Iceland Travel Guide
Iceland, the second largest island in Europe, lies close to the Arctic Circle northwest of Scotland and south of Greenland, and it is primarily the unique and wonderful natural phenomena that draw visitors to the country. The hardy Icelandic people, descendants of ancient Norsemen and Celts, are intriguing too, having spawned what is now renowned as the oldest-surviving parliament in the world (called the Althing), founded in 930 AD. Iceland also boasts a much-revered literary heritage of the best medieval works, mostly based on heroic sagas.
Most of the country's popular tourist features are in the south of the island near the capital, Reykjavik, and can be explored on the much celebrated 'Golden Circle' route. Top of the list for scenic splendour are the Gullfoss double-tiered waterfall and the spouting hot springs of Geysir.
Reykjavik means 'smoky', but in the case of Iceland's pristine capital (which is Europe's most northerly capital city) the smoke is not smog, but rather steam from the underground springs that warm the city. Reykjavik has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the cleanest, most invigorating cities in Europe, and boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world. The city may be small, but it is full of interesting attractions, from galleries and museums to thermal bathing spots, and the nightlife is second to none.
Iceland is steadily increasing in popularity as a travel destination, and offers so much to see and do that repeat visits may be necessary, particularly as the country seems so different in summer and winter. The summer weather enables all sorts of outdoor fun in the gloriously unique landscapes, but the icy winter months bring with them the spectacle of the Northern Lights, truly one of the most magical experiences the world has to offer.
Address: At the end of the Skólavörðustígur Reykjavik
This landmark church, the tallest building in Iceland, dominates
the city from its highest point and is visible on a sunny day from
up to 10 miles (16km) away. Named after the 17th-century Icelandic
poet, hymn composer and clergyman, Hallrimur Petursson, the
church's unusual design includes volcanic basalt columns flanking
its towering steeple. It took nearly 40 years to build the edifice,
which was finally completed in 1986. In front of the church stands
a statue of Leif Eriksson, donated to Iceland by the United States.
The church is lovely inside but even those uninterested in
exploring this place of worship will be impressed by the striking
facade. It is possible to climb the tower for views over the
Address: Laugardalur Valley 104 Reykjavik
Although Iceland is better known for more stark, rocky
landscapes, a walk in Reykjavik's gardens will convince travellers
of the country's more lush and flowery offerings. The pretty
Reykjavik Botanic Garden is a haven for strollers, enshrining about
5,000 plant species, including a large collection of Icelandic
indigenous plants and other plant collections, which give an idea
of the enormous diversity of vegetation in the northern temperate
zone. Besides walking trails and water features, the garden has a
display greenhouse where a cosy café is open during the summer
months. Located close to the garden is the Reykjavik Zoo and Family
The gardens are open all year round, though opening times may vary season to season and there is less to see in the colder months. Admission is free.
Einar Jónsson Museum
Address: Eiriksgata Reykjavik
Einar Jónsson was Iceland's foremost sculptor, and he himself
designed and established this museum, which contains over 300 of
his works spanning his 60-year career. The museum building itself
is deemed to be Jónsson's largest work, and served as his home,
gallery and studio. The foundation stone was laid in 1916; it was
Iceland's first art museum and retains pride of place on the
highest point in Reykjavik. It is adjoined by a pristine, leafy
sculpture garden, which sports about 26 bronze casts of the
artist's work. There is also a museum shop selling plaster casts of
Jónsson's works, books and postcards.
Travellers should note that the museum is closed on Mondays and for the whole of January and February. All other admission details can be found on the official website listed below.
Address: 240 Grindavik, Iceland Reykjavik
A favourite and unique attraction close to Reykjavik, about 30
miles (50km) southwest of the city, is the man-made geothermal
'Blue Lagoon', set in a lava field, filled with mineral-rich hot
water pumped from about a mile below the surface. The lagoon is
flanked by a luxurious health spa where visitors come to be
pampered and treated for skin ailments like eczema and psoriasis.
The lagoon's surreal phosphorescent aquamarine colour is caused by
the therapeutic ecosystem of algae, silica and minerals in the
The Blueline bus company offers transport to and from the Blue Lagoon, and other transport options are outlined on the official website. Visitors should note that the Blue Lagoon is very popular and should be booked as far in advance as possible to avoid disappointment. The opening times change seasonally and can be found on the website listed below.
Address: Gullfoss National Park Reykjavik
Iceland's famed Gullfoss (Golden) Falls are justly rated among
the most beautiful in the world, and make for a popular excursion
from Reykjavik. The falls, with their awesome double-cascade, are
incredibly powerful, which has meant they have come under threat of
being utilised as a source of hydro-electricity. Currently,
however, the magnificent natural water feature, shrouded in mist
and rainbows and gushing into a canyon on the Hvita River, is
safely ensconced in a national park and remains one of the
country's top tourist attractions.
