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Top 14 Things to Do in Scotland’s Shetland Islands

An archipelago that serves as Scotland’s most northerly point, the Shetland Islands have a rich and fascinating history with many traces from the past still visible today, including Iron Age ruins and Viking settlements. The scenery is out of this world, with unspoiled beaches that look like they should be in the Caribbean to remarkable rock formations, while wildlife is abundant, including puffins and orcas. There are so many things to see and do it would take weeks to experience it all, but you’ll want to put at least some of these options on your must-do list.

 

Spend Time on the Beaches Shetland Islands beach, Scotland
Credit: Shetland Islands beach, Scotland by © Waeske - Dreamstime.com

Spend Time on the Beaches

What Is It? There are many beautiful beaches throughout the Shetland Islands with fine white sands that edge clear turquoise water. Many can be found on the south side of the Shetland mainland, like Rerwick, where you can often watch seals and their pups. Levenwick is a peaceful sandy stretch that includes a gorgeous bay with rock pools. Banna Minn is another favorite in the southernmost part of West Burra.

Why Do It? On a sunny day, there is no more beautiful place to be than one of Shetland’s beaches, and you can take advantage of jaw-dropping photo ops.

Good to Know: While swimming off Shetland’s coast has become increasingly popular, keep in mind that the water can be quite cold, the currents fast, and there are no lifeguards on duty. Proceed with caution.

Explore the Jarlshof Prehistoric and Nore Settlement Jarlshof settlement ruins, Shetland Islands
Credit: Jarlshof settlement ruins, Shetland Islands by © Drew Calverley - Dreamstime.com

Explore the Jarlshof Prehistoric and Nore Settlement

What Is It? The Jarlshof Prehistoric and Nore Settlement reveals over 4,000 years of history as a true archaeological wonder with multiple ancient settlements here. It includes a Bronze Age home, an Iron Age broch, Norse long houses, a medieval farmstead, and a 16th-century laird’s residence.

Why Do It? A visit provides a fascinating look into the past.

Good to Know: The site boasts a dramatic headland setting making it worth visiting for the scenery alone. There is also a visitor center with artifacts that have been uncovered from the site.

See the Broch of Mousa Broch of Mousa, Shetland Islands
Credit: Broch of Mousa, Shetland Islands by Robbo-Man via Flickr

See the Broch of Mousa

What Is It? The Broch of Mousa is one of the world’s most well-preserved stone structures and Scotland’s best surviving Iron Age broch, a round tower used for defensive purposes.

Why Do It? Built around 100 BC, this broch is the only one that’s remained untouched and provides a fascinating look at history.

Good to Know: The broch stands 42 feet tall and is often used by storm petrels today, with around 6,800 pairs making burrows inside. The only way to access it is by taking the Mousa Ferry from Sandwick, 13 miles south of Lerwick on the mainland.

Discover Ancient Life at Old Scatness Broch & Iron Age Village Old Scatness Broch and Iron Age Village, Shetland Islands
Credit: Old Scatness Broch and Iron Age Village, Shetland Islands by © Lowlihjeng - Dreamstime.com

Discover Ancient Life at Old Scatness Broch & Iron Age Village

What Is It? An archaeological site that serves as a time capsule into the past with excavated and reconstructed buildings along with living history demonstrations and tours.

Why Do It? It’s a fun way to discover what life was like in Shetland some 2,000 years ago with experienced guides who provide expert insight. Visitors can step into Iron Age homes, learn ancient crafts and games, and even dress up like a Pict or Viking.

Good to Know: The site sits at the southern tip of the mainland, just a 30-minute drive south of Lerwick.

Watch for Whales orca in the Shetland Island waters
Credit: orca in the Shetland Island waters by © Izanbar - Dreamstime.com

Watch for Whales

What Is It? There have been nearly two dozen different types of whales and dolphins recorded in the waters around the Shetland Islands. Orca sightings have become increasingly common between May and August, although they have been spotted throughout the year.

Why Do It? Seeing these majestic creatures in the wild is an experience you’ll never forget, and here, orcas come close to the shore you can see them right from land. The long, dark days of winter bring the opportunity to see them with a backdrop of northern lights, but you’ll have to have a lot of luck on your side.

Good to Know: It’s worth booking a trip with a wildlife tour operator who has knowledge of cetacean activity and local insight. You can also follow the Shetland Orca Sightings group on Facebook to find out where the latest sightings have been.

Spot Puffins and Other Seabirds in Hermaness National Nature Reserve Atlantic puffins, Shetland Islands, Scotland
Credit: Atlantic puffins, Shetland Islands, Scotland by © David Havel - Dreamstime.com

Spot Puffins and Other Seabirds in Hermaness National Nature Reserve

What Is It? Hermaness National Nature Reserve serves as a haven for countless seabirds, a magnificent wildlife reserve at the most northerly tip of the island of Unst.

Why Do It? The reserve provides a dramatic clifftop setting for watching the remarkable array of birdlife, including puffins, with a huge colony of 25,000 pairs.

Good to Know: The setting is absolutely stunning, and you can also see gannets diving into the water at lightning speed, along with fulmars, gulls, shags, and kittiwakes.

Attend the Up Helly Aa Festival Up Helly Aa Festival, Lerwick, Shetland Islands
Credit: Up Helly Aa Festival, Lerwick, Shetland Islands by © Zdenka Mlynarikova - Dreamstime.com

Attend the Up Helly Aa Festival

What Is It? The annual Up Helly Aa Viking festival is a fire festival that pays homage to the Shetlands’ Viking heritage, held over 24 hours on the last Tuesday of January.

