Iceland is an amazing country that is full of beautiful nature, wonderful food, and inspiring art and culture. It is commonly known for its extremes and being "The Land of Fire and Ice". Not only is it home to more than 200 volcanoes but also a number of glaciers as well. Iceland has a harsh and stark landscape that is marked with many hot springs and geysers. (Did you know "Geysir" is Icelandic in origin?) Another Iceland extreme is that it is a land of light and dark. They have long summer days that last almost 24-hours of sunlight and very short winter days that are filled with darkness.
I visited this country for the first time in 2011 on accident. It was an unplanned layover on our way to Sweden but ever since that time, I have been fascinated with this country. I was determined to visit again but this time on my own terms so I made plans to go in the summer of 2015. I was there for only 3 nights and barely scratched the surface of what this country has to offer.
Iceland receives well over 1 million visitors a year but there are only 300,000 people who live in Iceland! Visitors come to this country to explore the harsh landscapes, soak in the hot springs, participate in the capital's nightlife, explore glaciers, view stunning waterfalls, gaze at the northern lights, dine on the unique cuisine, scuba dive between the continental plates, bird watching, whale watching, riding an Icelandic horse and much more.
I am often asked what is the best time of year to visit Iceland. My answer depends on what you want to see and do in Iceland! The best weather (and almost 24 hours of sun) happen in July and August but it is also the peak of the tourist season so the crowds will be the largest. You will also have a good chance at seeing whales in the summer too. However, if you want to see the Northern Lights, your best chances are in Sept/Oct and Feb/Mar. To avoid disappointment, travelers should never plan their trip to Iceland solely for the Northern Lights, because the island’s weather is too capricious (statistically, there are more clear nights in Yellowknife, Canada, for example.) The best way to optimize your chances of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is by going for several days and planning your Northern Lights excursion early in your trip so your tour guide can move it to another day if the weather is more cooperative.
Iceland's raw nature is sublime and there is no place like it on Earth.
Iceland is the youngest landmass in Europe as it was formed just 25 million years ago. It is also where the oldest parliament was formed in 930 AD.
Iceland is a volcanic island that is perched on the active Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are slowly pulling apart the country and adding about 5 cm / 2 inches of landmass per year. It is roughly the size of the state of Virginia and it is the 2nd largest island in Europe. Iceland is located just south of the Arctic Circle.
The country has about seven geographical regions and you can see most of them by driving the Ring Road (Highway 1). I suggest a 10-day tour around the island.
Southwest—The capital city is located on the Reykjanes Peninsula which dominates the region. It is also home to Iceland's international airport in the city of Keflavik and the Blue Lagoon which is Iceland's most popular tourist attraction. This area is a geothermal hot spot and much of the region's power is derived from this geothermal activity.
West—This is an area where culture, nature and history converge to create a unique experience for many travelers. It consists of fjords, valleys, waterfalls, craters, glaciers and volcanoes. The region is famous for Snæfellsjökull Glacier which has inspired writers, artists and poets through the years. In fact, it was the setting of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth.
West Fjords—This region is probably one of Iceland's best kept secrets. The Westfjords is isolated and consists of unspoiled wilderness. It is an ideal place for spotting birds, arctic fox, North Atlantic puffin and other unique fauna in their natural habitats.
North—This is home to Iceland's second-largest city, Akureyri, which is rich in art, culture and history. It is also home to Dettifoss, which is Europe's most powerful waterfalls. People go here to whale-watch and observe humpback whales. During summer visitors can take advantage of the midnight sun when they play in the Arctic Open.
East Fjords—This region is known for Europe's largest glacier (Vatnajökull) and it is home to Iceland's largest forest. It also has fishing villages, fjords, farmlands, natural harbors, herds of free-roaming reindeer and more.
South—This area is home to one of the most popular tourist attractions, the Golden Circle, which takes visitors to Thingvellier National Park (home to the world's first parliament), the impressive Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir, a geothermal area full of geysers. The active volcano Hekla, which last erupted in 2000, is also in this region as well.
The Interior—Otherwise known as the Highlands, Iceland's interior is uninhabitable and virtually inaccessible for centuries. This area is filled with rocky deserts, jagged mountain peaks, volcanoes, ice caps, valleys, and hot springs. The Highlands are primarily accessible only during summer and primarily via 4x4 tours or on horseback. Winter travel should not be done without a trained guide.
The land's history is beset by volcanic eruptions, most notably one that erupted continuously for about 10 months in 1783, belching poisonous gases that destroyed pastures and crops. Almost 75% of the country's livestock and 20% of the people died from the resulting famine. More recently, in 2010, an ash cloud disrupted air traffic across Europe for several weeks.
The interior of Iceland is so barren and moon-like that the Apollo astronauts did some of their training there. The area is classified as Europe's only desert.
Iceland is virtually treeless. The island's growing season is short and there is little topsoil, so the few trees that exist are small and grow very slowly.
