For this mini-guide, Shetlander and writer, Laurie Goodlad, shares more about these fascinating islands, and how best to plan and enjoy your time there. Laurie is a full-time travel blogger and tour guide who has been sharing her island home with visitors since 2018. Born to the islands, she can trace her ancestry back hundreds of years and is passionate about Shetland.
Shetland has so much to offer visitors; from the rugged scenery, to the history and wildlife, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
Made up of over 100 islands, Shetland is an archipelago in the middle of the North Atlantic; where the North Sea meets the North Atlantic, and Scotland meets Scandinavia, Shetland enjoys a distinct and unique culture.
Lying at 60° North, the latitude line passes through the sweeping South Mainland, metaphorically slicing Shetland in half. Being so far north means that the days of summer are very long and light – or, as in winter, are very short and dark.
In summer, Shetland enjoys up to 19 hours of daylight but, in the winter, can expect to see only six hours of light. Put simply, Shetland is closer to the Arctic Circle to the north (400 miles/643 km) than it is to the UK’s urban powerhouse, London (600 miles/962 km), to the south.
Its rugged coastline of almost 1,000 miles (1,700km) has been carved and shaped by the unbridled power of the North Atlantic on the west while, while, on the east coast, the North Sea challenges the ever-changing coastline. Of these 100 or so islands, 16 are inhabited.
Including Fair Isle to the south, and Out Stack in the north, Shetland is about 100 miles (160 kilometres) long and, at its widest, is 7 miles (11 km), but in places like Mavis Grind, it’s no more than about 70 metres wide. Mainland is the largest of the islands, at 55 miles (88 km) long it has links by inter-island ferry, plane and road bridge to those that are inhabited.
Geographically, Shetland resembles a jigsaw puzzle, formed by a range of ancient hills standing on the continental shelf and partly drowned when the last period of glaciation retreated 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laurie writes the travel blog, Shetland With Laurie and has worked as author for Lonely Planet on their latest Scotland guidebooks. Here, Laurie shares her insights, tips and favourite places.
How To Get To Shetland
Getting to Shetland is easy; you can fly or take the overnight ferry.
Shetland by air
Flights are operated by Loganair and depart from most Scottish airports, including: Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, Kirkwall and Dundee (seasonal). There are also flights from London and Bergen throughout the summer.
Shetland by sea
NorthLink Ferries operates the lifeline service to the isles, with two ferries running on the route between Lerwick and Aberdeen.
The ferry calls in at Kirkwall, Orkney on alternate evenings, and the sailing time is between 12 and 14 hours.
Cars can be brought on the ferry and there are various accommodation options, including cabins and sleeping pods. The boat also offers pet-friendly accommodation in some of its cabins.
Shetland by car
Shetland is best enjoyed with a car; you can either bring your own vehicle on the overnight ferry or hire a car from one of the car hire companies.
● Bolts Car Hire
● Grantfield Garage
● Star Rent a Car
Oil money has meant that Shetland has a good road network, and the subsidised inter-island travel means lower fares. Most rural roads are single-track, with passing places that are easy to navigate.
Taking a bike on the ferry to Shetland is cheaper than a car, and allows you to slow down and enjoy the islands at a leisurely pace (but bear in mind that there are no dedicated cycle lanes!)
Shetland’s roads are in very good condition and are a pleasure to cycle, although main roads can be quite fast and the gradients tiring. It is worth taking account of the fact that the weather is changeable and a strong head-wind can make for a challenging cycle.
Nine inter-island ferries operate throughout Shetland, linking Yell, Unst, Fetlar, Whalsay, Skerries, Bressay, Papa Stour, Fair Isle and Foula. Ferries to the North Isles, Whalsay and Bressay operate daily, with multiple sailings.
Ferries to Skerries, Papa Stour, Fair Isle and Foula are less frequent, and booking is required. All except the Fair Isle and Foula ferries are ro-ro car ferries.
Fair Isle and Foula have air links to Tingwall Airport (6.5 miles from Lerwick). There are several flights a week but it is advised to plan trips to Fair Isle and Foula at the start of your holiday as flights can often be delayed or cancelled due to weather, particularly fog. Allowing flexibility in your schedule is recommended if you are planning to visit Fair Isle and Foula.
