Westman Islands – A Secret Adventure in Iceland

Along the south coast of Iceland, everyone is clambering to visit the sights of the Golden Circle, racing from one place to the next to tick the boxes. Within this mayhem, a small retreat exists if you know where to find it. Just a short boat crossing from the mainland is the small but perfectly formed Westman Islands or Vestmannaeyjar Islands.

Located 8km from Iceland’s mainland Vestmannaeyjar is a collection of volcanic Islands. There are 15 islands, the largest called Heimaey and a further 30 skerries or stacks, although this number is still to be confirmed.

The islands sit along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and were formed by submarine eruptions. The newest island is Surtsey which was formed between 1963 and 1967. Heimaey or Home Island was formed by 9 separate volcanic eruptions. The most recent was in 1973 when Eldfell erupted, engulfing about ⅕th of the town and increasing the landmass of the island by about 20%.

The main town on Heimaey is called Vestmannaeyjar and is one of the largest urban areas outside of Reykjavík and Akureyri. The town has a number of good restaurants and hotels and plenty of places to fill time whatever the weather.

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Traditions and the past

The Westman Islands are steeped in rich history and cultural traditions and these islands have a unique story to tell. Historically, the Westman Islands have been inhabited since the time of settlement in Iceland, with evidence of Norse presence dating back to the 9th century.

The Westman Islands have a strong fishing heritage, and fishing remains a crucial part of the local economy and culture. The islands’ inhabitants have traditionally relied on abundant marine resources, including fishing for fish, seabirds, and harvesting eggs, which have sustained them for generations.

Vikings at the Westman Islands

The Westman Islands were founded by the Vikings over 1000 years ago in about AD874. Used as a holding location for their Irish slaves (or Westmen as the Norwegian Vikings called them) the brothers Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson and Ingólfur Arnarsson are believed to have frequented the islands as well as Hjörleifshöfði Cape. As early Viking settlers in Iceland, they are well known in the Viking Sagas.

Barbary Pirates

One of the most significant events in their history occurred in 1627 when Barbary pirates raided the islands, capturing over 200 inhabitants and taking them into slavery. This tragic event left a lasting impact on the islands and its people.

Eldfell Volcano and Surtsey Island

These islands have experienced some of the most recent and most volatile volcanic eruptions in living memory and the newest island of Surtsey is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Untouched by man it is closely monitored to discover how nature colonises a new piece of land.

In 1973 a large fissure opened up on the main island of Heimaey just outside the town and home to 4000 people. Eldfell erupted for the first time in 5000 years and a full evacuation of the island was implemented.

Despite the eruption and many houses being buried under the lava and ash, no one was killed and within a short time the town was back to its fishing and rebuilding the community. Today Eldfell stands over the town and markers on some of the streets mark the height of the ash shortly after the eruption.

Þjóðhátíð Festival

One of the most celebrated events on the Westman Islands is the Þjóðhátíð Festival, an annual gathering that attracts over 17000 visitors. This lively festival, held over the long weekend of the first Monday in August, is a colourful tapestry of music and culture.

It originated in 1874 as a national celebration and has since evolved into a vibrant music festival, featuring both renowned Icelandic artists and international acts. The festival grounds are in an ancient volcanic caldera on the south side of Heimaey called Herjólfsdalur or Dalurinn.

The area transforms into a sea of tents, with people enjoying live performances, traditional Icelandic cuisine, and a convivial atmosphere. If you want to travel to the islands over this weekend then you will need to book the ferry well in advance as all the visitors arrive by ferry.

Places to visit on the Westman Islands

With a rich history shaped by volcanic eruptions and a vibrant community, these islands are a hidden gem for travellers seeking natural wonders and cultural experiences. Explore the hauntingly beautiful Eldfell volcano and witness the contrasting colours of the lava fields.

Discover puffin colonies that dot the cliffs and embark on thrilling boat tours to spot seals or learn more at the Beluga Whale Sanctuary. Delve into the island’s history at the captivating Elheimar Museum and immerse yourself in the warm hospitality of the islanders.

Faxaskersviti Lighthouse

As the ferry approaches the moss-covered cliffs are alive with seabirds. The rough seas protect them from predators and make their cries haunting as they echo in deep caves.

