Top 10 places not to miss in the Land of Fire & Ice
Iceland is quickly becoming one of the hottest tourist destinations. Photos of its breathtaking natural scenery often circulate online these days, and sometimes it may seem that there isn’t a person alive who would be immune to the rough beauty of this small, unspoiled island. Also called the Land of Fire and Ice, or the Land of Elves, Iceland offers its visitors thundering waterfalls, bubbling geysers, black volcanic beaches and lush green landscapes. It’s full of natural wonders and one of the most picturesque destinations on the planet.
I was lucky enough to visit Iceland in May this year. With a group of friends, we hired an SUV and drove around the whole island, discovering new places every day. Here are my top picks of what not to miss, a little bit of travel advice, and inspiration for your next epic holiday!
1. BLUE LAGOON
Who wouldn’t know the famous milky blue hot springs so popular among travellers? Well, Blue Lagoon deserves its hype. Only few kilometres from the airport, this can be your first stop on your way to Reykjavik (or the last before your flight back home). Yes, it is bit pricey and you have to pre-book in advance, but it’s surely worth it. The lagoon is large so it doesn’t feel crowded and you can find many little coves and corners just for yourself. For the basic entrance fee you get a towel, a bathrobe, shampoo and hair conditioner, silica mask and a drink of your choice from the bar in the lagoon. There’s also a baggage drop to keep your suitcases safe.
The opening hours change depending on seasons, for example in summer the spa is open till midnight. The prices differ during the day and they significantly drop towards the closing hours – you can find the complete information on their official website here (https://www.bluelagoon.com/).
I had a great time in the Blue Lagoon, it was one of the highlights of our trip. The colour of the water is exactly like what you see in the pictures and your skin will be so smooth afterwards!
2. GOLDEN CIRCLE
First things first – let’s not mistake the Golden Circle and the Ring Road. The Ring Road wraps around the entire country and you will need few days to drive around. On the other hand, the Golden Circle is about 300km long, a one-day-doable loop from Reykjavik that offers some of the country’s most famous and popular landmarks – the original Geysir that gave the name to all other geysers in the world; the meeting point of two tectonic plates Pingvellir; the massive roaring waterfall Gullfoss; and the crater Kerid.
If you are visiting Iceland for only for a couple of days, the Golden Circle is the perfect choice for a one day epic adventure!
3. SELJALANDSFOSS & SKOGAFOSS WATERFALLS
Both waterfalls are located in the south of Iceland, not too far from each other and you can spot them from the Ring Road long before actually reaching their parking lots. They are both massive and very popular, featuring in most of the guide books about Iceland.
Seljalandsfoss is 65m long and one of the most photographed natural wonders in Iceland, not only because it is absolutely majestic, but it also hides a walking trail in the rocks behind so you get really unique view from nature’s backstage. Don’t forget to pack your raincoat, because even if it doesn’t rain, you will still get soaked from the waterfall’s drizzle.
In less than 30 minutes, you’ll hit Skogafoss. Skogafoss with its 60m drop and 25m width, is one of the biggest waterfalls on Iceland. It’s amazing to stand right underneath and admire the power of nature! Legend has it, that there’s hidden treasure behind it and you can see a chest full of gold shining through on a sunny day.
4. BLACK SAND BEACH
One of the most beloved spots in Iceland is definitely Reynisfjara, otherwise known as Black Sand Beach. Only a couple of kilometres from Vik, you will find immense black lava rocks rising up from the sea, soft black sand and distinctive cliffs made of basalt columns. During the day it is usually packed with people, so try to be there as early as possible. We were lucky because our Airbnb was right on the beach, so in the morning we had it only for ourselves.
5. JOKULSARLON GLACIER LAGOON
Jokulsarlon is a recent natural formation – created only about 80 years ago due to rapidly increasing temperatures. It’s actually a glacial lake, the deepest in Iceland (the deepest point is 248m) and it’s a popular spot for tourists, photographers and Hollywood movie makers – you can see this place in multiple blockbuster movies, for example Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, James Bond – Die Another Day and Batman Begins.
The lagoon is filled with bright blue icebergs that calve from the glacier’s edge and calmly float around with the tide, occasionally breaking with a mighty crash. For me, Jokulsarlon was one of the most beautiful sites. The sun was shining that day, reflecting from the blue ice and even though there’s usually lots of people, the lagoon is big enough to find quieter places. If you feel adventurous, you can even hire a canoe and explore the lagoon from the water.
6. DIAMOND BEACH
When the icebergs in Jokulsarlon finally make it through the lagoon, they continue their journey to the sea or are washed out to the beach. The crystal clear icebergs on the black sand truly look like diamonds, therefore the name – Diamond Beach.
Diamond beach is bit tricky though, because the icebergs depend on the tide. You may have read blogs about travellers going back every day just to see the “diamonds” on the black sand. We were quite lucky as the beach was covered with small shiny icebergs. (If you are really lucky, they’ll be the size of a small car).
