Off the southern coast of Iceland, the Westman Islands, also called Vestmannaeyjar, are a collection of 15 islands, 14 of which were formed about 11,000 years ago from submarine volcanoes. The lone island, Surtsey, rose from the water in 1963 and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008. Due to its delicate fauna, it’s only explorable for scientific study. Heimaey, meaning “Home Island,” is the only inhabited island and is the largest island of the archipelago Vestmannaeyjar.
The Westman Islands, known as the “Pompeii of the North,” are often an overlooked destination in Iceland. There are endless stunning sights to see on the country’s mainland, but after road tripping the Ring Road and spending two weeks in Iceland, the Westman Islands were one of my favorite areas I visited. When it came time to leave, I only wished I had stayed in this corner of Iceland for longer. Featuring Jagged cliffs, lava rocks, cute puffins, and a unique history, these islands definitely deserve a spot on your Iceland itinerary.
How to get to the Westman Islands
The easiest and cheapest way to get to the Westman Islands is by boat. There’s a ferry year round from Landeyjahöfn, which is approximately 12 km off the Ring Road between Skógar and Hvolsvöllur. It’s a 30-minute journey to Heimaey’s port and is a scenic journey passing the other unique islands. As a side note, it’s recommended to book your ferry ahead of time, especially during peak season. And you need to arrive at least 30 minutes early.
Because of its close proximity to the Ring Road, the Landeyjahöfn port is easy to get to. If you’ve rented a car, there is free parking at the ferry. You can even drive your car onto the ferry, but it’s more expensive. And you don’t really need a car while on Heimaey. It’s pretty easy to explore the island on foot. If you don’t have a rental car, you can take a bus to Landeyjahöfn from Reykjavík. It’s about a 2.5 hour bus ride.
There’s an airport on the island of Heimaey. There are flights available year round from Reykjavík to the Westman Islands through Eagle Air. The flight is 20 minutes and you get to see the rough lava landscape from a bird’s eye view.
About Heimaey, Westman Islands
Heimaey is a small town located a few kilometers off the mainland of Iceland. The port is beautifully situated between towering cliffs speckled with birds and their nests. The volcanoes that formed the island have almost destroyed Heimaey on numerous occasions.
On January 23, 1973, a volcano fissure burst open unexpectedly at 1:45 in the morning. Heimaey had to be evacuated. In the pursuing five months, over 30 millions tons of lava poured over the island, which destroyed 360 homes. A new mountain, Eldfell, was left in wake of the eruption.
Things to do in Heimaey, Westman Islands
Most of Heimaey’s sights are in or near the town center. There are unique spots for hiking, birdwatching, and educational and interesting museums.
- Eldfell, translated to “Fire Mountain” from Icelandic, is a 221-meter volcanic cone. It’s easy to hike from the town center, and the rocky path runs alongside the north region of the collapsed crater. The ground is even still hot in some areas. Additionally, while hiking up Eldfell, you’ll have a wonderful view of Heimaey and the surrounding islands.
- Eldfellshraun is the new land that was created by the eruption in 1973. This area features numerous hiking trails, which take you to a fort, lava garden, black stone beaches, and a lighthouse.
- Stóraklif is a craggy precipice with stunning panoramic views. There is an intense trail starting behind a N1 gas station that goes to the top of the cliff. It’s a short hike but extremely steep with ropes and chains to assist you.
- Heimaklettur is a little further out on the pier than Stóraklif. The trail has rickety ladders to cross and is treacherous, but you will be rewarded with beautiful views.
- Helgafell is a volcano you can scramble up to. It’s off the road that leads to the airport. The volcano’s last eruption was 5,000 years ago, and it sits at 225 meters tall. You can start your hike from the island’s football field.
Heimaey’s steep cliffs are home to millions of birds. The Westman Islands boast the biggest puffin colony in the world with about 1.1 million birds. The birdwatching season is from April and August and can occasionally extend to September. Additionally, there are giant, colorful puffin statues across the island, showing the bird’s importance to Heimaey.
- Eldheimar Museum is a museum of remembrance commemorating the 1973 volcano eruption and is an important look into the history of Heimaey. Get a glimpse of what life was like before the eruption and how this natural disaster changed the local’s lives. The museum has been built around an excavated home that was buried by ash during the eruption.
- Sagnheimar Folk Museum is another great spot to learn more about Heimaey and the Westman Islands. The exhibits tell stories about the pirate raid of 1627, the 1973 eruption, fishing industry, puffin colony, and the island’s cultural heritage.
In the land of fire and ice, don’t miss out on visiting the destination that really exemplifies the “fire” side of Iceland. The Westman Islands are truly a unique place to visit and has adventurous hikes, top-notch birdwatching, and interesting museums to teach you about its unique history. So don’t leave the Westman Islands off your Iceland itinerary!