SPONSORED | How to plan your Shetland visit during the winter months
When we told friends and family, we were going to be visiting the Shetland Islands, they responded with the appropriate “oh wow” and “that is our bucket list destination” as you would imagine.
But this was swiftly followed by, “you’re visiting in winter?” Oh yes, we did indeed plan a Shetland visit in winter. Not only did we fall in love with this collection of islands, but we would also encourage others to visit at this time of year too.
What’s more, we travelled with three young children in tow. Now we are home I can confidently report that we had a blast. We experienced all the seasons within five days, learnt about the history of the most northern part of the UK and encountered a real adventure in the True North.
In this blog post, I will share a five-day winter itinerary to make the most of your Shetland visit, what to pack and how to travel to the Shetland Islands.
Location and a brief history of Shetland
The Shetland Islands lie around 100 miles off the north east coast of Scotland. The islands separate the Atlantic Ocean on the west, from the North Sea on the east. Did you know that the most northern part of Shetland is closer to Bergen, Norway than it is to Aberdeen in northern Scotland?
Up until 1469, Shetland belonged to Denmark. When Princess Margaret married James III of Scotland and the islands were part of her dowry. Denmark tried for years to claim back this group of islands but were unsuccessful.
The close connection to the Scandinavian waters is very apparent as you drive around the islands. Dwellings are built in a similar style: think wood chalet type buildings. The place names as you drive around also represent the islands close connections to Norway, with names such as Voe and Weisdale.
Having visited both Iceland and Norway as a teen, I loved the fact it felt like we were in a foreign country when in fact we were still on British soil. It provided us with a family adventure whilst remaining in familiar territory, which always feels like a comfort blanket when travelling with kids.
Shetland is made up of over 100 islands but fewer than 20 of them are inhabited.
Steeped in history, Shetland is an archaeologist’s dream. From the Viking settlements to Neolithic archaeological sites which date back to 2500 BC, there is so much to learn from the islands past.
Getting to Shetland and where to stay
The two options for you are to fly or travel by ferry from Aberdeen.
We flew from Edinburgh airport, which is a two-hour drive from our home in Northumberland.
The flight is operated by Loganair who fly direct to Shetland from Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness and Glasgow. I had forgotten just how exciting the airport is. We haven’t flown since the start of the pandemic and for me personally, it felt wonderful to be back, checking in to fly to a new destination. The buzz of airport is still the same and we were itching to board our plane.
It was the perfect flight to take with kids. The airline staff were attentive, and the flight took a little over an hour, which is exactly what we needed when flying with a baby who had just learnt to walk.
Complimentary refreshments are offered on your flight, and no sooner are you up in the air overlooking the spectacular views of the Cairngorms, are you then making your descent over the sea before landing on the south of Shetland mainland.
As a side note, it is worth mentioning that Loganair offer a Flex Protect Promise, when you book your flight. Meaning you will receive a refund guarantee and travel ban cover for your peace of mind. There are a simple range of flexible fare options when you book.
Your other option is to catch the ferry from Aberdeen. The ferry takes 13 hours in total and travels overnight so you can sleep in your cabin and wake up arriving in Shetland.
Where to stay:
Below are recommendations based on our stay. We stayed in all three and for me personally, travelling with kids in the winter, the self-catering was my preferred option. It just gives you that bit of freedom and somewhere to base yourself for exploring the islands.
• Fort Charlotte Self Catering, Lerwick – Handily located in the town centre with gorgeous views towards the ferry port, Fort Charlotte apartments offer 4 star accommodation in the heart of the island’s capital, Lerwick. This is the perfect base for exploring the town and you can easily visit the northern part of Shetland, Unst, and back in a day from here. We stayed on the first floor which slept up to six people comfortably. The whole apartment was furnished to a high standard, was warm and very comfortable.
• King Harald apartments, Lerwick – Also based in Lerwick, were the King Harald apartments. 3 star self-catering accommodation that provided us with space to dry out wet coats and boots, and relax in the evening. Facilities were excellent, with a travel cot and high chair provided for your stay and everything we could possibly need was provided.
