The town dates back at least 3000 years, initially centred a little to the west by the freshwater Clickimin Loch. A wooden town grew up but was burned down by the inhabitants of Scalloway in the 17th century, ostensibly because they objected to the drunken immorality of the Lerwick sailors. Their real motive was fear that Lerwick would supplant Scalloway as capital of Shetland, as indeed it did in 1708. Stone buildings came to predominate in the 18th and 19th centuries and Lerwick became a busy fishing and shipping port. It still is.
The tourist information centre is the VisitScotland iCentre on Market Cross, south end of the harbour. It's open Apr-Sep: M-Sa 09:00-17:00, Su 10:00-16:00; and Oct-Mar: M-Sa 10:00-16:00.
Sumburgh Airport (LSI IATA) is Shetlands' main airport, 25 miles (40 km) south of Lerwick. This airport has flights by Loganair from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, Kirkwall and Bergen. One flight a day is local, to Lerwick-Tingwall. Bus 6 runs between Sumburgh and Lerwick (every hour or two; 60 min), and there is car hire at the airport.
Flights between the Shetland Islands fly from 1 Lerwick-Tingwall Airport (LWK IATA) 4 miles north of Lerwick. These serve Fair Isle, Foula and Sumburgh; the flight to Papa Stour was axed. Day-trips either way are often possible. Flights are operated by Airtask on behalf of Shetland Islands Council, using a couple of BNF Islanders, so they're small and not infrequently grounded by the weather. Bus 21 / 23 (Lerwick to Brae, Hillswick or Toft) and Bus 9 (Lerwick to Walls) pass near the airport, but better take a taxi. By car follow A970 north, turn left onto A971; parking here is free.
Northlink Ferries sail overnight from Aberdeen. These carry vehicles and sail every afternoon: on 4 days direct, the other 3 days via Kirkwall in Orkney. See Shetland page for practical info. Ferries no longer sail to Scandinavia, Faeroes or Iceland.
2 Holmsgarth Terminal is the ferry pier, on A970 main road about 2 miles north of Lerwick centre, opposite the Shetland Hotel. Bus 4 (Lerwick to Scalloway) runs past the terminal every hour or so and there are taxis. Cruise ships often visit Shetland in summer and may dock here, or anchor up and bring passengers into Kirkwall by tender.
Most visitors either fly into Sumburgh and hire from the airport, or bring their own car on the ferry: for a family the extra fare is more than offset by the convenience and saving of self-driving to Aberdeen. This means that Lerwick has only a small hire fleet, which is also serving the airport, so you need to book. As of 2021 the car hire firms in Lerwick are Europcar, Grantfield Garage, and Bolts who are agents for Avis. They're all open M-Sa 09:00-17:00 and closed on Sunday.
You're unlikely to use the bus within town, but for Holmsgarth Terminal use Bus 4 hourly towards Scalloway. Bus 1 circles town hourly and runs north near the terminal and south by Broch of Clickimin. Bus 6 hourly to Sumburgh also passes the Broch. For timetables see Zetrans
3 Viking Bus Station is north end of the centre, just beyond Fort Charlotte.
The only inter-island ferry from Lerwick is the hourly ten-minute crossing to Bressay. It's a little roll-on, roll-off ferry sailing from the harbour in town centre, not Holmsgarth.
The other inter-island ferries ply from different points around Mainland, but their sailing status is shown on a big display board at the harbour, worth checking if the day looks doubtful. Those ferry piers are sometimes altered in rough weather, and Lerwick is a "port of refuge" for the Out Skerries ferry — don't go visiting in such conditions.
There's a taxi rank by Victoria Pier in town centre, and taxis await the ferry from Aberdeen.
Lerwick is mostly a modern industrial town, with quays and marine industries sprawling along the shoreline. Scenically the best of it is one block back from the quay, along pedestrianised Commercial Street. Follow this past various Victorian buildings south out of town, onto Twageos Road, then out to the breezy headland of The Knab.
- 1 Fort Charlotte, Harbour Street ZE1 0JL. Keys available from staff on site Monday to Friday. A five-sided artillery fort that was built in 1665 against the Dutch. Then it was demolished, rebuilt, demolished, then burnt by the Dutch just to make sure. The present structure dates from 1780, raised against American revolutionaries, but never saw action. It's no longer in a commanding position, as it's become hemmed in by modern buildings behind, and reclaimed land has extended the shoreline in front.
