So, you want to know how to best visit Surtsey? Looks like are one of those adventurous people who like to visit places off the beaten path? Or have you never heard of this strange island called Surtsey and want to find out more? Doesn’t matter because you’ve come to the right place! This guide will teach you what you need to know before visiting the mysterious island of Surtsey.
We have so many exciting things to cover! We’ll talk about the massive volcanic eruption that brought Surtsey out of the water. It surfaced only 57 years ago. This makes it the youngest places on Earth – how cool is that? Why Surtsey is a UNESCO World Heritage site? Why it is so difficult to get to and how to actually get there. We’ll talk that and about puffins, the cutest birds ever! We’ll also talk about climbing volcanoes and rocks that look like elephants. We’ll give you a step by step guide, answering every question you may have about this place. Let’s get started!
What and where is Surtsey
How to get to Surtsey
Here’s a big revelation. You’re actually not allowed to visit Surtsey. The island of Surtsey emerged from the water about 60 years ago. This thanks to a massive underwater volcanic eruption. It lasted almost 4 years and eventually lifted it up out of the sea! How crazy amazing is that? Ever since its creation in November 1963, it’s been heavily protected. The only ones allowed to visit Surtsey, to set foot on the island are authorised scientists.
The good news is that there is a way to get at least very close to Surtsey and see it from a distance. First, you’ll need to get yourself down to the south coast of Iceland. Roughly halfway between the towns of Selfoss and Vík, you head to the Landeyjahöfn ferry terminal. There, or online, you book a spot on the Herjólfur ferry. Regardless of buying it online or there, the price is the same.
The ferry will take you to Heimaey 7 km, 11 mi, about 45 minutes south off the coast. You can either travel on the ferry as a regular passenger or bring your car. The ferry crossing takes about 45 minutes. There are some comfy seats inside. You can enjoy the fresh air (okay, let’s be real here – some brutal wind) on the outer and upper deck. We spent our time equally divided between inside and outside (warm and cold). If you don’t mind the cold, we’d recommend the outside. The views are stunning and at one point there were actually dolphins swimming near our boat. Coming into the Heimaey harbour we also saw seals swimming near and resting on the cliffs.
Another way to get to Heimaey is to take a direct domestic flight. Eagle Air and Air Iceland Connect fly from and to Reykjavik Domestic Airport. The flight only takes about 25 minutes but will obviously be more expensive.
We came in a car and we definitely recommend bringing a car. Heimaey is not super large but the hilly landscape is not the most walkable. It is more than an hours walk across the island. Hiking the coastline will take you more than 7 hours. If you only want to visit the town, visit Eldheimar and climb the Eldfell volcano then you probably don’t need a car. You will spend about 3 hours walking and it is by far not all scenic. If you want to truly see the island, the stunning cliffs, beaches and many viewpoints you want a car. This includes if you actually want to visit Surtsey, well see Surtsey to be precise. Like we said more than one hour one way to the viewpoint where you can see it. Are you looking for puffins (we’ll tell you later where to find them) then you will also appreciate having a car. A car will on top give you some time to enjoy, rest, sit down in a café and even go on a short hike or two.
How far is Surtsey from Reykjavik and the airport
The ferry terminal is about 2 hours drive from Reykjavik. It’s an about 2,5 hours drive from the Keflavik International Airport. As mentioned, during bad weather the ferry goes from Þorlákshöfn. The good thing about that is that it’s only about 1h from both Reykjavik and the airport.
Why is Surtsey a World Heritage Site
All World Heritage Sites are by definition amazing. We as humankind have picked them to be protected for current and future generations. What makes Surtsey so special that in 2008 the UNESCO decided to include it on the list?
Surtsey is unique because it’s a very young piece of land. From its birth less than 60 years ago it’s been carefully protected. It’s been almost completely free of human contact and interaction. This makes it the perfect place for observing nature developing. Scientists can here learn how animal and plant life is created and evolves in a new landmass.
If you want to know more about the UNESCO Site itself then click the ‘More’ button below. If you want to know more about how to visit Surtsey then read on.
