Tourism in Iceland has been booming since the Financial crisis of 2007–2008, which has made prices in Iceland somewhat affordable, although with the growth in tourism, Iceland is becoming more and more expensive, so you better get in quick!
Iceland Air has also added routes, including the popular “stopover” feature, which allows those flying between North America and Europe to stop over in Iceland for up to 7 days. Visitors to the island just keep coming, even after the financial crisis. While Iceland itself is not a large island (Australia is 75 times larger – to give you some perspective) there are so many things to do in Iceland, you can easily spend a week or longer in the “land of fire and ice.”
The first stop for many Iceland visitors is at the famous Blue Lagoon. This geothermal spa is located in a lava field not far from the International Airport. Transportation companies have made it very easy to stop here upon arrival (or departure) on the island. You can book your bus transportation to the city of Reykjavik, with a stopover at the Blue Lagoon, which of course offers full luggage storage.
The Blue Lagoon is quite expensive, but there are several packages to choose from, and add-ons such as in-pool massages. There’s also a cafe, restaurant, gift shop and hotel on-site as well. If you’ve booked your visit with a bus company, you’ll just catch the next bus into Reykjavik when you are done soaking in the lagoons.
Don’t worry, if the blue lagoon isn’t for you, there are plenty of other hot springs and lagoons within Iceland that are less crowded and less expensive or even free, but the convenience and services are a great reason to visit Blue Lagoon.
Iceland’s capital, and largest city, Reykjavik is a colorful town with plenty to offer visitors. There are plenty of hotels, hostels, Airbnb’s to choose from, but be prepared as Iceland can be quite expensive. While many visitors come to Iceland for a road trip through the countryside, be sure to plan a few days in the capital as it has a fun vibe and the colorful houses are so photogenic!
Food Tour in Reykjavik
Icelandic cuisine has long gotten a bad rap, due to short growing seasons, limited imports and that infamous fermented shark soup, but joining a food tour will dispel that negative reputation. A tour guide can shed some light on the history of Icelandic cuisine and allow you to sample some local delicacies like Skyr (Icelandic yogurt) and those Iceland hot dogs. Yes, people in Reykjavik line up outside for hot dogs from their favorite cart. (While the meat is also unique to Iceland, the key is to order it with everything – a tasty mix of remoulade, ketchup, mustard, crunchy onions and raw onions) Rye bread is another popular ingredient in Icelandic cuisine, and rye bread ice cream is a “must try.”
Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik
This striking building on the waterfront opened in 2011 and hosts various performances throughout the year. Visitors can also just stop into marvel at the honeycomb glass design, which mimics the basalt columns found elsewhere on the island.
Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik
The other landmark building in Reykjavik is Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church, which resembles a vertical airplane. It’s the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest buildings. It makes a great landmark for finding your way around the city, and for a fee, you can take an elevator up the tower for outstanding views of Reykjavik. Photographers won’t want to miss this opportunity to capture an aerial view of the colorful houses around town.
Action Figure Spotting in Reykjavik
Icelandic culture is unique and there is a lot of folklore around elves, with more than half the population believing in elves. Some roads have even been diverted around rocks where it’s believed the elves live. You’ll find a few trolls or elf statues and figures scattered around Reykjavik, but you’ll have to look really closely to spot the 100’s of small toys and action figures perched on street signs, in windows, and on rooftops. These are left behind by the mythical “toy spreader.” Finding these figurines makes for a fun scavenger hunt through the town.
Nightlife in Reykjavik
Reykjavik has a great nightlife culture, and with the never-ending summer sun, revelers often stay out all night. Most of the action is centered on Laugavegur Street, but Reykjavik is such a walkable city, you’ll never be too far from a bar or pub. You can join a pub crawl or bar tour, or just wander out on your own. Icelanders often get their party started very late, so you might find the pubs quiet until around midnight. If you want to party like an Icelander, be ready to stay up all night!
Iceland’s Golden Circle is a popular driving loop that visits some of Iceland’s most scenic spots, all in a 300 km loop from Reykjavik. This is the perfect option for visitors who are short on time and can’t devote a full week to touring the country. You can drive the loop in as little as 3 hours but should allow a full day for stopping to enjoy the scenery. There are self-drive options or plenty of bus tours you can join. If you opt for the self drive option, it means you can stop off and say hi to the gorgeous Icelandic horses.
Three main stops on the Golden Circle are:
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is Iceland’s first national park and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, due to the historical significance as the site of Iceland’s parliament from the 10th to the 18th centuries. The park sits in a rift between two tectonic plates, creating a stunning landscape of cliffs, canyons, and waterfalls. This is also where you’ll find the Silfra fissure, a crack between the North American and Eurasian continents, that you can actually swim in! Snorkeling or scuba diving tours are available, and drysuits are provided! This is a uniquely Icelandic experience!
Geyser Geothermal Area
The Geyser Hot Springs area is another popular stop on the Golden Circle Tour. As the name implies, there are geysers, hot springs, bubbling mud pits. Visitors to this area can sample ‘hot spring bread’ which has been baking underground in the thermal area.
Another must-see destination on the Golden Circle tour is the Gullfoss Waterfall, sometimes known as the Golden Falls due to the golden color when the sun shines just right. This massive waterfall is the largest in Europe at over 30 meters tall. There is a series of paths and stairways that allow you to get a closeup view of Gullfoss, which is equally stunning in winter as in summer.
Kerid Crater Lake
Once of several volcanic crater lakes in the area, this is a colorful stop along the Golden Circle. The crater itself is made of red volcanic rock, covered in green moss, with the lake a beautiful turquoise color. A short hike will take you down to the lake.
The Ring Road tour is the driving route that circles the entire island, taking anywhere from a week to 10 days. The tour can be done in 4-5 days, but at over 1,300 kilometers, it will be rushed. Unlike the Golden Circle tour, which is done in a day trip from Reykjavik, a trip along the Ring Road will require more planning for overnight lodging and dining as well. Of course, this is a popular route for tourists, so services are available throughout the tour. As you might imagine, there are dozens of tour operators willing to handle the logistics and the driving for you, if that’s more your style. On the opposite end of the spectrum, campervan rental is also a popular way to tour the Ring Road. Most drivers with ample time will include the Golden Circle in their Ring Road itinerary. Your Ring Road itinerary will include waterfalls, glaciers, lava fields, volcanos, fjords, black sand beaches with quaint village stopovers in between.
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are a huge draw for winter visitors to Iceland. The lights can be fickle and unpredictable, so don’t bet your whole trip on them, but fortunately, there are plenty of other sites if the lights don’t come out. You need clear and dark skies, so winter is usually the best time to see them, although it’s possible to get a peak in the summer months as well. You have a lot more dark hours in the winter, though. When the lights are out, you can even see them from Reykjavik, but many tours will take you outside of the city for pure darkness. While a full moon won’t ruin the experience, it definitely brightens up the sky, so you might take it into consideration.
Cruises and Boat Tours
Another great way to see Iceland is from the water. There are week-long cruises that circumnavigate all of Iceland, cruises from Europe that include Iceland among other Arctic destinations, and cruises that also include Greenland and Svalbard. If you just want to get out on the water for the day, there are lots of day cruises from Reykjavik for whale watching, puffin spotting, northern lights viewing and glacier calving.
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