For many winter time is the prime holiday time to follow the sun and board a flight to the south – at least if you have grown up in a part of Europe where winters are long, cold and dark. And yet, to me going north in winter has its own very special appeal. It seemed just natural to make my way to Shetland for the first time at the end of January. If you plan a similar trip to Shetland off-season, have a look at my quick guide!
Imagine it is the end of January, you live further north than ever before and are preparing for a trip – well – even further north. For years I had dreamt of going to Shetland for the Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, a traditional folk fest where men dress up as Vikings and burn a wooden galley to celebrate the near end of the cold and dark winter days. In January 2016 this dream would finally become reality.
This was not my first rodeo – I had lived in and travelled to Iceland in winter before and I knew how to get the most out of a short winter day when outdoor exploring was on top of the priority list. But Shetland was new territory and by far not as touristy as Iceland – so where to begin?
WATCH: ‘Shetland in 3 Minutes’
Shetland in winter FAQ
What is it like to plan a winter trip to Shetland?
If you plan to travel to Shetland for Up Helly Aa, begin to plan your trip as soon as possible. Even though January seems like off-season, most hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs sell out months in advance. The festival is a massive attraction and accommodation on the islands is scarce. We booked our self-catering accommodation in central Lerwick in August/September, which is probably a good time to start looking around.
How to get to Shetland in winter
You can reach Shetland by boat or plane and both have the advantages. The plane is a lot faster, but also more expensive. The overnight ferry is a trek in itself but accommodates you on a much smaller budget. In terms of reliability, both means of transport are dependent on the weather – storms and fog can cause delays or cancellations either way. It’s best not to book last-minute and allow at least a day of flexibility – imagine you book your ferry to arrive on the day of the festival and then it has to be cancelled. That said, ferries and planes only get cancelled when it gets really bad (like Storm Gertrude-bad).
How to get around Shetland
Public transport on Shetland (busses) is not necessarily structured for touristy day trips, but rather for commuting. That is why I’d recommend you to book a rental car if you want to see more of the islands beyond Lerwick and its immediate surroundings. There is not much traffic and roads are good, so even if you are new to driving on the left side, don’t worry! Just watch out for the local drivers who often drive way too fast on the single track roads… they know them like the back of their hands.
Where to stay in Lerwick
We absolutely loved our self-catering apartment Haakon View which was about two minutes walk from the Up Helly Aa burning site and 10 minutes to the town centre. There was free parking available on the road and self-catering was the perfect option as the restaurant scene in Lerwick is not necessarily the most thriving one.
Things to Do in Shetland in winter
Many of the attractions, like the Norse settlement Jarlshof, the Unst Boat Haven or the Scalloway Museum are closed in the winter time and outdoor activities like sea kayaking, hiking or camping are not possible – or only if you’re really hardcore. So, what do you do in Shetland in winter?
Hike The Knab in Lerwick
If you are based in Lerwick (which you probably are as the town has the most hotels and holiday rentals available) you can go for a pretty simple but gorgeous walk around the Knab – the rocky nose of Lerwick that reaches out into the bay. If you are lucky you will be able to spot seals hunting for fish in the waves!
Road trip itinerary #1: South Mainland
If it’s too windy/cold to be outside for too long, simply go on a road trip and enjoy the best views from the safe haven of your car. Many of Shetland’s Top 30 viewpoints are accessible by car or only a short walk away from the car park. Although mainland Shetland is really small, a road trip around one part of the island can easily take up an entire day – the views are just too many and too beautiful. On a south route towards Sumburgh don’t miss St Ninian Bay & Beach and the gorgeous lighthouse at Sumburgh Head. Who says you need glaring sunshine to enjoy the scenery? The crashing waves of the rough sea are just as impressive.
Road trip itinerary #2: Northmavine Peninsula
Sadly we had to cut short our road trip to the Northmavine peninsula due to Storm Gertrude. We only made it as far as Brae, for the stormiest Fish&Chips of my life, but if you can go further towards Uyea and Eshaness Lighthouse – DO IT!
Road trip itinerary 3: Isle of Unst & Hermaness
The third of our road trips lead up north – as far north as you can possibly go in Shetland: the Isle of Unst. From Lerwick, we drove north and had to first cross over to the Isle of Yell and from there take another ferry to Unst – quite an adventure, but seeing that the ferries are scheduled with commuters in mind the sailing times are perfectly coordinated and it’s super-easy to reach Unst. Here we met local glass artist Cheryl Jamieson from Glansin Glass for a cup of tea and a chat about her inspiration and had a bite at the only operating cafe on the island (in winter). The highlight of our trip, however, was a walk across the Hermaness peninsula where we (almost) reached the northernmost point of the UK! A wall of rain approaching fast from the north made us turn around before we could reach the final view point… but I’d say our view was still pretty decent!
Follow the Shetland Arts & Craft Trail
As you can probably already tell – the weather in Shetland during the winter months (or actually year-round) is unpredictable and it’s good to prepare some plans for indoor activities as well. During our week-long trip, we met a couple of artists in their cosy studios and explored the craft shops in Lerwick. The Shetland Arts & Craft Trail is a great place to get started with this.
Check out the museums
There is a museum in Lerwick called the Shetland Museum where you can learn more about the history and origins of the islands and their people. Sadly, the Viking excavations and the Viking ship museum are closed during the winter months. The only other museum that is to my knowledge open in winter is the Lighthouse Museum at Sumburgh Head.
Do a jewellery workshop
On one particularly windy and rainy morning, we drove to the near island of Burra (accessible from the main island via a couple of bridges) to meet Mike Finnie at the Red Houss workshop. We had booked a jewellery workshop which the retired architect turned painter and jewellery maker Mike offers in his studio next to his house. It took a few hours and some sweat, but eventually, we ended up with an unforgettable souvenir to always remind us of our trip to Shetland! The piece of tile in my pendant was picked up by Mike on one of his beach walks.
What & where to eat in Shetland
There might not be a huge amount of restaurants in Lerwick, but there are plenty to choose from for a good meal! This is a selection of places we tried and liked in town:
Peerie Shop & Cafe | In the town centre – for a delicious breakfast or quick lunch (toasties, sandwiches, cakes etc.). | Esplanade, Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 0LL, website
Fjara Cafe | By the shore a little out of central Lerwick – for lunch & dinner with a view, and to taste the local beers. | Sea Road, Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 0ZJ, website
Kveldsro House Hotel | In the town centre but off-beat – for traditional Scottish/Shetland cuisine and hotel dining. | Greenfield Pl, Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 0AQ, website
Phu Siam | In the town centre – excellent Thai restaurant that proves you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. | Esplanade, Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 0LU, website
There are also a few bars in town and I can particularly recommend the Lounge Bar (4 Mounthooly St, Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 0BJ), which is a favourite among the locals, and the cafe/bar at the Mareel arts centre (Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 0WQ) which also houses a cinema and exhibition spaces!
Going to Shetland off-season was just the beginning – this was definitely not my last trip to Shetland. In summer the islands show a completely different side – new colours, more options for outdoor sports and almost endless daylight!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.