Even as you approach Stromness you can tell it is a special place. Beautiful Hamnavoe Bay and the steep, winding old passageways and terraces of the town above draw you in immediately. Indeed, there are stunning vistas around every corner in Orkney’s second biggest settlement.

But it’s the life and soul of Stromness that really stays with you, the lively, eclectic and accessible mix of history, culture and community. It’s easy to see why the place has been such an inspiration to writers, artists and musicians over the years, and you can sense how much the locals love living now amid pretty gables, galleries, cafes and shops, not to mention the easy Orcadian charm. If you're lucky, a bit of that joie de vivre will rub off. Beware, though: one visit is never enough.

Historic highlights

From the Norse for “headland jutting into the tidal stream”, the name Stromness first appears in 1544, but the harbour is thought to have been used by the Picts even before the arrival of the Vikings.

The National: Stromness harbourStromness harbour

The town boomed in the late 17th century when whaling fleets and ships from the Hudson Bay Company regularly anchored. You can see this maritime history today in the whale bones that still decorate some of the buildings. Captain Cook’s ships Discovery and Resolution called in on Stromness in 1780 on their return from Hawaii, where the explorer was killed by natives the year before.

In 1814 Sir Walter Scott visited, complaining that it was hard to traverse the town on a horse or cart because of the steps built into the main street. It is much easier these days.

A fishing port for much of the 19th century – straw hats and whisky were also made in Stromness – nearby Scapa Flow played a key role in both world wars during the 20th.

These days many locals work in the creative, hospitality and tourism industries. The town is also at the cutting edge of green energy, being home to the European Centre for Renewable Energy.

What to do

Stromness fan Rod McLean says: “First things first, take a walking tour of the winding, picturesque, characterful Main Street, which runs parallel to the shoreline and is variously called Victoria Street, Dundas Street and Alfred Street. Stroll down the many little alleys leading to the sea, marvelling at the gable ends, private piers and wharves. Don’t forget to take a trip up the wonderfully named Khyber Pass! Puffer’s Close – named after a 19th century town crier – is also worth finding. If you're feeling energetic go right along to the Stromness Golf Club where you can usually spot some seals. The views of Graemsay and Hoy are always beautiful.”

And keep your eyes peeled for the statue of prominent Orcadian Sir John Rae, the Arctic explorer, sculpted by local artist Ian Scott in 2013.

The National: Stromness museum Stromness museum

A visit to the Stromness Museum at the south end of town is an absolute must. Packed with fascinating artefacts, displays, photographs and legends that bring to life the town’s place in Orcadian, Scots and indeed global history, it will keep you occupied for hours. If you have time, walk down Ness Road to The Canon, which was taken from an American ship, The Liberty, in 1813 and subsequently fired whenever a vessel from the Hudson Bay Company arrived in port. It’s also a great place to sit and soak up the stunning landscape all around.

More breathtaking views can be found at the top of Brinkies Brae, the granite hill upon which Stromness is built. If you’re looking to explore more of the coastline on foot, meanwhile, the five-mile walk from Stromness to Warebeth beach makes for some of the most memorable sunsets in Orkney.

In this town full of must-sees, the Pier Arts Centre is yet another. Now 40 years old, it remains one of the best culture hubs in Scotland, with a wonderful permanent collection of 20th century and contemporary art, and an exciting programme of exhibitions throughout the year. Its beautifully-restored stone home is worth a visit in its own right, and there’s plenty to keep youngsters amused, as well as a good shop.

The National: Pier Arts CentrePier Arts Centre

Fans of visual art are spoiled for choice in Stromness, and will also want to visit the Northlight and Waterfront galleries, not to mention Artworks of the Earth, a busy working studio, all of which are in the town centre.

Other rainy-day activities include the quirky West Side cinema, the excellent library in Victoria Street and the swimming pool and fitness centre on North End Road.

Music lovers from all over Scotland, Europe and beyond also flock to Stromness at various points in the year. In May, the Orkney Folk Festival is based in the town, while at the end of September some big names sail or fly in for the Blues festival.

With its clean water, accessible wrecks – seven German shipwrecks in Scapa Flow alone - and stunning sealife, Orkney is one of world’s great places to dive. Stromness is the archipelago’s diving capital, complete with tour operators, charter boats and accessory shops to suit every level of expertise.

The National: Artic explorerArtic explorer

Where to eat

Christine Burrell recommends Julia’s Cafe on Ferry Road. “The sweet potato and bean burger was fantastic, especially when followed by a delicious slice of homemade Victoria sponge," she says. "Also a great place to experience Orkney’s biggest asset – the people.”

Argo’s Bakery on Victoria Street has the best pies in town. And for beautifully-cooked local produce, the Ferry Inn on John Street is hard to beat. The “build your own” surf and turf (Orkney beef served with lobster, scallops and/or prawns) is a rare treat indeed.

Local institution The Hamnavoe, on Graham Place, also serves delicious local produce in friendly surroundings. It can get busy, so don’t forget to book.

The café at the Orkney Brewery on Quoyloo is great for hearty burgers and sausages, all washed down with – you’ve guessed it – a couple of pints of ale.

Where to shop

The Quernstone in Victoria Street stocks and makes some of the most beautiful knitwear you’ll find anywhere in Scotland.

Stromness Books and Prints, in Graham Place, has a wonderful selection of work by Orcadian writers including George Mackay Brown, who spent much of his life in the town. There’s also an interesting stock of Scandinavian literature, and very knowledgeable staff on hand. Nearby Cream is good for arts, crafts, gifts and accessories.

The Bayleaf Delicatessen on Victoria Street has a delicious selection of local dairy products including cheese and yoghurt, as well as Orkney-roasted coffee.

Where to stay

Traditional: Open since 1901, the Stromness Hotel offers fresh rooms, great food and three different bars. Rooms from £115 a night.

Budget: With its well-equipped kitchen, cosy dorms and private rooms, Brown’s Hostel, near the ferry terminal, is perfect for individuals and groups. From £20 per person per night.

Harbour view: Elegantly-appointed, modern Hamnavoe Apartment sleeps two and has its own balcony. From £55 per night on Airbnb.

What to do nearby

It's only a 40-minute walk to the ruins of Breck Ness House, built in 1633 by Bishop George Graham, the last bishop of Orkney.

Take the 30-minute ferry from Stromness to the nearby island of Hoy, where stunning scenery and birdlife – not to mention the most famous sea stack in Scotland, the Old Man of Hoy – await.

The National: Ring of BrodgarRing of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar, one of the many remarkable Neolithic monuments in Orkney, is only 10-minutes from Stromness by car. The Standing Stones of Stenness, on the way, are also well worth stopping for.