Iceland Guide 2017-08-28T15:42:05+00:00

Iceland Guide

Gulfoss waterfall in winter, iceland

The Blue Lagoon. Photo by Jim Stevenson

Why travel around Iceland?

This is one of the most geologically interesting countries in the world, with a barren and volcanic element which gives it a dramatic, other-world charm.

Fantastic waterfalls, geysers, volcanic bubblings and blowouts, snowy mountains, grassy plains, geothermal pools for bathing and lava, lava everywhere. And trees? Nay, lad.

Iceland’s ‘Golden Triangle’ consists of Gullfoss waterfall, Strokkur geyser and Snaefell volcano.
The midnight sun – almost totally light summer nights – is an experience all of it’s own, while history buffs will love the Viking Saga stories.

Pollution and crime are close to zero, traffic jams and crowds do not exist, life stress is low and just about everyone speaks English.

Downsides

– Prices are still high, especially flights and alcohol, (even after the crunch) and may chill your bank account.
– The weather is often dire, with little blue sky visible even in the summer.
– Most of country is devoid of vegetation above boot level, though that is partly the attraction.

Weather

Best season: July and August with average lows of 8C (46F) and highs of 13C (55F).
Worst: December – March, cold temperatures with average lows of -4C (24F) and highs of 2C (35F).
OK: June, and up to 15 September – everything shuts after that, though December is lively in Reykjavik.

Length of stay:
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights: Reykjavik only or including a quick whizz around the ‘Golden Triangle’ – 4 days (include a weekend for a taste of the nightlife)
Recommended: 1-2 weeks.

Iceland’s Main Attractions

***Reykjavik – quirky and reasonably interesting, with a colourful Viking history, clean air and little crime. Excellent, if expensive nightlife, but rather dull modernist architecture occasionally enlivened by graffiti. Reykjavik Photos

***South – the country’s most popular region for tourism containing two of its most famous attractions – Gulfoss fall and Strokkur geyser. Situated near to Reykjavik.

**West – some good features all within reasonable distance of Reykjavik, with Snaefell’s extinct volcano forming the most northerly part of the touristy Golden Triangle.

**North East – one of the better regions for things to see; the distance from Reykjavik keeps the rampaging hordes away.

*South East – this holds the southern flanks of Iceland’s largest ice cap Vatnajokull. It is also home to the country’s most excitable volcano, Lakr.

South West – the Reykjanes ‘Steamy’ Peninsula is home to the most northerly city in Europe, Reykjavik but is otherwise rather barren.

West Fjords – one of the most rugged regions of Iceland with many fjords and steep mountains. Excellent for bird life due to extensive cliffs.

North – one of the least interesting parts of the country with few attractions, though popular with bird watchers.

East – quiet with few tourists, but still very accessible and with relatively good weather. Boat arrivals from Europe often start here.

Central Highlands – an uninhabited wilderness area with mountains and glaciers as well as lava fields and geothermal sites but popular for glacier hiking, snowmobile tours, iceberg strewn Jokulsarlon Lake views and tours.

Activities

Self Driving, preferably in a 4WD vehicle, is a lot of fun outside winter and navigation is easy as you basically stick to the asphalt and circular Route 1, passing by stunning views of smoking volcanoes, snowy mountain peaks, mounds of mossy lava rocks, bubbling hot springs, black sand beaches, waterfalls, massive seabird colonies and much more. T
he trick is to take trips off the main road when things look interesting and that’s why you need 4WD. Once offroad start to look for walks, long or short. Taking a week would be about right.

Walking and Hiking: pretty much everywhere is walkable with lots of interesting geological features but heavily leaning towards bleak and barren.

Nightlife: unbridled boozing and dancing in the clubs of Reykjavik, with live music also on tap.

Horse Trekking: local ponies are cute and calm, so trek into the wilderness regions on one.

Whale Watching: whales and dolphins can be seen, though mainly just the Minkes.

Rafting: widely available though naturally the water is extremely cold.

Geothermal Bathing: natural and man made pools (spas) – but geothermally supplied water – indoors and out. These are curative and social for most Icelanders.
Different pools have different curative powers – including arthritis, asthma and eczema.
Reykjavik’s outdoor Blue Lagoon is #1, rich in skin-healing properties such as salts, algae and silica.

Snowmobiles/skidoos: Spectacular scooter trails and tours of the Highlands just about all year.

Bird watching: varieties of ducks, puffins and other sea birds visible in the north, NE and SW.

Fishing: pricey salmon and trout fishing. Possible but not great.

