The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is full of charming hamlets along the sea. Some towns, such as Borgarnes and Stykkisholmur boast multiple museums, hotels, and populations over 1,000 people. Others, like Arnarstapi and Hellnar, have vibrant histories as fishing and trading posts. Today these quaint seaside communities are home to less than 50 people, particularly during the quiet winter season. My advice? Don’t skip Arnarstapi and Hellnar! I promise you they are worth a visit during your stay on Snæfellsnes.
I am so convinced that you too will fall in love with these towns and the striking Icelandic nature that surrounds them, I’ve curated a list of 10 reasons why you should spend your day there.
Looking for more than Arnarstapi and Hellnar? Read about my route around the peninsula.
1. Cliffs and Rock Formations
I feel like this is a no-brainer, but the cliffs and rock formations in both Arnarstapi and Hellnar are exquisite! Whether in summer or winter, the black basalt is striking against the blue/grey waters of the Atlantic. To me, the rock formations are a testament to the striking, yet ferocious beauty of nature. Although lovely to see in photographs, they are an experience in Iceland that should not be missed.
The Gatklettur Arch Rock is one of my favorite formations, created as a result of relentless wave action eroding the rock for thousands of years. Arnarstapi has two similar archways, one of which you can go out on and take a photo on if you dare.
Gatklettur Arch Rock at Arnarstapi from the platform
Grotto along the sea shore in Arnarstapi
Though a mere 2.5km away, Hellnar’s rock formations are quite different in their drama. The rock formation, Valasnös, protrudes out into the sea. Once you park your car a top Grouholl Hill and begin to make your way down, you will see this impressive coastline.
2. Nesting Birds
Arctic fern and other birds nest in the cliffs of Arnarstapi. The summer is teaming with the nesting friends. Be careful not to get too close to a nest, or they will fly down and attack you. Not kidding. Happened to us.
3. Hearty Icelandic Food
Although not the largest establishments, in both Hellnar and Arnarstapi you can find a place to eat. In Hellnar, there is Fjöruhúsið. When you park on Grouholl Hill, you have to walk down the road/pathway to see the red roof of the cafe. Inside, you are greeted with a warm atmosphere and delicious jams, bread, and fish soup. If it’s pleasant out, take a seat on the patio and watch the waves crash along the sea wall.
In Arnarstapi, whether in winter or summer, the community center boasts traditional Icelandic meat soup and soul-warming coffee. Step up to the counter and place your order. The soup is help-your-self and comes with tasty homemade bread.
4. Accessible in Winter
Although accessibility does depend on weather conditions, both hamlets are accessible in the winter. In fact, I visited Arnarstapi during our first trip to Iceland in December 2016. The hamlet is all but abandoned, save for 10 or so people who call the seaside town home, but the community center is open and will serve you coffee and warm meat soup.
Did you know that you can hike along the sea cliffs and among the lava fields between Arnarstapi and Hellnar? I recommend starting in Hellnar, since the trail is clearly marked as you enter the lava fields from the black sand beach. The trail between Hellnar and Arnarstapi is 2.5km and would take you about an hour (if you aren’t stopping every few minutes for photos like we did!).
There is also a hiking trail that leads from Búðir and the iconic black wooden church, Búðakirkja, through the lava fields in Búðahraun to Arnarstapi (and then connects to the trail from Arnarstapi to Hellnar). The one way trip takes 6-8 hours. I have not completed this hike yet, but it is on my list!
6. Lava Fields
I find lava fields magical; perhaps because so many tales about the Hidden Folk and Saga stories that take place there. In the summer and winter, both seasons bring a unique beauty to the fields, blanketed in snow, with the black rock peaking out, or covered in the light green moss in the summer. I believe another things that adds to their allure in my mind is the fact that some of the moss takes decades to grow along to tops and sides of the 4,000 year old hardened lava. Decades. Let that sink in. For a place to be so undistributed that the moss has adapted to grow so slowly and does! That’s magic.
7. Bárður Snæfellsás
How can you not love the sculpture of Bárður Snæfellsás, the half-man, half-troll who protects the peninsula? He greets you in a warm and welcoming way in Arnarstapi. Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir, a local contact with Guide to Iceland has written extensively on the mythos of Bárður and other stories around Iceland.
The sky. The mountains. The grass. The moss. The waves. The beaches. The rocks. It is a feast for the eyes. Colors vary depending on the season you visit (and the time of day) but whichever color-wheel they are showcasing on the day you visit they are magnificent.
Okay, maybe wind isn’t your ideal reason for why you should visit a place. But the wind, in the winter and summer can be ferocious off the coast. It demonstrates the power and fierceness of the elements. The wind reminds you that, although man thinks he may have conquered nature, nature always has another thing up its sleeve. The power is something you should experience for yourself, particularly if you don’t come from a region where 30, 40, 50, 70 mph is a force you reckon with.
The peninsula is magical and has so many wonders to behold. The great thing about these hamlets, is though they are on the farther side of the peninsula along the coast, they only take 2.5hours to get there from Reykjavik (about 192km). It’s a perfect day trip if you are staying in the city, but would like to get away and see some of the charming countryside and the fantastic nature that Iceland is known for.
Curious about what else there is to see on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula? You can read my travel guide that will route you around “little Iceland.”