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Scott Smyth January 5 2023

For many people, Shetland and Orkney are the remote islands ‘somewhere up the top’ of a map of the British Isles.

But make the simple journey north and you’ll discover cosmopolitan towns, world-class scenery, and some of the friendliest locals around. With a fascinating history dating back to Neolithic times, you’ll also have the opportunity to visit some of the finest historic sites in Europe.

Absolute Escapes have been arranging self-drive holidays in Scotland for almost two decades, and we like to think that our customer excellence rating of 99% is based on our first-hand experience. With this in mind, I ventured north to research Shetland and Orkney. A tough job but someone’s got to do it!

Armed with new-found knowledge from my trip, here’s my ultimate guide to these beautiful archipelagoes.

General

Shetland

Orkney

 

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General

When is the best time to visit Shetland & Orkney?

May and September are usually excellent months to visit Shetland and Orkney. They are not only quieter than June, July and August in terms of visitor numbers, but also statistically the driest months of the year.

The northern latitude means that the sun barely sets in summer, providing almost endless hours of daylight to explore. On Shetland, the long summer days and unique light are known as the simmer din. Winter months are very dark, and the sun sets before 15.00 on the winter solstice. The legendary Viking fire festival Up Helly Aa brightens up Shetland on the last Tuesday of every January.

Summer is the best time for nature lovers to visit. Puffins arrive here to breed from mid-April until early August, and your best chance of encountering orcas and minke whales is from the start of May until early August.

It’s also worth mentioning that Orkney is the UK’s most popular cruise ship destination. The busiest months for cruise ship arrivals are May, June and August, and you should avoid those months if you’d like to experience Orkney with fewer crowds.

 

How can I book a holiday to Shetland & Orkney?

Absolute Escapes offer tailor-made holidays which are created uniquely for you by our award-winning specialists. Our packages include hand-picked accommodation, a personalised information pack, and 24-hour support from our dedicated team.

Our popular Shetland & Orkney: Escape to the Edge itinerary is a superb introduction to the islands. It includes an overnight ferry from Aberdeen, three nights on Shetland, four nights on Orkney, all ferry travel between the islands, and (optional) car hire.

 

Shetland

How do I get to Shetland and how long does it take?

You can travel to Shetland by ferry or by plane.

The main ferry service is operated by Northlink and runs daily from Aberdeen to Lerwick, the capital of Shetland. Ferries depart from Aberdeen in early evening and arrive in Lerwick very early the following morning. The ferries are modern and well-equipped with comfortable en-suite cabins.

There are also several flights per day from the main Scottish airports (Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow), and regular summer flights from Bergen in Norway. The journey time from Edinburgh and Glasgow is 1.5 hours and 1 hour from Aberdeen.

 

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How long should I spend on Shetland?

With around 100 islands, Shetland is surprisingly large and spread out. The main island, which is known as ‘Mainland’, is home to the vast majority of the population and is the fifth largest island in the British Isles with an area of 373 square miles.

Due to its size, you could easily spend a week on Shetland and barely scratch the surface. If you don’t have endless time, it’s possible to see some of Shetland’s top attractions over 3 or 4 nights.

If you’re travelling by ferry from Aberdeen, it’s worth remembering that you will arrive in Lerwick very early in the morning (07.30) which will effectively give you an extra day of sightseeing on arrival.

 

What are the best things to see on Shetland?

On arrival, many visitors make a beeline for the South Mainland which is home to some of Shetland’s most popular attractions:

  • Jarlshof: The incredibly well-preserved remains of a 4,500-year-old Neolithic settlement. A true historic gem.
  • Sumburgh Head: Popular visitor centre and nature reserve. An excellent place to spot puffins and marine animals.
  • St Ninian’s Isle: This unique ‘tombolo’ beach is one of Shetland’s most scenic spots.

The island’s vibrant capital of Lerwick is also home to some excellent attractions:

  • Shetland Museum: This excellent, modern museum tells the story of Shetland’s history and culture. Entry is free.
  • Fort Charlotte: A 17th-century fortress built to defend Shetland from Dutch and French warships.
  • ‘The Lodberry’: The home of fictional detective, Jimmy Perez, from the Shetland TV series. This must be the most photographed spot on Shetland!
  • Clickimin Broch: An outstanding example of an Iron Age broch, which is a stone-built round house found only in Scotland.

