The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) and their main island, Heimaey, had long been among the places in Iceland that I absolutely wanted to see. In October 2017, the time had come, and I spent just under 24 hours on the island. It was enough for a first, wonderful impression and too little not to already plan the next visit. In this travel report, I would like to introduce you to the Westman Islands, provide helpful information and tips about their history, attractions, and how to get there.
The history of the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) is relatively short yet eventful. This small island group in southwestern Iceland has a very vibrant history. Above all, I find the volcanic eruption in January 1973 to be the most fascinating. That night marked a new era for the island, and even today, the history is predominantly divided into “before” and “after the eruption.” Many of those who live here today have experienced both, with some returning after the eruption while others chose to stay away.
In the early morning of January 23rd, an island resident went outside and saw a bright light on the horizon. As he set out to investigate, he encountered a few concerned neighbors, and it quickly became clear that a volcano was erupting in his backyard. By coincidence, a severe storm had occurred the day before, causing all the fishing boats to be in the harbor. The decision was made to completely evacuate the island. Many people went back to their homes one last time to gather essential belongings. For example, a man took his cigarettes, and if someone were to search for the wallet lying next to them on the table today, it would be buried under several meters of lava. A boy dutifully packed his schoolbooks to study for the test the next day, but he wouldn’t set foot in a classroom for weeks. The eruption would only end in July, leaving significant changes in its wake on Heimaey, the main island of the archipelago.
Until then, the Eldfell volcano had only existed underground, but in 1973, it rose to a height of over 220 meters on the small island, creating a new landmass of over two square kilometers (+20%). Dozens of buried houses and entire streets were covered by thick layers of lava flows and ash. The eruption threatened to render the island more or less useless as the hot rock moved toward the harbor. If this movement couldn’t be stopped, the harbor basin would have been closed off. With dozens of large pumps, the impossible was attempted: to halt a volcanic eruption. And it succeeded. The hot rock was cooled enough to form a barrier, keeping the entrance to the harbor open.
One could write an entire article about the eruption, and perhaps I will do so someday. However, it would exceed the scope of this text.
In addition to the rich history of the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), there are also fascinating traditions, primarily revolving around the second-largest population group on the island: puffins.
Every year, from July to September, you can see children walking the streets of Heimaey. They carry large and small boxes that chirp and rustle inside. They are collecting other little children, but these children have feathers and can fly. During these weeks, young puffins take their first flights from their nesting sites around the Small Town, heading towards the lights of houses and street lamps in the town. Without help, they would quickly starve. To prevent this, the children of Vestmannaeyjar gather up the little birds and release them back into the wild along the coast.
In the Sæheimar Museum/Aquarium, besides many interesting exhibits showcasing wildlife, geology, and local marine fish in seawater aquariums, there are also two puffins to admire. Unfortunately, both puffins cannot be released back into nature, but they live a good life in the museum and clearly enjoy visitors.
For me, it was fascinating to see how close to nature one can still be as a human and what a privilege it is for these children to grow up in this way. Those who want to learn more about the history might be able to get a copy of the book “Night of the Pufflings” to delve deeper into the subject.
If they’re not busy collecting young birds from the streets, the kids of Heimaey also hang out at the “Spranga” in the harbor—quite literally.
“Spranga” is the sport that can be performed while rappelling, for example, at places like Skiphellar. Icelanders swing from ledge to ledge on a rope, with elegant twists and practiced steps. They do this not just for fun but mainly to collect bird eggs on the surrounding islands.
The small islands surrounding Heimaey are popular subjects for photos because each one has only a single tiny house on it. The family who owns the island spends a certain amount of time there every year, rappelling down the cliffs to collect bird eggs. However, they always leave at least two eggs in each nest because the birds need to compete against each other for food. If only one egg were left in each nest, natural selection would no longer function properly.
For those traveling to the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), there are two main options: ferry or airplane.
If you’re traveling with a car in Iceland and want to take it to Vestmannaeyjar, the ferry option would be the most convenient. If you pick up your rental car at the airport in Iceland*, you can usually time it well with the ferry departures, which is very practical. The ferry departs from Landeyjahöfn and sails to Heimaey three times a day. It can transport cars and campers as well. The price depends on whether you’re bringing a car or not and also on the size of the vehicle. I tend to get seasick easily, but despite the rough sea, the crossing was relatively smooth. I found that standing on the deck and looking at the mountains helped me the most.
Alternatively, there is a small airport on Heimaey. Airlines such as Eagle Air and Bakki operate flights to Heimaey from Reykjavík and Landeyjahöfn, respectively. The flight from the capital takes about 25 minutes, while the flight from Landeyjahöfn takes about 10 minutes.
You can book flights from Reykjavík to Heimaey* and flights from Landeyjahöfn to Heimaey*.
(*Note: The links provided are placeholders and not actual booking links. Please use appropriate websites for booking ferry tickets or flights to Heimaey.)
The small town may appear like it can be fully explored in a few hours, with time left for coffee and cake, but that’s not the case! I had half a day and an overnight stay, yet left the island with the feeling that there was still so much more to see. Museums, nature, animals, and restaurants—Heimaey has a lot to offer.
Almost everything I’ve written in this article, I learned from Ebbi. He is the guide on the highly recommended Westman Islands Express Tour*, which I joined and had the opportunity to learn so much about the island.
Without people like Ebbi and his guided tour, you would drive past most of the island’s attractions without learning their history and background. You would miss out on so much, which is why I really recommend this tour: Ebbi even does Tarzan for you!
