The Republic of Iceland, located in the North Atlantic Ocean, has a population of almost 320,000 with Reykjavík as its largest city where approximately two thirds of the population live. Reykjavík is a modern town with an advanced infrastructure and when you’re here, it sure doesn’t feel like some far-off tiny island best known for its fire and ice.
As soon as you leave the highways and byways of Reykjavík, you will quickly sink into the tranquility of the country-side where the fierce natural past of Iceland becomes evident. Located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, with the eastern part resting on the North American plate and the western part on the Eurasian plate, Iceland is volcanically and geologically active on a massive scale which has defined its landscape over the past five million years. In fact, in the Pingvellir National Park you can see the huge divide between the two plates which was formed as the plates moved apart, and is still slowly moving. Volcanic activity – that’s why you should be here!
A good start to your adventure in Iceland is a few days in the lovely capital, Reykjavík. From here, take Route 1 (the Westfjords region.
A highly recommended route for a 10-day trip around the island is to cross through central Iceland from Akureyri to Reykjavík via Hvitar Lake, Strokkur Langjökull glacier stop at Hveravellir for a dip in the natural hot springs in a small stream which leads out from some active thermal vents. When you are done with the Langjökull glacier, head south to Geysir and the Gullfoss waterfalls. From Gullfoss go west to the Pingvellir National Park (Þingvellir in Icelandic) and back to Reykjavík.
Around Reykjavík make sure to spend a full day at the Blue Lagoon – Iceland’s premier geothermal outside natural spa. From Reykjavík take a pleasant daytrip up north to the villages of Akranes and Borgarnes.
For a 14-day trip around Iceland you may want to head west from Akureyri to the Westfjords rather than coming down through central Iceland via the Langjökull glacier. The Westfjords is a large peninsula in northwestern Iceland known for its small villages, fjords, cliffs, breeding birds, and mountainous coastline. Stop at the Drangajökull glacier which is located in the north of the peninsula. Drive carefully as the roads of the Westfjords are quite winding and somewhat dangerous, especially in winter when roads may even be closed.
Among the top must-visit locations in Iceland are the following:
- The Blue Lagoon geothermal outside natural spa.
- Waterfalls such as Gullfoss, Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Svartifoss, Stjornarfoss, and Dettifoss. Look out for a small but high waterfall between Kirkjugólf and Stjornarfoss along the east coast which on most days flows upwards rather than downwards. You may wonder why…
- Geysir Hot Springs for the geysir which gave us the name “geysir”.
- Vatnajokull National Park and the Jökulsárlón glacier. Check out the nearby black volcanic sand beach where you may see chunks of iceberg floating in the see and washed out on the beach. A wonderful sight!
- Latrabjarg Bird Cliffs. During the summer breeding season you will see millions of seabirds including puffins on these remote cliffs.
- Landmannalaugar natural geothermal hot springs in southern Iceland which is surrounded by wilderness and snow covered mountains near the volcano Hekla.
- Pingvellir National Park where you can clearly see the divide between the North American plate and the Eurasian plate.
- Snaefellsjokull National Park: a 700,000 year old stratovolcano with a glacier covering its summit.
- Walk right up to the massive Svínafellsjökull glacier for a closeup experience.
- Lake Mývatn area which offers many natural geothermal hot springs, extinct volcanoes, and Lake Mývatn. Also check out the Hverfjall Crater, Dimmuborgir, and the Krafla area which is the site of a massive volcanic eruption known as the Krafla Fires of 1975-1984 which spread lava over a large area. Hverir near Lake Mývatn is known for its boiling mudpools and steaming fumaroles.
- Watch out for the lovely Icelandic horses, especially along the southeast and southwest coastlines.
- The incredible black beaches and dangerous cliffs on the small peninsula of Dyrhólaey near Vik in the south
Don’t think twice about visiting Iceland. Its an amazing place.
ICELAND TRAVELER TIPS
A few things to keep in mind in your planning:
- Renting a 4-wheel-drive (4WD) Land Rover is a must. Standard cars are strictly forbidden from leaving the major Ring-Road which means you are not allowed to enter the rough dirt roads which often lead to the best spots! So, while a 4WD don’t come cheap (as the Icelanders just love to rip off tourists), it is a must. Pay the extra Icelandic Krona (although you likely will be quoted in Euros) and get the right wheels.
- If you travel on a limited budget, then take the bus, which is Ring-Road. Hike a few days and get back on the bus to the next spot. Continue bus-hopping and hiking until you get all around the island.
- Unless you go between October and May (winter season), book accommodation well ahead of time. While visiting in winter should be spectacular, the warmer months are much easier to get around. July / Aug would be the best, and really the only time for camping – so book huts well in advance on the camping trails otherwise you may have to set up your tent.
- Many tourists skip the interior which mainly consists of a plateau characterized by sand fields, mountains and glaciers. They do it because they don’t have a 4WD and because it requires some rough driving. This is an amazing part of Iceland.
- Avoid the many tourist traps such as the overly expensive snowmobile rides on the glaciers, glacier walks, and boat rides. There’s enough to do-on-your-own than to fall for the rip-off organized travel “adventures”. Iceland is not a cheap destination and it seems as if the locals see all tourists as gold mines! Negotiate or walk away if the deal is clearly a rip-off.
- Be very careful all over Iceland. The roads can be very narrow, elevated along ditches, next to steep cliffs, and shrouded in fog. Dirt roads can be dangerous. Stay clear of the cliff edges and be careful around glaciers and volcanic active areas.
FROM THE GLOBEROVERS BOOKSTORE
This collection of photographs showcases winter scenery across 14 destinations: Japan, Svalbard, Nepal, Greenland, Argentina, Alaska, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Scotland, Iceland, Russia, AND Canada.
Further Reading: Globerovers blog post of Iceland