Vestmannaeyjar, which literally means Islands of the Westmen - the name given to Gaelic slaves captured by the first settlers of Iceland, is a small archipelago just south of the Icelandic mainland, not far from the Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls. The group of fifteen islands and islets was formed around 11,000 years ago except one, Surstey, which emerged from the sea due to a volcanic eruption in 1963 making it Iceland's youngest piece of land - for now, at least!
All but one of the Vestmannaeyjar islands are uninhabited and accessed only for scientific purposes, however the capital, Heimaey (Home Island) is visited by thousands of tourists each year to enjoy its charming seaside atmosphere and see its most famous inhabitants: the puffins.
What to see in Vestmannaeyjar?
Heimaey is home to over 4000 inhabitants, most of whom live in the main town of Vestmannaeyjabaer. As its main economic activity is fishing, it's well worth a stroll through the picturesque streets to get a feel for its maritime charm. The island's oldest structure, Skansinn, is a 15th-century fortress built to defend the harbour from attacking pirates, and is located next to a photogenic replica Medieval stave church called Stafkirkjan.
One of the most extraordinary places to visit in Heimaey is Elheimar, which has become known as the "Pompeii of the North". This museum is dedicated to the 1973 volcanic eruption which caused the evacuation of all 5000 of Heimaey's residents and destroyed a third of all buildings on the island. Visitors can see first hand the excavation of one of the houses crushed by the eruption of Eldfell, which was buried under ash and lava for forty years, and learn about the tragedy through interactive exhibitions.
On the eastern side of Heimaey is Eldfell itself, a 660-foot (200 metre) tall volcanic cone whose name means Hill of Fire. A short hike to the top of its crater gives spectacular panoramic views of Vestmannaeyjar.
The archipelago's main tourist attraction is the population of some eight million puffins who come to nest on the islands during the summer. Vestmannaeyjar has become one of the most popular places to see puffins in Iceland thanks to its close proximity to Reykjavik, meaning visitors don't need to travel all the way to Látrabjarg or Borgarfjordur Eystri.
How to visit Vestmannaeyjar?
While Heimaey has an airport and around five daily round-trip flights operate between the archipelago and the rest of Iceland, flights are expensive and the best way to travel to Vestmannaeyhar is by boat. A daily ferry connects the small village of Landeyjahöfn with Heimaey and a one-way trip takes just over half an hour. What's more, you can drive your rental car onto the ferry, allowing you to explore the island easily and comfortably.