Your first stop should be at the Shetland Islands Tourism office . The helpful staff members are used to unusual requests: Sometimes visitors from Canada or the United States drop in here wanting to trace their ancestry.
Shetland Library and Museum, Lower Hillhead Road, a 5-minute walk west of Lerwick's center (tel. 01595/695-057; www.shetland-museum.org.uk), has, in addition to a reading room, four galleries devoted to exhibits covering art and textiles, shipping, archaeological digs, and oil exploration. Admission is free. It's open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday 10am to 7pm and Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday 10am to 5pm.
Entered via both Market Street and Charlotte Street, pentagonal Fort Charlotte (tel. 01595/841-815; www.fortcharlotte.co.uk), built in 1665, contains high walls with gun slits pointing, naturally, at the sea. Eight years after it was constructed, it was burned by the Dutch. Restoration came in 1781. You can't go inside, but you can walk around the fort precincts. It's open daily from 9:30am to sunset; admission is free.
Clickhimin Broch, about .4km (1/4 mile) southwest of Lerwick, beside A970, was fortified at the beginning of the Iron Age. Excavated in the 1950s, the site revealed 1,000 years of history. It was at one time turned into a broch, rising 5m (16 ft.) and built inside the fort. Admission is free; it's open daily with no set hours. It's a great place to go for a scenic walk.
A 12m (39-ft.) replica of a Viking longboat, Dim Riv ("Morning Light"), is available for a tour of the harbor on summer evenings. The boat was constructed by Lerwick craftsmen in 1980. Ask at the tourism office .
Of the many shops in Lerwick, you may want to drop in at Anderson & Co., Shetland Warehouse, Commercial Street (tel. 01595/693-714), which sells handmade crofter and designer sweaters as well as other cottage-industry goods. G. Rae, 92 Commercial St. (tel. 01595/693-686), sells silver and gold jewelry featuring Celtic motifs and images based on Norse mythology and Shetland legends. Gold- and silversmith Rosalyn Thompson produces the jewelry sold at Hjaltasteyn, 161 Commercial St. (tel. 01595/696-224), where you find a selection of sterling silver and gold items, some of which are set with garnets and amethysts.
As you go down Shetland's "long leg," as it's called, heading due south, passing a peaty moorland and fresh meadows, the first attraction is not on Mainland but on an offshore island called Mousa: the famous Broch of Mousa, a Pictish defense tower that guarded the islet for some 2,000 years. It reached the then-incredible height of some 12m (39 ft.) and was constructed of local stones, with two circular walls, one within the other. They enclosed a staircase leading to sleeping quarters. It's the best-preserved example of an Iron Age broch in Britain. The village of Sandwick, 11km (6 3/4 miles) south of Lerwick, is the ferry point for reaching Mousa. There's daily bus service between Lerwick and Sandwick. A local boatman, Mr. Jamieson, will take you across to Mousa, a 15-minute trip. From April to September only, you can visit Mousa Monday to Saturday. The cost is £13 for adults and £6 for children 5 to 16. For boat schedules, contact Captain Tom (tel. 01950/431-367; www.mousaboattrips.co.uk).
South of Sandwick, you reach the parish of Dunrossness. At Boddam is the Crofthouse Museum (tel. 01595/695-057), east of A970 on an unmarked road 40km (25 miles) south of Lerwick. Rural Shetland life comes alive here in this thatched croft house from the mid-1800s. The museum also has some outbuildings and a functioning water mill. It's open from May to September Monday to Friday 10am to 5:30pm, Saturday 10am to 5pm, and Sunday 10am to 4pm. Admission is free.
Continuing south, you reach Shetland's outstanding man-made attraction, Jarlshof, Sumburgh (tel. 01950/460-112), near the Sumburgh Airport. It has been called the most remarkable archaeological discovery in Britain. In 1897, a violent storm performed the first archaeological "dig," washing away sections of the large mound; huge stone walls were revealed. Excavations that followed turned up an astonishing array of seven distinct civilizations. The earliest was from the Bronze Age, but habitation continued at the site through the 1500s, from wheelhouse people to Vikings, from broch builders to medieval settlers. A manor house was built here in the 16th century by the treacherous Earl Patrick Stewart, but it was sacked in 1609. The site is open April to September, daily from 9:30am to 6:30pm. Admission is £5 for adults, £4 for seniors, and £2.50 for children 5 to 15.