Why Do It? It’s a great way to experience local culture, with the evening of the festival bringing nearly a thousand heavily-disguised torch-bearers who take to the dark streets of Lerwick with the lead group, or Jarl’s Squad, wearing Viking dress. The others don costumes ranging from the nearly sublime to the totally ridiculous.

Good to Know: While tickets are extremely limited, public events that visitors can easily attend include the evening torch-lit procession and galley burning, as well as a morning march.

Marvel at the Northern Lights northern lights from Unst, Shetland Islands
Credit: northern lights from Unst, Shetland Islands by Keane Beamish via Flickr

Marvel at the Northern Lights

What Is It? As the most northerly point in Britain, the Shetland Islands are the best place in the United Kingdom to catch one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular shows, the northern lights, known locally as the “Mirrie Dancers.”

Why Do It? Being able to watch the northern lights is a bucket-list experience for many.

Good to Know: While the best chance of spotting the aurora is from around mid-October through mid-March, they can appear anytime there are dark skies. During the summer, it’s not possible as the nights are far too light.

Check Out a Viking Ship: Skidbladner  Skidbladner Viking Ship
Credit: Skidbladner Viking Ship by © Alan5766 - Dreamstime.com

Check Out a Viking Ship: Skidbladner

What Is It? The Skidbladner is a full-size replica of the 9th-century Gokstad ship that was discovered in 1880 by two farm boys in a Viking burial ground in Norway.

Why Do It? Visitors can step aboard the ship to experience what it would have been like to cruise on a Viking vessel. In the summer, live history demonstrations are included too. There’s also a reconstructed Viking longhouse that lies adjacent to it.

Good to Know: The ship is believed to have been built during the reign of Harald Fairhar, who is said to have landed in Unst. The bay of Haroldswick is named after him. and after whom the bay of Haroldswick is named.

Beachcomb & More at St. Ninian's Isle St Ninia's Isle on Shetland
Credit: St Ninia's Isle on Shetland by © Alan5766 | Dreamstime.com

Beachcomb & More at St. Ninian's Isle

What Is It? St. Ninian’s Isle is linked by a large natural sand causeway to the west coast of mainland Shetland. The beach is the largest active tombolo in the United Kingdom.

Why Do It? Walking this long stretch of beach with soft sand brings the chance to discover weathered sea glass, shells, and more. There are many interesting, odd-shaped stones, and occasionally the weather will cause the stones to stand at a 45-degree angle for an especially unusual sight. There’s also a little cave ideal for picnicking and an important archaeological site which was the source of the island’s famous treasure, the only complete hoard of fine silver metalwork known to survive from this period, around 800 AD.

Good to Know: The chapel can be visited any time of the year, other than high tide during the winter when the tombolo is flooded.

Visit Sumburgh Head Lighthouse Sumbergh Head Lighthouse, Shetland Islands, Scotland
Credit: Sumbergh Head Lighthouse, Shetland Islands, Scotland by Wikimedia Commons

Visit Sumburgh Head Lighthouse

What Is It? A picturesque lighthouse at the southern tip of the Shetland mainland on Sumburgh Head.

Why Do It? The lighthouse is a great place to enjoy a fabulous ocean view, and it’s also a great vantage point for spotting puffins, whales, and other wildlife.

Good to Know: There is a nature reserve and a visitor center here where you can learn about the lighthouse keepers.

Sip Craft Beers at Lerwick Brewery Lerwick Brewery, Shetland Islands
Credit: Lerwick Brewery, Shetland Islands by Lerwick Brewery

Sip Craft Beers at Lerwick Brewery

What Is It? The most northerly distillery in Scotland, Lerwick Brewery features a taproom, shop, and tours.

Why Do It? Guests are invited inside to find out how beer is made, meet the brewery team, and enjoy a tasting session.

Good to Know: Booking in advance is a must. If you’re unable to come for a tour, the brewery shop sells Lerwick Brewery beer and merchandise, as well as locally-made gifts.

Follow the Culswick Circular Walk Sign for Culswick walk, Shetland Islands
Credit: Sign for Culswick walk, Shetland Islands by © Alan5766 - Dreamstime.com

Follow the Culswick Circular Walk

What Is It? Located on the west side of the mainland, the Culswick Circular Walk offers magnificent views and leads to one of the most well-preserved ancient ruins on mainland Shetland, Culswick Broch.

Why Do It? Enjoy beautiful scenery that includes sparkling freshwater lochs and lush valleys while heading to the broch, which stands atop a hill overlooking the Atlantic.

Good to Know: It’s an easy walk that takes about two hours to complete.

Explore the Museums Shetland Museum
Credit: Shetland Museum by Wikimedia Commons

Explore the Museums

What Is It? There are multiple museums to visit in the Shetland Islands, including the Shetland Museum & Archives, Shetland Crofthouse Museum, the Tangwick Haa Museum, The Cabin Museum, and Textile Museum.

Why Do It? Learn more about the Shetland Islands, the archipelago’s traditions, its past, and its people.

Good to Know: The top museums include the Shetland Museum & Archives, which explores the fascinating story of Shetland’s heritage and culture in one place, with access to a wealth of artifacts. The Shetland Crofthouse Museum in Dunrossness offers a step back in time, set within a traditional 19th-century thatched croft house furnished like it would have been in the 1870s.

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