How to get around Surtsey
When is the best time to visit Surtsey, well, Heimaey
The best time to visit Surtsey, or Heimaey, is between April and August. That is if you’d like to have the nicest weather and the best chance to spot the lovely puffins.
Don’t get too excited about the weather though. Heimaey is one of the windiest places in Iceland and that’s quite an achievement. Iceland is crazy windy already. You can imagine how bad it is if something is called the windiest place in Iceland!
It never gets too hot here. Even in August the temperatures will likely not be more than 15°C. On top, On top, the wind always makes it feel colder. The best thing about visiting in the summer is that it rains less. If you’d like to do what we did and visit Surtsey (Heimaey) in late October, be prepared to dress warm. It definitely stood true to its windy reputation. It was also really cold but still incredibly beautiful and well worth visiting.
Things to do on the Vestmannaeyjar
Since it is not possible to visit Surtsey we will show you how to get as close as possible. We’ll start with that. Then we’ll follow with all the amazing things you can actually do on Heimaey. This is where you can and will go. Heimaey in itself is very well worth the visit Surtsey isn’t getting.
You can't visit Surtsey but can get close
You basically have 3 options on how to get close to Surtsey. The first two are a bit easier and the last one is more complicated or at least more expensive.
- The first option requires you to go to the southernmost point of Heimaey, a peninsula called Stórhöfði (the Great Cape). This also happens to be one of the best spots on the island of Heimaey for puffin watching (we’ll get to that later). There is not much else there except a lighthouse and some incredible views! Those views are what you go there for! From there you can actually see Surtsey, it’s the island to the right in the very back of them all.
- The second option is getting to a good high up vantage point to see Surtsey from above. What could be a better place than to climb high up a volcano? That’s right! A volcano! All you need to do is to climb atop the Eldfell volcano (we’ll talk more about it below). From there you can see Surtsey at the very right of all the islands.
- The third and possibly best option (but also the most costly) is to book a boat tour. The tours leave from the Heimaey harbour goes into the archipelago. This allows you to get as close as one can to Surtsey. You still can’t physically visit Surtsey. The boats are not allowed to anchor or drop anyone off on the island, but they get at least kind of close.
So, should you take a tour to visit Surtsey?
Watching Surtsey from Heimaey was close enough for us. That said, it’s not close. You can compare watching Heimaey from the mainland by watching Surtsey from Heimaey. It’s roughly double the distance, 18km, 11 miles. When we visited there were, unfortunately, no tours available. In season Ribsafari and Viking Tours are the options. Both offer 3-hour tours that go as close to Surtsey as you are physically allowed. On the way there you have a real chance of spotting some amazing wildlife. The possibility of seeing both dolphins and whales are there. This is actually the biggest reason for taking a tour to visit Surtsey. You’re getting a 2-in-1 deal and who doesn’t like that? On the other hand, this is by far the most expensive way to see it, and it will be the biggest chunk of your budget. Also, there is actually no wildlife, or plants, on Surtsey that you cannot see somewhere else.
Go puffin watching
We unfortunately went to visit Surtsey outside of the puffin season, in October. We actually didn’t know before coming to Iceland that the puffins don’t stay there all year round. We learned that quickly from the locals and also from the internet when we researched it. You need to time your visit for the summer season if you want to see them. They only stay on Iceland from April to August, sometimes until September. Then they leave the islands and go live out on the sea.
Make sure you check out the puffin lookout at Stórhöfði, the windy edge of Heimaey that we mentioned earlier. Another great way to see puffins in Iceland is to join one of the many Puffin Watching Tours. These tours go around Heimaey on the water making it much easier to see the puffins on the cliffs.
Go whale watching
Climb the Eldfell volcano
Visit the Eldheimar Museum
Explore the Heimaey town of Vestmannaeyjabær
Check out Halldórsskora Elephant Rock
This is one thing we completely missed and only found out about it when browsing the internet later. It is a rock formation sticking out of the water. It looks exactly like an elephant’s head with its trunk in the water. The basalt that it’s made of makes it looks like the wrinkled skin of an elephant. It looks super cool! You should definitely add it to your list of things to see on Heimaey. According to the internet, it is actually the most photographed thing on the island. Clearly we focused too much on planning how to visit Surtsey and somehow failed to notice it. You can see it from the water if you take one of the boat tours. You can also walk to the Westman Islands Golf Club and check it out from the viewpoint there.
