Visiting the Faroe Islands: Everything you need to know about this North Atlantic hideaway
Lose yourself in the Faroe Islands, Denmark’s best-kept secret.
If you travel to South America, you may well encounter a local Spanish-speaker who refers to the two different types of visitors they see there: turistas and viajeros. You can probably guess what the first word means: “tourist” or “sightseer.”
Viajero on the other hand literally translates as “traveler.” And although these words might seem similar, there are some important differences. Synonyms for viajero include “voyager” or “wanderer” — even “nomad” at a stretch.
A tourist is always just a tourist, snapping the obligatory selfie then moving on. But a traveler might be one who wanders, a voyager who absorbs the places they go on a deeper level. Maybe a traveler is someone who allows what they see, the new people they meet, and the new experiences they have to percolate inside them, perhaps even changing them fundamentally.
It’s safe to say that Scandinavia, with all its rough-and-tumble, primeval allure draws a fair number of travelers as opposed to tourists. And Denmark’s Faroe Islands, with their rugged, rocky beauty, windswept shores, epic seas, and remote location may well be the single place among the Scandinavian nations with the most viajeros of all.
If you’re only vaguely familiar with the Faroe Islands, don’t feel bad — you’re not alone. Denmark’s territory in the distant North Atlantic is far off the beaten track for most people. Your high school geography class likely didn’t spend a lot of time covering this archipelago of 18 tiny islands halfway between Iceland and Norway, but you can’t really blame them.
However, when it comes to pursuing the genuine, traveler style of experience, the Faroe Islands have a ton of reasons to recommend them. Not only are the Faroe Islands one of the most gorgeous, remote places in all the Scandinavian nations, largely untrampled by the tourist hordes, there’s also unbeatable hiking, fishing, scuba diving, kayaking, boating, and simply road-tripping around this amazing island chain. And all the while you’ll be witnessing spectacular vistas that simply don’t exist anywhere else in the world.
In this guide we’ll give you the skinny on everything you need to know about Faroe Islands travel. Plus you’ll get a lot of detail on what to do in the Faroe Islands — not only what you’ll find on the typical Faroe Islands tourism sites, but what the true traveler can look forward to. Read on and find out why the Faroe Islands—weighing in at just over 500 sq km of land mass—punches so far above its weight when it comes to creating a genuine experience for visitors.
Where are the Faroe Islands situated, anyway?
First things first! If your geography teacher didn’t offer a class section on the Faroe Islands, don’t worry, we can catch you up. The Faroe Islands are a group of 18 rocky outcroppings that were formed millions of years ago from glaciers and ancient volcanoes. In order to visit the Faroe Islands you’ll need to head far out into the North Atlantic — preferably via airplane or ferry; we don’t recommend you swim there. That’s because you’d have to cover about 520 miles of rough North Atlantic waves if you were setting out due west from Norway, 431 miles from Iceland, or some 200 miles due north of Scotland’s most remote islands.
The astute reader may have noticed that Denmark was not listed among the closest neighbors to the Faroe Islands. And if you’re wondering right about now why the Faroe Islands are a territory of the Denmark instead of Scotland or Norway, well, that’s a long and convoluted story. Suffice to say that during the endless shifting alliances and conflicts between the three Scandinavian nations over the centuries, the Faroe Islands once were indeed claimed by Norway until they were forced to cede the archipelago to Denmark in 1814
Today Denmark nominally controls the Faroe Islands in a relationship similar to that of the states and the federal government in the U.S., except that it’s perhaps even more hands-off. The Faroe Islands have their own parliament and their own political parties, and they have enjoyed home-rule status since 1946.
When visiting the Faroe Islands travelers should also keep in mind that many natives of the island chain have been in favor of independence from Denmark for even longer than that. As a result, most of them don’t consider themselves truly “Danish” so much as Faroese, or Faroe Islanders, so don’t make the mistake of calling them Danes. In fact, the Faroe Islands are so independent of Denmark that they declined to join the EU and instead maintain their own separate trade agreements with nations around the world.
