Love boats, hikes, gorgeous nature and amazing wildlife? Sounds like a visit to the Shetland Islands is in order. Discover the best things to do in Shetland, from searching for puffins to taking a Shetland pony for a walk.
The Shetland Islands. Nestled between Scotland and the Faroe Islands, this remote archipelago is a place well-worth adventuring to.
There’s amazing wildlife to see and sweeping coastal views to take in. Hike past old crofts, grazing sheep and intelligent Shetland ponies. Explore tiny towns. Follow a local craft trail and immerse yourself in some pretty impressive history.
Although considered part of Scotland, Shetland has its own unique identity; the people who call this windswept archipelago home consider themselves Shetlanders first and foremost.
Keep in mind that some of the best things to do in Shetland may not be available year-round. Check before you go, to avoid disappointment.
Discover the best things to do in Shetland
Where to stay in Shetland
All right, let’s dive into it. Here are the best things to do in Shetland, no matter what your interests.
1. Catch the ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick
One of the best things to do on the Shetland Islands involves the journey there.
While you can fly into the islands, flights can be expensive and the destinations flown to and from, limited.
Instead, I recommend making your way to Aberdeen (which has a better connected international airport you can fly into, if need be) and catching the NorthLink Ferry from there to Lerwick.
It’s an overnight ferry, meaning if you have the funds, it’s recommendable to book a cabin. This way you can get a decent night’s sleep and wake up refreshed, ready to go exploring.
Find out more about getting to the Shetland Islands.
2. Take a Shetland pony for a walk
As a total horse girl, this was hands down the best thing I did on the Shetland Islands. And I’d recommend it to just about anyone.
The Shetland Pony Experience is located in Burra, which is a short drive from the town of Scalloway.
Once there, you’ll be paired with a pony, who you can brush down, before taking a walk with them down to a beach for photos and pats.
It’s the best. Don’t miss it.
3. Ride an Icelandic horse
When I found out you could ride Icelandic horses in Shetland, well, I jumped at the chance.
Houlls Horses & Hounds offer up the chance to ride one of their beautiful horses on a trek.
I’ve ridden Icelandic horses once before (in Iceland) and they’re quite different from other horses. They even have their own gate, a tolt, which is kinda like a rolling canter.
It’s no problem if you don’t have much experience; you’ll be paired with the right horse and guided through what you need to do.
4. Take a hike
One of the best things to do in Shetland is to hit the paths for a good hike.
There are many fantastic trails to follow, along tracks which are surprisingly quiet.
There are access paths across Shetland, which will take you on hikes past crofters (farmhouses), alongside sea cliffs and past bemused sheep. The landscape is unbelievable; it’s easy to see why Shetland has been awarded UNESCO Global Geopark status.
There’s plenty to choose from; find one that suits you.
5. Explore other islands
There’s plenty of things to do on Shetland’s mainland; similarly, don’t discount the archipelago’s many islands.
Some are easily accessible by bridge. For others, such as Yell and Unst, you’ll need to book onto a car ferry. They’re pretty easy to navigate and run regularly. It’s best to book during peak season, but you’re not in strife if you don’t.
You’ll have to leave the car behind to visit islands like Mousa, but these smaller islands certainly shouldn’t be discounted.
6. Visit the northernmost part of the UK
I went on a few hikes and the one I enjoyed most is the hike through Hermaness National Nature Reserve, which takes you right to the northernmost tip of the UK.
It’s a challenging walk, up and down sea cliffs, with somewhat boggy land to navigate.
Your reward is beautiful views of land and ocean, and if you’re lucky, sea birds along the way.
7. Explore the Shetland Craft Trail
The Shetland Islands are full of makers and creators, specialising in textiles, artworks, jewellery, even handmade bears. Some of these wares make truly unique souvenirs; I bought a necklace and earrings from Shetland Jewellery which I will treasure forever.
Many of these artists have studios on the islands, which they open to the public either daily, seasonally, or by appointment.
Here’s a map of the Shetland Craft Trail, if you wish to check it out for yourself.
8. Try & spot puffins
If you visit Shetland in the warmer months (late May to July), you might be lucky to see puffins.
Known locally as ‘Tammy Norie’, there are a few spots where these cute little seabirds cluster; notably in the south of the islands at Sumburgh Heads.
You may also catch them at Hermaness on the island of Unst, and the island of Foula.
It’s a bit harder to spot them in early summer, unless you’re at the cliffs early or late in the day. This is because they tend to fly out to sea, to gather food.
You may have a greater chance of seeing them during the day in late summer when they’re busy chilling with their chicks.
9. Marvel at a range of other seabirds
Puffins aren’t the only seabirds present during breeding season. Birding is in general one of the best things to do in Shetland and twitchers won’t be disappointed.
Head to the islands to see fulmars, curlew, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shags, gannets and more.
If you’re really lucky, you might see some migrating rarities. Bring your binoculars and keep your eyes peeled.
10. Walk to a red pool
This is a very easy sight to see after visiting Sumburgh Heads.
