Iceland is an island in the north Atlantic Ocean, known for its diverse and alien, yet stunning landscapes. Complete with glaciers, craggy mountains, volcanic soil, geothermal sites and hot springs, Iceland should be on every nature lover’s bucket list. The geography is truly out-of-this-world, making Iceland one of Europe’s most unique destinations.
Travel Tips to Iceland
• Despite its isolation from continental Europe, Iceland is considered Nordic European. While the native language is Icelandic, a slew of other languages such as Norwegian, Dutch and German are also spoken.
• All Icelanders speak English and the vast majority of the signs are in English as well.
• The best way to explore Iceland is to rent a car and drive around the entire island. This can take about 5 days. Route 1 is a national road that goes around Iceland, connecting most parts of the island. Also known as the Ring Road, a lot of Iceland’s major attractions fall on this route. It’s a pretty straight drive with few detours. There also signs pointing out points of interest. It is highly unlikely that you will get lost in Iceland if you stick to Route 1. We did not even carry a GPS on us.
• The F roads take you through the highlands and mountainous areas of Iceland. Not all vehicles are allowed in these regions, so check with your car rental service. Also, just be aware that a lot of the time these areas are uninhabited and hardly have any road signs.
• WOW Airlines is the cheaper option compared to Icelandair. However, passengers are allowed only 1 piece of carry-on luggage (not 1 piece of baggage + 1 personal item like laptop/purse). I packed everything that I needed into this 1 carry-on baggage. Think of it this way. If you plan on exploring the Icelandic scenery like I did for the entirety of the trip, do you really need those heels or khaki shorts? I traveled in September. My best friends were a good pair of shoes, thick socks, a jacket, gloves and my iPhone. Throw in a few change of undergarments, 3 tops and 2 pants, and I was set to go.
• With regards to food chains in Iceland, there are no Starbucks, McDonald’s, or 7/11. But you will find 10/11, Subways, and amazing coffee at ‘Te and Kaffi’. And do not forget, Iceland’s famous lava bread!
Golden Circle Route of Iceland
This is Iceland’s most popular route for tourists. It is best to get an early start to avoid the bus loads of tourists, particularly in peak season.
Thingvellir National Park
This UNESCO World Heritage treasure is located 40km northeast of central Reykjavik. It is a significant historical site in Iceland, and is known for its gorgeous geological features.
When Norway was unified under King Harald Fairhair, many clans fled to Iceland’s shores. Ingolfur Arnarson was the first to arrive in 874. The next 56 years is known as the ‘Settlement Period’. It was marked by violence and instability, as different clans fought over beliefs and Iceland’s limited resources.
The majority of the power lay with the descendents of Ingolfur Arnarson, a fact that was highly resented by the remaining communities spread out across Iceland. A man by the name of Grimur Geitskor was assigned the task of choosing a suitable location to meet with representatives from each clan.
Around the same time, a man was convicted of murder and his property became public. This land became Thingvellir, literally meaning “the fields of parliament”. In 930 AD, more than thirty ruling chiefs from different parts of Iceland, met at Thingvellir to create the world’s oldest and longest running parliament. It was called the Alpingi.
Alpingi served as the scene for many important events in Iceland’s history. In 1000 AD, the Old Norse belief system Asatru was abandoned in favor of Christianity to stave off a Norwegian invasion. In 1944 AD, Icelanders declared their independence from Denmark and selected their first President.
Iceland is divided by the Mid-Atlantic Rift. The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates gave rise to a gigantic, fissured rift valley. Thingvellir National Park is the only place in the world where you can see the tectonic plates above sea level.
The tectonic plates continue to move apart at a rate of 2.5 centimeters a year as they have done so for millenniums. Visitors can see old lava fields from ancient magma flow, and ravines from past earthquakes. Earthquakes continue to occur everyday, but most are too minor to be felt.
The Great Geysir
One of Iceland’s most famous attractions, the Great Geysir is the mother of all geysers. All other geysers in the world get their name from this hot-water spout.
Located in the Haukadalur geothermal region of south-western Iceland, the Great Geysir was active for around 800 years. It could even spout water up to 80 meters into the air. However, the geyser has lost much of its zeal since 1916. Though earthquakes can trigger activity, as of today eruptions are extremely rare.
