The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) are an archipelago just off Iceland’s south coast. The archipelago consists of several islands but only one of them, Heimaey, is inhabited.
The town of Heimaey. iStock/mdurinik.
The Westman Islands are a result of a 10–12,000 year phase of numerous volcanic eruptions in the area, which lies on the Southern Icelandic Volcanic Zone The latest addition to the archipelago, a small island called Surtsey, was formed during a four years long submarine eruption in 1963.
In 1973 there was another historical eruption when a small volcano called Eldfell erupted. Eldfell is situated on Heimaey, the only inhabited island. The eruption was unexpected and the people of Heimaey had absolutely no time to vacate the island.
Some say the fact that everyone was rescued and brought safely to the shore is simply a miracle.
A lone house in Ellidaey Island. iStock/VeronicaSpann.
Geography aside, The Westman Islands have a lot to offer. The islands are Iceland’s biggest habitat of puffins and the home to most species of coastal birds that are found in Iceland. The township has a population of roughly 4,000 so there are some restaurants, cafés and museums. The cliffs in The Westman Islands are also quite stunning and the view from the southernmost tip of Heimaey (called Stórhöfði) is remarkable.
If we’ve managed to convince you, here are a few things that are a must-do in The Westman Islands.
If spotting puffins is on your Iceland to-do-list, you should consider going on a cruise around The Westman Islands. If you go from the mainland to the islands by a ferry you might have seen some already, but it is a lot more enjoyable to go sailing on a small boat. Especially for those who have a tendency to get sea sick.
A puffin couple. iStock/Sage78
Most companies offer boat trips that last for 1–2 hours. During the trip you will sail through caves, alongside noisy nesting cliffs of birds of various kinds and you might catch a glimpse of the island of Surtsey.
Bring your camera with you to snap some photos of the world’s cutest (or perhaps saddest?) bird, the puffin.
Spranga is a local sport similar to cliff rappelling. Like most traditions it is rooted in practicality – local men would scale the cliffs of the various islands, swinging back and forth to gather eggs, and, if somebody was watching, show off their acrobatic skills.
Here is a video of a brave young man doing the “spranga” in a cliff in The Westman Island. This is a dangerous sport so be super careful if you’re giving it a try.
Heimaey is full of cliffs to climb, although today it’s mostly practiced at the Skipahellar caves, close to the harbor. Other cliffs include Sprangan (from which the sport takes its name), Gras (Grass) and Stígvélið (The Boot).
Eldheimar is a recently opened museum dedicated to both the 1973 Westman Island eruption and the 1963 Surtsey eruption. It features various items excavated from the ash, newsreels from the time and geological information about the events. It is probably the most ambitious museum of its type in the whole country.
The centerpiece of Eldheimar, around which the whole museum is built, is the house at Gerðisbraut 10. Home to a local family that narrowly escaped the exploding volcano, it was drowned in ash and lava, but has since been fully excavated and preserved. Today it stands inside Eldheimar museum, a testament to the forces of nature.
On the first weekend of August (Icelandic bank holiday weekend) there is a huge festival in The Westman Islands. It is insanely difficult to get accommodation during this weekend and the valley of Heimaey is filled with party animals and troubadours. If you think this is something you want to experience, you can buy tickets for the festival here.
Dress well, it is one of the windiest and rainiest places in Iceland. Although it does not snow a lot in The Westman Islands, you can always expect ice and snow during the coldest months.
There are flights from Reykjavík every day except Saturdays. The Herjólfur ferry departs twice a day from Landeyjahöfn. There are some bus departures from Reykjavík to Landeyjahöfn and back, and in the case you arrive by car, the ferry has a roll-on/roll-off service.