In traditional annals, Norse settler Hjörleifur Hródmarsson was killed by his Irish slaves on Iceland's south coast, around the year 870. The slaves fled to the islands they could see offshore, but were later hunted down and killed by Ingólfur Arnarson, Reykjavík's first settler and Hjörleifur's brother-in-law. The Norse referred to Irishmen as "west men," and the islands have since been known as the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar). Herjólfur Bárðarson was thought to be the first Norse inhabitant of the Westmans around 900, but archaeological evidence points to a Norse settlement as early as the 7th century.

The Westmans became world famous in 1963, when a new island, Surtsey, was created by a series of volcanic eruptions 120m (394 ft.) beneath the ocean surface. As the magma fought its way out of the sea, huge clouds of steam and ash sailed into the stratosphere. New land was being cooked up right on television. Surtsey was 1.7 sq. km (1 sq. mile) when the eruptions subsided, but has since eroded to half that area. It's now a nature reserve accessible only to scientists, who are studying how life takes root on barren foundations.

Of the fifteen Westman Islands, only the largest, Heimaey, is inhabited. Westman Islanders have a strong local identity; a common joke refers to the mainland as "the sixteenth island." A few even dreamed of independence from Iceland, especially because the Westmans are relatively wealthy and contribute more in taxes than they receive in services. But their dependence on the Icelandic state became all too clear, when, on January 23, 1973, a volcano right next to Heimaey town erupted after 5,000 years of dormancy. When the molten rock finally stopped flowing on July 3, 30% of the town was buried in lava and ash, and 400 buildings were destroyed. Heimaey had also grown by 2.5 sq. km (9/10 sq. miles).

One night in the Westmans will probably not feel like enough; 2 nights are ideal. The first weekend of August is a huge party scene in Heimaey, as Islanders join thousands of visitors on the campgrounds for live music, fireworks, and bonfires through the night. The ferry can sell out, and it's very difficult to find accommodations.