Iceland has increasingly become a bucket-list destination owing to its incredible nature, scenic road trips, elusive northern lights and not to mention the Instagram-worthy hot baths including the coveted Blue Lagoon. Exploring this melting pot of active volcanoes, lava plains and glacial lakes surrounded by stunning landscapes and breathtaking scenes is straight out of an episode of Games of Thrones.
There is no good or bad time to visit Iceland depending on what you want to see. Its winter wonderland attractions are just as much a delight as visiting in the summer. The trade-off of visiting in the winter is that some places get snowed in limiting road access. While visiting in the summer means you have to wrestle your way through crowds at most attractions. Locals have a famous saying that there is never bad weather in Iceland just bad clothing and a bad attitude.
Here is a round-up of must-see attractions in Iceland
REYKJAVIK ( 2 days)
Reykjavik is a relatively small city but it is also very dynamic and full of culture. From museums, galleries, and concerts held at the famous Harpa hall known for its unique architectural detail, to a vibrant cafe and bar scene. It is common to see Icelanders soaking up the sun at cafes downtown, albeit in 5-degree temperature. If you are keen to partake of the diverse festivals and events happening in Reyjkaviv and around the country check out the Reykjavik Grapevine.
It takes a day to explore the city, some highlights not to be missed include Hallgrimskirkja Church: Probably the city’s most recognisable landmark owing to its unique architecture and central location is a good place to start your city tour. It is surrounded by quaint coffee shops and restaurants serving Icelandic delicacies and is walking distance to Laugavegur, the main shopping street.
The Pearl is a uniquely designed building that boasts of the best panoramic view of the city. It also houses restaurants and often showcases exhibitions.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
The Golden Circle is one of Iceland’s must-see tourist attractions firstly because it is less than an hour’s drive from the city and can be visited in half a day and secondly because it consists of three of the jaw-dropping sites that Iceland is famous for, the Gullfoss waterfalls, Thingvellir National Park and the Geysir hot springs.
Thingvellir National Park: Is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to the Continental Rift which splits Europe and North America and is known for being the genesis of the Icelandic Parliament in the 900s.
The Continental Rift at Thingvellir National Park
A short drive from the rift brings you to the magnificent Gullfoss Waterfalls –one of the most impressive of the many Icelandic falls. You might have to wrestle your way to a good photo as it is packed with enthusiastic tourists. If you miss it not to worry, Iceland is blessed with waterfalls throughout the country.
Geysir– Follow the smell of rotten eggs to the active hot springs. Strokkur, the biggest one gushes hot volcanic water every few minutes. If you time it properly, you’ll hold bragging rights for best national geographic photo. Like the falls, you’ll find hot springs spread across the country like Namafjall Hverir in the northern areas where mudpots meet fissures set against scenic hills. People say it looks like mars.
A trip to the Circle is not complete without a dip in the Laugarvatn hot baths, 38 degrees of natural volcanic goodness. Options for lunch include Fontana Spa where a 3 course lunch buffet costs about 25$.
Blue Lagoon (40 minutes from the city or 15 minutes away from the airport) The famous Blue Lagoon is as epic as its claimed to be, and then some. Get tickets in advance, packages on offer depend on your level of comfort and the price fluctuates depending on the season. The standard package is good enough although you would need to bring your own towel, but you still get the rejuvenating mud that’s supposed to do wonders to your skin. Hold your hair up otherwise it gets stiff for days. Other lagoons across the country are perhaps nicer albeit less famous.
Fitness fix: Keen on maintaining your exercise routine – Mount Esja in Reykjavik makes for an excellent good two hour hike up. Yoga enthusiasts can find a diverse menu of yoga options at World Class gym. Most neighborhoods in the city boasts of stunning running tracks by the sea or just around well-manicured golf courses.
Northern Iceland escape
Akuryeri (4 hour drive from Reykjavik and the capital of the north.)
