My first trip to Iceland was 6 years ago, when tourism had already begun its dramatic increase and people had started to descend on this island in the North Atlantic in droves. Since then, interest in Iceland has only gone up, with no end in sight. Whether it’s the short flight time, the Game of Thrones motivation, or something else, millions of people like me have a strange compulsion to not just visit, but to keep visiting. Since my first trip, I have returned three more times and although there’s still plenty of Iceland for me left to see, I do think I have a good understanding of what it’s like to travel there and which experiences are, and aren’t, worth your time. Everyone’s tastes and interests are different, but here are some of my favorite experiences in Iceland, activities I think just about anyone will enjoy.
Ultimately, most people travel to Iceland in order to enjoy the incredible natural beauty that is almost too good to be true. This is a country of elves and legends, glaciers and black sand beaches and, most notably, waterfalls. Iceland has no shortage of waterfalls, of that there can be no doubt. Almost everywhere you drive around the country you’ll find them in all sizes and shapes, each one with its own legends and mythologies surrounding it. But some are something special, something different and several of these must-visit waterfalls are found along the Ring Road. Seljalandsfoss is popular in large part because you can see it from the road, making a stop a foregone conclusion. But that’s not the only reason, as I learned while investigating the natural wonder. The waterfall itself drops about 60 meters, but the most interesting aspect of Seljalandsfoss is the fact that visitors can walk behind it, offering a different perspective and plenty of chances to spot a rainbow. Further up Route 1 is another popular waterfall, Skógafoss. This is one of the biggest waterfalls in the country, at a width of 82 feet and a drop of 200 feet. The spray from the waterfall is incredible, but it’s thanks to it that rainbows are also easy to see here. Next to Skógafoss is a hiking trail up to the top of the waterfall, offering amazing views down below.
I have been to Iceland four times and on each trip, no matter what I decide to do, I always make sure to include at least a day or two in one of my favorite global capitals, Reykjavik. Before my first visit, I didn’t truly appreciate just how small Iceland’s population is and what the effect of that has upon the travel experience. The entire country has around 334,000 inhabitants. That’s about the size of St. Louis, Missouri or Anaheim, California. Reykjavik and surrounding suburbs account for 216,000 of that number, leaving a lonely 100,000 hardy souls strewn about Beyond the Wall. So instead of a colossal capital city, Reykjavik has the size and feel of a small town; or at least not a very big town. But it’s more than size, it’s the mentality of Reykjavik that’s so endearing. I never once saw a policeperson the entire time I was there. Or security. Or anything bad happen to anyone. There’s practically no crime, the entire country currently has fewer than 150 prisoners. 150?! The parliament, prime minister’s house, president’s house all are essentially open with no obvious signs of security, not even a fence. Being in Iceland isn’t just nice, it is a vacation from distrust, paranoia and fear and I always love every second of my time there.
I’m thankful I made the decision to spend a day visiting the Westman Islands, because it counts amongst my all-time favorite experiences in Iceland. Easy to reach from the south coast, the ferry ride is a short 30-minutes, but it feels like a world away. The Westman Islands are small and the only inhabited island, Haimaey, is just 7 square miles in size. 4,000 people call this rock home, but as I discovered on a tour around the island, it’s one of the most beautiful places not only in Iceland, but arguably the world. A combination of the gorgeous landscapes and the hospitality of the people who call it home, I fell in love thanks to the total experience and I know it’s an island I will return to many times in the future.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Global warming is the reason we have to thank for the emergence of this lagoon fed by glacial waters and chock-a-block with calved icebergs in all sizes, shapes and colors. 75 years ago it didn’t exist, but today it’s one of the top attractions in the country. There are a few different options to experience the lagoon, from just admiring it from the shore, to taking a duck-boat ride to the option I selected, a Zodiac boat tour. The Zodiac is, I think, the best option, if you really want to make the most out of your once in a lifetime experience on the lagoon. For more than an hour, our captain took us up to the foot of the glacier itself as sheets of ice crashed noisily into the water below, and dodging in between icebergs throughout the lagoon.
It’s been called Iceland in miniature, land of sagas and even one of the earth’s mystical energy points, but no matter what you believe there’s no denying that driving around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland is one of the most beautiful driving experiences you’ll ever have. Snaefellsnes is located on Iceland’s West Coast, and is actually very easy to reach from Reykjavik. While I don’t recommend doing it as a day trip from the capital, it’s certainly possible and a good way of seeing more of this beautiful country if your time is limited. The highlight of this peninsular drive for many people is visiting Mt. Kirkjufell. Called the most photographed mountain in Iceland, a simple Instagram search definitely proves that’s true enough. I didn’t recognize it at first though, believe it or not. Arriving from the east, it wasn’t until I had driven through the small town of Grundarfjörður that I realized the mountain I was searching for was right in front of me. That’s because like so many famous photos, you have to catch the mountain from the perfect angle to recognize it from all of those images you’ve seen over the years. Pulling into a small park across from the mighty mountain, I thought it was pretty but frankly didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Just as beautiful, I thought, were the falls across the street from Kirkjufell, especially in the winter when everything was frozen, its beauty captured in time.
Into the Glacier
One reason why I recently returned to West Iceland was to enjoy an experience I have wanted to try since it began, spending some time in the heart of a glacier on the special Into the Glacier tour. A few years ago, a group of intrepid folks designed and dug out the first and largest man-made ice cap glacier ice cave at the massive Langjökull glacier. Since then they’ve been taking folks from Husafell to the very top of the massive glacier for a once in a lifetime walk through glacial caves. Climbing onto the specially designed trucks at Husafell, we made the hour-long trek to the glacier on what was a surprisingly beautiful day. With clear skies we could see for miles, admiring the pinks and reds bouncing off of the snow-capped mountains. The cave experience itself was just as special as I had hoped, making it well worth the years long wait to finally enjoy what really is a once in a lifetime adventure.
Exploring the North
One reason why I’m so attracted to cold-weather destinations in the winter is for their raw beauty. I’m sure they’re also nice in the summer, but there’s nothing quite like seeing a frozen lake or snow capped mountains to enjoy these special places in the way they were meant to be enjoyed. That was my reward after some stressful driving during my last trip to Iceland. The northern regions, particularly the Lake Mývatn area, are rich with natural wonders no matter the time of year, but in the winter months the landscapes are covered with sparkling snow and ice, very much turning it into a scene from Game of Thrones. That’s no surprise, since the show has filmed in the northern reaches of Iceland for years, the real life landscapes mimicking the fantasy world perfectly. Whether you drive yourself or take a tour with a local, there are plenty of natural sights to enjoy from waterfalls and lava fields to natural baths and mountain landscapes. Spending time in the northern tier of Iceland feels like standing on the edge of the world because, well, you are.
Iceland is a strange little island, and I’m not talking about their odd love affair with elves. No, it’s strange in any number of ways but one of the best ways is its geothermal resources. Iceland sits over a rift in the continental plates, resulting in a high number of volcanoes and a landscape that can only be called steamy. In addition to providing much of the energy requirements for the country’s citizens, there are some other fun by-products to this geothermal energy, namely the many thermal baths and spas located around the island. The Blue Lagoon is the most popular of these pools and, although touristy, I always enjoy visiting. But there are countless more around Iceland, many of which are small community pools, but others like the Lake Mývatn Nature Baths offer a Blue Lagoon experience without the crowds. No matter where you decide to take the waters, it’s an important part of any visit, plus it’s one of the most relaxing experiences you’ll enjoy in Iceland.