15 Top Things To Do In Shetland
From incredible nature to contempory arts, Shetland is a real adventure and a truly cosmopolitan place - not on the edge but in the centre of the northern seas. Step back in time to the dawn of civilisation at ancient ruins, admire beautiful handcrafted Viking-style longships and enjoy some of the most spectacular wildlife sights in Europe. From Shetland beaches to Shetland pubs, there are attractions for everyone.
Shetland’s coastline has every sort of beach – boulder-strewn beaches as well as many stretches of white or golden sand beaches and everything in between. With just under 1,700 miles (2,700 km) of breathtaking coastline, it's impossible to list them all, so here is just a selection, each of which has something special to offer.
The most well-known is St Ninian’s. Technically not a beach, it connects St Ninian’s Isle to the Shetland mainland, is 500 metres long and the finest of its type in Britain. Framed by the cliff scenery of north Yell, the sandy beach at Breckon is one of the island’s highlights.
Shetland has a fascinating and unique natural environment, and today the islands are one of the most thrilling wilderness areas in Britain.
Shetland's world-famous small ponies can be seen throughout the islands - grazing by the roadside, on the beaches or on the heathery hills. They are all owned and tended to by local crofters, and can generally be seen in the West Mainland, Scalloway, Tingwall, Dunrossness and the island of Unst.
Shetland is a brilliant place all year round to watch sea mammals, particularly common seals. Walk along the coastline or take a stroll across a quiet beach and you’re bound to see an inquisitive head popping out of the water. Between May and August, you may be lucky enough to see orcas ('killer whales') hunting seals close inshore, or a school of white-sided dolphins chasing a shoal of fish or even a minke whale. Other species seen occasionally are pilot whales, basking sharks, sperm whales and Risso's dolphins.
Shetland is an excellent place for an active holiday. If you really want to get to know the islands, there is only one way to do it – get out and get walking. The combination of spectacular coastal scenery on both North Sea and Atlantic facing cliffs, quiet inland lochs, and gentle heathery hills is unsurpassed.
The archipelago is also a great cycling destination, with many quiet roads in excellent condition for cycle touring, and there are bike hire shops in Lerwick, with electric, road and mountain bikes available.
If you’re more of a water person, the region’s extensive and accessible coastline offers endless opportunities for sea kayakers. Uninhabited islands, deserted beaches and countless sea caves are all waiting to be explored around Shetland by kayak. And for a bit of an adrenaline-fuelled surf or a paddle, opt for a surf or SUP (stand-up paddle boarding). There is also a variety of diving experience available, with countless caves, bays, stacks, natural arches, and shipwrecks.
Thanks to one of the most pristine environments, the food and drink produced in Shetland are exceptional.
Sample Shetland mussels at the famous, award-winning Frankie’s Fish and Chips on the shores of Busta Voe, or at Fjara Café. The wild, clean waters of the North Atlantic also mean you’ll find the freshest tasting herring, mackerel, and salmon.
There is also native beef produced in Shetland that is worth seeking out for a truly authentic flavour. It can be purchased at Anderson Butchers and the Scalloway Meat Company, and you may also find it on the menu at Caffe Volare, C'est La Vie, Da Steakhouse, Scalloway Hotel and more.
Join thousands of residents as they take to the streets, dressed in sheepskins, wearing winged helmets and fur-trimmed tunics, carrying axes and shields, and brandishing flaming torches. The people of Shetland are certainly a fiery lot and know how to throw a party.
Taking place annually on the last Tuesday of January in the town of Lerwick, the Shetland’s Viking Fire Festival, or Up Helly Aa as it’s known locally, is the largest event of its kind in Europe. Thousands of visitors from across the world travel to this northernmost corner of Scotland to join in these Scandinavian Viking-style celebrations of the end of winter and the return of the sun.
The months of February and March will see plenty of smaller fire festivals throughout the islands. They may vary slightly in custom, but all embrace the islands’ Viking past and involve setting Viking longships on fire.
