The Vestmannaeyjar archipelago consists of 18 islands and a few other rocks and islets, all of which were borne from volcanic events. Often forgotten by tourists as you have to stray a bit far from route number 1, the Westman Islands as they are known internationally are one of the country's most impressive natural wonders.
Lost in the south of Iceland, the Westman Islands are all uninhabited except the largest, Heimaey. So when people say they are going to visit the Westman Islands, they are in fact going to the island of Heimaey.
The archipelago's islands are named: Elliðaey, Faxasker, Bjarnarey, Stóri Örn, Grasleysa, Hrauney, Hani, Hæna, Stóristakkur, Álsey, Brandur, Suðurey, Hellisey, Geldungur, Súlnasker, Geirfuglasker, Surtsey and finally Heimaey.
Most are just rocky islets rather than proper islands, in fact the only island outside Heimaey that is over 1 km² is Surtsey which hasn't actually existed all that long.
Surtsey is a newborn in geological terms, created during one of the 2 major eruptions that hit the region in the 20th century. Surtsey is in fact one of the youngest islands in the world, it's date of birth estimated between November 14th, 1963, and June 5th, 1967, during an underwater eruption.
But the most famous volcanic eruption to hit the Westman Islands was that of 1973. On January 23rd, 1973, a 1.6 km long crack opened just 400 m from the town on the Island of Heimaey, known as the Eldfell volcano. The island's 5,000 inhabitants were evacuated to Þorlákshöfn during this event.
The lava didn't stop flowing until June 26th of the same year, and in that time the island's surface area grew from 11 to 13.5 km². Many houses were literally buried under lava, with nearly 400 homes wiped off the map.
The traces of this eruption are still clearly visible on Heimaey today, and when you get close to Eldfell you can see the scars in the terrain itself.
View of the Eldfell volcano on Heimaey Island
Heimaey is quite easy to access, with several ways to get to the Westman Islands, specifically via domestic flight or preferably a ferry.
Departing from Reykjavik, EagleAir is the company running this short flight (25 min) to the Westman islands:
There is also a flight out from Bakki in the far south of Iceland that gets you there in less than 10 minutes: https://visitwestmanislands.com/
Most travelers take the ferry for several reasons. First, this means you can take your car to the Westman Islands, giving you the freedom to visit the 4 corners of Heimaey.
While it's a reasonable rate, it is preferable to book in advance. The ferry departs from the small town of Landeyjahöfn, not far from Skogafoss. And as you near Heimaey you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the cliffs.
The crossing takes about 40 minutes and if you suffer from travel sickness, keep in mind these can be rough seas.
Ferry schedules (departures):
The Westman Islands - Photo Credit: stockme @fotolia
You'll need at least one full day to see the main tourist sites, but ideally we recommend two. For a day-trip you can take the first ferry of the day at 9:45 and return in the evening (07:45PM).
Others prefer an overnight stay, arriving with the 17:10 ferry for example, to enjoy the evening on site and spend the whole next day exploring Heimaey before taking the ferry home.
Space is limited, so you'll need to book a few weeks in advance via the official website http://visitwestmanislands.com/ to be sure to get your car on board.
You need to be there 30 minutes before departure, and it's very well indicated, so you won't have trouble finding it.
The ferry trip is short and pleasant, with amenities including food and drink, but also a movie theater for those who prefer to stay inside. But if you're smart, you'll stay on deck to admire the view, especially the fantastic panorama of the cliffs as you arrive.
The islands can be visited all year round, but while you can get there in winter, summer is the most popular time to visit because it's a great place to hike, and summer is when puffins return to Iceland, specifically June to August.
Ferry arriving at the Westman islands - Photo credit: forcdan @fotolia
A few minutes before the ferry reaches the port, head down to level 0 to return to your vehicle. Disembarkation is quick and efficient, and you'll be cruising the streets of Heimaey in no time at all. Just don't drive too fast as the island is small (2 by 3km) and has 4,000 inhabitants, so space is at a premium.
The ferry will take you past Elliðaey Island, known for its secluded house built right on the cliff edge. A unique place, but nobody lives there anymore (except maybe ghosts).
Sailing into this quaint port is a delight, with the rocky cliffs rising around you and the seabirds filling the skies overhead. The first thing you'll see disembarking is Eldfell and Helgafell, the 2 volcanoes that dominate the landscape.
The interactive map of Heimaey below will help you identify the main points of interest:
The main attraction on Heimaey island is most definitely the Eldfell hike. The volcano dominates the small town and its ocher tones contrast beautifully with the greenery. The hike is definitely worth it if only for the view of the city from the summit. If you could only choose one activity to do during your trip, this would be the one.
Heimaey is a charming, quaint little town with its many colorful houses and shops in the center. It is rather lively, with numerous restaurants including the very famous Slippurinn which has a great reputation.
The city has a handful of great museums: the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Folk Arts, but above all Eldheimar Museum (Volcanism Museum) located at the foot of Eldfell which features an incredible exhibit where you can relive the 1973 eruption.
Helgafell is the other volcano on the island, which has less of a dramatic reputation as its last eruption dates back 6,000 years. Located opposite Eldfell, the Helgafell hiking trail is the other popular option if you didn't get enough of the first hike.
If you are driving around the island, which is the best way to visit, don't miss out on the southern coastline near Garðsendi where you will find a beautiful and exceptionally photogenic cove.
Very close by lies the Stórhöfði lighthouse, a picturesque landmark with a convenient parking lot nearby. This lighthouse is impressive, but not the main attraction... A short walk along the cliffs will take you to the nesting ground of the thousands of puffins that come here in summer. Puffins are adorable seabirds and come here in huge numbers, a true symbol of Iceland.
In the north of the island, east of the port, you will find the ruins of the Skansinn fort, the only one to ever exist in Iceland, miraculously spared by the lava that stopped next door, as well as a beautiful little church, “Heimaey Stave Church”.
A number of excursions depart from the same port you arrived in. You can book boat tours around Heimaey to observe puffins or admire the neighboring islands such as Álsey, Suðurey, and Brandur and to get a shot of the famous “Elephant Rock” islet which is exactly what it sounds like.
Made up of basaltic organs and other volcanic rock, this cliff face's light gray and reddish tones contrast beautifully to highlight the eroded profile of an elephant head looking west, its mighty trunk plunging into the ocean. Up close on it's quite a sight, but you can also see it from Heimaey in the south-east.
The excursion lasts about an hour, and we recommend it highly: