What is there to do in the Westfjords of Iceland? How long will you need to explore the Westfjords? What are the major towns and what facilities do they have? Continue reading to learn about one of Iceland’s most remote, untouched and beautiful regions.
The Westfjords of Iceland are much less travelled than most other corners of the country, due to their vastness and distance from ‘must-see’ destinations such as the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Lake Mývatn, and the sites of the Golden Circle. This fact, however, says nothing about of the incredible wonders to be found here.
It is, in fact, one of the country’s most spectacular and awe-inspiring regions. The settlements are small and sparse, and between them are untouched landscapes and dramatic features unlike any other in the country. While traversing the Westfjords does require a lot of driving, the surrounding scenery proves that the journey can be quite as amazing as the destination.
Due to its remoteness and relative lack of tourist traffic, there is less awareness of what sites the Westfjords hold. Many people are aware of the mighty Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland's southwest, but have never heard of Dynjandi on the Westfjords; the south coast black-sand-beach Reynisfjara is famous, but its pink-sand relative Rauðasandur on the Westfjords is virtually unknown.
People rush for puffin-watching tours from Reykjavík’s Old Harbour, without realising that you can get within an arm’s reach of these adorable little critters from the Látrabjarg birdwatching cliffs.
One thing that should be noted, however, is that the Westfjords are really only accessible in the summer months, from May to October; snowfall is heavy in the region, and due to the small population, the roads are not as regularly maintained as in the rest of the country.
So many of the features that make Iceland famous, such as its dramatic mountains, hot springs, the multitude of waterfalls, and stunning coastlines, have variations in the Westfjords.
Even so, however, the region has its own distinct character, being the oldest part of Iceland at 16 million years old. It, therefore, lacks active volcanoes and lava fields, but have instead verdant stretches and ancient landscapes.
Whether you are a photographer, hiker, biker, road-tripper, adrenaline junkie, wildlife enthusiast, history buff or just a general traveller, you will find a wealth of places that will suit your interests in this incredible region. Below, you can discover the best attractions, towns and tours to be found in the Westfjords of Iceland.
Best Natural Attractions in the Westfjords of Iceland
Most travellers coming to Iceland are visiting to enjoy its diverse, unique and dramatic nature; these three adjectives can all be used to describe the Westfjords without a hint of exaggeration. Its natural attractions are some of the best in the country, whether you are seeking wildlife, waterfalls, beaches or hot springs, and its landscapes, of dramatic fjords and towering mountains, are simply awe-inspiring.
Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
Deserted since the 1950s, the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is the least populated region of Iceland outside of the Highlands. The lack of people here the past few decades have allowed for an explosion in flora and fauna, making it an excellent destination for those seeking out the best examples of Iceland’s wildlife.
Take the Artic Fox, for example. In most of Iceland, they are near-impossible to spot, being rather rare, camouflaged in the landscapes, and naturally cautious of humans. In Hornstrandir, however, they are numerous, with plentiful food in the birds’ eggs along the cliffs, reasonably easy to spot on the wide stretches of flat tundra or—and having had very little contact with people, they are extremely curious whenever visitors come by.
Seals are commonly seen hauling out on the rocks along the coastline, and the surrounding waters are home to species such as Humpback Whales, white-beaked dolphins, and occasionally orcas. There are also over 30 avian species that nest here throughout summer, with the cliffs Hornbjarg and Riturinn being the most renowned for birdwatching.
The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve also has a wealth of arctic plant-life that has not been able to flourish in the rest of the country due to its fragility; as there are no grazing animals here, however, it is a floral paradise. There are 260 different flowering species, including the rare sea pea and sea lungworth, found along the region’s beaches. You can also find rare ferns on higher ground.
Hornstrandir was declared a nature reserve since 1975, and has been very well-protected since. Visitors are few in number, and largely respect the incredible region, so if you manage to make it over, ensure you follow suit.
- See also: The Wildlife and Animals of Iceland
The cliffs of Látrabjarg stretch for 14 kilometres and are over four hundred metres high in numerous places, making them quite a spectacle in themselves. In summer, however, they become a natural wonder worthy of international acclaim, as they fill with literally millions of birds, nesting and raising their chicks.
Forty percent of the world’s razorbills nest here, as do many guillemots, fulmars, auks and northern gannets. What most visitors come looking for and discover in abundance, however, are the puffins.
