REYKJAVIK AND THE SOUTH WEST REGION – WHAT TO SEE & DO
Most travelers start and end their Icelandic itineraries in Reykjavik, the northernmost capital city in the world. Reykjavik is a small (approx. population 200,000) and manageable city. About 60% of the country’s population lives in or near Reykjavik. In one day, you should be able to visit many of the key sights. Start in Old Reykjavik in the city center, walk through the old harbor, visit Hallsgrimskirkja church (take the elevator to the top of the bell tower for super views of the city), the Tjornin city center lake, and don’t miss the ultramodern Harpa Concert Hall, one of the city’s most recognized landmarks. Notable museums include Reykjavik’s art museum, Settlement Exhibition, and the National Museum, which will give you a good overview of Iceland’s unique history and culture. Shoppers should head straight to Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur Streets for some of the best in Icelandic design and crafts. If you would like to experience a geothermal pool without going to the Blue Lagoon (see below), visit the Laugardalslaug complex, which also includes Reykjavik’s largest public swimming pool and the spa next door. History buffs — don’t miss a visit to Hofdi House, the setting of the famous meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan in the 1980s that marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
The Golden Circle
Iceland’s most popular itinerary can be done as a ‘day trip’ from Reykjavik, or from a hotel in the area such as ION Adventure Hotel.
The circle includes three of Iceland’s best known attraction. The good news is that all 3 are fairly close to each other and can be visited in one day. The downside is that the three locations get very crowded, especially in high season (June to August) and from 10am to 2-3pm the rest of the year. Visit early or late in the day to avoid the biggest crowds. The Golden Circle includes the Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the location of the first parliament in the world, going back over 1,000 years, to the time of the Vikings. Meetings were held outdoors, in a setting that combined government, courthouse, market, and social center. Take time to walk around the entire perimeter and the beautiful natural setting. Continue to Geysir, (gusher in Icelandic, where the word originated) to see the Great Geyser, active for over 800 years. The geyser shoots up every 10-15 minutes usually, and sends out a plume of hot springs to almost 100 ft up in the air. Very near Geysir is Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall, an amazing double cascade. Note – For photos, the best light is in the afternoon.
Beyond the Golden Circle, here are a few recommendations:
Northeast of Reykjavik:
Less than 2 hours’ drive from Iceland’s capital is the region of Husafell, a farming estate with a conveniently located hotel of the same name nearby. This area is a good ‘base camp’ from which to visit Hraunfossar, or the “Lava field waterfall”, with water gushing out from below layers of black lava. The big attraction in this area is the Langjokull Glacier, second largest in Iceland and the closest major glacier to Reykjavik. Although you can visit the glacier from either Husafell or Reykjavik in a specially-outfitted vehicle (regular cars and 4WDs cannot access the glacier), visit from Husafell to avoid the long drive from/to Reykjavik in one day. The glacier is impressive, an endless ocean of powder white snow in every direction, with mountains and rocky valleys in the distance. If you visit Langjokull Glacier, you MUST experience the “Into the Glacier” tour. This impressive, 1,000 foot (300 meters) long man-made maze of tunnels under the glacier’s icecap can be visited with an expert guide. The visit takes about 45 minutes, as you walk through the tunnels, which are lit by LED lights. If you visit, make sure you have a waterproof shell over your clothing to keep you dry, as the tunnel roofs leak constantly. On the way out of the glacier, hire a guide with the right vehicle to drive you through the Cold Valley, for beautiful vistas of Iceland’s barren interior and snow-capped mountains.
East of Reykjavik:
This less-visited region of Iceland has some of the country’s most beautiful waterfalls (foss in Icelandic). Start at Hjalparfoss, about 90 minutes’ drive East of Reykjavik. From here, visit Gjainfoss (less than 20 minutes’ drive) – don’t miss the entire hiking loop for fantastic views of the valley and various waterfalls tucked into the mountain. If you have the proper vehicle that can handle serious potholes and rocky roads, continue to Haifoss, Iceland’s third highest and stunning waterfall, which drops into a deep gorge. Beautiful site with two waterfalls cascading down the rocky cliffs. If you are up to it, follow the path down to the river, for a fantastic view of the waterfalls up close and personal. (The hike back up is demanding, but well worth it!). In the distance you will see the Hekla volcano, one of Iceland’s most active.
