My Favourite Towns of Britain – Lerwick

Second go – from mid-Wales to the top, top end of Scotland…

Lerwick, Shetland
Lerwick Harbour

LERWICK, Shetland Islands

Travel Notes

  • Last visit – July 2018
  • Time spent – three days (with excursions elsewhere)
  • Method of arrival – by overnight ferry (from Kirkwall, Orkney)
  • Distance from London – 600 miles; about 23 hours (!) over land and sea: rail from King’s Cross to Aberdeen via Edinburgh Waverley, then overnight ferry; flights arrive at Sumburgh, at the southernmost tip of Shetland, a journey from London via Glasgow or Aberdeen takes about 6 hours, factoring ground transport
  • Did I stay in town – Yes, at the Isleburgh Youth Hostel: a council-operated Georgian mansion house in the centre of Lerwick.

Four random facts about Lerwick

  • Population: 6,958 (2011 Census); 1154th Largest in the U.K.
  • Parliament Constituency: Orkney and Shetland, Liberal Democrat
  • Google autocomplete: Lerwick is “the capital.” Technically correct is the best kind of correct.
  • A famous local: a few Norwegian earls
Lerwick, Shetland
views from Twagoes4

Three Reasons to Go

  • Northernmost – the Shetland islands are the northernmost archipelago of the British Isles; and although several villages lie further to the north, Lerwick is by far the largest settlement. As such, it is home to the a lot of northernmost facilities in the U.K.: from department stores to industrial estates, from bus stations to Chinese restaurants. It does make touring the unremarkable bits of town all that more interesting. If anything, it’s nice to be able to brag.
  • Coastline – despite the need to cater to the vessels servicing Shetland’s oil fields, Lerwick’s harbour is surprisingly picturesque. I picked up a flyer from the tourist information centre and went on a walk around the paths that hugged the forts and cemeteries, watching the ferry depart. Peaceful. 
  • The Norse heritage – the Shetland Islands are closer to Norway than to Edinburgh, let alone London. It was only Norwegian rule for almost an millennia, longer than Scottish/British rule combined. As such, Lerwick is a mixture of Scotland and Norway. The architecture, the food, the vistas, all unique in the British isles.

Two places I ate/drank

  • Fjara – from Old Norse, the beach cafe. Shetland’s answer to the “cool” Shoreditch cafes, without the pretentious and situated next to the Shetland sea. Grab a seat by the window and enjoy.
  • Northlink ferry – if not the best, certainly the biggest breakfast in Shetland can be found on the moving landscape that enters the town twice a day – the ferry to Orkney and Mainland Scotland. Upon arrival at 5 a.m. (though not the break of dawn, see below) you have the choice of an immediate escape, or part with £9.99 for a breakfast buffet. It has everything you would want and need, and again, and again. I ate it again on the return journey to Aberdeen. 

One place I missed

  • Up Helly Ya – Shetland’s foremost tourist attraction. A reenactment of an ancient Viking festival, a torch-lit parade through the dark streets of Lerwick which culminates in the burning of a Viking longboat. An annual spectacular… that occurs in midwinter.

One unmissable place

  • Shetland Museum and Archives – perhaps it’s an overeager council, perhaps it’s the oil wealth, Shetland’s municipal museum proved to be quite a treat: situated in a commanding spot across the harbour, the museum tells the natural and human history of the islands, from the age of dinosaurs up to the present day. It was modern, informative and genuinely interesting. The restaurant seemed like a top spot to dine in town too. Spoiler alert: Shetlands had no dinosaurs. 

One excursion opportunity (that I did do)

  • Scalloway – Shetland’s ancient capital, a harbour village home to a fishery college and the second larges settlement on Shetland. The highlight is its ruined castle and small museum dedicated to the area’s maritime history, from the days of the Vikings to the recon missions of the WWII.   

One pointless memory

  • Although Shetland is not quite in the arctic circle, it is close enough to achieve almost perpetual light. Turning up in early July, the sun is below the horizon for perhaps a couple of hours, the sky never quite dark. I woke one night at about 2 a.m., and could not tell whether the greyish-blue hue was from dawn or dusk.

One point of concern

  • Cost – grab an isolated archipelago, combined that with its oil wealth and relatively low tourist numbers, holidaying in Shetland can build an eye-watering bill. Food and drinks that on par with S.E. England, if not quite Central London; transport is restricted to monopolies of Northlink and Loganair, the latter prohibitively expensive, and requires getting to Aberdeen in the first place…

One line verdict

The true true north