Visitors to Iceland don’t have to feel disappointed about the Great Geysir. Lying right alongside it is another more reliable geyser by the name of Strokkur. The geyser shoots up water every 5-10 minutes, sometimes reaching heights of 30 meters.
The river Hvítá forms one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, Gulfoss. With a descent of 32 meters, the waterfall throws up a lot of water spray. Visitors can catch sight of rainbows on sunny days, and in winter behold glittering ice crystals in the falls.
There is a memorial near the visitor center dedicated to Sigríður Tómasdóttir, without whom Gulfoss would not be flowing today. It was Sigríður Tómasdóttir and her sisters who first made the stairs leading to the falls in the late 1800s, thus helping people travel through an otherwise unforgivable terrain. When foreign investors wanted to dam the Hvítá river for a hydroelectric project in 1907, Sigríður walked barefoot all the way to Reykjavík in protest. Thus, Gullfoss has been a nature reserve in Iceland since 1979.
The 200 feet high falls are fed by melting water from Iceland’s famous glacier-capped Eyjafjallajokull volcano. The falls are best known for the walking path that runs behind the cascading water, making Seljalandsfoss the only known waterfall to have such an access.
Owing to the extensive water spray, the path is slippery, wet and muddy. If you want to avoid being soaked, wearing a rain-proof jacket, any rain-gear and sturdy water-proof shoes is recommended. My spectacles for instance were so blurry that I wished that I either had wipers on them or worn contacts.
Also note that walking behind Seljalandsfoss is not allowed during the winter months due to the risk of falling ice.
When Iceland’s coastline receded inward, the former sea cliffs remained. Skogafoss is located on these cliffs. Another one of Iceland’s biggest waterfalls, Skogafoss is birthed from the Skoga river, and flows directly from the two glaciers, Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull.
According to legend, a Viking by the name of Thrasi hid his gold under Skogafoss. Many men tried to find the chest of gold, but failed. One day, a young man discovered the chest. He tied a rope to the ring knob of the chest, and pulled. But he only managed to pull out the ring. This ring is today used as a door knob on the village church door in Skogar.
Visitors have a steep 370 steps to climb to reach the top of the falls. At 60 meters tall, the fall produces a voluble amount of spray, so much so that a single or double rainbow is visible on sunny days. In winter, photography enthusiasts and nature lovers can enjoy a stunning view of the Northern Lights.
The Fimmvorduhals hiking trail is extremely popular with hikers traveling to Iceland. Only available in the summer, the trail is 25 kilometers long, and is completed in a day or two.
Like most hikers, I chose to start from the Skogafoss waterfall, though you can also do it the other way around. The hike takes you along the Skoga river, through the gorgeous green valley of Thorsmork filled with grazing sheep and wild flora.
Soon you will leave behind the green landscape and reach a rocky, barren terrain. Since I was only planning a short hike, I stopped my journey at a sign reading Basar (23.4 kilometers).
From here, hikers will go through an area between the Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull glaciers. You will find craters and lava flow from the Eyjafjallajokull eruption in 2010. There will be a lot of heat and steam from the lava flow, different from the cool beginnings near Skogafoss. This is something to keep in mind when deciding what to wear on this hike.
For those looking to break the hike into two days, there is a mountain hut for travelers. Once you reach the top, you will have a magnificent view of Iceland’s lunar landscape complete with craggy mountain ridges.
Iceland’s most famous volcano, Eyjafjallajokull can be seen while driving on Route 1 on the way to Vík. Its name comes from the Icelandic phrase meaning “the island’s mountain glacier”.
The subglacial volcano is located within Iceland’s East Volcanic Zone, and lies beneath the Eyjafjallajokull Glacier. The highest point is 5,466 feet above sea level.
Iceland’s records show that the Eyjafjallajokull volcano has erupted in 920, 1612 or 1613 and 1821-1823. These eruptions happened simultaneously or were followed shortly after by the eruption of Katla, a volcano situated 15.5 miles to the east in Iceland.
