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Here’s how to go about planning a trip to Iceland and where to find the hotspots and highlights that give this country its unique identity.
Your first introduction to Iceland is how otherworldly it looks. I remember the plane slowing sweeping over a landscape that looked like Mars as it approached the runway; its dark brown rocky surface and crater-like perforations creating excitement amongst the many explorers pushing their faces against the cabin glass windows as if they were landing on another planet.
Iceland really does feel like another world. Even the bright light of the ‘Midnight Sun’ kept me in awe as I saw it set on the horizon at 10 pm from my bus as it made its way to the island’s capital, Reykjavik. It still looked like a new day.
- Introduction to Iceland Travel
- Visit Reykjavik – The Adventure Base
- Visit The Blue Lagoon – Bathe in the Earth’s Warmth
- The Golden Circle Tour of Natural Highlights
- Iceland Ring Road Touring for a Grand Adventure
- Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland
- Iceland Hiking to Get Off-Track
- Nothing But Natural In Iceland
Introduction to Iceland Travel
First-Timers Guide to the Accessible Geothermic Paradise
Iceland is known for its natural phenomena, where adventure enthusiasts come to play hard. Straddling the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart, the island was built from the bubbling magma seeping up in between.
Today the land of fire and ice represents everything you ever read in a science book as a kid, except you can get right up close and hike, climb and dive through it. With the magma now heating vast reservoirs of water all over, your visit will mainly be based on immersing yourself in the geothermic paradise that exists here.
So, how long do you need to spend in Iceland?
Even for those on a short break (being close to the very centre of Europe for a weekend break and now a popular layover for those crossing continents), Iceland is easy to explore. More so because its western and south-western reaches host the country’s highlights, and the great infrastructure that exists in Reykjavik helps to get you around if you don’t hire your own car.
Many also arrive with the view of driving around for a week or two. Either way, it’s more isolated than overwhelming, so be geared up for some adventurous travel. Read these quick 25 tips for first-timers to Iceland to get you a little prepared.
I had three days to explore and get a taste of what Iceland has to offer, except I had an extra challenge to face – I had no luggage. The Money Supermarket website, in their quest to highlight how over 25% of all insurance claims are from lost luggage, sent me here on a ‘Lost Luggage Challenge’ to show how easy it is to continue with your trip, even if you do lose a few hours in shopping for essentials and kitting yourself out for grand adventures. I soon realised that all I needed for Iceland was an extra layer of warm clothing as a priority. The rest is down to having a curiosity for nature.
Visit Reykjavik – The Adventure Base
Lucky for me, I landed in Reykjavik in late May when the weather is a cool and crispy five degrees – chilly but not in the minus temperatures which would have had me running to the nearest clothing stores before frostbite kicked in. As much as I would love to see Iceland in the height of its snow-drenched winter, the candy-coloured capital was perfect to explore at this time.
With only six municipalities and around 200,000 people (in a country with a total population of 330,000), Reykjavik, or more so its commercial centre, isn’t large, imposing, or too demanding of your time.
I loved nothing more than picking out the different hues of the houses as if chasing a spectrum of rainbow colours. It led me into quiet neighbourhood side streets, boutique stores and tucked away coffee shops where locals took rest bite from the chill and could throw off a few layers.
It’s easy to get into the explorer mood here and you will soon find everything you need from cosy cafes to locally run stores. Extra quirks are a bonus – a well-known local clothing store (North 66) has a slide in the middle of it taking you down to its lower level.
But mainly, this city is simply your base for wider adventure in the country, with a bus system that operates a well-run network of day trips and adventure excursions (should you not be here road-tripping to the wilderness, as many do).
Visit The Blue Lagoon – Bathe in the Earth’s Warmth
One of the first stops, and quite possibly the most popular of them all, is the first stop is the infamous Blue Lagoon. Approaching it from the road I could see the steam rising from the 5,000 square metres, 800-year-old lava basin like a giant bathing factory.
Iceland tourism literature describes it as “a turquoise vision in a black basaltic moonscape” and they are not wrong. There are over six million litres of geothermic water here that replenishes itself every 40 hours; a natural spa fed by sea waters 6,500ft (1,981m) below the surface. At that level, the temperature of the water is a searing 464 degrees (240c), but on its way up it cools down and captures minerals on the way, where it finds humans soaking in its 100 degrees (38c) surface temperatures while coating themselves in silica mineral mud.
At only 1.6 metres at its deepest level, there’s no fear of getting lost, except you might feel that way as you glide through the white mists of steam on your way to the waterfall, the sauna room or the outdoor bar.
