Iceland really stole my heart. The country is simply amazing in so many ways. The landscape is like no other place and the people are incredibly friendly. There is so much to do in this country I feel like you could spend a month here and you wouldn’t have fully experienced everything. Even Emily said “I’m afraid no trip will ever be as good as Iceland.” I am actually afraid of that too. i’m already trying to plan a trip back next year, because I just feel like I have unfinished business with Iceland. While there are many many reasons to love Iceland here are my top ten:
But first, some history…
Iceland was first settled in approximately 874 AD by the always friendly Vikings from Norway. The leader of the first ship to land in Iceland was Ingólfur Arnarson. According to legend, he threw a paddle over the edge of his boat and said he would settle wherever his paddle landed. The paddle landed in Reykjavik, so he settle there and it is now Iceland’s most populous city. Many of Iceland’s early settlers were lords or kings looking to escape the Tyranny of King Harald who was trying to unify all of Norway under his control. While visiting the museum Reykjavik 874+/-2 I learned that scientists had traced Iclenaders DNA to discover that the early male settlers in Iceland were from Norway and early female settlers were all Celtic! So I guess you can conclude that the Vikings went to The British Isles kidnapped women and brought them to Iceland to live for the rest of their life. Terrible, but its amazing the kind of historical insights we can gather through science.
Iceland would eventually become the site of the world’s first parliament at Þingvellir called Althing(read more about it under Þingvellir on this page). In the 900s, Icelands historians began to document the country’s history in what are now known as The Sagas, which are full of mystique, elves, and tragedy. Eventually Iceland fell under control on Norway, which the united with Sweden and Denmark. Upon the dissolution of this Scandinavian union, Iceland fell under Denmark’s rule, where it remained until it established independence during World War II.
Now for the countdown:
10. Golden Circle.
The Golden Circle is the easiest and quickest way to get a feel for Iceland if you don’t have that much time to spend. You getto see a big geyser, Geysir, a big waterfall, Gulfoss, and the weird geological formation of Þingvellir, which is the fission between the Eurasian and North American Continental tectonic plates, along with the fascinating history of Iceland and the world’s first parliament. I wrote a full and much more detailed post on the Golden Circle here.
Iceland has waterfalls for days. They are all huge and beautiful and unique in their own way. Go here for my favorite waterfalls in Iceland.
8. Hot Pot.
Soaking in hot pot, or a hot spring, is a national past time in Iceland. The blue lagoon is of course the most classic and most popular tourist destination in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon is cliché but you will undeniably love it. It is also worth checking out some other hot springs to get a more authentic experience. We also visited Mývatn Nature Baths (click here), and an old hot pool built in the 1920s (click here).
One of the greatest pieces of Icelandic natural beauty was the fjords. Most fjords were formed during the ice age (like Iceland’s) by glaciers cutting into the earth and creating long and narrow inlets from the ocean, lined with steep cliffs. At the end of the ice age, the glacial covering receded and left the fjords as we know them today. While the west fjords are the holy grail of Icelandic fjords, most people don’t have the time or resources to get up there. Luckily, there are many other fjords you can just happen to find yourself driving through. Breiðafjörður peninsula was one of the largest fjords we saw, which separates Snæfellsnes from the West Fjords. The city of Akeruryi, the capital of the north where we spent one night, is at the base of a beautiful fjord. My favorite fjord was Seyðisfjörður, which is easily seen not too far from the ring road, especially if you are staying in Egilsstaðir. The town in Seyðisfjörður is so quaint, with multi colored wooden houses, surround by snowcapped peaks.
Reykjavik is no fancy metropolis, but it is a pretty fun city to spend a couple of days in.
Reykjavik is filled with cafes, bars, and cats – the people of Rykjavik love their cats. Hallgrímskirkja, the weird looking church, is definitely worth visiting and taking a trip up to the top for a cool view.
5. Vikings and Elves.
Coming to Iceland, I wasn’t sure what the experience would be like in terms of culture, or history. Iceland history is actually fascinating and it all revolves around Vikings and elves – for real!
