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Surtsey

Travel Guide

+10 Tips, Advice and Insights
First visited by us on October 21, 2020
TL;DR: Our updated guide on how to best visit Surtsey, a tiny island close off the southern coast of Iceland. Surtsey was created by a massive 4 years long underwater volcanic eruption in the 1960s. It makes it the youngest place on Earth. It's because of this a scientist's wet dream for studying how life evolves from scratch. We recently visited Heimaey in the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands). It's the closest you can actually get to Surtsey itself. You can see Surtsey from there. This guide actually has more than 30 tips, insider information and our lessons learned to make the most out of your time. With our curated suggestions, ideas and maps we set you up on a great 1-day literary.

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

Surtsey is an island in the country of Iceland, in the Atlantic Ocean in North-eastern Europe. It’s the southernmost point of Iceland. You will find it 34 km, 21 mi, off the central part of the cost of the Southern Region of Iceland.It is one of 15 islands and 30 cliffs that together form the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands). The largest and only island of the archipelago where people live is Heimaey. The name actually means “Home Island”. Surtsey is the second largest of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. It’s still only 10% of the size of Heimaey, it really is tiny. The name Surtsey comes from Surtur, a God of Fire from the Norse mythology.

From Ragnarök (The End of the World): "...amid this turmoil, the sky will open and from it will ride the sons of Muspell. Surtr will ride in front, and both before and behind him there will be burning fire. His sword will be very fine. Light will shine from it more brightly than from the sun."

Poetic Edda: Völuspá (Prophecy of the Seeress) Ch. 51 of Gylfaginning ~950 AD Tweet
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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.

Insider Tip: Always make sure to check the weather conditions in advance. When the weather is bad, which happens often in Iceland, the ferry doesn’t leave from the main harbour. Instead, it sails to and from Þorlákshöfn, closer to Selfoss and Reykjavik. The crossing takes closer to 3 hours from there instead of 45 minutes. They will always have this information on the ferry website.

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

Well, this is one of the few UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you actually cannot go to. That is unless you are a scientist and have gotten the required and extremely hard to get permission. That is the only way to be allowed to visit Surtsey. If you actually are one of the few to ever have gotten that permit, you’ll walk. As we’re sure you can imagine, there are no roads on Surtsey. No vehicles whatsoever are allowed on the island. The whole purpose of Surtsey being a World Heritage Site is that no-one ever goes there!

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.

Insider Tip: Would you like to experience the biggest music festival in Iceland? Then you should visit Surtsey and Heimaey in the second week of August. This is when the National Festival is held in the Vestmannaeyjar. It will be busy and fun for sure, with lots of free activities happening on the island. Keep in mind that it might be harder to find accommodation during the festival. Also, make sure to book the ferry in advance.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Who gets super excited at the mention of the word puffin? I mean, the word itself is already sounding like it must be describing something adorable. That’s exactly what these birds are – they are a bird watchers’ dream. They are cute, they are colourful and they are so rare they can only be seen at a few locations in the North Atlantic. The amazing news is that Heimaey is considered the puffin capital of the world! There are only about 4500 people living on the island of Heimaey. Every year, about 8 million puffins come to stay here as well, over the summer! So even if you in the end can’t visit Surtsey the puffins alone make up for that.There are a few great puffing watching locations on Heimaey. Usually they are located on the edges of the island, where the birds can hang out undisturbed.If you’re there in the right season, going puffin spotting is an absolute must-do! Even if you’re not a bird watcher you will love these cute birds, trust us. They look like they’re cut out straight from a cartoon!

Fun Fact: Did you know that the Porgs in Star Wars actually look a lot like puffins? And that’s not a coincidence! The island of Great Skellig (or Skellig Michael) in Ireland, where the scenes of Luke Skywalker's Jedi Island were filmed, is another place, like the Westman Islands, where hundreds of puffins live. There were so many of them during the filming that editing them out would have been too much effort for the filmmakers. They decided to just leave them there and that's how Porgs were created.

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

Another one of the top things to do in Iceland is to go whale watching. The most famous place for that is actually starting from mainland Iceland. On the north coast, in a town called Húsavík, that’s now super famous because of the Eurovision movie. If you’re not planning on visiting northern Iceland you might still see them. It is actually not that uncommon to see them on the tours to visit Surtsey. In fact, you might get lucky and see some whales on all the boat tours running from Heimaey. Around 20 species of whale can be found in the sea surrounding Iceland. Most common are the beaked whale and the humpback whale.
 
If you don’t want to take a boat tour you can always visit Little Gray and Little White. You find them in the world’s first Beluga Marine Sanctuary near the port.

