There are actually over 70 islands within the Orkneys, but only 20 are inhabited. The largest island is Mainland which has Burray and South Ronaldsay connected to it by the Churchill Barrier causeways. Hoy is the only island to have any mountains, the rest are relatively low lying islands much of which has been farmed for thousands of years.
To visit the other islands there are a variety of inter-island flights or ferries. Each island has its own character but all of them are excellent places for coastal walks, birdwatching and wildlife spotting. There are also hundreds of ancient history sites all over the islands the bulk of which date from 5,000 years ago. More up-to-date history is evident in East Mainland where there are many artefacts that are remnants from World War I and II.
The Orkney Islands are choc full of historic sites - most of them at least 5,000 years old. West Mainland stretches from Kirkwall to Stromness and everything north and south of those towns. It has a concentration of the most famous Neolithic sites plus many more less well known ones that are still accessible. This is only really the tip of the iceberg, many sites have still to be excavated and explored. The sites range from the well organised, famous Historic Scotland sites like Skara Brae and Maeshowe, to a range of free entry sites and less well known private sites often accessible on footpaths.
West Mainland is also surrounded by some striking coastline excellent for clifftop walks such as at Yesnaby and Marwick. There are several areas good for wildlife such as the Birsay Moors and of course the bird reserves at Houton and Marwick Head.
Stromness has the main ferry terminal for ferries from Scrabster Caithness Scotland to Orkney. It is well worth taking some time to explore and has a lot going on for a small town. The town hosts a variety of events during Stromness Shopping Week in the summer. There are several eateries and the museum can help fill you in on the history of Stromness and Scapa Flow.
There is the excellent contemporary Pier Arts Centre with a fantastic collection of Barbara Hepworth sculptures and Ben Johnson works as well as changing works from local and international artists.
Much of the interest in East Mainland lies in either Neolithic and Iron Age history or World War history. East Mainland continues east of Kirkwall to the Deerness peninsula as well as south where the islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay were joined to Mainland during the war when the Churchill Barriers were built by prisoners of war to defending Scapa Flow against the Germans.
Scapa Flow is naturally sheltered from the Orkney islands that surround it. Over on the east of Mainland access to Scapa Flow was sealed in order to protect the naval fleet that was sheltering in this natural harbour during the two world wars.
Kirkwall has long been the centre for the Orkneys and the Viking stamped their mark on the place with the fantastic St Magnus Cathedral which still stands in the centre of town. Other historic buildings nearby are less intact but have played their role in Orkney history.
The museums in Kirkwall look at the historic origins of Orkney and World War II communications. St Magnus Festival is a huge event in the annual calendar bringing musicians to the island from all over the world. Orkney has its own distillery that still offers tours. The Highland Park Distillery is just outside the town centre and is well worth a visit. Whatever your interest you should be able to find something to suit, rainy day or not.
It is also a main transport hub with ferries and buses linking Kirwall to the rest of the Orkney Islands. The main airport for the Orkneys is also near Kirkwall just a few miles east of the town.
Burray is the first island you come to over the Churchill Barriers from East Mainland. It's a good base for diving and watersports as well as coastal walks.
South Ronaldsay is the most southerly island connected to Mainland by the Churchill Barriers. It's a largely farming area with agricultural shows, ploughing competitions part of the events calendar. Along with the Fossil Centre on Burray there are several family-friendly attractions.
Being the closest Orkney island to mainland Scotland there are two ferry ports on South Ronaldsay. One is at the southern tip at Burwick and the other in St Margaret's Hope. Buses connect the ferries to Kirkwall.
Hoy is the second largest island in the Orkneys. It is also the most dramatic with mountains that rise to 1,500 feet. You can often see its characteristic shape all around Mainland Orkney.
The island is a popular destination for those interested in World War history and the excellent Scapa Flow Visitor Centre and Museum is a must.
Sanday is the most northerly of the Orkney Islands. It is a mostly a flat agricultual landscape bare 20 metres above sea level. It is renowned for having some of the best beaches in the Orkneys where you can see seals, otters and whales offshore. As a key stopping off point on the migratory routes for geese, swans, waders and passerines Sanday is an excellent birdwatching island.
Sanday is also popular with walkers. There are several leaflets available from Tourist Offices with suggested walks and details of the wildlife of the island. A downloadable leaflet is also available from the Sanday Tourist Association weblink right.
Papa Westray, or Papay for short, is one of the smallest Northern Isles in the Orkney Islands. It lies twenty miles north of Kirkwall and is four miles long and one mile wide. The island has long had a farming tradition and over 60 archaeological sites have been discovered on the island.
The island is important for wildlife and the RSPB have a reserve here, North Hill. If you're coming here by plane you'll be travelling on the world's shortest scheduled flight.