HEIMAEY TOWN is an attractive place, quiet and low-key, with puffin-themed signposts directing you towards key sights. The small centre is split by the south-running main street, Heiðarvegur, with most services and attractions in the streets east of here between the harbour and Hásteinsvegur. Down at the harbour, you’ll find a tightly packed fleet of fishing boats, several warehouses processing their catches, and yards piled with kilometres of black and green fishing nets being examined and repaired.
The Aquarium and Natural History Museum (Sæheimar) is in three parts. Most interesting is the aquarium itself, full of tanks of live fish and some enormous crabs; check out the endearingly ugly lumpfish, an important part of the local fishing industry. The remaining sections of the museum are more humdrum: glass cases of stuffed birds, including almost every species that breeds in Iceland, and a similarly thorough display of rocks from all over the country. Ask whether they have any orphaned seabirds that you can handle; there’s currently a tame puffin and guillemot living at the museum.
East of the harbour along Strandvegur, the road crosses the edge of Eldfell’s 1973 flow and passes the neat lava-block walls of Skansinn fort. Only chest-high, this wall is pretty much a token defence, built by English pirates in the thirteenth century and revived after the pirate raid to house Iceland’s first and only army. This wasn’t the sole occasion that pirates took advantage of the Westmans’ isolation: a sixteenth-century rover named Gentleman John once stole Heimaey’s church bell.
Just across from Skansinn, the extraordinary Stafkirkjan is a Viking-era-style wooden church with a steep, black shingle roof, consecrated in 2000 to celebrate a thousand years of Christianity in Iceland. The building faces the presumed site of the country’s first purpose-built church, raised by Gizur the White a few years before he championed the new faith at the Alþing in 1000 AD.
South of the harbour, you can follow first Kirkjuvegur and then Heimagata and Helgafellsbraut below the two-storey-high, steeply sloping Kirkjubæjarhraun lava flow that swallowed up the eastern end of town. Steps from Heimagata take you up on top of the lava, though it’s hard to imagine this huge mass of sharp-sided, weirdly shaped rubble moving at all, let alone flowing. Signs map out the original street plan 16m underfoot, while engraved headstones and collections of little stones painted with windows and doors mark where somebody’s home lies buried.