Here’s my travel guide on things to do in Kirkcudbright, a quaint seaside town in the Dumfries & Galloway area of South-West Scotland – covering not only things to do, but also where to eat and drink (the best restaurants, cafés and pubs), stuff to see, where to stay (the best accommodation I’ve found!) and the best days out.
This guide has been hard for me to write because Kirkcudbright is (along with Kirkby Lonsdale) my favourite and most important childhood holiday destination. Even now I’m in my 30s and don’t go as often, I still feel like I know it really well, and that just increases the pressure to do it justice on the old bloggery.
Hopefully, this post gives you a little insight into why Kirkcudbright is so good and some useful tips if you’re planning a trip there. Most people just zoom past Kirkcudbright on the motorway and miss out, but it’s an absolute hidden gem. It’s got Ballamory-style pastel coloured houses, fresh seafood to eat, all the local art you could ever want, and an actual castle.
I’ll try not to type 64721 words and bore you all to death… maybe. On to the things to do in Kirkcudbright…
An introduction to Kirkcudbright
First off, I know you may be wondering about the pronunciation of Kirkcudbright. Like many wonderful Scottish words, it’s not pronounced as it’s written! It’s ker-coo-bree.
As a place to visit, it is absolutely perfect. Genuinely one of the prettiest places I have ever been. I may be biased, but Chris also agrees and he’s usually only got eyes for the Isle of Man for this kind of holiday…
Art is Kirkcudbright’s biggest thing, being known as the ‘artists’ town’ due to all the artists linked with it over the years, including the ‘Glasgow boys’ and Jesse M. King. This isn’t just an historical thing though. Artists who aren’t dead still flock here, which has got to be something to do with the quality of the light on a bright day – it’s almost Scandinavian feeling – as well as the plethora of outstanding scenery to be inspired by. There are loads of art galleries and arty/crafty events on throughout the year, which is incredible for somewhere so small.
What to see and things to do in Kirkcudbright
Visit Kirkcudbright harbour
This is where all the action happens (!) and you can usually see some kind of fishing work going on. Or maybe even some scallops or fish being brought in ready to be delivered to one of the local restaurants.
It’s also the classic ‘view’ of Kirkcudbright, taking in the water, the Harbour Cottage Art Gallery, and all the little boats sat waiting to go.
Discover hidden floral alleyways
If the streets of Kirkcudbright aren’t colourful enough for you, try going down one of the little alleyways. They always look like they’ll offer nothing and just lead to some bins, but if you head down them there’s always something pretty to be found.
Locals put a lot of effort into making these quaint little cooeys look brilliant. An Instagram dream, if you’re into that. They’re especially lovely in the evening light.
The downside is that they make me hate my own garden when I get home. Why is it not this cute?!
Visit Jessie M King’s house
On a roll with cute things, here’s a house that will make you want to leap through a window and claim squatters’ rights. I must have taken hundreds of photos of this but it never quite captures how beautiful it is.
So who is Jessie M King and how can we evict her? Unfortunately, she’s dead and probably unable to accept offers on the place, but she did leave quite the legacy in the form of art.
She’s a famous illustrator who settled in Kirkcudbright and set up an artists’ community. You can find out more about her in the Tolbooth Arts Centre (see below) just on the corner by her house. Watch the video about her if it’s on – the ending will make you want to punch the screen because of #everydaysexism. Basically, she did all this amazing art and work with the local area, then when she died, a newspaper listed her just as ‘the wife of artist E A Taylor’. Great.
Browse and buy art at the Harbour Cottage Gallery
This cottage has the best location in town: right on the harbour. And it’s an art gallery. The clue is in the name.
It’s free to get in and has ever-changing exhibitions on (I think about every two weeks). On our latest visit, it was full of some really stunning work by local artist Bothyart, who does watercolours and pastels of nature. Have a look at the woodpeckers and wrens on her site – those were our favourites.
