Although close to Reykjavik, you couldn’t feel further away from the capital upon hitting West Iceland. The region, although easily accessible, tends to be overlooked by most travelers, and it’s easy to see why; open a map and notice the lack of big hitting names such as Skogafoss, or Myvatn. But what it lacks in flair it makes up for in authentic experience, and travel to the far-flung corners of the region to leave the crowds of tourists behind.
By far the most popular feature of the region is the long arm of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, where Snæfellsjökull itself steals the show. The majestic glacier-capped stratovolcano is the only one in Iceland that comes even close to the image of what a volcano looks like in your mind. Not even Jules Verne could resist its pull, using the brooding eminence at the edge of the country as inspiration for her tale Journey to the Center of the Earth.
But the stories don’t stop there. West Iceland is the birthplace of some of the country’s most famed Sagas. Travel through the landscapes drenched in history, the backroads of the region meandering past historic farms still working today and ancient cultural sites from the Viking era, all backdropped by the impressive Langjökull glacier and framed by rivers rushing past lost and forgotten villages.
For the history lovers, West Iceland is a popular hotspot. The location for a lot of the more dramatic Icelandic Sagas, diving into the rich Icelandic history and stories is easy. Your first stop should be in the town of Borganes, where the Settlement Centre gives a detailed insight into the settlement of Iceland. Also, on display is an exhibition all about Egill Skallagrímsson, a Viking age warrior, poet, and farmer, whose exciting adventures are brought to life in one of Iceland’s most beloved pieces of literature, Egil’s Saga.
Wanderlist: Art and History in Iceland
Head south east of Búðardalur, a town on the precipice of the Westfjords, and you’ll find the reconstructed farmstead of Eiríksstaðir. Home to Eiríkr Þorvaldsson, also known as Erik the Red, who founded the first European settlement in Greenland, this historic farmstead is now a museum and a place for visitors to be thrown into life during the Viking era. The costumed guides are well versed in the history of both Iceland, the Vikings, and the story of Erik the Red. The farm was also the birthplace of Leifur Eiríksson, who is said to be the first man to discover America. Also nearby is the historic hot spring Guðrúnarlaug, which has ties with the Laxdæla saga.
Statue of Leifur Eiríksson in front of Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik. Photo: James Taylor/Wonderguide
Another fantastic historical site to visit in the West is the tiny village of Reykholt. From 1206-1241 it was home to one of the most prestigious Icelanders of the time, Snorri Sturluson, whose works are still treasured today. Known as a politician, historian, and most importantly a writer of poems and sagas, people believed him to be the original author of Egil’s Saga – written on site at Reykholt. Snorri’s work entitled Prose Edda is one of the biggest sources of information on Norse mythology, which you can learn about (as well as all his other works) in the Snorrastofa Cultural and Research Centre, the biggest attraction in town. You’ll also find here what could potentially be the oldest hot spring used for bathing in the country, Snorralaug (please note that bathing there is no longer allowed due to the historical significance of the site). Snorri lived nearby and had his own private tunnel from his house to the hot spring, which you can also see.
Further Reading: Iceland for History Lovers
So impressive is this small part of the country that it has been dubbed ‘Iceland in a Nutshell’. Although these descriptions are often a bit on-the-nose, for Snæfellsnes, Icelanders have gotten it right; on the peninsula you’ll find windswept beaches, lava fields, hot springs, and waterfalls. In short, everything that you’ll see around the rest of the country.
One of the best things to do on the Peninsula is head to the Snæfellsjökull National Park. Walking trails lead you through the beautiful area, and it makes as a surprisingly good place to go birdwatching as well. For more to do on the peninsula, it’s best to read Nika’s recommendations on the area – our resident expert on all things Snæfellsnes. Day tours also leave from Reykjavik.
Kirkjufell Mountain is one of the most photographed in all of Iceland, and was a shooting location for Games of Thrones. Photo: James Taylor/Wonderguide
The second biggest glacier in Iceland, Langjökull provides thrill-seekers with the perfect opportunity to get up close and personal with one of Iceland’s many behemoth ice caps. Snowmobiling, dog sledding, glacier hikes and ice climbing are all available activities, but the biggest tourist attraction here is the ‘Into the Glacier’ tour that delves deep inside the glacier in a man-made ice cave.
