How to Get to Shetland by Sea and Air

A view of Lerwick harbor on Shetland Mainland
Michael Nolan/Getty Images

If you've been inspired by stories about wildlife spotting in Shetland, the sea otter capital of the UK, or dining on the archipelago's fabulous salt grass-fed lamb and cold water seafood you may want to add a visit to your UK vacation or holiday.

Planning is definitely the operative word in a journey like this. Shetland is not a place you can just pop over to on impulse. It takes time, logistics, and patience. That's why this romantic archipelago of 100 islands strung across the ocean 100 miles from Scotland's North coast (where the Atlantic meets the North Sea) is such an uncrowded and rewarding place to visit. Here are the options:

By Air

FlyBe, operated by Loganair, flies to Shetland but first, you have to get to Scotland. If you arriving at Heathrow, British Airways runs flights that connect through Aberdeen from London Heathrow or through Edinburgh from Gatwick.

Onward flights land in the far south of Mainland, at Sumburgh, the airport serving Lerwick, Shetland's capital, about half an hour away. It is one of only two in the world to have a road crossing its runway. Few driving experiences are more memorable than being held at the crossing by a gate while a plane takes off right in front of you, and this could just be your first experience in Shetland, as you leave the airport in your hire car. There are flights to Sumburgh from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Inverness, with connections on to London.

If you decide to fly, you should be aware that flights from London or other major English airports with a connection to Shetland through Scotland can be expensive and, because of waits between flights, can take a very long time. The combinations we checked, which included a 1h30min flight from London to Aberdeen and a 1h flight from Aberdeen to Sumburgh involved waits between flights of between five and 11 hours.

By Sea

By far a more romantic, and certainly more relaxing, way to journey to the isles is to steam out from Aberdeen in the early evening on the daily Northlink ferry and sail north through the night, docking in Lerwick in the morning.

The Hrossey is no cruise ship but she is a beauty. If the weather is not too wild you can stand and watch the mainland slip away over the horizon and dolphins break the water surface on the deck, while cozy private cabins offer en-suite bathrooms and free films on the wall-mounted (everything is, of course, wall-mounted) TV. The Feast restaurant serves locally sourced produce (they do a great steak) while the Longship Lounge pours pints of local real ales, such as Dark Island from Orkney, until the wee hours.

It can also be a much cheaper way to travel. There are so many variables in the fare - season, car or no car, how many in your party, private cabin or reclining seat, full breakfast, continental breakfast, dinner, choices and each element with its own price - that it's quite hard to suggest a price that will suit all. But, if you use the Northlink website to try out different combinations, you can judge for yourself.

Once you get to Shetland, both national and local car rental brands are available in Lerwick and at the airport.

How to Get Around

Shetland is the sort of place where ferry captains pop down to the car deck to invite you onto the bridge, because “it’s warmer up there”. Here the interisland ferries are subsidized, which makes them not only affordable but also regular and relaxed. Travel more than once on the same route and you’ll start to recognize the crew. Traveling between the islands by ferry is also a great way to get out on the water and spot marine life. No visit to Shetland is complete without at least one journey on this lifeline of a service, where you may even find the ferry is running just for you.

Ferries are operated by Shetland Islands Council.

The outer isles (Foula, Fair Isle, Papa Stour, Skerries) are also served by plane and if you plan to visit Foula this is certainly the best way to go, with day returns (round trip tickets there and back in the same day) possible throughout the summer on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. These are also provided by Shetland Islands Council and subsidized, so fares are low. Flights are operated by Directflight.

The Culture

Shetland could be one of the most misunderstood destinations in Britain. Firstly, it is never “the Shetlands”, only ever Shetland or the Shetland Islands. To a Shetlander “the Shetlands” sounds as wrong as would “the Londons”.

Shetland is part of the UK but most of the islands’ residents identify with being Shetland first, Scottish second, and British, well, not at all really. The capital, Lerwick, is some 300 miles from Edinburgh and 600 miles from London, but only 230 miles from Bergen in Norway. And so this is an archipelago that looks not only to the British mainland for influence but to the Nordic countries too.