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Guide To Westman Islands: Iceland's Explosive Pearl

The unrivaled beauty of the South Coast

|May 3, 2024
Džiugas is a creative writer specializing in travel stories. He combines thorough research with a passion for storytelling to create inspiring and detailed articles. When not writing about Iceland, he works on his screenplays, blending his love for creativity and narrative craft.

The Westman Islands, Iceland's south coast pearl, is rather underrated by tourists. Small enough to be explored in a day, it’s much more beautiful than you think. Join us as we take an in-depth look at this pearl of an island.


With 15 islands and around 30 rocks, the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago is more than a tourist attraction. It's home to around 4500 island inhabitants. According to the New York Times, it's one of the top travel destinations for 2024 - the perfect place for new and seasoned travelers.

Below, we'll look at the islands' ins and outs. We'll explore the islands' history, how they formed, and how you can get there. Also, we give you a list of places worth seeing and activities to participate in.

Puffins at the sea coast in Westman Islands, Iceland

The Westman Islands History

Volcanic eruptions dictated the island's history. They formed and shaped the island as we know it today. The recent Vestmannaeyjar volcano eruptions created the island of Surtsey, a popular tourist attraction, and almost filled Heimaey's economically important harbor.

Around 875 CE, the island got its now iconic name - Vestmannaeyjar, an Icelandic word for island of west men. The name originates from Gaelic enslaved people, whom the Old Norse called west man. After a horrific event (that’s too graphic to describe), the island earned its now iconic name.

Today, thanks to Vestmannaeyjar - Iceland transportation and infrastructure improvements, the archipelago is as accessible as the main island. Still, the only inhabitable part of the archipelago is the main island of Heymaey.

Red boat Westman Island

Getting to the Westman Islands

Getting to the main island of Heymaey is the hard part. However, you can use different forms of transportation to get to and around the islands.

Ferry schedule

Westman Islands ferry is the most convenient and fun way to visit the islands. Why? Because you get to see the beauty of the islands from up close. However, it is crucial to account for the different travel times.

During wintertime, you're going to have to take a 3-hour ferry ride from Þorlákshöfn, around 23 miles (45.6 km) away from the capital city of Reykjavík.

During summertime, you should take a 30-minute ferry ride from Landeyjarhöfn, around 80 miles (130 km) from Reykjavík.

So, if you have a rigorous schedule to follow, ensure you account for the time of travel (to and from the islands).

Flights

You can also visit the Westman Islands by domestic flights. However, they come with their cons and pros. While the flights are less frequent, they are quicker, taking around 30 minutes. As you fly, you'll also get a bird's view of the archipelago, its islands, and rocks.

Transportation options

On the island, you can get around in a variety of ways.

You can bring your car to the islands. However, you'll have to pay extra for the transportation.

You can rent a bike or an ATV if you want to go off the road.

There are boat tours that take people around the island.

On the other hand, you can experience everything on foot, at least on Heimaey Island.

Westman Islands Attractions

The islands are packed with sights to see. From volcanoes to funny rock formations, we compiled the best ones below.

Eldfell volcano, Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar islands, Iceland.

Eldfell Volcano

Eldfell volcano - a pain of the past and the main attraction today. Located on Heimaey Island, it serves as a tourist attraction today. It's hard to miss this 660-foot (200-meter) tall volcano. People can walk up to the crater itself and see the belly of the beast. No wonder why, then, it's on the itinerary of many multi-day tours.

If you are up to it, you can visit the Eldheimar Museum. It looks at the volcano's history and how destructive it is. More on that later.

Heimaey Harbor in Iceland

Heimaey Harbor

Named after the island, it's the economic lifeline of the archipelago. It allows ships from mainland Iceland to anchor and unload food, water, and other vital resources. So, when 1973 the Eldfell volcano erupted, people started to panic. As the lava floated down, the danger of filling in the harbor became an almost real possibility.

Luckily, the harbor evaded destruction. Today, it's a gateway to the island for tourists and inhabitants alike. If you ever plan to visit the Westman Islands, you'll encounter the harbor and the moss-covered cliffs yourself. Nearby, you can find the Beluga Whale Sanctuary, which holds a Guinness world record for being the first of its kind.

Surtsey Island ash coloured beach, Iceland

Surtsey Island

Unlike Heimaey and Iceland islands, Surtsey is sinking slowly into the water due to erosion. However, while it's on top, we enjoy the ashy island. Starting to form during the eruption of 1963, Surtsey Island grew over the four years. When the eruptions ended, the island was 1 square mile (2.7 square kilometers) large.

Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While you can’t enter the island itself, there are boat tours that go around it. However, if you don’t have the time, you can visit the Eldheimar Museum to find out more about it.

Eldheimar museum showcasing a house which was buried by volcanic ash after the last eruption of Eldfell volcano in 1973

Eldheimar Museum

As mentioned above, Eldheimar Museum explores the Vestmannaeyjar volcano eruptions that both shaped and almost destroyed the island. Primarily focusing on the Eldfell volcano, the museum looks at life before, during, and after the eruption. Visitors can also learn more about the history of Surtsey Island.

This museum near Eldfell is much more intriguing than you’d expect. It displays lava-ruined houses and is a must-see if you’re hiking to the volcano. For the self-guided tourist, there are audio guides that explore the history of the eruptions.

Aerial view of Storhofdi peninsula of Heimaey island in Iceland

Stórhöfði Peninsula

You can't miss the Stórhöfði peninsula on the southern side of the main Heimaey island. On the surface, it's a peninsula on an island, part of an archipelago. Inception of beauty. It has cliffs, beaches, rocks and black volcanic sand.

However, what makes the peninsula truly special is the Puffin colony that resides there. If you decide to go to the Westman Islands during the summer seasons, you'll get to see one of the largest colonies of Puffins in Iceland. It is best to do so with a boat tour so as not to disturb the bird population.

Elephant Rock in sunset, Westman islands

Elephant Rock

Islands are interesting, and interesting rock formations are fascinating. This is the case with the Elephant Rock. As the name gives it away, it's a rock that looks like an elephant. Elephant rock. Catchy and beautiful.

Nobody knows the exact date when it formed, but many believe it was during the 1973 eruption. In the next decades, the rock became a tourist attraction. If you want to see it yourself, take a boat tour. You'll get to see it in all its glory. However, if you're planning to visit by car, be careful. The slippy cliffs can ruin your whole vacation experience.

Things to do in the Westman Islands

The fun continues beyond sightseeing. If you have the time (and money) Westman Islands offers many activities to participate in. Some of them are seasonal, and others are not. Either way, we compiled the best activities and listed them below.

Atlantic puffin colonies on the cliffs of Storhofdi, Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) off the south coast of Iceland

Puffin watching tours

You can't leave the Westman Islands archipelago without seeing puffins - the national bird of Iceland. They're funny-looking and dot the islands. These islands have the largest puffin colony in the world.

But what's so interesting about bird watching? Well, despite how it sounds, puffin-watching is rather fun. During the mating seasons of April to August, people see puffins in their natural habitat. There are guided tours that allow you to watch puffins without disturbing them.

Eldfell volcano close up view from below

Volcano hiking and sightseeing

If you’re up to it, hike up to the more prominent volcanos on the archipelago. Seeing the destructive force up close is as exciting as it sounds. Luckily, you'll find most of them on the home island of Heimaey. 

You can hike up a volcano like Eldfell in multiple ways:

For the best experience, it is best to go with a guided tour. It's the safest and quickest way to reach the more awe-inspiring locations.

If you feel brave, you could go on a self-guided tour. However, the freedom of travel comes with some obvious drawbacks, like getting lost.

Women watching birds with binoculars on ferry boat to Heimaey, Westman Islands, Iceland. High quality photo

Boat tours around the islands

Sometimes, you should sit down and enjoy the view. A boat tour is just that - a lovely, calm way to experience the island. Of course, if the weather is right. 

You can find boat tours that allow you to see sights as:

  • Elephant rock.
  • Smaller islands of Westman Islands
  • Heimaey harbor.
  • Puffin mating spots.
  • Surtsey island.
  • Heimaey Island coast and cliffs.

Visit the Aquarium and Natural History Museum

Saeheimer natural history museum and aquarium, Iceland

 

Visit the Aquarium and Natural History Museum located in the center of Heimaey. There, you'll see Iceland from a more natural point of view. Why is it an activity? Because there is so much to see and experience in just one place.

The museum part displays stuffed animals of different species. These species come, mate, and live on the island. Also, the museum has quite a rock collection. 2000, to be exact, collected by a single couple. However, the museum displays only a few of them.

There's also an aquarium. There, visitors can see the fish caught around the islands. If you time your visit, you'll see the fishes mating and breeding. FYI, to ensure their health, fresh seawater gets pumped into the tank.

Mans hands adding garnish to meat with vegetable grill, Chef cooking wagyu beef in Japanese teppanyaki restaurant

Cultural events and festivals

Depending on the month, visitors can attend various festivals and cultural events.

