Heimaey is the name of the largest and only inhabited island of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago ("Westman Islands" in English) just off the south coast of Iceland
– and also the name of its only settlement ata busy fishing harbour.
The island qualifies as a dark-tourism destination thanks to the dramatic volcanic eruptions of 1973, which covered part of the town in thick layers of lava and ash and expanded the territory of the island through the creation of new land to its east.
An excavation project "unearthing" one of the houses covered by the lava and ash of 1973 has yielded the unique museum called "Eldheimar
", which opened some 40 years after the eruption and uses the clever slogan "Pompei of the North". It is now the No.1 dark attraction on Heimaey.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The name of the archipelago goes back to the earliest history of Iceland
, when Norsemen brought with them Gaelic slaves from Ireland
, which in Norse was called ‘West Island’. This has stuck in Icelandic and so the archipelago remains named after the “west men” … even though they came from much further east.
There’s another incident involving slavery in the island’s history, namely when pirates from North Africa under Ottoman command raided Heimaey and took a large part of the population with them to sell as slaves in Algiers
. Only one is known to have ever returned (and wrote a book about it). The place where the hostile attackers landed is still known as “Pirate Cove”.
Even without such outside intruders causing terror, life had long been extremely difficult for the islanders. Few crops grew here, so the population largely depended on fish – and also caught seabirds for food and collected their eggs. Later on, imports would improve the stability of their livelihoods; but the biggest changes came with the development of a modern fishing fleet from the early 20th century onwards. By the 1960s Heimaey (and Iceland) had turned from one of the poorest places in the world to one of the most affluent – all thanks to the fishing industry, which still dominates the local economy. In fact Heimaey is one of the key fishing centres of Iceland and lands a disproportionate yield of fish, much of which goes into export.
Disaster struck in 1973: at two in the morning on 23 January a new volcanic fissure suddenly and unexpectedly opened up and soon grew to about two miles (over 3km) in length. From it spouted lava fountains and ash in close proximity to the settlement. Luckily, practically the entire fishing fleet was in port at the time (because of bad weather the previous days) and so almost all of the ca. 5000 inhabitants were evacuated that same night by these fishing boats who took them to the mainland. Only firefighters and other rescue workers stayed behind to continue their work. Over the next six months that the eruption lasted, over a third of the town of Heimaey, around 400 homes and businesses, had been destroyed by the lava flow or crushed by heavy ash. Many more were damaged. Much of the surviving rest of the town also had to be cleared of ash in the subsequent months. The lava flows created over three square kilometres of new land. A new volcanic cone had formed, over 200m high, and this was soon named “Eldfell” (which means, not all that imaginatively, ‘fire mountain’).
The lava flow also threatened to close off the harbour, the island’s crucial lifeline. Firefighters pumped millions of tonnes of seawater on to the lava flow in an attempt to cool it down and make it stop. In the end it did just that. Though to what degree that was the result of the spraying with seawater or whether the flow just stopped naturally is disputed. In any case, the extra new lava land now acts as a better breakwater and hence actually improved the harbour.
While much of the town was destroyed by the volcano, remarkably almost nobody got hurt. There was just one single casualty. A man who got killed by the poisonous gases of the volcano either when he attempted to salvage something from his home … or, so the alternative story goes, while he tried to steal drugs from a pharmacy. The latter is quoted on the Wikipedia entry for the volcanic event; but when I asked locals they neither confirmed nor denied this. So what’s the truth has to remain open. More importantly, though it’s quite a feat that everybody else got out alive. The evacuees were housed around the Icelandic mainland with relatives or in temporary housing.
After the end of the eruption in July 1973, cleaning up and rebuilding were the main focus. Initially only about a third of the population returned. But gradually Heimaey grew back to almost the same size as before the destructive volcanic event. It continues to be a valuable contributor to Iceland
’s overall GDP (about 3%, even though the population is only 1.5 % of the nation’s total – in other words: Heimaey is economically twice as productive as the rest of the country.
This also shows in visible affluence, with excellent facilities, including a hospital, and no fewer than two gourmet restaurants with up-and-coming star chefs and its own international-standard craft brewery (see below).
What there is to see: I’ve travelled to Heimaey twice. On the first occasion in August 2004 it was an organized day tour, flying in from Reykjavik’s domestic airport followed by a guided tour around the island by coach, which also included a part of the new land and the Eldfell crater cone; it also went past a couple of buildings semi-crushed by lava. This coach tour was followed by a boat trip around the whole island and then there was some time free to explore the town, watch the film footage of the 1973 eruption in the town’s community centre and also for visiting the local aquarium, before the transfer back to the airfield and the flight back to Reykjavik.
I returned to Heimaey in the summer of 2023 and had decided to allocate more time to the place on this occasion. I came by ferry in a hire car and stayed three nights on the island, driving around independently.