Visit the Tolbooth Arts Centre
The Tolbooth is where you can find out more about Jessie M King, but it also has a little cafe and different local artists’ work on display. When we last went, it was all black and white photographs of trees by local artist Michal Šúr. He’d used infrared photography – it was very striking.
Why does writing anything about art sound so wanky and false? We liked the exhibition, anyway.
Look round Maclellan’s Castle
It’s not often there’s a castle bang in the middle of a high street. But Kirkcudbright has this photogenic chap. Complete with authentic Medieval scaffolding at present.
The castle is (brace yourself, OAP readers) not National Trust. It’s Historic Environment. It is just a ruin to be honest, but worth a wander round, if only to find the secret spyhole. Apparently the laird liked listening in on other people’s conversations. I think we’d have got on well.
Equally nice is the row of terraced houses next to it.
Find your favourite of Kirkcudbright’s pretty door knockers
Yes, this is my life now. I get excited by novelty door knockers.
But how lovely are these? I don’t know if this is a Kirkcudbright thing, or maybe a Dumfries & Galloway thing, but I’ve not noticed such a good collection anywhere else.
Stroll round Kirkcudbright marina
This didn’t used to be worth walking down to, but it’s gone much nicer these days.
You can get to it down a side street near Broughton House, Castledyke Walks. There’s not really much to say about it other than it’s another nice view of Kirkcudbright harbour and a relaxing place for a sit.
It’s also nice that it is usually busy with people, but in a good way with locals going out in small boats, not in a posing south of France way.
Admire the rows of colourful houses in Kirkcudbright’s pretty streets
Balamory eat your heart out.
Kirkcudbright is full of photogenic, pastel-coloured houses on wide streets. The only downside here is the fact that the streets are almost always lined with cars spoiling the view and I don’t have the PhotoShop skills to get rid of them.
Do the streets look oddly familiar? It might be because Kirkcudbright was used for shooting one of the most famous British films of all time: The Wickerman. I can’t guarantee that you won’t meet a similar fate as Edward Woodward if you wander into the wrong pub on a Friday night.
Visit the National Trust’s Broughton House
You didn’t think there’d be a UK-based blog post without a bit of National Trust action did you?
Here it is in the form of ‘Glasgow boy’ artist E A Hornel’s former digs, an amazing peachy-pink house with one of the best domestic gardens I’ve ever seen. It’s meant to be a Japanese-style garden because he was very into Japan, like us! But it’s much nicer. We’ve seen a lot of Japanese gardens in Japan. They’re just a load of zen gravel with no colour and one strategically placed white orchid for you to contemplate the meaning of life over. This one is miles better – so jam-packed with colourful plants that we always spend a lot longer in it than you’d expect to. And it’s incredibly photogenic so sorry about the photo overload you’re about to get.
Inside the house, you’ll find some of E A’s many Japanese-inspired paintings and his rooms done out as they were. You can go down into his studio, which smells really nice. He had an excellent view of the gardens from his desk, although I’m not sure about all the holly leaves he left lying around on his chairs… (A nice touch there from the Scottish National Trust to stop idiots sitting on the furniture.)
Don’t miss the adorable resident kitty in the gardens.
Visit the Stewartry Museum
My mum and dad are regulars here, which is quite an achievement. It’s a small but very busy museum just near the Selkirk Arms, full of local history and all kinds of objects. They have various themed exhibitions on, so there’s always something different when you pop in – this time, it was pirates and smugglers. Actually really good.
There’s also a model of the new Kirkcudbright Galleries on display – this is a new gallery being built over the road. It looks very modern and Scandi-inspired. It’s going to be managed by the council and will hold loads of local art according to the BBC news article. It’s opening in spring 2018, so we’ll have to go and see it on our next visit. [UPDATE: hello it’s me from the future – this is now open, but I’ve not been yet! It looks brilliant though – have a look at their Facebook page for info. I’m hoping to go in summer.]
