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How to get to & around the Shetland Islands

Wondering how to get to the Shetland Islands? It’s surprisingly easy – and fun! Discover the best way of travelling to this rugged archipelago and how to get around once you’re there.

View from Sumburgh Heads. Discover how to get to Shetland.
Looking back on Shetland from Sumburgh Heads.

Have you ever wondered how to get to the Shetland Islands?

This small archipelago sits north of Scotland and is surprisingly easy to travel to.

And what awaits once you’re there? Gorgeous vistas. Fantastic hikes. Amazing wild and birdlife.

Basically a whole lotta fun, which is why the islands are definitely worth visiting.

In this guide, I’ll outline the best ways to get to Shetland. And we’ll also take a look at how to get around, once you’re there.

For more, find out the best things to do in Shetland, so you can make the most of your time on the islands.

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Baby Shetland pony at the Shetland Pony Experience.
Gonna put a photo of a baby Shetland pony here, simply because I can.

How to get to the Shetland Islands

There are two ways to get to the Shetland Islands.

The first way is by boat.

The second way is by plane.

As this is a responsible travel blog, I highly recommend taking the ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick. Not only is it less expensive and more sustainable; it’s also a lot of fun.

However, if you’re short on time, it is possible to fly into Sumburgh Airport from a handful of destinations.

Let’s explore these two options further.

Aberdeen's skyline.
Aberdeen’s skyline.
A NorthLink Ferry docked at Lerwick in Shetland.
One of the ferries running along the Aberdeen to Lerwick route.

How to get to Shetland: travelling by boat

To get to Shetland by boat, you’ll need to book with NorthLink Ferries.

Tickets start at £23.20 for an adult and £11.60 for a child.

These ferries service both the Orkney and Shetland islands, travelling between Aberdeen in mainland Scotland, Kirkwall in Orkney and Lerwick in Shetland.

It takes around six hours to reach Kirkwall and 14.5 hours all up to get to Lerwick – meaning you’ll be on the ferry overnight. Fun!

You can take a car or bicycle with you from mainland UK to Shetland, via the ferry.

Alternatively, you can travel as a foot passenger and pick up a rental car once there. We’ll explore this option in greater detail further down this post.

A ticket for the NorthLink ferry travelling between Shetland and Scotland. The ferry is the best way to get to the Shetland Islands.
Your ticket also serves as your key to the cabin.
Inside a cabin on the NorthLink Ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick, Shetland Islands.
A cabin on the ferry between Aberdeen and Lerwick.

Types of tickets on the ferry to Shetland

When you make your reservation, you have the choice of booking a reclining seat, pod, or cabin for the journey.

If you have the funds, I highly recommend booking a cabin.

The cabins are great! They have two beds and are fairly spacious, considering you’re on a boat. There’s a television and en-suite bathroom with a toilet and shower.

You can choose between an inner cabin without a window or an outer cabin with a window. Get a window if you can, so you can admire the seascape as you pass by.

Also available are premium and executive cabins, which come with extra perks. These include:

  • a work desk in the executive cabin
  • access to the Magnus Lounge
  • breakfast
  • two complimentary drinks.

Alternatively, if you’re on a budget or travelling solo and can’t see the point in booking an entire cabin, you can rent a reclining seat (£3) or sleeping pod (£18). The pods allow you to recline back up to 70 degrees, so they’re comfier than the reclining seats.

Disabled cabins with extra facilities are also available, as are pet-friendly cabins, which you can share with your furry friend. Yup, you can take Fido onboard the ferry, which is pretty cool.

Travelling to Shetland via ferry is a lot of fun. I highly recommend it. For a similar journey, discover what it’s like to catch a ferry to Tasmania in Australia.

a bottle of Orkney Brewery Puffin Tawny Ale.
Puffin tawny ale. Very appropriate.

What is there to do on the ferry?

As this is an overnight journey, you will spend the majority of your time on the ferry sleeping, I would assume.

However, there are a few things onboard you can look to, to occupy your time.

First, let’s go over food options.

Dinner service starts generally when the ferry departs, after 5pm.

Beef burger and chips onboard the ferry to Shetland.
A burger onboard the ferry to Shetland.

An honest review? The food is just okay. I ordered a burger on my way to Shetland. On the way back, I was a bit done with heavy food, but there wasn’t much on the menu I found appealing by that point.

On my first day in Shetland, I didn’t order breakfast on the ferry, going to a local cafe in Lerwick instead.

There are also a couple of bars onboard. Very nice to get a beer or wine, snag a seat by a window and look out to the sea. Especially if you have a good book on hand.

There’s also a cinema onboard. Tickets can be bought from the ferry’s onboard shop – it’s £5.50 for adults (16yrs +) and £3.50 for children (0-15yrs). You can view the schedule in advance or I guess, just wait to be surprised once you’re on the boat.

