Shetland: One of Europe’s Best Places to Visit in 2019

by: Michelle Barlow

There is a rugged series of Scottish islands in the North Sea halfway to Norway that just made the Lonely Planet 2019 list of Best Places in Europe: Shetland.  Perhaps best known for their tough and tiny ponies, Shetland is an incredible destination off the beaten path that can be the perfect day-trip extension for an incentive trip to Scotland.  

From any airport in Scotland, you can get relatively inexpensive day fares to Shetland.  If you have the opportunity to explore the jaw-dropping coastal castles around Aberdeen like Dunnottar, you’ll find yourselves in a great position to take advantage of some of the best fares to these fair isles.  Take the earliest flight into Shetland’s Sumburgh (Sum-burra) airport, landing around 7:30am. Grab a rental car and drive less than ten minutes to the trailhead for the Ness of Burgi.  Not only does this stunning, little-known hike occupy the morning hours before many of the visitor sites are open, it leads you to a cliffside, Iron Age fortress with breathtaking views of the North Sea pounding against the enduring craggy bluffs of the southern headland of Shetland.

Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven

After returning to your car, a short drive will take you to Jarslhof—a site with 4,000 years of layered human history.  Roam the remains of ancient houses constructed around 2700 B.C. by the Neolithic peoples of Shetland.  Marvel at the perfection of the stone wheelhouses built in the Iron Age, about 2,000 years ago. Walk the length of the remnants of Viking longhouses and explore the 17th century castle ruins.  

Viking ruins, Jarslhof, Shetland, Scotland

Want more ancient history?  Head over to nearby Old Scatness, an astonishing and active archeological dig of Iron Age and Pictish ruins that was uncovered when they began construction on a road for the airport.  Step inside the reconstructed round houses, sit on furs surrounding a peat fire, and imagine what life would have been like 2000 years ago on these remote islands in the North Sea.  If your trip falls on a day when Old Scatness is closed to the public, a private or group tour with one of the knowledgeable site archeologists can be booked.

All of the above sites are within 10 minutes of the airport, so if you want to see more of the island, we recommend the 50 minute drive north to Frankie’s Fish and Chips, the northernmost chippy—and voted BEST in 2015–in the United Kingdom.  If you take the route that leads you through Scalloway, you’ll have a good chance of encountering a herd or two of Shetland ponies on your way, so get your cameras ready.  Take a quick tour of Scalloway Castle, then continue north through the treeless landscape to Brae and some of the best fish and chips you’ll ever eat.  Everything on the menu is divine, but the scallops are heartbreakingly good.

Full and satisfied, head south to Shetland’s capital, Lerwick.  If you still haven’t had enough of ancient stones stacked on stones, check out the nearby tower fortress Clickimin Broch and see if you can find the mysterious footprints in the rock near the entrance.  Or head on in to Lerwick for some shopping along it’s quaint, winding streets. Shetland is known for its wool, and its knit goods are some of the finest in the world.  Locals also make beautiful jewelry from the abundant sea glass and porcelain pieces washed ashore. For fans of the BBC show Shetland, no stop to Lerwick would be complete without dropping by D.I. Perez’s stone house, the Lodberrie, with its iconic green doors on seafront Commercial Street.

Still have time before your return flight?  We recommend driving out to the Sumburgh Head Lighthouse.  This can be a great place for spotting puffins, or as the locals like to call them, tammie norries.  Or you could check out beautiful St. Ninian’s tombolo beach.

Puffins at Sumburgh head.

Twelve hours after you landed, you’ll find yourself on your return flight to the Scottish Mainland, your head and heart full of this magical place.  There is definitely a reason Lonely Planet ranks it as a must-see place in Europe. With its distinct Norse-Scottish culture, its breathtaking scenery, its incredible archeological sites, warm people, and amazing food, Shetland may just be your favorite part of your trip to Scotland.  And that is definitely saying something!