How to describe the pristine unspoiled breathtaking beauty of Iceland?
Majestic volcanoes and glaciers tower over cliffs and steaming foothills sweeping down to the churning sea past breathtaking waterfalls and rivers of pure glacial melt. These raw swaths of nature are tempered by picturesque red farmhouses, great fields of purple lupine, diminutive Icelandic horses in a rainbow of colors, and little clumps of white sheep. It is one of the wildest and most beautiful places on earth – and you can easily visit by car!
Iceland is the size of Kentucky with just a little over 300,000 people, 60% of whom live in the capital. Just a few minutes out of Reykjavik and you’re on a tiny two lane road. If you don’t get off you can basically drive the whole way round (in a couple of weeks).
It’s hard to get your mouth around the language, but everyone speaks perfect English, and Icelanders are very warm (no pun intended). It’s incredibly safe. Despite the fact that there has been a 29% increase in tourism in just a year, it still feels untrampled and unspoiled. The food is all local, traditional and incredibly fresh, and you can literally drink from the streams. We visited during the summer solstice so the sun never set during our visit (eye masks!). There are TONS of incredible sites throughout the country so in 7 days we missed far more than we saw, but every day was completely full of unique experiences. Needless to say we are already scheming our return.
Hmm, we did not know that…
- Settled in the 800’s, Iceland was one of the last places on Earth to be inhabited by humans.
- The Icelandic language is so close to ancient Norwegian that modern Icelanders can read 1,000 year old Norse texts.
- The government is one of the world’s oldest democracies, with the first parliament elected in 930.
- Iceland had both the first elected female prime minister and first openly gay prime minister.
- The island is the most active volcanic area in the world, with eruptions about every 4 years.
- About 85% of the country’s energy comes from geothermal and hydroelectric energy sources.
- You can stand simultaneously in two continents where the European and North American continental plates meet.
- Reyjkavik is closer to Boston than Boston is to LA.
Our favorite foods:
- Lamb soup – every version you try will be different…but they are all good!
- Arctic char – like a delicate salmon
- Einstok white beer – my favorite beer on tap!!
- Butter – Icelandic butter is one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth
- Skyr – a cross between Greek-style yogurt and a soft cheese eaten by almost all Icelanders for breakfast
- Fish and Chips – all good – eat them everywhere!
- Cheese – delicious but they seem to be made in a cooperative way and surprisingly there is no sheep cheese despite the fact that there are more sheep than people…
- Egil’s Appelsin orange soda
- Ethical limitations and personal culinary boundaries prevented us from trying: horsemeat, minke whale, milk soaked sheep’s testicles, fermented shark
- Halldor Laxness – one of Iceland’s most celebrated writers. Start with the Nobel Prize winning “Independent People” for a great insight into the Icelandic psyche.
- National Geographic: Vikings
- Mysteries – Icelandic Noir is a genre of its own. I am enjoying atmospheric nail-biters by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Michael Ridpath. I also have Arnaldur Indridason, Arni Thorarinsson and Quentin Bates on my reading list.
ITINERARIES – (Apologies!! The spelling of a lot of these places is an English approximation as there are several characters unique to Icelandic that are not available on my keyboard.)
- Settlement Museum – walk through a recently excavated 10th century Viking house.
- Volcano House – great film intro to the drama generated by some of the country’s great volcanoes.
- Harpa – the most imposing, beautiful, controversial building in the country – designed by architect/artist Olaffur Eliasson. This giant concert hall has several theaters, restaurants, shops and a striking view of the harbor and mountains through its unusual windows. Definitely try to catch the hilarious comedy “How to be Icelandic in 60 Minutes” – save this for the end of your trip and you’ll get the humor much better.
- Shipwrecks outdoor installation on the harbor – a testament to the treacherous waters around the country with an interesting panel on WWII action in the area.
- Blue Lagoon – this is not overrated. Definitely do this on your way in or out of the country as it’s near the airport, and prebook your tickets and spa appointments well in advance. They are also building a luxury hotel on site.
- The Reyjkavik Food Walk – Three hours deliciously well spent!
- Ostabudin – We stopped by the specialty food shop and came back for dinner at the restaurant, and agreed both visits were some of the best food of the trip. Don’t miss the smoked wild goose breast and the lamb cured with thyme and rosemary.
- Mokka-Kaffi cozy spot in the middle of town for coffee and lovely pastries.
- Sægreifinn (The Sea Baron) – for the best lobster bisque of your life.
- Baejarins Hot dogs – Famous must stop hot dog stand. Just go.
- Bergsson Mathus – for breakfast and lunch.
- Argentina Steakhouse – pricey but super cozy on a cold night.
- Apotek – great breakfast buffet spot morphs into elegant and popular lunch/dinner spot. Siena’s favorite bite of the trip was their raspberry chocolate mousse!
- Sky Bar – tallest bar in Iceland with a great view of Harpa .
- Kvosin Downtown Hotel – comfy centrally located in the square just behind the Icelandic Parliament.
- Iceland Air Hotel Marina – great location by the harbor, super hip with a great restaurant, cinema, bar and library in the lobby.