That doesn’t really affect Faroe Islands tourism; just avoid referring to the Faroese as Danish and you’ll be okay. What you do need to know is that despite Faroese efforts to gain full independence, the Faroe Islands currency continues to be the Danish krone. And while Faroese is the official language of the islands, the islanders readily switch to speaking Danish and the more or less interchangeable languages of the other Scandinavian states. Luckily for travelers, given the superior education system Denmark enjoys, most Faroe Islanders speak English as well, especially the younger generations.
Reasons for visiting the Faroe Islands
Considering what a tiny dot of territory the islands actually cover, there is a surprisingly long list of fun things to do on the Faroe Islands! Here are a few reasons to go.
This one is a no-brainer: the rough-hewn, breathtaking beauty of the Faroe Islands is generally right at the top of the list of reasons why most visitors come to the islands. From rock-strewn heights to plummeting waterfalls to hidden grottoes, the Faroe Islands pack in a planet’s worth of beauty in just a few hundred square miles.
Much like Iceland, the Faroe Islands have remarkable cliff faces dropping off into the crashing waves below, boulder-strewn hills, roiling seas, and rocky scarps jutting to the sky covered in a layer of green grass and plants as if the shoulder-blades of a hairy green giant were surfacing out of the depths of the sea. Add to that the way the sod-covered houses blend in to the landscape a la Hobbiton, and you’ve got a truly magical place. The fact is that simply hiking around or road-tripping amid the stunning beauty of the Faroe Islands could well be enough to make for a bucket-list trip. But wait, there’s more!
The sea is all around of course, what with them being islands and all, and just like this rugged land, the North Atlantic hereabouts also offers its own epic beauty. Surprisingly for many who have spent some time traveling in this part of the world, the water around the Faroe Islands is quite brilliantly colored. It’s almost always a deep blue-green that belies the cold slate-gray of the sky above when it’s cloudy, which is what you might expect to see reflected in the water in this part of the world.
And the cornucopia of activities you can enjoy on the ocean near the Faroe Islands is practically never-ending. Consider that the people who settled the Faroe Islands came from the same stock as the forefathers of all the ocean-going Scandinavian people, and mix in the seafaring Vikings who came later, and immediately you can see why sailing in the Faroe Islands is quite popular. Lots of mariner/travelers visit the islands to practice their sailing skills by hopping from island to island.
This is also big in the Faroe Islands, one of its most popular sports in fact, surely a callback to those Viking ancestors who had to be proficient at rowing literally to save their lives as they crossed the ocean’s expanse. Club rowing is huge here and there are summertime races and even a rowing festival in July. You can also try your hand at kayaking,and if that isn’t communing closely enough with the chilly water for you, divingin the Faroe Islands is growing in popularity every year, with divers eager to see the pristine beauty of the seabed so far off the beaten track.
For the visitor who is looking for a slightly more leisurely style of seafaring, there are powerboat rentals available as well, and a wide variety of guided boat tours that will show you the beauty of the islands while you sit back and relax with a beverage and simply enjoy the show.
Of course, where there’s ocean, there’s bound to be fishing culture, and the Faroese have that in spades. Coming as they do from a long line of seafaring folk, the Faroe Islanders not only have thousands of years of fishing tradition in their blood, but also access to some of the cleanest, least-fished waters in the Atlantic.
And you have to assume they know what they’re doing; fishing accounts for some 95 percent of the islands’ export sales, and fully 20 percent of their gross domestic product. With the ocean never more than 3 miles away from any spot where you might be standing in the Faroe Islands, and with tons of great fishing areas and sheltered coves hidden between the islands, the opportunities are endless for fisherfolk. You can rent your own boat and try your luck, or join an organized fishing boat tour.
The unique and isolated location of the Faroe Islands also means that a wide variety of birds stop off here on their migratory routes or actually make their homes here. There are some 305 bird species that have been officially recorded in and around the Faroe Islands, and upwards of 50 species make the islands their yearly breeding grounds. Another 60 species are considered regular visitors to the islands. When you consider that these tiny islands are the first bits of land seen by the birds as they cross the Atlantic, you can understand why so many might want to take short break here!
