West Iceland, known as Vesturland, is one of the most diverse regions in Iceland. This region has been blessed with a varied selection of all of the gifts of nature that Iceland has to offer. Active and dormant volcanoes, rugged lava fields, dramatic coasts, remote fishing villages, and majestic waterfalls lie waiting for visitors to explore them.
The region is home to Iceland’s vibrant capital area, meaning that there are numerous exciting road trip options that are easily accessible from Reykjavík. In this article, you’ll learn about West Iceland’s characteristics, geology and history, as well as the best things to do in the area, so that you can easily plan your trip.
How to Get Around West Iceland
West Iceland is easily accessible from Reykjavik. The roads are in good condition and easily driveable. There are plenty of great tour and activity options available in the region. Driving a rental car, a campervan, a motorhome, or joining a guided tour are all great ways to explore this area.
Traveling by public transportation isn’t really an option in Iceland, at least not for those who would like to stop at the natural attractions. Buses in the countryside only run once a day or a few times a week, which makes it impossible to visit the sites along the way. Most of the time, these buses will only stop in villages and cities while all the attractions are located outside of the populated areas.
Guided group tours are the best alternatives to public transport in Iceland. They are sometimes even cheaper than local buses and offer stops at the most beautiful locations, providing fun and informative guidance in English.
Most of the guided tours are day tours or two-day tours that explore one specific area, leaving from Reykjavík and returning there afterward. The most popular guided tours are the Snaefellsnes Peninsula Tour and the Silver Circle Tour, which takes you around the attractions of Borgarfjordur.
With some planning, you can create your own itinerary and travel around West Iceland without a local guide. One day isn’t enough to see everything in the region, but you can visit some of it through day trips from Reykjavík. To travel around all of the places that we’ve listed below, you’d need at least 3–4 days.
Outside of Reykjavík, there aren’t many populated areas in the west. There are some small villages, but don’t expect too many options when it comes to restaurants or supermarkets. The largest towns are Akranes and Borgarnes, both located north of Reykjavík. Here, you’ll find plenty of cafés, restaurants, supermarkets, and large gas stations with shops and fast food restaurants.
Smaller towns include Stykkisholmur and Olafsvik on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The most well-known villages are Grundarfjordur and Budardalur. These towns and villages also offer a few restaurants, cafés, and small grocery stores. The accommodation options in the countryside are limited, therefore it’s best to book everything in advance or stay in the capital area.
The Weather in West Iceland
The weather in this region is relatively mild compared to other parts of the country, thanks to the warm Irminger Current, which is part of the Gulf Stream that flows along the western coast of Iceland. The average temperatures are slightly higher than in North and East Iceland, but it also has somewhat more clouds than in the colder, dryer regions.
The capital area is one of the mildest parts of the country. Here, the snow usually arrives later and melts earlier than in the countryside. The road conditions are the best in the capital area, too. The long Snaefellsnes Peninsula is a bit windier and wetter than in Reykjavík and the fjords, so the road conditions there can be more challenging in the winter. Learn more about Iceland’s weather here.
Geologically, West Iceland is one of the oldest regions of the country. The North Atlantic Ocean began opening about 60 million years ago and the tectonic plates started spreading apart in opposite directions, allowing a major hot-spot (the so-called Iceland plume) to gush forth and form a new island.
Since the tectonic plates drift to the east and west, Iceland has been spreading more to the east and west than to the north or south. Supposedly, the east and the west are the oldest parts of Iceland. To that end, the oldest rocks ever found in West Iceland are about 15 million years old.
The landscape was later formed by the glaciers which covered the area for thousands of years. West Iceland’s iconic volcano, Snaefellsjokull, erupted in around 200 AD (give or take 150 years) and the last volcanic eruption in the region took place about a thousand years ago. Today, there are no active volcanoes here, but there are plenty of impressive, old craters that can be explored safely.
Sagas and History
Apart from the landscape, West Iceland is also full of history that stretches back practically unbroken to the 9th and 10th centuries, when Iceland was first settled. According to “The Book of Settlements” (Landnámabók in Icelandic), Reykjavík was the location of the first permanent settlement in the country, established by Ingólfr Arnarson in 874 AD.
Throughout the centuries, the area remained undeveloped. It wasn’t until 1785 that Reykjavík was officially founded as a trading town. Since then, this town has steadily grown into what it is today: Iceland’s center of commerce, population, and government. Even though there was no urban development until the 19th century, Reykjavík has quickly managed to earn its place among the greenest, cleanest, and safest cities on Earth.
The Icelandic Sagas record Iceland’s history from the settlement to the early 11th century. These magical and historical tales include plenty of stories from West Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula and the Breidafjordur area. For that reason, Western Iceland is also referred to as “Sagaland.”
The Laxdaela Saga establishes the peninsula as the birthplace of Bolli Bollason. Apart from being the first West Norse member of the Varangian Guard, he was also very popular with the contemporary Scandinavian rulers and the Eastern Roman Empire. After returning to Iceland from the Eastern Roman army, where he reached the rank of Manglabites, he was given the new nickname of “Bolli the Elegant” thanks to his fame and finery.
West Iceland is also the birthplace of Snorri Sturluson. He lived on a farm in what is now the village of Reykholt back in the 13th century. During his life, Snorri was an author and a politician. He wrote one of the most renowned pieces of Scandinavian literature: the Prose Edda. This extensive recording of Norse mythology has been very influential, signs of which can be seen in other works of art, such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
According to the sagas, among the other historic names that lived in the area were Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, a famous beauty who was married four times, and Snorri Goði, a chieftain who appears in multiple sagas.