These days the fly-in day trips are apparently no longer offered, but since the opening of a new ferry terminal on the mainland closest to the Westman Islands, crossings now take just 30-45 minutes, so day return trips from there are still a possibility and many visitors do just that. Yet others arrive by cruise ships and on do various locally offered tours on land before returning to their ships. (Readers of this website may be aware that I’m not a fan of cruise ships and would never use one – I find it a horrible mode of travelling and resent the presence of the often thousands of extra visitors hectically being guided around and not spending any money in the local community. I was happy to see the three cruise ships in town depart again in the evening as I was having dinner in a local restaurant by the harbour ...)
I’m glad I took it slowly when I went back to Heimaey and gave the place more time. It’s a lovely spot and I can’t wait to go back! (That’s something I don’t say very often, as I rarely travel to the same place more than once or at best twice. Heimaey – and Iceland at large – are an exception in that regard and I do hope sincerely that I’ll have the chance go there again!)
The main port of call on Heimaey from a dark-tourism perspective has to be the Eldheimar museum, which has been built around a house ruin that was excavated from the lava flow and ash fall of 1973. It’s a must-see and has been given its own separate chapter:
This has also supplanted the volcano film show that I saw back in 2004. Much of the footage can now be seen at the museum – but it’s not quite like seeing it on a big screen. But never mind. The local small history and folk museum Sagnheimar (open 10-17h, 1000 kr) also has a section about the 1973 eruption (but I did not see this on my 2023 visit to Heimaey).
Evidence of the 1973 volcanic destruction, other than that at Eldheimar, include the largely lava-crushed ruins of what used to be a concrete water tank at the eastern end of the harbour. All over the town you can find little black columns with information panels next to them. The pillars indicate how deep the layer of ash was at the spot in question and the panels show photos from 1973 and provide basic background info. One of these stands just outside the entrance to the local cemetery. This took the longest to clear the ash from – as obviously it couldn’t be done by heavy machinery but had to be done by hand, in order not to destroy the graves beneath.
Dominating the skyline to the east of the town is Eldfell, the volcanic cone created in the 1973 eruption. You can hike up it independently by climbing the crest of the crater – or by organized tour using quad bikes. When I was on Heimaey in 2004, the coach took us close to the crest of the cone so we didn’t need to hike much. Private vehicles are not allowed to drive up the slope of the volcano. So if you’re not on a tour you have to use your legs to get up there. Back in 2004 there were still warm blocks of lava to be found in cracks or hollows as our guide pointed out. Whether that is still the case I do not know.
Also part of the tour, but accessible by private car as well, is the garden in the lava field east of the town. Apparently there was a rule that the new land could not belong to anybody privately – unless they managed to make a garden that lasts for more that one season (i.e. that wasn’t blown away by storms). This garden was a success – and when I went back 19 years after my fist visit it was still there and in summer bloom. The little model houses in the garden, however, had suffered a bit from neglect.
At a place called Skansinn, at the eastern end of the harbour (where the semi-crushed ex-water tank also is, as is a local museum and a reconstructed wooden church) there is now a large monument commemorating all the fisherman of Heimaey who lost their lives doing their job over the years. When I saw it in August 2023 it was brand new, less than two months old.
Skansinn is also the name of a fort that was constructed here after the the slave traders from Algiers (see above) raided the islands and kidnapping nearly 250 islanders. Some of the fort’s structures have been restored and there is a historic cannon like the fort used to feature. Apparently this is still fired for salutes on special occasions.
The place where the slave traders landed is still called Pirate Cove. It’s located towards the south of Heimaey on the low isthmus leading to the southernmost cliffs of the island. There’s a small plaque by the cove’s car park outlining the historical significance of this spot.
Also on this coast I also spotted a monument for a Belgian fishing trawler that shipwrecked at Heimaey in 1982. On the black-sand beach opposite Pirate Cove I also found remnants of another shipwreck. And on the puffin cliffs to the west of the town I spotted wreck pieces of what may have been a truck or tractor precariously perched on the side of the cliff top. How it got there and what happened to the rest of the vehicle (and its occupants) I do not know. But it serves to underscore the warning signs dotted around the cliff edges admonishing visitors not to venture too close to the sheer deep drops …
Those who like hiking, climbing and sheer cliffs could also go to the top of Heimaklettur, the tall stack of rock to the north of the harbour. Precarious-looking ladders attached to the rock help with scaling the steepest parts. I decided against attempting this.
I did enjoy the rugged scenery of the island very much though and am glad I had a good amount of time for exploring.
From the southernmost cliffs of Heimaey, you may on a clear day just about make out the shape of Surtsey, the island created in the 1960s but a sub-sea volcanic eruption. It lies 12 miles (19km) to the south-west of Heimaey. As it serves scientists as a place where they can study how nature (plants, birds) settle on such new land, it is off limits to tourists.
