Vestmannaeyjar – The Islands of Fire and Puffins

  • by Irena
  • South Iceland
  • 31 Jan 2024

Vestmannaeyjar is one of Iceland’s most beautiful hidden gems. Westman Islands have a fascinating history connected to recent volcano eruptions, abundant wildlife, breathtaking views, and warm hospitable people.

Westman Islands - Vestmannaeyjar edge of lava from 1973 eruption
Westman Islands - Vestmannaeyjar edge of lava from 1973 eruption

Geography and population

Vestmannaeyjar archipelago consists of 15 islands and around 30 skerries. The largest island is Heimaey (from Icelandic “Home island”). It has a surface of 13,4 km², which is almost 10 times more than the second-largest island. Heimaey is the only one inhabited, with a population of approximately 4,500 people.

A few other islands have hunting cabins and some islands are used for grazing sheep.

Vestmannaeyjabær town
Weatman Islands – view on Vestmannaeyjabær town [Photo credit to Irena Georgsdottir]

History and Culture of Westman Islands

The name and early history

Vestmannaeyjar – from Icelandic “West men’s islands” got their name from Irish slaves. Though it might seem strange for Icelanders to call the Irish Westmen, that made perfect sense back then. It was the Norsemen who captured Gaelic (Irish) slaves and brought them to Iceland, and Ireland is indeed located to the west from Scandinavia.

It is said that the slaves killed their owner Hjörleifur and escaped to the islands. But Hjörleifur’s brother Ingólfur found them and killed them in revenge. This tragic event gave Westman Islands their name, and unfortunately, was not the only one in their history.

In the summer of 1627 three pirate ships from Algiers under the control of the Ottomans raided the islands. They took with them over 200 inhabitants as slaves. 9 years later 34 people were ransomed, but the rest never made their way back home. Ólafur Egilsson is the only one known to escape, only one year after being captured. He returned to the islands and wrote a book describing what he had to go through.

Vestmannaeyjar - Westman Islands - view from the South Coast of Iceland
Westman Islands – view from the South Coast of Iceland

The 1973 Eldfell eruption and its impact

Eldfell volcano eruption in Westman islands stands as a powerful reminder of nature’s unpredictability and the resilience of human communities. On the night of January 23rd, a rift opened on the island of Heimaey, triggering a volcanic eruption that would last for over five months. Lava and ash spewed forth, enveloping homes, farmlands, and vital infrastructure.

Remarkably, the evacuation of the town took only a few days to complete. Around 5,000 residents were safely transported to the mainland, most of them left the island within a few hours from the start of the eruption. Luckily, due to a storm all fishing vessels returned from sea the day before. That helped to speed up evacuation considerably. Miraculously, no lives were lost in the process, and only one death can be attributed to the eruption. It was a man who returned to a gas-polluted town despite of the warnings, he went to a pharmacy to presumably steal medicines.

As the eruption went on, the town’s harbor, a crucial hub for the local fishing industry, was at risk of being buried under the molten rock. It’s believed the harbor was saved by attempting something that had never been done before: spraying seawater onto the advancing lava to cool it down and slow its progress.
1973 eruption had a profound impact on Vestmannaeyjar. Many houses and farms were destroyed by lava, burned, or buried under ash. The island’s landscape was forever altered, and some people never returned.

But despite all the challenges, the eruption also brought unexpected benefits to the region. The lava flows, while destructive, expanded the size of the island and improved the harbor, which ultimately contributed to the growth of the local economy. The town’s resilience in the face of disaster bolstered the community’s spirit and instilled a sense of pride that endures to this day. Last year 2023 Vestmannaeyjar celebrated a 50th anniversary from Eldfell eruption.

Westman Islands - Vestmannaeyjar - View from Eldfell
View from Eldfell volcano on the new part of the island [Photo credit to Irena Georgsdottir]

Þjóðhátíð – The National Festival

Þjóðhátíð or the “National Festival” is an annual event that brings together locals and visitors alike to revel in the unique spirit of the islands and the nation as a whole. It typically takes place over the first weekend of August, called “commercial weekend” with one additional day off on Monday.

