“You have not seen Iceland until you have visited the Westman Islands.” Such is the local wisdom that Icelanders often say to visitors. It is true that the Westman Islands are one of Iceland’s most exciting locations geographically, historically, and scenery-wise as well. The area is densely packed with extraordinary sights, geological curiosities, incredible history, and folktales while remaining one of the most exotic travel destinations in the country. Read on to learn more about this fantastic place and to get tips on what to see and where to stay in the Westman Islands.
The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) consist of 15 volcanically active islands and 30 rock stacks and skerries off the south coast of Iceland. They have a total size of 16.3 square kilometers (6.3 square miles). The archipelago is approximately 38 kilometers (24 miles) long and 29 kilometers (18 miles) wide, the closest point lying about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Iceland’s mainland.
The Westman Islands ranked in order of size:
The most well-known of those:
Heimaey: The largest and only inhabited island of the archipelago. It is also the largest and most populated island off the Icelandic coast. It is a peaceful, charming place with a lot of character. It has a population of approximately 4,500 inhabitants.
Surtsey: The second largest island was formed in a volcanic eruption which began below sea level and reached the surface on November 14, 1963. The eruption lasted until 1967 and created Surtsey Island with a maximum elevation of 155 meters (509 feet) above sea level.
Suðurey, Bjarnarey and Elliðaey and are probably the most photographed islands of all with their tiny, lonely houses sitting in empty meadows. These islands are clearly visible from the ferry en route to Heimaey and can be easily photographed from the many viewpoints on the main island.
The Westman Islands are not only special for being a separate archipelago with their own community and local customs but also have a very interesting history. It includes the exciting story of the very first settlers, an Algiers pirate attack, a birth of a new island, a violent volcanic eruption, and a rebirth from the ashes.
The first permanent settlers in Iceland arrived around 875 AD. Ingólfur Arnarson and his wife, Hallveig Fróðadóttr, accompanied by Ingólfur’s brother, Hjörleifur, and several Irish slaves were the first explorers who intended to build a new nation on the island. According to legend, Hjörleifur was killed by the hand of his own slaves who then fled and tried to hide on the largest island of the archipelago off of Iceland's south coast.
Ingólfur tracked the killer slaves down and murdered them all in revenge for his brother’s death. The islands have since been named after those Irish slaves: the islands of the Westmen. Back at that time, Ireland was believed to be the Westernmost landmass in the known world, so the Irish people were called Westmen.
Following the settlement era, Heimaey (meaning home) island slowly became populated by a small community. Life on this windy island was harsh but manageable. The people lived off of the fertile water, the abundant birds and their eggs. In 1627, however, Algiers pirates broke apart the peaceful life of the locals.
Under the Ottoman Empire, Algiers pirates ruled the oceans and reached all the way up to Iceland. They landed on Heimaey and took control of the community for days. The locals were not prepared for such a raid and the armed pirates managed to kidnap 267 men and women to make into slaves. After 10 years, only a handful of the Icelanders were ransomed back while a few managed to escape, too.
In the 20th century, Heimaey was prospering and its community was growing with more than 5,000 people living on the main island. On one night in 1973, however, nature took control of the locals’ lives with a sudden and violent volcanic eruption which occurred just outside of the city.
People woke up in shock in the middle of the night and had to run away from the river of molten lava and the rain of acidic ash, forced to leave everything behind. Luckily, all the fishing boats were in the harbor due to recent storms and everyone was able to escape. The eruption lasted 6 months and destroyed a fifth of the town, leaving 5,300 people’s homes buried under ash and lava.
The advancing lava enlarged the island by 20% and almost blocked the small harbor. Closing the harbor would have been catastrophic for the island’s economy. In order to prevent this from happening, locals, with the help of the US army, started to spray cold seawater on the lava flow and finally managed to save it from complete blockage.
As the result of this eruption, the harbor became more protected and the town more sheltered from the wind by the newly-formed volcano-mountain which they named Eldfell, the “fire mountain”. Since the Eldfell eruption, 85% of the population has returned to Heimaey and together they have rebuilt the town from its ashes. Today, the Westman Islands are a prospering region with a strong fishing industry and blossoming tourism.
The closest island is located about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the southern shore of Iceland’s mainland. In good weather, the archipelago is visible from the Ring Road in South Iceland, on the way to Seljalandsfoss Waterfall.
The ferry sails to the main island, Heimaey, with multiple daily departures. It either leaves from the town of Þorlákshöfn in Southwest Iceland (46 kilometers / 28.5 miles from Reykjavík), or from the Landeyjahöfn Ferry Terminal in South Iceland (130 kilometers / 80.7 miles from Reykjavík). The first option requires approximately 2.5-3 hours on the ferry while the second option only takes 35 minutes each way.
The point of departure usually depends on sea conditions. In the summertime, the Landeyjahöfn Ferry Terminal is more used, while Þorlákshöfn is more common between November and March.