Finally, from the ferry back to the mainland you can get good views (weather permitting) of the Eyjafjallajökull icecap and volcano that in 2010 so disrupted European air traffic (see under Iceland
some 6 miles (10 km) off the south coast of Iceland
, about 70 miles (110 km) south-east of Reykjavik
Google maps locators:
Skansinn with lava-crushed water tank, cannon and fishermen memorial: [63.4436, -20.2618
Access and costs: remote but quite easy to get to all the same; but not cheap.
Details: Heimaey has an airport, and the first time I visited, in 2004, I used this as part of a day return trip (ca. 250 EUR pp) from Reykjavik’s domestic airport. The excursion also included a tour by coach and another by boat. There now (as of 2023) seem to be no more scheduled flights, only charters. So now there’s only the ferry.
The ferry connection, however, has been much improved since the olden days when the ferry sailed from a far away port at Þorlákshöfn and the crossing took two to three hours. Now there’s a new ferry terminal on the mainland at Landeyjahöfn, the sailing time has been reduced to 30-40 minutes. Moreover, the vessel is electric, so it’s also the most ecological way of getting to Heimaey. The ferry has space for ca. 75 cars, plus ample space for foot passengers. In the summer peak season there are seven crossings a day, every day. In the off-peak season there are far fewer sailings and there’s more of a risk that the ferry can’t go because of bad weather (there may be crossings from the alternative older ferry terminal at Þorlákshöfn). Prices per person are only in the region of 15 EUR or less (currently 2000 ISK), normal-sized cars cost ca. 20 EUR (3000 ISK). By Icelandic standards that’s a steal! Camper vans and the like obviously cost more, bicycles much less. It’s best to book tickets in advance online (the company is called “Herjólfur”).
For getting around on Heimaey, a car isn’t strictly speaking a necessity, as long as you don’t mind hiking long and at times steep routes. Alternatively there are tour operators that can take visitors around. If you do have a car, you obviously can get to almost everywhere in much more comfort. I appreciated this, especially at the southernmost part of the island and for getting to the parts north and west of the town.
Many visitors come only for a day, but it’s worth considering at least one or two nights on the island. I chose three, and that was ample time for a leisurely pace. Accommodation options range from camping to holiday apartments/houses and from guest houses to proper hotels. The top of the pick is the Hotel Vestmannaeyjar, which also sports one of the island’s gourmet restaurants (called Einsi Kaldi – like the head chef).
For food & drink
, Heimaey offers a perhaps surprisingly wide and moreover surprisingly good-quality range of choices. In addition to the one already mentioned the top gourmet restaurant in town is called Slippurinn
, a New Nordic cuisine
place where many of the ingredients are sourced or foraged locally! That means you can encounter flavours here that you are highly unlikely to find anywhere else in the world! It’s amazing and given the quality and uniqueness of the food it’s not even overpriced, but reasonable by Icelandic standards. Still for cheapskates it is probably not.
There are several more places to eat, including a popular restaurant right by the harbour, some simpler food outlets and fast-food joints as well as a place for wood-fired pizzas that is linked with the local craft beer brewery on the main street Barustigur in the centre of town (where the tarmac is painted in rainbow colours, just like Skólavörðustígur in Reykjavik).
This place called Brothers Brewery & Taproom
for me was the biggest positive surprise on Heimaey on my latest visit in the summer of 2023. Not only are many of the brews outstanding (their whisky-barrel-aged Imperial Stout called Togarinn was one of the best I’ve ever had anywhere!), the prices they charge, while not cheap (obviously), were notably lower than what you’d have to pay in Reykjavik
for anything halfway similarly good!
Note that all these places cater at least as much to the local population as to tourists. So it’s a very nice mix and also good for people watching.
Heimaey can, at a push, be done as a single day trip, and many visitors make do with that – but most regret not having had more time. So if you really want to get the most out of it and see everything outlined above
then you should consider staying for two or even three nights (I did three and very much appreciated it).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Iceland
One thing I didn’t manage to see when I was on Heimaey is another volcanic feature called Páskahellir. This is a partially collapsed lava tube on the edge of the lava flow just south of Eldfell. If I ever go back to Heimaey (and, as I’ve already said before, I’d love to) then I’d make sure to include this extra bit of volcanic tourism as well …
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Heimaey is not just a dark tourism destination but a fabulous place in many other ways too. It’s great for hiking, you can go on boat tours – by regular boats, speedboats and even kayak. There are cute little local museums. And last but not least there’s the wildlife. The endearing puffin is king here! Heimaey is Puffin Island. There are statues of puffins, you find their image on park benches and signposts, and in the nesting season in summer you can spot thousands of the birds for real. They may not be as numerous as they once were but you still get a better chance of close-up encounters with these lovely birds than almost anywhere else.
