Last updated on February 23rd, 2024 at 05:29 pm
The Westman Islands (or Vestmannaeyjar in Icelandic) are a scenic archipelago situated just off the southern coast of Iceland. Heimaey, the only populated island of the group (pop. ~4500), is a top day trip destination from Reykjavik.
Visitors travel to Heimaey to enjoy the island’s dramatic volcanic scenery, abundance of marine life and diverse seabird population. The biggest draw of all, however, are the island’s adorable puffins – as Heimaey is home to the world’s largest puffin colony.
Like most visitors to the Westman Islands, our first trip was because we were looking for somewhere to see puffins close to Reykjavik. Having secured an Iceland airport rental car, we were able to enjoy a relatively relaxing day trip (12 hours door-to-door) to the Westman Islands from Reykjavik.
Not only did we very much enjoy our time seeing the Westman Islands puffins, we loved every bit of our day. The scenic 40 minute ferry to Heimaey was almost worth the trip alone – weaving its way through the outer islands, and providing passengers with spectacular views even before arrival!
While our primary purpose on that initial visit was to see puffins, we soon realized that despite its small size, Heimaey had quite a bit to offer in terms of sightseeing and activities. On a recent return trip to drive the full Iceland Ring Road, we opted for an overnight stay so as to fully enjoy the island at a less hurried pace.
There was also one significant additional reason for this overnight stay – the Puffin Patrol (more on this later).
In the following post, I will share with you all of our favorite things to do in the Westman Islands, starting with a bit of need-to-know information about this unique archipelago. In a hurry? Please use the menu below to find what you need quickly.
WESTMAN ISLANDS VIDEO (90 SEC.)
Want a quick little peek at what you can expect from the Westman Islands? Check out this 90 second video.
WESTMAN ISLANDS – THE NEED TO KNOW
ABOUT THE WESTMAN ISLANDS, ICELAND
The Westman Islands, known as Vestmannaeyjar in Icelandic, are an archipelago situated off the south coast of Iceland. The archipelago is made up of around 15 islands, with Heimaey being the largest, and only populated one of the group (pop.~4500). Visitors travel to Heimaey to experience the island’s dramatic volcanic landscapes, rich seafaring history, and vibrant wildlife (including seal and puffin colonies).
While the islands’ economy has traditionally centered around the fishing industry, a volcanic eruption in the 1970s had a massive impact on this small community. In 1973, the Eldfell volcano on Heimaey erupted, leading to the evacuation of residents to the mainland. (Miraculously, all managed to do so safely.)
Although many eventually returned to their homeland, the population has yet to fully recover to its previous high of over 5300 residents. A visit to the highly informative Eldheimar Volcano Museum is a great first stop for visitors to Heimaey to learn more about this impactful event.
WHY ARE THEY CALLED THE WESTMAN ISLANDS?
Well, it’s not the nicest story, but here we go…
The Vestmannaeyjar islands derive their name from the escaped Gael slaves (from the Northwest of Ireland) who fled to the islands from Iceland’s mainland after murdering their Norse master. They were in turn, tracked down by their master’s brother and murdered. The islands are named after these individuals referred to as “West Men” (Vestmenn in Norse), despite the geographical irony that Iceland is actually situated further west than Ireland.
WHERE ARE THE WESTMAN ISLANDS?
The Westman Island (Vestmannaeyjar) are located just off of Iceland’s South Coast. The drive time from Reykjavik to the ferry dock is about 2 hours. The car/passenger ferry trip to the island of Heimaey takes about 40 minutes.
WESTMAN ISLANDS MAP
Click on the following map or this link, and zoom out if you would like to see where Vestmannaeyjar is in relation to the rest of Iceland.
I’ve also added all of our favorite places on the island of Heimaey to this map. I hope it can be useful to you.
AVOID NAME CONFUSION
When you don’t speak or read Icelandic, it’s easy to get confused by Iceland words and place names. For clarity’s sake:
- Vestmannaeyjar is the Westman Islands in Icelandic.
- Heimaey is the only populated island in the Westman Islands.
- Vestmannayjabaer is the name of the town on the island of Heimaey.
- Landeyjahöfn is the name of the ferry terminal location on Iceland’s mainland from where you take the ferry to the island Heimaey.
HOW TO GET TO THE WESTMAN ISLANDS
Heimaey can be visited quite easily on a day trip from Reykjavik. The drive time from Reykjavik to the Westman Islands ferry dock at Landeyjahöfn takes about 2 hours. The Landeyjahöfn to Heimaey ferry crossing takes about 40 minutes and can accommodate both foot passengers and vehicles.
Tip: Be sure to make reservations for the ferry to Vestmannaeyjar ahead of time in the busy summer months at herjolfur.is.
