You came to Iceland to experience the beauty of a tiny island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean.
But what if the ‘Big Island’ is feeling a little bit too big? It’s time for the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar).
If you’re like me, you had no idea upon arrival to Iceland that a small volcanic archipelago lies directly to the South of Seljalandsfoss. According to geologists there are about 18 small islands in this grouping. The islands have steep cliffs and are surrounded by treacherous waters, leading to isolation in olden times from the ‘mainland’ and a unique local culture.
The fissure that led to the creation of the islands is quite active, and still making new islands as continental drift continues. Some of the other islands have perilously-perched hunting houses on them giving off an unearthly vibe, but the main population centre is Heimaey (‘Home Island’).
Let’s check out some of the amazing things you can do and see in the Vestmannaeyjar. The 35-minute ferry from Landeyjahöfn is only 2,400 ISK for an adult, car 0-5meters long is an extra 3,600 ISK.
Old Norse Wooden Church
This stave church is the only one of its kind in Iceland, built to commemorate 1000 years of Christianity. It was a gift built in the year 2000 on Heimey by the Norwegian government, on the site of a cataclysm in 1627. Algerian pirates invaded the islands and took nearly everyone captive. Most were sold into slavery, and only one or two ever returned to the islands of their birth. The church is a replica of one of the very first ones built in Iceland.
Puffins are so abundant in the summer here that one would struggle not to see them.
Many tours exist for the purpose, which help you get close up to the birds from a boat.
These tours often include the history of the archipelago and demonstrations of traditional egg gathering techniques (like hanging by a tiny rope from a cliff face over open water!). You can learn more about this adorable bird here.
Free Hike at the Horseshoe Campground
If you are a shoestring traveller, you will most likely stay at the Herjolfsdalur campground on Heimey. It’s in a horseshoe-shaped crater leftover from volcanic activity. One can climb right up the side of the horseshoe. The whole area is often shrouded in unbelievably magical fog. It’s a steep climb, but the views are absolutely worth the sweat. This is the best free thing to do in the Vestmannaeyjar.
Walk up an Active Volcano
The Eldfell volcano, site of the famous 1973 eruption on Heimey, is open to the public. Just follow the helpful signs on the sidewalks up to the top of the town, where you can walk on the active volcano that buried more than 300 houses and led to the largest evacuation in Icelandic history. You can safely approach geothermal vents and feel the breath of the volcano for yourself.
It’s fair to say that Icelanders are obsessed with swimming pools. They serve as the local meeting place, taking the place in the community of the pub in British culture or the piazza in Italy. One of the very best swimming pools in Iceland is in Heimey, with hot pots and various pools. They even have a trampoline slide. Yes. A trampoline slide. It’s guaranteed to bring out the kid in you!
In writing this guide, I realised that there is simply too much to fit in about the Westman Islands. I could write for pages and pages about the amazing things to do. It’s just a place you have to see to appreciate. Fresh fish markets, handmade products, a rock-based tribute to South Park the show, a lonely and impressive lighthouse, views of the south coast of Iceland from a unique perspective, and all the things I can’t even put into words come together to make this a truly special place. In case you couldn’t tell, the Vestmannaeyjar is one of my favourite places in Iceland.
Stop reading this and just go already!