One of the great experiences during the Shetland autumn and winter is the 'Northern Lights', or Aurora Borealis, known locally as 'The Mirrie Dancers'. Did you know that Shetland lies closer to the North Pole than any other part of Britain, making it one of the best places to see the northern lights in Scotland? In fact, visit these remote isles and you’ll actually be closer to the Arctic Circle than to London by about 200 miles (320 kilometres)!
There is an abundance of open countryside on Shetland so there are plenty of places to pull up and settle down for a leisurely light-spotting session. And, of course, you should move away from areas with street lighting, particularly Lerwick, to have the best view. Those who get to see them will be enchanted by the curtains of green, yellow, blue and red light swaying and shifting in the night sky.
The important thing to bear in mind is that aurorae are hard to predict, and you should use the Aurora Watch UK service to receive alerts of when the aurora might be visible from the UK.
Go for a journey off the beaten path. In fact, ditch the path altogether, hop on a boat and do some proper island-hopping. Shetland with its white sandy beaches and clear seas is a great place to hop around – with over 100 to choose from, you’ll be spoilt for choice! Each of the 10 populated islands (that includes the mainland) offers something unique for visitors to experience.
Witness the incredible sight of thousands of seabirds on cliffs at nature reserves, such as Hermaness. Unearth the history of the Viking era on Unst. Enjoy lively folk music sessions in pubs in Lerwick and try locally produced spirits and ales. Visit the southerly Fair Isle; head West to Foula, often referred to as the Edge of the World, or head East, to Out Skerries, which is only two miles square. Then there's the uninhabited islands, which don't have ferry services. Mousa, famous for its broch can be visited during summer months via the Mousa Boat, while Hildasay, Oxna and Havra are accessible from Scalloway.
Did you know that Shetland has UNESCO Geopark status, meaning that it has an outstanding geological heritage? Due to the lack of trees and the abundance of stone, Shetland has some of the best-preserved archaeology in Europe. Beneath your feet are some of Britain's oldest rocks. Explore the Shetland Geopark and you’ll discover not just the story of the islands, but the story of how the world has formed and changed over millions of years.
For unrivalled breathtaking beauty, geology and archaeology, set off on the volcanic trail at Eshaness. Located about an hour’s drive from Lerwick, Eshaness is an exposed peninsula in the north-west Shetland mainland. Blasted by the full force of the North Atlantic, it displays a stunning array of stacks, blowholes and narrow inlets.
There is a strong tradition of Vikings living in Shetland. In the south of Shetland, there’s evidence of a Viking settlement at Jarlshof, one of the most important and inspirational archaeological sites in Scotland, and Old Scatness, where you’ll find an Iron Age broch and village. But it’s in Britain’s northernmost inhabited island, Unst, that you’ll find the greatest concentration of evidence of the Viking raiders’ presence and subsequent Norse occupation.
Haroldswick means ‘Harold’s bay’, named after Harald Fairhair who reputedly landed in this beautiful inlet. Just south of the settlement, you can step aboard a full-scale replica of the 9th century Viking longship, the Skidbladner. She is one of the largest replica Viking longships ever built. There is also a longhouse replica, that’s based on the floorplan of one of the best preserved and excavated longhouse sites at Hamar.
Nearby is the Unst Heritage Centre, which serves both as a museum and a community centre. Here, explore exhibitions about past and recent Unst life, including information about the Vikings and various excavations in Unst.
If you’ve been inspired by Shetland’s dramatic scenery, then you might fancy going on a journey to discover the islands’ creative side. Stop at Mareel, the UK’s most northerly music, cinema and creative industries centre – perfect for embracing the art, or simply just relaxing with a coffee enjoying the view and watching the seals and seabirds bobbing just outside the windows.