See also: the Vestmannaeyjar ferry schedule here.
HOW MANY DAYS IN THE WESTMAN ISLANDS?
Many people choose to visit the Westman Archipelago on a day trip, which is absolutely fine. However, if you wish to explore the area in a more relaxed manner, or enjoy more than one beautiful hike, I highly recommend considering an overnight trip to Heimaey. There is also something very special about enjoying a place after the day trippers have gone home.
DO YOU NEED A CAR IN THE WESTMAN ISLANDS?
If your goal is to see puffins, I would recommend having your own car. While the island is not very large and there are a few taxis available, having your own transportation makes it much easier to navigate. For instance, the primary puffin viewing area at the Stórhöfði Peninsula is approximately a 90-minute walk from town.
WESTMAN ISLANDS DAY TRIP TOUR
If you have opted not to rent a car in Iceland, there are several companies that offer day trips to Heimaey from Reykjavik, as well as multi-day trips along the south coast of Iceland.
Personally, I am a big fan of Hidden Iceland. I have previously joined them with my family for a Blue Ice Cave tour. The company was established by experienced Icelandic guides aiming to provide a more immersive and intimate experience for visitors to Iceland through smaller group tours.
See also: Tripadvisor reviews for Hidden Iceland.
PROMO CODE ALERT
Use HIDDEN ICELAND promo code BEYOND10 for a 10% discount on the Volcanic Westman Icelands Tour, or any other “Small Group Tour” they offer.*
*Note: Although this discount code applies exclusively to Hidden Iceland’s Small Group Tours, should you be interested in one of their bespoke Self Drive or Private Guided Tours, please mention The Better Beyond in the “How did you hear about us” section for the most competitive rates.
Another option if you do not want to take a car to Heimaey, is to walk on the ferry and do a tour once you are on the island. There is a very highly rated Vestmannaeyjar tour led by island resident Ebbi on Viator that could be a great option.
10 BEST THINGS TO DO ON HEIMAEY
Please see the following best things to do in the Westman Islands, on the island of Heimaey.
See also these top activities on Heimaey from Viator.
1. SEE PUFFINS
From April to August each year, these adorable birds return to the Iceland Westman Islands rocky cliff faces to breed and raise their young. (Puffins spend the rest of the year at sea.) This offers an extraordinary opportunity to observe them in the wild, as these sweet little birds are generally quite shy.
The most popular place to see puffins on Heimaey is at the Puffin Lookout on the Storhöfdi Peninsula. You need to be careful, however, as the puffins actually nest in the cliff faces below the lookout.
See also: Where to See Puffins in Iceland.
2. ELDEIMAR VOLCANO MUSEUM
Learn more about the 1973 Eldfell Volcano eruption at the Eldheimar Volcano Museum, where you can explore exhibitions documenting the events and their impact on the local community.
In my humble opinion, this should be among the first places you visit upon arriving in the Westman Islands. What you learn here truly adds to your perspective as you explore the island of Heimaey.
3. HIKE ELDFELL VOLCANO
Hike to the top of Eldfell, one of the youngest volcanos in Iceland, which last erupted in 1973. The hike offers stunning panoramic views of the island and the surrounding ocean. You can actually start your short hike to the top of the volcano from right behind the Eldheimar Museum.
The hike itself is not super strenuous. It’s more of a gradual, uphill walk, taking about 20-30 minutes. You are walking, however, on lava rock, so sturdy shoes or hiking shoes are ideal.
See Eldfell volcano hike route (2.6km loop) on AllTrails. There is also a longer option that is about double the length.
4. VISIT THE SEA LIFE TRUST
The Sea Life Trust on Vestmannaeyjar plays a crucial role in preserving and protecting marine ecosystems surrounding the islands. Dedicated to the conservation of sea life, this organization engages in various initiatives aimed at ensuring the sustainability of the local marine environment.
You can drop by for a tour of their facility in town and observe some of the marine life and seabirds in their care. This includes puffins and other seabirds that reside at their facility because they are too injured to be released back into nature.
You may also have the opportunity to see the two beluga whales in their care, Little Grey and Little White. The Sea Life Trust has a very ambitious project underway with the goal of eventually releasing these two formerly captive belugas to a contained ocean bay just off of Heimaey. (You pass by Klettsvik Bay Sanctuary on the ferry.)
Over the past few years, Little Grey and Little White have spent time in the bay, but they have not yet successfully transitioned entirely. With each attempt, however, the care team learns more, and hopefully, sometime soon, this can become their permanent new home.
During the summer months, the Sea Life Trust runs boat tours that include a visit to the Klettsvik Bay Sanctuary.