• St Magnus Bay Hotel, Hillswick - In the north west of the mainland, you will find Hillswick. A great base for exploring the northern part of Shetland and for catching the ferry across to Yell and Unst. This is also a great spot for wildlife spotting, with a rescue centre just around the corner from the hotel. A special mention to the hotel owners, who catered to our every needs, were extremely friendly and the food which was freshly prepared on site was delicious. They also made a special dish of “child friendly” foods; we certainly didn’t go hungry.
A 5 day itinerary
This 5 day itinerary is based on our experience. It means you get to see as much of the Shetland Islands as possible and incorporates plenty of activities when visiting in the winter months. We picked up a hire car from the airport which made travelling around the island nice and easy.
Upon arrival head towards Sumburgh Lighthouse and visitor centre. The visitor centre is open from the beginning of April, however the Nature Reserve and outside of the lighthouse are open all year round to visit. From here you have views out over the sea and rugged cliff edges where a host of seabirds come to nest. Behind you is Sumburgh airport and views across the mainland.
A four-minute drive away you will find the beautiful beach of West Voe as well as Jarlshof prehistoric and Norse settlement site. Explore the grounds before heading north, past St Ninian’s Isle (make time to take in the dramatic coastline and famous tombolo; a natural causeway).
Stop off at Mackenzies Farm Shop for a spot of lunch. The children’s menu here is great, we recommend the Picky Platter. There is also a small play corner for the kids, and stunning views from the window seats for the adults.
Heading north east from here, around a half hour drive, will take you to Burra, where during the summer months you can take part in a Shetland Pony Experience. This is very cute and the kids will love getting to know the local ponies. The experience includes grooming and petting the ponies. Meeting mother and foals in a separate field before leading them down onto the nearest beach for a walk and photo opportunities.
If visiting in winter, I recommend a drive around this area for the beautiful views, crossing over bridges and looking out for the mussel and salmon farms.
Head north from here to the town of Lerwick to spend your first night at the Fort Charlotte apartments. There is a range of places to eat out in Lerwick, including takeaway options such as fish and chips, Chinese and Indian. Places to book a table: Lerwick Hotel, The Dowry and Fjara are all sound choices for an evening meal.
Because we visited with children, a visit to the local leisure centre was a must. Clickimin Leisure Centre was a lot of fun, with friendly and helpful staff, clean facilities and a well laid out changing area which was family friendly, we actually spent two mornings here during our stay.
The pool has two slides, diving boards, lazy river, toddler pool and jacuzzi. If you aren’t visiting with kids but still fancy a swim, perhaps if the weather isn’t playing ball, there is lane swimming available. It was quiet when we visited so perfect for a morning dip.
After lunch head north to the picturesque village of Brae, where you will find Frankies Fish and Chip shop. The most northern fish and chip shop, sourcing premium and sustainable Shetland seafood. Tuck into a delicious lunch with views overlooking the bay.
From here, a short drive of around 11 miles, takes you to a gorgeous spot in the north of the mainland called Hillswick. The bay here is perfect for spotting wildlife, such as otters, seals and if you are lucky maybe even orca. We were told that winter is the perfect time of year to try and catch the orca pods as they move around the island. Unfortunately, the day we were on the east coast, the orca were on the west so we just missed them.
Stay in St Magnus Bay Hotel in Hillswick. This guest house is currently being refurbished and promises to provide you with a comfy night’s stay with stunning views across the bay. The owners are most helpful and knowledgeable on the area. Nothing was too much trouble during our stay and we enjoyed an evening meal while relaxing in the bar area.
After a hearty breakfast in the hotel, aim to leave Hillswick by 8.30am to catch an early morning ferry over to the small island of Yell. The ferry ride only takes around ten minutes, so just enough time to get out your car and take in the views from the top deck.
Once on Yell, we met with local guide and wildlife expert, James who works for Shetland Nature. Offering day tours as well as a variety of other packages such as a photography tour. (I would love to do this, maybe in years to come when the kids are much older.) It really was the best way to see Yell, while looking out for otters and other wildlife. After exploring the secluded beaches, waterproofs at the ready, catch the ferry to Unst, the most northern point of the UK.
