Before I start telling you everything you need to know about the Westfjords, let me explain why this isolated peninsula in the northwest of Iceland is one of my favourite regions. First of all, the combination of mountains and fjords creates the most splendid sights you’ll see in Iceland. Secondly, there are a lot of natural hot pools where you can relax and unwind after a day of driving and/or hiking. Finally, the Westfjords have remained largely off the tourist radar, so you don’t have to worry about huge crowds of primaloft-clad tourists ruining your whole experience.
If you’re still not convinced about the qualities of the Westfjords, you should check out this article: 5 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Skip the Westfjords of Iceland.
The Westfjords might seem small on a map, but they actually stretch over 22,271 km2 (8,599 sq miles). To put that in perspective, that’s half the size of Switzerland. The length of the peninsula’s rugged coastline is actually one third of Iceland’s total coastline. This means that you will need several days if you’re planning on exploring the whole region.
The Westfjords are also extremely vast. The total population in 2007 was just 7,380 people and 3,000 of them reside in the town of Ísafjörður. You could easily drive for hours without seeing a single person, or even a single house.
The main industry in the Westfjords is fishing. Most people work in the fishing industry, either in fish processing or as fishermen. Tourism is a growing industry in the area too, so more and more people are now employees at hotels, restaurants or tour companies. There are quite a lot of farms in the Westfjords, although farming is not as common in the area as it used to be.
Abandoned farms are a common sight in the region. Unsplash/Zak Boca.
Iceland started to form around 44–26 million years ago, which is pretty recent in comparison to the rest of Europe. As you probably know, there’s a lot of volcanic activity in the country, which means that the body of land is constantly growing. So Iceland is actually still in formation.
The Westfjords are one of the oldest parts of Iceland, and therefore you won’t find any volcanic activity in the area. There are no plate boundaries in the region, so there’s not as much seismic activity as in most other parts of the country. Fortunately, this does not mean that there’s no geothermal heat in the ground – the Westfjords do have geothermal hot spots like the rest of the country.
One characteristic of the Westfjords, that is distinct from the rest of the country, are its white beaches. The vast majority of Iceland’s beaches are black due to volcanic ash.
A white beach in the southern part of the Westfjords. Travelade/Nína.
The Westfjords are very mountainous and the coastline is cut with long fjords and characterized by steep hills. The mountains in the Westfjords usually have flat tops, instead of pointy ones. During the Quaternary glaciation, around 2,6 million years ago, the glacial mass wiped out the tops off the volcanoes, leaving the upper parts of them completely flat.
There is one large glacier in the Westfjords. It’s called Drangajökull and it’s the fifth biggest glacier in Iceland.
Drangajökull Glacier on a sunny day. Wikipedia/AgainEric.
The first settlers in Iceland are said to have arrived in the year 874. The age of the settlement lasted until 930, when Iceland’s parliament (Althingi) was founded.
As a matter of fact, one of Iceland’s first settlers, Raven-Flóki, landed at Vatnsfjörður in the southern part of the Westfjords. After Raven-Flóki had set camp in Vatnsfjörður, he hiked a mountain close by, called Nónfell. When he stood on Nónfell’s top, looking over the distant fjords, he noticed that one of the fjords (Ísafjörður) was full of drift ice. He apparently named the country ‘Iceland’ after having seen the ice.
During the age of the settlement, farmers scattered around the peninsula and settled down wherever there was good farmland. Fishing was important too, and villages came into being close to the best fishing grounds. These villages became vibrant hubs, not just for fishing, but also for trade. The fishermen in the Westfjords were also pioneers when it came to technological novelties. Sailors in Ísafjörður, the largest town of the Westfjords, were the first Icelanders to place a motor in a boat (it was a six oared rowing boat) and this marked the beginning of a new era in the history of fishing in Iceland.
About a century ago, the population started to decline in the Westfjords. This has, of course, been the trend for the past decades in most rural parts of Iceland – people gave up farming to pursue a career in the city.