Eldheimar is a large building built around a small house. In this museum, you will find the remains of one of the houses that was engulfed and mostly destroyed by the lava flows in 1973. The remains have been carefully excavated and left in the exact state they were found. Clothing lies on the floor, and dishes remain on the tables. It’s a chilling feeling to stand here and imagine how the glowing masses of rock rolled over the buildings where normal family life had taken place just days before.
The museum is relatively new and well-designed with multimedia exhibits. You receive an audio guide in German and English, which leads you through the rooms and provides insight into the history of the exhibits and photographs. All in all, you can spend between 30 and 90 minutes here, depending on how many details you want to explore.
For me, this is the most impressive place on the island and a truly awe-inspiring moment. You can hike or drive up the Eldfell volcano and suddenly find yourself on land that is less than 50 years old. The ground here is still warm, and in some places on the volcano, you can feel it with your hand. Small and large rocks are scattered everywhere, some gray and solid, while others shimmer in black, red, and yellow. The composition of the rocks provides information about where they originated from within the volcano and how they reached the Earth’s surface.
In the far east of the island, you’ll find the Urðaviti lighthouse. From there, you have a great view of the neighboring island Bjarnarey and the bizarre rock formations around the end of the lava field. Walking here, exploring the area, and taking a few steps on the newest land on this planet left a lasting impression on me. The various forms of the visibly young lava field give you a sense of the immense power of the flows. The fragile peaks indicate that not many people have been here, and the landscape remains close to how the volcano left it. If you walk a few meters westward, you’ll come across a small beach with huge round stones. Depending on the weather and sunlight, you can see exactly where you are: the icy waters of the Atlantic evaporate on the permanently hot ground. You get the feeling that the hot rock is flowing right beneath your toes, and it instills a sense of awe.
After that experience, it was the perfect time for a meal. I travel on a minimalist budget, which means affordable accommodations and food. However, I treat myself to something special once or a few times during my trips, and in this case, it was the restaurant Einsi Kaldi.
Owner and chef Einar Björn Árnason was born in Heimaey and grew up here. He left his hometown only to study and learn the craft in various top restaurants. Today, Einar is back in his homeland, where he lives and cooks with his wife and three children.
I had eaten very little throughout the day, walked a lot, and was quite hungry. But above all, I was curious and wanted to try everything on the menu right away. No problem – I opted for the tasting menu.
Vegetarians, please look away: On my plates, I savored puffin, lamb, monkfish, and horse fillet, one after another. Each dish was prepared with local spices, vegetables, and incredible creativity. Every bite was a revelation, and at some point, I couldn’t help but exclaim a loud “Mmmmmmh!” I was tempted to run into the kitchen and give the chef a big hug.
I love good food, and I think that’s evident from the above. At Einsi Kaldi, you’ll get exactly that—a culinary delight!
The next morning, while having breakfast at the Hamar guesthouse*, the friendly owner recommended a hike to me. She suggested going to Eldfell as it offers the most beautiful view. Since I had already done that, she looked out the window and noticed that the weather might change. However, she suggested driving to Heimklettur and seeing if I wanted to hike up there. So I did.
The day before, during the city tour, Ebbi had already mentioned that there was a local resident who attempted to hike up the mountain Heimklettur every day of the year to stay fit. In the previous year, 2016, his signature was found in the guestbook 260 times! As luck would have it, that morning I came across an older man with trekking poles, and we struck up a conversation. When I told him the story, he replied, “Jau jau, that’d be me!”
He was in pretty good shape because, at over 60 years old, he was already coming down when I was still at the foot of the mountain. I had about 200 meters of elevation gain ahead of me, along with some beads of sweat and a dense fog bank. So I climbed up, passing sheep and birds nesting in the cliffs. I reached the guestbook, where I signed my name. If you happen to be there, see if you can find my entry and send a photo 🙂
The hike lasted about two hours and was quite challenging. The path is very steep, and at times, you have to climb using ropes and chains. It’s not for the faint-hearted and definitely not a leisurely stroll! However, those who are fit and enjoy this type of adventure will have a great time on this route!
After that strenuous hike, I must admit that I was soaked with sweat. I had made the mistake of wearing the wrong layers of clothing, and if I had continued walking around like that, I would have ended up with a solid cold as a souvenir from the trip.
So, I got in the car and drove straight to the swimming pool, which was completely rebuilt in 1975 after the old one fell victim to the lava flows. Here, you can swim laps in the main pool, enjoy the hot water in one of the three hot pots, or let your inner child run free on the large slides. I don’t think I need to mention that I gave a solid performance on the slides!
There is even a steam bath and a large tub of ice-cold water right next to it. I skipped that part.
After warming up in all three hot pots in succession, I was ready to stroll a few more meters through the harbor area and admire the beautiful murals on the industrial buildings. The painting of the little boy with the boat impressed me the most and will forever symbolize Vestmannaeyjar for me.
Heimaey, the Westman Islands/Vestmannaeyjar: Honestly, the absolute highlight of my entire stay in Iceland. I had high expectations, but they were still significantly surpassed!
The rich history of this small region, its wonderful and friendly people, and the incredible closeness to nature in all its forms left a lasting impression on me. I will definitely come back, wanting to see and experience even more, and I haven’t even written about everything here!
Just like with the Westfjords, I want to emphasize: If you’re seeking adventure, you’re in the wrong place. Please be responsible visitors and always prioritize sustainability. The region should benefit from tourism like the rest of Iceland, but it is not designed to handle large numbers of visitors.
Have a great time in Iceland!