So Iceland’s delicacy is literally petrified shark, which is fancy for “rotten shark.” Some Icelanders will tell you it is disgusting, but a lot of the people I met said it was amazing. I personally was too pussy to try it, and I am definitely not ashamed of that. But where did such a delicacy come from? The Vikings of course! There are little bits of Viking culture left over in modern day Icelandic culture and there are references to Vikings everywhere, which is pretty cool. Visit Reykjavik 871 +/- 2 to see the excavation of an ancient Viking settlement and learn more about the Vikings beginnings in Iceland.
Elves, or the “hidden people,” as they are called in Icelandic, have been a part of Iceland’s folklore since they first settled. Icelanders, however, have taken it to a level above folklore. According to a poll in 1998, 54.4 percent of Icelanders believe in elves. They believe they live in rocks and will sometimes paint elf doors on these rocks. Belief in elves will even derail construction projects, due to protests of the destruction of believed elf homes. Here is a good article, if you are interested in more: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/10/why-so-many-icelanders-still-believe-in-invisible-elves/280783/.
Snæfellsnes Penninisula is like a separate mystical world. It seems that every hill and lava rock has a times old tale about its origin. From the Viking Sushi Tour with its puffins and fresh AF scallops to lonely Budir and impeccable Gamla Rif, Snæfellsnes was potentially my top day in Iceland, and you can read all the details here. (Read: Snæfellsnes was so amazing that it got its own blog post)
3. Whale Watching in Húsavík.
Húsavík, an old whaling town in north Iceland was so quaint, I wish we could have spent more time there, but most people come here just for the whale watching. If you want to go whale watching in Iceland, Húsavík is the place to do it. You can see humpbacks, orcas, even blue whales. North Sailing is one of the classic whale watching tours in town. We went out to sea on a restored traditional Icelandic oak fishing boat. They took us out far from harbor (hehe) towards the Arctic Ocean, where the water started to get a little rough. If you get sea sick easily, this would probably make you queasy. I did not want to lug my camera around while enjoying the whale watching, so I don’t have any picture of the whales, but we did see a humpback and a minke whale. I was kind of disappointed that we didn’t see any orcas since I am on my never ending quest to see wild orcas, but the humpback was amazing and came up to surface just a few yards from our boat. Sadly, whaling is still legalized in Iceland, but the people who run North Sailing try to raise awareness and bring an end to the tradition.
Apparently there was a blue whale in the bay the day before we arrived in Husavik! So close…
The very famous “Ice Lagoon” used for filming James Bond and Tomb Raiders movies. This is an enclosed bay at the edge of the Vatnajökull, the Vatna Glacier (most voluminous glacier is Europe!). Icebergs will break off in chunks and float through the lagoon before melting and passing under a bridge out to sea. The icebergs are a beautiful luminous blue, some covered in ash from previous volcanic eruptions. We decided to pay a little extra to do a boat tour with Zodiac Boat Tours rather than just taking a few pics from the shoreline. It was well worth it since we were able to get up close to the larger icebergs, as well as hear some iceberg facts from a man who claimed his name was iceberg and said he loves icebergs.
The unfortunate side of visiting Jökulsárlón was being attacked by sea gulls. Yes, we were attacked. Emily was actually pecked on her head. Apparently, they nest near the parking lot so as you walk around the area they will fly at your head. I literally had to run at full speed while swinging my back pack like a helicopter over my head to keep them away. If you survive the birds, it is actually kind of funny watching unsuspecting tourists be mobbed by sea gulls.
Driving the ring road and just watching the passing landscape was one of the best pieces of Iceland, and that just tells you how amazing this country is. You don’t need to even be at a “highlight” to find the place amazing. During the drive we would constantly be point out “look at the mountain!” “Look at that waterfall!” One second you would be driving down the coast along black sand beaches and 15 minutes later you would be ascending into the mountains. We basically just followed a GPS which took us off the ring road at some points which turned into an unexpected adventures. My favorite moments driving would be when we realized our GPS was taking us through a mountain pass and we had no idea exactly where we were going. We would end up driving for miles on a dirt road high way through mountains surrounded by fresh snow and ice in the middle of June. Driving around the country really gave us a chance to see the many different sides to Iceland.