It's impossible to talk about the history of Westfjords without mentioning the tragic events that took place in two villages, Flateyri and Súðavík, in 1995. On January 16th, a large avalanche hit the town of Súðavík, killing 14 and injuring 10. For a town of only 200 inhabitants, this was an extremly hard blow. In October the same year, another avalanche hit the nearby town of Flateyri, which had less than 300 permanent residents. The avalanche took 20 lives, among them four children. The two avalanches are one of the most fatal natural disasters in the recent history of Iceland
Conditions for living can indeed be harsh in the Westfjords. Apart from the constant threat of avalanches, the roads are bad and often close due to heavy snowfall. During the winter, the days are dark (due to Iceland's arctic position) and in some villages the mountains block the little sunlight there is. The Westfjords come to life in the spring when the days start to get longer, the fields become green and migratory birds start flocking to their summer recidencies.
Colourful houses in Ísafjörður. Flickr/Theo Crazzolara.
Ísafjörður is the largest town in the Westfjords peninsula with around 2,600 inhabitants. It’s located on a spit of sand in Skutulsfjörður Fjord, which is actually a part of a bigger fjord, Ísafjarðardjúp. Ísafjörður is the hub of culture and education in the Westfjords and the peninsula’s biggest airport is located in the town. It’s a town rich in history, culture and gorgeous nature so you won’t regret spending a couple of days there, if you’re exploring the Westfjords.
Things to do in Ísafjörður:
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The Ósvör Maritime Museum in Bolungarvík. Flickr/Diego Delsa.
Bolungarvík is the second largest town in the Westfjords, with just less than 1,000 inhabitants. It is located around 15 km (9.3 mi) northwest of Ísafjörður. Bolungarvík has been inhabited since Iceland’s settlement and it is one of the oldest fishing villages in country. Bolungarvík is surrounded by beautiful mountains which offer splendid views over the town and the fjord.
Things to do in Bolungarvík:
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Þingeyri. Flickr/Markus Amberla.
Belgian waffles at Simbakaffi, Þingeyri. Flickr/Theo Crazzolara.
Þingeyri in Dýrafjörður Fjord used to be one of the most important trading hubs in Iceland. In the 19th century, Þingeyri had an international vibe, since it was frequently visited by foreign tradesmen and sailors. Today, Þingeyri is a tiny village with less than 300 permanent residents. It’s nevertheless a beautiful place, surrounded by some of the Westfjord’s highest mountains.
Things to do in Þingeyri:
Where to eat
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The town of Patreksfjörður. Flickr/Michael F. Horn.
The Garðar BA shipwreck. Unsplash/Ian Parker.
Patreksfjörður is the largest town in the southern part of the Westfjords with a population of around 660. Like most other towns in the Westfjords, it’s a fishing village, so most of the inhabitants work in the fishing industry. Patreksfjörður is within reach of the most beautiful attractions in the southern part of the Westfjords, such as Látrabjarg Bird Cliff, Dynjandi Waterfall and Rauðisandur Beach.
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Hólmavík. Flickr/Bo Valentin.
The hot tubs at Drangsnes. Flickr/Bo Valentin.
Hólmavík is the largest town of the eastern part of the peninsula, which is a vast area called Strandir. Hólmavík, which has the population of 375, has an interesting museum about sorcery and you can also see a huge taxidermied sea turtle on display in the Development Centre of Hólmavík. The turtle was caught in the sea nearby.
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Just driving around the Westfjords and enjoying its rare beauty is an inspiring experience. There are gorgeous mountains and desolate fjords pretty much everywhere you go, so just driving in the area offers the most stunning views.
Anyhow, there are some attractions you shouldn’t miss while you’re in the region.
Hiking along Látrabjarg is truly awe-inspiring. Travelade/Nína.
Látrabjarg is one of the biggest bird cliffs in the world. Hiking along the edge is truly amazing, especially for bird-lovers. The cliff, which is located in the westernmost tip of the Westfjords, is characterised by steep awe-inspiring cliff walls crowded with seabirds. It is largely off the tourist-radar, perhaps due to its remote location.
