Iceland is unique. An ever-changing landscape of volcanoes and glaciers, of sea, waterfalls and hot springs. A long history and a unique culture. Whether you’re looking for landscape or wildlife, sightseeing or outdoor adventure, here is my guide to planning your trip to Iceland.
Why Visit Iceland?
Every visitor has their own reasons for travelling to Iceland. However the most obvious attractions are landscape, wildlife, and history and culture.
Land Of Ice And Fire
Iceland is known as the “land of ice and fire”, a reference to its glaciers and its volcanoes, many of which are still very much active. It is situated – literally – on the edge of two continents, as the faultline between the European and North American tectonic plates runs right through the country. The combination of earthquakes and volcanic activity creates a distinctive and fluctuating environment.
For the visitor this means an astoundingly varied landscape of coastal scenery, hills with tumbling waterfalls, vast lava fields, and areas of geothermal activity. A tiny population and an often barren landscape mean that outside the tourist hotspots you will often have the place to yourself. This aspect was summed up by a billboard at Keflavík Airport: a large empty landscape with a single human figure and the caption “the Iceland crowds welcome you”.
Unless you are lucky enough to spot an Arctic fox most of your inland animal encounters are likely to be the sheep that wander the island at will. However, it is a different story in the coastal regions. This is a birdwatcher’s paradise, with a vast number of bird species to look out for.
You can’t fail to see the Arctic terns (they will attempt to dive bomb you if you approach their nesting sites!). Then there are ducks and seabirds, and puffin breeding colonies. You can find more information about birds in Iceland here.
The coastal waters are full of whales and dolphins. And you are likely to see seals basking on the rocks around the shoreline.
A Distinctive Culture
Iceland’s distinctive culture has been forged by centuries of Danish rule combined with geographical isolation and the challenges of living in an inhospitable environment. The country is home to the oldest parliament in Europe but was initially slow to embrace change in the 20th century. Over the last decades Iceland has faced rapid modernisation, sudden wealth followed by economic collapse, recovery and an influx of tourism.
For the visitor this means that you can experience a modern culture with the vestiges of a vanishing way of life. Much of the population lives in small villages or remote farmsteads – even Reykjavík, the capital, would be classed as a medium sized town anywhere else in the world. There are plenty of facilities for tourists although, while some hotels are world-class, others are little more than hostels.
What To Do In Iceland
Iceland is a place for people who love the outdoors. You can drive or take a coach trip to marvel at waterfalls, geysers and volcanoes. Or just soak up the majestic coastal landscapes and the wide open spaces of the interior.
But there are endless ways to explore more actively. There are miles of hiking trails, and opportunities for cycling and horse riding. You could try glacier hiking, canoeing or caving. Then there is fishing, birdwatching, and boat trips for whale watching.
Hot Springs And Northern Lights
Two particularly Icelandic natural attractions are the hot springs and the northern lights. The hot springs are a spectacle in themselves but in some places they have been used to create a natural spa experience. The Blue Lagoon (less than an hour from Reykjavík; booking essential) is a luxurious resort where you can relax in the water and enjoy a healing treatment with volcanic mud. But there are lots of alternative hot pools you can enjoy – some are packaged as spas while others are open spaces free to all-comers.
The northern lights are a spectacular visual phenomenon, a lighting up of the sky with streaks of blue and green. To see the northern lights you need to visit between September and April: you won’t be guaranteed to see them, but there is more chance in the winter months with their long hours of darkness.
History And Culture
Despite Iceland’s long history you won’t find any really old buildings, as in the past houses and other structures were built of wood and turf rather than stone. However, you will find some important historic sites. These include Þingvellir, the location of the medieval parliament, and Reykholt, home of the medieval writer and statesman, Snorri Sturlson.
There are several places where you can see the traditional turf houses that were commonplace until about a hundred years ago. One of the best examples is at Keldur, around 125km southeast of Reykjavík. And there are numerous museums dotted around the country, recording a lost way of life and many quirks of Icelandic culture. (Read more about The Small Museums Of Iceland.)
You’ll find public art wherever you go, even in the smallest towns – I explored some of this in Hellissandur, the Street Art Capital of Iceland. Then there is the food. There is a characteristic Icelandic cuisine, making the most of a limited range of local ingredients – read more about Enjoying the Best Icelandic Food and Drink.
Where To Visit In Iceland
Reykjavík is convenient for a short city break or as a starting point for a longer exploration of Iceland. The city itself is small and walkable – enjoy wandering the central streets with their wooden houses and shops, and the old harbour area. The Sculpture and Shore Walk follows the coastline for 5km, with a mixture of city, sea, artworks and the occasional oddity (such as Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s Recycled House, an eccentric structure formed from reclaimed materials).
Within the city you climb to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland’s tallest church, for breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. And walk to the central Austurvollur Square with its cathedral and Parliament building. You can visit numerous museums and eat at a variety of restaurants serving international or traditional Icelandic food.
If you have more time in Reykjavík there are lots of day trips available – popular choices are the Blue Lagoon or the Golden Circle (see below).
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a 300 km circular route from Reykjavík joining up three of the country’s best known tourist attractions. These are Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area, and the magnificent Gullfoss waterfall.
You could cover the whole Golden Circle in a day trip from Reykjavík. Or you could take a more leisurely tour to explore the sites in more detail, spend time on hiking and other outdoor activities, and divert to additional attractions such as the Víðgelmir Lava Cave and the small town of Hveragerði with its abundant hot springs.
The Iceland Ring Road
One of the most popular ways to explore the country is by driving the approximately 1,300 km of the Iceland Ring Road. This road takes you right round the country, connecting the major settlements, the sights of the Golden Circle, and the lesser visited east coast. The whole trip would take you around seven to ten days, giving a flavour of the whole country and passing through many changes of scenery.
If you don’t want to drive yourself it is possible to take an organised trip around the Ring Road. However these typically do the whole circuit in between 4-7 days so, if you’re looking for slow travel, you will need the self drive option.
My own recent travels were around the west coast and the Westfjords region – read more about planning a road trip along the West Coast of Iceland.
Practical Information For Your Trip To Iceland
- Iceland can be cold at any time of year, although – especially in the south – it is often sunny in the summer. You need to be prepared for frequent changes in the weather.
- Travel in the summer for the best weather and long hours of daylight. You will need to visit at time of year if you are looking for outdoor activities or driving in remote regions. There is little daylight in the winter: this is the best time for seeing the northern lights, enjoying city life, and soaking in the hot springs.
- For most purposes you can get about with a normal rental car. Driving on the Ring Road is easy, and in most places it is not too busy. However elsewhere you may encounter unmetalled roads, and the more remote inland roads (classified as “F roads”) require a 4×4.
- It is advisable to book your accommodation in advance. Have a look at the recommendations on booking.com.
- Iceland tends to be quiet on Sundays, and some places may be closed.
- Make sure you have a stock of any necessary medicines. Even over-the-counter drugs can only be purchased in a pharmacy, and will not be available outside of reasonable sized towns.
- Be prepared to change your plans if necessary – the weather can be unpredictable, roads may be closed, and places may not open at the advertised times…
- Finally, if you’re looking for some pre-trip reading have a look at this post – Books To Read Before You Visit Iceland.