WHY VISIT THE SHETLAND ISLANDS?
Go to Shetland to experience a place that’s ancient and wild. Of the roughly 100 islands that make up Shetland, only 15 are inhabited today. Yet Shetland has been inhabited as far back as Neolithic times – over 4000 years ago – and it has the evidence to prove it. Numerous archeological sites dot the islands, including the collective ruins of “The Crucible of Iron Age Shetland” that are tentative World Heritage Sites.
Later settlers also left an indelible mark on the islands. Shetland was under Viking rule from the 8th to the 15th centuries, which makes sense seeing as Shetland is actually closer to Norway than the Scottish mainland. Today you can still see traces of Old Norse in town names, cultural traditions and even the local dialect.
Just like its Nordic neighbours, Shetland offers an abundance of stunning scenery and wildlife experiences for visitors. Head to the rocky coastline for a glimpse of seals, otters and cliff-dwelling seabirds including Atlantic Puffins. Shetland is also home to the adorable Shetland Pony, which you can see grazing in pastures throughout the countryside.
If this all sounds good, read more about Shetland’s must-see attractions below.
WHICH ARE SOME OF THE BEST PLACES TO VISIT THE SHETLAND ISLANDS?
For the must-see prehistoric and natural sites, here’s what our Scotland travel experts recommend to see in Shetland:
Lerwick: Capital of the Shetland Isles. Get to know this charming harbour town with visits to the Shetland Museum and Archives, the 17th-century Fort Charlotte, and the Shetland Textile Museum.
Northern Isles of Yell and Unst: The most northerly islands of Shetland, great for a day trip. On Unst, check out Britain’s most northerly castle, the 16th century Muness Castle, or head to the Hermaness National Nature Reserve on Unst to spot otters and seals. On Yell, visit the Iron Age settlements at Sellafirth and Da Birrier.
Jarlshof: Ancient settlement including remains of an Iron Age broch, Pictish wheelhouses, Norse dwellings, and a medieval farmstead.
Mousa Broch on Isle of Mousa: One of the best preserved Iron Age roundhouses, dating back to around 300 BC. Along with Jarlshof, is it part of the “Crucible of Iron Age Shetland” sites.
Sumburgh Head Nature Reserve: Check out its birds exhibition and famous lighthouse overlooking the cliffs. Great for spotting birds like puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars, as well as marine life like dolphins, harbour porpoises and killer whales.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SHETLAND?
The summer months in Scotland – June to August – are the most popular time to visit Shetland, when you can experience the best weather, hiking, wildlife encounters and availability of tourist attractions. Around late June you can even experience the “simmer dim”, the locals’ term for the nearly 24-hour daylight of midsummer.
Scotland’s winter months are not an ideal time for a road trip to Shetland – as some rural tourist attractions be off limits and the weather can make ferry trips a bit rocky – but Shetland in wintertime is still a unique experience. The Up Helly Aa festival, or “the Viking fire festival”, in January is a popular event and a great way to see Shetland’s Norse traditions in action.
WHAT IS THE BEST DRIVING ROUTE FOR A SHETLAND ISLANDS TOUR?
If you’re picking up your rental car in Edinburgh, start your journey up the east coast through Fife and Aberdeenshire. This route allows you to stop in the historic city of St Andrews and take in the old royal residences along the popular “Castle Trail”. From the city of Aberdeen, take an overnight ferry to the port town of Lerwick on the Shetland Mainland.
Instead of reversing the same route back to Edinburgh, why not do some more island-hopping? Take a ferry from Shetland to the Orkney Islands and spend a few days exploring the “Neolithic Heart of Orkney” World Heritage Sites. From Orkney, ferry back to the mainland and drive the stunning North Coast 500 route – aka "Scotland’s Route 66".
Then travel down from the northern Highlands, maybe with a detour to the Isle of Skye and further west to the Isles of Harris and Lewis. On the way back to Edinburgh, take in some of Scotland’s most famous sites, like Eilean Donan castle, Loch Ness and Trossachs National Park. Back in Edinburgh, enjoy city landmarks like the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle.
Nordic Visitor offers a wide range of tours in Scotland that can be tailored to your liking, with extra nights, day tours and more added to your itinerary on request. We can also arrange privately guided tours for individuals and small groups.