If you’re curious to know more about Látrabjarg, I recommend that you read my article about hiking Látrabjarg on your own.
Rauðisandur Beach on a gorgeous day in June. Travelade/Nína.
Rauðisandur, which translates directly to 'Red sand', is one of the few beaches in Iceland that aren't jet black. Its color is kind of orange, or red, in a certain kind of light. There is a very simple explanation for this unique color: the sand is made of remnants of pink scallop shells.
The road leading to Rauðisandur isn't paved and it's actually pretty scary. It isn't dangerous if you drive carefully and travel when there is still daylight. Gravel roads are actually very common in the Westfjords, as I will explain later.
Dynjandi Waterfall. Unsplash/Patrick Hendry.
Dynjandi is without a doubt one of Iceland’s most picturesque waterfalls. It’s located in Dynjandisvogur, at the bottom of Arnarfjörður Fjord. Dynjandi is actually an elegant combination of six smaller waterfalls; Fjallfoss, Hundafoss, Strokkur, Göngumannafoss, Hrísvaðsfoss and Sjóarfoss.
Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is one of the remotest and most awe-inspiring places in Iceland: a true paradise for hikers and nature-lovers. If you’d like to visit the nature reserve, you have to be very organized since you can only go there by boat. There are no roads in this part the Westfjords, so driving there is not an option.
The ferry departs from Ísafjörður or Bolungarvík, so you would have to leave your car there. If you’re curious about hiking in the area, I highly recommend this article.
Hellulaug is located by the seaside by Flókalundur, in the southern part of the Westfjords. Travelade/Nína.
There’s a large number of natural geothermal hot pools in the Westfjords. I would definitely check out Hellulaug and Krosslaug in the southern part of the Westfjords. The latter one is probably my favourite bathing spot in Iceland.
As you might already know, there are dozens of outdoor swimming pools in Iceland. I think that there’s not a single village in the country that doesn’t have its own swimming pool!
Here’s a list of swimming pools in the Westfjords.
Getting around in the Westfjords peninsula can be a bit tricky, especially if you’re not driving yourself. You cannot rely on public transport if you’re traveling around the area, but there are buses that go from Borgarnes to Hólmavík. You can check out the schedule for them here.
If you choose to drive yourself, you should be aware that many roads in the area are not paved. This does not necessarily mean that you have to have a 4x4 vehicle, at least not in the summer.
The Westfjords peninsula is one of Iceland’s most mountainous areas, so some of the roads are a bit perilous. If you slow down and drive carefully, it should be perfectly safe. You should also be aware that roads get icy pretty easily here in Iceland, even in late spring and early autumn. Drive extra carefully if you sense that there might be a chance of black ice.
There are three airports in the Westfjords; in Ísafjörður, Bíldudalur and Gjögur. Flying to the Westfjords is of course the quickest way to get there. It might not be the best option for those who are terrified of flying since these airports are surrounded by mountains and it’s often pretty windy. The landing approach to Ísafjörður is in fact pretty scary, but also pretty awesome if you like flying! This video below shows a Fokker 50 (which is a turboprop-powered airliner) approach the runway in Ísafjörður domestic airport.
The Westfjords will not disappoint animal lovers. There’s a huge population of birds in the Westfjords, including the puffin, and mammals such as the arctic fox are a common sight (my one and only encounter with a fox in Iceland was in Látrabjarg cliff, Westfjords). There is even an Arctic Fox Center in the town of Súðavík, where there are two exhibitions open to visitors.
I met this fox at Látrabjarg Bird Cliff last summer. Travelade/Nína.
A puffin at Látrabjarg. Travelade/Nína.
The Westfjords are also a good place for whale watching. It’s possible to go whale watching from Hólmavík, for example. Whales have also been spotted from land in various places in the Westfjords. Read more about that here.