From awe-inspiring glaciers to geothermal springs and active volcanoes, Iceland is a place where nature always takes center stage. Even in the nation’s lively capital of Reykjavik, views of the sea and nearby mountains steal the show. Isolated from the rest of Europe for centuries, this land of fire and ice has a unique cultural heritage of literature, music and cuisine that you’ll find captivating too. With their self-reliant spirit and deep sense of community, the Icelandic people are just as enchanting as any of the best places to visit in Iceland. Illuminated by the Northern Lights in the winter and the midnight sun in the summer, Iceland shines in any season, offering you a travel experience unlike anywhere else on the planet.
When it comes to viewing Iceland in its natural glory, no region matches the unspoiled wilderness of the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve in Westfjords. While it’s true that the its rough terrain of craggy mountains and plunging sea cliffs presents challenges, the Hornstrandir the ideal spot for nature-loving adventurers. With no shops or services within the reserve, however, hikers need to come equipped for any emergency. High on the bucket-list destinations for hiking enthusiasts is the Hornbjarg, a sky-high sea cliff located on the northernmost tip of the reserve. During the summer season, guided tours are available that let you enjoy this top-of-the-world experience in relative safety and ease.
A tiny fishing village nestled within a sheltered cove in northern Iceland, Husavik is quickly earning a reputation as one of the best spots in Europe for whale watching. The most common species spotted from the tour boats include minke, humpback and blue whales as well as white-beaked dolphin and harbor porpoise. With several life-size skeletons on display, the Husavik Whale Museum offers a wealth of information about whales and also chronicles the history of whaling in Iceland. The pretty wooden church of Husavikurkirkja built in 1907 is worth a quick visit as well.
Located within the Fjallaback Nature Reserve in Iceland’s interior highlands, Landmannalaugar is best known for its scenic hiking trails. Situated at the edge of a lava field, the flat and easily traversed region is famous for its natural hot springs as well. Popular treks include short hikes through the lava field and climbs up nearby Mt. Blahnjukur, one of the rhyolite mountains that ridges Landmannalaugar’s graveled plains. Tour companies make regular day trips to the region during the high season, and rudimentary accommodations are available for overnight stays at the site as well.
As the place where Iceland’s parliament was established in the 10th century, Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park has great historic importance to the island nation. Its location in a rift valley on the boundary of two major tectonic plates makes it a park with geological significance too. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, the valley’s cliffs, fissures, lakes and evidence of volcanic activity demonstrate the force of the shifting earth in dramatic fashion. A popular day-trip destination from Reykjavik, Iceland’s first national park features marked trails that let you take in the best sights in two or three hours.
Formed thousands of years ago by a river of hot lava, Myvatn is the best place to visit in Iceland for bird watching. More than 100 species frequent this lake to feast on the midges that give Myvatn its name. Shaped by volcanic eruptions spouting up through the water, the so-called pseudo-craters that dominate the landscape attract visitors as well. The best place to view the craters is on the lake’s south shore near the rural community of Skutustadir. A forest of pillars, caves and rock formations created as the water drained away are on display at Dimmuborgir, the lava fields east of Myvatn.
Spread out over the Seltjarnarnes peninsula in southwest Iceland, Reykjavik covers a surprisingly large area for a capital with a population of around 120,000. Most visits begin at the visitor’s center located near picturesque Lake Tjornin on the city’s west side. Filled with exhibits recounting Iceland’s Viking heritage, the National and Saga museums are must-see attractions. For a panoramic view of the capital, ride the lift to the observation deck of the modernistic Hallgrimskirkja church east of the lake. With its appealing array of shops, bars and restaurants, the central thoroughfare of Laugavegur is worth exploring too.
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Few travel experiences in Iceland are more memorable than the sight and sound of an iceberg breaking off a glacier and crashing into the sea. The best place to witness this display of nature’s power is at the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. Located in southeast Iceland, this iceberg-dotted lake was formed by the melting ice of the Breidamerkurjokull glacier, which is a major attraction in its own right. While you can view the lake with its slow-moving floating icebergs from the island’s Ring Road, nothing compares to seeing them up close from the deck of a tour boat.
Home to the largest glacier in Europe, the Vatnajokull National Park is so vast that it encompasses around 14 percent of the country. Divided into four separately managed territories, the park’s most frequently visited section is the southern territory of Skaftafell where trails lead you past blue-tinted glacial tongues and waterfalls. Hardy adventures can climb the Vatnajokull glacier or explore the long row of volcanic craters known as the Lakagigar. The park has a wealth of easily accessible features too, including the powerful Dettifoss, a waterfall famous for the sheer volume of water that cascades over its rim.
The region immediately east of Reykjavik contains an intriguing sampling of Iceland’s unique attractions, including historic sites, quaint villages, geysers and waterfalls. Multiple tour companies offer day-long excursions through the area along the roads and highways that are known collectively as the Golden Circle Route. The most popular tours feature stops at Gullfoss, where the mammoth “Golden Falls” tumble through the Hvita river canyon, and the Geysir hot springs, the place where the word “geyser” got its name. Marking the spot where the nation of Iceland was founded in 930, ancient Þingvellir is typically included in the tour as well.
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Located on the Reykjanes peninsula less than an hour’s drive from Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s most popular tourist destination. This manmade lake is fed by superheated seawater vented from a nearby lava flow. The geothermal waters contain minerals like silica believed to have health benefits, but it’s the chance to relax in a steaming lagoon surrounded by black lava rocks that most attracts visitors. In addition to a restaurant that overlooks the lagoon, a 35-room resort features an array of pampering amenities, including spa treatments, saunas, steam baths and a fully equipped fitness room.