If you're up for some music, the Hljómey Music Festival happens around the last Friday of April. The festival happens all over downtown Heimaey. It marks the beginning of summer on the Westman Islands.

If you're up for some fish dishes, try out Matey Festival. It happens during the early days of September. During the festival, visitors can taste fish dishes created by world-class chefs.

One festival takes it all - Þjóðhátíð. Celebrated at the beginning of August, it started in 1874 and continues to this day. It is the largest festival in the Westman Islands and probably Iceland. It's celebrated with bonfires, music, and loads of people. What more can you ask?

Heimay Westmann island port at night, with lights

Accommodation and Dining

If you're staying on the island longer than a day, you should plan out your accommodations. Luckily, there are a variety of hotels and campsites to choose from.

Named after the island chain itself, Hótel Vestmannaeyjar is located at the prime spot in the center of the town. It includes everything a Nordic hotel would have: a sauna, spa, and massage salon for people to wind down.

Are you looking for a more luxurious spot? Westman Islands luxury offers just that - undisputed luxury in the form of ocean villas and pier apartments. You get the luxury of mainland Iceland but the outside view of the Westman Islands.

If you're looking for a more chill place to sleep, go no further than Glamping and Camping. The catchy name lives up to the quality of the accommodations. It's cheap, and you can live like a hobbit in The Lord of the Rings.

But what about food? After a long day of tourism, there's nothing better than a tasty deal. Luckily, you can find a lot of food choices on these islands. 

If you're looking for more family-style cuisine, then Gott is the answer. A family of food lovers owns it. The menu includes tasty-looking main dishes and desserts. 

Tasty food at little to no cost to the environment? Look no further than Slippurinn's. It's family-owned, too! The restaurant mixes traditional Icelandic with Modern techniques to create some tasty-looking dishes. The restaurant uses local ingredients to make their dishes.

Beer, pizza - what else can you want? At Pítsugerðin, people can find cold beer and wood-fired pizza. It is a perfect place to wind down after a day of hiking or a long boat tour.

Westman Islands Travel Tips

Every Vestmannaeyjar travel guide has the places and then the tips. These are our travel tips. They are here to make your journey fun and as safe as possible.

  • It's best to visit the Westman Islands between June and September. The weather will be nice, the seas will be calmer, and you'll get to the islands quicker.
  • Besides the essentials, we suggest packing sunglasses, sunscreen, a water bottle (best reusable), and a pack for daily hikes. It all depends on how long you intend to stay on the islands.
  • You're going to take pictures. Guaranteed. Charge your phone or camera beforehand.
  • The largest island of Heimaey is populated for a reason. If you're going to this Westman Island, don't stray too far from it.
Eldfell directions sign post by road, in Heimaey, Westman islands

FAQs About the Westman Islands

What are the Westman Islands famous for?

Magnificent beauty and richness. Despite its size, the Westman Islands are brimming with sights to see and activities to participate in.

Is the Westman Islands volcano still active?

The last recorded volcanic eruption on the Westman Islands occurred in 1973. However, if history has anything to say, the island chain sees an eruption happening at least once in a century.

Are there puffins on the Westman Islands?

The islands host the largest colony of Puffins in the world. You can find most of them on Heimaey Island.

Can you camp on the Westman Islands?

The days of pitching your tent anywhere and everywhere are over. If you want to camp on the Westman Islands today, staying at a designated place is best. 

The Herjólfsdalur campgrounds have everything you might need on your one or two-day camping trip. It's located in a valley, so the campsite blocks out some of the wind. The campsite is open from mid-May to mid-September. Also, if you're up for some sport in the evening, there is a nearby golf course.

How long should I spend on Vestmannaeyjar?

One day is just enough to see the main sites of the islands. However, if you want to take a longer hike, get to know the culture, and fully appreciate the view, you should stay for two or more days.

Is it worth visiting the Westman Islands in winter?

Of course! While, yes, summer is the better of the two, the winter season itself offers some clear-cut pros for tourists.

  • With fewer tourists around, you'll get the chance to converse with locals and explore the Heimaey island independently.
  • You'll get a different view of the Westman Islands, as the islands and rocks will be covered in snow.

However, there are some drawbacks, too.

  • You'll have to take a longer ferry ride. It usually takes several hours at best.
  • You'll have to spend a lot of time. So make sure you have plenty of that.
  • The weather…

All in all, make sure to visit the islands during both summer and winter.

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