Swimming is a way of life in Iceland. It's a compulsory part of the school curriculum. It's said that to find the pulse of the nation, visit one of the many geothermal pools, hot pots and saunas.
Icelanders all seem to be related—or at least know each other. Nearly everyone living in the country can trace his or her descent back to the settlers listed in a 14th-century book called Lannamabok (Book of Settlers).
Iceland is one of the most educated nations in the world, boasting 99.9% literacy. It also has one of the longest life expediencies and has the cleanest environments in Europe.
Most people visit Iceland for one or two nights on their stopover program on their way to or from another destination in Europe. That is what I did with my family but if you have more time to make Iceland your main destination, you will have no problem filling up a 10-night itinerary.
There are several options to travel in Iceland from escorted tours to self-sufficient, self-drive itineraries. The following is an escorted tour but it can easily be modified or customized to exactly what you want. You can also plant yourself in one or two cities and just take day tours for the places you want to go. The options are endless!
The following itinerary is courtesy of Iceland Travel.
With a specially adapted 4x4 mountain coach, you will travel off-the-beaten track through the uninhabited and vast highlands of Iceland, highlighted by the multi-colored mountains of the Landmannalaugar Nature reserve and the barren black sands of Sprengisandur. When combined with other major attractions such as Geysir geothermal area, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, and Dettifoss waterfall, this tour is sure to conquer the hearts of all first-time visitors, as well as those that have been here before!
With our flexible itinerary there’s always plenty of time to stop and fully appreciate the magnificence of Icelandic nature.
Maximum group size: 19 people (minimum of 2 to guarantee departure)
Important: Please note that good trekking shoes/hiking shoes are important on this tour.
* 9-day tour with driver-guide from/to Reykjavík
* 2 hotel nights w/facilities in Reykjavík
* 8 nights w/facilities in the countryside
* 8 dinners in the countryside
* Breakfast daily except arrival day
* Participation in Iceland Travel's Reforestation Project in Haukadalur (day 2)
* Entrance to Eriksstadir Museum (day 9)
Day 1: Arrival in Iceland
Highlights: Reykjavík, Hallgrímskirkja, Tjornin, Perlan, The Blue Lagoon
Optional: Airport transfer with Blue Lagoon on arrival -OR- Blue Lagoon Entrance and Extras -OR- Whale watching from Reykjavík
Day 2: Thingvellir – Gullfoss – Geysir
Highlights: UNESCO World Heritage site with Geological Wonders, The beautiful Golden Falls, Exploding Geysers, Plant a birch tree, Þingvellir, Gullfoss, Geysir
Day 3: Vik – Dyrholaey – Kirkjubaejarklaustur
Highlights: Thundering Waterfalls, Seabird Colony, Black Sand Beaches of the South Shore, Lava Fields, Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Mýrdalsjokull, Vík, Dyrhólaey
Day 4: Jokulsarlon – Skaftafell
Highlights: Glacial Lagoon with Icebergs, Scenic Glacial Park, Europe's Largest Glacier, Jokulsárlón, Oraefajokull, Mýrdalsjokull, Skaftafell National Park, Vatnajokull
Optional: Boat tour on the Glacial Lagoon
Day 5: Landmannalaugar
Highlights: Multi-colored Mountains of the Interior, Lava Fields, Hot Springs with Bathing, Hekla Volcano, Landmannalaugar, Thjórsárdalur
Day 6: Sprengisandur
Highlights: Wild Heart of Iceland and Black Sand Desert
Day 7: Tjornes – Asbyrgi – Dettifoss – Lake Myvatn
Highlights: Glacial River Gorge, Europe's Most Powerful Waterfall, Geothermal Wonderland, Rich Birdlife, Dettifoss, Ásbyrgi, Mývatn, Jokulsárgljúfur National Park, Húsavík, Krafla
Day 8: Akureyri – Skagafjordur
Highlights: Waterfall "Of the Gods", The Capital of the North, Viking Horses, Godafoss, Akureyri, Skagafjordur Fjord
Optional: Horse riding tour in Gauksmýri
Day 9: Hvammstangi – Eiriksstadir – Fellsstrond
Highlights: Historical Farmlands, Birthplace of Leif Eiriksson, Hvítserkur, Vatnsnes Peninsula, Eiriksstadir Viking Home
Day 10: Snaefellsjokull National Park
Highlights: Snaefellsjokull Glacier, Pebble Beaches, Sea Cliffs with Birdlife, Quaint Fishing Villages, Snaefellsjokull National Park, Stykkishólmur, Djupalonssandur, Arnarstapi, Hellnar
Day 11: Departure
Highlights: Reykjavík, Hofdi, Reykjavík City Museum, Kjarvalsstadir, National Museum
Optional: Airport transfer with Flybus Plus -OR- Airport transfer with Blue Lagoon upon departure -OR- Blue Lagoon Entrance and Extras