The wind was relentless, blowing hair and delivering deep chill to unprepared travelers in light jackets in the middle of July. The sky was hidden under a thick blanket of gray clouds, threatening to release cold rain at any moment. A brisk walk from the airport entrance to the parking lot, hastily squeezed luggage in a tiny, beaten rental car, and finally the door is shut, leaving the unwelcoming wind outside. A thought crosses mind that the Mediterranean coast would have been a far better choice for a summer vacation but it’s quickly dismissed. The cold, rain, and wind are among the essential elements of experiencing Iceland, where nature is raw and powerful, and at times, cruel and unforgiving. The small island in the north Atlantic has an incredibly diverse landscape that often looks otherworldly, making it a popular choice for cinematographers seeking locations to shoot other planets (“Interstellar”) or a true depiction of harsh winter conditions ‘beyond the Wall’ (“Game of Thrones”).
Iceland is not a popular tourist destination (yet!) and I prefer that it remains that way for a long time, leaving the nature undisturbed and protected from development and crowds. Unlike other posts where I often tell you that you should go and see the place for yourself, I just want to share my experiences and photographs, saving you the trouble of flying to a remote island, dealing with the cold and high prices. If, after reading this, you are still excited to go see Iceland, you will at least know what to expect.
For such a northern and isolated country, Iceland’s capital is surprisingly modern, clean, and cozy. Its architecture has a distinctive Scandinavian style, with brightly colored houses mixed with ultra-sleek glass buildings. On a summer day, its not uncommon to see people sitting outside in cafes, drinking coffee and catching up on sunshine…while wearing jackets, scarves and sometimes hats since the temperature hovers around +10C ( +50F), usually accompanied by piercingly chilly wind. In terms of food, Reykjavik appears to have caught the organic/bio wave spreading across US and Europe because there are many cafes offering a variety of healthy choices. One such place is Kaffihúsið Garðurinn (Klapparstíg 37), offering vegetarian and vegan food in the city centre. Their menu consists of only one main dish and a soup that change daily, and their back patio is sheltered from wind, making it a perfect spot to enjoy sun without a jacket. Another place that you absolutely must try is Brauð & Co. (Frakkastígur 16) where you can get an amazing croissant, bread and whatever else catches your eye. Non-vegetarian people will find happiness in a small hot dog stand with not so small queues at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Tryggvatagata 1). For pretty views of the city, take an elevator up to the top of the futuristic-looking church, Hallgrímskirkja.
The Golden Circle
The adventurously sounding name, Golden Circle, is actually the reason why majority of tourists come to Iceland. It’s a route that starts in Reykjavik and passes by some of the most impressive sights in southern Iceland, eventually looping back to the city. This is a must-see area for anybody coming to Iceland which unfortunately means congestion of large tourist buses at every stop so be prepared to share the beautiful scenery with crowds of visitors snapping photos (at least in summer months). The best way to see the Golden Circle is to rent a car so that you have a freedom to decide at which stops you want to linger and which ones you’d rather skip. Another benefit of driving yourself is that you can beat the bus crowds by starting your visit early or ending it late which is exceptionally easy to do in summer when daylight lasts around 20 hours.
Here is a nice article written by a local that provides more specific guidance on driving the Golden Circle.
Þingvellir is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site as this location is central to Icelandic history for being the site of national parliament for many centuries. In addition to historical significance, the park is also an amazing geographical spot because you can see fissures in earth that formed as a result of the continental drift between North American and Euroasian plates.
Gullfoss, translated as Golden Falls, is a massive, multistep waterfall that will overwhelm you with its sheer size and power. Photos don’t do it justice.
In the land of volcanos and hot springs, it’s not surprising to find that one of touristy activities is to go watch an eruption of the geyser. Although the Great Geysir has been dormant for several years now, its neighbor, Strokkur, guarantees a 10-second show with boiling water erupting reliably every few minutes. Just go towards the spot where you see people standing for seemingly no reason and whatever you do, don’t blink or look away. Also, don’t be tempted to put your hands in various little pools you see beneath your feet – the sign at the entrance warns you that the nearest hospital is 30 km away.
