Not entirely European, nor even purely Scandinavian, Iceland is one of the world’s most singular nations. Aside from its peculiarly migratory Viking history and the quirk of it straddling two continental plates, the country also has a population that just seems to go about life differently. With not many more people than a small city in the UK, it nevertheless has developed a thriving music scene, pioneered the harnessing of geothermal energy and evolved to become one of the world’s most progressive and prosperous nations. All of which is perhaps noteworthy but of little interest to the average visitor. Fear not: this is also a land of almost continually erupting volcanoes, vast seabird colonies, and fjords filled with Arctic water so rich that whales’ spouts appear like aquatic forests — all this before the northern lights erupt overheard. Here’s what no visit should overlook
Main photo: Vestrahorn mountain on the Stokknes Peninsula (Getty Images)
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1. Relax in the Blue Lagoon
Once upon a time in Icelandic tourism, the Blue Lagoon was the only place to go. Many whose visit to Iceland was no more than a stopover chose to spend it here, just 20 minutes from Keflavik Airport, taking the geothermal waters in its hot pools. It’s still a stalwart, and ignoring the neighbouring power station has never been easier, thanks to the refining and polishing of the visitor experience. None of it comes cheap, but the Retreat is now one of the most luxurious hotels in the country and, in Moss, has one of its finest restaurants.
2. Photograph Jokulsarlon
Iceland’s ice is becoming an increasingly rare thing, but the spectacular Jokulsarlon in the south of the island would have you believe otherwise. This glacial lake has a pure polar look, with sensational cobalt and turquoise waters home to bobbing icebergs and seabirds looking for snacks in the rich waters. As well as enjoying the extraordinary landscape, look out for the Arctic terns, the world’s best-travelled and perhaps surliest birds. You’ll know if you stray close to one of their nests as they’ll attack immediately.
3. Kayak in the Westfjords
The frigid waters of the Westfjords may not seem all that appealing to some visitors, but Isafjordur and its eponymous town give adventurous sorts a chance to get out into a relatively sheltered bay. Visitors can expect to be surrounded by eider ducks, northern fulmars and whooper swans, but should also keep an eye out for seals and, occasionally orcas. All the wildlife is framed by the fjord’s soaring slopes and dramatic peaks, while further out to sea, summers see the arrival of dozens of humpback whales, too.
4. Try a northern lights tour
The Vikings called the aurora borealis the bifrost and believed it a bridge between realms. Boring old science has argued otherwise, but anyone witnessing the northern lights during a solar storm would surely testify to having experienced something magical. Despite lying just outside the Arctic Circle, Iceland’s latitude and lack of light pollution make it one of the world’s best places to see this spectacular phenomenon — so long as you can find a clear sky between September and March. Framing the lights over one of the country’s ample waterfalls makes for spectacular photographs.
Highlights of Iceland
5. Watch whales in Husavik
Long before Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams shone a light on the fishing town of Husavik in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, the town was famous as one of the best places in Europe for whale-watching tours. Several companies offer excursions in nearby Skjalfandi bay where keen-eyed guides have spotted 24 different types of cetaceans, including large numbers of humpback whales between May and September. If luck is on your side, you may also spot orcas and, on rare occasions, colossal blue whales, the largest animals to ever grace the surface of the earth.
6. Tour the Golden Circle
Since Iceland committed to opening to mass tourism, the Golden Circle tour has grown to be Iceland’s most popular. In the summer months, expect hundreds or thousands of others to drive or bus-tour around this 155 mile-long loop east of Reykjavik. Why is it so busy? Well, it offers a sampler of Iceland’s sumptuous countryside at its raw best. Highlights include Gullfoss, a spectacular multi-tiered waterfall and frothing canyon, and the bubbling, steaming landscapes of Geysir. Best of all, unlike the nation’s huge ring road, the entire route can be done in a single day, leaving you time to get back to your plush accommodation in the capital.
7. Ride Icelandic horses at Torfhus
Based on traditional houses built by early settlers, Torfhus is an eye-catching new retreat-hotel just off the Golden Circle. This beautiful, luxe accommodation would be worth visiting on its own, but it’s also effectively a ranch for Icelandic horses. Particular to the country, no other breed is allowed in. Similarly, if an Icelandic horse is taken abroad, it is never allowed to return. This equine exile and much more is explained when meeting the horses or taking them out for a ride in the wide open country.
8. Go wild fishing
Iceland is littered with options for fishing trips to catch everything from salmon to arctic char to large cod, but for something a little different, head to Thingvallavatn. Here a subspecies of brown trout, thought to have been trapped in the lake during the last ice age, has grown to monstrous sizes. Located in the Thingvellir National Park on the well-trodden Golden Circle, it requires you to have permits. For anyone with the requisite patience, the strike rate may be low but the rewards, like the fish, are huge.
9. Admire Skogafoss
Of all the waterfalls in Iceland, Skogafoss may be the most perfect. This classic single-drop fall is adorned with a permanent double rainbow on sunny days, but its satisfying setting ensures visitors all year round. Often featured in promotional shots for the country, it’s also popped up in Game of Thrones and Thor: The Dark World. A Viking legend holds that a magic treasure chest was once hidden behind its mighty curtain. Note, the same story also says that the chest disappeared again so there’s no need to go rummaging around behind the water.
10. Meet the razorbills of Latrabjarg
Iceland’s westernmost point is a suitably dramatic place, with almost nine miles of sea cliffs pointing out towards Greenland like an accusatory finger. Latrabjarg requires a fairly committed day of driving to reach, but as well as the scenery anyone making the journey will be wowed by hundreds of thousands of razorbills. It’s estimated that 40 per cent of the global population of these curious, cute little birds have made Latrabjarg their home. They’re joined by nesting puffins and northern fulmars, plus the odd arctic fox looking to snatch an easy meal.