Mountain Biking: Not good as the weather will deter most due to erratic winds and rain, with lava dust storms when dry. And if that’s not enough rocks are thrown up by passing traffic.

Climbing: lots of rock but quite flakey. Great glacier crossings and ice climbing.

Skiing: December – April, but if you want to ski for real why pay ridiculous prices for these second rate pistes?

Money:
Kronur is the local currency and you may need a fair amount for a week’s trip. Credit cards are commonly used, Traveller’s Cheques OK and ATMs plentiful in urban areas. Tipping is not necessary.

Main Festivals

Third Thursday in April: First Day of Summer ‘Sumardagurinn Fyrsti’, mild partying and a carnival in Reykjavik.
First week in June: Sailor’s Day ‘Sjomannadagurinn’, watery competitions and partying in coastal villages.
June 17: Independence Day, mainly in Reykjavik, costumes, parades, street performers etc.
Beginning of August: Verslunarmannahelgi, camp based partying in Iceland’s car accessible scenic spots; extreme drinking and mayhem.

Getting Around

Domestic Transport:
– Self-drive 4×4 hire is the most convenient way to get around, but is, of course, expensive and cars should be reserved way in advance online. Hiring on-the-spot is not recommended as it will be even more pricey and with less choice, if any! Full damage insurance is advisable as ‘roads’ are often tricky gravel tracks. Fuel is also costly.
– Buses are efficient but not frequent. FlyBus runs regular (though not frequent) bus excursions to most parts of the country, especially around the Ring Road.

Capital Region, Southwest

Reykjavik bicycle and church, Iceland

Reykjavik  city centre.

The Reykjanes ‘Steamy’ Peninsula is home to the most northerly city in Europe, Reykjavik, but is otherwise rather barren.

Reykjavik – no trip to this country is complete without a visit to the dramatically located and colourful capital, see European Cities – Reykjavik; check out the Raudholar, strangely red volcanic mounds just outside of the capital, and Mt Esja is the nearby mountain overlooking the city.

Reykjanesfolkvangur Nature Reserve – to the south of Reykjavik is the peninsula’s main attraction of geothermal activity and lava creation.
Helgafell reaches just 350m for hikers, there’s a large lake and Krisuvik is the steamy star of the show, with all manner of bubbling, spitting holes. The very birdy Krisuvikurberg cliffs are nearby.

Blue Lagoon ‘Blaa Lonid’ – bathing beside a powerplant would normally seem like insanity, but not in Iceland, where it’s a common social occasion.
The outdoor pool is bath-warm and rich in skin-healing properties such as salts, algae and silica. 40 minutes drive form Reykjavik. Blue Lagoon Photos

Hafnaberg Cliffs – bird nesting cliffs noted for their beauty near to the similarly aesthetically pleasing wooden buildings at the fishing village of Hafnir.

West Iceland: a famous mountain and some good features all within reasonable distance from Reykjavik, with Snaefellsnes forming the most northerly part of the Golden Triangle, the majority of which is in the South.

Snaefell Volcano Peninsula National Park – includes the Snaefell Glacier of Jules Verne ‘Journey to the ‘Centre of the Earth’ fame; the Arnarstapi fishing village and weathered coastline; the Badstofa cave at Hellnar; the protruding rocks of Londrangar and the and the Dritvik Cove with its historic fishing huts.
Stykkisholmur is the main town in the area and has an interesting church and ‘Norwegian House’, museum.

Eldborg ‘Fire Castle’ – a perfectly formed volcanic crater rising 100ft out of its surroundings.

Deildartunga Hot Spring – one of the largest hot springs in the world simmering to near boiling point, near Reykholt.

Hallmundarhraun Caves – impressive caves near Husafell.

Hraunfossar Waterfalls – water flows mysteriously here from underneath the Hallmundarhraun lava field into the ‘White’ River, near Husafell.

Glymur Waterfall – at over six hundred feet this is the highest waterfall in Iceland, dropping into a narrow gorge. It is best seen from the river below as otherwise only the top is visible, and it may disappoint in summer if there is little melt water or recent rain.

Hvalfjordur ‘Whale Fjord’ – as the name suggests this can be a good place for whale spotting.

South Iceland, not far from Reyjavik

Gulfoss waterfall, Iceland

Gulfoss waterfall, Iceland’s biggest sight.

The country’s most popular region for tourism is within easy reach of Reykjavik and  hosts its most famous attractions in the ‘Golden Triangle’:

Gullfoss – a famous waterfall north of Skalholt of 35m which drops into a one mile long canyon below. Nearby is a pretty area around the gorge of Bruarhlod on the Hvita River.