It is also possible to fly from the Reykjavík Domestic Airport (a 25-minute flight) or from Bakki in South Iceland (a 10-minute flight).
Most visitors spend two days on Heimaey. It may be a tiny place, but a one-day trip is not really enough to explore it fully. While it is true that one hour is enough to drive around the island, there is so much more to do here than just drive!
As we explained earlier, the most exciting things about the archipelago are its history, geography, and wildlife. To understand why Vestmannaeyjar is such a special place, you should start your visit right in the museums. If you think that will be boring, you are very wrong!
The exhibition in the famous Eldheimar Museum focuses on the volcanic eruption in Vestmannaeyjar, which was probably one of Iceland's biggest natural disasters. This modern and interactive museum is built around the ruins of the houses that remain half-buried in lava and ash. Among many other things, here you can see original videotapes from the rescue and how locals rebuilt the town from its ashes.
The Sagnheimar Folk Museum lets its visitors of all ages experience the islands’ history. A large part of the exhibition focuses on the pirate raid of 1627, but it also tells visitors about how the locals survived the harsh conditions throughout the centuries. The museum’s amazing multimedia and hands-on approach make it even more exciting!
The Sæheimar Aquarium is the Natural History Museum of Vestmannaeyjar and is also the oldest aquarium in Iceland. The natural habitat of the islands is quite unique. The museum tells visitors about the creatures that live in the waters around the islands and the birds that nest on the cliffs, especially puffins. The museum has been a large part of Vestmannaeyjar culture for many years.
Taking a Rib boat tour is a must-do for those who would like to see the incredible beauties that are hidden behind the cliffs. The archipelago is made of 30 incredibly picturesque islands with plenty of sea stacks, hundred-meter high cliffs, and giant seaside caves. The best pictures of the islands are taken from the water!
What can be even better is a flightseeing tour! Observing the interesting geological features, volcanic craters, fissures, lava fields, and the uninhabited islands from a bird’s eye view could definitely be one of the most amazing experiences of your life.
Hiking is something that you can do both with and without a guide. You can a hike up two different volcanoes and see their picturesque craters and lava fields. Feel the heat radiating from the ground, and have a breathtaking view of countless islands as well as Europe’s largest mainland glacier! All of this can be completed in only two to three hours, including the drive from town to the trailhead!
The most popular hiking spots are: Helgafell and Eldfell volcanoes; Heimaklettur, the highest point of the Westman Islands; Nýja hraun,‘the new lava’ field of the 1973 eruption; Sórhöfði, the southernmost point of Heimaey.
Visit the local geothermal swimming pool! Like most in most towns in Iceland, there is a pool in the Westman Islands. It has multiple warm water pools with plenty of water slides, hot tubs, and steam baths, well-suited for people of any age.
Puffin watching is a must during the summer months. The islands are the first place where the puffins show up in Spring. They arrive in May at the earliest and will stay around until mid-August. There are 8 million puffins around the island, so you will be sure to see them when you visit Heimaey. You can go on a guided puffin watching tour or just explore by yourself and find them.
The golf course in Heimaey is considered one of the top 200 golf courses in Europe but probably one of the top 3 regarding its breathtakingly beautiful views. Golf cart and clubs are available for rent at the clubhouse.
There is an old tradition in the islands of climbing up the cliffs to fetch birds’ eggs. In order to do that, people used to hang off of ropes from the edge of the cliff, jumping from one place to the other. Before hanging off the hair-raising cliffs for real, they first visited a training ground called Sprangan, which you can also visit today. Please note that this activity is not without risk!
Be sure to try the fresh fish and local specialties at some of the best restaurants! The most popular ones are Slippurinn, Gott, Fiskibarinn and Stófan Bakhús, if you are looking for any recommendations.
Slippurinn is an award-winning, fancy restaurant, while Gott focuses on healthy food. Stófan is a café that offers amazing cakes and Icelandic goods. Fiskibarinn is a seafood restaurant that offers the freshest fish in town.
Don’t forget to taste some of the locally-brewed beer at Brothers Brewery and Bar! It is a small family-run brewery that even won an award for Best Beer of the Year in 2017. Find more restaurant, café and bar recommendations.
Heimaey is a small town, but there are plenty of great accommodation options. It has more than 15 hotels, hostels, and guesthouses and a great number of cottages and Airbnb rooms. Here are the most well-known accommodation options:
Guesthouses and Apartments:
Cabins and cottages:
In the summertime, there are great camping opportunities in the Westman Islands. Two large campgrounds (Þórsvöllur and Herjólfsdalur) await visitors with spectacular views and excellent facilities. You can even go glamping! Find out more about the accommodation options here.
For those who want to explore the most characteristic regions in Iceland and would like to escape the larger tourist crowds, visiting the beautiful Westman Islands may be the best option. This trip is suitable and will be highly enjoyable for visitors of all ages. It guarantees you some of the best views and experiences you can have in all of Iceland!