Tucked away in the northwest corner of the country, Iceland’s Westfjords region is a mass of narrow, mountainous peninsulas plunging into the Atlantic. Fewer than 6 percent of all visitors travel to the Westfjords, making it the least visited place in the increasingly popular tourist destination. While getting there isn’t easy, due to twisting roads that slice through deep fjords, those who make the journey are rewarded with gorgeous waterfalls, hot springs, and charming fishing villages that seem untouched by time.
Here are five reasons to visit the Westfjords now.
1. Empty Space
The Westfjords span more than 8,500 square miles, but are home to no more than 7,500 people. Away from the largest town, Ísafjörður (which has a population of just 2,600), it’s possible to drive for hours and pass less than a handful of cars. In a country full of wide-open space, the Westfjords are one of the least populated areas; it can often feel like you have the region all to yourself. No battling crowds for a view of the mountains or the cliffs, no sharing the road with tour buses. For even more seclusion, head to Hornstrandir, a nature reserve that’s accessible only by foot or by boat, and only in summer.
It’s said that waterfalls outnumber people in the Westfjords, and after driving around the region, it’s easy to see why. Water rushes from nearly every mountain, sometimes in small trickles, other times in great gushing masses that sparkle under the sun. The most famous waterfall is Dynjandi, which is actually several waterfalls that cascade onto one another down several levels. Hike up to the top for a sweeping view of the fjord, or stop at the base for a picnic lunch with a view of the falls.
3. Europe’s largest bird cliffs
The Westfjords region excels at superlatives; nearly everything here is bigger, grander, and more immense. The cliffs at Latrabjarg are no exception. The cliffs are Europe’s second-most western point (the Azores are the first), and they are the largest bird cliffs in Europe. At eight miles long and nearly 1500 feet high, the cliffs provide stunning views of the ocean below and of the millions of birds who nest there each summer. Even without the birds, the cliffs are spectacular, and provide ample space for scenic hikes along what feels like the edge of the world.
4. Quaint towns
Aside from Ísafjörður, the de-facto capital and largest town in the area, most of the towns in the Westfjords are home to only a few hundred people and are supported through fishing and farming. While some of the smaller towns don’t have many tourist services, they are often packed with pleasant surprises. Norðurfjörður, a speck of a town near the Hornstrandir nature reserve, sits at the end of the road that leads to the edge of the reserve, but still offers a spectacularly situated hot pool. In Suðureyri, visitors can take a food-focused walking tour of the fishing village and learn how the town has changed its practices to become more eco-friendly; in summer, you can even cast a line alongside local fishermen.
5. Unique museums
Despite its small population, the Westfjords has some of Iceland’s most interesting museums. In Bildudalur, check out the Sea Monster Museum, and in Súðavík, don’t miss the Arctic Fox Center, a small museum and rehab center for sick or injured foxes. Patreksfjörður is home to the Pirate House exhibition, a small museum that tells the stories of pirates that raided ships off the Icelandic coast in the 15th and 16th century, and Hólmavík, a town at the base of the Westfjords closest to Reykjavik, offers the Icelandic Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery, a detailed look at the legends and lore popular in the region.
The 230-mile drive from Reykjavik to Ísafjörður takes at least six hours (but plan for longer to account for stops along the way). The trip can be shortened a bit by taking the ferry from the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Flights to Isafjordur from Reykjavik take about 45 minutes.