In May 2019, Shetland was named by the Lonely Planet as one of Europe’s top ten destinations – the only UK place to feature.So, we thought we ought to see what all the fuss is about. From the variety of Shetland wildlife, the stunning coastlines, delicious local food, drinks and festivals and even the chance to see the northern lights, we weren’t disappointed.
Here’s our definitive guide to what to do in Shetland:
Where is Shetland?
Laying 168km north of the Scottish mainland, the Shetland islands are positioned where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea. And with Norway the next land mass to the east, Iceland and Canada to the westand just 400 miles to reach the Arctic Circle to the north, it’s easy to get an idea of just how far towards the top of the globe we’re talking.
How easy is it to visit the Shetland Islands?
Yes, they’re pretty remote, but the Shetlands are surprisingly well connected by both air and sea. With ferries available from Aberdeen and Orkney and flights from the major Scottish airports and also Bergen in Norway throughout the summer, you should find that getting to the islands’ capital of Lerwick is fairly straightforward. Where you go next is a matter of how adventurous you’re feeling – with over 100 islands, only 15 of which are inhabited, there is certainly plenty of rugged beauty to explore.
What to do in Shetland
From place names to paintings, architecture to art,every aspect of island life is influenced by Shetland’s rich sea-faring heritage and Norse roots.If you’re planning to visit the Shetland Islands, you’re in for a cultural and historical treat. It’s like nowhere elseon earth.
See the northern lights, Shetland’s ‘merrie dancers’
With Shetland being the closest land mass in the UK to the North Pole, it’s the best place in the country to see the northern lights. The ‘merrie dancers’ as they’re known to the locals can be best seen between mid-May and mid-October, but it’s hard to predict when they’ll be at their most colourful as it’s all down to solar electrical activity. Best advice though is to avoid the full moon as the bright light interferes with the northern lights’ spectacle.
Whale watching in Shetland
Shetland is also one of the best places to go whale watching in the UK, with regular sightings around the area. A lot of the larger species were driven from the waters in the 1920s, but there are often sightings of killer whales and occasionally pilot whales, sperm whales and Risso’s dolphins. Porpoises are regular visitors to the harbour too.And there’s even a Facebook group where members of the public share Shetland orca sightings so you can see how many are around.
Boat tours are available from Lerwick and from Burra Isle over to the more remote Foula, but whale sightings can never be guaranteed. For the best chance of seeing whales in the wild,travel between May and August, charter a boat and head 40-50 miles west of Shetland to the ‘whale motorway’. But even if you don’t catch sight of a whale there are plenty of other marine mammals to be seen, including seals and otters basking on the shores.
Seek out other Shetland wildlife
For bird lovers in particular, Shetland is a paradise. From Hoopoes on Burra to Goldcrests and Blackcaps on Fetlar, you can keep up with the most recent sightings on the Nature Shetland site. Look out for regular views of puffins, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills and more as you explore the rugged coastlines.
And what would a visit to Shetland be without sightings of the gorgeous Shetland ponies roaming free throughout the islands?
Hiking in the Shetland Islands
From craggy headlands and exposed moors to sandy bays, explore Shetland on foot and you’ll be amazed at how different each of the islands are. Hike around the stunning SumburghHead RSPB nature reserve on the southern tip of Mainlandto see the lighthouse built by Louis Stephenson’s father and look over ‘da Roost’ where the waters of the Atlantic and the North Sea meet.Enjoy an 8km walk around the ness (or headland) of Ireland to take in the stunning coastal scenery and geology of folded and banded rocks. Or explore the dramatic landscape of Esha Ness, the volcano in the north. Whichever of the islands you choose to discover, hiking the Shetland Islands will never disappoint. And if you’re nervous about going it alone, there are plenty of walking tours. Shetland Island locals love to share their knowledge and take pride in showing off their little islands.
Don’t forget to pack a fleece or two though, while the temperatures on Shetland are mild compared to other locations at the same latitude, those craggy coasts are pretty exposed.
The Shetland Islands are renowned for their colourful festivals, designed to celebrate their culture and heritage. And they’re a huge draw for tourists.So if there’s a festival in town at the same time as you’re planning a visit make the most of it. Try to catch‘Up Helly Aa’as it takes place across the islands during January and February, complete with torchlit procession and ceremonial longboat burning. Or visit in May in time for Shetland Folk Festival – four days of talented musicians from the islands and beyond. And perhaps look out for the Bergen to Shetland races in June– the annual North Sea yacht race between Norway and Shetland. Don’t fancy those?You could try Shetland Agricultural Showa, Shetland Film Festival or even Wool Week – the list goes on, demonstrating the tight-knit community feel of these islands.
There’s a sense when you visit Shetland Islands that you may just have reached the edge of the world. It feels, at times, as though you could be a million miles away from civilisation. But with the stunning rugged scenery, unrivalled opportunities to see wildlife and a rich community and history to explore, when you’re wondering what to do in Shetland, perhaps the answer is relax, breathe deeply, take it all in and just be.
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