The falls can be visited on Iceland's famous Golden Circle route, and many tour operators and public buses make daily trips to the national park during the warmer months.
Address: Geysir Center, Geysir Reykjavik
The weird landscape of the Haukadalur Valley in Iceland's
southern lowlands, where hot springs spout and mud pools bubble,
has been dominated for centuries by the 'granddaddy' of all
geysers, the Great Geysir, from which all other such phenomena
around the world have gained their name. The Geysir, once shooting
boiling water hundreds of feet into the air, has reduced its
performance levels somewhat in modern times but is nevertheless
still an impressive sight when it occasionally erupts. The rest of
the thermal area, bathed in a sulphuric smell, is just as
fascinating, featuring several other spouting vents and geysers
which frequently display their prowess. The Geysir area has become
a very popular tourist attraction, and a centre has been opened
containing a multi-media geology museum and folklore exhibits.
There is also a hotel, souvenir shop and restaurant on site.
Thingvellir National Park
Address: 801 Selfoss Reykjavik
The national park of Thingvellir, 30 miles (50km) east of
Reykjavik, is not only Iceland's most important historic site, but
also a place of natural and geological wonder. It was here that the
world's first-ever parliament, the Alting, initially convened in AD
930, and where Christianity was first introduced to Iceland. Even
today, people gather at Thingvellir to celebrate any major national
event. Geologically, this is the only site in the world where the
American and European tectonic plates are visible; and the park is
also home to the largest lake in Iceland, and stunning scenery
including a lava gorge, the Oxararfoss Waterfall, and the 'Money
Chasm', where visitors drop coins down a gorge into water, to
witness the strange distorted reflections that result. Activities
available at Thingvellir National Park include hiking, angling,
horseback riding, diving and camping.
The national park is open all year and in the warmer months a daily bus visits the park from Reykjavik.
The Aurora Borealis - or Northern Lights - is one of nature's
most celebrated and most beautiful phenomena. The magical dancing
blue and green light is caused by collisions between charged
particles in the highest reaches of the earth's atmosphere, but
most people watching the display are not thinking about the science
behind it. Witnessing the spectacular lightshow is a numinous and
unforgettable experience. Visitors to Iceland will be pleased to
know that, due to the country's latitudinal position, spotting the
Aurora Borealis is commonplace between September and April - just
head away from the city lights on a clear, crisp night, and the
otherworldly glow in the night sky soon becomes apparent. Although
somewhat of a 'routine' display for locals, for tourists the chance
of seeing the Northern Lights may well be one of the main
motivators for choosing Iceland as a travel destination. There are
websites that make predictions on the likelihood of seeing the
lights and it may be worth checking these out while planning your
travel itinerary. Many of the locals will also be able to offer
advice about the best places and times to see the Aurora Borealis.
The further away from urban areas you get, the more intense the
lights are likely to be.
Jökulsárlón - literally, 'glacier lagoon' - is the largest
glacial lake in Iceland, and an enormously popular tourist
attraction. The site shot to prominence after being featured in
Hollywood movies (most memorably, Batman Begins), and now attracts
thousands of visitors each year. Caused by the retreat of the
glacier known as Breiðamerkurjökull, the lagoon is now nearly a
mile (1.5km) from the ocean's edge, and is over 650 feet (200m)
deep. Most easily approached from the fishing-town of Höfn on
Iceland's southern coast, visitors in search of an indelible memory
of their time in Iceland should definitely make the trip to
Jökulsárlón, where luminous blue icebergs float eerily across the
freezing water. Whatever you do, don't forget to pack a camera -
Jökulsárlón is undoubtedly one of the best sights Iceland has to
offer, and in such a staggeringly beautiful country, that's really
Never mind the Vikings, one of Iceland's most interesting
cultural drawcards must surely be the Huldufólk, or 'Hidden
People'. In Icelandic folklore, the Huldufólk are akin to elves -
invisible, non-threatening, magical beings, that can be observed by
humans with a talent for communicating with the 'hidden realm' of
being. A large proportion of Iceland's population reputedly believe
in the Huldufólk and they are an important element of the country's
folklore and national identity. Visitors to Iceland will gain a lot
of insight into the culture by exploring the concept a little.
Recommended Huldufólk-related activities include a visit to Reykjavik's Hellisgerdi Lava Park (which is supposedly full of elvin homes); a trip to the Museum of Icelandic Wonders in Stokkseyri (just 45 miles/70km from the capital); and, for the really enthusiastic, a half-day course at Magnús Skarphedinsson's Álfaskólinn, the Icelandic Elf School, where you'll learn all about the 'hidden realm', and even receive a diploma to prove it.