- 2 Clickimin Broch, in Loch of Clickimin (1 km SW of Lerwick, just after the roundabout on South Road), ☏ . Always open. A broch (stone and turf fortified dwelling) occupied between 700 BC and 600 AD. It was built on an island in the freshwater loch - the water-level was lowered in the 19th century, so it's now connected to shore by a broad spit and pathway. No parking on the road here, use side streets or buy something at nearby Tesco. Free.
- 3 Shetland Museum and Archives, Hay's Dock, Lerwick ZE1 0WP (200 m west of bus station). M-Sa 10:00-17:00, Su 12:00-17:00. Great modern museum, with the natural history, archaeology, history and anthropology of the islands. Free.
- Up Helly Aa Exhibition, Galley Hall, St Sunniva St, Lerwick ZE1 0HL. Mid-May to Aug: Tu 14:00-16:00 & 19:00-21:00, F 19:00-21:00, Sa 14:00-16:00. Every February the "guizer" volunteers start building a Viking longship in this shed. By midsummer the work in progress is on display, along with "Jarl Squad" regalia and film & photos of previous events. Then in late January there's a grand torchlight costumed procession and the ship is ceremonially burned. The ritual goes back to the 1880s when earlier yule torchlight revels were stamped out because of drunkenness and fire-raising. Adult £3, concessions £1.
- 4 The Knab, South of the town at the end of Knab Road. A small park at the end of a peninsula with a scenic viewpoint out towards the sea, and plaques explaining the historical events that occurred here. A coastal hiking trail heads off in both directions. There is also a cemetery maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
- Up Helly Aa events are held around New Year in several locations in Shetland, but by far the biggest and most spectacular is in Lerwick. The name means "end of holidays" but it's slipped back in the calendar to attract more visitors, and is nowadays on the last Tuesday in January, with the next on Tues 31 Jan 2023. The programme starts with a morning procession at 09:00, followed by a civic reception before the "guizers" embark on a series of visits to schools, care homes and the hospital. The evening torchlight costume procession starts at 19:30 (by which hour it's black night in Shetland), culminating in burning the Viking longship. The guizers are then entertained at a series of "Halls": private receptions to thank volunteers for their work over the year.
- 1 Mareel, Shetland Arts Development Agency Mareel, Lerwick ZE1 0WQ, ☏ . Su-Th 09:00-23:00, F Sa 09:00-01:00. Mareel is a multi-purpose entertainment venue on the waterfront. Opened in 2012, the facility includes a music venue, cinema, conference rooms and educational facilities.
- Screenplay Film Festival is held at Mareel, late Aug to early Sep.
- And see Shetland Islands#Do for multi-venue events.
- Garrison Theatre is on Market St behind Fort Charlotte.
- Golf: Shetland GC is 3 miles west on A970. It's 5562 yards, par 68, visitor £32 per day.
- 2 Clickimin Leisure Complex, North Lochside ZE1 0PJ (north end of Clickimin Loch). M-F 07:00-22:30, Sa Su 10:30-20:30. Shetland's largest leisure centre with swimming pool, steam room, gym and other facilities. Refurbished in 2019, good for kids and reasonably priced.
Lerwick has the best shopping in Shetland... since it's the only shopping. There's Tesco near the south end of town, plus a variety of shops in town centre.
- Anderson & Co, 60-62 Commercial Street ZE1 0BD. M-Sa 09:00-17:00. Range of knitware clothing items.
- High Level Music, 62-64 Commercial Street. M-Th 09:00-20:30, F 09:00-19:30, Sa 09:00-17:30. Music including tuition, instruments, accessories, CDs and books of music
- Shetland Fudge Company, Esplanade. M-Sa 09:00-17:00. Very nice fudge, locally handmade. Care to try the "puffin poo"?
- The Wine Shop, 113 Commercial Street (next to tourist info). M-F 10:00-21:00, Sa Su 10:00-22:00. Wines from around the world and good selection of whisky.
- Harry's Department Store, Esplanade. M-Sa 09:00-17:15. Department store selling a variety of items, not the cheapest but good range and service.
- Westside Pine, Esplanade. M-Sa 09:00-17:00. Gift shop with items made from pine wood.
- 1 Toll Clock Shopping Centre at 26 North Rd has some two dozen shops within. Open 09:00-17:30, a good refuge if the weather turns bad.
- 1 Havly Cafe, 9 Charlotte St, Lerwick ZE1 0JL (central), ☏ . M-Sa 10:00-17:00. Small cafe with hot drinks, light food and baked goods. Free Wi-Fi.
