Just a ferry ride away from Reykjavik is an amazing side trip you should add to your Iceland visit itinerary! Viðey Island! In less than one square mile, you can spend hours exploring Iceland’s nature, history, culture, and art. There are also some modern art installations from icons like Richard Serra and Yoko Ono. You can stroll or bike as you please and enjoy fabulous views of the mainland too. Depending on the time of year, you can reach the island every day or on the weekends.
A little natural history
The island used to be an active volcano, but don’t worry, that was thousands of years ago! After millennia of rising and dropping sea levels, you now have amazing rock formations to wonder at. And although much of the island was used for farming and fish processing for hundreds of years, there is still an incredible diversity of plants. You can find one-third of Iceland’s plant species (that’s over 150) in this tiny little place.
If you aren’t an avid birdwatcher, you may become one after your visit to Viðey. There are about 30 different species you can check off, including such fantastic names as the oystercatcher, purple sandpiper, and black-tailed godwit. You may even catch sight of our famous puffins here!
A few human Viðey history highlights
Apparently, there are archeological remains of settlers going back to the 10th century. Then there was an Augustine monastery in the 12th century that grew wealthy over centuries (but also took care of the less fortunate and educated those who wanted to learn) before the island was converted to a royal estate. The “Father of Reykjavik”, Skúli Magnússon, not only developed Iceland’s industry in the 1700s, but he also lived on Viðey Island for the last part of his life at Viðey House (which still stands for you to visit!).
Skipping to more modern times, in 1901, a family began a huge farming operation and provided nearby Reykjavik with hundreds of thousands of liters of milk a year. From that little island! Then, a few years later, apparently Reykjavik didn’t have a proper harbor, so there was fish processing on Viðey until around 1931 went it all failed and most of the villagers left. Farming continued until the buildings and lands went to the National Museum of Iceland and then to the City of Reykjavik.
The structures on Viðey
Along with the natural beauty and thriving bird population, there are some interesting buildings and works of art to check out, along with the various ruins of settlements from the beginning of the island’s history.
Viðey House is one of Iceland’s oldest buildings and our oldest one made of stone, renovated and maintained to show off our architectural history. There’s also a café and restaurant for you to take a break and enjoy the ambiance and peaceful surroundings. Speaking of peace, first, there’s Viðey Church right next door. Also, one of Iceland’s oldest, church this time, it offers wonderful insights into life hundreds of years ago.
And still speaking of peace – there is Imagine Peace Tower around the corner. Conceived by Yoko Ono in homage to her late husband John Lennon. Shaped as a wishing well, Ono collected wishes from all over the world for time capsules surrounding the tower, inscribed with “imagine peace” in multiple languages. If you are there at the right time of year, you can also witness a light show, usually from sunset to midnight. Since many of the lightings are during the winter when there is limited ferry service, it’s a good thing you can see the show for miles around on the mainland!
On West Island section, you can look for three stones with inscriptions and wonder what they mean. We’re still not sure! Then, look for Áfangar (or, Milestones), created by Richard Sera, an American sculptor, for the 1990 Reykjavik Arts Festival. The pillars are meant to frame landmarks on the mainland. So break out your camera and see Reykjavik from a whole different angle!
How to get to Viðey Island
There are ferries leaving to Viðey Island from Skarfabakki and the Old Harbor. From Skarfabakki, they run every day from mid-May to end-August and on weekends from September to mid-May. The Old Harbor ferry runs from June to August with fewer departures. You should check the schedule while making plans. The ferry costs about USD 15 for adults with discounts for kids and seniors. Or, it is free with a Reykjavik City Card!
Want to learn more about Viðey Island? You can always ask Your Friend in Reykjavik!