There are puffin cliffs to the west of the town south of Elephant Rock (an iconic bit of cliff that does indeed resemble an elephant’s head with the trunk semi-submerged in the sea), which are good for puffin-watching. En route to the top of the southernmost set of cliffs of the island there’s a puffin-lookout hut. From here you can observe the birds without disturbing them. Inside is also a small exhibition. When I was there, it was easy to get good views of puffins from outside the hut too. More puffins can be spotted on the western cliffs of the southernmost headland. At one point I also spotted ropes and ladders down the cliff. I wonder whether these are from the times when puffins and other seabirds were caught in large numbers for food – and seabird eggs were collected too. Puffins are no longer hunted on Heimaey (though in small numbers still elsewhere), and only guillemot and fulmar eggs are still collected.
In the past, swinging on a rope from ledge to ledge for collecting eggs (and birds) was a common activity on Heimaey. The tradition is demonstrated by guides on a cliff not by the sea but a landward one just west of the fishing harbour. It’s called “Sprangan” and if you feel fit and adventurous enough you could even try rope-swinging for yourself (but it’s a bit risky unless you know exactly what you are doing …).
There’s an aquarium in Heimaey too, at the Sea Life Trust
, which also has a puffin rescue station. The big stars these days, however, are two beluga whales
. These were taken from an aquarium in China
and normally have a part of the sheltered bay north-east of the harbour as their “sanctuary”. When I was at the aquarium, though, they were swimming around in the big basin at the aquarium, not the bay – apparently because one of them was ill, so they were taken here where they can be looked after better (I was later told by a local that this seems to be happening a lot). Despite the unnatural setting and viewed through a big strengthened glass window they were still fascinating to watch. You could get almost eye-to-eye with these unique creatures.
And once more puffins: when the nesting season comes to its end, the parent puffins fly off leaving their offspring, called pufflings, behind to fend for themselves. Many get confused by the lights of the town and end up there by mistake. It’s become a tradition for the children of Heimaey to rescue these disoriented pufflings, put them in cardboard boxes and then release them into the sea from a boat (they can fly and swim). When I was first on Heimaey in 2004 in the second half of August I witnessed such a puffling release on the boat tour I was on. Passengers were even invited to take part in the chucking of pufflings overboard.
On the first weekend in August, Heimaey becomes home to one of Iceland
's best-known festivals, including music, bonfires, fireworks, drinks and traditional food – the island's entire population is out for this mega picnic of sorts. It is in fact the largest festival in Iceland and goes by the almost unpronounceable name of “Þjóðhátið”. Visitors are welcome too, though, and many do come specifically for this event. If you want to see this too, make sure to get tickets bought well in advance, also see to ferry and accommodation bookings well ahead of time.
For more tourist options on the mainland see under Iceland
- Heimaey 01 - Vestmannaeyjar archipelago seen from the ferry
- Heimaey 02 - Eldfell and the new land seen from the ferry
- Heimaey 03 - approaching the harbour
- Heimaey 04 - the harbour
- Heimaey 05 - edge of the 1973 lava flow
- Heimaey 06 - former concrete water-supply tank destroyed by lava
- Heimaey 07 - lava-crushed house ruin in 2004
- Heimaey 08 - cemetery
- Heimaey 09 - how high the volcanic ash layer was after the 1973 eruption
- Heimaey 10 - Eldfell seen from the cemetery
- Heimaey 11 - Eldfell in evening light
- Heimaey 12 - on top of Eldfell in 2004
- Heimaey 13 - lava garden
- Heimaey 14 - old cannon
- Heimaey 15 - new memorial for perished fishermen
- Heimaey 16 - memorial stone for a Belgian trawler that shipwrecked here in 1982
- Heimaey 17 - looking down to Pirate Cove
- Heimaey 18 - wreck piece
- Heimaey 19 - climbing at Heimaklettur
- Heimaey 20 - elephant rock
- Heimaey 21 - puffin watching hut
- Heimaey 22 - puffin love
- Heimaey 23 - puffin congregation
- Heimaey 24 - sheep
- Heimaey 25 - Atlantic wolffish in the aquarium
- Heimaey 26 - beluga whales
- Heimaey 27 - beluga whale cove
- Heimaey 28 - cave
- Heimaey 29 - seabird cliff plus sheep
- Heimaey 30 - reconstructed wooden church
- Heimaey 31 - festival area
- Heimaey 32 - a rainbow street, just like in Reykjavik
- Heimaey 33 - former shipyard building, now a New Nordic gourmet restaurant
- Heimaey 34 - ferry departing
- Heimaey 35 - sea cliffs and stacks
- Heimaey 36 - one of the uninhabited outlying islands of Vestmannaeyjar