- Icelandic Horses: Farms across the south are populated by these adorable little animals descended from mixed European horses brought by settlers in the 800’s. Like a bowl of marbles they come in every conceivable color from appaloosa and palomino to the beautiful “silver bay” smoky dark with a blond mane. Super friendly with fluffy manes and puppy dog expressions – you’ll see tourists along the road just stopping to pet them. Try to book a ride somewhere to experience the two gaits unique to the breed. The “tolt” is somewhere between a walk and a trot and has to be the most comfortable ride you can have on a four footed animal.
- Hella horse rental – Looks unassuming from the road but they offer a beautiful 1½ hour tour through fields, forest and waterfalls (also heard Eldhestar is a good place to ride close to Reykjavik)
- Icelandic Horse Park – Fakasel – Exhibition riding multimedia show is a fun introduction to the history of Icelandic horses and history.
- Seljalandsfoss waterfall – bring a waterproof jacket to walk behind this enormous plume of water falling off a cliff. Take time to hike up the path past a couple of smaller falls to Fljufrafoss waterfall and venture back into a cool cave to experience the falls from below
- Eyjafjallajokull Erupts – fascinating documentary of the farm nearly obliterated by the dramatic 2011 eruption that grounded air traffic across Europe.
- Seljavllalaug Zwembad geothermal pool – built in 1923 one of the oldest outdoor geothermal swimming pools in Iceland. It’s a 25-minute hike from the parking lot, and yes the pool is a little murky, but as we soaked I counted over 30 waterfalls in the hills around us. Unforgettable.
- Skogafoss waterfall – Hike to the top of and climb the sheep fence to find further falls on the path up the river. Grab excellent Fish and Chips at the red food truck on your way in.
- Reynisdrangar – Immense basalt sea stacks at a moody black sand beach. Grab a refreshment at the sleek Black Beach Restaurant.
- Icelandic Air Hotel Vik – If you have kids ask for the family room with a cool loft. The restaurant is great. Try the amazing smoked lamb salad and rack of lamb.
We are going back for:
Westmann Islands, Jokusarlon Glacier Lagoon, Wrecked DC-3 Plane on Solheimasandur (you have to hike in from the road), Cliffs of Dyrholaey – where the puffins nest.
We took 2 nights and 2 days to explore here, but there are many day trips from Reyjkavik if you are short on time and want to quickly catch the highlights.
- Thingvellir – Reserve ample time to explore this amazing UNESCO World Heritage site. Probably the most important location in Icelandic history, it is also one of the most geologically unique and cool places on earth. Walk the easy path through the rift valley, don’t miss the detour to the waterfall, and climb up to the visitor center on the top for gorgeous views.
- Gulfoss waterfall
- Geysir – Yup this is where the name comes from! Check out the Stroker geyser – the Old Faithful of Iceland. There are no barriers so use your noodle and don’t get too close – we almost got scalded…
- Laugarvatn Fontana – elegant geothermal spa, sauna and baths on a beautiful chilly lake – take the cold plunge!
- Kerid crater – take a quick hike around this pretty volcanic crater lake
- Mengi Kjarnholt – beautiful little farmhouse/guesthouse with lovely farm breakfast
- Hotel Grimsborgir – Well-located beautiful hotel with luxurious rooms and full apartments.
- Geysir Hotel across the street from the geothermal field
- Fridheimar Tomato Farm – Definitely tour the greenhouse of this geothermal farm with a lovely little restaurant inside featuring everything tomato…
- Efsti-Dalur II – Pop into this sweet cow farm/hotel for delicious homemade ice cream
- Linden – lovely lakeside restaurant next to Laugarvatn spa.
- Tryggvaskali – one of our favorite stops for traditional Icelandic food with a great farmhouse atmosphere.
We’re going back for:
The Secret Lagoon in Fludir, Gardyrkjustodin Engi (farmer’s market), Iceland Riverjet (thrill ride on the river), Salt Eldhus for Icelandic cooking classes, scuba dive or snorkel in the Silfra fissure between the continental plates, Inside the Volcano to hike up and take an elevator into the center of a 4,000 year old dormant volcano! Yikes cool!
WEST + SNAELFELLSNES PENINSULA
- Borgarnes: The Settlement Center – You can spend the next 10 years plowing through thousands of pages of complex Icelandic sagas or get the very entertaining immersion version here. Try the lamb soup in the cafe.
- Drive by the breathtaking Eldborg Crater and the Gerduberg basalt cliffs.
- Stikkisholmer – Historic restored harbor with views over the innumerable islands (thousands of them). A great home base for exploring the peninsula.
- Library of Water – Art installation dedicated to Icelandic glaciers. Get tickets at the nearby Volcano Museum or make an appointment through the website to visit.
- Viking Sushi Tour – Float past hideouts of Eric the Red, coo at adorable nesting puffins, and feast on delicacies shucked straight from the sea aboard this very comfy and beautiful boat with daily tours out of Stikkisholmer harbor. One of our favorite outings of the trip.
We’re going back for:
Hike to Glymur waterfall, Vatneshellir Cave, a drive around the whole peninsula, Into the Glacier tour on the glacier and in ice tunnels at the second largest icecap in Iceland.
- Narfeyrarstofa – Try the local mussels and scallops
- Sjavarpakkhusid – Charming small restaurant just on the harbor.
- Nesbraud Bakery – Look for the pretzel sign and duck in for delicious pastries, but don’t overlook the mushroom soup – my daughter said it was the best thing she ate the whole trip!