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Iceland Travel Guide

Iceland Summary

Pros

Cons

  • Given Iceland’s surge in popularity, tourist spots can get crowded
  • Food and drinks are expensive
  • Hot water has a sulfuric odor, making drinking and showering unpleasant
  • Though summer is warm, winds can be brutal (and the Northern Lights are best in winter)
  • Weather conditions fluctuate quickly, so you'll always need to pack for four seasons

What It’s Like

If it seems like everyone has been to Iceland recently, it’s because they have. Topping many a where-to-travel list (and flooding many an Instagram feed), this Nordic country is no longer a hidden vacation destination, but that makes it no less appealing -- so long as you’re OK with crowds. Those arriving by air will likely start their journey in Reykjavik. The compact capital city has a vibrant music and cultural scene (the Hallgrímskirkja church is a must-visit), however it’s Iceland’s stunning, natural wonders that make it a bucket-list getaway for many.

The Northern Lights are perhaps the biggest draw of the land of fire and ice. You’ll need three key ingredients to spot this magnificent light show: complete darkness, clear skies, and stellar solar activity. Mid-October through March, when nighttime hours are longest, offer optimal visibility. But, a trip during that time certainly doesn't guarantee that you'll spot them. Thankfully, there's plenty else to see all over the island.

The Blue Lagoon, arguably the second-most iconic tourist draw aside from the Aurora Borealis, is just 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik. Many travelers will make a pit stop at the geothermal spa on their way to or from the airport. Interestingly, the hot, icy-blue-hued pool surrounded by volcanic rock and ice-capped mountains is not a natural phenomenon -- the therapeutic sulfuric water originates from a nearby geothermal power plant. That (and the crowds) can be a bit of a let down, but the country certainly isn't lacking in all-natural gems.

Rugged fjords, dramatic waterfalls pouring off towering cliffs, otherworldly glaciers, and steamy hot springs offer a diverse landscape for such a modestly-sized nation. The country is also home to many national parks -- including Thingvellir, Snaefellsjokull, and Vatnajokull -- that shelter some of Iceland’s most spectacular scenery. Vatnajokull, a glacier in the southern part of the island, can be accessed from the Ring Road (or Route 1), a 828-mile loop that encircles the country. That park is also home to the 65-foot Svartifoss, a waterfall that crashes down basalt cliffs and is a geometric feast for the eyes. In the summer, guided tours bring adventurous hikers across the icy landscape, and during winter, visitors can explore crystal-blue ice caves. Jokukarlson, a nearby glacial lagoon, adds to the winter wonderland setting with floating icebergs. 

Alternatively, the Golden Circle, a popular route in southern Iceland, offers a few greatest hits: Thingvellir National Park and the geothermal area in Haukadalur, as well as the cascading Gullfoss waterfall. Other Golden Circle-adjacent must-see spots are the 210-foot Seljalandsfoss (which you can hike behind) and the 200-foot Skogafoss (which has an adjacent staircase that takes visitors above the falls for an awe-inspiring view).

And though Iceland isn’t the first country that comes to mind when considering a beach vacation, the destination is in fact home to some stunning sandy stretches. Reynisfjara, near Vik, is a dramatic black-sand beach that stretches over a mile and features impressive rock formations and geometric basalt cliffs. A cave lies adjacent to the columns and makes for a great photo op. Diamond Beach -- named for the fragments of ice that lie scattered on the shore -- can also be explored. Many travelers also make their way to Sólheimasandur, a wrecked plane on a desolate black sand beach.

There are 30 active volcanoes and roughly 100 dormant ones on the island, many of which can be viewed from ground-level or by helicopter. Thrihnukagigur Volcano, which can be entered, has been dormant for thousands of years, so you can breathe easy. Snæfellsjökull Volcano, on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, is also drop-dead gorgeous, as is Krafla Volcano’s blue crater lake in northern Iceland (the latter is still active).

Though much of the scenery here seems out of this world, it’s all quite accessible. Affordable and convenient nonstop flights from the East Coast of the U.S. make visiting Iceland doable for a range of budgets. However, keep in mind that you'll be paying a premium for food and drink once you're on the ground. Likewise, hotels aren't cheap. Renting a car is hands-down the most convenient way to see the country, though keep in mind that roads can be tough to navigate, especially in the winter. Off-roading and mountain roads should be left to the experts.

Where to Stay:

While it may seem tiny, Iceland certainly isn't the smallest island on the planet. That fact, coupled with sometimes far-flung destinations and unpredictable weather, make deciding where to stay a bit of a challenge. Of course, you can make Reykjavik your home base -- the city has enough to keep travelers busy for a few days, and it's within reasonable striking distance of some of the island's major sights, which are clustered along the Golden Circle. The city is also relatively close to the airport and the Blue Lagoon. 

If you're looking to get outside of the main tourist circuit and explore the rest of Iceland, you'll likely be following the Ring Road to do so. It's generally recommended to give this several days, despite technically only clocking in at just over 800 miles. You'll find hotels dotted in towns along the road, particularly around Egilsstadir and Akureyri. The scenery gets particularly dramatic in the island's east, where you may go for miles without seeing another car. For travelers who have a bit less time, the Golden Circle is packed with hotel options, all within a relatively short drive of Reykjavik and the airport. 

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