Set amidst the dramatic landscapes of Vestmannaeyjar, with its rugged cliffs, lush greenery, and the ever-present sea, the Þjóðhátíð festival has unique atmosphere. Music forms the heart of the festival, with stages hosting a diverse range of performances, from traditional Icelandic folk music to contemporary pop and rock acts. People often gather to dance, sing, and simply enjoy the melodies that echo through the air. Cultural events and exhibitions are also part of the Þjóðhátíð festival. Visitors have the chance to explore local art, crafts, and cuisine, gaining deeper insights into the island’s heritage.

For many Icelanders, the Þjóðhátíð festival is not just an event; it’s a cherished tradition that has been passed down through generations. It’s a time to come together, celebrate the nation’s identity, and embrace the connections between people and nature. Whether it’s watching the fireworks illuminate the night sky, sharing stories around a bonfire, or simply soaking in the breathtaking surroundings, the Þjóðhátíð festival offers an unforgettable experience.

Westman Island Thjodhatid
Þjóðhátið – National Festival on Westman Islands [Photo credit to Ruth Zohlen]

Wildlife on Vestmannaeyjar

Westman Islands are known for their rich and diverse wildlife. One of the most iconic inhabitants of these islands is the puffin, a charming seabird that has captured the hearts of many nature enthusiasts.


Vestmannaeyjar is the best place to see puffins in Iceland. These colorful birds, with their distinctive orange beaks and comical waddling gait, make their nests on the cliffs and grassy slopes of the islands. The largest puffin colony resides on Heimaey island. This colony is a true spectacle during the breeding season, as thousands of puffins return to the cliffs to court, nest, and raise their chicks.

The best time to see puffins are summer months: May to August. During this period, the islands come alive with the hustle and bustle of puffin parents feeding their fluffy chicks and performing their characteristic “puffling dance” as they come and go from their burrows. The cliffs become a colorful mosaic, adorned with the characteristic beaks of these adorable birds.

playful puffin birds in Borgafjordur Eystri
Playful puffin birds on a cliff [Photo credit to Yanshu Li]

Birdlife and sea animals

Apart from puffins, Vestmannaeyjar boasts a wide range of other wildlife. Seabirds such as guillemots, kittiwakes, and fulmars also grace the skies and cliffs with their presence. The surrounding waters are teeming with life, including seals, whales, and dolphins, providing ample opportunities for wildlife enthusiasts to embark on boat tours and witness these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

Surtsey Island

Surtsey, a remarkable volcanic island, emerged from the depths of the North Atlantic Ocean in a spectacular eruption that began on November 14, 1963. Located off the southern coast of Iceland, Surtsey’s formation was a result of underwater volcanic activity, with the eruption’s explosive force pushing molten rock and ash upward until it breached the ocean’s surface.

Named after the fire giant Surtr from Norse mythology, Surtsey’s creation was a unique opportunity for scientists to witness the birth and colonization of a new ecosystem. Over the years, the island’s barren landscape gradually transformed as wind-blown seeds, birds, and marine organisms found their way to its shores. Researchers have documented the establishment of plant life, the arrival of seabirds, and the eventual formation of a delicate ecosystem on Surtsey.

Due to its scientific significance and the opportunity to observe the process of ecological succession, Surtsey was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The island serves as a natural laboratory, offering insights into how life colonizes and adapts to newly formed landmasses. Strict regulations are in place to protect the island’s fragile ecosystem, and access is restricted to researchers and scientific studies.

Westman Islands - Vestmannaeyjar sea, islands and skerries
Westman Islands – view on islands and skerries from the south of Heimaey [Photo credit to Irena Georgsdottir]

Visiting Vestmannaeyjar

How to get to Westman Islands

Getting to Vestmannaeyjar can be a memorable adventure in itself. There are two ways of getting there: by air and by sea.

  • Westman Islands ferry. The most popular way to reach the islands is by ferry. Vestmannaeyjar ferry operates from the mainland town of Landeyjahöfn, offering a scenic journey to the islands. The trip takes around 30-40 minutes and provides breathtaking views of the rugged coastline.
  • Flights to Westman islands. Vestmannaeyjar airport has regular flights from Reykjavik. This option is quicker than the ferry and offers aerial views of the islands.


Each way has its own advantages. If you want to travel directly from Reykjavik – flying is a much faster option. Not only the flight takes shorter time, but the drive from Reykjavik to Landeyjahöfn harbor is around 140 km or about 2 hours.

But if you are renting a car, you can combine a visit to Vestmannaeyjar with exploring the South Coast of Iceland (read more about nearby attractions below). You can also take a car with you to the island when traveling by ferry. We suggest you book a ticket in advance, as space for cars is limited.