There are plenty of fabulous things to see elsewhere on Shetland. Here is some of our favourites:

  • Scalloway: The island’s ancient capital is only a 15-minute drive from Lerwick and well worth a visit. Explore Scalloway Castle (closed in 2022 for conservation work) and Scalloway Museum.
  • Eshaness: This rugged corner of the north-west Mainland is home to awe-inspiring scenery and bracing coastal walks.
  • Unst: Britain’s most northerly island is home to sensational scenery and wonderful wildlife at Hermaness National Nature Reserve. Getting to Unst requires a bit of pre-planning (more info here), but it’s well worth the effort.

 

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Where are the best beaches on Shetland?

With a natural sand causeway jutting out across the sea, the ‘tombolo’ beach at St Ninian’s is quite simply breathtaking. This spot features in many promotional images of Shetland and is justifiably popular with visitors, although – even in the height of summer – you’re likely to see no more than a handful of other people.

Nearby Scousburgh Sands is another idyllic and peaceful spot. The golden sands are backed with sand dunes, and you may be lucky enough to see seals bobbing around in the sea nearby.

My favourite beach on Shetland was Meal Beach in West Burra – an idyllic, south-facing cove with white sand and turquoise water. West Burra is connected by bridge from the Mainland so there are no ferries required.

 

Is it easy to travel around on Shetland?

Shetland’s roads are generally in excellent condition and it is stress-free to drive around the islands. Like much of Scotland, some parts of Shetland have single-track roads – in which case you will need to use passing places. If you see a vehicle coming towards you, or there is a driver behind you who wants to overtake, pull into a passing place on your left, or wait opposite a passing place on your right.

If you’d like to do a bit of island-hopping, Shetland Islands Council operate the ferry services on Shetland. These ferries are frequent and reliable, and we would advise pre-booking journeys in advance.

Public transport on Shetland is available in most places and is fairly reliable. You can plan public transport journeys on the Shetland Travel website.

 

How do I get to Unst?

Shetland’s ultimate island-hop destination is well worth the effort to get there. Unst is the most northerly island in Britain and home to the legendary Hermaness National Nature Reserve.

Getting to Unst (and then back to the Mainland) involves taking 4 ferries. These can get very busy in peak season and we would recommend pre-booking tickets for all journeys on the Shetland Island Council website:

  • Toft (mainland) to Ulsta (Yell)
  • Gutcher (Yell) to Belmont (Unst)
  • Belmont (Unst) to Gutcher (Yell)
  • Ulsta (Yell) to Toft (Mainland)

No payment is made at the time of booking – you will instead be asked to pay in full on the first ferry. You can do so by cash or debit/credit card. The staff are flexible and helpful if you miss a pre-booked ferry journey, however, you may need to wait a while until they can find a space for you on a subsequent ferry.

Most people drive straight through Yell (around a 30 minute drive) to take the second ferry across to Unst. Therefore, we would suggest booking the Gutcher to Belmont crossing no earlier than 40 minutes after the first ferry arrives in Ulsta.

Eating options on Unst are limited. Victoria’s Vintage Tea Rooms is open from Tuesday – Saturday (10.00 – 17.00) and booking a table is essential. Alternatively, we would suggest picking up a packed lunch from the Mainland.

 

What wildlife can I see on Shetland?

Shetland is, of course, world-famous for its eponymous ponies, which can be seen grazing by the roadside or on the heathery hills. During August, the local agricultural shows take place, providing excellent opportunities to see Shetland ponies in action.

People travel from across the world to view Shetland’s seabird colonies, including puffins, gannets, guillemots, fulmars and kittiwakes. It really is a bird lover’s paradise, and you are guaranteed to see puffins at Sumburgh Head and Hermaness nature reserves in season.

Shetland is also one of the best places in Britain to spot sea mammals, particularly common seals, grey seals, otters, harbour porpoises and, occasionally, orcas. The best time to see them is between May and August.

 

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What is accommodation like on Shetland?

Accommodation on Shetland ranges from everything from tiny glamping pods and cosy B&Bs to modern hotels. For our self-drive packages, we will usually try to secure accommodation in Lerwick as it has good amenities and some fabulous places to eat and drink.

Although accommodation options are more limited further north, there are some lovely places to stay around Brae and Hillswick. These are good bases to explore the northern Mainland and travel to Yell and Unst.

 

Where are the best places to eat and drink on Shetland?

Many of the best places to eat are in the main town of Lerwick – a bustling, cosmopolitan port with amenities usually found in much larger towns.

Fjarå Café Bar is a relaxed bistro just outside the centre of Lerwick which offers fantastic sea views, friendly staff and delicious food. Don’t miss the freshly-landed mussels.

