Translating to ‘main island,’ Heimaey is the only inhabited island of the Westman Islands and one of Iceland's best-kept secrets. With a population of around 4,300, Heimey is known for the 1973 Eldfell Volcano eruption that threatened to close its harbor.
Heimaey Island is the largest and only inhabited island of the Westman Islands. The island is home to a single town called Vestmannaeyjabær, which mainly consists of an airport, a harbor, and the Westman Islands Golf Course.
Heimaey is believed to have been first known to be reached by two escaped Irish slaves around 900 AD, who were escaping their Norse master. However, archaeological evidence suggests there might have been earlier settlements on the island, possibly around 800 AD. The archipelago, including Heimaey, is named 'Westman Islands' or 'Vestmannaeyjar' in Icelandic, derived from the term 'Westmen,' used to refer to Irish people at the time.
On January 23rd 1973, the Eldfell volcano erupted less than a mile away from the only town in Heimaey. The entire population had to be evacuated within short notice. The eruption lasted nearly five months, but miraculously, no lives were lost. Today, Heimaey is a destination that attracts visitors throughout the year.
Heimaey Island is mostly known for the dramatic events of January 23rd, 1973, when the Eldfell volcano erupted unexpectedly less than a mile from the island's only town. This led to the immediate evacuation of the entire island's population, which was a challenging but successful task. The eruption lasted approximately five months, significantly altering the island's landscape. Despite the tragedy, Heimaey Island remains a stunning natural wonder and a symbol of resilience. Visitors are attracted to the island throughout the years to see its unique volcanic heritage and scenic beauty.
The best way to get to Heimaey Island is via ferry. The Herjólfur ferry travels back and forth from the Landeyjahöfn harbor, which is two hours from Reykjavík. We suggest parking your car at the harbor before catching the ferry, as Heimaey Island is best experienced on foot or by bike. If you’d like to watch puffins, which the Westman Islands are famous for, you’ll have to venture a bit further from town. In that case, having a car is convenient.
If you want to experience the best that the Westman Islands offer, you must visit Heimaey Island. These are some of the best things you can do while you’re there.
Many species of whale thrive in the waters surrounding Iceland. You’ll get to see several species of whales and dolphins if you’re in the right place at the right time! In fact, the Westman Islands are a great place in Iceland to spot Orcas and Fin whales. Join a rib boat tour to enjoy the best of the area’s wildlife.
Do you remember Keiko, the whale from Free Willy? Before his release back into the wild, Keiko lived at the Beluga Whale Sanctuary. This natural sea inlet at Klettsvik Bay is part of the Saeheimar Aquarium, which is now permanently closed. If you take a boat trip from Vestmannaeyjar Harbor, you can watch the Beluga whales in their natural habitat from a safe distance.
During August and September, puffins flock to the coast of Iceland. Baby puffins often get confused by the town’s light and fly in, thinking it's the ocean. It is a local tradition to rescue and release them into the ocean in the morning. The experience is once-in-a-lifetime and free of charge, but it’s crucial to be as careful as possible and only intervene if absolutely necessary.
From May to September, you can take a boat tour along the archipelago. While out at sea, you’ll spot a rock that looks like a giant head of an elephant. The basalt in the rock formation gives it the appearance of wrinkled skin, making it a truly unique sight. If you’re visiting Elephant Rock in the winter, you can also view it from a golf course, which happens to be among the best in the world.
Following its eruption in 1973, the Eldfell Volcano has become a major attraction on Iceland's Heimaey Island. The summit reaches a soaring height of 220 meters (725ft). The footpath is easy to walk on, so don’t worry about not reaching the top. You’ll be able to see the whole island, including the extra land created by the eruption.
If you’d like more details on the 1973 Eldfell eruption, check out the Eldheimar Museum. You’ll be able to find out exactly what happened by visiting an excavated house that was consumed by lava. Alongside this prime exhibit, you’ll also find information on the island of Surtsey.
Surtsey was formed after a four-year eruption that started in 1963. The island is now deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site. Even though it's close to Heimaey, you won’t be able to visit as only scientists are permitted entry.
The Eldfell volcano eruption created an extra landmass called Eldfellshraun. This Mars-like landscape has a popular hiking trail surrounded by blue and purple blossoms in the summer. Keep an eye out for the Skansinn Fort during the hike. It dates back to the 1400s, although many of its walls had to be rebuilt after the 1973 eruption.
Heimaey’s restaurants along the harbor are best for enjoying a meal with a view. They’re all close to the ferry port, so you can enjoy an Icelandic meal whether you’re leaving or have just arrived at the island. Seafood dishes are a must. You can even savor Iceland’s traditional stew, plokkfiskur.
If you’re visiting Heimaey, you cannot miss the attractions at the Westman Islands. These are some of the best.