Harsh climate doesn’t allow Icelanders to have much of an agriculture so it’s incredible to discover farms with greenhouses growing vines of juicy plump tomatoes. One such place, Friðheimar, also turns their tomatoes into a delicious pureed soup that is offered alongside freshly baked bread. Conveniently located on the Golden Circle, it’s a perfect stop for lunch although it can be crowded on weekends.
Ever wondered what it would be like to descent into the crater of a volcano? Then don’t miss your chance at Kerið, a crater of an inactive volcano filled with a beautiful turquoise lake. There is an entrance fee but the view is very picturesque and peaceful, especially off-peak hours.
After seeing places like Gullfoss and Kerið, it’s easy to think that you’ve seen most Iceland has to offer. Once you leave the safety and the confines of the Reykjavik and the Golden Circle, the Iceland continues to unveil its otherworldly beauty; one waterfall, mountain or beach at a time.
Seljalandsfoss, Gluggafoss, Urridafoss
There are many waterfalls in Iceland so after seeing the nth waterfall in one day, its tempting to drive by without stopping reasoning that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. My advice – go see every single one if you can. Each is unique in their beauty.
Black pebble beach, dramatic cliffs, and incredible basalt columns carved into a side of a mountain – all found at the Reynisfjara shore near the town of Vik – will fill you with wonder and overwhelm with beauty of shapes and textures created solely by nature.
Seeing a huge glacier for the first time will make you feel like you’re traveled to another planet, so surreal is the experience. It might even make you want to cry, not only because of their stunning beauty but because of their sad fate to disappear. You can enjoy the glacier from the safety of the lagoon beach but if you really want to soak in the surroundings, take a Zodiac boat tour (book in advance!). They’ll package you in a heavy protective suit and put you in a small dinghy and take you to the foothill of the glacier while racing past massive blue icebergs. With icy-cold wind burning your face and ears followed by the absolute silence once the boat motor is off, seeing a wall of ice reflecting in slivery-gray water while in the middle of icy lagoon with no land in sight, is an experience that will likely to stay with you for the rest of your life.
While the western part of the island tends to be more crowded than the south, there are couple of places that are worth the drive.
Glymur, Glanni, & Hraunfossar
Yep, we’re back to the waterfalls again. After all, Iceland has so many that no matter where you go, there is always a bunch of them, and they are all gorgeous. While Glanni and Hraunfossar are an easy walk from the parking lot, Glymur, which is Iceland’s tallest waterfall at 196m, is hidden in the depths of mountains and requires a short but steep hike to reach it. The hike is very scenic, taking you through a cave and a river, which is crossed by walking on a log with a metal wire for support, and makes the experience of visiting Glymur even more special.
Deildartunguhver Thermal Spring
Iceland has many geothermal spots where small pools of bubbling boiling water can be seen, accompanied by strong sulfuric smell. Deildartunguhver is the most powerful hot spring in Europe providing 180 l/sec of 100°C hot water, which is usually hard to see behind the thick clouds of steam rising from the water. The spring supplies hot water to nearby towns and is also used to provide energy to greenhouses growing tomatoes, which by the way, can be purchased by dropping 300kr in the mailbox.
On Sheep & Horses
Finally, the post about Iceland would not be complete without mentioning its inhabitants, mainly consisting of sheep, horses and cows. You’ll find them in seemingly random places, scattered across bare land, miles away from nearest settlement, often on the slopes of mountains and less often – recklessly crossing the road in front of your car (sheep, i’m talking about you). Apparently the number of sheep fatalities due to car accidents has increased dramatically in the last few years due to rise in foreigners visiting the island so pay attention the entire time you’re driving.
- Watch this stunning video showing wintery Iceland.
- Don’t even think about going to Iceland without first reading this article on staying safe in Iceland.
- Learn more about Reykjavik and get useful tips on traveling around the island on this local blog.