The land of fire and ice. It has 130 volcanoes and giant glaciers across 11% of its land mass. The terrain is rugged, desolate and breathtaking. The landscape alone, along the south coast, is worth the trip, but once you’re there the people, the history and the culture will make you glad you did.
If you’re coming from the US you’ll land at Keflavik airport which is about an hours bus or taxi ride from Reykjavik. There are plenty of transportation options into the city from the airport. I found that Flybus gave the greatest convenience and value. You can easily book a round trip bus ticket on their website. Once in the city, there are plenty of hotels and hostels to make your home base for excursions into the wilds of Iceland.
If you are planning on checking out Reykjavik itself your best bet is to pick a hotel in or near the city center. Its a very walk-able city with lots of great architecture, museums, shopping and places of interest to see (including a penis museum. Yes, I said a penis museum.). There’s a massive variety of restaurant types in the city center area with plenty of good bars that are open late.
Icelanders are very nice and friendly folks, but they may seem a little quirky to first time visiting Americans. first off, they’re very informal. Everyone is referred to by their first names… everyone. Secondly, they don’t have a word in their language for the word please, which may make them seem brusque at first, and thirdly, they have a couple holidays which I wish we had over here. The first day of Icelandic summer is the first Thursday after April 18th and is a national holiday. They all have the day off and there are parties, events and even parades. They vaguely acknowledge spring and fall but to the people of Iceland there is six months of winter and six months of summer. If I had to deal with half a year of crappy weather, I’d want the first day of summer to be a national holiday too. Actually, I only have to deal with like four months of bad weather in the winter and I STILL think the first day of summer should be a national holiday. The other holiday that I heard about, while I was there, was March 1st which is Beer day… yes, beer day is a national holiday in Iceland. Its the day that the prohibition on beer ended and it made a lot of people there very happy. There are a couple other quirks as well but overall, from the people I had the chance to meet while I was there, they were all very friendly and helpful.
If you’re heading out on day trips to see the natural sites there are a couple of options. You can rent a car and drive around to see them yourself (not really recommended for trips during the winter) or you can book a tour. There are several companies that run all kinds of different tours from day trips to four or five days. From simply driving around and seeing a bunch of great sights, to scuba diving between the tectonic plates and climbing a glacier. It all depends on what level of activity you’re looking for and price you’re willing to pay.
If you’re just going for a short trip of a week or less, I’d suggest making sure you see the golden circle and the south coast. I don’t normally recommend going to all the touristy places but since Iceland is on the smaller side and almost everything is centered along the coast, I have to say that even though they are indeed tourist spots, they don’t seem like it. If you happen to get there before the summer rush (actual summer, not their summer) you’ll likely find that there aren’t nearly as many tourists around and you may feel as if you’re the only people for miles around at a bunch of sites.
The golden circle tour I took consisted of Thingvellir, Gullfoss, and Geysir. It also included a couple of side stops to see some Icelandic horses and was topped off by a stop at a place called the secret lagoon. Thingvellir is a gorgeous national park that sits on the edge of two tectonic plates that are moving apart at a rate of two centimeters a year. It has sprawling vistas, sheer cliff faces and gorgeous views in every direction. It was the home of the Icelandic parliament for hundreds of years. All the chieftains would meet there yearly and discuss business, make laws and decide court cases. It is not only one of the most beautiful places a person can see it is also steeped in Icelandic history.
Gullfoss is a gigantic waterfall. Gull means golden and foss is the word for waterfall. You can follow the paths up along the edge of it and take pictures from the top, or you can take the several flights of stairs and follow a path that will bring you right in front of the massive falls, to be hit by the heavy winds and spray while still hundreds of feet away from it.
Geysir, is just that, a geyser. It’s where the name come from. Actually, the original Geysir is now dormant but there are several others right near by that are very active and fire off regularly every five to seven minutes. I have to say that it is definitely worth seeing once but of the three sites it was my least favorite after seeing it fire off a couple times. They do have an excellent restaurant at the nearby tourist center that serves amazing soup.
Most people talk about the Blue Lagoon as the premiere place to soak while in Iceland. It is just about the most touristy place in the whole country and very expensive. The secret lagoon, on the other hand, is smaller and much more cozy. Still a tourist trap but not nearly as much as the Blue Lagoon. There are also lots of other smaller lagoons across the country since the geothermal pools are so popular over there. With a little research, you could easily find a secluded, almost free, pool to soak away an afternoon.
After a day to recover in Reykjavik We took a two day tour along the south coast, which included black sand beaches, amazing waterfalls that you can walk behind, glacier bay and exploring a glacial ice cave. There were also several other stops along the way over the course of two days but I wouldn’t want to list them all here and spoil the fun.
If you are planning on going for a longer trip, or like me, plan on going back again for a second time, there is still plenty to see and do. You could travel the ring road which circles the whole outside of the island as well as several cities and villages in the north and visit the beautiful Westfjords region. There is hiking, climbing, whale watching and visiting puffins on tiny islands.
If you like outdoor activities, getting out of your comfort zone, seeing landscapes that make you feel as if you’re in another world, then Iceland is the place you want to visit.