Shetland has excellent public transport provision, allowing you to explore all corners of the islands. Buses provide links to all corners of Shetland, but note that the bus stop may still be several miles from that beauty spot you want to visit.
Bus timetables and up-to-date information are available on the free ZetTrans Travel App, available on both Apple and Android devices and does not need a mobile phone signal to be used.
Shetland has lots of private guides who can help you unlock the magic of the isles, here are a few to check out:
Things to do in Shetland
As a Shetlander, I’m always asked what my favourite things to do in Shetland, and it’s just so difficult to pick!
However, we all have a few favourite places, and here are some of mine which I feel will give you the best taste of Shetland’s landscape, culture and heritage.
Lerwick’s old town
Explore the picturesque port of Lerwick – the UK’s most northerly town and one of the country’s leading fishing ports.
Walk through Lerwick’s old town, exploring the fascinating 18th-century lanes and lodberries with their stone foundations proudly built into the sea, defying time and tide.
Head to South Commercial Street to find the fictional home of enigmatic TV star Jimmy Perez from the hit TV show Shetland, or dip your toes in the water at Bain’s Beach and search for a piece of sea-worn pottery.
Throughout the summer, Laurie offers Walking Tours of Lerwick’s old town, exploring the fascinating history of the town.
Deepdale, West Mainland
Hike out to Deepdale in Shetland’s West Mainland for a slice of paradise and enjoy the setting sun on a summer’s night. The walk is around 5 miles (8km) and can be challenging in parts.
Park at the Voe of Dale (Dale of Walls beach) and follow the coast north towards Sandness (OS Explorer 467). This piece of coastline, with views across to the most westerly island of Foula, is awe-inspiring. The cliffs are dramatic and rugged, hewn out by the powerful forces of the North Atlantic.
A day in Skerries
For those who really want to get away from it all and enjoy a leisurely day hiking the coastline, the island of Skerries is ideal.
Out Skerries, known locally as Da Skerries or just Skerries, are a small low-lying trio of islands – Housay, Bruray and Grunay – that lies 13 miles off Shetland’s east coast and four miles northeast of Whalsay.
The island is home to around 30 people who largely depend on the fishing industry, and small enough to be walked in a day trip.
Tresta Beach, Fetlar
The smallest of the North Isles, Fetlar, known as the Garden of Shetland, is a beautiful island to explore.
One of the best places to experience is the beach at Tresta with its glistening sand that sparkles in the summer sun. This is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic – or even try a little wild swimming at 60 North!
Getting to Tresta is easy; from the ferry, take the B9088 for two miles, and follow the signs for Tresta. The beach is unmissable!
No trip to Shetland would be complete without a visit to the uninhabited island of Mousa.
World- famous for the 2,000-year-old Iron Age broch which is the best surviving example of a broch anywhere in the world. The island is also famous for its breeding colony of storm petrels and other wildlife.
Mousa Boat operates day trips from April to mid-September and evening tours to see the storm petrels around midsummer.
St Ninian’s Isle, South Mainland
St Ninian’s Isle is probably Shetland’s best-known beach. Its iconic image is found in most brochures and internet searches for places to visit in Shetland, and rightly so.
St Ninian’s Isle is a picture-postcard pristine white sand tombolo spanning some 500 metres from the Shetland Mainland, across to the uninhabited St Ninian’s Isle, where the 9th century St Ninina’s Isle treasure hoard was discovered.
Hike to a broch
So much of Shetland’s archaeology is away from the trappings of visitor centres, and remain quiet and hidden away from the crowds.
Here are a few of my favourites to hike to:
Sands o Breckon, Yell
Yell is the largest of Shetland’s trio of North Isles, often overlooked by visitors as they head north to Uunst.
The beach at Sands of Breckon is worth a visit; with stunning golden sands and turquoise seas. Besides the beach, the area provides a fascinating glimpse into Shetland’s archaeological past.
This secluded site has had almost continual occupation from prehistoric times, and the remains of past people can be seen all around the area. To get here, follow the A968 north through Yell and, just before the Gutcher Ferry Terminal, turn left towards Cullivoe.
