In 2010, a volcano with an impossible name, Eyjafjallajökull, erupted in Iceland, causing giant clouds of ash over Europe and leading to the cancellation of thousands of flights. The huge and sparsely inhabited island (only 350,000 permanent residents) spiraled into a deep recession, and its inhabitants were convinced that no one would want to visit their country anymore, but then a miracle happened. The world has rediscovered the Land of Fire and Ice, the last true wilderness left in Europe. Here are some recommendations for a taste of primeval landscapes, unique natural phenomena, and the colorful capital Reykjavik.
The Blue Lagoon
The Lagoon (Bláa lónið) is one of the most famous geothermal spas in the world, and arguably the most popular attraction in Iceland. Dipping in the milky blue waters of the huge pool, against the backdrop of the surrounding black lava rocks, and enjoying temperatures of around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celcius) while it is freezing cold outside, is a truly memorable experience.
You can come here for a full-day trip from Reykjavik, or even a short excursion from the airport, which is only a few minutes’ drive from the lagoon, but don’t forget to book your visit in advance.
The Golden Circle
If you are pressed for time, there is no better day trip from Reykjavik than the Golden Circle, the most famous sightseeing route in Iceland, which includes three main attractions:
Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and meeting place for the ancient Parliament of Iceland, was founded in 930 AD and is considered the first in the world. The park is also a meeting place between two tectonic plates – the North American and Euroasian – and the only place on Earth where you can see them rise above ground. There is nothing more spectacular than the rocky gorge covered with moss, with its small waterfalls and panoramic view over the entire valley. Die-hard fans of Game of Thrones will surely be happy to know that some scenes were filmed right here.
Another stop on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss Falls, the best known of the thousands of waterfalls scattered throughout Iceland. And let me tell you, the view of the huge cascading waterfall from the top of the long (and slippery!) trail simply breathtaking. The trail descends into a deep narrow gorge, and it is well worth completing it all so you can see and photograph the waterfall from every possible angle. Last but not least is an erupting force of nature called Geysir, the same one that gave its name to a natural phenomenon called geysers. Unfortunately, the famous geyser, which used to erupt to a height of up to 230 feet (70 meters), went into hibernation a few years ago. Next to it is a smaller geyser called Strokkur, and is currently the most active in the park. Although its jet of water rises to a height of only 130 feet (40 meters), it is no less spectacular. It erupts about 6-10 minutes; get the cameras ready, but you’ll have to have good instincts (or a tripod).
The famous natural phenomenon (also called Aurora Borealis) is a result of increased solar activity. June-September is the height of the season, though the best months to view the Northern Lights are October-April. Yet the northern lights are very elusive and are visible at their best only when the sky is clear of clouds, on a moonless night, and far from light sources such as big towns or cities. You can go on an independent chase for the lights, driving an SUV and using a dedicated app showing the best viewing times and areas, and you can join a midnight tour by bus, minibus, or a formidable SUV as we did. Unfortunately, we managed to catch just a little glimpse of the lights on our excursion, but who knows, you might get lucky.
Street art and nightlife in Reykjavik
Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, was a very pleasant surprise. I discovered a colorful and vibrant city, which mostly looks like a big fishing village. It is a cosmopolitan place, rich in cafes, restaurants, and bars, as well as street art and signs that testify to the developed sense of humor of many Icelanders. Reykjavik also boasts many museums (some of which are dedicated to… let’s say, unique subjects, like the Phallus Museum), a nice array of shops (prices are expensive, though), and a rich and varied nightlife. For example, during our stay in November, the city hosted Iceland Airwaves, an annual music festival spanning four days and various venues around town, showcasing new music, both Icelandic and international. If in the past, most tourists visited Reykjavik just as a layover before a trip around the island, but today many come here to spend some time in the city, enjoy the lively atmosphere and go on day trips around the capital. If you only have 3-4 days, this is definitely the most suitable option.