Iceland sure knows how to tug at the imagination. A tiny outpost of humanity on the edge of the world, this sparsely inhabited nation is the stuff of legends – literally. One look at Iceland’s stunning volcanic landscape is enough to set the imagination wild with images of the country’s semi-mythical early Norse explorers. Beyond every fjord and humble fishing hamlet, it’s not hard to imagine running into a grizzled Viking or two. In reality, of course, Icelanders are some of the least grizzled, most amiable people you’ll come across. As many discover when visiting, the only thing more beautiful than Iceland’s landscape is its people.
Iceland might seem like a world away, but it’s actually surprisingly easy to find budget flights – at least from North America. There’s two main Icelandic carriers, WOW Air and Icelandair. WOW is usually the cheaper of the two, though Icelandair has a reputation for outstanding service. Either way, it’s totally possible to score a flight to Iceland for less than $100 from pretty much any major US city. Among others, WOW has regular flights departing from New York, DC, Boston, LA and Chicago. Even better, Iceland is a signatory to the Schengen Agreement, so US citizens don’t need a visa for stays of up to 90 days. In other words, getting to Iceland is much easier than you might think.
Best Time to Visit Iceland
When I was researching my trip, I found there’s a bit of controversy over when is the best time to visit Iceland. Part of the problem is that there really isn’t a bad time of year for this little country. Summer is generally considered the easiest time to travel, but September to March is better if you’re keen to see the Northern Lights. On the other hand, hikers are typically advised to try visiting Iceland in June July or August, when the weather is relatively mild. Whatever time you visit though, be sure to bring plenty of layers, including waterproof boots and at least a rain shell. Even at the best of times, Iceland’s climate can be a bit fickle. Purely due to a cheap flight, I ended up arriving in June, which worked out nicely. On the first weekend of June, the country celebrates Seaman’s Day, which honors the role of fishers in Icelandic society. There’s a real party atmosphere, with Icelanders taking to the water to participate in swimming and rowing contests. The water was a bit cold for me, so I resorted to indulging in another favorite Icelandic past time: drinking in a few of Reykjavik’s cosy pubs.
Speaking of which …
What to do in Reykjavik
For such a small city, Reykjavik has a good mix of attractions. Sure, it might not be the most overwhelming of European capitals, but it has its charms – not to mention more than enough things to do for the average tourist. Here’s a few of my favorite spots around the city.
No visit to Reykjavik is complete without climbing to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja. This oddly-shaped Lutheran church looks rather Tolkien-esque, and has some of the best views of the city. From the top, you can see peaceful Reykjavik huddled along its shoreline, and get a good idea of the layout of the town. Best of all, the Hallgrimskirkja is free to enter, which is nice given how the rest of the country can be horrifically expensive.
Located on Sæbraut Road, the Solfar (Sun Voyager) is one of Iceland’s most renowned sculptures. Something of an ode to progress and freedom, this sculpture by artist Jon Gunnar Arnason became an instant landmark when it was first unveiled in 1990. Today, it’s a great spot for a selfie.
National Museum of Iceland
I’m a bit of a sucker for history, and Iceland’s National Museum really hits the spot. It has some colorful exhibitions depicting the early settlement of Iceland, including its pagan heritage. For more history, I also highly recommend The Settlement Exhibition.
Beyond the Capital
Of course, nobody goes to Iceland just to see Reykjavik. The great outdoors is where it’s really at.
The Golden Circle
My first foray into the Icelandic countryside was The Golden Circle. This 190-mile route runs through some of Iceland’s most impressive landscape, including the Thingvellir National Park. The gem of the journey are the twin waterfalls at Gullfoss, though you also don’t want to miss the Strokkur geyser. The geyser spews water 100 feet into the air every five minutes or so, putting on quite the show. While at it there are plenty of great treks to experience adventure, and glacier hiking in Iceland should defintiely be in your bucket list.
If you have the time, a trip to the extremely active volcano of Hekla is well worth the effort. Part of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was filmed here, though the only thing alien around here is the landscape. It’s utterly otherworldly.
The Blue Lagoon
Finally, the Blue Lagoon is unmissable. After a long day of braving Iceland’s whipping cold, this geothermal spa is a godsend. Relax in steaming hot, mineral rich seawater in this picturesque spa. The on site restaurant, Lava, can rustle up some solid Icelandic fare, too.