Browse the range of tours and activities here.
One of the prettiest waterfalls in Iceland, Hraunfossar is a series of cascades that charge out over a cliffside into the river below. The water travels underneath a lava field that stretches away to the north. Head up the trail a little bit to discover Barnafoss, another waterfall that churns through a twist in the canyon.
Photo: James Taylor/Wonderguide
Once the main resting point for those travelling between Reykjavik and Akureyri, Húsafell is a great recreational spot to spend a few days. The small area has a hotel and a restaurant to cater to the people who come here to go camping and hiking, as well as some hot springs for bathing.
Driving north from Reykjavik, when you come across this area there is a distinct change in the landscape. Grábrók is a mountain in the area which you can walk up via a wooden staircase. Up the top you’ll get beautiful views out over a volcanic crater and the surrounding area, which has a lot of interesting geological features.
One of the most popular farms in Iceland open for visits, Erpsstaðir can be found close to Búðardalur. Inside its cowshed you can purchase skyr, cheese, ice cream, beef, and coffee. It’s another great stop off if you’ve got kids, who will love the ice cream and have a great time petting all the domestic animals that live on the farm as well.
Further Reading: 10 Family-Friendly Farms in Iceland
Countless islands lie in Breiðafjörður, the large expanse of water between the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Westfjords. Among them you’ll find the island of Flatey, the only one with a year-round population. If you’re catching the ferry to or from the Westfjords, you can stop off here for the day and catch the afternoon ferry onwards to your destination or back to Stykkishólmur.
You can book the ferry to the island here.
What used to be a bit of a hidden gem close to Reykjavik has recently become wildly popular with visitors. Glymur is one of Iceland’s tallest waterfalls, situated at the end of a gorgeous canyon.
Hiking up to the waterfall usually takes about an hour and a half, an adventure in itself; you get to cross the fast-flowing river via a log that has been thrown across. To get here, instead of taking the Hvalfjörður tunnel head to the bottom of the fjord, where you’ll find a dirt road that leads you to the trail head. Return hiking time around 3 hours. Day tours are also available from Reykjavik.
Further Reading: The Glimmering Glory of Glymur
Photo: James Taylor/Wonderguide
The largest lava cave in Iceland, and probably the most spectacular. Informative guides will take you through the history of the cave, and more importantly the geology behind the volcanoes and what powers are at play in the area.
With a population of 15,300 people spread over a small area, West Iceland is one of the more densely populated regions of the country – although you wouldn’t notice.
The first major town you’ll come across if you leave for the West from Reykjavik, this is the first taste of rural Iceland that many travelers will have. On top of the Settlement Centre mentioned above, another attraction that is great if you’re travelling with kids is Bjössaróló, translating to Bjössi’s Playground. Constructed entirely from recycled wood that Bjössi found around his hometown, the playground has been around since 1979 and was declared as a cultural heritage site.
For more ideas on what to do with kids in West Iceland, read Nina's article here: 5 Kid-Friendly Activities in West Iceland
Perched on the tip of the peninsula across from Reykjavik, and visible from the capital on a clear day, is Akranes. While it’s not going to win any awards for prettiest town in Iceland (it’s full of old industrial buildings), it is still somehow quite charming. Most people come to visit the lighthouse, a picturesque location that makes for some dramatic photos during the day and a good spot to catch the northern lights at night.
The largest town on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Stykkishólmur is a port town that’s loaded with charm. With a handful of colorful wooden houses and a pretty harbor area, some might recognize the town from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In the film, Stykkishólmur plays the town where Ben Stiller makes landfall on Iceland. The small town is home to many different hotels, guesthouses, and nice restaurants which make the most of the innumerable mussels and fish found in the nearby waters.
The harbour at Stykkishólmur. Photo: Nika/Wonderguide.
Although just a small town, Búðardalur is a likely stopping off point if you’re headed onwards into the Westfjords, or if you’ve visited the nearby farm Erpsstaðir or the historical site and museum of Eiríksstaðir. The town is perched prettily on the coast overlooking Hvammsfjörður, and a pleasant place to walk around and enjoy the slow relaxed pace of Icelandic rural life.
For even more inspiration travelling through this diverse region, Andri's Wanderlist has an excellent collection of blogs, articles, and recommended tours.