In 2010, a series of small earthquakes triggered lava flow in the 0.3 mile long vent in the Fimmvorduhals Pass. New fissures surfaced beneath the crater, which brought more lava flow to the glacier-tipped summit. The heat from the lava rapidly melted and vaporized the glacial ice. This resulted in mud, ice and melting water flowing down the volcano into local rivers and streams. The Markarfljot glacial river swelled so much, that it flooded nearby farmlands and roads.
The intense vaporization of ice from water coming in contact with magma, also created phreatomagmatic explosions. Massive plumes of steam and ash were billowed into the atmosphere, with winds driving the ash cloud across the North Atlantic Ocean to northern Europe. Many European countries closed their commercial airspace, and flights were grounded for several days.
Located 10 minutes from the small fishing village of Vík, Renisfjara Beach was recognized as one of the top ten non-tropical beaches to visit by National Geographic. Known as the Black Beach, it gets its name from the millions and millions of shiny smooth black pebbles that make up the beach.
As you walk through the fine black sand, you will find enormous columns of basalt flanking the perimeter with the ocean water tumbling up to the beach sands. While you might be tempted to swim, it is advised to avoid doing so. Not only is the North Atlantic ocean water cold, but the rough waves and strong under currents can be a death-trap.
There are large rocky sea stacks off the Iceland shoreline known as Reynisdrangar. According to Icelandic tales, trolls once roamed here, and they would try to seize ships sailing in the ocean. One day, they failed to retreat before the dawn and were instantly turned into solid stone.
Another Icelandic legend tells of a woman, who was kidnapped and killed by two trolls. Seeking vengeance, her grief-stricken husband tracked the two trolls down to Reynisfjara, where he froze them into eternal stone so that they may never kill again.
Today, the mythical troll columns are home to thousands of nesting seabirds including puffins, fulmars and guillemots.
Vatnajokull National Park
Covering nearly 13 percent of Iceland, the Vatnajokull National Park is the largest national park in Western Europe. The Vatnajokull glacier is also the largest glacier in the world outside the Arctics.
The park stands out for its diverse, even contrasting natural features. Hot streams stemming from frozen ice banks. Black sand meeting glacier tongues. Everything reflects the constant struggle between fire and ice.
The visitor center is in Skaftafell, which is located in Vatnajokull National Park’s southern territory. This is also the most accessible entrance to the Skaftafell glacier.
Also known as the Black Waterfall, Svartifoss gets its name from the prominent dark basalt columns. These lava pillars were the inspiration behind the Hallgrimskirkja church and the National Theatre in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland.
The 1.2 mile hike is very steep in the beginning, but overall, it takes only 40 minutes to reach Svartifoss.
The Skaftafellsjokull hike is one of the best hikes in Iceland. Hikers can continue on from Svartifoss up to the Sjonarsker viewpoint, and through the Gemludalur valley. The 10.4 mile hike takes 5-6 hours to complete.
Hikers pass through varied terrain, complete with dense forest foliage, green fields and rocky patches. The landscape is breathtaking, but the icing on the cake is when you reach Sjonarnipa. The precipice overlooks the Skaftafell glacier descending from the larger Vatnajokull glacier in the north. This point offers the most impressive views of the glacier in Vatnajokull National Park, and is well worth your trip to Iceland.
Keep in mind as you are hiking in Iceland, that there will be temperature changes with altitude, terrain and exertion. It is best to dress in layers, as I started out with a jacket at the beginning of my hike, and had it wrapped around my waist by the time I reached Sjonarnipa. Also, there are no bathrooms or refreshments on the hike. Remember to bring enough water and snacks on you.
This beautiful glacial lake is one of Iceland’s crown jewels. The lake is the result of melting water from glaciers. As glaciers continue to retreat, the lake’s boundaries keep expanding. At 248 meters, Jokulsarlon is currently Iceland’s deepest lake as well as its lowest point.
Jokulsarlon developed only around 1948, when the Vatnajokull glacier was at the shoreline of Iceland. Since then, the glacier has retreated inward rapidly, leaving behind deep gorges filled with melted water and massive icebergs. These huge chunks of ice meet at Jokulsarlon’s narrow exit, melt into smaller blocks, and drift into the sea.