Follow this road (B9083) for several miles – look out for the ‘brown’ tourist sign marked ‘Breckon Sands’. Follow this road for ⅓ of a mile and park responsibly at the end of the road and follow the path to the beach.
Click here for more on things to do in Yell.
Quendale Beach, South Mainland
Shetland’s not short of beautiful beaches, particularly in the sweeping South Mainland, and the sand at Quendale is no exception.
Quendale beach is Shetland’s longest stretch of sandy beach at just short of a mile. This area has changed significantly as shifting sands alter the landscape, and the unique dune system stretches far inland. Testament to the changes brought to this area is found in the excavations at Broo – an abandoned township buried under sand some 300 years ago.
The best way to reach Quendale Beach is to follow the A970 south until you almost reach Sumburgh. Follow the road signs for ‘Toab/Hestingott’, heading west, follow this road for about two miles until the road ends at some garages and the double carriageway gives way to a dirt track. Park responsibly and follow the track down to the beach.
The rugged cliffs at Eshaness are breathtakingly beautiful. Formed by fire and ice almost 400 million years ago, this is a landscape of drama and rugged beauty.
Walk the Eshaness circular and marvel at the incredible volcanic formations in the landscape, including the Grind o da Naavir, Hols o Scraada and the Kirn o Slettans.
Eshaness is an hour’s drive from Lerwick following the A970 north towards Hillswick, then follow the signs for Eshaness.
Under the shadow of Ronas Hill, Shetland’s highest point, Heylor is a beautiful ‘out of the way’ spot sitting on the shores of Ronas Voe, an impressive fjord-like inlet of seawater that stretches far inland along the side of Ronas Hill and its red granite heights.
Follow the A970 north towards Hillswick. At Urafirth, turn right towards Heylor and Swinister and follow the road for around half a mile before veering left towards Heylor.
Westerwick, West Mainland
Enjoy a coastal walk between Westerwick and Silwick and enjoy the dramatic scenery and red granite cliffs. To find Westerwick, follow the A971 west, then take the B907 towards Skeld.
In Skeld, follow the signs towards Wester Skeld – follow this road for several miles, passing the school and graveyard before turning left at the end of the road towards Silwick and Westerwick.
Follow this road before turning right towards Westerwick. Park at the end of the road for walking routes.
Jarlshof Prehistoric Site, South Mainland
The site is a must-see for anyone visiting Shetland; laid out chronologically and spanning 5,000 years of human history, visitors weave their way through the ages of Shetland’s human history.
From the first farmers of the Neolithic, through the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Broch period and the arrival of the Vikings.
Following a period of Norse rule, Shetland becomes part of Scotland, and we see an era dominated by the Scottish Lairds.
Visitors conclude their walk through time with the now ruinous, but once grand, Laird’s house of 1600. Jarlshof is unmissable!
For the most northerly point of Mainland Shetland, head to the historic 19th-century fishing station at Fethaland in the North Mainland. The walk out to the now ruinous buildings will take a few hours, so you might want to pack a picnic and OS Explorer No 469. Park responsibly at the end of the Isbister road – bearing in mind that the farmer requires access to the farm road.
Tips for planning a trip to Shetland
- Book well in advance! Accommodation can book up a year in advance, so you will need to get planning well ahead of travel. Shetland has a dedicated accommodation website that you can find. This is a good place to look for accommodation and these are some accommodation reviews that I have done.
- Pack for all weathers; Shetland is in the far north and, even in summer, weather can be cool and often cold! Pack plenty of layers, a sturdy pair of boots and a good waterproof outer layer.
- Plan your days around different areas; South Mainland, West Mainland, North Mainland, Unst, for example.
- Book a boat trip with the Mousa Boat or the Noss Boat.
- Book meals in advance if you are travelling in the summer as restaurants book up quickly and it can be difficult to get a last-minute table.
Where to eat
- No 88, Commercial Street, Lerwick
- The Dowry, Commercial Street & Hay’s Dock, Lerwick
- Fjara, Lerwick
- Da Steak Hoose, Mounthooly Street, Lerwick
- Peerie Shop Cafe, Lerwick
- The Cornerstone, Scalloway
- Braewick Cafe, Eshaness (seasonal opening)
- Busta House Hotel, Brae
- Frankie’s Fish & Chips, Brae