There’s a lot to love about the puffins. Their colourful beaks, as well as their funny waddle when on land, have earned them the nickname ‘clowns of the sea’. Finding a life-long mate, they build their nests with dedication in the difficult Icelandic elements, flocking to Iceland in droves over the summer months to the large sea cliffs found around the country. These colourful birds attract much attention from visitors to Iceland and have even become somewhat of the mascot for the country. Here are the best locations around Iceland to see for yourself the gorgeous puffins.
The colony of Atlantic puffins found on the Westman Islands, just off the south coast of Iceland, is the largest in the entire world. The volcanic archipelago of islands is home to around 1.1. million puffins and visiting in the summer is bound to turn up countless sightings. Towards the end of the season, there is a tradition for the children who live on the island Heimaey to wander the streets and collect pufflings who got confused as they left their nests and flew towards the lights of the town. The pufflings spend the night with their rescuers before being released out to sea the next day.
Getting to the islands is quite easy – there are domestic flights from Reykjavik, but most people opt to drive down to Landeyjahöfn on the south coast and catch the ferry. Once on the island, boat tours sail around the island and showing off the best spots, but because there are so many puffins you can always explore the island on your own and see them that way. The Westman Islands have a lot more to offer than just puffin sightings.
Right before you reach Vik on the south coast, you’ll see this instantly recognisable landmark – the Dyrhólaey sea arch. Jutting out from black sand beaches on either side, this large cliff is home to another puffin colony. You can see them flying in from all angles, be it from on top of the cliff itself, or down below from the famous Reynisfjara beach. Puffins calmly sit on the dark rolling waves out in the ocean, and expertly handle the often-windy conditions to land perfectly on the cliffs – a dramatic setting for such a feat.
The views around the area are astounding, with the black sand beaches giving way to lagoons of icy water, rearing up in the distance is the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, underneath which lies the volcano Hekla. Towards the east in the ocean are a few volcanic sea stacks, Reynisdrangar. Legend has it that these were trolls that were wading out into the ocean when the sun came up, turning them to stone.
The westernmost point of Iceland, Látrabjarg sea cliffs in the Westfjords of the country are home to another of the largest puffin colonies in Iceland. The rugged cliffs can reach up to 100 metres tall, swarming not just with puffins, but with several other types of seabirds as well; these cliffs are considered one of the best bird-watching spots in the world. The natural wildness of this remote location means that you can get up close and personal with the puffins, who are particularly tame in the area. Crawling slowly up to the cliff’s edge on your belly ensures that you don’t startle any birds, and that the edge doesn’t collapse.
The cliffs themselves stretch for 14km along the southern part of this finger of land, reached by rough dirt tracks. Hike further along and you’ll quickly leave the other visitors behind, in the company of nothing but seabirds.
Over in the east lies the unspoiled, and yet undiscovered, Borgarfjörður Eystri. The northernmost fjord on this side of the island, the area only has a population of around 130 people, and during the summer, around 20,000 puffins. The quiet nature of the region means that this is another wonderful place to get up close to observe the cute puffins as they go about the business of building their nests and bringing fish home to feed their chicks.
A viewing platform on the eastern side of the fjord gets you up as close as 2 metres to the quirky birds, and for a small fee, you can escape the elements and go inside of a small house that lets you watch the puffins from even closer. Other sea birds flock around these cliffs as well, and in the east, there is always a small chance to catch sight of the reindeer who live in the region.
This small island off the north coast is Iceland’s is another guaranteed location to spot the puffins on your explorations. This is Iceland’s only territory in the Arctic Circle, making it a double threat as a day trip from one of the northern towns.
The 100 or so people who live on the small island are far outnumbered by the 1 million sea birds of several types; their cries as they wheel around the skies in front of the midnight sun can be heard from across the island. To get to Grimsey, you can take a flight from the airport in Akureyri, catch the ferry from the town of Dalvik, or simply book a day tour.
Papey island is a small land mass just off the east coast of Iceland, near to the town of Djúpivogur. The island is now uninhabited but for the masses of sea birds that crowd along its cliffs, and a few lonely buildings; a lighthouse, and Iceland’s smallest wooden church. There are also seals who live near the island, meaning that you’ll likely spot them as well on a trip.
The island is accessed by a daily boat tour in the summer leaving from Djúpivogur, the first town in the east that you come across after leaving Höfn and also Iceland’s first slow city.
Many might not realise the ease with which you can visit puffins from Reykjavik, but it is possible. The islands called Akurey and Lundey (translating to ‘Puffin Island’) are both easily accessed through tours that can take you right up to the cliffs. There’s always a chance to catch a glimpse of the whales that frequent these waters as well.
Below is a map with all of the locations marked, with a few special mentions that weren't spoken about in the article. The locations are ranked according to how difficult it is to get to. Enjoy!
The best travel recommendations come from locals. Check out these Wanderguides from Iceland by locals sharing their travel tips and hidden gems.