On exciting turf: the turf roofed houses in the Westfjords 

The architecture of a region tells multiple stories on a singular platform: stories of survival and ingenuity, of making the most of the raw materials available in that geography and time, of progress and hope and of man’s eternal quest to make himself a little more comfortable.

All the above narratives hold true even in the simplest of constructions, most especially when it comes to building a house.

Simply put: the turf roofed houses of Iceland were built as protection against extreme weather conditions. Cramped, damp, and prone to rot, they nevertheless sheltered the nation from the elements. Icelandic rock is often too soft or porous to build with, while imported bricks or timber were an expensive luxury to the point of being sheer fantasy for most members of the population.

Typically, a turf house would consist of a foundation of flat stones. Upon this a wooden (often driftwood) frame would be mounted; all the better to hold the turf. The turf would then be fitted around the frame in blocks. The floor of a turf house could be covered with wood, stone or earth depending on the purpose of the building. The grass turf on their roofs naturally flourished in the summer months, making the houses blend into their surroundings.

From the medieval era right up to the 20th century building a turf house was how many lived and thrived in Iceland. Some people were living in turf roofed houses until as late as the 1960s.

Once commonplace, they need lots of maintenance if they are not to blend back into the landscape from which they were hewn. The few still standing are a touching nod to history. Thus, quite a few big turf houses double up as museums. Many of these heritage structures belong to the National Museum of Iceland and are a part of the National Museum’s Historic Buildings Collection.

The Westfjords region has its fair share of turf-roofed houses: a legacy of the locals’ endless struggles in centuries past.

Here’s a list, and by no means an exhaustive one, of a few of our favourites in the Westfjords.


Hrafnseyri in Arnarfjordur is the birthplace of Jon Sigurdsson, the leader of the 19th century Icelandic independence movement; fittingly his old turf house (where he grew up) is now part of the museum in his memory. There is a small church that stands outside too (he was the son of a pastor) and is welcoming to all visitors. 

It is worth noting that Hrafnseyri has become considerably more disability-accessible since its recent renovation. Perhaps this is as fine a tribute as it gets for a leader described by historian Gunnar Karlsson as a ‘classical liberal and a protagonist of modernisation, democracy, human rights and economic progress’.

Best of all, it also has a small cafe where you can get coffee and homemade treats as you ponder over Jón’s greatness.

Safn Jóns Sigurðssonar
471 Þingeyri
+354 456 8260


Let’s not forget for a minute that Iceland is a maritime country and has been one for centuries. In case you’d like to check out what an old Icelandic fishing station looked like before the onset of automation and cutting-edge technology, you’ve got to visit Osvor, which is essentially a recreation of a 19th century double fishing booth, fish drying platform and salt shed. It also contains information on the kind of boats that were used.

As an innovative touch, guests to the museum are often welcomed by somebody in traditional fisherman’s oilskin outfit, offering a unique glimpse into a long gone past; especially the accommodation available to the fishermen in that era. The museum is on the road that goes into Bolungarvik on the east side of the bay.

Sjóminjasafnið Ósvör
Ósvör Maritime Museum
Við Óshlíðarveg, 415 Bolungarvík
+354 892 5744


Thought to have been built around 1880, Hjallur in Vatnsfjordur is one of the grandest buildings of its kind in Iceland and has been under the protection of the National Museum since 1976. It is located a short distance from a church and farmhouse. Its relatively high side walls are made of stone, the rest of wood, and the crown is a sod turf roof.  Such hovels were mainly used as depots for fishing g
ear and for fish processing, i.e. dried fish.

Vatnsfjörður, 451 Patreksfjörður
+354 456 5111


Litlibaer, or the little farm, was built in 1895 by two families that each occupied half the house, partitioned by a wall through the middle.  Made of timber and stone, it has a turf roof, and a hayfield around it enclosed within a stone wall. Occupying an area of three hectares, this pretty little historic house (which was occupied until 1969) is now restored with a number of small rooms where you can have a glimpse at how life used to be for the residents who mostly sustained themselves through fishing and farming.

Don’t forget to try out the coffee and waffles with jam and cream!

61, 401 Ísafjörður
+354 695 5377

The Sorcerer’s Cottage

What adds to the aura of the mystical Sorcerer’s Cottage is its dramatic location: the remote Strandir area in the Westfjords.  At a glance, it consists of three connected turf houses made of turf (sod), rocks and driftwood.

Driftwood is one of the main resources in this remote area of the Westfjords and was used here as a building material for the turf houses to greater extent than in other parts of the country. 

Locals contributed to the restoration of the Sorcerer’s Cottage, donating items like hides, lambskin, old scythe-handles, rakes and assorted old tools that would help recreate the olden times. Be sure to visit this quaint little place which is rich in evidence of the aspirations of the common man, especially in a region so unforgiving. A little magic, for example, so that tools might work a little faster. Endearing in their sheer simplicity.

Kotbýli kuklarans
Strandavegur, 510 Kaldrananes
+354 897 6525


Between Latrabjarg and Patreksfjordur in the southern Westfjords, you’ll find Kollsvik and a turf hut called Hesthusid a Holum. This old stable might look unremarkable, but it is actually the oldest surviving turf house in Iceland – dating back to around 1650. In its wide open valley, with imposing mountains at both flanks, it’s easy to feel like time has stood still.



Right at the top of Steingrimsfjardarheidi – the long mountain pass connecting the fjords of Isafjardardjup with Strandir and the village of Holmavik – there sits a lonely old turf roofed shack. Oddly spooky and seemingly timeless, the hut was actually built as an emergency refuge (one which has doubtless saved lives in bad weather) as recently as 1923. It was later renovated in 1989 – though that might as well have been 1889 based on its state today.

If you choose to stop and check it out, please remember that it is dangerous and illegal to park your car on the highway, even when there is very little traffic.


If you’re travelling past Reykholar in the south of the Westfjords region, keep your eyes peeled for Barmar. One of only a tiny handful of turf houses still in use today, and therefore private property and off-limits to visitors, you can still get a good view of it from the road as you pass.

It might look like a modern recreation, but it is actually a faithfully maintained original which was abandoned to dilapidation in the early 20th century (like so many others), but was then restored to its former glory in 1925 before being abandoned again in 1967 and later restored to its current, beautiful state some years ago.

Honourable mention to Eric the Red

Eiríksstaðir is not technically in the Westfjords, but the region is hard to visit without driving past the former home of Eiríkur rauði (Eric the Red) – father of Leifur Eiríksson, the discoverer of North America. It is in the Dalir area, not far from Budardalur in West Iceland.

The original farmstead from the Viking era disappeared centuries ago, but the site is today home to a faithful replica and tribute to one of the most famous and influential Icelanders ever to have lived.

Eiríksstaðir Museum
371 Búðardal
+354 899 7111

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