Where to eat and drink in Kirkcudbright: the best restaurants, cafés and pubs in the town
Onto the important stuff: piling as much weight on as possible before going home.
The Castle Bistro
The Castle Bistro is hands-down our favourite in Kirkcudbright. It’s also my mum and dad’s favourite, so it’s a must when we visit Kirkcudbright with them. Everything is locally sourced, so we did eat some meat, which is unusual these days. I have to say it was the best lamb I’ve ever had. We also got a glass of port or sherry as a little bonus at the end.
Honestly one of the nicest restaurants in the UK – it’s so simple but good. Hard to explain but there’s just something about it that gives it a lovely atmosphere. It’s not pretentious at all but serves excellent quality food. There’s also a nice view of the castle through the bay window.
I couldn’t write a Kirkcudbright travel guide and not mention the legendary Polar Bites for a chippy tea.
It’s not just your bog standard fish and chips either, you can get scallops and chips for something different but equally delicious. They’re sourced from Kirkcudbright itself, literally only metres from Polar Bites. Doesn’t get fresher than that.
Note the amusing small print on their logo.
The Selkirk Arms
This is where we stay (see the end of the post), but the Selkirk also does food. Chris had the best lobster ever – again, local of course. The starter of haggis lollipops was amazing too. We’ve eaten here a lot of times – the menu is always seasonal – and it’s always a solid option.
My dad is still getting over the fact they no longer have the ‘Selkirk Mess’ on the desserts menu (their answer to Eton Mess), but other than that soul-crushing disappointment, it’s a treat all round.
Station House Cafe
No photo, but we hunted this out because it was new (to us – think it’s been open a few months). But we ended up not having time and only went in for a late afternoon cup of tea (and a consolation Eton mess for my dad). I thought I’d crack it in anyway based on the Eton mess and the menu, which looked great. We’ll have to make time for it on our next visit.
The Masonic Arms
You know when you’re on a UK holiday somewhere small and you make the mistake of wandering into a pub that looked safe on the outside but when you go in, all the locals turn round and stare at you? Well it’s fine, this isn’t it.
The Masonic Arms is our favourite pub in Kirkcudbright (not to be confused with pub of the same name in nearby Gatehouse of Fleet). It doesn’t just serve local beer but also craft IPAs and brilliant gin. Oh and it’s dog friendly! We sadly don’t have a dog (wonder if they’d allow my horse in?) but there is nothing better than having a pint with some cute dogs next to you. The staff are dead nice too, and it just has a lovely atmosphere all round.
The kind of pub you’d like as your local.
Shops in Kirkcudbright
Kirkcudbright has plenty of nice shops, especially considering its size. A bit like Shrewsbury, you end up wandering into places and finding quirky and unique stuff and before you know it you’ve spent all your money.
This is probably my favourite shop in Kirkcudbright.
It sells Sophie Allport stuff, candles, wrapping paper, unusual greeting cards and general gifts. You know the drill.
No photo, but we always pop in here. I got a horsey mug this time – I’m allowing myself a few new mugs on the basis I get rid of some that don’t match our new kitchen. Have you heard about the new kitchen? I don’t think I’ve mentioned it for at least four minutes.
Anyway, this shop has postcards and nice local things like belted Galloway cow placemats. That makes it sound really rubbish I know, but it’s actually good.
If you haven’t eaten enough already, this is a cute little shop where you can buy food to take home.
Or a selection of chutneys to give to people you can’t think what to get at Christmas.
The Kirkcudbright Post Office (yes, really)
If you’ve been into the many local art galleries and baulked at the prices, you can get some gorgeous prints in here. Past the sweets and magazines, you’ll find the bit where you’d spend all your time returning ASOS parcels if you lived here. That’s where the art is at.
I really liked some printed on silk, but we already have a big Kirkcudbright print and one of Rockcliffe on our fireplace, so I managed to control myself.
