was added in the early 1600s. The history is fascinating and views from the top are stunning.

The excellent Orkney Museum is just a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral and palaces (orkney.gov.uk), telling the story of the islands from the Stone Age through the Picts, Vikings and Scots to the present day. Situated in 300-year-old Tankerness House, it is a fascinating historical artefact in its own right. Don’t forget to visit the weird and wonderful Groatie House, in the gardens.

Anyone with an interest in communications should visit Orkney Wireless Museum, down by the harbour on Junction Road. This extensive collection of military and domestic wireless equipment was gathered over a lifetime by South Ronaldsay man Jim MacDonald. A labour of love of national value.

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Scotland’s northernmost distillery, Highland Park, has been making the water of life since 1798, and is hugely popular with whisky drinkers and aficionados around the world. The tours here are fantastic, covering the history of the islands as well as the whisky, and the dram at the end is worth the entry price alone. Go to highlandpark.co.uk for details.

Those who follow Orkney Library on social media will already know what a vibrant – and humorous – cultural centre it is (not every island library attracts 63,000 followers on Twitter). A visit in person to the friendly Junction Road HQ is a must for all those interested in the life of the islands, past, present and future. (orkneylibrary.org.uk).

Kirkwall hosts a number of excellent festivals throughout the year. At the end of June, the St Magnus International Festival (stmagnusfestival.com) brings together a wonderfully eclectic array of music, literature, theatre and visual arts. Founded by much-loved Orkney resident, the late composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the midsummer festivities attract participants and visitors from around the world.

During the last week in May, meanwhile, the town comes alive with the sound of music for the Orkney Folk Festival (orkneyfolkfestival.com). Attracting musicians young and old, traditional and contemporary, it's an accessible and joyous celebration of the diversity of folk music

Where to eat

If you’re looking for great seasonal produce served in stylish but relaxed surroundings, it’s hard to beat the Storehouse Restaurant With Rooms on Bridge Street Wynd. Local ingredients such as crab, monkfish and lamb dominate the impressive menu, which changes across breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday lunch.

“We would highly recommend the Foveran Restaurant with rooms on the outskirts of the town at St Ola," said Anne and Alistair Cormack, who lived in Kirkwall for 18 years and regularly return for holidays. "The views over Scapa Flow are stunning, the rooms are comfortable and quiet, and the food is excellent.

"The Dil Se Indian restaurant in Bridge Street also offers lovely food. The people in Kirkwall are so friendly and generous - definitely part of the charm of the town."

The hand-dived Orkney scallops at The Shore Hotel on Shore Street, meanwhile, served with crab linguini, are a delight.

Back in Broad Street, if you need a break from all the sightseeing, pop into the Reel Coffee House for delicious soups and sandwiches.

The cafe in the Old Library in Laing Street - a funky music store and venue that's always worth a visit – has fabulous nachos and scrumptious cakes. Look out, too, for pop-up food nights.

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Where to shop

Right next to the next to cathedral, Judith Glue (judithglue.com), is full of quirky and colourful homeware, clothes - including lovely knitwear - and gifts. In true Kirkwall style, it too has fantastic café.

Founded in 1859 by the great-great grandfather of the current owner, The Longship (longship.co.uk) also on Broad Street, is a wonderful department store stocking locally-crafted jewellery and gifts, as well as quality cheese, whisky and wine. An island institution.

Book lovers will not want to miss the wonderful Orcadian Bookshop, in Albert Street, (orcadian.co.uk), a genuine treasure trove of fiction and factual with arguably the best array of books about the people and history of the islands anywhere.

You won’t go hungry after a visit to The Brig Larder on Albert Street, which offers a veritable feast of top quality food and drink complete with in-house butcher and fishmonger.

For contemporary, hand-crafted jewellery with an Orcadian twist, Aurora (aurora-jewellery.com) in St Ola is well worth a look.

Where to stay

Comfortable: The Lynnfield Hotel in St Ola offers a friendly service with spacious rooms and excellent food. Doubles from £115.

Boutique: In the centre of town, the Albert Hotel is stylish and modern, with a relaxing bar and excellent restaurant. Rooms from £128.

Airbnb has an extensive range of properties advertised in Kirkwall, including a super cute cottage, in centre of town, from £53 a night. Sleeps two. See Airbnb.co.uk for details.

What to see nearby:

You can’t visit Orkney without experiencing Skara Brae (historicenvirnoment.scot) Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, a thriving settlement some 5000 years ago. An extraordinary day out, no matter how many times you visit. Half an hour from Kirkwall.

Just 20 minutes’ away from the capital is another Neolithic wonder – Orkney is full of them - the Ring Of Brodgar stone circle.

The beach at Scapa Bay, looking out across Scapa Flow, is just 15 minutes from Kirkwall and provides some of the Mainland's (what locals call the main island) most stunning views.

Over the next few weeks we'll be visiting Wigtownshire, Troon and Royal Deeside. Send your hints and tips on what to do and where to eat, sleep and shop to: marianne.taylor@heraldandtimes.co.uk