Fishing in Iceland
Iceland is said to be home to the best salmon fishing in the
world, with over 100 runs, almost a quarter of which are
first-class fishing holes. While sea fishing remains mostly the
domain of commercial fishermen, tourists will find equally
prosperous waters inland. The island is pocketed with lakes which
make for great trout fishing and more well-rounded family
vacations. Some of the best and most scenic lakes are in the
highlands. However, aficionados will want to head to the rivers,
fly rod in tow.
Almost all fishing rivers can be driven to but it's best to arrange things through a tour operator, or travel with a guide who can also arrange fishing permits, a suitable vehicle and nearby lodging. The best salmon rivers all have impossible to pronounce names, such as Breiddalsa and Hrutafjardara making it tough to ask for directions.
All of Iceland's rivers are very well regulated so limited rods are allowed on the same river at any one time. It is wise to arrange with a guide well in advance of the visit to assure a spot. Salmon season is June to September and trout season is June to October. Ice fishing in the winter is also an option to get the ones that got away in summer; leave the waders and bring a jacket.
Iceland offers a wealth of exciting outdoor sports opportunities
to visitors - fishing, angling, hiking, camping, kayaking, skiing,
mountain biking, golfing and scuba diving, to name but a few - but
the great lure for real outdoor enthusiasts must be glacier
trekking. There are many excellent, reputable tour companies
offering visitors to Iceland the chance to unleash their inner
Arctic explorer and experience Iceland's astounding natural bounty
hands-on. Your adventure could consist of about seven hours of
walking across the snow-blown, translucent landscape by day, before
being fed and entertained while camping out on the freezing
icefields at night. There are day-long tours available for less
extreme personalities or less experienced trekkers, and some tours
which combine glacier trekking with plenty of time spent camping
next to hot springs and doing other more relaxing things.
Snæfellsjökull glacier is probably the pick of the explorable
terrains but Iceland boasts many potential areas for this sort of
Travellers would be wrong to assume that glacier trekking is only possible in the summer months as many tour operators actually offer glacier tours and treks year-round. The frosty winter months, from November to February, have a beauty of their own, but inexperienced hikers may well be put off by the limited daylight which makes multi-day treks less popular for obvious reasons. Glacier trekking is a potentially dangerous activity and all hikers and climbers should ensure they are using a reputable tour company and good, safe gear - a capable guide can make all the difference so research your options ahead of time.
The Pearl Restaurant
Address: Perlan, Oskjuhlith Reykjavik
Food Type: Local
The unique and exciting Pearl Restaurant is located on the top
floor of the Perlan building on a revolving platform which offers
breathtaking panoramic views over the beautiful night lights of
Reykjavik, completing a full revolution every two hours. The cool
stylish décor sets the scene for a night of luxury where diners can
feast on dishes such as the marinated Klaustur trout served with
Russian blinis (pancakes), dill cream and horseradish sauce, or the
pan fried pheasant with polenta and Porchini mushroom sauce, before
finishing things off with a passion fruit tart with mango sorbet.
Open dinner only. Bookings recommended.
Address: Bankastræti 2 Reykjavik
Food Type: Local
Situated in one of the oldest houses in the centre of Reykjavik,
Restaurant Lækjarbrekka is a classic Icelandic eatery serving
traditional fare in a warm and relaxed atmosphere. Don't be shocked
to find horse carpaccio or whale on the menu as these are local
delicacies in Iceland. Enjoy the langoustine soup with cognac and
cream, while brave diners can sample a traditional Icelandic dish,
grilled steak of Minke whale with mashed potatoes and Brennivin
sauce. After dinner retire upstairs to the bar and cognac room to
sip on an aperitif and enjoy the Icelandic hospitality. Open daily
for lunch and dinner. Bookings recommended.
3 Frakkar Hja Ulfari
Address: Baldursgata 14, Reykjavik Reykjavik
Food Type: Local
A restaurant perpetually full, and always full of local
Icelanders, 3 Frakkar Hja Ulfari has been described at the
'best-kept secret' of the Reykjavik restaurant scene. Tucked away
in a residential neighbourhood, the restaurant offers a beautiful
and romantic ambience, and has a world-famous selection of (mainly)
fish and seafood dishes. An ideal venue for a date, be sure to book
Fiskfelagid (Fish Company)
Address: Vesturgotu 2a Reykjavik
Food Type: International
Fine dining in Iceland is typically centered on the incredibly
fresh and wholesome seafood. Fiskfelagid makes the most of these
assets with their celebrated cuisine served in stylish surrounds.
Try the "tour of Iceland" which is a tasting menu of modern
interpretations of traditional dishes. The lobster pizza is also
interesting. The service is friendly and skilled.