Before lunch, there may be time to visit the Heritage Centre and the replica of the Viking Longboat. Great if you are interested in finding out more about the history of the islands.
Call into Victoira’s Vintage Tearooms for delicious cake and a coffee, in a café that is the most northern in the UK, before heading over to Glansin Glass for an afternoon’s participation in a glass making workshop.
Glass artist Cheryl, who runs the workshop from her studio, is very welcoming and patient as she explains how to get the most of your glass making experience. It is a very relaxing space and provides the perfect escapism from the rest of the world.
Catch the two ferries back to mainland and head south towards Lerwick for the night, staying in the King Harald Apartments.
Catch an early morning ferry from the Bressay ferry crossing, a five-minute drive from the apartment. The island of Bressay is a stone’s throw from Lerwick and takes just five minutes on the ferry. This was one of my favourite islands, in particular the views back across to Lerwick.
Head towards Garth’s Croft where you will meet crofter and archaeologist Chris Dyer for a morning of meeting the local sheep and learning more about the natural history of the land.
Chris was fantastic with the kids and is very knowledgeable about the land and its history. From here you can explore the rest of island, making sure to stop off at Bressay Lighthouse and Noss, a National Nature Reserve with over 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds. With plenty of local walks along breath taking cliff tops, this really is a beautiful place to spend a morning or full day depending on how the weather pans out.
If the weather is a little damp, head back to Lerwick on the ferry and pay a visit to The Peerie Shop and Café for lunch and souvenir shopping, followed by Aa Fired Up’ Ceramics to partake in some pottery painting. Great fun for children and adults, in a relaxing space.
Before making your way back south to the airport, explore the streets and local shops of Lerwick including The Shetland Museum. This award-winning museum is free to visit and offers an interactive journey through the islands history to present day.
Next door to the museum is Lerwick’s arts centre where you will find a cinema, gallery and café overlooking the harbour.
As you drive south towards Sumburgh, you may have time to explore some of the island’s beautiful bays and beaches, taking in the rugged landscape and stunning scenery one last time.
What to pack
As you pack your suitcase, bear in mind the climate and landscape of the land. Walking boots, waterproofs, layers, thermals, spare socks are all essentials.
Comfy clothes for traveling around, especially for children time spent in the car. If you have room, I also recommend binoculars and camera. Notebook for making notes of place names and ticking off wildlife/birds.
In Lerwick you will find a large Tesco store, as well as many independent businesses across the island selling your essentials so if you have forgotten something don’t panic!
Visiting with children
Following various conversations with locals, including Chris Dyer, it became clear that families are very welcome to the island. In fact, they seemed to be encouraging young children to visit and we were made to feel at home. Our guides were patient and great with the kids, making the information exciting and interesting. I wasn’t really expecting to come away having learnt much, but it was a very informative experience, and the kids are excited to return to school and tell their friends about their winter adventure, exploring the unique and stunning Shetland Islands.
My Top Tips For Visiting In Winter
• Plan your route ahead. This includes how you plan to access the island; will you be booking a hire car? Are you taking your own vehicle? If so, make sure your tyres are safe and consider using winter tyres.
• Think about the timings of your day. Remembering in winter it gets dark earlier. If you don’t like driving in the dark, aim to get to your accommodation by 5pm.
• Pack plenty of layers. While it can be very cold, there is the odd time when the sun comes out and the weather turns pleasant. Before it then starts to rain. Be prepared for a range of weather by packing layers that you can easily take off or add to if need be.
• Prepare for suspended ferry crossings. If the wind picks up, there may a chance certain ferry crossings will be suspended. This can also be dependent on tide times. The best way to stay informed is calling the Shetland Ferry helpline for up-to-date information.
• Take your binoculars! Winter is the best time for orca and otter spotting. Have your binoculars close to hand and join the Orca Watch Facebook page for sighting information.
• Plan indoor activities such as the cinema or museum, as well as your outdoor walks and nature trails.