Icebergs from the Jokulsarlon glacial lake wash up onto a black sand beach. The milky white and the bright blue icebergs contrast beautifully with the black sand of the beach, an interplay of light and ice crystals.
Known as the most picturesque town in Iceland, Seydisfjordor is one of the top picks by Lonely Planet.
Carved out during the Ice Age, this fjord town is famous for its harbor facilities and proximity to Europe, both which made Seydisfjordor an important trading center since the 19th century.
Brightly painted wooden homes and buildings reveal the Norwegian ancestry of the 700 residents, who form one large warm family. Fishing was the primary occupation, though tourism has grown in recent years.
Note that the road through the Eastern fjords and Egilstaddir goes through mountain tops. It is common to experience foggy conditions, changes in wind shields and steep curves.
The most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss is 45 meters tall, 100 meters wide, and has a volume flow rate of 500 cubic meters of water per second.
If you are driving from the Eastern Fjords of Iceland like I did, route 862 is the best choice. Located on the west side of river Jokulsa, take this road when leaving route 1. Route 862 is paved and ideal for all vehicles. If you want to continue onto Asbyrgi from Dettifoss, you will need a 4X4.
Note that road 862 is closed during winter owing to snow or wet conditions.
There are two famous Viti craters in Iceland. One is in Krafla, and the other is in Askja. While driving from Dettifoss toward the Lake Myvatn area, you will come across the Krafla volcano.
A Viti is an explosion crater. In Icelandic, Viti means “hell”. In 1724, there was a huge eruption in the Krafla volcano, also known as the Myvatnseldar. This eruption lasted 5 years, after which the diameter of the crater became 300 meters.
Today, the crater contains a opaque teal green lake and emits a strong smell of sulfur. Geothermal stations nearby harvest the renewable energy from the Krafla volcano and the surrounding geothermal active area.
One of Iceland’s greatest poets, Jonas Hallgrimsson, penned the poem “Viti” based on the Krafla volcanic crater. Icelandic composer Jon Leifs used this poem to compose an Icelandic choral masterpiece.
Also known as Hverarond, this lunar landscape is a hot bed of bubbling mud pools, glistening mineral deposits, fuming vents, and steaming fumaroles. The variegated colors of the lava fields and the overwhelming fumes of sulfur make Hverir one of Iceland’s most ethereal geological wonders.
Visitors can follow the pedestrian pathways to walk around the geothermal site. These paths have been roped off to prevent injury both to visitors and the natural treasures of Iceland.
In addition, you can hike up a walking trail that loops from Hverir to Namafjall ridge. It takes 30 minutes to complete the trail. Upon reaching the top, visitors have a grand view of the entire steaming area of Hverir.
The vast jagged lava fields of Dimmuborgir is one of Iceland’s most fascinating attractions. Composed of volcanic caves and rock formations, its name means “Black City” or “Dark Castles”. According to Icelandic mythology Dimmuborgir was once the home of the supernatural, such as trolls and devils.
Around 2,300 years ago, basaltic lava from the Ludentarborgir fissure crater flowed down the Laxardalur Valley, through low lying plains and into the Arctic Ocean. There was also a big marshland or lake nearby. As the lava entered the marsh and accumulated in pseudocraters, the water started to boil and jets of steam rose through the lava. This cooling effect led to the formation of pillars. Even after the lava continued to flow toward lower ground, these pillars remained behind giving rise to Dimmuborgir’s craggy landscape.
There are many simple color-coded walking trails for visitors. The most popular one is the 2.3 kilometer long Church Circle.
The Myvatn district lies in the volcanic zone that is part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in north-eastern Iceland. The area is known for its rootless vents or pseudocraters, where lava once accumulated and gave rise to rock pillars. The biggest of these formations is Dimmuborgir.
Today, Myvatn is a shallow eutrophic lake fed by nutrient-rich springwater and surrounded by wetlands. The abundance of insects is an attractive food source for a diverse fauna of waterbirds, especially ducks.