- See also: Where to Find Puffins in Iceland
One does not have to look far to find them. They nest in the thousands, often near the top of the cliff, allowing you to get within arm’s reach of them; they have very little fear of people, unless you try to touch them (which, of course, you should not try to do).
While you can get very close, do so with great caution, not only because of the height of the cliffs, but because puffins dig burrows into them, causing the earth to be unstable above. This makes them vulnerable to collapse should you step on the wrong point.
Outside of the abundant birdlife, Látrabjarg is famous for being the site of a dramatic rescue; when the British trawler Dhoon crashed into the rocks beneath the cliffs, local farmers noticed twelve survivors, stranded far below. Trained in scaling down the sheer cliff face in order to collect bird eggs, the Icelanders descended to the otherwise doomed fishermen on ropes and managed to haul all of them up to safety.
Dynjandi is a hidden gem, a waterfall so spectacular and awe-inspiring, that it is the favourite of many (including this writer) in all of Iceland. Considering the number of waterfalls that are not only beautiful but incredibly unique, such as Seljalandsfoss, which you can encircle, and Dettifoss, which is more powerful than any other falls in Europe, this is quite a statement.
Dynjandi is, in fact, a series of waterfalls that fall down a cliff-face somewhat resembling a staircase; all in all, it is over one hundred metres high. The scale of it is awe-inspiring, and the contrast of the foaming white water against the black and grey lava and creeping green moss is beautiful.
The water from Dynjandi feeds into many smaller waterfalls, all of which you have to walk by to reach it; while nowhere near as dramatic, all of these are delightful and quaint in their own right.
Photo from Rauðasandur in the Westfjords of Iceland by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
Rauðasandur is a very unusual beach by Iceland’s standards. Most of the nation’s coastline is of cliffs or battered rocks, and where it is sandy, it is usually coloured black from the island’s regular eruptions. Rauðasandur, however, is vividly coloured with red, orange, pink and golden sands, making it an incredibly picturesque location.
Rauðasandur is located beneath the Látrabjarg birdwatching cliffs, making it a convenient place to stop for a visit or a picnic for those driving around the Westfjords. To walk all along the beach requires wading across a shallow stream, so bring appropriate boots if you plan on staying here long.
For those travelling in July, this beach comes alive with the Rauðasandur Music Festival, which runs over a weekend and it is possible to camp at. Conducted beneath the midnight sun, this surprisingly large and popular cultural event showcases diverse Icelandic talent, and proceeds go towards protecting and developing the area.
Hot Springs in the Westfjords
Photo from Hot Pools in the Westfjords of Iceland, by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
Older than the rest of Iceland, and far from the Mid Atlantic Ridge that divides the country and is the reason for the excessive geothermal activity, the Westfjords have no active volcanoes and fewer hot springs than the rest of the nation. That is not to say, however, that there are not any; in fact, there are over twenty natural pools hidden in nature.
The most convenient for many travellers is Hellulaug, which is close to the port of the ferry Baldur, which goes between the town Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Westfjords. Gvendarlaug, at Bjarnarfjörður in the north-east of the region, is another great choice; it is easy to locate, sitting right beside Hotel Laugarhóll.
The best-kept secret hot springs in the Westfjords are at Mjóifjörður, a remote fjord many will drive by on their way to Ísafjörður. They are hidden within the natural surroundings, and their whereabouts kept quiet so as to protect them from tourist crowds. Speak to a local or the staff at an information centre to find out how to reach them.
- See also: Hot Pools in the Westfjords of Iceland
The Fjords Themselves
Finally, some of the greatest natural attractions of the Westfjords are the fjords themselves. Sheltered by giant mountains, and plunging deep into the land, winding up and down the roads here is an awe-inspiring experience. In clear weather, the scale of the peaks will take your breath away, and throughout the summer, the waters are often home to Humpback Whales, feeding on the wealth of fish that reside here.
- See also: Whale Watching in Iceland
Best Towns in the Westfjords of Iceland
The term "town" in Iceland generally refers to a settlement of over 1000 people; only one settlement in the Westfjords meets this criterion. In spite of this, the villages are picturesque, historical and cultural, and though many have just a few hundred residents, they also have hidden surprises most travellers do not even know exist.
Ísafjörður is the ‘Capital of the Westfjords’, and the only official ‘town’, with around a modest 2,600 residents. It is, however, steeped in natural beauty and history, and is the centre of culture for the entire region.