Depending on where you are in the Faroe Islands you can see huge gannets spearing into the water to catch a fish, duck your head as great skuado a fly-by to scare you away from their breeding grounds, or hear the deafening cry of thousands of breeding kittiwakes.
But the best-known species that calls the Faroe Islands home is the puffin, that adorably goofy-looking and rather clumsy fellow on land who is nonetheless an ace fisher-bird. The westernmost island of Mykines is home to the puffin’s breeding grounds, and while you are still able to hike nearby, due to the impact of some thoughtless tourists and sheer numbers of people wanting to see the birds the Faroe Islands have instituted a fee for visiting the area.
Do please remember to be respectful and keep in mind that these are wild animals living in a fragile balance with nature, so don’t disturb the animals. The Faroe Islands tourism board has produced a birdwatching handbook with all the information avid birders need to get started.
But don’t start thinking that the Faroe Islands are completely wild, devoid of human comforts. The capital city of Tórshavn is also charming place to get lost for a day or two, with its brightly painted houses, well-preserved 18th-century churches, gorgeous waterfront and incredible seafood restaurants. Be sure to check out the cobblestone alleys and black tar-walled houses, and grass-roofed houses in the Tinganesneighborhood near the old town section of the city.
While Tórshavn boasts a population of just 22,000 and only three traffic lights, there’s a lot to see, more than you might expect. Definitely take time to visit the Nordic House, a cultural institution designed to preserve and promote Scandinavian and Faroese culture. It’s also stunning architecturally, evoking the sod-covered houses of the Faroe Islands cut into the hills where folklore says enchanted elves live.
Tórshavn has free buses, so you can scoot around town at will. But you can also take a free city bus to nearby historic Kirkjubøur,just 20 minutes away from the town center.This southernmost village on the island of Streymoy is home to a much-beloved church ruin dating to the 13th century, called Kirkjubømúrurin or St. Magnus’ Cathedral. The church was never completed, and is in the process of being renovated, but is still largely standing and well worth a visit. Another amazing sight in Kirkjubøur is King’s Farm or Kirkjubøargarður, one of the oldest wooden houses in the world that is still occupied, dating to the 11th century.
Another big draw for people wanting to travel to the Faroe Islands is the islands’ music festivals, starting with the G! Festivalin mid-July. The festival more or less takes over the entire village of Syðrugøta with five stages springing up between the houses and a main stage situated right on the beach. The backdrop of the bay, the lights on the boats in the water, and the nearby green-fuzzed mountains in the distance make for a unique concert-going experience. And visitors can enjoy immersing themselves in a wide variety of musical styles ranging from traditional folk and Faroese artists to international and Scandinavian music to pop and even death metal.
The Summer Festival
This takes place in August in the Faroe Islands’ second-largest city, Klasvik, and is a family-friendly event spread across three stages in the town center. In addition to music from Faroese, Scandinavian and world acts, there are also fun-fair activities, clowns, and all kinds of other hands-on experiences. Entire extended families will gather for the Summer Festival, camping, setting up in camper vans, and even staying on their boats for this epic annual event.
For lovers of classical music, the Summartónar Festivalis put on by composers offering performances of classical and contemporary compositions in daily concerts. The highlight of the event is a concert performed at Klæmints-gjógv grotto on Hest Island. Attendees will have to don a life vest to get there via an old wooden boat, but will get to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime concert performed in the massive, echoing caverns of the grotto.
Unlikely thought it may seem, country and bluesmusic is even on the menu for Faroe Islands concert-goers, with an annual festival held in the village of Sørvágur and featuring Faroese musicians who have recorded in Nashville and toured the world as well as numerous international country-blues stars.
Heading back out into the natural wonders of the Faroe Islands, any visitor must put Gásadalur, Faroe Islands on their list. This village on the western shore of Vágar island across from the puffin paradise of Mykines is surrounded by the highest mountains on the island, offering a stunning backdrop. The mountains soar upwards of 2300 feet (722 m) and for centuries severely hampered travel to and from this tiny village.