A man stands overlooking a beach in Shetland.
The views coming into Shetland would be pretty amazing.

How to get to Shetland: catching a plane

The second way to get to Shetland is to fly there.

Sumburgh Airport is the island’s main airport, located at the southern end of the mainland.

You can fly into Shetland on Scottish airway Loganair. It offers routes from around the UK, the biggest airport being London’s Heathrow.

It’s also possible to fly in from Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Inverness and Manchester. And from Kirkwall on Orkney.

Outside of the UK, you can travel to Shetland from Bergen in Norway in the summer months.

The views coming in for landing either way would be lovely!

Sumburgh Airport is pretty tiny. Once you’ve landed, you can pick up a hire car and drive on to Lerwick (about 20 minutes away), or whatever you next destination on the islands happens to be.

You can also fly from Tingwall Airport (which is six miles from Lerwick) to other far-flung islands in this area, such as Foula, Papa Stour and Fair Isle. Airtask Group manage these flights.

How to get around the Shetland Islands

A woman in a yellow raincoat walks along a path. Discover the best ways to get around in Shetland.
Walking is also fun in Shetland.

Now that we’ve thoroughly covered how to get to the Shetland Islands, let’s explore how we can get around them.

Travelling around Shetland by car

The easiest way to travel around Shetland is by car.

You can either bring your own vehicle or rent a car once you arrive.

We chose to rent through Bolts Car Hire. The process is extremely simple. We picked up the car when we arrived on the ferry, from the terminal. We then dropped the car off right where we picked it up, dropping the keys in a dedicated box for staff to pick up during office hours.

One nice bonus – we were able to choose an automatic, rather than get lumped with a manual. Very handy if you’re travelling with someone who doesn’t drive stick. This can cost quite a bit more on the UK mainland, but on Shetland, prices were quite reasonable.

Car parked in Shetland.
A hire car in Shetland.

Other car hire companies include Jim’s Garage and Star-Rent-a-Car.

It’s also possible to hire a coach or motor-home, for your Shetland adventure, if there’s a big group of you or you fancy having a home on wheels for a bit.

Driving around Shetland is pretty easy. There’s not exactly bucketloads of traffic, or any of the mainland UK’s ridiculous roundabouts.

You may have to deal with one lane roads, but there’s plenty of places to pull over (called ‘passing places’). And I personally did not get stuck behind any tractors, very unlike road tripping in Ireland.

Cars wait to board the car ferry in Shetland.
The car ferry to Unst.

Catching car ferries in Shetland

If you want to travel from the mainland to islands like Yell and Unst (which you definitely should do), you’ll need to jump on a car ferry.

Spots on these ferries can be booked in advance online, or by telephone (up to a half hour before departure date).

When you arrive at the terminal, you’ll see two rows – one for people with bookings for that particular ferry and one for unbooked vehicles.

In peak season (summer), I recommend booking the ferries where you can. In the cooler seasons, you can probably wing it, park in unbooked and pay once you’re onboard.

I was a bit overly conservative with figuring out driving and ferry travel time on a journey to Unst and arrived at the Yell terminal far ahead of schedule. I was able to park in the ‘unbooked’ queue and made it onboard, no problem.

Heading back, I found I was leaving earlier than anticipated. Ringing the office, I was able to book onto two earlier boats.

It’s a really fun way to travel, adding another element to your journey. And especially great if you love boats.

Bobby's bus shelter and honesty box in Shetland.
Bobby’s Bus Shelter in Unst is by far the most interesting one on Shetland.

Travelling around Shetland by bus

Don’t drive? Or just don’t want to?

It is possible to travel around Shetland by bus, even if you’re a visitor to the island.

Check out the timetable and plan your journey.

Travelling around Shetland by bike

Alternatively, you can get around Shetland by bike. I certainly saw plenty of people cruising around on two wheels.

Either bring your own bike onboard the ferry, or rent one while you’re there.

For more info, check out the Shetland Community Bike Project. You can also hire bike and helmet from Sumburgh Hotel.

Getting to & around Shetland is pretty straightforward

As you can see, it’s pretty easy to get to Shetland. And once you’re there, getting around is a no-brainer too.

For ease of journey, I recommend catching the ferry there and back, unless you’re going on to another destination in Scotland – it just might make more sense to fly.

And definitely take advantage of the inter-island ferries. They’re really easy to navigate and make the journey all the more fun.

Love exploring remote archipelagos? Me too. For more, check out my content on the Faroe Islands and Svalbard. And consider a road trip in the Westfjords of Iceland.

Are you heading to Shetland? Hope this post proves helpful in organising your trip there.

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Wondering how to get to the Shetland Islands? It's surprisingly easy – and fun! Discover the best way of travelling to this rugged archipelago and how to get around once you're there.

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