Located on Lerwick’s main street, C’est la Vie Cafe serves French and Spanish specialities. While the cafe does not have an alcohol license, you are welcome to BYOB. It is open daily for lunch and dinner.

The Dowry is a modern space with a Nordic feel, serving excellent food with an Asian twist. The name was taken from the dowry payment by which Shetland and Orkney were pawned to Scotland by the King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden in the sixteenth century.

In Scalloway, Da Haaf Restaurant is right at the heart of all things maritime, serving excellent local seafood and other produce with a view over Port Arthur.

 

Any more tips on visiting Shetland?

During the busy summer months of June, July and August, we’d recommend pre-booking an entry slot for Jarlshof on the Historic Scotland website.

 

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Orkney

How do I get from Shetland to Orkney?

The ferry service from Shetland to Orkney is operated by Northlink. There are usually 3 crossings per week (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) which depart Lerwick at 17.30 and arrive in Kirkwall at 23.00. If you’re taking this ferry, we’d recommend eating dinner on board as most places in Kirkwall will be closed on arrival.

You can also fly directly from Shetland to Orkney with Loganair.

 

How long should I spend on Orkney?

Orkney is an archipelago made up of 70 islands, which you could spend a lifetime exploring. If you don’t have endless time, 4 or 5 nights will give you a good flavour of the islands and allow you to see most of the top attractions.

 

What are the best things to see on Orkney?

Orkney’s cosmopolitan capital of Kirkwall is a delightful small town with excellent attractions:

  • St Magnus Cathedral: Known as the ‘Light in the North’, this majestic cathedral was originally founded in the 12th century by Viking Earl Rognvald.
  • Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces: These palaces are regarded as two of the finest examples of architecture in Scotland and highlight Orkney’s strong Norse links.
  • Highland Park Distillery: Enjoy a tour and tasting at one of Scotland’s oldest whisky distilleries.

Orkney’s exceptional prehistoric sites have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site called the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’. The most popular attractions to visit are:

  • Skara Brae: This incredible Neolithic village is the jewel in the crown. Older than the Egyptian Pyramids, it offers a fascinating glimpse into life for Orkney’s earliest inhabitants between 3,200 and 2,200 BC.
  • Maeshowe: This atmospheric chambered cairn and tomb was constructed around 5,000 years ago. It was broken into by Vikings in the 12th century who carved runic graffiti into the walls of the main chamber.
  • Ring of Brodgar: One of the largest and best-preserved stone circles in the British Isles. This is a popular spot with coach tours, so we’d suggest visiting early or later in the day to avoid the crowds.

There are plenty of fantastic attractions elsewhere on Orkney:

  • Stromness: With quaint alleyways and sweeping sea views, Orkney’s second-largest town is a lovely place to wander around. Pop into the Pier Arts Centre or Stromness Museum.
  • Italian Chapel: This incredibly ornate Catholic chapel was built by Italian prisoners of war during World War II.
  • Brough of Birsay: Walk across a tidal causeway to explore Pictish, Norse and medieval remains on a beautiful island. The causeway is only passable for two hours either side of low tide. You can check tidal times on the Met Office or Orkney.com websites.
  • Yesnaby Castle: This wild stretch of coastline on the west Mainland is an unbeatable place for a bracing coastal walk. The sea stack, Yesnaby Castle, is a great alternative to the more famous Old Man of Hoy (see below).
  • Hoy: A short ferry ride from the Mainland, Hoy is a magical island packed full of dramatic scenery, wonderful historic sites, and the legendary sea stack; the Old Man of Hoy. You can also visit the excellent new Scapa Flow Museum in Lyness to learn more of Orkney’s military involvement in the First and Second World Wars. You can find more information about visiting Hoy below.

 

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Where are the best beaches on Orkney?

Orkney’s mainland has several fantastic beaches, so no matter where you’re staying, you’re not far from the shore. Just a short walk from Kirkwall you’ll find the beach at Scapa, or head further west and explore the shallow bay at Waulkmill.

In the east Mainland, Burray and South Ronaldsay, places like Dingieshowe, Glimps Holm and the Sands o’Wright are popular spots to visit.

On Hoy, Rackwick Bay has giant rounded pebbles, golden sand, and massive cliffs on either side of the bay.

Even further off the beaten track, the islands of Sanday and Stronsay have numerous beautiful beaches to explore, and there’s a good chance you’ll have them all to yourself.

 

Is it easy to travel around Orkney?

