The Westman islands archipelago rising from the sea

The Westman islands arcipelago

Island hopping in Iceland

The image of Iceland is predominantly of a fairly large island in the middle of the North-Atlantic ocean. But indeed, it includes thousands of smaller islands all around the coast. Most of them are uninhabited, but a few are settled year-round and life revolves around fishing, farming, and tourism. Each of these islands has its perks and charm, but what they have in common is a flourishing birdlife and a welcoming atmosphere, and all of them are an adventure to visit.

So why not go island hopping in Iceland?

1. Vestmannaeyjar archipelago - The Pompeii of the North

A house half-buried in black ash

Half-buried houses from the Heimaey eruption in 1973 have been turned into a museum

Vestmannaeyjar (The Westman Islands) is an archipelago of 18 volcanic islands and skerries outside the South Coast of Iceland. The island's history dates back to the time of settlement in Iceland in the 10th Century. The 4300 inhabitants live on the main island of Heimaey (home island), which is also the largest of Iceland's islands, covering 13.4 km2. 

The Westman islands hit the world news when an eruption began on Heimaey in 1973 with an eruptive fissure opening in the middle of the town. Luckily the fishing fleet was in the harbor, so people could be evacuated quickly to the mainland. Now the half-buried houses have been turned into an award-winning eruption museum, Eldheimar, where the incredible story of the eruption on Heimaey and the birth of the youngest of the Westman islands, Surtsey, is told. Surtsey island rose from the sea in an eruption1963-1967, and that was the first time the world and scientists could witness a new volcanic island being born. From the beginning, Surtsey island was immediately reserved for science, recognized for its outstanding Universal value, and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. In addition to their geological significance, the Westman Islands are home to millions of seabirds, including Iceland's largest puffin colony and the perfect location for seeing puffins in the breeding season between April and July. 

You can get to the Westman Islands from Landeyjahöfn harbor with the electric ferry Herjólfur and the boat ride is just 40 minutes. The Westman Islands are packed with services, food and accommodation options, including a local brewery and several restaurants. Various activities are offered on Heimaey, including boat tours and ATV tours on the volcano.

Learn more about The Westman Islands.

2. Flatey island in Breiðafjörður - A step into the past

People walking among colorful old houses on Flatey island

Flatey island is known for its well kept and colorful old houses and tranquil atmosphere

Flatey (The flat island) is a small island (about 2 km long and 1 km wide) in a cluster of 40 islands in the middle of Breiðafjörður (The broad bay) in West Iceland. Like the thousands of islands and skerries in Breiðafjörður bay, it was formed during the last ice age when a large ice stream carved out the landscape in the bay. The island is known for its colorful, well-kept old houses and relaxed atmosphere. When you step off the boat, it's like stepping into a time capsule 100 years back to the early 20th Century.

Flatey island is also known for its rich birdlife and a part of the island is a nature reserve. The island is one of the few spots in Iceland where the rare red phalarope can be spotted in its summer plumage and therefore a favored stop by birdwatchers. Puffins also nest in Flatey during the summer and line up for photographers on the Lundaklettur (Puffin-cliff) when they are in the mood. Other birds, like the red-necked phalarope and snow buntings, are abundant in Flatey during the breeding season.

You can get to Flatey from Stykkishólmur harbor by the ferry Baldur that links Snæfellsnes Peninsula to The Westfjords. The boat ride takes about 1/12 hour and meanwhile, you can enjoy watching the seabirds and be on the lookout for cetaceans. During the summer, there are two daily trips, so you can visit Flatey and spend a few hours between boat rides. However, if you prefer to stay longer and breathe in the island's tranquility and culture, you can check availability at the highly-rated Hotel Flatey, which also has an excellent restaurant. At the harbor, a small store and pub are also found on the island.

3. Hrísey island - The pearl of Eyjafjörður

Sailing into a harbor on a nice winter day

Hrísey island on a beautiful winter day

Hrísey (The shrub island) is one of many charming spots on the Arctic Coastway in Iceland. Just a 15-minute boat ride with the Hrísey ferry from the village Árskógsandur lures this small island with adventures waiting. 

The island is about 7 km long and 2,5 km wide and enveloped by the Eyjafjörður fjord and stunning mountains on each side. Several hiking paths lie around the island with informative signs about the history and nature of the island, so it's the perfect location for a good day hike. Hrísey island is a bird sanctuary with about 40 nesting species, including the island's signature bird, the rock ptarmigan. The flora is also making an interesting return after sheep grazing ceased in 1974.

Hrísey island has been inhabited since Iceland's settlement around 1100 years ago. As a result, many historical relics are found on the island, among them large walls that are a bit of a mystery but thought to date back to the settlement era. Today there are about 150 inhabitants on the island and they all live in the small fishing village of Hrísey.

Amazingly the tiny island hosts two museums, The House of Shark Jörundur and Holt. In the former, you will find a fascinating exhibition about the island's history and a tourist information center, and at Holt, a memorial museum of a typical working-class home from when the old and new times met. Hrísey also has a lovely geothermal swimming pool with nice hot tubs for relaxing and a play pool for the kids.

4. Grímsey island - Across the arctic circle

A spherical sculpture

The sculpture Orbis et Globus marks the spot where the Arctic Circle crosses Grímsey island

Grímsey is an island 40 km outside the north coast of Iceland and lies directly on the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle marks the southernmost latitude where the sun will not rise at all on the winter solstice in December - and on the opposite, the sun will be up around the clock on the summer solstice in June. A path leads to the Orbis et Globus sculpture at the exact location of the Arctic Circle which is within an hour's hiking distance from the harbor. During the summer, getting a ride on the island's only bus is possible. 

The island is about 5 km2 in size, with low cliffs and bays on the western sides but tall seacliffs rising on the eastern side. Millions of seabirds nest in those cliffs during the summer, among them the Atlantic puffin in abundance. Grímsey is a perfect spot for puffin lovers and birdwatchers, with many other interesting species among possible sightings. The best time to visit for birdwatching is May-July.

Grímsey island is home to about 100 people that live in a small village near the harbor. They mainly make livelihoods from the rich fishing grounds that surround the islands. The services on the island are a small grocery store, a restaurant, a café, a small souvenir and a handcraft shop. Two guesthouses are also on the island and a campground at the town swimming pool.

A ferry serves Grímsey 3-5 times a week from Dalvík (frequency depends on the season), and you can check out the ferry schedule here. The three-hour sail to Grímsey is exceptionally scenic and through waters where possibilities of cetacean sightings are high. Make sure you dress warmly for the boat ride so you can stay on deck and enjoy!

The other option to get to Grímsey is with Norlandair which has scheduled flights to the island.

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Island hopping in Iceland