Southeast of Reykjavik:
This region has much to offer travelers. Instead of driving back and forth long distances, stay in a well-located hotel in this area, and tour from there. A great ‘base camp’ in this region is the new Skálakot Manor near the Skógarfoss waterfall (see more information in the next post).
Favorite sites & experiences in this area:
- Vestmannaeyjar (or West Man) Islands. These twelve volcanic islands are close to the coastline and were created by underwater volcanoes, which erupt regularly. (the newest island, Surtsey, popped out of the ocean in 1963). The islands are famous for an extraordinary eruption of the volcano in Heimaey Island in 1974, which forced the evacuation of the entire population in a matter of hours. Believe it or not, not a single soul perished, and many islanders returned to Heimaey once the lava cooled and the main town was inhabitable again. There is regular ferry service from Landeyjarhofn (30 minutes each way) and you can easily explore as a fun day trip. While in Heimaey, hike up to the top of the Eldfell volcano for great views, and visit the Eldheimar museum, showing houses that were buried by lava and left exactly as they remained. The most fun experience in Heimaey is to go on a “Rib Safari” a wild, high adrenaline ride on a big zodiac, with rock music blaring at top volume. Take the 2 hour safari, which will take you to all the islands, including secret caves and grottos, and guaranteed to make your heart race. Sometimes the boat goes so fast all you can do is stand and hang on for dear life – forget about sitting down.
- Volcano Central. There are 3 volcano-related experiences in this region. The first is to walk inside a large lava tube, deep into a dormant Raufarholshellier volcano, with a guide. (the guide will turn off all the lights when you are deep into the cave and you too will experience panic and claustrophobia until the lights come back up!). The second is to hike up to the lip of volcano, then drop down in a small elevator at unpronounceable Thrinhnukagigur volcano down a 400 foot deep shaft. The third option (much easier) is to visit the new Lava Centre in Hvolsvollur, a terrific new interactive museum that explains Iceland’s volcanic activity, earthquakes, and how it all works (great for children and restless teenagers). The staff can also arrange private tours.
- Glacier walk at Sólheimajokull ice field (part of the Myrdalsjokull Glacier). This is your other great glacier opportunity, totally different from Langjokull Glacier and much more accessible from a paved road. The site is well organized, including briefing, harness, crampons, helmet, and ice axe to navigate the icy path up/down the glacier. Rock and volcanic sand carried by the glacier on its way to the sea, as well as blinding white ice fields in the upper reaches of the glacier. Well worth the trip.
- Waterfalls. This region has a number of unique waterfalls, including Skógarfoss (a waterfall where you can actually walk all the way to the base), Seljalandsfoss (where you can walk behind the waterfall), and ‘secret’ waterfall, Kvernufoss (not far from Skálakot Manor). Tip: when visiting Skógarfoss, walk up the 400+ steps to the right of the waterfall, for a completely different view of the waterfall, as well as other cascades in the upper reaches of the river.
- Adventures. Ride around in an ATV over black sand beaches. Hop on a snowmobile for a wild ride over a glacier. Horseback ride to the edge of a glacier or to a waterfall. Hike on a number of beautiful trails for beginners or experienced hikers. There are many active/adventure options in this part of Iceland.
The most famous and best-known attraction in all of Iceland is the Blue Lagoon, about 45 minutes’ drive from Reykjavik and less than 15 minutes from Keflavik airport, Iceland’s main international gateway. The Blue Lagoon is an enormous outdoor thermal baths complex, located in a black lava field next to a large geothermal plant next door. The water is a mix of hot sea and fresh water, about 100F/38C year round. The lagoon is full of silica mud, which you can cover yourself with. The complex has a restaurant, indoor/outdoor bar, luggage storage, changing room, showers, and spa. In the summer months, the Blue Lagoon is open from 8am to midnight, and at other times, the complex is open for about 12 hours a day. Admission is 55 Euro to 78 Euro (depending on how many bells and whistles you want). A number of travelers make this their first or last stop in Iceland before going home. The site now offers two hotels (Silica and The Retreat). Needless to say, advance reservations a MUST!
Iceland Series Part 2
BY IGNACIO MAZA