Bundle up and head out for these four magical must-sees on the Nordic island country where lunar landscapes meet urban delights.
Wonder of the world
Savvy travellers pre-book the airport bus so that on arrival at Keflavik International Airport they can head directly to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon for some soothing post-flight hydrotherapy. Unlike many popular tourist destinations, the Blue Lagoon truly lives up to the hype. The lagoon, a large geothermal pool where waters are between 37 and 40 degrees Celsius, features an array of naturally occurring silica, algae, and minerals that will leave skin feeling smooth and body and soul relaxed. Though the Blue Lagoon is pricier than many of the island’s other geothermal springs, it’s well worth the cost for the unforgettable experience and the well-organised set-up that includes changing rooms and showers, on-site restaurants, and a gift shop that even sells plastic mobile phone covers so that social mediaphiles can share their geothermal moments with the world. Prices start at €40 through various operators; pre-booking is required.
No visit to Iceland is complete without a stroll through eminently walk-able and compact Reykjavik, the world’s northern-most capital. On the shores of its harbour lies one of the city’s architectural highlights, the Harpa Concert Hall. Co-designed by renowned Danish-Icelandic visual artist Olafur Eliasson, the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre is comprised of futuristic-looking cubes of glass that make the light refract and dance in a magical way. Home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera, Harpa is open to the public and has on-site galleries, gift shops, a café, and restaurants including Kolabrautin, which serves up fresh Icelandic ingredients with a Mediterranean twist.
Where continents meet
At Þingvellir National Park, which can be viewed as part of the Golden Circle Tour or visited separately, the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and separate on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Well-marked paths take walkers from the well-stocked gift shop and café to Alþing; a wooden viewing platform marks the spot where the national parliament of Iceland was first established in 930 and continued to meet – outdoors – until 1798. Against the backdrop of the black lava Almannagjá gorge, the open-air assembly is just one of the many highlights of this World Heritage site, which is about 50 kilometres from the capital.
For a one-day tour of Iceland’s geographic highlights, the Golden Circle Tour can be made by car or bus. The popular route takes adventurers to the Gullfoss waterfalls and the eHaukadalur geothermal area. At the latter, geyser Strokkur (pictured) erupts about every six to ten minutes at heights of up to 20 metres, drawing a seemingly permanent crowd of onlookers. Walking towards the Gullfoss waterfalls, it first appears as though the Hvítá (White) River simply vanishes into the earth. Like many of Iceland’s natural sights, there’s also a surprise in store here as the very powerful waterfall – 2000 cubic metres per second fed by the second biggest glacier Langjökull – comes rushing down the ravine.
Good to know
Since the 2008 currency crash, the overall level of prices has dropped. But Iceland is not a cheap destination – it is an island and many items have to be shipped in. In 2015 it was ranked as the world’s fourth most expensive country to live in.
117 Iceland Krona = 1 euro
Population: 330,000 people
Laugavegur – Reykjavik’s main shopping, bar, and nightclub street – offers an excellent selection of boutiques that sell Icelandic wares ranging from fashion and accessories to outdoor gear and crafts. For one-stop shopping, Iceland’s oldest and largest bookseller Eymundson stocks a great selection of magazines and books such as bestselling author Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson’s compact Iceland Small World, as well as sensible souvenirs from locally-made chocolate to woollen hats, mitts, and baby booties. Further down the same street, café Joe & the Juice provides a good spot to stop for a fresh fruit or veggie smoothie and, of course, a cup of Joe. eymundsson.isStreet art
Though graffiti is forbidden, street art is welcome in Reykjavik and is created together with home or building owners. In the city centre, the streets in and around the main thoroughfare of Laugavegur host a lively range of murals, adding just the right artistic edge to the creative city on the sea.
The popular Icelandic saying is apt: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” Year-round, it’s advisable to pack waterproofs and warm clothing that can be layered up or down depending on the temperature: The average Reykjavik temperature is about 0 degrees Celsius in December and 10-13 degrees Celsius in July. Good walking shoes are recommended.
Text by Katja Pantzar Photos by Ragnar Th Sigurdsson and Katja Pantzar
This article is published in the January 2017 issue of Blue Wings.