Iceland, with a population of less than 350,000, is smaller than my hometown and covers only 40,000 square miles. Mind boggling, right? Although it’s the most sparsely populated country in Europe, Iceland offers a diverse and amazingly beautiful terrain. You’ll experience sheep (lots and lots of them), the northern lights, rugged mountain vistas, imposing waterfalls, volcanoes with names you’ll probably never be able to pronounce (try, Eyjafjallajökull), and out of this world gorgeous landscapes. An easy way to explore the country is with self drive tours. Here are my six not to be missed recommendations.
The capital of Iceland, Reykjavik, has a vibrant art and café culture you won’t want to miss. Wear your sunglasses when you’re exploring the brightly coloured wooden row houses in the old town. People watch or relax with a good book in one of the many thriving cafes. Stofan Cafe, in the city centre, at Vesturgata 3 is a favourite. Enjoy a pint in a friendly pub with friends, or solo. Wander the city’s coastline. If you like to party, you’ve come to the right place. Icelanders love to drink late into the night. Get your museum fix with a visit to the world-class Perlan Museum and its 360-degree panoramic view of the city.
2. Relax in a Warm Lagoon
Iceland is famous for its hot springs (I’m a big fan.) and most visitors experience their relaxing soak in the country’s top tourist attraction, the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal pool 30 minutes outside Reykjavik. You’ll also be able to indulge in other parts of the country, like the Myvatn Nature Baths in the north. There are plenty of free hot springs, too, and you can locate them online at HotPotIceland. You may want to consider hot spring skinny dipping. Icelanders are quite relaxed when it comes to nudity, so you won’t raise any eyebrows. Having gotten used to the nudity in Korean saunas when I lived there, I didn’t give it a second thought. Be brave!
3. Jökulsárlón (The Jökulsár Lagoon)
Located in the southeast part of the country, this is a relevantly recent ice floe (only a few decades old), but one of the most popular attractions in this area of Iceland. Stunningly beautiful Jökulsárlón was formed when the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier retreated between 1920 and 1965. There are icebergs floating in the lagoon year round. Take the time to sit and listen to the mesmerizing sound of ice blocks crashing into each other as they make their way out to sea. Boat trips around the lagoon are also available. Jökulsárlón may seem very familiar as it has been used as the set of four Hollywood movies; A View to Kill, Die Another Day, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, and Batman Begins.
The lagoon is located on National Highway 1 and is free to visit.
4. The Golden Circle
Including the Gullfoss waterfall, Strokkur Geysir, and Thingvellir National Park. the Golden Circle is a favourite tourist route. The entire ring can be driven in one day. Gullfoss is the most photographed waterfall in the country, tumbling 105 feet into a steep canyon below. When the sun shines the water spray rewards visitors with a shimmering rainbow over the gorge. Then, you will want to enjoy the 1000-year-old Strokkur Geysir. Eruptions occur once every 6 -10 minutes and can reach heights of 40 meters. If you have time to make the 20-minute hike up the nearby mountain, you’ll be rewarded with striking views of the farmland below. Complete the circle at Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO site since 2004, and the only place on the planet where you can witness two major tectonic plates drifting apart above sea level. If you have time and are a certified diver, you can arrange to go scuba diving between the plates. Excellent guided walking tours are also available. You’ll need between 1 -2 hours to walk through the park and you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping landscapes.
5. Witness the Northern Lights (aurora borealis)
Patience, luck, and darkness are the key ingredients to witnessing the glorious Northern Lights in Iceland. Visibility is best between September to April. When the aurora borealis is especially strong it can be viewed in Reykjavík. During periods of low activity, it’s best to try your luck in one of the country towns located in the northern area of the country. You may even get to enjoy the lights while relaxing in a hot spring. To increase your chances of seeing the dancing lights you can check out the aurora forecast in Iceland here.
6. Take a trip to the Westfjords
Rugged mountains and a coastline indented with picturesque fjords draw visitors to the Westfjords in northwestern Iceland. The area is sparsely populated, so if you want to get off the beaten path and embrace the outdoors this is the place. You’ll find fishing villages, small towns, lakes, mountains, and waterfalls to explore. During the summer months, puffins and whales call the area home. Do be prepared should you decide to visit in winter, roads are often closed due to snow and ice. Don’t miss the all you can eat catch of the day buffet at Tjöruhúsið in Ísafjörður. Your taste buds will thank you.
Iceland ticks all my travel boxes with its friendly people, interesting culture, the jaw-dropping scenery at every turn, and delicious food.