Visit the nearest beaches to Kirkcudbright
To be honest, there are loads of better (IMO) beaches a little bit further out of Kirkcudbright, which I’m going to blog about next – Carrick, Rockcliffe, Kippford and Mossyard. But in the immediate vicinity, you can nip to one of these two for all your urgent beach needs.
Dhoon Bay and Borgue beach
Dhoon Bay is the quieter of the two and for bonus points, it usually has a Mr Whippy van on site. Dumfries & Galloway is all about the Cream of Galloway ice cream, which is ‘proper’ ice cream, but I’m afraid I can’t stand that kind of jazz and would always pick a good old Whipster over it. The beach is a mixture of rocks and sand: not a patch on Kippford and Rockcliffe if you want to poke round in rock pools and nothing compared to Carrick if you want peace and quiet, but still nice.
We made this small castle with working moat last time we were there.
Day trips from Kirkcudbright in the Dumfries & Galloway area
If you stay in Kirkcudbright, as good as it is, you can also get to lots of other gorgeous places nearby.
Dumfries & Galloway is a really underrated area of Scotland – I don’t know many people who’ve been, but there are so many hidden gems around it. Needless to say, I’m going to blog about all of them separately or this post will be War & Peace.
These are all nearby places that you have to visit:
- Rockcliffe and Kippford (the best walk in the world)
- Carrick Bay – a hidden beach that you can get all to yourself
- Castle Douglas and Threave Gardens
- Gatehouse of Fleet and Mossyard beach
- Sweetheart Abbey, New Abbey.
There are probably loads more too, but those are the ones I know best (and have semi-decent photos of).
Bonus activity in the Kirkcudbright area: beltie spotting
Another thing you have to do while you’re out and about: spot some belted Galloway cows. There’s no one particular place to hunt these bad boys out, but you’re bound to spot some in a field somewhere.
It is then mandatory to pull over for a photo.
Useful information: things to do in Kirkcudbright, Scotland
How to get to Kirkcudbright (and away)
Sadly, we have to break our no-driving rule when it comes to Kirkcudbright. It takes 3 and a half hours from where we live in Stockport/Cheshire by car. It is possible to reach Kirkcudbright by public transport though – just over 5 hours door to door for us, so no worse than other Scottish trips. The nearest train station is Dumfries and you can get two buses from there to Kirkcudbright. It’s just the issue of it being easiest to drive once you’ve got there, because of all the places outside Kirkcudbright we always want to get to.
Where to stay in Kirkcudbright
My mum and dad are regulars at the Selkirk Arms and that’s where we stayed this time. Deffo recommend it. It’s not the cheapest, but you can often get deals for 3-night stays and midweek bargains. As mentioned above, the food is good, but if you’re staying there too you get to have the brilliant French toast for breakfast (probably why my jeans now don’t fit).
How to get around the area
Kirkcudbright itself is completely walkable but again, we break our no-driving rule and do drive to go to other nearby places. But the roads aren’t too busy so it’s not as stressful/terrifying as driving at home. There are, however, some decent bus services. I reckon you could do a lot by bus if you planned your times carefully and didn’t have to cram it all into a few days.
When to go to Kirkcudbright
We went in July this time, and got lucky with temperatures of 30 degrees! Yes, this is in Scotland. A couple of the photos are from when we went in August 2014 too, which was also warm. It’s pretty much always an acceptable level of busy-ness and you don’t ever get crowds of tourists. There’s no bad time to go really. My parents even went in January this year and enjoyed it from a cosy angle.
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If you enjoyed this little Kirkcudbright travel guide, why not hover over one of the images below and pin to your Pinterest board? (Only works on desktop).
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like others in my Dumfries and Galloway collection:
- a walk between Rockcliffe and Kippford
- a day in Castle Douglas
- a day in Gatehouse of Fleet and Mossyard beach
- a secret beach: Carrick Bay
- visiting Sweetheart Abbey in New Abbey.
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