Plenty of places to go running, cycling, hiking, horse-riding, sailing or just enjoy a scenic drive.
Places to eat in Akuyeri – Strikid has excellent food although portions are not massive (think French cuisine.) Goes without saying that seafood is epic and reindeer burgers are a specialty here. Kea hotel restaurant also has decent food – the auk bird starter is decadent. Rub 23 offers an Asian fusion menu with a large sushi selection.
Whale watching in Husavik: (about an hour from Akuyeri) a quaint picturesque town straight out of a postcard. Get there early so you can walk around the town and enjoy the view from the harbor. Book online and check if they have a promo code (you might just be up for a discount.) Dress warmly including gloves and a warm hat, although sailing companies provide the attire including hot chocolate, which you will need. Sailing is a patience game, you set out for an hour to Puffin Island, home to the world’s largest species of puffins, all the while you are perpetually on the look-out for the gentle giants. P.S. You can do whale watching from anywhere in Iceland but Husavik has the highest probability of catching them. Humpback and Minke whales are the most commonly seen here.
Kaldi Beer Spa: This new addition to Iceland’s tourism brings new meaning to the phrase ‘reeking of alcohol.’ The only one of its kind in Scandinavia, apparently the high levels of vitamin B and protein from the beer and brewers yeast is very good for your skin and hair – well clearly this does not apply to hair extensions…A complimentary Keg is provided so you’re not tempted to drink the beer in which you’re bathing. Believe it or not, the package includes a nap in a heated room. At an extra charge, you can also soak in an outdoor beer tab and savor the unsullied Mountain view over a freshly brewed beer.
Myvatn (less than an hour from Akuyeri) Stunning views of the mountains and lakes that adorn the area. Be prepared to swallow a few flies as you maneuver your way around. Another magnificent waterfall (Dettifoss) is a must see in the area. A good place to stay here is Laxa hotel, quiet with the ambiance of an old retirement home. The view from the rooms is magical. It’s very popular with tourist groups hence dinner reservations are required- even if you are a guest at the hotel.
On glacier related attractions:
Glacier Lagoon: An absolutely magical display of ice situated in the south of Iceland. You get a breathtaking view of the lagoon from the path but you can also opt for a 30 minute boat tour to enhance your experience. Gear is provided and you can pay onsite.
Glacier safari (2 hours’ drive from Reykjavik): Another recent addition to Iceland’s outdoorsy attractions, the glacier safari is legendary! You can opt for pick up from the operators but you can easily drive to the site with a 4×4 vehicle. Gear is provided – still you will freeze your ass off! but it will be worth it. The guided tour begins with a 30 minutes’ drive to the heart of the glacier – a site to behold – then about another 30 minutes inside the glacier. It’s slippery, appropriate shoes are required although hooks for your shoes are provided. There’s a small chapel inside the glacier and is apparently available for wedding ceremonies. Seriously!
- Clothing – Comfort over elegance. Not a stiletto type of vacation although a nice pair of heels would come in handy for evening outings. Think hiking boots, trainers, a jacket (yes! Even in the summer) raincoat – Icelandic weather is very unpredictable. Bring loads of bikinis – plenty of opportunities to take a dip. And an extra tube of moisturizer, the mountainous Icelandic air is good for your lungs but it also dries your skin.
- Not a budget destination unless you’re a hitchhiker. Food is gorgeous – especially if you’re a seafood lover. A 3 course meal at a decent restaurant will cost you about 70$-100$ on the lower side, a good restaurant about double that. Alcohol is as expensive as everyone says it is.
- Park charges: Most parks are free with the exception of the continental rift where a parking fee is charged. The safety barriers and ropes are there for a reason – you might get arrested for crossing them in pursuit of the ultimate selfie – if you don’t slip and die i.e.
- Airport madness: With Iceland’s recent coveted spot on everyone’s bucket list the airport can be a bit of a jamboree – plan to get there at least 3 hours before your flight.