The small orange lighthouse of Faxaskersviti is located on the most northern piece of rock of the Westman Islands and can be seen from the ferry. It is a small square concrete structure 6 metres high and standing just 12 metres above sea level. In winter storms this squat building doesn’t stand a chance against the huge seas which wash over it.

A shipwreck on the 7th of January 1950 that ended with crew members clinging to the rocks of Faxasker lead to the building of this light as a shelter for those caught in storms but were able to make it into the lea of the island. It has a single white flash every 7 seconds.

Vestmannaeyjabær Harbour and street art

The harbour is where the ferry arrives from the mainland and is still an active port. Surrounded by the high cliffs of Heimaklettur and Herjólfsdalur it is one of the prettiest harbours in Iceland. the cliffs on the approach to the harbour are covered in a dark green most and are alive with nesting birds.

The harbour has a number of fishing boats in a range of colours and these look lovely against the deep blue waters of the harbour. The fishing boats return throughout the day and nights so there is always something to see.

Like Reykjavík, the town has a thriving and ever-changing street art scene. The most imposing is the depiction of Halla Svavarsdottír by Guido Van Helton which can be seen close to the docks. There is also a beautiful depiction of a child playing with a toy boat in the area around the docks.

Beluga Whale Sanctuary and Sea Life Centre

The Beluga Whale Sanctuary serves as a haven for beluga whales retired from captivity, providing them with a more natural and expansive habitat to thrive in.

Little White and Little Grey, travelled 6,000 miles from their previous home in a Shanghai water park in 2019 via air, land and sea to the Sanctuary and now live in a deep bay close to the town.

The Sea Life Centre houses a diverse array of species that call the surrounding waters home. From unsettling wolffish to mesmerising jellyfish and pretty anemones, the centre offers a mesmerising exploration of the island’s underwater ecosystem.

The centre is also a recuse centre for puffins that are found injured on the island and young puffins that are not ready to leave the islands before the winter storms arrive. This is the only place in Iceland where you can see puffins outside of the nesting season.

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Skansinn Fort and Stafkirkjan Stave Church

Skansinn Fort and Stafkirkjan stave church are two of the most popular tourist attractions on the Westman Islands in Iceland.

  • Skansinn Fort is a 15th-century fortress that was built to protect the island from pirates and invaders. The fort was first built in 1586 with the name derived from the Danish word for fort. In 1627 it was destroyed by fire before being rebuilt in 1630 and expanded in 1853 and reconstructed in 1991 after being used by the British during the Cold Wars in the 1970s. It is located on the edge of the water close to the Stave church but is now in ruins.
  • Stafkirkjan stave church is a replica of a medieval Norwegian stave church that was built in 2000 to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of Iceland’s conversion to Christianity. It is a replica of the Holtålen stave church in Norway, which was built in the 12th century. It is made of wood and has a distinctive red roof in the style that was typical of a medieval church at the time.

Both Skansinn Fort and Stafkirkjan stave church are fascinating historical landmarks and beautiful structures that are worth seeing for their architectural significance. They are backdropped by the steep walls of Heimaklettur and are close to the lava edge of the 1973 eruption which seems to flow to the back of the church.

Sprangan Rope Swing and Bird Cliffs

The cliffs surrounding the Westman islands are home to thousands of birds over the summer months when they come ashore to nest and raise their young. In the past, this provided a valuable source of food for the island’s inhabitants who scaled the cliffs to collect eggs.

The locals still practice the skill of sprangen. This uses long ropes and an acrobatic mid-air swing to climb the sheer cliffs. The aim of this is to collect eggs from the nests.

Whilst not an ideal pastime it is essential for survival when soil conditions are not conducive to grazing or crops. Even today egg collection on the smaller off-islands takes place and each family looks after an island area.

The ropes are still in place and if you take a guided tour, then you will be able to see a demonstration of this local tradition.

On the cliffs around the spragan ropes, there is a kittiwake colony. The birds nest on the textured rocks of the cliffs and are perfect to see these busy birds on their nests.

