Information about Heimaey

More puffins live on the Westman Islands than anywhere else in the world.

Heimaey is the largest island of the Westman Islands, and the only one that is inhabited. It has a population of approximately 4,000 people, and a fascinating, dark history.

Slaves, Pirates, Volcanoes and Heimaey

The first people known to make landfall on Heimaey were two escaped slaves, and they would not live their long. The two men, who were Irish and captives of the foster brother of Reykjavík’s founder, Ingolfúr Arnarson, killed their master and fled here in order to avoid vengeance.

Arnarson, however, found the body before they could make a clean escape, and saw their boats headed to the uninhabited islands off the South Coast. He followed them and hunted them down, killing one and driving the other to throw himself to his own death off of a cliff.

As the Irish were then known as ‘Westmen’, the islands of the archipelago that include Heimaey have been called the Westman Islands ever since. The hill that the slave threw himself off has since been named after him, as Duffy’s Hill, or Dufþekja.

It is possible that there were settlers on Heimaey before even these slaves reached it, as a recent archaeological dig showed evidence of homes from around 800 AD (years before Ingolfúr was even born). According to the Book of Settlements, however, the first person to make a permanent home there did in 900 AD.

The population of Heimaey slowly grew, as more settlers arrived, families expanded, and the fertile fishing waters around it became known. The Danish established buildings there once they took control of Iceland, showing its significance as a port.

However, tragedy would strike in 1627: pirates. Likely hailing from the Algiers, and part of the Barbary Fleet that the Ottoman Empire used to terrorise the seas at the time, they raided Iceland’s coasts and islands. While, on the mainland, Icelanders could flee into the nature, on Heimaey they had nowhere to go, and 237 people were captured.

Less than a hundred returned to Iceland; most of the rest sold on the slave market. The terror and pain the people captured endured was written about by a priest who miraculously survived.

The struggles endured by the people of Heimaey would not end there, although no major incident would arise on the island for other three centuries. When it did, however, the results were explosive.

In 1973, the residents of Heimaey woke up to an eruption tearing through the middle of their town. Fissures over a kilometre in length snaked through the houses, and lava and ash destroyed over 400 homes. As unexpected and terrible as it was, the response was incredible, and all 5,300 residents were whisked to the mainland safely. Only one is thought to have died as a result of the eruption.

To limit the spread of lava, US troops and Icelandic rescue services pumped seawater on top of it to hasten its freezing. This technique not only saved the harbour from being closed off - which would have destroyed the town’s economy and future - but it actually improved it.

Heimaey Today

Puffins are the main reason why people come to Heimaey in summer.

Today, Heimaey is a cheerful, vibrant place that draws locals and visitors alike. Its history can be learnt about in the museums, with the most notable one being the Eldheimar Volcano Museum, which discusses the 1973 eruption of Eldfell. It is also possible to walk up to the Eldfell crater.

The main reason people come to Heimaey, however, is because more Atlantic Puffins nest in the Westman Islands than anywhere else in the world. Many boat tours take visitors out to see them from May to September, and on many of these, it is possible to see several types of whale and dolphin.

The puffins can also be seen in land, and, in August and September, even in town. The pufflings get confused by the town lights, and thinking it is the ocean, wander in. It is a tradition for the children to find them and throw them safely in the sea (or to collect them up and charge a tourist to do so).

 

Services near Heimaey

All services in 50km radius

Attractions nearby Heimaey

Vestmannaeyjar

The Westman Islands, or Vestmannaeyjar, are an archipelago of 15 islands and 30 rock stacks off the South Coast of Iceland. Aside from their incredi...

View

Klettshellir

Klettshellir is the largest and best known cave in the Westman Islands. The cave lies innermost of sea rock Ystiklettur. It is quite high and has a d...

View

Eldfell

Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir Eldfell is a volcano in the Westman Islands, off south Iceland, which famously erupted in...

View

Elephant Rock

Elephant Rock is a natural rock formation on the Westman Islands archipelago, located approximately 7.4 kilometres off Iceland's south coast.&nb...

View

Surtsey

Surtsey is a volcanic island, part of the Westman Islands and formed by an underwater volcanic eruption in 1963.  Surtsey was declared a na...

View

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss is a waterfall that can be fully encircled, situated on the South Coast of Iceland with a drop of 60 metres (200 feet). Due to the ...

View

Gljufrabui

Gljúfrabúi (or Canyon Dweller) is a beautiful waterfall located at Hamragarðar in South Iceland, close to its better known counter...

View

Akurey

  Akurey is a small island in Kollafjordur bay, off the shore of Reykjavik. There is plenty of birdlife in the island as many puffins nest the...

View

Nauthúsagil

Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir. Nauthúsagil is a narrow ravine in South Iceland, located beneath the glacial volcano E...

View

Þorvaldseyri

Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons, Photo by Matt Riggott Þorvaldseyri is a historic farm located beneath Iceland’s most famous volcano,...

View

Fljótshlíð

  Fljotshlid is a beautiful farming district in southern Iceland. It is one of the main sites for Njal's Saga, a masterpiece of the saga lit...

View

Hvolsvöllur

Hvolsvöllur is a small town of 950 people in south Iceland, conveniently located by the Ring Road. It is often travelled through or stopped off...

View

Seljavallalaug

 Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons, photo by Johannes Martin. Seljavallalaug is an outdoor swimming pool in South Iceland, roughly ten kilomet...

View

Eyjafjallajökull

The glacier volcano of Eyjafjallajökull is notorious the world over for causing havoc to air travel in 2010, and stumping television anchors ev...

View

Skógafoss

Skógafoss is one of Iceland’s biggest and most beautiful waterfalls with an astounding width of 25 meters (82 feet) and a drop of 60 me...

View

Gígjökull

  Gígjökull is one of the two glacier outlets of Eyjafjallajökull. The other is Steinholtsjökull. Eyjafjallajökull...

View

Skógar

Skógar, in South Iceland, is a tiny village and popular stop for travellers. It has a population of about 20 people, features a regional muse...

View

Skogar Museum - Skógarsafn

Photo from the Skógar Museum Skógar Museum is a cultural heritage museum in south Iceland. Located near one of the most popular waterf...

View

Kvernufoss

Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir. Kvernufoss is a waterfall with a drop of 30 metres (98 feet) in South Iceland. Considered a h...

View

South Shore

The South Shore refers to the southern coastline of Iceland and it is one of the country’s most popular sightseeing routes. The South Shore i...

View

Tours near Heimaey

One Hour Small Island Tour in Vestmannaeyjar

Explore the caves, monoliths and coastal beauty of the Westman Islands. This boat tour is an......

View

Scenic Flying Tour | Volcanoes, South Highlands & Great Glaciers

Come along on a scenic "flightseeing" tour over the infamous glacier volcano Eyjafjallajökull......

View

2-Hour RIB Boat Tour of the Westman Islands

Explore the Westman Islands in style on this RIB-boat adventure. This tour is not to be missed......

View

Westman Islands Flightseeing Tour | South Coast Departure

Get a bird’s eye view of the beautiful Westman Islands with this short flightseeing tour. Take......

View