Westman Islands - Vestmannaeyjar sea view
Westman Islands – view on the sea and mainland [Photo credit to Irena Georgsdottir]

Things to Do on Westman Islands

Eldfell Volcano: A defining feature of Vestmannaeyjar is the Eldfell volcano, created in 1973 eruption. You can hike to the summit for panoramic views of the islands and the surrounding ocean.

The Eldheimar Museum nearby provides a comprehensive look into the eruption and its impact on Heimaey. Visitors can explore immersive exhibits featuring artifacts, photographs, and even homes buried in lava and ash.

Westman Islands - Eldheimar museum
One of the houses at Eldheimar museum [Photo credit to Irena Georgsdottir]

Puffin Watching: Vestmannaeyjar is home to one of the largest puffin colonies in the world. Take a boat tour to get up close to these charming seabirds in their natural habitat, particularly during the nesting season from April to August.

Boat tours: Apart from puffin watching, various boat tours are available around the islands, offering opportunities to see diverse marine life, including whales, seals, and seabirds.

Downtown and harbor: Explore the charming town of Vestmannaeyjabær. Wander through the picturesque streets, visit local shops and eateries, and soak in the relaxed island atmosphere. Take a walk at the harbor with the view of Heimaklettur (“home rock”).

Skansinn Fortress and Stave Church: The fortress was originally built in the 17th century to defend against pirate raids. Adjacent to it lies the Stave Church, a beautifully crafted wooden structure that showcases traditional Scandinavian architecture. Together, these landmarks offer visitors a glimpse into the island’s past while providing breathtaking views of the surrounding volcanic landscape and the vast expanse of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Westman Islands - Vestmannaeyjar - Stave Church
Stave Church on Westman Islands [Photo credit to Irena Georgsdottir]

Vestmannaeyjar Swimming Pool: If you’re looking to relax, the local swimming pool is a popular spot. It features geothermal hot tubs and a waterslide with stunning views of the surrounding area.

Vestmannaeyjar Golf Club: If you’re a golf enthusiast, the Vestmannaeyjar Golf Club offers a unique experience with breathtaking views while playing golf.

Herjólfsdalur Valley: This valley offers a glimpse into the island’s early history. It contains ruins of settlements dating back to the time of the first Viking settlers in the 9th century.

The Elephant Rock is a natural rock formation that resembles the profile of an elephant, hence its name. Positioned along the coastline of Heimaey, Elephant Rock offers a striking sight against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. You can capture photos of this unique geological wonder from various viewpoints along the island’s coastal walking paths or by taking boat tours around the island.

Westman Islands Elephant Rock
Elephant Rock at Vestmannaeyjar [Photo credit to Aron Hjaltalín]

Sagnheimar Museum: This museum focuses on the history and heritage of the Westman Islands. It covers a wide range of topics, including the islands’ fishing history, local culture, and the stories of the people who have lived there over the centuries.

Stórhöfði: Hike to Stórhöfði, a scenic viewpoint located on the southern tip of Heimaey. It offers breathtaking views of the surrounding islands and the ocean. It’s a great spot for birdwatching as well.

Vestmannaeyjar Stórhöfði
Cliffs at Stórhöfði, Heimaey [Photo credit to Irena Georgsdottir]

Nearby attractions

Landeyjarhöfn Harbor lies on the southern coast of Iceland, famous for its waterfalls, black sand beaches, and glaciers.

Less than 15 km away is the mesmerizing Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, where visitors can stroll behind the cascading water for a unique perspective. Nearby, the majestic Skógafoss Waterfall awaits, offering breathtaking views and the opportunity for adventurous hikes along its trails.

For those seeking dramatic coastal scenery, Reynisfjara Beach near the charming village of Vík is a must-visit, with its striking black sand, towering basalt columns, and thundering waves.

Additionally, adventure enthusiasts can explore Sólheimajökull Glacier, where guided tours offer the chance to witness the icy beauty of Iceland up close.

Seljalandsfoss waterfall in summer
Seljalandsfoss waterfall [Photo credit to Irena Georgsdottir]
About the author
In 2010, Irena moved to Iceland, instantly enchanted by its breathtaking beauty. Her deep love for Icelandic culture and the natural surroundings fills her with excitement as she endeavors to convey these wonders to others through her photography and writing.