- Peerie Shop Cafe, Campbell's Close, Esplanade ZE1 0LL. M-Sa 08:00-17:00. Tiny place with a couple of outdoor tables, good coffee & brownies.
- Fort Cafe & Take Away, 2 Commercial Road, Lerwick ZE1 0HY. Fish & chips.
- 2 Queen's Hotel, Commercial St. Daily 12:00-14:00 & 18:00-21:00. They have a restaurant that is accessible from the opposite side of the building from their bar. Reservations are recommended as they can get quite busy in the evening.
- 3 Phu Siam, Esplanade, Lerwick, ☏ . Daily 15:00-22:00. The most northerly Thai restaurant in the British Isles is surprisingly good. Just ignore the decor. Mains £6-14.
- At the bus station are Great Wall (Chinese) and Raba (Indian / Nepalese), both open daily.
- 3 No 88 Kitchen and Bar, 88 Commercial St, Lerwick ZE1 0EX, ☏ . W-Sa 10:00-22:00, Su 11:00-17:00. A modern restaurant, bar and venue that places strong emphasis on locally sourced ingredients and produce. Reservations recommended. Lunch £8-15 Starters £9-10, mains £15-21.
- 4 The Dowry, 98 Commercial St, Lerwick, Shetland ZE1 0EX, ☏ . A light and airy cafe bar with Scandinavian influences in the decor and fantastic views out over the harbour area.
- Thule Bar, Esplanade ZE1 0LL. Daily 11:00-01:00. Not the most salubrious of bars but busy at the weekend. Boilersuits and work boots are perfectly acceptable dress. Pool tables.
- The Lounge, 4 Mounthooley St ZE1 0BJ. Daily 11:00-01:00. This central bar is popular with locals and visitors. There are two parts, the public bar downstairs is very basic. Upstairs the lounge bar is much nicer and far more comfortable. Often has live traditional music.
- Douglas Arms (Marlex), 67 Commercial Street ZE1 0NL. Daily 11:00-01:00. The public bar is very basic, the lounge bar is far more cosy with dark wood tables and a fireplace, live music Tuesday nights in summer.
- Captain Flints, Market Cross ZE1 0LU. M-Sa 11:00-01:00, Su 11:00-00:00. Aaarr Jim lad! A pirate-themed bar in the centre of Lerwick.
- Da Wheel Bar, 13 Commercial Road ZE1 0LX. Sa-W 11:00-00:00, Th F 11:00-03:00. The public bar is downstairs open all day, and has a pool table. The lounge bar is open late and has a big dance floor.
- Grand Hotel, Queens Hotel and Shetland Hotel have bars, see Eat and Sleep.
- Lerwick Brewery is 2 miles east of town on Ladies Drive and has tours.
- 1 Islesburgh House Hostel, Islesburgh House, King Harald Street ZE1 0EQ, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 16:00 - 16:30, 21:45 - 22:15. 64-bed hostel run by the local council, affiliated to SYHA. Book by email or phone. Oct-March is cheaper, but Up Helly Aa in Jan is peak rate. Shared room £20 pp, own room from £40.
- The Shetland Hotel, Holmsgarth Road ZE1 0PW (Opposite ferry terminal), ☏ , email@example.com. Slabby building, but comfy 3-star, handy for ferry and short walk to town.
- 2 The Lerwick Hotel, 15 South Road, Lerwick ZE1 0RB (off A969 south side of town), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Three-star run by Brudolff Hotel Group.
- Kveldsro House Hotel, Greenfield Place, Lerwick ZE1 0AQ (East along alley from jcn A969 & Knab Rd). Comfy, welcoming 4-star with good restaurant. Run by Brudolff Hotels who also run Lerwick Hotel and Shetland Hotel in town.
As of Nov 2021, there is 4G in Lerwick with all UK carriers, but the signal is patchy. 5G has not reached the Shetlands.
Most of Shetland can be visited on a day-trip from Lerwick. Highlights include:
- Jarlshof, the prehistoric settlement at Sumburgh, next to the main airport 30 miles south.
- Scalloway, Shetland's second largest town and home to Scalloway castle, is a 6-mile drive.
- Trondra, Burra and East Burra are three small isles on the west coast, connected to Scalloway by road.
- Noss is a small island nature reserve with spectacular sea-cliffs, reached via the island of Bressay, a short ferry-ride from Lerwick.
- Yell and Unst are the two islands north of Mainland, linked by short ferry crossings; here you reach the north tip of the British Isles and UK.
Otherwise, return south (perhaps via the Orkney Islands) to the Scottish mainland. You have to return there to reach other island groups such as the Hebrides.