For may years, the only options were to helicopter in, risk treacherous landing sites by boat, or hike over the mountains. Indeed, as of 2012 the population of Gásadalur was just 18 people. But since a tunnel was opened in 2004, it’s much easier to visit by car — it’s now an easy 18-minute drive from the airport.
Gásadalur is home to the stunning Múlafossur Waterfall, often called the Gásadalur Waterfall, which is an incredible cascade that drops into the ocean from a rocky cliff face. There are a ton of great hiking trails all around Gásadalur as well, with varying levels of difficulty, but all of which offer incredible views and opportunities to quietly commune with the natural surroundings.
if you plan to see the Gásadalur Waterfall, you might want to head straight there from the airport after landing, or build in time on your last day before heading out, as the village is nearly 60 km from Torshavn and kind of out of the way with regard to most other Faroe Islands destinations. Also, don’t forget that there are plenty of other waterfalls crying out for photo ops in the Faroe Islands as well, including the Fossá Waterfallon Streymoy, a double waterfall featuring a black lava rock backdrop to the white foaming water, and near the village of Saksun, where you’ll find a pair of nearby falls, including the Breiðá Waterfall.
Getting around is easy
Finally, one of the most unexpected things about visiting the Faroe Islands is just how seamlessly the islands are connected. Roads, tunnels, bridges and ferries abound that can zip you from place to place in no time, so renting a car and driving yourself, taking a bus, catching a ferry, and, according to a surprising number of blogs, even hitchhiking are all super easy to do and take you most places you’ll want to go with ease.
If you drive, just make sure you keep an eye out for the Faroe Islands’ most numerous demographic: Sheep.
Sheep outnumber the human residents on the Faroe Islands 2 to 1, and you’ll see them everywhere. Indeed, when the locals were petitioning Google to bring their mapping program to the Faroe Islands, they created the hilarious and wonderful SheepView360 campaign in which they strapped cameras to a number of the island’s sheep to show Google Maps what they were missing. The Faroe Islands can thus say that it was sheep that literally put them on the map!
All in all, Faroe Islands travel is something that should be on every real adventurer’s bucket list. And these days it’s easier than ever to fulfill those dream journeys. Here are a few helpful tips get you started on your trip to the Faroe Islands!
Getting to the Faroe Islands: The Faroe Islands airport is located on the island of Vagar, about 43 minutes from the capital city of Tórshavn. It may be a small airport but getting to the Faroe Islands is easier than ever, with direct flights originating in Edinburgh, Reykjavik, Paris, Bergen, and Copenhagen ranging from 1 to 2 hours at most. If you connect from the U.S. through Reykjavik, it’s just a short one-hour hop to the Faroe Islands. Getting to the Faroe Islands from Denmark or Iceland can be even more adventurous if you want, with a ferry operated by Smyril Line.
Faroe Islands currency: While the Faroe Islands enjoy home rule and are more or less independent from Denmark, the Faroe Islands currency is still the Danish krone.
Faroe Islands language: The official language is Faroese, but Danish and English are almost universally spoken as well.
Camping in the Faroe Islands: Keep in mind that wild camping or setting up a campsite just anywhere is illegal here, unlike in many Scandinavian regions. Always use designated campsites, and don’t plan on parking a camper-van on the side of the road and sleeping overnight.
Faroe Islands weather: The Faroe Islands climate is what is called a sub-polar oceanic climate. That sounds scary perhaps, but what it means is that the warming influence of the Atlantic gives the islands cool summers (avg. 49º to 51ºF or 9.5 to 10.5ºC) and quite mild winters (37 to 39 °F or 3 to 4 °C on average). If it does snow, it’s usually just a light dusting as the salt in the air prevents it from freezing. That said, remember that rain is always waiting in the wings, and depending on where you are it can get quite windy, so dress appropriately.
When is the best time to visit the Faroe Islands? Depends on what you want to do. If it’s scuba diving you’re after, the shoulder seasons when the waters are a little cooler are best, as the plankton blooms aren’t in full force making the water murky. For your best chance to see the Northern Lights in the Faroe Islands, February seems to be optimal according to several sites, but in general September through April are best. There’s also a great winter jazz festival in addition to the plethora of summertime festivals if you choose to go in the off season.
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