With a population of around 2600, Ísafjörður is the largest settlement in the West Fjords and is where most travellers choose to base themselves when exploring the region – not least because this is the only place from which to reach the Hornstrandir peninsula by boat, a major goal for many visitors. All administration for the area is centred here, too, and there’s also a significant fishing industry.
It’s hard to imagine a much more dramatic location; built on the L-shaped sandspit, Eyri, which stretches out into the narrow waters of Skutulsfjörður fjord and provides exceptionally good shelter for ocean-going fishing vessels, the town is surrounded by towering mountains on three sides and by the open waters of Ísafjarðardjup on the fourth.
During the long winter months, locals are forced to battle against the elements to keep open the tiny airport, which very often provides the only point of contact between the entire region and the rest of the country. Should you arrive in Ísafjörður by plane, however, you’ll be treated to an unforgettable experience as you bank steeply around the fjord, then skim past the sheer mountainside of Kirkjubólshlíð before dropping onto the landing strip.
During the darkest months of the year (Dec & Jan), the sheer height of the mountains either side of the fjord prevents the low winter sun from shining directly onto the town for a number of weeks, and the sun’s reappearance over the mountain tops at the end of January is celebrated with sólarkaffi, “sun coffee” (in fact just normal coffee) and pancakes on January 25.
According to the Landnámabók, a Viking by the name of Helgi Hrolfsson was the first person to settle in Skutulsfjörður, building his farm here during the ninth century. However, although the sandspit was inhabited from the time of the Settlement, it took several centuries for Eyri at Skutulsfjörður, as Ísafjörður was then called, to emerge as one of the country’s main commercial centres. This was an enviable status, due to the establishment of a trading post by foreign merchants during the late sixteenth century.
It was also around this time that the town’s most notorious resident, Jón Magnússon, a fundamentalist priest, ordered two men on a neighbouring farm to be burned at the stake for sorcery, which was reputed to be widespread in the West Fjords at the time.
Finally, in 1786, with the winding-up of the Danish trade monopoly, the town was granted municipal status and became one of Iceland’s six official trading posts. Just over a hundred years later, Eyri finally received city status and celebrated by changing its name to the present Ísafjörður, meaning Ice Fjord.
Today, Ísafjörður is a quiet and likeable place where you’d be wise to make the most of the shops and restaurants on offer before venturing out into the wilds beyond. There’s very little in the town itself though – Ísafjörður’s pleasures are more to be found in strolling through its streets or watching the fishermen at work in the harbour than in tourist sights.
However, Neðstikaupstaður, the West Fjords Heritage Museum, one of the very few museums in the region, is worth visiting for an insight into the extreme conditions that past generations have lived under here. That it’s located in one of the country’s oldest timber buildings is unusual in itself, when you consider that the climate here is so severe that anything made out of wood tends to be quickly decimated by the elements.
From Ísafjörður’s Sundahöfn harbour you can take a boat tour to Vigur, a small, elongated island west of Ísafjörður in Ísafjörðardjúp. The ride over takes about thirty minutes, and you have a couple of hours to explore the grassy, flat island before enjoying refreshments served up by the local farmer and heading back to town. You’ll definitely see swarms of puffins, arctic terns and eider ducks, plus Iceland’s one and only windmill, making for a great afternoon’s trip in good weather. You can book tours through Vesturferðir at the tourist office.
Featured Image, Ísafjörður Town Centre © iStock / Alexu