The island lies to the northeast of Westray, across Papa Sound. All parts of the island are less than 1 km from a coast. Nestled in the lea of its east side is the small uninhabited isle of Holm of Papa Westray.
The landscape is low and settled, with the north, by contrast, higher moorland. A strong sense of exposure prevails, particularly in the north and east. There is a vibrant community and the landscape is diverse and well cared for. Settlement is scattered, with the main concentration at Holland in the centre of the island.
Papa Westray’s archaeological significance is secured by the presence of Europe’s best-preserved early Neolithic settlement complex, the Knap of Howar. Similarly, the Holm of Papa Westray has three Neolithic tombs, the southernmost one of which is truly monumental in scale. Papa Westray’s heritage is extensive, from farm mounds to post-medieval mills and the substantial farm at Holland. The 12th Century St Boniface Kirk on the west side of the island is one of the oldest in the north of Scotland. It is part of the development of a centre of Christian worship on Papa Westray - potentially from as early as the 7th century.
The island has considerable wildlife interest. Arctic Terns and Arctic Skuas breed on North Hill. This is the largest area of maritime heath vegetation in Orkney and the mainland of north Scotland. It is botanically very diverse, and includes the rare Scottish Primrose. The cliffs at Fowl Craig are home to nesting seabirds, including Guillemots, Razorbills, Shags and Kittiwakes. These cliffs also have the dubious distinction of being where the last of Britain's breeding Great Auks was shot in 1813.
Encircling almost 70-per-cent of the island is the Papa Westray Marine Protected Area, identified in part for its importance as a feeding ground for Black Guillemots. The Holm of Papay is home to the largest breeding colony of Black Guillemots in Britain.