Also nearby is the Sumburgh Lighthouse, one of many Scottish lighthouses constructed by the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson. The lighthouse is now fully automated. The property offers a self-catering, four-bedroom cottage, costing £50 per day. Built in 1821, it can be visited by the public, but you must phone the Lerwick tourist office (tel. 01595/693-434) for an appointment; reservations for the cottage can also be made with the owner, Catrina Canter, at tel. 01595/694-688. Reserve at least 3 months in advance.
On the coast at the tip of Scatness, about 1.6km (1 mile) southwest of Jarlshof at the end of the Mainland, is the Ness of Burgi, which was a defensive Iron Age structure related to a broch.
Heading back north toward Lerwick, you can veer west for a trip to St. Ninians Island, which is in the southwestern corner of Shetland. You reach it by going along B9122. The island is approached by what's called a tombolo (bridging sandbar). An early monastery once stood on this island, but it wasn't uncovered until 1958. Puffins often favor the islet, which has a pure white sandy beach on each side. The island became famous in 1958 when a group of students from Aberdeen came upon a rich cache of Celtic artifacts, mainly silverware, including brooches and other valuable pieces. Monks are believed to have hidden the treasure-trove, fearing a Viking attack. The St. Ninian treasure is in the National Museum of Scotland at Edinburgh.
On the western coast, 10km (6 1/4 miles) west of Lerwick, Scalloway was once the capital of Shetland. This town was the base for rescue operations in Norway during the darkest days of World War II. Still an important fishing port, Scalloway has been changed by the oil boom. New businesses have opened, attracting more and more people to the area, which has emerged after a long slumber into a prosperous and lively place in this remote corner of the world.
Dominating the town are the ruins of corbel-turreted medieval Scalloway Castle (tel. 01856/841-815), commissioned by the dreaded Earl Patrick Stewart at the beginning of the 17th century and built with forced (slave) labor culled from the island's residents. After it was built, he imposed exorbitant taxes and fines on the islanders. In 1615, the Earl and all his sons were executed in Edinburgh, partly as a means of placating the islanders, partly because he rebelled against the powers of the central Scottish-British government. Admission is £6.70 for adults, £5.20 for seniors, and £3.35 for children 5 to 15. Hours are those of the Shetland Woollen Company , from which you must get the key to enter.
The Shetland Woollen Company (tel. 01595/880-243) is open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm (in summer, also Sat 9am-5pm). You can see the processing and finishing of Shetland knitwear, and then visit the showroom, where a selection of garments is sold.
To escape to a beautiful area, ideal for long walks or drives, follow B9075 east off A970 to the top of a small sea inlet that will lead you to the surprisingly lush Kergord. This green valley contains forests ideal for long strolls.
It's said you can see more of Shetland from the Scord of Weisdale than from any other vantage point in the archipelago. This is a hill or plateau lying west of Weisdale that offers a dramatic and panoramic view. This vista changes constantly, depending on the time of the day, the weather, and, of course, the season.
Shetland's only stone-polishing business operates at Hjaltasteyn, Whiteness, 14km (8 2/3 miles) west of Lerwick. You can visit the showroom at 161 Commercial St., Lerwick (tel. 01595/696-224). It's open in summer only, Thursday to Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday 9:15am to 4:45pm, and Wednesday 10am to 4pm (closed daily 1-2pm for lunch).
Continuing north, you can watch high-quality jewelry being made at Shetland Jewelry, Soundside, Weisdale (tel. 01595/830-275), where the artisans base many of their designs on ancient Celtic and Viking patterns. It's open Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm and 2 to 5pm.