Note to Visitors: This is a small facility that operates primarily as a rescue centre. It is more of an educational experience than an entertainment experience.
5. RIB BOAT SAFARI
One of the best ways to see the Westman Islands is from the water. Take a RIB boat safari to hidden coves, sea caves and of course, to see the puffin colonies that this island is famous for.
See the following RIB boat trips from Heimaey on Viator.
6. ELEPHANT ROCK
If you take a boat tour around Heimaey Island, there is a good chance that one of the stops will be Iceland’s famous Elephant Rock. You can also see it, however, from land.
To get there, take the road that runs along the right side of the Westman Islands Golf Club toward the ocean. Park by the amphitheater and walk along the shoreline path until the Elephant Rock outcropping comes into view. (Fore! Watch for golfers.)
7. VISIT THE STAVE CHURCH
Built in the year 2000, the Stave Church (Stafkirkjan in Icelandic) is a replica of the first church in Vestmannaeyjar. The original was built by a team sent by the King of Norway shortly before Iceland’s conversion to Christianity around the year 1000.
A Stave church is characterized by an architectural framework of vertical staves or posts, which give the structure its name. They are often adorned with intricate carvings, decorative elements, and dragon heads, blending Christian and Norse artistic elements. There may have been as many as 1000 Stave churches in Norway at one time – only 28 remain today.
I forgot to take a picture of Stafkirkjan while on Heimaey, but here is a Stave church from a trip we took to Norway to give you an idea of what the one on Heimaey would have been modeled after.
8. OTHER VESTMANNAEYJAR HIKES
The scenery in the Westman Islands is so spectacular that it is definitely worth getting out and exploring a little bit.
In addition to doing the Eldfell volcano hike, we also did the 1.6km in-and-back Dalfjall hike. The trailhead is located near the golf course and is a 20 minute uphill climb (stairs and steep paths) to the top. It’s a good cardio workout (trail rated “hard”) but you are very rewarded at the top.
In addition to the magnificent views of the ocean and island, we also saw puffins (much closer than at the “Puffin Lookout”) and roaming sheep.
The other hike that people love on Heimaey (we didn’t get to this one) is Heimaklettur (Home Rock). The 1.8 km in-and-back trail can be easily reached from town. It is a steep and challenging ascent that includes ladders, stairs and ropes. Like the Dalfjall hike, however, the wonderful views from the top are entirely worth the workout.
See also: the full list of hikes in Vestmannaeyjar from AllTrails.
9. ATTEND A FESTIVAL
Vestmannaeyjar hosts several fun events during the summer months. I’ve listed all the major ones below.
Sjómannadagurinn – Sailor’s Day is celebrated in Iceland on the first Sunday in June. With this island’s seafaring history, many of the festivities on Heimaey have an ocean theme including reduced-rate rib safari rides, rowing competitions, the Sailor’s Ball and more!
Iceland Independence Day is celebrated each June 17th with parades and entertainment around Heimaey.
Goslokahatid – This annual event celebrates the anniversary of the final day of the Eldfell volcano eruption on July 3, 1973. Typically there are attractions for kids set up around town and an outdoor Saturday evening party that runs until the wee hours of the morning.
Pjodhatid – An outdoor music festival held in the Herjólfsdalur Valley that draws upwards of 15000 visitors! Learn more at: dalurinn.is.
See also this Westman Islands Festival guide.
10. JOIN THE PUFFIN PATROL
Part of the reason we decided to stay overnight on Heimaey on our most recent trip was because we wanted to participate in the Puffin Patrol.
On August evenings, new baby puffins (pufflings) can sometimes become confused by the town lights – flying towards them rather than out to sea. Residents patrol the town, collecting up the wayward baby birds to help get them back on course.
Did we manage to save any pufflings? No, we did not…but it was so much fun. In fact, we only saw one puffling and it most definitely did not want to be rescued (it flew away).
Learn more about the Puffin Patrol in this video.
11. FOR THE KIDS
When our family was driving the Iceland Ring Road, we discovered that almost every little town had a bouncy pillow (Aerslabelgir) for the kids (or the kid in you).
Of course there is one in Vestmannaeyjar as well – two actually. The first can be found at Stakkagerdi Park and the other near the school (both are marked on the Google map above).
See also this Aeslabelgir map for the whole of Iceland.
When you explore the Eldheimar Volcano Museum, you’ll see vintage video footage showcasing the traditional method locals employed to gather bird eggs from the cliff faces. In essence, they would skillfully swing and jump along the rock faces while suspended from a rope.
If you want find out just how hard this actually would have been, there is a Spranga demonstration rope attached to a rock face near the western edge of town. (To be attempted at your own risk of course.)