Elephant rock – Kapalajóta and Fíllinn

On the southern edge of Blátindur, the second-highest peak on Heimaey Island is a basalt rock formation that looks like an elephant’s head drinking from the ocean.

The rock can be seen from the land by walking southwest from the main parking area by the golf course. Follow the coast path for about 400m where the rock will become visible. It is also possible to see the rock from a boat trip around the islands but is not essential.

Eldheimar Volcano Museum and Sagnheimar Folk Museum

The Westman Islands offer a variety of intriguing museums that provide insight into the history, culture, and natural heritage of the archipelago.

One prominent museum is the Eldheimar Volcano Museum, located on Heimaey, the main island. It explores the dramatic volcanic eruption that occurred in 1973, showcasing artefacts, personal stories, and immersive exhibits that depict the event’s impact on the island’s residents.

Another museum worth exploring is the Sagnheimar Folk Museum, which delves into the history and folklore of the Westman Islands. It houses an extensive collection of artefacts, photographs, and interactive displays, providing a comprehensive understanding of the archipelago’s past.

Eldfell Volcano

Embarking on a hike to the summit of Eldfell volcano is an adventure that immerses you in a landscape shaped by very recent volcanic forces. As you ascend the rugged slopes, you’ll be surrounded by a tapestry of vibrant colours.

The lava that flowed during the 1973 eruption has weathered into a striking blend of dark black and shades of red, yellow and orange, creating a visually stunning contrast against the green meadows of the island and the deep blue ocean beyond.

From the top of Eldfell, breathtaking views are possible out over the Westman Islands and the vast expanse of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is also possible to see the mainland to the north from the summit on a clear day.

The hike to the summit of Eldfell Volcano not only offers a physical challenge but also rewards you with awe-inspiring vistas that truly capture the essence of this remarkable natural wonder. The hike starts in a clearly marked parking area and the path spirals around the peak before heading to the summit. Despite being over 50 years old the lava fields are still hot and in the right weather conditions you will see steam rising from the ground

Stórhöfði Puffins, seabird cliffs and lighthouse

Stórhöfði is a narrow peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic at the southern end of Heimaey. Once an island, various changes in sea levels and volcanic eruptions mean that it is now joined to the main island.

At the far end is a lighthouse which is located at the highest point. This was built in 1906 and has been looked after by the same family since 1910. The coast is treacherous and has been named one of the windiest places in Europe.

The cliffs are high and home to thousands of seabirds. Even in high winds and low clouds, the intensity of the bird colonies can be felt. The birds swirl on the downdrafts of the cliffs and everywhere you look birds are seen in flight. It is estimated that there are between 700,000 and 1.1 million seabirds nesting on the cliffs

Heimaey has the largest Atlantic puffin colony in Iceland with thousands crowding onto the exposed cliffs from May until late July. Their colours and antics brighten up the wild and remote cliffs in the summer months.

The young pufflings can often be confused by the bright lights of the town and can be found wandering the streets. A local ‘puffin patrol’ is organised each year to collect any lost chicks and return them to the sea when they are ready.

From the parking area, a path heads out to the puffin lookout that is perched on the cliffs and provides a perfect spot for watching these charismatic little birds. There are a number of paths across the headland that take you through the colony, but you must stay on the marked paths to avoid disturbing the nesting birds.

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Getting to Heimaey and Westman Islands

The Westman Islands are reached from the mainland by ferry or a short flight from Reykjavík. The ferry departs from Landeyjahöfn about 10 minutes drive from Ring Road 1 along Route 254 and not far from Seljalandsfoss. The crossing takes about 30 minutes. Once on the island you can explore on foot (although the distances are quite big if time is limited) or bring the car on the ferry.

Tours of the Westman Islands

The best option and the one we took was to book an island tour. We used Eyjatours who was fantastic. They have a small building right by the ferry terminal and take you around the island in a few hours. Run by a local family who have lived on the islands for generations the tour showed the real life on the islands. It is timed to work with the ferries and is perfect for a gentle introduction to the Westman Islands.

How Long Should I Spend on the Westman Islands?

The honest answer to this is ‘as long as possible’! These small islands have so much to explore and photograph that you will always run out of time. The tours can be taken to fit in with a half-day ferry crossing, but this will be a very quick tour of the islands. Give yourself a day and an overnight stay and you will have a much better understanding of these islands.

