Way out in the cool North Atlantic Ocean, there’s a cluster of craggy islands inhabited primarily by sheep and puffins. The Faroe Islands are Scandinavia’s ultimate off-the-beaten-track destination. Here’s our guide to what to expect on your first trip to this remote archipelago.
What and where are the Faroe Islands?
Contrary to popular misconception, the Faroe Islands are not near the Antarctic nor are they somewhere in Portugal. In fact, this cluster of eighteen islands is situated roughly midway between Iceland, Norway and the northern tip of Scotland.
It’s an extraordinary landscape of sharp cliffs, sweeping glaciated valleys, narrow fjords and pointed basalt peaks that was formed when volcanic rock thrust up from the deep North Atlantic Ocean.
Since the sixth century, the Faroe Islands have been inhabited by Irish monks, Viking settlers and an awful lot of sheep. Today, it’s home to 49,000 people and is a self-governing nation – part of the Kingdom of Denmark – with its own parliament, flag and language, a booming fishing industry.
Image by Ros Walford
Why should I go?
If you love outdoor adventure in rugged landscapes, invigorating sea air and cosy harbour villages, then you’ll love the Faroe Islands. Whether exploring the islands by car, foot, boat or bicycle, the excellent infrastructure makes it easy to get around. It’s an incredibly welcoming place with a gentle pace of life and an interesting mix of modern innovations based on ancient traditions.
What should I see?
Seeing thousands of puffins and other sea birds nesting in high cliffs is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the Faroes. So whether or not you are an enthusiastic birdwatcher, a boat trip to Vestmanna, or to the westernly island of Mykines – a “paradise of birds” – is an unforgettable experience.
Driving in the Faroes is a highlight in itself, as beautifully tarmacked roads sweep around the fjords and sounds, where houses with fluffy grass roofs blend into vibrant green landscape and every scene is a stunner.
A short drive from Vagar airport are two of the most dramatic views in the archipelago: the island of Tindhólmur, a rock that juts out of the ocean like a jagged shard of glass, and Gásadalur waterfall where icy water gushes from a sea cliff.
Image by Ros Walford
Saksun is one of the prettiest spots on Streymoy, the largest island. It’s a small settlement beside a steep-sided inlet, while over on Esturoy to the east, winding roads take you up into the mountainous north and up to the highest peak, Slættaratindur (882m). Not far from here, you can see two rock stacks, known as Risin og Kellingin (the giant and the witch) and the picturesque village of Gjógv, named after a gorge.
Visiting one of the smaller islands, such as the remarkable Stóra Dímun, is as remote as it gets. This 2-sq-km inaccessible island is inhabited by eight people who live in a farmhouse perched on a plateau surrounded by vertical sea cliffs. The only access is via a helicopter service that delivers supplies three times a week. Tourists can come here on boat trips or stay on the island for a few days in summer, when the schoolhouse doubles as a self-catering apartment.
What outdoor activities can I do?
It’s possible to do almost any outdoor activity here, from horseriding, trail-running and climbing to sea kayaking, sailing and fly-fishing for wild salmon.
If you’ve got thighs of steel, you’ll enjoy cycling the quiet mountain roads. But those who prefer a gentler pace would be better off hiking.
There are many options for day walks: climb to the top of Slættaratindur for stunning views over the archipelago; take the postman’s path up over the steep ridge from Bøur to Gásadalur waterfall (which once was the only way to reach Gásadalur village before a tunnel was built). Alternatively, you can hike from Tórshavn to Kirkjubøur to see the oldest church in the Faroe Islands.
What about the capital city?
Tórshavn is one of the smallest capital cities in the world. Narrow streets cluster around the harbour, where a peninsula called the Tinganes sticks out into the bay. It’s here you’ll find the government buildings – modest wooden houses that stand on the site of one of the oldest parliamentary meeting places in the world.
As far back as the ninth century, the Vikings held a general assembly here (called a “Thing”), and evidence of their meetings can still be seen carved on the rocks. It’s still an informal place, where you might say “hej” (“hi”) to a government minister as they wander past in the lanes of the neighbouring district of tiny, grass-roofed houses.
Artistic and creative industries are flourishing here. The capital city may be small but it has its share of galleries, including the National Gallery On the outskirts of town, Nordic House hosts Faroese and Nordic art exhibitions, concerts, theatre and dance.
There are upmarket craft and design shops including designer knitwear from Guðrun & Guðrun (creators of the desirable sweater worn by detective Sarah Lund in Danish crime drama The Killing), an excellent design cooperative called Öström, and colourful glass creations at Mikkalina Glas.
Image by Ros Walford
Is there a music scene?
Tutl is the only music shop and record label in the Faroe Islands. Outdoor festivals are an important feature in summer, and key dates in the diary include G! Festival, during which thousands of people descend on the tiny village of Gøta to enjoy rock music and hot tubs on the beach.
At Hoyma, also held in Gøta, festival-goers revive the old tradition of going from house to house to enjoy acoustic concerts inside residents’ living rooms.
What should I eat?
One of the loveliest dining experiences is Heimablídni, the Faroese tradition of “home hospitality”, in which guests pay for a meal cooked and served at the home of their hosts.
You’re likely to be able to try some of the local favourites, such as fresh fish or fermented meat (which is nicer than it sounds – it’s usually a tender leg of lamb that’s been left to hang in the salty sea air, in a process similar to curing).
It’s not all rustic cuisine, though. There are some sophisticated fine-dining restaurants in Tórshavn. Aarstova is famous for its slow-cooked Faroese lamb, while Barbara is a superb fish restaurant in a turf-topped building.
Image by Ros Walford
How do I get around?
Fifteen years ago, the only way to get between the islands was via ferry. Now, two sub-sea tunnels link the main islands and a network of smaller tunnels connect valleys and villages that were once isolated from the world. The smaller tunnels can take some getting used to, as one lane serves traffic coming in both directions. Fortunately, the Public Roads’ Office has made a useful video that explains all you need to know about driving.
The subsidised (and very good value) helicopter service, operated by Atlantic Airways, runs regularly between the smaller islands. It’s an exhilarating way of getting around, but they only fly every other day and you can’t book a return, so plan carefully. Otherwise, buses and ferries are slower paced alternatives.