Great Geysir and Strokkur ‘Butter Churn ‘ – Geysir used to spout off regularly but following an earthquake it now has less predictable outbursts and is of little interest. The nearby ‘Stukkar’ geyser has taken over the tourist entertainment role, spewing forth great quantities of water up to sixty feet in the air every few minutes.

Gufudalur ‘Steam Valley’ – north of Hveragerdi has a lot of geothermal activity including Gryla geysir.

Hveragerdi ‘Hot Springs Garden’ – a very touristy town which has a small geysir and geothermal area plus a large greenhouse called ‘Eden’ with tropical plants in it.
Walk to Hengill or Selfjall peaks and the heated stream Klambragil from here.

Hekla ‘Hooded’ Volcano – the most revered volcano in Iceland gets its name from the cloud which tends to hang around it superb cone.

Porsmork (Thorsmork) ‘Thor Woods’ – unusually arboreal for Iceland, this is a beautiful valley with trees and other flora, popular with locals as well as foreign tourists so it gets busy.

This area is great for walking, especially to Landmannalauger for an overall view, or for a bit of a trek to Skogur.

Pingvellir National Park and surrounds – an area of both great beauty and history – it was the site of the old Icelandic Parliament.
The lake is the biggest in the country and boats can help you see much of the area fairly efficiently. It’s also excellent for walking. Pingvellir National Park Photos

Skalholt – if you like classical music the town holds a festival during the summer and there is a mosaic in the local church worth seeing.

Skogafoss – a very photogenic waterfall which sprays in such a way that it often creates a rainbow.

Vik-i-Myrdal, Iceland. Progresschrome

Near Skogafoss is spectacular Vik, its black basalt beach, massive rolling waves, sea stacks, puffin-packed cliffs, and endless rain. Photo by Progresschrome.

Heimay Island – the ‘Galapagos of the North’ are a group of fifteen young islands including Surtsey which popped up in 1963.
Visit the Eldfell volcano on the island of Heimey, which last erupted in 1973, the pretty Heimaklettur mountain, the Klettshellir cave (by boat), and the puffins at Storhofdi.
The harbour on Heimay was almost cut off by the lava flow, but dramatically tamed by Iceland’s fireman.
It later held Keiko the Killer Whale star of ‘Free Willy’.
Visit the Natural History museum and Folk Museum if you have time. It’s worth staying overnight here.
Puffin meat and eggs are on the menu at local restaurants. Access from the mainland can be by sea or air.

Southeast Iceland

Jokulsarlon Lake and black beach with ice blobs, southeast Iceland

Jokulsarlon Lake, southeast Iceland. Photo by Jim.

Iceland’s southeast contains the southern flanks of the country’s largest ice cap Vatnajokull whose presence has greatly affected the surrounding landscape and is also home to the country’s most unstable volcano, Laki.

Vatnajokul – this massive ice cap, almost comparable to Polar and Greenland ice caps.
Journeys onto the ice cap generally start with the valley glaciers and the easiest non-expeditionary way to achieve this is to travel with a guide in a four wheel drive vehicle.

Lonsoraefi ‘Lagoon Wilderness’ – the delta of the river Jokulsa i Loni runs into the long Lon ‘Lagoon’ Bay with its two large sand spits, while two peaks look out across the expanse.
Swans abound in the delta and there are excellent walking opportunities amongst the rhyolitic peaks, including the highly regarded walk to Snaefel in the east.

Jokulsarlon ‘Glacier Lagoon’ – this lagoon is the direct run off from a glacier, and as a result lumps of ice fall into it creating icebergs, another triumph for Icelandic tourism.

Skaftafell National Park – probably the most scenic park in the country and as a result it is best avoided at the weekends if you plan on staying there.
It is comparatively well vegetated with a mountainous backdrop. There are many walking trails in the park with Skaftafellshedi the most immediate and thus most popular.

The volcano Laki has caused more damage than any other, erupting violently in the 18thC.
It fired lava high into the skies, which then rolled all over Iceland and devastated farmlands and animals.
The mountain offers good views and there is the Fagrifoss ‘Beautiful’ waterfall and Fjardrarglijufur canyon also to see.

Northeast and East Iceland

East Iceland home, hills and mist.

East Iceland. Photo by Jim.

North East Iceland Attractions

This is one of the better regions for things to see, so expect some other travellers, but the distance from Reykjavik keeps the rampaging hordes away.

