Lerwick is not a place to visit if you’re seeking sun. Temperatures rarely get any higher than 16C even in the height of summer, with rain falling with great frequency throughout the year. In fact, the best time to visit might just be in the middle of winter. The last Tuesday in January sees the annual Lerwick Up Helly, a fire festival that celebrates the influence of the Vikings on the islands. Expect lots of helmets, axes and drinking horns, with the event culminating in the heart-stopping spectacle of a burning Viking galley. Cheap flights to Lerwick and discounted accommodation rates will be hard to find during this popular event.
The island’s other big events are altogether less pyromaniacal, but will certainly set fire to your passions. Nothing gets Shetlanders excited as music, and six months of every year are dedicated to making the population boogie. The season is kicked-off by the Shetland Folk Festival that runs over four days at the beginning of May, before the much-loved mashup of traditional music known as Fiddle Frenzy takes place in August. September sees the sounds of the American Deep South celebrated at the Shetland Blues Festival, with things getting local again at the Accordion and Fiddle Festival in October. The season closes in November, but not before the Shetland International Guitar Festival rocks the islands with all the sound of six-string twang. And if music’s not your thing, Shetland Wool Week occurs every October, before Christmas ups the ante with a seasonal craft fair and food festival.
The capital of the Shetland Islands may be off the beaten track, but those who make the pilgrimage to this isolated port will uncover a whole world of culture and intrigue that can be traced back to the Stone Age. Lerwick itself is a relatively recent addition to the area, having only been founded in the 17th century as a seaport to trade with the Dutch fishing fleet, but it fast established itself as one of Scotland’s most important northern cities. Today, Lerwick is renowned for being a welcoming and slow-paced town that boasts excellent seafood cuisine and a healthy shopping culture.
Visitors invariably use Lerwick as a base from which to mount expeditions further afield. History is a big draw, with archaeological records showing that people have called the islands home since the Mesolithic Period. The oldest attractions include Scord of Brouster, the remains of three houses, several walled fields and a cairn thought to have been built around 2200 BC. Creeping forward in time, be sure to visit Clickimin Broch, a large and well preserved stone fortress south-west of Lerwick, and the Staneydale Temple near Bixter, both dating from at least 1000BC. One final prehistoric destination is Broch of Mousa, the finest example of an Iron Age round tower in all the islands as well as the tallest in the world. So celebrated is the Broch of Mousa that historians count it among the best-preserved prehistoric buildings in Europe.
Alternatively, head to Shetland to uncover a land rich in wildlife. Catch the ferry to Bressay and visit the Noss nature reserve where puffins and even orcas are frequent visitors. Otters and a healthy population of seabirds are in residence. Outdoor types are also well catered for, with miles of rugged coastline, rolling hills and uninhabited islands all open for exploration.
Due to Lerwick’s size it is easily navigable on foot, but it is recommended that visitors hire a car so they can visit the local attractions and access ferry points for trips to other islands.
A regular airport bus service operates between Sumburgh Airport (LSI) and Lerwick throughout the day, and takes approximately 40 minutes. Private hire taxis and car rental is also available.