At a short distance from the village of Budardalur stood the homestead of the famous Viking Erik the Red. He discovered Greenland, the first European to do so. His son Leif Erikson, also known as “Leif the Lucky,” followed in his father’s footsteps and was the first European to set foot in America, centuries ahead of Columbus.
Islendingur, meaning Icelander in English, was a replica of a Viking ship that set off on an epic journey in July 2000. It left from Budardalur Harbor, heading for Greenland and then America to retrace the route of its Viking ancestors.
Things to see in West Iceland
There are four major areas in West Iceland that each takes a day or two to visit: the Snaefellsnes Peninsula; Borgarfjordur; Breidafjordu; and the Capital Region. These are popular tourist routes and easily accessible from Reykjavik.
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is the most easily accessible from Reykjavík since you can drive around the peninsula and get back to the capital in just one day. The same applies to Borgarfjordur while Breidarfjordur is a bit further from Reykjavik. Though also in the west, the Golden Circle, the Westfjords, and the Reykjanes Peninsula officially belong to separate regions.
In this separate article, you’ll find a detailed introduction to all of these tour routes and the must-visit places in West Iceland.
Things to Do in West Iceland
First and foremost, a car is the best way to travel around West Iceland, whether it’s your own or the one offered by a guided tour. In a vehicle, you can easily explore the unmatched landscape and remote beauties that the region has to offer. The most beautiful mountains, waterfalls, and beaches are accessible all year round. These sites are usually quite close to the parking areas so you won’t need to walk far to explore the attractions. The views are different in each season but are worth seeing anytime.
In these articles, you’ll find a detailed guide to the attractions of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and the Silver Circle.
Iceland has over 500 known lava caves. The four most significant are all located in West Iceland: Leidarendi and Raufarhólshellir in the Capital Region, Vatnshellir on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and Vidgelmir in the Borgarfjordur area. Each and every cave is unique and worth a visit. Vidgelmir is the largest and Vatnshellir is the deepest while Raufarhólshellir and Leidarendi are the closest to Reykjavik.
For safety reasons, lava caves can only be visited on guided tours. There are plenty of tour options that offer pickups from Reykjavík or allow you to meet the guides at the locations. Guided tours usually last for 1–3 hours, depending on the type of tour.
There’s no need to crawl in these caves as they are spacious. They’re easily walkable for anyone that is comfortable walking on uneven terrain. When you’re traveling in Iceland, don’t miss out on seeing the lava caves. It’s a truly memorable experience!
The world’s first man-made tunnel inside a glacier can be found on Langjokull glacier. The country’s second-largest glacier offers spectacular scenery straight out of a winter wonderland. But beneath the frosty surface lies a thrilling ice cave that was carved into the glacier’s body by locals.
This icy underworld sparkles with blue and silver ice creating a spectacular cave that is the popular location for weddings, photoshoots, and other events. Tours to visit this cave depart from Husafell and Reykjavik. Visiting the Langjokull ice cave can usually be done in one day when exploring the Silver Circle/Borgarfjordur area.
Whale Watching and Kayaking
Breidafjordur Bay is known for being the best place to see killer whales in Iceland. Whale watching tours depart from Grundarfjordur and Olafsvik all year round. Visitors often see large pods of dolphins on these tours as the cute animals play cheerfully around the boats.
Besides whale watching, you can also go on a calm water kayaking tour below Iceland’s most photographed mountain, Kirkjufell. While the kayaks won’t sail out to the open sea where the whales are, seals and birds are abundant near the coasts. This is a great opportunity for wildlife encounters and for enjoying the views from a lesser-known angle.
Snaefellsjokull is West Iceland’s only glacier and also the most famous. You may be surprised to learn that the peak of this volcano-glacier can be accessed by almost anyone via guided tours, but you’ll need to have a good amount of physical strength and some hiking experience.
Climbing Snaefellsjokull is no normal hike. It will also include using glacier hiking safety equipment. The view from the top is absolutely spectacular and on clear days, you can see across the bay all the way to Reykjavík. Legend holds that this place is the heart chakra of the world, so who wouldn’t want to stand on top of it?
Soaking in a Geothermal Spring
Next to Europe’s most powerful hot spring, Deildartunguhver, there is an open-air geothermal spa called Krauma. This small spa offers several hot tubs, steam cabins, and a fantastic relaxation room with large windows and a real fireplace. The view looks out over the small valley where steam rises from the ground and vegetables grow in a few small greenhouses. This quiet, luxurious spa is the perfect addition to a road trip around the Silver Circle.
Western Iceland is full of fantastic hiking trails. There are plenty of easy, short trails in the capital area as well as more strenuous ones for the more experienced. While most of Iceland’s hiking trails are only accessible during the summer months, the popular trails close to Reykjavik are walkable all year round. Keep in mind, however, that crampons/snow spikes and good winter equipment are crucial on these trails in the winter.
The most beautiful hiking trails can be found on Snaefellsnes. The 3-km (1.8-mi.) path between Hellnar and Arnarstapi offers spectacular coastal views. The longer and more challenging hiking trails in the mountains await experienced hikers in the summer season. These trails aren’t overrun with tourists and so can reward their visitors with the ultimate peace and silence of the Icelandic wilderness.
One of Iceland’s most popular hiking trails is located in Hvalfjordur, which is the small fjord north of Reykjavík. The Glymur Trail leads to Iceland’s second-highest waterfall and offers spectacular views over the fjord. The path is only walkable in the summer as there’s a wild river that you have to cross. A log is placed over the river every year in spring to allow hikers to cross it safely. Even though this trail is quite popular, the view of the waterfall and the drive along Hvalfjordur definitely make it worth a visit.