A Rainy Adventure in the Westman Islands of Iceland
Angela Huang Walsh
Vestmannaeyjar, otherwise known as Westman Islands, is often missed by tourists. But on this small 3-island chain formed by volcanic eruptions off the southern coast of Iceland, you'll find dramatic landscapes, puffins, archeological sites, proud locals and non-stop scenic hiking.
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The scenic ferry ride from the mainland to the Westman Islands was smooth, with calm seas and mild temperatures. As we approached the archipelago off Iceland's southern coast, the sky was overcast but not dark, but we could still see Elephant Rock off the coast of Heimaey, the biggest island of the Vestmannaeyjar. By the time we docked at the main town of Heimaey, a light rain had started to fall.
Eager to see the puffins, we headed straight to the outlook from the ferry terminal. I was determined to see these cute, colorful birds up close. We bundled up in rain jackets and made our way along the coastal path. The cliffs were lined with puffin burrows, but with the dreary weather, most of the birds stayed tucked inside. We did spot a few hardy puffins paddling in the sea and flying back to their nests. It was magical to watch them soar on their black and white wings with the stunning harbor landscape as a backdrop.
After the puffin outlook, we checked into the Hotel Vestmannaeyjar. The friendly staff gave us directions for our day's adventure. This simple "all you need is here" hotel has a restaurant bar and a little spa.
We ate lunch at Gott Restaurant, a local art filled, cozy cafe famous for its wraps and sandwiches and gourmet homemade cakes. The crafted cocktails were an added treat - I tried a neat gin concoction served in a whimsical fish-shaped mug. Fueled up with our tasty lunch, we were ready for more exploring.
The locals are proud of their fresh seafood and local cuisine. However, with only a handful of restaurants to choose from, the dining options are limited. Meals could be hit or miss. But at Gott, we certainly hit the jackpot.
Along the way to Eldfell, we made a quick stop to see Starfkirkjan - a beautiful black church gifted to Iceland by Norway in 2000 and is used by locals for all celebrations. We embarked on hiking up Eldfell, a volcano that erupted on Heimaey in 1973. We climbed over 200 meters up the steep, rocky trail in light rain and gusty winds. The ascent was challenging but manageable if we paused for breaks to catch our breath. When we finally reached the crater rim, the view was breathtaking. It was like gazing upon a lunar landscape—an alien world of volcanic rock extending to the sea. We could see the nearby islands rising from the gray water. While the climb left us winded, the panoramic views from the summit left us breathless. This raw display of nature's power was unforgettable. There are also ATV tours you can take to reach the top.
After hiking the volcano, we stopped at Herjólfstown, a reconstructed viking settlement. The museum host provided us with details about how chieftain Herjólf ruled over the land and made use of the limited resources. We learned how he and his clan survived in this rugged rock, stone and grass structure, enduring the harsh weather and difficult farming conditions. It was incredible to imagine life in that era. We toured the chief's house and saw tools, textiles, and artifacts that offered a window into the viking way of life. To get a real sense of history, we tried the local beer and vodka made from Herjólf's actual wellwater - the dark ale was bold and delicious! Getting to experience a taste of viking life was a memorable part of our Westman Islands adventure. Surrounding this viking settlement is the most incredible golf course. Golf lovers will not be able to concentrate while admiring the surrounding views of the volcano and the sea.
Don't come expecting a luxurious shopping spree. While the main harbor area of Heimaey has some cute shops, it's certainly not a shopper's paradise. The town is tiny and focused on serving local needs rather than attracting tourists. You won't find glitzy boutiques or high-end galleries here, but that's part of the charm.
The weather may have been wet and wild during our day in the Westman Islands. But the dramatic landscapes, puffin encounters and local experiences made it a perfect one-day adventure we'll always treasure.
Need to Know
Vestmannaeyjar, otherwise known as Westman Islands is often misses by tourists, but on this small 3 island chain formed by volcanic eruptions off the southern coast of Iceland, you'll find dramatic landscape, puffins, archaeological sites, proud locals and non-stop scenic hiking.
This trip report is part of our ongoing series on travel to Iceland. In need of further inspiration? Check out Shivani Patel’s guide, Iceland Summer: A Five-Day Adventure.
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