Should I take my car to Westman Islands?

If you are limited in time then visiting the islands and taking a tour is the best option. If you are planning to stay for longer and explore on your own then a car is definitely a benefit. While the distances don’t look too far on a map, the island is hilly and can be very exposed. Much better to have a car to explore more of the island and have shelter if the weather turns.

Places to Stay on Westman Islands

If you want to make the most of your time in the Westman Islands then staying at least one night is the perfect option. There is a range of options including a small campsite.

Ofanleiti Cottages

These small cottages are located about 1km from the town with stunning views perfect for sunset and watching the horses graze across the meadows. They are very small but perfect for a couple to escape the bustle of Iceland’s south coast.

Luxury Ocean Villas

This villa is located on the southern edge of the town with stunning views out across the Atlantic Ocean. It is much larger than many other places, but sleeping 11 it is perfect for a group adventure to the island.

Pier Apartments

Surrounded by views of the mountains, Pier Apartment is a sustainable apartment in Vestmannaeyjar, offering environmentally friendly accommodation close to Gjábakkafjara Beach. The apartment has an outdoor space with views and is close to the town centre and the ferry terminal.

Places to explore close to the Westman Islands

The Westman Islands are located off the south coast of Iceland and are a perfect escape on a road trip from Reykjavík to Vík. Close to the ferry terminal to the Westman Islands there are a number of well-known places to stop and explore.

  • Skogafoss is a large waterfall with stunning walks along the river that feed the waterfall. This is located 40km to the east of the ferry terminal at Landeyjahöfn.
  • Seljalandsfoss and the hidden waterfall close by called Gljufrabui. These two waterfalls can be seen from the main Route 1 as your turn onto Route 254 down to the ferry terminal. They are worth stopping for a short walk. Seljalandsfoss is a large waterfall that has a path under the cliffs behind the plunge pool of the waterfall. This is accessible during dry weather. In contrast, Gljufrabui is hidden at the back of a small gorge reached by following the river bed into an open-topped cave.
  • In nearby Hvolsvöllur is the Lava Centre where you can learn more about Iceland’s volcanoes and see lava.

Westman Island Travel FAQs

How do I get to the Westman Islands?

The Westman Islands are located 8km off the coast of Iceland, about 150 kilometres from Reykjavík. The most common way to get to the islands is by ferry, which departs from Landeyjahöfn, a small town on the south coast of Iceland. The ferry ride takes about 45 minutes.

What is the best time to visit the Westman Islands?

The best time to visit the Westman Islands is during the summer months, from June to August. The weather is mild during this time, and there are plenty of things to do, such as hiking, biking, and puffin watching.

What are the must-see attractions on the Westman Islands?

The Eldheimar Volcano Museum: This museum tells the story of the 1973 Heimaey eruption, which destroyed a large part of the island.
The Puffin Cliffs: The Westman Islands are home to one of the largest puffin colonies in Iceland.
Eldefell Volcano: This volcano erupted in 1973 and is now a great hike.
The Beluga Whale Sanctuary: This sanctuary serves as a haven for beluga whales retired from captivity, providing them with a more natural and expansive habitat to thrive in

Where can I stay in the Westman Islands?

There are a number of hotels, guesthouses, and apartments available on the Westman Islands. You can also camp on some of the islands’ beaches.

How much does it cost to Visit the Westman Islands?

The cost of travel to the Westman Islands will vary depending on the time of year you visit, the length of your stay, and your accommodation choices. However, in general, it is a relatively affordable destination.

Westman Islands Summary

The Westman Islands are a group of 18 volcanic islands located off the coast of Iceland. They are known for their stunning scenery, including black sand beaches, lava fields, and puffin colonies. The islands are also home to a number of historical and cultural attractions, including the Eldheimar Volcano Museum and the Settlement Centre.

If you are looking for a unique and unforgettable travel experience, then the Westman Islands are the perfect destination for you. The islands offer something for everyone, from hiking and biking to whale watching and birdwatching. You can also explore the islands’ rich history and culture, or simply relax and enjoy the stunning scenery.

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