For those staying in the Westfjords, it has more options for accommodation, as well as more bars, restaurants and general amenities than any other part of the region. It also has a wealth of sites you could spend half a day to a full one exploring.
It has, for example, a maritime museum at which you can learn all about Icelandic fisheries, and in particular how the industry built this region; fish (along with sheep) were the lifeblood of this nation for centuries, and what Icelanders risked to ensure they caught enough to survive is fascinating.
Ísafjörður also has two cultural centres, the Edinborg Cultural Centre and the Old Hospital, where you can see artwork and exhibitions of the locals. Finally, it has some of the oldest buildings in Iceland, dating back to the 18th Century.
The settlement of Patreksfjörður, in the southern Westfjords, is the best place to base yourself if you want easy access to Dynjandi, Látrabjarg and Rauðasandur, being less than two hours from the former and one hour from the latter. The town has a large, popular swimming pool, and is close to some of the aforementioned hot springs.
Patreksfjörður is also home to a pirate museum and a folk museum. In the 17th Century, Icelanders were targeted by barbary pirates who killed and captured many; learning about this history, and the stories of the survivors, is fascinating. The folk museum is also well worth a visit as it has exhibitions on everything from historic whaling, aviation in Iceland, and the rescue at Látrabjarg discussed above.
Photo from Hólmavík in the Westfjords of Iceland - the Sorcery Town, by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
The tiny settlement of Hólmavík is one of those places with a lot more than meets the eye. What seems to only be a sleepy fishing village is actually home to the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft, where you can learn all about magical staves, witch-hunts and folklore in Iceland. It is also home to the Sheep Farming Museum for those interested in agriculture, which exhibits how sheep were quite as important to the survival of this nation as its fish.
- See also: Folklore in Iceland
Photo from 3 Days of Fun at Reykholar in the Westfjords of Iceland - Part 3, by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
Reykhólar sits on the cusp of the Westfjords and is home to around just 120 permanent inhabitants. In spite of this, there are still a wealth of surrounding attractions that can justify a stay in the area.
The nearby coast is very shallow with a high tidal range, inviting both freshwater and saltwater bird species, making it a paradise for bird watchers. There is also a museum on the relationship between man and nature, which exhibits how residents of the Westfjords relied heavily on birds, eggs and seals for survival.
Reykholar also has a kelp processing factory, which transforms seaweed into food, fuel, medicine and fertiliser. Here, you can take a ‘kelp bath’, which is said to do wonders for the skin.
Flateyri is a minuscule community immersed in spectacular nature; massive flat-topped mountains surround it, and the seascapes are some of the best in the country. The town has a restaurant and pub, a swimming pool, newly built hot tubs, and the increasingly popular Nonsense Museum, which is simply a collection of historical oddities from all over the world.
Best Tours in the Westfjords of Iceland
If you are travelling to the Westfjords and basing yourself in one of the towns, it is possible to take tours where a local guide will introduce you to the sites, and provide you with a much more educational experience than if you were going at it alone.
Take, for example, this guided tour of Dynjandi. While a visit alone would be awe-inspiring, with a local guide, you can learn all about the role the area played in multiple Icelandic Sagas; Gísli Súrsson, remembered in Gísli’s Saga as a one of Iceland’s most complex outlaws, is said to have lived near here. You can also learn about Iceland’s independence struggle, as the farm of liberation leader Jón Siguðsson is within sight.
If you would like to take part in an activity, rather than just sightseeing, there are many options for this too. For example, avid fishers could look into this sea-angling tour, whereas those who do not wish to miss out on a glacier-hiking experience can hike upon Drangajökull, Iceland’s northernmost ice cap. It is even possible to go kayaking in the Hornstrandir Reserve, or take a three-day hiking and sightseeing tour here from Reykjavík.
Those who would rather see the sites themselves, but would appreciate following an itinerary will also find a wealth of options throughout summer. Many self-drive packages encircle the island and include several days in the Westfjords, such as these, which go over ten, thirteen and fourteen days.
If you do not have so long, you could look into this eight-day self-drive, which will immerse you in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Westfjords.
The Westfjords of Iceland will provide visitors to Iceland with exactly what most looking for: untouched nature, incredible landscapes, diverse sites and cultural attractions. Though less travelled than the rest of the country, this only adds to its appeal, and allows you to enjoy incredible wonders far from the crowds.
If you have a few spare days in Iceland, visiting this region promises nothing but rewards.