Iceland is home to the largest glaciers in Europe, as well as some of the world’s most active volcanoes. Its location, just off the Arctic Circle, means long summer days with almost 24 hour sunlight and short winter days, with almost no sunlight at all. The winter nights make up for the lack of sunlight, with one of nature’s most spectacular exhibitions of beauty; the Aurora Borealis.
There are many ways to see Iceland, however we would recommend a cruise if you are hoping to see many of the best sites in a fairly limited period of time. Iceland is vast and difficult to travel across in the winter months. Some areas, such as the Westfjords are always hard to reach by land. We traveled to Iceland on Cruise and Maritimes Voyages’ Iceland and the Northern Isles itinerary, however many companies now visit this part of the world, including luxury cruise lines, such as Silverseas.
Make sure to choose the right time of year for your visit too. We visited in Spring and were delighted to find icicles on the waterfalls and everything covered in snow. However, a few excursions had to be cancelled, as some roads were closed due to heavy snowfall and transportation became impossible. Despite this, we would still choose this time of year for a visit; there is something very magical about Iceland when it snows!
Whichever way you choose to visit the Land of Fire and Ice, here are some of the places that we recommend you see…
The Golden Circle, Southwest Iceland
It is usually at the top of every tourist’s list and it really is worth it. The Golden Circle consists of: Þingvellir National Park, the Geysers at Haukadalur Valley and Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall. All three of these places are simply spectacular and steeped in history. Of course, each of these places can also be visited independently should you wish to spend more time exploring, or hiking the surrounding areas.
Gullfoss, meaning golden waterfall, is located on Route 35, in the southwest of Iceland and near to the area known as the Land of Boiling Waters. It is a unique natural phenomenon and its conservation, and thereby its existence in its present form, has a unique history.
Haukadalur Valley, known as the Land of Boiling Waters, is a very active geothermal area in the southwest of Iceland. The valley is home to a multitude of mud pools, fumaroles and algal deposits. Walking trails lead visitors through steaming vents turquoise pools and glistening, multicoloured mud formations.
Þingvellir National Park is a historic and geological wonder located in the fields north of Þingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland. It is a place of outstanding natural beauty, with its stunning lake, lava landscape and the rugged chasm walls on the Almannagjá (meaning everyman’s chasm) rift, where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates are pulling apart by a few centimetres (almost an inch) each year.
Make sure to visit the centre of Reykjavík and it’s most important landmark, Hallgrímskirkja Church, which was designed to resemble volcanic basalt columns. Inside the church visitors can take the tiny lift and then the stairs to the top of the 73 metre (240 foot)-high tower to enjoy the views of Reykjavík and the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
For the best panoramic views of Reykjavík, take a trip to Perlan, a modern building constructed on top of glistening silver hot water storage tanks on the brim of Öskjuhlíð hill, that is visible from almost any point in the city.
The old wooden church of Seyðisfjörður, known as the Blue Church, is one of the main attractions of this town. In 1920 the church was moved across the fjord to its current location. Close to the church is a rock that is said to be inhabited by elves. According to local legend, the rock sailed after the Church across the fjord, as the elves missed the beautiful church music. During the summer, musical concerts and recitals are held here each week.
Jewels of the North, North Iceland
The north of Iceland’s answer to the Golden Circle is the ‘Jewels of the North’, which includes: Goðafoss, Skútustadagígar Pseudo Craters, Lake Mývatn, the Lava Field of Dimmuborgir and Hverir. Some of the locations are arguably even more spectacular than those in the Golden Circle and also well-worth a visit, with the added benefit that they are situated close to the beautiful Capital of North Iceland, Akureyri. Tours from Akureyri visit all five locations in one day but, of course, each site could be visited independently.
Goðafoss, meaning the ‘waterfall of the gods’, is spectacular, especially when it is covered in snow and icicles! It is located in the Mývatn region, near the town of Akureyri and both the waterfall and its name have a rich history.
The skútustadagígar pseudo craters are a unique geological phenomenon, located south of Lake Mývatn. The pseudo craters were formed when water that was trapped beneath flowing lava, boiled and burst up through the surface, creating what looks like volcanic cones. Some were so recently formed that their sides are still charred. A group of these pseudo craters at Skútustaðir are protected as a Natural Monument.
The Mývatn region is one of the most volcanically active places on earth. Located around 90 kilometres from Akureyri and not far from Krafla Volcano, the area was formed after a powerful basalt lava eruption over 2,300 years ago. Nowhere else in Iceland can the same combination of craters, fresh lava fields, hot springs, geysers and bubbling mud pools be found.
The lava field of Dimmuborgir, meaning black castle, is an amazing landscape that was created over 2,000 years ago. The contorted lava formations are made up of volcanic pillars, columns and arches, some extending as high as 20 metres. Known as the ‘Dark Cities’, the lava formations resemble an elvish city, complete with a cathedral.
The famous geothermal field of Hverir, next to the mountain of Námafjall, is one of Iceland’s most infernal and fascinating sights. Walkways run across the multicoloured clay of the area, through dozens of bubbling mud pits and steaming vents.
Vigur Island is a small, private island that can be reached by boat from Ísafjörður. During Spring and Summer it becomes the nesting place for countless birds including puffins, arctic terns and black guillemots. A guided tour of the island will take you past the nesting colonies and show you how eider down is collected. This is a great spot to photograph the birds!