Glaciers, waterfalls, hot springs, coastal fjords, whale watching and the small but lively capital Reyjkavik are some of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions.
The Nordic country of Iceland is located close to the Arctic Circle, meaning the summer months boast 24 hours daylight. The first experience of this can be unsettling as the human body clock struggles to adjust to the bright sunlight beaming through the window at 2am, but with the help of an eye mask it soon becomes the norm.
Iceland’s dramatic, volcanic landscape offers some of Europe’s largest glaciers, hundreds of hot springs, lava fields, waterfalls and fjords. Iceland is also one of the best places in the world for whale watching.
Getting Around Iceland
In a country without railways and very limited public transport, hiring a car is the only way to get around. Route 1 is a ring road looping 832 miles around the perimeter of the island. The ringroad is mainly paved, however with single lane bridges, blind bends and blind hills drivers must be cautious and stay alert. The only stretch of multi-lane motorway is through Reykavik itself.
Sticking to the ring road is easy driving and gives spectacular views, however, getting off the beaten track is an experience not to be missed. Driving on the gravel roads can be quite daunting at first, trying to avoid not only the endless potholes, but also the numerous sheep grazing at the side of the road.
The F-roads are mountain passes, these should only be attempted in a high-clearance 4 wheel drive car. Many F-roads (particularly through the interior of Iceland) involve crossing deep, fast-flowing fjords. Hire companies have strict rules about which roads their cars are insured on.
Iceland’s Geology – Mountains to Volcanoes
Iceland is a geologist’s dream with active volcanoes bubbling away under icecaps, giving the country its reputation for being a nation of fire and ice. Combined they produce a spectacular mix of geothermal and glacial features. From snow-topped mountains to black beaches, virtually every geological feature imaginable can be found in Iceland.
The cause of all the geothermal activity is that Iceland has the dubious honour of being the only country situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This can be seen first hand as visitors are able to stand in the giant rift where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates have drifted apart. To emphasise its importance in the geological world, a visit to the village of Geysir is a chance to see Giant Geysir, after which all other geysers in the world are named.
No matter how impressive the vast multitude of geological features, Iceland’s prize possession is its endless waterfalls. From Skogafoss to Svartifoss and Godafoss to Gulfoss, waterfalls come in every possible shape and size imaginable.
No trip to Iceland is complete without a journey to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall. 110,000 gallons of water thunder over the drop every second and unlike its American counterpart, Niagara Falls, there are no walls or safety barriers. Standing right on the edge of one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls is as close to nature as one can get.
City Breaks in Reykjavik
Iceland’s capital Reykjavik is a small but lively city. The northernmost capital in the world is small enough to walk around but offers a busy culture scene with art galleries, museums and concerts, great coffee shops and restaurants and a vibrant nightlife. There are also several thermal swimming pools and spas in Reykjavik.
Iceland’s Hot Springs and Geysers
Some of Iceland’s biggest tourist attractions are its geysers, hot springs that erupt and eject hot water and steam into the air. The Geysir in Haukadalur, in southern Iceland, is the world’s oldest known geyser and can spurt water to up to 60 metres, although these days it works very infrequently. The nearby Stokkur geyser erupts regularly and spouts water up to 20 metres.
Iceland also has hundreds of geothermally heated outdoor swimming pools. The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa provides a unique spa experience that includes bathing in a lagoon, a lava cave and a geothermal steam bath.
The country’s top tourist attraction is probably the only place in the world anyone would consider paying in excess of £20 ($30) to swim in the waste water of a geothermal power plant.
Iceland’s Golden Circle is a popular tourist circuit that takes in some of the country’s main tourist attractions, including the famous Geysir, the Gullfoss waterfalls and Thingvellir (Þingvellir), the ancient meeting place of the world’s first parliament.
Whale watching is one of the biggest attractions in Iceland. Several types of whales including mink whales, humpbacks, blue whales and killer whales, as well as different types of dolphins, can be spotted in their natural habitat on whale watching tours in Iceland. Husavik, in northern Iceland, is one of the most famous whale watching spots. The season for whale watching in Iceland is from May to September.
They can sometimes be seen from shore, breaking the water’s surface. For those opting to head out to sea for a closer look at the mammals, there are several tour operators from which to choose. Some even offer to give their customers their money back if they don’t see a whale.
Glacier Tours in Iceland
11% of Iceland is covered by glaciers. The 3300 square mile Vatnajokull glacier, near Hofn in southeast Iceland, is Europe’s largest glacier. Other famous glaciers in Iceland include Snaefellsjokull on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, Myrdalsjokull on the country’s southern coast and Langjokull, the closest large glacier to Reykjavik. Organized glacier tours on 4-wheel drives are offered and they also give visitors a chance to explore the glaciers on snowmobiles.
Good facilities for downhill skiing in Iceland are in its main cities: Reykjavik, the capital, and Akureyri. Skiing areas with shorter drag lifts also inhabit other towns. About a 30-minute drive from Reykjavik is Blafjoll, one of the main skiing areas. Skiiers will find one chairlift, several drag lifts and ski and boot rentals. They won’t be able to stay overnight as there’s no accommodation, but if they’re hungry, a cafeteria is on site.
Over at Hlioarfjall, just above Akureyri, one chair lift and three drag lifts cater to skiers, as well as a café and sleeping-bag accommodation. To get to Hlioarfjall, skiers can take a bus that leaves the city bus terminal three times a day. In Reykjavik, buses depart the BSI bus terminal several times a day.
Hikers in Iceland may want to consider heading to its national parks, with Jokulsargljufur National Park and the national parks of Pingvellir and Skaftafell, in particular. In Jokulsargljufur, a trail that can take hikers on a two-day trek follows the gorge from Asbyrgi to Dettifoss. Camp sites are en route.
In Pingvellir and Skaftafell, and in protected areas such as Myvatn, there are paths suitable for day hikes. A popular, marked, long-distance trail runs from Landmannalaugar south to the coast at Skogar, and takes four to five days to hike to its completion. The trail is well trodden and takes hikers past stunning scenery.
Visiting Iceland – a New Type of Vacation
One of the main deterrents of visiting Iceland has always been the cost. Despite affordable air fares, the cost of food, car hire, petrol and alcohol have put many holiday makers off. However, following the recent collapse of the Icelandic economy, the country has now become one of the more affordable places in Europe.
The friendly people and laid back culture make Iceland a top destination for escaping the rat race. Whilst the breathtaking scenery is responsible for Iceland fast becoming a major tourist destination.