There are thirteen species of ducks. The tufted duck migrated to Iceland at the end of the 19th century, and constitutes the largest species in Lake Myvatn. Since 1975, the Myvatn Research Station has monitored the birds’ movements as well as the traditional harvesting of duck eggs. For sustainability, harvesting rules dictate that at least four eggs be left in a nest.
The “Waterfall of the Gods” is located near the Sprengisandur highland road in north-eastern Iceland. The river Skjalfandafljot originates deep inside the Icelandic highlands and flows through the Baroardalur valley, falling from a height of 12 meters over a width of 30 meters.
In the year 999 or 1000, Christianity was declared as the official religion of Iceland at the historic site of Alpingi. The Cathedral of Akureyri illustrates the legend when lawspeaker Porgeir threw his statues of the Norse gods into Godafoss.
You will see plenty of farm animals along route 1, including the gorgeous Icelandic horses. Known for their spirited temperament and big personalities, this unique breed of small horses are descendants from an ancient breed that is now extinct outside of Iceland.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, Norse settlers brought ponies to Iceland in accordance to Norse beliefs that venerated horses. Over the centuries, natural selection and selective breeding has developed the horses into their current form. In order to maintain the purity of the breed, Icelandic law prohibits the importing of horse breeds and exported Icelandic horses are not allowed to return.
Known for their hardiness, Icelandic horses are built for Iceland’s tough volcanic terrain. Icelanders do not completely domesticate the horses, preferring instead to retain the animal’s wild nature.
The Icelandic language has more than a 100 names for the different colors and variations of horse coat patterns.
While most horse breeds display the typical walk, trot and canter, the Icelandic horse has an additional two gaits:
- Tolt: A four-beat lateral ambling gait that is marked by explosive acceleration.
- Skeid: The “flying pace” is used in races, with some horses reaching 30 miles per hour.
Welcome to the northernmost capital in the world! Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland as well as its largest city.
After the Alpingi was formed at Thingvellir in 930 AD, community leaders continued to meet there for many years. In 1881, the Althingishus or Parliament House was built, making it one of the oldest stone buildings in Iceland.
Located in Austurvollur square, the house is built of hewn Icelandic stone. The exterior walls are bare stone, while the interior is plastered. The north side of the roof bears the crown and crest of King Christian IX. Four of the second floor windows depict Iceland’s guardian spirits: a giant, a bird, a bull and a dragon.
Once the residence of the President’s office, today only a few meeting rooms and senior parliament staff offices remain.
Harpa Concert Hall
Even if you are not planning on catching a show (some are free) by the Iceland Symphony or Icelandic Opera, the Harpa is worth a stop.
Designed by Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects, Icelandic firm Batteriid Architects, and Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, the Harpa’s intricate lattice of convex and concave glass panes dazzles the eye especially at night.
Visible from more than 20 kilometers away, the Hallgrimskirkja church dominates the city skyline. Built 1945-1986, this Lutheran church’s radical design never saw completion. Constructed out of white concrete, the columns on either side of the tower imitate the volcanic basalt columns of the waterfall Svartifoss in Iceland’s Vatnajokull National Park.
The church is named after one of Iceland’s famous poets, Reverend Hallgrimur Petrusson (1614-1674), who composed the popular hymn book ‘Passiusalmar’ (Passion Hymns).
One of Hallgrimskirkja’s most unique features is the huge pipe organ inside the church. Installed in 1992, the organ has 5,275 pipes.
A statue of Viking Leifur Eiriksson, the first European to discover America, stands in front of the church. The statue was a gift from the USA to Iceland in 1930, marking the 1000th anniversary of the Alpingi.
The geothermal spa is a hot favorite amongst tourists to Iceland. Only a few minutes from Keflavik International Airport, the Blue Lagoon is built over a massive lagoon that has sprung up amidst the craggy lava landscape. Spa treatments, soaks and massages use geothermal seawater and active ingredients like minerals, silica and algae.
Hint: For those of you seeking to just see the lagoon and skip the hefty entrance fee, you have two options.
- Walk past the front entrance and through a side trail which takes you through lava fields and hot spring effluents.
- Walk into the building, past the ticketing to the cafeteria. All the way to the back are double doors which open out into the lagoon.