7. BORGARFJORDUR EYSTRI & PUFFINS
The small town, with only 150 inhabitants, is located the north-west of Iceland and it sits in one of the smaller fjords. I fell in love with the surroundings – little houses, snowy mountains, and easy little-town atmosphere… After having a quick dip in the outdoor hot tub with the views over the water, we went on a mission to see the puffins!
Borgarfjordur Eystri is one of the best places to see and get really close to these cute little birds in Iceland, which are also the national symbol. They live in a colony on an islet Hafnarholmi, approximately 5km from the town centre. I was praying to see at least one… We saw hundreds! It was windy and really cold, yet we didn’t want to leave. I could’ve sat there and watched them forever.
If you are visiting Iceland and want to see puffins, this place is guaranteed. They come out right at sunset and after sunrise, so plan your visit around these times. Borgarfjordur Eystri is very charming. The mountains surrounding it are majestic and there is a camp site for tents and campervans right next to the church. Be aware though that there aren’t any shops and the closest one is in Egilsstadir 70km away (and half of the journey is gravel road).
8. TURF HOUSES IN SKAGAFJORDUR
Icelandic nature is absolutely amazing and very unique, but have you ever wondered how people lived here in the past? If you are interested in Icelandic history at least a little bit, you shouldn’t miss the open-air museum in Skagafjordur, a little town in the north. You will find here the old architectural heritage of the Icelandic people – the traditional farm houses covered in turf. Turf houses were used in Iceland from the first settlement in the 9th century until the mid-20th century. Even though these particular houses are not older than 150 years, it is still very interesting to see the traditional way of life in such a difficult climate and unpredictable weather.
Hvitserkur is 15 m tall monolith rock formation in North-west Iceland, on the remote coastline of Vatnsnes peninsula. It’s located very close to the shore and it’s famous because it’s resembles a rhino. The whole area offers many places of interest and recreational and outdoor activities, but because of its secluded location, not many tourists decide to explore this part.
Legend has it, that Hviserkur is a petrified troll, who lived in the West fjords and intended to tear down the bells from a nearby church (Icelandic trolls are not Christian and they don’t enjoy the sight of churches or the sounds of their bells). Before he could do it, he got caught by daylight and turned into stone. What Hviserkur truly is, is a little bit less poetic – it’s actually a hardened lava plug of an ancient volcano.
10. CRATER GRABROK
Our last stop along the Ring Road was an old volcanic crater, Grabrok. It’s surrounded by moss-covered lava fields and the whole area is a protected nature reserve. You can find many hiking trails here for all sorts of hikers but the Grabrok itself is very easy to reach right from the car park by the road. The views from the top are particularly scenic and once again you will be in awe of the breathtaking Icelandic nature.
Getting around – the easiest way to travel around Iceland is driving. Outside of Reykjavik the traffic is almost non-existent and the maximum speed limit is 90km/h. The only thing you need to be careful about are the roads, as some of them are not paved with asphalt and they can be icy even in summer.
Currency – Iceland uses their own currency – Icelandic Krona. However, you can pay by card literally everywhere. During our one week there I didn’t see a single Icelandic coin or a bank note.
You have to be ready for everything. We travelled to Iceland in May and we experienced all sorts of weather: rain, snow, blizzards, double rainbows and warm, sunny days. Pack layers, a raincoat, good waterproof shoes and swimwear!
You can find all sorts of accommodation in Iceland. From luxury hotels to affordable backpackers, however the most common way is to rent a motor-home or stay in an Airbnb. For the 4 of us, an Airbnb turned out to be the best and the most inexpensive option, where we could also cook our own meals. Iceland is generally expensive so it’s good to be able to prepare your own food.
When to visit
Iceland is a year-round destination, you just need to plan ahead what you want to see and what you expect from your trip. In summer, the days are super long with the sun setting only for about 2-4 hours and it doesn’t get dark. Summer time is also the peak season when most people visit because of the amazing hiking opportunities. On the other hand, in winter you can see the Northern Lights and everything is beautifully covered in snow. Ring Road is well-maintained all year round but in winter allow extra times on the slippery roads and also you’ll get only around 3-6 hours of daylight (depending on each month).
Of course there are so many places to see in Iceland and along the Ring Road, but these were my personal favourites during our stay and I believe some of them are little bit more “off the beaten path” than what you usually see on other blogs. For more travel advice and interesting facts you can head to my blog here (http://hanastraveljournal.com/wandering-around-the-land-of-fire-ice-iceland-travel-tips/), or the official Iceland website here (https://www.iceland.is/).
I hope this article inspired you to visit the Land of Elves and experience the road trip of a lifetime! If you’ve already been there, please let us know your favourite places in the comments below.