Take a path past some crofters, along a pebble beach and sea cliffs, to a red pool, cut into the rock.
No one is quite sure why it’s red, but it could be to do with the way algae reacts to the sun. Melbourne has a similar pool, right outside it’s city centre.
11. Drop into a wallaby farm
Australia is about as far away as you can get from Shetland. But, did you know there are wallabies on the island?
When anyone on Shetland found out I was Australian, they’d mention The Outpost; a slice of ‘Down Under’, up north.
Tasmanian expat Dave Kok runs the farm, which is home to home-made cider, pigs, goats and strangely… wallabies?!
The Outpost is located in East Burra. Look out for the swinging pig sign out the front and the Australian flag, fluttering in the breeze.
12. Check out a castle or two
There are a few castles in Shetland, seemingly generally built by unpopular rulers of times gone past.
The oldest structure is the ruins of Castle Holm, located on Loch of Strom.
The most accessible is Scalloway Castle, which is located right next to Scalloway Museum.
If you’re travelling through Unst, you can stop to explore Muness Castle, which is the most northerly castle in the UK.
13. See sea life
The wild waters of the North sea are teeming with life.
You may catch seals, porpoises and dolphins, as well as orcas between May and August, migrating through. For sightings, keep across the Shetland Orca Sightings Facebook group.
Keep an eye out for otter too; it’s one of the best places in the UK to catch these sleek little creatures.
If seeing wildlife is high on your list, I recommend connecting with local wildlife experts, to make the most out of your trip.
14. See rare flowers in their native habitat
One of the best things to do in Shetland for botany nerds, is to time your visit with late spring or early summer, so you can take in the gorgeous wildflowers, which cover the island.
Then, to take it one step further, you should probably head to Unst, specifically the Keen of Hamar National Nature Reserve, which is home to quite a few rare flowers.
This includes Edmondston’s Mouse-ear or chickweed, which is endemic to this one particular patch.
15. Drop into a famous bus shelter
Nearby is another quirky attraction in Shetland; Bobby’s Bus Shelter.
Bobby was living on the island of Unst, when he requested a shelter be built to protect him from the elements, while waiting for his ride to school.
After the shelter was constructed, Bobby went some ways about making it his own, adding a chair, carpet and apparently even a microwave oven.
Nowadays, the shelter is maintained by the local community, who deck it out with a yearly theme.
Go visit and bring some cash, so you can pick up some sweet treats from the bake stall next to it.
16. Learn about the island at local museums
Keen to learn more about the history of the Shetland Islands? There’s plenty of museums to pop into, so you can do just that.
Shetland Museum and Archives is located in Lerwick and provides an overview of life on the island.
Be sure to check opening times before visiting.
17. Explore the archipelago’s viking history
While formally a part of Scotland and the UK, Shetland has a strong Nordic history, with remnants of viking occupation scattered around.
There’s archeological sites and Viking longhouses to pop into.
You can also drop into the Up Helly Aa exhibition, to find out more about this unique celebration. It’s currently running in Lerwick.
18. Go wild swimming
There’s some gorgeous beaches in Shetland, so no wonder the islands are popular for wild swimming enthusiasts.
Ocean swimming is growing in popularity, especially during colder seasons, due to the health benefits of immersing yourself in cold salt water.
And considering Shetland is closer to the Arctic Circle than London, you can guarantee things will be a little icy.
Head to some of the best beaches recommended by locals, to dip a toe in the waters and experience this for yourself.
Please be safe when swimming in places you don’t know well. There’s a Selkies Facebook group run by locals, which is worth checking out if you want to know more about wild swimming in Shetland.
19. See the northern lights
Here’s one of the best things to do in Shetland in the cooler seasons: see the northern lights! Known as the Mirrie Dancers, they light up the sky in Shetland, due to its close proximity to the North Pole.
While catching the aurora is not a guarantee, you may be so lucky. Your chances are best between mid-October and mid-March, when it’s dark enough for the lights to make an appearance.
I’ve personally seen the northern lights twice in Iceland (once during a solar storm) and it remains one of the best experiences of my life.
Find out more about seeing the northern lights in Shetland.
When’s the best time to visit the Shetland Islands?
While the Shetland Islands are accessible year-round, the best time to visit is generally in summer (June-August). The days are long and average around 15°C. Not exactly hot, but not unmanageable.
Most experiences will be up and running and it’s the best time to see wildflowers, marine life and migratory sea birds.
Keep in mind this is peak season, and accommodation is limited. Book early to avoid disappointment. I highly recommend Busta House Hotel in Brae.
As far as responsible travel goes, I recommend avoiding visiting the islands as part of the giant cruise ships that stop in Lerwick.
Plan a trip independently, cruising in and out on the NorthLink Ferry. Hire a car (we reserved ours through Bolts Car Hire and could choose between manual or automatic) and explore the islands for yourself.
There are plenty of things to do in Shetland: so are you going to visit?
Well, I hope I’ve convinced you that the Shetland Islands are definitely a destination worth adding to your list.
Have you visited the Shetland Islands? Would you like to go?