Climb the Eldfell volcano

The Eldfell volcano is close to the harbour and the downtown area. It is not a difficult climb, but it is a bit steep. You will need at least a basic level of fitness to climb it as it gets especially steep towards the top. It took us about 15 minutes to climb it. We are avid hikers so you might want to plan up to 30 minutes if you’re not that fit. It will be worth it if you do make it to the top. The views are out of this world spectacular. We definitely think this is one of the must-do activities on Heimaey. Even if you cannot visit Surtsey you can on a good day see it clearly from here.

Interesting Fact: Eldfell was created in a surprise volcanic eruption on 23 January 1973. It destroyed more than 400 homes and the lava flow threatened to close the harbour. The harbour was saved by pumping cold sea water on the lava flow. The name means Hill of Fire in Icelandic. You can learn everything you need to know about Eldfell and the event in the Eldheimar Museum close to it.

Insider Tip: When you get to the top, look for the larger holes in the ground on the far end. Put your hand close to the opening or climb into one of the bigger ones. You’ll be able to feel hot air coming out because of the geothermal activity. How fun is that?!

Visit the Eldheimar Museum

After climbing Eldfell, or before, you really should visit the Eldheimar Museum. They are connected. Regardless if you’re a history buff or not this is a museum you will like. The museum is located near the Eldfell volcano, about 20 minutes walk from the ferry terminal.In 1973 the Eldfell volcano awoke without a warning after being dormant for 5000 years. The steaming lava threatened to cover the entire island and burn it to the ground. The clever locals created a cooling system using seawater to cool the advancing lava. This helped to save much of the island. Did you, like us, come here to visit Surtsey? Then here is also where you also will learn about the eruption 10 years earlier that created it.The Eldheimar museum is focusing on these two events. In a very interesting and visual way, it brings the stories to life. The interactive exhibit is great for everyone, even children. The museum name Eldheimar translates as Fiery. It is also known as the Volcano Museum.

Insider Tip: The opening hours differ in the summer and in the winter. In the summer the museum is open every day between 09:00-18:00. In the winter the opening times are 13.30-16.30 on Wednesday-Sunday. In the winter season, the museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. A single adult ticket costs 2600 ISK, about 17€.

Explore the Heimaey town of Vestmannaeyjabær

If you’ve decided on visiting Heimaey on foot, Vestmannaeyjabær is where you’ll arrive with the ferry. This is also where you’ll start exploring the wonderful island of Heimaey. Even if you have decided on taking a tour to visit Surtsey, or get close, this is where you start. For both adventures, this is the place to start your exploration. It is not big, only about 4500 persons live here permanently. It is easily walkable and full of lovely cafés and restaurants. There are also supermarkets like Bónus or Krónan, where you can stock up on some snacks for the day. On the outskirts of town is also where you find the Eldheimar museum next to the Eldfell volcano.

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

From up there you possibly have the most stunning view of the entire archipelago. The red crater below, the black lava, the green moss all makes it wonderfully colourful. Add to this the rest of the Westman Islands, including Surtsey in the blue Atlantic ocean. On top, you have the majestic snow-capped mountains in the distance on the mainland. Perfect is with the Vestmannaeyjabær town below, with its houses all looking tiny from up there. Yes, indeed the perfect photo opportunity! Even if you cannot visit Surtsy this rewarding view is worth the visit to the island of Heimaey alone.

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

Heimaey has a golf club called Golfklubbur Vestmannaeyja. It’s a par 70, 18 holes course located in the Vestmannaeyjavöllur. Golf Digest rated it as one of Europe’s 200 most enjoyable courses. This is where you should head to get the closest possible view of the famous Halldórsskora Elephant Rock.Here you also find an interesting monument called The Messenger. It was put there in honour of the 410 Icelanders who left to build Zion in the Utah, USA.

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

You really should take advantage of arriving by ferry. Get outside on the upper deck. The views of the volcanic islands sticking out of the water are incredible. Maybe you’ll even spot some wildlife!

How long should I spend on Heimaey?

We only spent one full day and found that to be enough for us. We had a car. On top, we were there in October when the days are not that long. With that said we could see the point of spending at least one night there. It all depends on the time of the year you are visiting. We were there off-season and everything was empty and easily accessible. If you come during the puffin season you might need more time. There are also some really cool short hikes available and you could do a boat tour around the islands. If you want to do all this on top of what we did you will need 2-3 days. This is especially true if you plan to visit Surtsey. You will probably need one full day for that tour alone.

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.

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