Exploring the Shetland Islands by bus

sam andpenny about to get on the ferry after car parking at Aberdeen ferry terminal

Using public transport on our Shetland adventure, was a great way to meet people and get off the tourist routes.  It also made the ferry crossing great value, and we discovered the secret to cheap car parking at Aberdeen Ferry Terminal.

Taking the overnight ferry without a car was a great idea.  We had a lovely cabin with crisp white sheets and a stunning view over the sea, a good quality evening meal and 270 miles of oversea travel, all for the same cost as a night’s accommodation.  The journey didn’t feel a bit like 12 hours and we woke in Lerwick, fresh as a daisy and ready to explore.   Great value thanks to Northlink Ferries.

3 birth cabin on NorthLink Ferries Aberdeen to Lerwick with two ladies and rucksacks
Three berth cabin on the NorthLink Ferries Aberdeen to Lerwick crossing.

With a friend to collect from Edinburgh airport in the afternoon and a ferry that was not going to wait for us, there was no choice but to drive up to Aberdeen. Here is where our planning got hard.  If you read the web it seems like it’s impossible to leave a car anywhere near Aberdeen Ferry Terminal for any length of time, and we were going away for 10 days!

Now that we have returned I can tell you the secret.  Park in the NCP Ship Row car park.   At the end of your return crossing get your parking ticket exchanged at the ferry terminal office, and use this new ticket to pay a very reasonable amount in the payment machines in the car park.  We paid £54 for 9 days parking, just a few minutes walk from the ferry terminal.

Sounds simple I know, in fact it is very similar to the instructions on the Northlink Ferries’ website.  You need to hold your nerve though.  The NCP website will quote you a couple of hundred pounds for that stay, while the Northlink Ferries’ website parking instructions appear out of date.  Everyone on the web is telling you to park at the airport (miles away and surely not cheap) and no-one at the ferry terminal will confirm what the Ship Row car park costs.   But now you have read this you know the secret; car parking at the NCP Ship Row car park is great value  (written in Summer 2024).

Northlink Ferries about to leave on the Aberdeen to Lerwick Crossing.                         Welcome to Shetland sign in Lerwick

The ferry arrives in Lerwick at 7am with a “Welcome to Shetland” announcement on the ship’s tannoy.  You can take your time getting up, stay on for breakfast, and start your day at a very reasonable time.  That gives you a whole day in Lerwick, or a few days if you decide to base yourself there.

There is a great hostel Islesburgh House Hostel, in Lerwick, with private rooms and plenty of space, so ideal for those used to hotel accommodation too.  It’s right next to the community centre which has a nice cafe with wholesome meals, so there is no need to cook if you don’t fancy self-catering.

islesburgh hostel viewed theough the flowers in Lerwick Shetland
Islesburgh House Hostel in Lerwick, Shetland

From Lerwick there are regular buses down to the far south of the mainland.  Here you can visit the prehistoric settlements of Jarlshof and Sumburgh Lighthouse.  Or you can take a break half way and get the tiny 5 min minibus ride to St Ninian’s beach, a stunning tombola where the tide comes in from two directions leaving a strand of sand to the island.  A common feature on the Shetlands, but there are non so beautiful as this one.

st ninian's isle tombola on mainland shetland
St Ninian’s Isle tombola on mainland shetland

On your bus journeys, you will come across school children on their daily commutes (sometimes over  1.5 hours each way), grandmas doing their shopping or wool workers on their way home from the wool museum.  You will meet the occasional tourist too, you are not the only intrepid traveller in Shetland.

ladies knitting and spinning wool at the Wool Museum in Lerwick
Ladies knitting and spinning wool at the Wool Museum in Lerwick

Once we had explored Lerwick we had one goal in mind, and that was to get to Unst, the most northerly Shetland Isle (and also the most northerly place in the UK).

There is one trip a day that goes up the islands, where the ferries meet the buses and the buses meet the ferries.  This goes right up the mainland to the Isle of  Yell, across Yell, and then onto the Isle of Unst.  The trip leaves Lerwick at the end of the day, around 4pm-5pm.   Check with the Tourist Office in Lerwick for the exact times.

Lerwick Tourist office with bunting
Lerwick Tourist Office

The famous Gardiesfauld Hostel is an hour’s walk from the ferry on Unst, or 20 mins from the nearest bus stop.  On the gentle bay of Useasound  (well known for whale sightings, the hostel is a destination in itself.

On our brief three-day stay there we met a Dutch lady who was walking the entire coast of the North Sea, and had not been home for 3  years.   A young man, who was travelling without money or resources, relying solely on the kindness of others and raising money for the Trussell Trust, and a woman who had come to an arrangement with her partner that a month a year she could just travel and bring back the stories to share with him, while he looked after the garden, the place he most liked to be.  What a super relationship.

cooking at Gardiesfauld Hostel
Cooking at Gardiesfauld Hostel

During the days we spent at Gardiesfauld these and other equally amazing people drifted through our lives.  We met for intense conversations about life and philosophy, compared the day’s wildlife sightings, and then we went on our way again.  People cooked wholesome food from raw ingredients and shared their meals.  Unused food was left behind labelled, “for anyone and everyone”,  for food was not easy to come by in such a remote place.

The conservatory at Gardiesfald hostel with the sea of uyeasound bay beyong

What a special place Gardiesfauld Hostel is.  Could it be the ever presence of the sea outside the conservatory window, or just the fact that we were on the edge of the world?  What was it that drew such amazing people to this place, and gave us all permission just to be with each other.  No competition, just companionship.

mus saying the adventure begins with where you stay at gardiesfauld hostel
Independent Hostel network mugs on the conservatory table

The trip back south, down the islands, takes place in the early morning.  So by 8am we had left the hostel to arrive back in Lerwick for midday, ready to catch the evening boat back to Aberdeen.  An efficient timetable and with just enough contingency, leaving a bit of time to reunite ourselves with our old haunts in Lerwick.  New places only a week ago, feeling like familiar friends now we had returned to them.

Folk Music on the Northlink Ferries Lerwick to Aberdeen crossing

On the ferry home we were treated to a double show.  Music from three Shetland brothers, folk muscians who had inherited their voices from their mother, and were on their way to perform in England, and then a few hours later a light show from the Mirrie Dancers, The Shetland Islanders name for the Northern Lights.

What a great place to see the Northern Lights, on the back of the boat traveling south with a view north and a clear sky.  We must have been chosen that night, to receive such a gift.

Northern lights in a clear skye
The Mirrie Dancers in a clear sky.

About Sam Dalley

Director and Founder

Sam started the Independent Hostel Guide as a hobby in 1993. She is delighted to see how the network has grown and proud it provides a vital booking platform for hostels in the UK.