Husavik

The main town of the area, pretty enough, but the main attraction is whale watching and the associated Husavik Whale Museum. Minkes and dolphins are the norm here.
Flatey and Lundey are worth a visit for bird watching.

Jokulsargljufur National Park

The impressive Jokulsa Canyon, also known as Iceland’s Grand Canyon, is the focus of this park.
Several waterfalls can be seen in close proximity along the canyon, with the biggest, Dettifoss, an impressive 50m high and 100m wide, the most powerful in Europe.
Asbyrgi is a strange plateau region with expansive rich green vegetation enclosed by sheer cliff walls of up to 100m and split in two by a large rock known as the ‘Island’.
Footpaths run to about 50 miles and the length of the park can be crossed on foot in around two days.

Lake Myvatn ‘Midge Lake’

A beautiful shallow lake which is a bird lovers paradise – with 15 species of duck – and also offers comparatively good weather due to a micro climate.
In the area you can find lava pillars, boiling mud pits, the Hverfell volcanic cone, the Eldhraun ‘Fire Lava’ lava field, the Reykjahlid Natural History Museum, the Lofthellir Cave, Kverkfjoll Ice Caves, Hverarond geothermal area and the disturbingly active but colourful Krafla Caldera.

East Iceland Attractions

Nice and quiet with few tourists but still very accessible and with relatively good weather. Boat arrivals from Europe will usually see their first bit of the country here.

Egisstadir

The main town with an airport for national flights and roads to pretty much everywhere in the region.
For historical fact on this part of the country try the Minjasafan Austurlands Museum.
The Icelandic Jazz Festival is held here at the end of June.

Lagarflojt ‘Smooth River’ and Hengifoss ‘Hanging Falls’

The longest lake in the country runs north east from the massive Vatnajokull ice cap. The impressive Henginfoss waterfall roars into a gorge which then drops down to to the lake on the south west shores.
Iceland’s largest forest, Hallormsstadur, runs along part of the eastern side and is a good place to rectify flora deficiencies.

Snaefel ‘Snow Mountain’

The second highest peak in Iceland at 6012 ft lies at the beginning of the central highlands and adjacent is a worthwhile trek through the Fljotsdalsheidi ‘River Valley Moors’.

East Fjords

Not as grand as the West Fjords, but still very worthwhile, with some interesting towns and villages and excellent walks along their winding course, beginning at the eastern edge of the Heradsfloi Bay at Borgarfjordur and running south for around sixty miles to Berufjordur.
Bakkagerdi is a small picturesque fishing village in Borgarfjordur with a photogenic sod house.
Hafnarholmi, an artificial islet along the shoreline is an excellent bird breeding area, particularly for Puffins.

Mt Dyrfjoll ‘Door Mountain’

A mountain to the west, with two peaks and to the east Mt Stadafell, and Mt Hvitserkur, the latter a bizarrely coloured rhyolite mountain with basalt dykes, so walking here is convenient and rewarding.

Boat arrivals from the European continent arrive at Seydisfjordur – a town with a mountainous backdrop – an altogether more rewarding experience than the barren Keflavik airport.

Mjoifjordur ‘Narrow Fjord’

Next along is the Mjoifjordur ‘Narrow Fjord’ and then Eskifjordur, an attractive fishing village with lots of local walking opportunities in the nearby mountains.
Skrudur Island is good for bird life, has a large cave once used by fishermen and the Breiddalur Volcano, a large extinct volcano with interesting peaks.

If you really like your geology, near Breiddalsvik Cove are the Fagriholl Ridges, a plain of ridges caused by ground frosts.

Finally Djupivogur on Berufjordur is an interesting fishing village with old buildings, Papey ‘Friar’s’ Island with its teeming bird life and walks to nearby Mt Bulandstindur and Godaborg ‘Castle of the Gods’.

Iceland’s Central Highlands

Kalafellsjokull and skimobiles, Iceland. Photo Christian Bickel.

Kalafellsjokull and skimobiles. Photo Christian Bickel.

This is a true wilderness and as such travel can be difficult so most is done with local guides and in groups. There are bogs here which will swallow you and your backpack whole so do not go here alone.

If traveling in a small group let people know your route, and make sure your navigation skills are adequate.

Weather in the region is particularly changeable.

Routes and paths alone are not to be relied upon or are non existent, so highly detailed maps, and a quality compass with polar deviation tables are essential items. Also consider a GPS system.