So in my hired swimsuit (yes, they really do make things easy for you out here), face covered in the healing mud, I sipped a glass of strawberry fizz in celebration of finally being able to say that I’ve experienced ‘One of the 25 Wonders of the World’ (National Geographic). Not a bad way to end a day of city sightseeing.
Alternatives to the Blue Lagoon
Since Iceland is a geothermic paradise there are plenty of Blue Lagoon alternatives for those wanting to escape the crowds, find alternative natural spaces and backdrops and enjoy the same relaxation properties elsewhere in the country. From the oldest swimming pool in Iceland to spas next to glaciers and lava formations, there’s more beyond the famous natural wonder to visit.
The Golden Circle Tour of Natural Highlights
It started by driving by the houses of the hidden ‘elves’ of Iceland known as the Huldufólk. Legends of folklore, these tiny wooden dwellings can be found etched in rocks or built into tiny mounds in the grassy cliff faces. We couldn’t stop to take a closer look, but we slowed to peer out at the colourful doors to another world, learning about how even building projects have been altered to prevent damaging the rocks where this special population take cover.
Maybe the bubbling Geysir geothermal area that simmers underneath them, not too far along the Golden Circle route, keeps them warm. The hot springs here lead you in a trail to the Geysir Strokkur shoots a column of water up to 30m (98ft) into the air every five to seven minutes. I found myself there more than once, standing with a stirring crowd hovering next to it watching for the water to bubbled ferociously like a cauldron before exploding into the air.
The natural world never ceases to amaze, and even the waterfalls here achieve spectacular status. The Gullfoss waterfall, in particular, is the most famous in the country, becoming a protected site after it was once designated as a potential outlet for the generation of electricity.
In Iceland, nature rules. It’s the untouched nature of the land that makes it so unique – in this case, a crevice that’s over 20 metres wide and 2.5Km long, where the rapid waters of the river Hvítá plunge right into it. And that’s before you get to Pingvellir National Park – where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of a few centimetres every year.
You can see how the earth has been ripped apart by the pull, creating a fissure in the Earth, uncovering another of its many layers.
Iceland Ring Road Touring for a Grand Adventure
My time was sadly too short on this first visit, but or those looking to stay in Iceland longer and experience even more of its natural wonders, this Iceland Ring Road Itinerary is a great planning resource.
For those wanting to up the adventure ante and get even closer to nature, here are some planning and trip tips on surviving a week-long camping trip on Iceland’s Ring Road.
Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland
Catching the swirling green and blue hues of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), is at the top of the Icelandic nature view wish list. I’ve only ever got to see the Northern Lights in Finnish Lapland, and it sure is a once in a lifetime experience. Seeing it twice, even across different countries, would be very lucky!
Even though you could strategically time your arrival in Iceland according to the suggested dates on apps when the Arctic Circle light show will be at its peak during September to April, it still isn’t something you can guarantee to happen. But such is the law of nature. However, for those planning their trip to include them, this overview for those travelling to Iceland for the Northern Lights has tips on where to go, top viewing points and what tours to take. It even includes some handy photography tips.
Iceland Hiking to Get Off-Track
Any avid trekkers know that the Laugaveugur Trail is Iceland’s most famous hiking trail and for good reason. A 55km nature track that takes people around four days and three nights to traverse, hiking here is a colourful storyboard of Iceland’s varying nature. On a journey from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmork you will pass through earthy coloured bouldered hills and green valley basins, cliff drop trails and waterfalls to black sand volcanic deserts and ice caves to the background of dominating plateau.
This hike is high on my list for when I return to Iceland, but for those of you wanting to add it to your adventure when you visit, check out this comprehensive Laugaveugur hiking and planning guide.
150 kilometres northeast of Reykjavik is the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and Snaefellsjökull National Park, often overlooked by those travelling mainly on the Ring Road. With everything from coastal hikes to cliff walks, colourful towns and a shark museum, this overview on where to go in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is a great introduction.
Nothing But Natural In Iceland
Travelling back to Reykjavik amongst the backdrop of the dominant, snow-capped Mount Hekla (an active volcano that last erupted in 2000) we learnt how resourceful Icelanders really are in using their natural environment, rather than fearing it or resorting to more mainstream ways.
Here, there are no nuclear oil or gas stations. Just hydropower power stations. Over 90% of all the houses in the country use the geothermic method of using naturally boiling hot water for heating, showering and making electricity.
I quickly learnt that in Iceland you don’t need much at all, except to fully embrace the adventurous and resourceful spirit that gives this natural wonder of a country its unique identity.
We could all certainly learn a thing or two from that… just as I quickly did.
Iceland is just gorgeous, I loved it. The Blue Lagoon was amazing, I could have spent hour there. I found the waters really relaxing.
I can’t wait to return to Iceland and this post has only made me want to go sooner!