Or follow the Shetland Craft Trail and explore the local art scene and visit craft workshops and open studios, from Unst in the north, to Scousburgh and Fair Isle in the south. Join workshops and tuition in traditional and contemporary textile crafts, hand-spinning, knitting, or weaving, or book a tour with an experienced operator – they'll show you the tools and techniques employed to create products like authentic Fair Isle knitwear. You’ll also have a chance to meet the artists and designers, commission special pieces, or simply shop for unique gifts. Why not visit during Shetland Wool Week? This internationally acclaimed event is one not to miss, as it boasts an extensive range of exhibitions, classes and more.Key facilities
- Hearing Loop
- Accessible Parking Or Drop-off Point
- Level Access
- Accessible toilets
- Cafe or Restaurant
If you have a week, a couple of days or even just an afternoon, Shetland has a range of tour operators offering trips on both land and sea and there is no better way to discover the magic of Shetland than on a guided tour.
From seeking out special winter wildlife visitors to getting a glimpse into the fascinating history of the islands, ther are also full day trips to the island of Foula to see the cliffs to specialised photography or wildlife watching tours You can pick and choose the things you'd like to do to create your ultimate Shetland experience. Bespoke tours can be designed and tailored to suit your requirements. Get in touch with the tour guide of your choice to discuss an itinerary which will leave you chomping at the bit to get there.
What makes Whalsay Golf Course truly one of a kind? It's not only the tranquil surroundings coupled with the treacherous golfing challenges, but also the fact that it’s the most northerly course in the UK. Featuring some superb clifftop holes, this 18-hole course is located on the small island of Whalsay. Bordered by the sea on both sides, it is surrounded by spectacular coastal scenery, which is host to an abundance of wildlife.
And how about a round of golf at midnight, during the summer months? You can tee off all around the clock thanks to the endless hours of daylight.
There are three golf courses in Shetland. The best 18-hole golf course is Asta Golf Club, located in the fertile and historic valley of Tingwall, not far from Lerwick. The largest with most enthusiastic membership is Shetland Golf Club.
In Dunrossness you’ll find the Shetland Croft House Museum where the kids can step back in time and see how a traditional family would have lived in the 1870s.
There's no shortage of things to do with children in Shetland – all you need is a bit of time and plenty of imagination. Get up close and personal to the beautiful Shetland ponies at the Shetland Pony Experience. Here children can ride these beautiful animals and all the family can help groom them.
Go back in time at Scalloway Museum – a real treat with the kids. There’s plenty here to keep children captivated from artefacts revealing the islands whaling past to the role it played in the Second World War. Shetland’s Museum & Archives building in Lerwick is absolutely jam packed with artefacts from across the islands and through time. There are boxes for dressing up and lots of opportunities to get interactive with the displays.
Shetland’s music is more diverse than many outsiders might imagine, encompassing everything from groove metal to jazz, classical, rockabilly, funk, prog-rock and even Balkan klezmer. As you’ll soon discover, Shetland's fiddle music is only one example of a rich oral tradition.
If you want to listen to live music in Shetland, Mareel and Clickimin host regular gigs with local and visiting artists. Shetland’s modern network of country halls also handles many musical events and there are regular jam sessions in local pubs.
What things can you do when it’s a rainy day in Shetland? We've got a few ideas that might help.
See the best of Shetland’s artists at Bonhoga Gallery. Situated within Weisdale Mill – a watermill in the central mainland, the gallery is a superb place to see the best of Shetland’s artists. It also has a super shop full of tasteful souvenirs and a marvellous café.
At Tangwick Haa Museum, you can find out about Shetland’s past. This lovely museum was built in the late 17th century and today houses a fine collection of early agricultural tools, 19th century household objects and other artefacts and photographs documenting life in Northmavine through the years.
Alternatively, why not visit the Up Helly Aa Galley Shed and see some of the amazing Viking costumes and galleys created for the yearly event?
Shetland is also famous for fantastic swimming pools with slides. The Clickimin Leisure Complex holds the biggest versatile space within Shetland, catering for the isles ever-growing sports calendar and for large and small-scale concerts and cabaret events.
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