These enchanting islands are Europe’s best-kept secret

Situated in the heart of the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic Ocean, there is a windswept world where the grass is so electric green, the terrain so stunningly dramatic and the sheep so prevalent, you may feel as though you’ve landed on another planet.

In fact, the destination’s name, which first appeared as Færeyjar – given by Viking Age settlers from Norway in the 9th century – translates to “Sheep Islands.”

While waiting for Google Street View to come map their roads, residents set up their own mapping project – Sheep View 360 — Photo courtesy of William Anderson/Visit Faroe Islands

Located northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway, the otherworldly Faroe Islands is an archipelago consisting of 18 mountainous islands (one of them uninhabited). The population of nearly 50,000 is spread out across the 17 inhabited islands, with nearly half living in the charming capital of Tórshavn.

Since 1948, the Faroe Islands have been a self-governing nation under the external sovereignty of the Kingdom of Denmark. Faroese is the national language, but Danish has equal status in all official affairs. (English is widely spoken, too.) Fishing remains the main industry, which means mealtime here is a true delight.

While visiting this waterfall- and fjord-dotted land, it’s easy to get sucked into a Faroese vacuum – to forget that life exists beyond this special, isolated place where homes come in rainbow hues and traditional structures feature grass-covered roofs.

A fashionable people who wear wide smiles and an abundance of wool, the Faroese boast a manner that’s both subdued and kind. Brynhild D. Weihe of Visit Faroe Islands says, “In one sentence, I would say Faroese culture is down to earth and proud.”

Sensational Tindhólmur, an islet on the southside of Sørvágsfjørður — Photo courtesy of Atlantic Airways/Visit Faroe Islands

Folks here seem curious, with heads popping out of windows to keep an eye on the scene (especially in tiny villages); island gossip often swirls, whether about the latest fishing boat mishap, cultural events around town (a debate on abortion, a nighttime sale at a popular clothing shop) or a deep analysis of nearby construction that’s bringing about change.

Weihe comments that guests are “more than welcome to approach the locals if they are in doubt about anything. Faroese people are happy to share the knowledge.”

If you get the chance to spend time with locals (highly recommended), you will no doubt be fed delectable dishes of fish and curry, and exposed to the nation’s proclivity for knitting, tea, cake, shoe horns and Danish reality shows that mirror much of what gets streamed in the States.

Nordic culture carries into the island’s cozy and welcoming spaces — Photo courtesy of Høgni Heinesen/Copyright HeinesenMyndir/Visit Faroe Islands

Getting there

Although the country exudes an alluring air of “mysterious faraway land,” the islands are easily reachable by air – about two hours from continental Europe and just an hour and a half from Reykjavik’s domestic airport via Atlantic Airways, which also offers direct flights from Denmark, Scotland and Norway. SAS also flies directly to the islands from Copenhagen every day expect Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Local culture

Getting from the airport to Tórshavn is effortless via bus route 300. (It takes about an hour, and you can pay onboard with local currency or a credit card.) Once in the capital, soak up local culture at the city’s many culinary and arts hubs. Browse the bulletin board and pick up a weekly calendar of events distributed at the Visit Tórshavn info center.

Wander the pedestrian street, popping into wool-centric clothing stores and TUTL Records, where occasional free in-store concerts offer insight into the local music scene. Take advantage of the weekday lunch buffet inside Hotel Hafnia’s Kafe Kaspar, or grab sushi across the street at Etika. If seeking a local delicacy, find menus that serve skerpikjøt, a type of wind-dried mutton of which the locals are especially proud.

Gudrun & Gudrun is a Faroese design company that specializes in sustainable fashion — Photo courtesy of GUÐRUN & GUÐRUN/Visit Faroe Islands

Down by the water, the marina bustles around a small-scale fish market. Grab a seat on the heated patio of Kaffihúsið to people watch while refueling with a smoothie, sandwich or tea-and-cake pit stop.

Afterward, explore nearby Tinganes, one of the oldest parliament meeting places in the world, and – on the other side of the marina – Öström, a chic retail hub. Here you’ll find local treasures from gorgeous handmade leathers and wooden cutting boards to hip jewelry made from fish scales.

Popular activities around the islands include hiking, cycling, helicopter touring, fishing and birdwatching. (Between May and August, thousands of puffins come to the island of Mykines to nest.)

If your time is limited, Visit Faroe Islands has come up with a potential 24-hour itinerary. Renting a car is a great way to explore; just be sure to stay on sheep watch as you wind your way around the narrow, scenic roadways.

The website www.hiking.fo offers advice and route information for dozens of adventures around the islands — Photo courtesy of Gabriel Nivera/Visit Faroe Islands

Weihe says, “Nature is very important to every person from the Faroe Islands, and we are taught to be mindful and respectful of it as we grow up, so this is something we’re eager to encourage in our visitors as well.”

If you get the chance, we strongly suggest visiting at least one other island via ferry – large, comfortable vessels that serve delicious cafeteria-style fare. (Pay for your ticket in the small shop once onboard.)

On Suðuroy, the southernmost island, highlights include a salt-silo-turned-music-hall, the indescribable Vágseidi viewpoint – where angry waves crash against a stunning shoreline – and village hangouts like Cafe MorMor, an uber-cozy venue in Tvøroyri that sometimes hosts meet-ups and art shows.

Knitting remains a central activity in many Faroese homes, often accompanied by tea and cake — Photo courtesy of Gabriel Nivera/Visit Faroe Islands

You’ll find that Faroese people, accustomed to working under challenging conditions, are hearty and resourceful. A recent example: Tired of waiting for Google Street View to come and map the archipelago’s roads, causeways and bridges, a team set up its own mapping project – Sheep View 360. And since they’ve not yet won the fight to have their language represented on Google Translate (fewer than 80,000 speak Faroese worldwide), they’ve created their own online version – a great way for visitors to prep for upcoming travels.

With a culture so heartwarming and natural beauty so extraordinary, we can think of a million reasons to return to this magical archipelago – while doing our part to keep the land as exquisitely untouched as possible.