What to See and Do When Visiting Iceland
A little background on myself: I am an American who, for work reasons, moved to Iceland and lived there for two years. It was a challenging but, overall, an experience that I treasure. In the time I was there I learned a lot about Iceland and experienced, first hand, all of what I write about in this article.
There’s only one international airport in Iceland so, you will be flying into Keflavik, a small city about 30 minutes south of Reykjavik, the capital. If you are just going to be in Iceland for a few hours due to a layover, you might want to consider going to the Blue Lagoon. It is about 15-20 minutes from the airport. The Blue Lagoon is a spa and its main attribute is a geothermal pond that you can bathe in. The water is emerald green and very relaxing. Icelanders believe that the mineral-rich water is healing. It certainly is soothing and the experience is unique.
If you are going to be staying in Iceland for a couple days, most likely you will be staying in Reykjavik. In this case, I would recommend seeing the downtown area, which can be done on foot, or by a tour bus. Reykjavik is a charming and beautiful city with bright colored roofs, narrow streets and bustling pedestrian activity. Next, I would highly recommend going to one of the city’s many pools. They are very affordable and one of the best things about living in Iceland. In fact, Reykjavik considers itself the spa capital of Europe. The pools are clean and numerous offering many hot pots, lap pools, steam baths, saunas and more. The cost is about , a bargain for such an expensive country.
The next thing I would highly recommend is taking a tour outside of the city to see Iceland’s unspoiled nature. You can take a bus or contract with one of the many jeep tour companies. The bus tours generally stick to the main roads and will take you to all the tourist hotspots: Gullfoss, Geysir, Thingvellir National Park and a few other well-known destinations. My feeling is that the bus tour option is not very interesting. It is like a glorified postcard. Instead, I would opt for the jeep tours which will take you off the beaten path, allowing you not only to see but to experience. These jeep tours range in length from 3 hours to overnight tours. You can choose a tour that fits you interests, for example you can go on a jeep tour that will take you to many of the more spectacular waterfalls. Or, you can opt to drive on a glacier and go snowmobiling. Or, you can take a tour that will allow you to explore lava fields and even climb into lava caves. I really believe that this is the best way to
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experience Iceland – firsthand, not seen through a bus window.
If you are going to be in Iceland for at least a week, I would recommend renting a car and driving the Ring Road. It is the only main highway in Iceland and it simply goes around the entire country. This trip will take you 2-3 days, depending on your pace. This kind of trip is an experience worth treasuring. Keep in mind that rentals cars are expensive and so is gas. When I was there, gas cost about .50/gallon. Food and lodging are also very expensive so consider staying in guesthouses and shopping for your food rather than eating-out for every meal.
In many ways, Iceland is like many Northern European countries. The capital city looks like other Scandinavian capitals, it has all the modern conveniences, the people speak English and, last but not least, it’s expensive. But, that’s where the similarities end. Iceland is unique in so many ways. First off, geologically, Iceland is very unique. It is a fairly young island that is still volcanically active. Due to this, Iceland is a hot bed (no pun intended) of geothermal activity. Icelanders use this hot water to produce electricity and heat their homes. Iceland is sparsely populated with a low overall population, approximately 300,000 people. Reykjavik is the capital city with approximately 120,000 people – not huge by any standards. Iceland has lots of glaciers; in fact it has the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajokull. Most of the interior is uninhabited and uninhabitable. So the cities, such as they are, have sprung up along the coastlines. Outside of Reykjavik, the next largest city is
Akueyri, which enjoys the distinction of the northernmost city in the world.
Iceland is clean and beautiful with amazing landscapes ranging from other-worldly lava fields to lush fields of moss, grasses and low-lying berry bushes to waterfalls, rivers and streams, mountains, glaciers and more. Trees are few and far between outside of the populated areas. Iceland has very clean air and water. You can safely drink water from many streams across the country – not something I would recommend in most of the world. Iceland is also a fun destination; Icelanders love to party and the club scene in Reykjavik is a must. Just don’t show up before 11:30 pm.
To recap, I recommend the Iceland day tour, the jeep tours not the bus tours, soaking in the hot pots, the Blue Lagoon and at least on night on the town, just bring your Alka-Seltzer. – David Brooks