The best photo spots on the Westman Islands
It’s becoming more and more important to find those wonderfully Instagrammable places. We all want to find those perfect spots and get stunning and unique shots. We’re also guilty of that, always looking for the best views. We spend time to research where to find the best photo opportunity in every place we visit.
Above we’ve already mentioned where to find the best spots to see Surtsey. Since we couldn’t visit Surtsey those are also the best spots to photograph the island.
Below we’ve put together the top photo spots we found on Heimaey for you. Believe us, there are plenty of other locations on Heimaey. So, here we go!
The view from the Eldfell volcano
The view from the Stórhöfði peninsula
Since we couldn’t visit Surtsey this is where we went to take our pictures. The southernmost tip of Heimaey, Stórhöfði great/big cape, is the perfect spot to photograph Surtsey in the distance. As a bonus, it is also a great spot to photograph puffins in season.
It was incredibly windy here but the view makes up for it. Iceland is in general really windy and Stórhöfði is the windiest place in Iceland! Some sources claim it’s even the windiest spot in the whole of Europe. It does hold the record for the lowest recorded air pressure on the continent. The weather observations are done in the old lighthouse. It’s from 1906 making it one of the oldest lighthouses in Iceland.
The view from the Golf Club
The view from Hamarsvegur
“Beautiful puffin and shore view”, this is actually how someone named it in Google Maps, and that person was really good at naming stuff. Hamarsvegurgoes from north to south and mid-way along the western side of the island you stop at this parking for a great view.
Look out from the Herjólfur ferry
How long should I spend on Heimaey?
How to visit Heimaey in 1 day
Our 1-day itinerary suggestion
We originally planned to visit Surtsey. Since that plan fell through we made other plans. This is a combination of how we did our day and how we wish we would have done it. We had a car and to do this in just 1 day you will need a car as well.
Off the beaten path
Climb Heimaklettur! This is the majestic cliff you see close up on your right coming into the island on the ferry that probably will trigger you into a photo-frenzy. Climbing this is not for everyone, it is a very difficult 2km, 1,24 mile, hike. We visited in late October and the days were just too short to fit everything into one day and on top it started to rain. We visited the starting point/ trail head of this climb/hike down by the port. We saw the ladders leading up the steep cliff wall. Next time… The hike to the top of Heimaklettur takes you nearly 300 meters up. The coastal scenery from there is breathtaking even by Iceland’s high standards. It even takes you above the Eldfell volcano. From up there you can see the way the lava flowed in the 1973 eruption that destroyed so many houses and nearly blocked the harbor.
Other places to visit nearby
There really isn’t that much else that you can visit nearby, it is, after all, an island. You know by now that most people will not visit Surtsey and even planning it is somewhat complicated. When returning to the mainland there are plenty of things to do and to explore. The only thing here would be to visit the Þrídrangaviti (pronounced Thridrangaviti) Lighthouse. It’s sitting on top of a tall sliver of a rock in the wild waters of the Atlantic ocean. If you thought that trying to visit Surtsey is hard, it is near impossible to visit the Þrídrangaviti Lighthouse. The only way to go there is by helicopter and this is how it became famous, thanks to Justin Bieber!
Insider Tips to visit Surtsey / Heimaey
Here’s our summary of some of our travel tips and advice. All useful when planning to visit Surtsey, Heimaey and the Westman Islands.
So, that’s a wrap! What do you guys think? Would you like to visit the Westman Islands? Will you still visit Surtsey? Should you visit Heimaey? We had a wonderful time on Heimaey and highly recommend the trip.
Perhaps, after reading all this you still have questions? Was something unclear? Still don’t know how to visit Surtsey? That’s what we have the Comments section for. We can’t wait to hear from you!
Useful Related External Links
Here you find all the external links we refer to in the text. On top, we have added other links that we found useful when planning to visit Surtsey and Heimaey.