Main Attractions

Vatnajokull Icecap in Vatnajokull National Park – the largest in Europe with the country’s highest mountain – Mt Oraefajokull – near the centre. This icecap dominates the south east highlands.
Of interest to tourists are skidoo tours for much of the year including June, hiking various ‘tongues’ of the massive glacier, walking along the shore or taking amphibious tours of the iceberg strewn Jokulsarlon Lake, the ice caves in the Kverkjoll section, formed by warm underground rivers, but you cannot do serious caving here.

Hofsjokull and Langjokull Icecaps – the second and third largest icecaps in Iceland respectively, the former is near the western edge of the highlands, the latter thirty five miles further east.

Hveravellir ‘Hot Spring Fields’ – a geothermal area with coloured pools and hot springs. You can soak in the natural warm waters here.

Beinaholl ‘Bony Mound’ – a hill where some unfortunate 18th C sheep left some mementos as they and their shepherds perished in the snow.

Kerlingarfjoll ‘Witch Mountains’ – an attractive and rather pointy mountain range, less volcanic looking than others in Iceland.

Hvitarvatn ‘White River Lake’ – lumps of the Langjokull ice cap fall into this, the source of the Hvita river.

Aldeyjarfoss – an attractive waterfall over columnar basalt formations, part of the Skjalfandafljot ‘Shivering River’.

 Dynkur – another pretty waterfall, this time in a barren area.

Veidivotn – lots of small lakes in the bare volcanic basin.

Herdubreid – a volcano with a glacier on top blew, resulting in a cylindrical flat topped mountain. Nearby is its namesake green oasis, considered the most beautiful in Iceland. The impressive Kolltandyngja volcano is nearby.

Dyngjufjoll Range – an old volcanic range, the Drekagil ‘Dragon Ravine’ is so called due to its likeness to great winged creatures, and the Askja caldera is a monstrous, must see basin with accompanying Viti crater lake (picture above left) – good for a swim. Also the deep blue Oskjuvatn lake in Porvaidsfell crater.

Fjallabak ‘Behind Mountains’ Nature Reserve – contains the Torfajokull volcano and glacier, one of the most scenic glacial regions in Iceland with good views of the beautiful Markaflot gorge and surrounding mountains, including the Landmannalaugar.

Iceland’s western fjords

Latrabjarg Cliffs, Iceland. Photo Jim.

Latrabjarg Cliffs, west Iceland. Photo by Jim.

One of the most rugged regions of Iceland with many fjords and bays rising to steep mountains

Excellent for bird life due to the extensive cliff faces.
Paths following the contours make slow progress as they meander along the convoluted fjords, but the scenery is dramatic.

Isafjordur – is a centrally located and visually interesting fishing town for beginning to explore the sparsely populated area.

Hornstrandir Nature Reserve – north of Isafjordur is the isolated but beautiful Hornstrandir area.
Wildlife is in abundance here (relatively speaking) with the Arctic Fox and Seals making an appearance, and also whales as the peninsula juts into the sea towards Greenland and the Arctic Circle.
Casual observation of the area can be made by boat, otherwise walk from Unadsdalur and Nordurfjordur, well prepared for bad weather.
This area is remote and requires expeditionary tactics with snow travel equipment year round. Take care on the tidal flood plains. There are several emergency huts but you must have portable accommodation even for a modest walk in case you can’t make it back.

Mt Vadalfjoll – a pair of volcanic plugs on the south of the peninsula stand proud above their surrounds affording classic panoramic Iceland views.

Latrabjarg Cliffs – the most north westerly point in Europe and one of the largest cliff nesting sites in the world, this is Puffin territory of the highest standing.

Consider also: travelling to Flatey Island, and the other islands of the Breidafiord Bay to the south of the peninsula, particularly for birdwatching; Flokalundur Nature Reserve, worth visiting if you like birds which duck and dive; Dynjandisfoss, the biggest waterfall in the region at over 100m; Sod Farm Barmar – a barmy old sod farm restored and abandoned but makes for a great vista with the waters and highlands behind.

Bits and Pieces

Electricity:
Electric sockets are 220v and take 2 round pin plugs.

Safety:
Iceland is just about the safest place on the planet, after the polar caps.

Language:
Don’t even think about learning more than the basic courtesies. Most people speak some English.

Food:
Frequently pricey and occasionally repulsive, especially 6 month rotted shark meat, pickled ram’s testicles or roast puffin. To be fair, there are plenty of fish dishes available and the smoked lamb is excellent.
Reykjavik also has ethnic restaurants, fast food joints and buffets/salad bars that are less expensive.

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