The tiny island nation of Iceland sits high in the Atlantic Ocean, attracting visitors from all over the world in search of a different sort of vacation. Though just a few dozen miles from the Arctic Circle, the country is warmed by the Gulf Stream, allowing it to maintain a fairly steady temperate climate – average lows only dip into the upper 20s during the Winter. On top of that, Iceland sits atop an active volcano zone that provides a warm core underneath its glacial blanket. This gives tourists an interesting mix of natural and manmade wonders to visit, especially when the days become especially short (4 hours) or long (22 hours). With that in mind, here are four must see places in Iceland:
northernmost capital in the world, as you might expect, Reykjavik is a picturesque city of over 200,000. With nearly two-thirds of the country’s population within its limits, it is the economic and cultural center of the island. Settled around 870 AD by Norse explorer Ingolfur Arnarson, its name is loosely translated as “Smoke Cove” due to thick clouds of steam billowing up from surrounding hot springs. The heated pools remain a popular attraction, though the most-visited spots (Blue Lagoon and Nautholsvik) are fed by artificial systems to make sure they’re open year-round. The city sits on a wide bay, with high mountains surrounding it. Tourists often climb up to Perlan, a hilltop dome built over hot water storage tanks, or the nearby mountains of Akrafjall and Esja for a view of Reykjavik’s quaint buildings. Afterward, visitors can opt to enjoy some more nature by taking a whale-watching cruise or, if they’re in the mood to shop, stroll along the Laugavegur and central square.
Vatnajokull National Park
At more than 4,600 square miles, Vatnajokull National Park is the largest in Europe. The area takes up 12% of Iceland’s territory, combining Skaftafell and Jokulsargljufur National Parks with the Vatnajokull glacier. It is a nature lover’s dream, with wide green valleys and scenic mountains available for hiking. Those in search of a unique Winter experience should schedule a cross-country skiing expedition on the glacier, Iceland’s largest.
The northern port of Akureyri has a reputation for being a festive little town. Known as the “Capital of North Iceland,” it was an ice-free port for the Allies during World War II. Its charming streets and classic architecture reflect more of Iceland’s culture than those in Reykjavik, making it a lovely spot to enjoy traditional dance and music festivals. Plus, with its location being only 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, it’s a wonderful spot to witness the breathtaking Northern Lights between September and April.
The Golden Circle
One of the more popular excursions into central Iceland is the 180-mile loop from Reykjavik known as The Golden Circle. Visitors are able to visit some of the country’s most beautiful natural sights in as little as a day if they choose.
Thingvellir is a beautiful valley that sits on the fault line between the continental plates for North America and Europe. A wide-open grassland, it was the location for the first Icelandic parliament, where chieftains from the various tribes met in the 9th century. Further along the road, tourists stop at Gullfoss, a large staircase waterfall with high canyon walls. Its sprays are known to produce beautiful rainbows on sunny days, a delight for photographers.
Lastly, in the Haukadalur valley, you’ll find one of the most active series of hot springs and geysers in Iceland. Though known for the constant eruptions of Strokkur and Geysir, there are dozens of fumaroles (steam plumes), springs and mud pots spread across the basin – a sight so appealing the area has drawn tourists since the 18th century.