It’s the land of fire, ice and northern lights. And as anybody in the UK will know, the remote island hugging the fringes of the Arctic Circle has become one of the most sought-after tourism destinations.
Iceland made international headlines after the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, which saw flights grounded across Europe. As some of the tourism operators in Iceland will tell you, it may have put the country on the map for the wrong reasons, but people were starting to become aware of this incredibly beautiful island. Now, this largely uninhabited paradise has made many people’s travel lists.
When you visit Iceland, you really do get the sense that you are walking on the edges of the earth. It is quiet, and although you will now undoubtedly be surrounded by hundreds of other tourists, the country has not lost its charm.
Getting to Reykjavik
Iceland is an easy weekend destination for those based in the UK. Many people even use it as a stopover destination to the USA when they fly with Icelandair. If you’re looking for a more affordable weekend getaway, look at EasyJet. You can usually find affordable flights, and I managed to get a good deal from Luton.
After about a three hour flight time, you’ll land into Keflavik Airport, located on the other-worldly Reykjanes Peninsula. You’ll notice the strange, volcanic landscape and even somewhat desolate terrain as you head toward Reykjavik. Already Iceland is full of surprises. There are a couple of bus companies that offer airport transfers to hotels in Reykjavik. You can book a return transfer with GrayLine. There are also plenty of car rental companies if you would prefer to drive yourself.
I’ve chosen to stay at the Reykjavik Lights, a concept hotel that is reasonably priced, slightly outside of central Reykjavik. The rooms are all colorfully themed around the Nordic calendar, representing the changing of light in Iceland. It takes about 30 minutes to walk from the hotel into town.
Sights of Reykjavik
Take the first afternoon to explore the unique and quirky sights of Reykjavik. The first stop on your list should be the iconic Lutheran church Hallgrímskirkja. You can’t miss the chance to take the lift to the top of the tower and see the incredible views over the colorful houses of Reykjavik. You’ll be able to see the fantastic surrounding landscape of the city, with its snow-covered mountains. It’ll cost about 1000kr (roughly £9) for entrance to the tower.
While you’re exploring the city, you should also visit the Harpa Concert Hall. Located on the old harbor, the exterior glass pattern of the building changes with the light, making it an architecturally unique landmark. From here, you’ll also be able to wander around the Reykjavik waterfront.
It’s time to enjoy your first full day in Iceland. Most touring companies offer hotel pick-ups, and tours generally last around eight hours. This means you’ll be up bright and early ready to explore. With only the weekend to see the sights, you will have to make a few decisions about what you want to focus on seeing.
I’ve chosen the South Coast, with its beautiful waterfalls; the main reason I’m visiting Iceland. See BusTravel, who offer a great itinerary of the South Coast that ticks off the two major waterfalls, the black sand beaches and the Sólheimajökull Glacier.
On the day you’ll visit Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss, two of Iceland’s most iconic waterfalls. Skogafoss is located on the Skógá River, and the large volume of water flowing evenly over the cliffs makes for some great images. However, my favorite sight in Iceland has to be the amazing Seljalandsfoss. What makes this waterfall unique is the trail that allows you to walk in behind the waterfall for a unique view.
The tour will also give you the opportunity to visit the Sólheimajökull Glacier. The glacier is an incredible sight, with ice piled high into the sky, with small crevasses carved into the icy walls. The surrounding water and ice melting into the black sand also shows why it is often called the ‘shrinking glacier’. It is part of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which is one of the largest in Europe.
Another highlight of the day is the black sand beaches. You’ll start with a visit to Reynisfjara, known around the world for its fine black sand. There are also many unique basalt rock formations off the coast, about which you’ll hear interesting Icelandic folklore tales. Next door is the fishing village of Vík. Although it is a lunch stop, take some time to wander around the tiny village, and head to the nearby beach. You’ll see hundreds of birds circling around the imposing cliffs, and of course get some more dramatic ocean views from the black-sand coastline.
A visit to Iceland would not be complete without completing the iconic Golden Circle tour. There is no shortage of tour companies offering itineraries of Iceland’s most famous route. GrayLine offers a great tour, ticking off all the main sights.
The first stop along the Golden Circle is Þingvellir, a historic national park home to the largest lake in Iceland, and is the site of Iceland’s first parliament meetings of the Vikings in 930AD.
Another thing that makes Þingvellir unique is its position between the continental plates of Europe and North America. Visitors can walk through the huge, carved chasms between the tectonic plates. TV fans will also recognize the location from Game of Thrones.
Next stop on the itinerary is one of Europe’s most beautiful waterfalls, Gullfoss. Even having seen Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, Gullfoss still holds up as an incredible sight. Follow the designated hiking trails down to the waterfall, where a huge volume of water falls into the icy valley below. You’ll also have views toward the Icelandic Highlands, and maybe even see the huge tour trucks heading out toward the icy terrain. Your tour will also stop by Skalholt Church, a cathedral surrounded by traditional Icelandic buildings, with stained-glass windows that put on an incredible light show in sunny weather. You’ll also get up close to some of Iceland’s famous horses.
One of the top sights you’ll see on the Golden Circle tour is the famous geysers. Strokkur spits water almost 100ft high every few minutes. Some of the geysers haven’t erupted for years, but you’ll still be able to see the volatility of the land in the bubbling waters and clouds of sulfur.
If you’re visiting Iceland at the right time of year (around the winter months), you’ll be able to take a Nothern Lights tour. Consider the Northern Lights Mystery Tour, which takes you back to Þingvellir to get a glimpse of the incredible, dancing aurora. The lights look almost like a moving curtain, swirling through the sky with dashes of green and purple. Take a jacket though, because, at 1.00am in the morning in Iceland, it is going to be cold!