Vestmannaeyjar – also known as the Westman Islands – is an archipelago in Iceland. It’s the puffin capital of Iceland and home to the country’s most well-known volcanic eruptions. Plan a visit to one of the best-kept secrets in the land of fire and ice!
Vestmannaeyjar or the Westman Islands are a 15 island and 30 rock archipelago found off the South Coast of Iceland. Heimaey is the largest of the islands and the only one with permanent residence. All of the islands were formed in submarine volcanic eruptions – the oldest being Heimaey and the newest Surtsey formed from 1963 to 1967.
Beautiful basalt columns surround the picturesque islands. They create many caves, grottos, and coves, which are some of the special features the islands’ possess. The population of Heimaey is around 4,200 and growing. The first habitants were slaves of Hjörleifur – one of Iceland’s first settlers who killed Hjörleifur and fled to the islands.
The islands are known to keep some of the most beautiful landscapes found in Iceland and one will not have to wonder why when they arrive!
The Vestmannaeyjar archipelago is around 38 km (24 miles) long and 29 km (18 miles) wide, the closest point about 8 km (5 miles) from Iceland’s mainland.
GPS coordinates of Vestmannaeyjar: 63.4377° N, 20.2673° W
There are two ways to get to Vestmannaeyjar. One is by ferry and the second is flying.
Puffins or Lundar are a totem of the habitats of Vestmannaeyjar. The Puffins start making their way to the islands in the early summer months and form one of the biggest Puffin settlements in the world. It has more than 1,1 million couples every year.
There are many different locations in the islands perfect for some puffin watching but at Stórhöfði you will find a viewpoint shelter that will give you a fantastic view over the puffins.
The best months to see Puffins are between April and August, however all year round you can visit Tóti the puffin at the Sæheimar Aquarium. He was rescued and lives there permanently and is simply the cutest and extremely friendly!
Heimaklettur or Home Rock is the highest mountain found in Vestmannaeyjar and is about 283 high above sea level. The mountain formed when an eruption happened under a glacier during the last ice age and is mainly made of tuff.
Heimaklettur stands tall from the sea but at the top, there are hills of grass and sheep and puffins roam the area. The hiking trail to the top is quite dangerous for those who don’t know the area but the area is stunning and with a local guide the hike can be very enjoyable.
When sailing around the islands, check out the magical Elephant Rock. It’s been popular since the Rhib Tours started to become quite a highlight for many visiting the islands.
A gigantic elephants head appears to stick its head out of the ocean, so the name becomes pretty evident once you spot the rock. The rock is believed to have formed during one of the many eruptions of Mt. Eldfell.
You can ask anyone in Iceland – Þjóðhátíð is the event of the year for Icelanders that’s held in the Westman Islands. The festival takes place on the Bank Holiday weekend at the beginning of August. It’s the biggest party in Iceland with something around 20,000 people attending.
There is a firework show, a sing-along, musical acts, bonfires and many stages and tents where you can see all sorts of amazing concerts and entertainment. Þjóðhátíð is an important factor in the history of the Westman Island as the festival is based on an event from 1874.
In 1973 the 5300 habitats of Vestmannaeyjar islands woke up to a nightmare. The island’s most powerful volcano, Eldfell, had started to erupt and the magma was flowing over the town’s houses and streets.
Two hundred brave men stayed in the danger zone to fight the devastation and finally succeeded in slowing down the lava by cooling it with seawater, still, the eruption went on for 5 months and in the end had ruined 400 houses. The eruption played a big part in the turnouts of the life in Vestmannaeyjar and many moved over to the mainland.
This volcanic eruption made headlines all over the world and brought many to compare it to the Italian town Pompeii which in 73 AD got buried under thicker layers of magma and ash from Mt. Vesuvius and today Vestmannaeyjar are often nicknamed the Pompeii of the North.
Almost half a decade after the eruption the Islanders opened a very impressive museum called Eldheimar that is situated right on the slope of the lava-spewing volcano. This museum is a must-visit for anyone traveling to Vestmannaeyjar.
In size order from big to small:
Guesthouses, B&B and Apartments
Cabins and Cottages
There are fantastic camping opportunities in the Westman Island, you can even go glamping!
Þórsvöllur Camping Ground with a-class facilities including showers, bathroom washers & dryers, cooking stations with a coffee maker, a toaster, a microwave, etc. There is electricity and running water.
Herjólfsdalur Camping Ground a fabulous location in the secluded Herjólf’s valley. The facilities include showers, bathrooms, washers and dryers, a cooking station, electricity and a playground for kids.
Clamping / Small Cabins is the fancy way to get in touch with nature located inside Herjólfsdalur. There are two different housing options, one is a large barrel and the second an A-shaped cabin.
Westman Island has over 4000 inhabitants that live there all year long. The island is known for stunning summer weather but the winters can get pretty hardcore often bringing strong fall winds. If you are looking to visit in winter you need to know three things: First, some restaurants including Slippurinn are closed during the winter months but open again in May.
Second, getting to and from the island can sometimes be quite a time consuming as you will most likely need to take the ferry from Þorlákshöfn adding 2,5 hours of sailing to the summer sailing time.
Third, if you are looking to see Puffins, they are only there in spring and summer leaving the islands in late August. That being said, the Westman Islands are gorgeous in any season and surely worth the visit.