11. Try hakarl
Maligned in a similar way to Scottish cuisine, Icelandic fare has something of a reputational issue and, like haggis, the national dish of hakarl does little to improve matters. Often referred to as “rotten shark”, it’s actually carefully fermented to remove what would otherwise be dangerous levels of mercury. Yet, while there may be method behind it, anyone tasting the dish will likely deem it madness. The overwhelming smells of ammonia and decay can be enormously off-putting. Brave visitors can nonetheless try it at the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum.
12. Bath at the Sky Lagoon
New for 2021, the Sky Lagoon has an enviable clifftop position in Reykjavik. Expect to see eider ducks and hardy sailors floating past in the icy waters of the north Atlantic while you bob serenely in the spa’s thermal pools. Especially popular with locals is the option to swim up to the bar and order beer or champagne without having to get out. If that somehow doesn’t sound appealing, then the seven-stage cleansing ritual surely will. The sauna also offers views out across the water, while the steamroom and scrub stations are always busy.
13. Eat modern Icelandic cuisine
While no one makes the trip to Iceland just for its food, there are a handful of restaurants in Reykjavik striving to improve its culinary credentials. Translating as Food and Drink, “Matur og Drykkur”, just outside Grandi, offers a rotating seasonal menu based on a 1950s Icelandic cookbook of the same name, underpinned by exclusively Icelandic ingredients. If you’ve already had the tasting menu here, then head to Dill, a mile or so to the east, the only restaurant in the country with a Michelin star.
14. Meet Fagradalsfjall
Born in March 2021, Fagradalsfjall is, at the time of writing, Iceland’s newest and most welcoming volcano. The local tourist board could hardly believe their luck when this gently-erupting peak gave people around the globe a chance to come watch the world turn inside out. A hastily assembled path is to be followed with a visitor centre, though at this stage it had been erupting for three months with little sign of slowing down. The landscape is changing all the time, the lava field constantly growing — it is a quite literal definition of an evolving situation. Hire a guide to explore this newest part of the country.
15. Drive the new Westfjords Way
It may ultimately just be a hole in a big bit of rock, but the 2020 opening of the Dyrafjardargong Tunnel has revolutionised travelling around the Westfjords. Thanks to this shortcut in the southwest of this extraordinary peninsula, it’s now possible to complete a satisfying loop. Highlights along the way include the beautiful, five-tiered Dynjandi waterfall, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, and several community-managed hot springs with bathing facilities. However, where you do and don’t stop will be secondary to the scenery as you drive around and through the gorgeous fjords.
16. Sail to the Westman Islands
For a chance to see Iceland’s volcanic evolution happening in real time, sail to the 15-island archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar. The newest edition, Surtsey, popped out of the sea after eruptions in 1963, but for now this extraordinary formation is pretty settled. Anyone looking to land at Heimaey can expect to find a nature reserve, volcanos and no small number of puffins (the largest colony in Iceland is here). The highlight of the trip for many is Eldheimar, a museum dedicated to a 1973 eruption which petrified around 400 buildings. A small section has been excavated to reveal exactly what the lava did to one home.
17. Walk along Reynisfjara’s black sand
There’s more than one black-sand beach in Iceland, but by far the most popular and photogenic is Reynisfjara. Dramatic basalt columns seem to guard the rear of the beach, looking for all the world like a man-made defensive barrier. Perhaps unsurprisingly, like so much of Iceland this was created thanks to volcanic activity — those particular hues come from lava rock pounded by the north Atlantic. While it’s unlikely you’ll improve your tan while visiting, the trip is often twinned with a trip to the unmissable Skogafoss waterfall.
18. Hike in Snaefellsjokull National Park
The volcano at the end of the Snaefellsnes peninsula is spectacular enough that Jules Verne thought it a suitable setting for his 1864 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The caldera of this remarkable peak has long been covered by an ice cap, but it does still make for some otherworldly hiking trails — so much so that Nasa astronauts, including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, completed some of their training here before heading to the moon. On the park’s south coast, the astonishing basalt cliffs of Londrangar make for a popular detour.
19. Visit the glaciers of Vatnajokull National Park
Climate change may be gnawing away at the ice which once gave the country its name, but if you want to feel the power of the remaining frozen wilderness, then head to the titanic Vatnajokull, the largest glacier in the country. Many of the frozen north scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed here and the winter months are harsh enough that park rangers only give guided tours for a few short weeks from mid-June to mid-August. For more adventurous visitors, including ice climbers and people looking to explore its famous sapphire-blue ice caves, specialist tours are available at other times of the year.
20. Experience the Iceland Airwaves festival
Virtually every act from Iceland’s remarkable musical roster has played the annual Iceland Airwaves Festival at one time or another. That includes Bjork, Sigur Ros, Kaleo and Of Monsters And Men, among many, many others. Venues across Reykjavik are commandeered for live performances and while this includes classic concert halls, there are also off-venue shows popping up in coffee shops and bars. Though it acts as a showcase for Iceland’s remarkable musical talents, there are also international acts from around the world and past performers have included Florence And The Machine and Vampire Weekend.
21. Dive the tectonic plates
It may seem like a cliché to say that Iceland is where east meets west but it also happens to be literally true. For proof, head to Silfra, where it’s possible to dive between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Located inside the Thingvellir National Park just an hour along the Golden Circle east from Reykjavik, it offers extraordinary visibility up to 300ft. While animal life is rarely seen, the underwater scenery is genuinely unique. If you don’t have the required licences for a full dive, dry-suit snorkelling is also an option.