One of the most memorable things I ever did in Iceland was to visit Vestmannaeyjar also known as the Westman Islands. This archipelago is located 11 kilometers off the Icelandic south coast and is well worth a visit. I was lucky that it was, by Icelandic standards, a beautiful day and so I last minute decided to go for it and make the ferry crossing from the campsite at the Seljalandsfoss to the Westman Islands by boat. I traveled up and down for one day and that’s enough to see the small island of Heimaey. This is also the only inhabited island of Vestmannaeyjar. In this article I will tell you all you need to know about your visit to Vestmannaeyjar.
The Westman Islands are, as mentioned, off the coast of Iceland and are skipped by many visitors, partly because the weather is often bad and they are therefore not always easily accessible. You can go to the Westman Islands by ferry or by plane from Reykjavík Airport. Since the flights are not daily, the most logical option is to take the ferry. It departs from Landeyjahöfn on the south coast and sails to Heimaey in about 30/40 minutes. Depending on the season, there are 7 sailings per day. The ferry schedule can be found here and booking in advance is highly recommended.
The history of Vestmannaeyjar
Vestmannaeyjar was best known for the eruption of the Eldfell, the volcano on Heimaey that erupted completely unexpectedly on January 23 1973, destroying a large part of the island. More than 400 houses were lost, but luckily just one person was killed. The lava flow even blocked the island’s harbor, isolating them completely. A large-scale rescue operation was launched to evacuate the islanders. The lava was cooled with seawater, the eruption lasted no less than 5 months. In some places in the landscape you can still feel the heat at this point. This eruption created a completely newly formed island, clearly visible during your visit. Interesting documentaries have been made about this eruption, which you can watch at the visitor center at Eldfell. The Volcano House in Reykjavík also showed this, but it is closed for the time being.
Want to know more about lava and volcanoes? Make sure to go on the Lava Caves & Volcano tour from Reykjavík.
The ferry crossing to the Westman Islands
I start my day at Vestmannaeyjar with the ferry crossing to Heimaey. I booked this by phone last night to be sure of a spot. As mentioned, the weather is beautiful, so Heimaey is a popular destination today. I leave my rental car at the port of Landeyjahöfn because you don’t need it on the small island. Everything on Heimaey is within walking distance of each other. Although the weather is beautiful, it’s also very windy. To be on the safe side, I take a pill against seasickness and off we go!
Because it is quite clear, the Westman Islands are immediately in sight. The crossing takes only 30 minutes due to the favorable wind. The ferry floats into the harbor and I am immediately amazed at the beautiful rock formations. I scan the rocky coasts for puffins with my binoculars, but don’t spot them. Hopefully later today! The ferry moors and not much later I am at Heimaey.
I start the day with a visit to Eldfell, the volcano on the east side of Heimaey that erupted in 1973. You can walk there from the harbor. First through the Elfellshraun, the lava field that is the “new island” formed by the eruption. I visit the Eldheimar Museum to get an impression of what happened here and then continue my way up to the 221 meter high summit of Eldfell. The climb is not really difficult, but you do need sturdy footwear. On the way I pass places where the heat still comes from the earth, which is quite bizarre!
Once on top I’m amazed by the landscape. One side is covered with a layer of bright green grass, the other side is made up of all kinds of red and orange you can imagine. And next to it is an immense black-colored lava field, a ‘hraun’ as it is called in Icelandic. Opposite me, the 5 meter higher volcano Helgafell peaks in the landscape.
After sitting on the top for a while, I descend back to the village for lunch. I settle down at Fiskibarrinn for a hot lunch that I enjoy quite a lot. Although it’s sunny, there’s a strong wind which makes it quite cold. Even in summer it is never really nice and warm in Iceland …
Wandering through Heimaey
I’m strolling the streets of Heimaey. It is, to be fair, a little pretty village. About 4.000 people live there and although the island is beautiful, I can easily imagine that you can feel very isolated here, especially in winter and on rainy days. There is industry around the port and there seems to be little entertainment. Fortunately, I’m here for a walk and as soon as I reach the other side of the city, the steep coastal cliffs loom before me.
Hiking on the rough Westcoast
From the campsite on the other side of Heimaey, a few hiking trails leave to the rocky coast. The trail that I follow is very steep and takes me up almost vertically. Stepping off the trail and falling is not an option. I hike up foot by foot up and finally arrive at the top of the ridge. From here I have a truly spectacular view of the sea and the coastline. The cliffs protrude almost vertically into the sea here and when I look down I feel dizzy. So I decide not to look down too much, but to focus on the horizon. I scour the rocks for puffins, but it’s actually not the right season. I spot a single one, but far away and not as close as pictures have led me to believe.
I follow a narrow path over the ridge with again steep cliffs and drop offs. The trail is clear but not suitable for people with a fear of heights. A mile further on I start my descent, which is much more gradual than the upward journey. I’m back in the village about thirty minutes before the ferry leaves. I enjoy one last look at Eldfell and Helgafell here and then board the ship. I would have liked to have stayed longer to explore the other hiking trails, but unfortunately that is not possible today. Who knows next time!
Staying op Heimaey
Even though you can easily see most sights in one day, especially when you are not a hiker, there are a few overnight options on Heimaey. Most guesthouses are small, check prices and availability here. On the northern side of the island there’s a camp site, next to the golf course.
Tours to and on Heimaey
There are some tours to and on Vestmannaeyjar, mostly in search of puffins and along the coastline. Make sure to visit the information center for the best possibilities on the day of your trip.
Conclusion and disclaimer
Hopefully you found this article helpful and gave you an idea of what to do at Vestmannaeyjar in Iceland. If you have any questions, feel free to let me know. This article contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase via such a link, I may receive a modest commission for you at no extra cost.