Geographically close to Reykjavík, yet far, far away in sentiment, West Iceland (known as Vesturland) is a splendid microcosm of what Iceland has to offer. Yet many tourists have missed the memo, and you’re likely to have remote parts of this wonderful region to yourself.
The long arm of Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a favourite for its glacier, Snæfellsjökull, and the area around its national park is tops for birding, whale watching, lava-field hikes and horse riding. Inland beyond Reykholt you'll encounter lava tubes and remote highland glaciers, including enormous Langjökull with its unusual ice cave. Icelanders honour West Iceland for its local sagas: two of the best known, Laxdæla Saga and Egil’s Saga, took place along the region’s brooding waters, marked today by haunting cairns and an exceptional museum in lively Borgarnes. West Iceland offers everything from windswept beaches to historic villages and awe-inspiring terrain in one neat little package.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout West Iceland.
Snæfellsjökull National Park encompasses much of the western tip of Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and wraps around the rugged slopes of the glacier Snæfellsjökull, the icy fist at the end of the long Snæfellsnes arm. Around its flanks lie lava tubes, protected lava fields, which are home to native Icelandic fauna, and prime coastal bird- and whale-watching spots. The park is criss-crossed with hiking trails, and during proper weather it is possible to visit the glacier with a tour or guide.
Housed in an imaginatively restored warehouse by the harbour, the must-see Settlement Centre offers fascinating insights into the history of Icelandic settlement and the Saga era. The museum is divided into two exhibitions; each takes about 30 minutes to visit. The Settlement Exhibition covers the discovery and settlement of Iceland. Egil's Saga Exhibition recounts the amazing adventures of Egil Skallagrímsson (the man behind Egil’s Saga) and his family. A detailed multilingual audio guide is included.
Stykkishólmur’s jagged peninsula pushes north into stunning Breiðafjörður, a broad waterway separating the Snæfellsnes from the looming cliffs of the distant Westfjords. According to local legend, there are only two things in the world that cannot be counted: the stars in the night sky and the craggy islets in the bay. You can count on epic vistas and a menagerie of wild birds (puffins, eagles, guillemots). Boat trips, including whale watching and puffin viewing, are available from Stykkishólmur, Grundarfjörður and Ólafsvík.
On the southwest coast, Rte 572 leads off Rte 574 to wild black-sand beach Djúpalónssandur. It’s a dramatic place to walk, with rock formations (an elf church, and a kerling – a troll woman), two brackish pools (for which the beach was named) and the rock-arch Gatklettur. Some of the black sands are covered in pieces of rusted metal from the English trawler Eding, which was shipwrecked here in 1948. An asphalt car park and public toilets allow tour-bus access, and crowds.
It’s easy to see why Jules Verne selected Snæfell for his adventure Journey to the Centre of the Earth: the peak was torn apart when the volcano beneath it exploded and then collapsed back into its own magma chamber, forming a huge caldera. Among certain New Age groups, Snæfellsjökull is considered one of the world’s great ‘power centres’. Today the crater is filled with the ice cap (highest point 1446m) and is a popular summer destination.
When the peanut gallery starts moaning, ‘Are we there yet?’, you know it’s time to head to Erpsstaðir, the perfect place to stretch your legs. Like a mirage for sweet-toothed wanderers, this dairy farm on the gorgeous Rte 60 (between Búðardalur and the Ring Road; with high mountain valleys, streams and waterfalls) specialises in delicious homemade ice cream (400kr). You can tour the farm, greet the buxom bovines, chickens, rabbits and even guinea pigs, then gorge on a scoop.
This enormous (300m-long) human-made tunnel and series of caves head into Langjökull glacier at 1260m above sea level. The glistening, LED-lit tunnel and caves opened in 2015 and contain exhibitions, a cafe and even a small chapel for those who want to tie the knot inside a glacier. Tours leave from Húsafell (shuttle adult/child 2000kr/free) or the glacier edge (tour adult/child 19,500kr/free) in summer if you have a 4WD. Tours also leave from Reykjavík (29,900kr), and there are many combo tours (snowmobiling, helicopter).
At the head of Hvalfjörður, and up Botnsdalur valley, lies Glymur, Iceland’s highest waterfall (198m). From the trailhead, it’ll take a couple of hours to reach the cascade's viewpoints on rough, slippery trails. A log is placed to bridge the river only in summer. At the trailhead there's a good map with instructions. Reach the trailhead by following the turn-off on Rte 47 to Botnsdalur.
The Langjökull ice cap is the second largest glacier in Iceland, and the closest major glacier to Reykjavík. It's accessed from the 4WD Kaldidalur or Kjölur tracks, and its closest access village in West Iceland is Húsafell. Do not attempt to drive up onto the glacier yourself. Tours depart from Reykjavík or Húsafell: the Into the Glacier ice cave is a major tourist attraction, Mountaineers of Iceland offers snowmobiling, and Dog Sledding sometimes has summertime dog-sledding tours.