You can continue your tour of West Mainland by heading west along A971 toward Walls. You come first to Staneydale Temple, 4.5km (2 3/4 miles) outside Walls. This early Bronze Age (perhaps Neolithic) hall once had a timber roof. It's called a temple because it bears a remarkable resemblance to similar sites on Malta, lending support to the theory that the early settlers of Shetland came from the Mediterranean.
Continuing past several lochs and sea inlets, you come to Walls, a hamlet built on the periphery of two voes (a local term for inlet). Its natural harbor is sheltered by the offshore islet of Vaila.
A Side Trip to Papa Stour
Papa Stour, the "great island of priests," is shaped like a large starfish and lies off the west coast of Mainland, 40km (25 miles) northwest of Lerwick. As its name indicates, it was an early base for monks. Two centuries ago there was a leper colony here on the little offshore islet of Brei Holm.
Legend has it that its profusion of wildflowers had such a strong scent that old fishermen could use the perfume -- borne far out on the wind -- to fix their positions. Papa Stour is very isolated; once it was feared the island might be depopulated, but about 26 settlers live here now.
In the darkest days of winter, bad weather can cut it off for days. But if you see it on a sunny day, it's striking. Encircled by pillars of rock and reefs, its sea caves, sculpted by turbulent winds and raging seas, are among the most impressive in Britain. The largest of these is Kirstan's Hole, extending some 73m (240 ft.).
Boats go to Papa Stour about seven times per day, 5 days a week, from West Burrafirth on Mainland, at a cost of £3.60 each way. Call Mr. Clark at tel. 01595/810-460 for information on these constantly changing details.
A Side Trip to Foula
This tiny, remote island is only 5km (3 miles) wide by 8km (5 miles) long, with five high peaks. Called the "Island West of the Sun," Foula may have been the Romans' legendary Thule. In local dialect, foula means "bird island" -- and the name fits. Uncountable numbers of birds haunt the isle. Its towering sea cliffs include the second-highest cliff face in Britain, the Kame, at 370m (1,214 ft.). About 3,000 pairs of the world's great skuas, known as "bonxie," live here. You'll hear many stories about the rock-climbing prowess of locals who go in search of gulls' eggs.
The island lies 43km (27 miles) west of Scalloway, on the west coast of Mainland, and the locals are vastly outnumbered by sheep. Until the beginning of the 19th century, Old Norse was the language spoken. Its 400 people remain very traditional. If you're lucky, you might see them dance the Foula reel, a classic dance in Shetland.
If the weather's right, a weekly mail boat sails to Foula from Walls on Mainland. Even in summer, the seas are likely to be turbulent, and in winter, Foula has sometimes been cut off from the rest of Britain for weeks. The trip takes 2 1/2 hours. Loganair also operates a summer service from Tingwall on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; trip time is 15 minutes.
The Shetlands' most rugged scenery is in the northern part of Mainland. Some visitors have found that the area reminds them of Norway, and we agree. That's especially true in the tiny village of Voe, with its little wooden houses.
Heading north from Voe along A970, you reach the eastern junction of B9071, which takes you to Vidlin, where the Lunna Kirk, one of the oldest churches in the archipelago, still holds services. Construction began in 1753. The church has a "leper hole," from which the poor victims could listen to the sermon without being seen.
Heading west back to A970, continue north to Mavis Grind, a narrow isthmus marking the point where the North Mainland is at its most narrow. The touristy thing to do in North Mainland is to pause at Mavis Grind, take a couple of stones, and throw one to your right into the North Sea and the other to your left into the Atlantic Ocean.
Near the villages of Brae and Busta, you find some of the best food and hotels in Shetland. Oil contractors, helicopter pilots, and shipping executives sent by mainland companies to service the nearby Sullom Voe, site of the largest oil terminal in Europe, often stay in this area.
If you head north along A970, we suggest you take the secondary road going west to Esha Ness, where you'll come upon the most dramatic cliff scenery not only in Shetland but in all of Britain. This is simply a gorgeous area for hiking.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.