Roads on Orkney are generally in very good condition and it is easy to drive around the islands. Some rural parts of the Mainland, and many of the outlying islands, have single-track roads – in which case you will need to use passing places. If you see a vehicle coming towards you, or the driver behind wants to overtake, pull into a passing place on your left, or wait opposite a passing place on your right.

If you’re planning to get off the Mainland and visit different islands, the ferry services are regular and reliable. These are operated by Orkney Ferries, and you can check timetables and pre-book tickets on their website.

Public transport is available across much of Orkney, with many routes passing close to the most popular sites including the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Churchill Barriers and the Italian Chapel. You can find more information and plan your journey on the Orkney Islands Council website.

 

How do I get to the Old Man of Hoy?

The Old Man of Hoy is located on the island of Hoy, located south of the Orkney Mainland. If you’re taking your car to Hoy, you’ll need to take the ferry from Houton to Lyness. A foot passenger-only service is available from Stromness.

The Houton to Lyness service is operated by Orkney Ferries and we would recommend pre-booking your tickets well in advance during the summer months. The crossing time is around 40 minutes.

To reach the Old Man of Hoy, you will need to drive to Rackwick – a 30-minute drive. From here, it is a 2.5 – 3 hour (return) walk to view the spectacular sea stack.

Remember to give yourself ample time to get back to Lyness for your return ferry to Houton. If all else fails, you will also get a good view of the Old Man of Hoy if you’re sailing from Stromness back to Scrabster on the Scottish mainland.

 

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What wildlife can I see on Orkney?

Like Shetland, Orkney is a nature lover’s paradise. It is estimated that 15% of the world’s seal population live here. It’s also a great place to see orcas and harbour porpoises.

Orkney’s towering sea cliffs are home to thousands of birds – puffins, guillemots, gulls, gannets and kittiwakes – while the marshlands and sweeping moorlands are natural habitats for the likes of curlew, hen harriers and other birds of prey.

 

What’s accommodation like on Orkney?

Orkney has a very high standard of accommodation which is driven up by the 200,000 visitors it receives each year. You’ll find everything from cosy B&Bs to luxurious hotels which would not be out of place in a large city.

We usually prioritise accommodation in Kirkwall for our self-drive clients. It’s not only an excellent base to explore the Mainland, but there are also some fabulous places to eat and drink and good local amenities.

 

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Where are the best places to eat and drink on Orkney?

One of the best places to eat on the islands is the Storehouse Restaurant, which you’ll find in a beautifully-refurbished former warehouse just off Kirkwall’s main street. The restaurant serves high-quality local produce such as hand-dived Orkney scallops, Orkney lamb, beef and seafood.

Situated on Kirkwall’s Harbourfront, Helgi’s serves great gastropub meals using locally-sourced ingredients. The decor takes inspiration from Orkney’s Viking past.

Next door to the Highland Park Distillery on the outskirts of Kirkwall, the Lynnfield Hotel serves excellent Scottish cuisine. The decor is whisky themed, which is very apt considering the hotel’s location, and the snug bar is a perfect spot for a nightcap.

You may also wish to dine on Orcadian produce at the Kirkwall Hotel. The newly-refurbished Harbour View Restaurant offers intimate booths and fine views of the waterfront. For something a little bit different, you could try Twenty One in the heart of Kirkwall. This stylish spot serves small plates, craft beers and cocktails. For hearty Italian fare, Lucano serves traditional pasta and pizza close to St Magnus Cathedral.

Slightly further afield you’ll find The Foveran in St Ola – 3 miles from Kirkwall. This stylish family-run restaurant has sweeping views across Scapa Flow, and the menu showcases the best of the local larder.

 

Any more tips on visiting Orkney?

During the busy summer months of June, July and August, we’d recommend pre-booking an entry slot for both Skara Brae and Maeshowe on the Historic Scotland website.

There are regular free guided walks around the Ring of Brodgar stone circle. Check the website for details.

 

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Discover Shetland & Orkney with Absolute Escapes

If you’d like to experience Scotland’s incredible Northern Isles for yourself, our Shetland & Orkney self-drive itinerary is a great place to start. Our packages include hand-picked accommodation, all ferry travel, a personalised information pack, and 24-hour support from our dedicated team.

All of our self-drive holidays are tailor-made to your individual requirements, so don’t hesitate to get in touch with your dream trip and our Travel Specialists will make it happen.

Scott Smyth
P.S. Keen to explore Shetland and Orkney’s epic scenery on foot? You might be interested in our brand new multi-centre walking holiday.

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