You can also see a proper demonstration of Spranga if you join the popular Westman Islands tour led by island resident Ebbi. The tour is done by minibus and includes several other interesting stops such as Elephant Rock, a puffin colony and a Viking settlement.
See Ebbi’s Volcano and Puffin Westman Islands tour on Viator.
WESTMAN ISLAND HOTELS
To be honest, I wasn’t blown away by Heimaey hotel options. I’m a bit of a hotel snob, and I expect every hotel stay to be amazing, whether it’s a 3-star or a 5-star property.
This is why we opted for something a little unconventional. My kids always enjoyed camping when they were younger (which we did maybe three times). Even as young adults, they were still enthusiastic about it. When I discovered Vestmannaeyjar Camping and Glamping, I thought it was something we might all enjoy.
The sensational location helped me to get over the fact that I was going to have to leave my little barrel cabin to use the facilities. We did not bring camping gear to Heimaey, but freshly laundered linens and pillows were available for our stay for an extra fee.
Learn more or check rates for Glamping Camping Vestmannaeyjar Iceland on Booking.com. (They offer regular camping spots as well.)
During my Westman Islands hotel search, I also gave some serious consideration to The New Post Office as their self-catering suites looked pretty lovely and get good reviews.
See reviews and rates on Booking.com.
The Hotel Vestmannaeyjar also consistently ranks highly with guests. It is pricey though. We opted out of this one because as a family of four, we were going to need two rooms. Iceland’s an expensive place (as I’m sure you already know) and hard choices need to be made!
See guest reviews and rates for Hotel Vestmannaeyjar on Booking.com.
Note: There are several grocery stores on Heimay if you are self-catering or just need some snacks. Both Bónus and Krónan (chain Icelandic grocery stores) are right in town. ( I often buy souvenirs at these stores as Icelandic salt and licorice make for great gifts.)
For such a small island, Heimaey actually has quite a few good restaurant options.
For breakfast and baked goods, we really enjoyed Vigtin Bakhús.
Gott is a tasty place for lunch and dinner, serving both traditional Icelandic as well as international fare. (We enjoyed it so much that we went for lunch and, later dessert while we were waiting to go on the evening Puffin Patrol.)
Slippurinn is an award-winning restaurant that has been delighting guests with their locally harvested Icelandic fare for more than a decade. (Make reservation in advance for this one.)
Also worth trying is Naes, the sister restaurant to Slippurinn – serving up small sharing plates alongside a lovely selection of cocktails & natural wines.
While I feel a little bit funny about recommending a pizza place, the truth is, while visiting Iceland, you are probably going to be eating a lot of fish and/or lamb. Sometimes, you just want some comfort food (also generally a big hit with the kids). With that in mind, I can tell you that Pitsugerdin makes pretty delicious pies.
Find more highly rated Westman Islands restaurants on Tripadvisor.
Note: For those traveling with kids, it might be helpful to know that often when an Icelandic restaurant offers a kids’ meal, it is simply a smaller portion of an adult meal (ex. fish with veggies). Unlike in North America, it is unusual to find things like chicken fingers or mini burgers with fries on a menu.
UNUSUAL PLACES IN THE WESTMAN ISLANDS
I cannot conclude this post without sharing information about a couple of very unique buildings located in the Westman Islands that you likely won’t have the opportunity to visit but are nonetheless quite fascinating.
1. ÞRÍDRANGAR LIGHTHOUSE
While I was researching our most recent trip to Heimaey, I noticed Westman Islands Lighthouse popping up quite a bit. As someone with an extreme fear of missing out, I did a bit of digging.
Construction of this distinctive lighthouse commenced in 1938. It stands atop a solitary rock situated in the treacherous waters between the Icelandic mainland and the Westman Islands. Originally crafted entirely by hand, supplies were transported in by ship. In subsequent years, a small helicopter pad was added, which is how the island is accessed today (albeit infrequently).
2. THE LONELIEST HOUSE IN THE WORLD
Another peculiar and unusual place in the Westman Islands is Elliðaey Island – home to what the online world has dubbed as the world’s loneliest house.
The truth is not quite as mysterious; it was actually built as a rather basic hunting lodge back in 1953. Since then, it has been used or explored by other parties, such as visiting scientists and, of course, curious YouTubers.
While you probably won’t be able to visit (government permission is required), the ferry to and from Heimaey passes by Elliðaey Island, allowing for at least a photo or two. (The one shown above was actually taken while I was on the Eldfell volcano hike.)
MORE ICELAND GUIDES
I have been writing about Iceland since our first trip in 2016. I have numerous guides, some on this site, and some on my family travel site, PintSizePilot.com. I have listed the most popular guides below.