Vestmannaeyjar or the Westman Islands are a 15 island and 30 rock and skerries 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 creating and scoping out many caves, grottos, and coves which are just some of the special features the islands possess. The population of Heimaey, the only inhabited island is around 4,200 but it is 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!
Where are the Vestmannaeyjar islands located?
GPS 63°25′00″N 20°17′00″W
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.
How to get to the Vestmannaeyjar islands?
There are two ways to get to Vestmannaeyjar. One is by ferry and the second is flying.
- You can fly domestically from the airport in Reykjavík.
The ferry is very season dependent.
- In wintertime or when the weather is bad, you must take the ferry from Þorlákshöfn (45.6 km away from Reykjavík) and it takes up to 3 hours.
- In summertime or when the weather is good, you can take the ferry from Landeyjarhöfn (130 km away from Reykjavík), near Seljalandsfoss and it only takes 30 min. More info on the Vestmannaeyjar ferry.
What to do in Vestmannaeyjar Islands
- Visit the Eldheimar Volcano Museum
- Visit the Sæheimar Aquarium
- Visit the Sagnheimar Folk Museum
- Try out the swimming pool
- Taste some of the locally brewed beer at Brothers Brewery and Bar
- Go on a Rhib Safari tour
- Try fresh fish at the local restaurants
- Try out the “Sprangan” local sport where you swing in a robe attached to cliffs
- Drive, bike or hike around the area it’s only 17km2 in total and should be explored!
Vestmannaeyjar “the Puffin Paradise”
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 with 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.
Best months to see Puffins are April – August but 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.
On the brightest of days, you can see as far as into the mainland and even spot Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull.
The Elephant Rock
When sailing around the islands you can see the magical Elephant Rock that has since the Rhib Tours started to become quite a highlight for many visiting the islands. Right out of the ocean sticks what seems to be a gigantic elephants head and it’s so vivid that to think that this formed naturally is almost unbelievable. The name comes pretty evidently once you spot the rock!
The rock is believed to have formed during one of the many eruptions of Mt. Eldfell.
Þjóðhátíð – The Music Festival in Vestmannaeyjar 1973
You can ask anyone in Iceland, Þjóðhátíð is the event of the year for Icelanders, held in the Westman Islands. The festival takes place on the Bank Holiday weekend at the beginning of August and is the biggest party in Iceland with something around 20,000 people attending.
On the Monday before the weekend, people start flocking to the island but the biggest acts are Thursday to Sunday. There is a firework show, a sing-along, musical acts, blazes lit all around the Herjólfsdalur valley 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 actually based on an even from the year 1874 so it is literally ancient!
Many Icelanders have only visited the Westman Island for the sole purpose of joining the intense party this magical small island festival is and if you have the chance so should you!
The Volcanic eruption in Vestmannaeyjar 1973
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.
The islands of Vestmannaeyjar
In size order from big to small:
- Heimaey (13.4 square km; 5.2 sq mi)
- Surtsey (1.4 square km; 350 acres)
- Elliðaey (0.45 square km; 110 acres)
- Bjarnarey (0.32 square km; 79 acres)
- Álsey (0.25 square km; 62 acres)
- Suðurey (0.20 square km; 49 acres)
- Brandur (0.1 square km; 25 acres)
- Hellisey (0.1 square km; 25 acres)
- Súlnasker (0.03 square km; 7 acres)
- Geldungur (0.02 square km; 5 acres)
Where to eat Vestmannaeyjar
- Slippurinn has won awards all over, the fancy option.
- Hotel Vestmannaeyjar Restaurant – Einsi Kaldi a fabulous place for foodies – great variety and fantastic food.
- Gott the healthy option, a popular restaurant that has now opened in Reykjavik as well.
- Tanginn the black house down at the harbor with great yummy meals
- 900 Grillhús for proper cheesy pizzas, burgers etc.
- Fiskibarinn a local fish-based restaurant straight from the harbor – always fresh!
- Joy Ice Cream shop but has great sandwiches and juices.
- Stofan Bakhús Café with excellent Icelandic goods.
- Te og Kaffi a bookshop and café and Icelandic coffee chain!
Accommodation or Hotels in Vestmannaeyjar
- Hotel Vestmannaeyjar
- Hótel Eyjar
- Vestmannaeyjar HI Hostel
- Puffin Nest Capsule Hostel
- Aska Hostel
Guesthouses, B&B and Apartments
- Guesthouse Hamar
- Guesthouse Sólbakki
- Lava Guesthouse
- Eldey Apartments
- Guesthouse Árny
- Apartment Erna
- Orange Key
- Guesthouse Sunnuhóll
Cabins and Cottages
- Miðleiti Cottages
Camping in Vestmannaeyjar
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 Islands in Winter
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.