Contrary to its name, Iceland is brimming with colorful, lively towns set in rolling green hills and atop black-sand beaches. And, there’s much more to the country than its capital city, Reykjavík. Today, we’re leaving the city to explore all that the small towns of Iceland have to offer!
Those interested in viewing and exploring the largest ice cap in Europe — known as Vatnajökull — should head to Höfn, which lies on the southeastern tip of Iceland. Translated as “harbor,” Höfn is a fishing town surrounded almost entirely by the sea. The geography here is worth exploring and photographing — as glacial rivers cut through the land, they created lagoons and reefs that are ever-changing and wild. Bird lovers will also enjoy visiting this town, as it’s a fantastic location for viewing seabirds like puffins, skuas, guillemots, and fulmar.
Located on the northern coast, Húsavik is said to have been the site of the first settlement in Iceland, back when the Vikings ruled the Nordic seas. As legend has it, the Viking sailor Svavarsson left a man and two slaves in present-day Húsavik. The three men established a farm, and slowly but surely, the town grew. Now, Húsavik is a major center for tourism, thanks to its reputation as being the preeminent location for whale-watching. Anther attraction in the town includes the famous green-roofed wooden church called Húsavíkurkirkja, built in 1907. Visitors should also check out both the Húsavik Whale Museum and the Exploration Museum.
Settled during the 9th century, and revitalized in the 16th as a trading post for seafaring merchants, Ísafjörður is the largest town on the Westfjords peninsula. Known for its witch trials, museums, and chilly tundra climate, Ísafjörður is also home to the oldest house in Iceland, which was constructed in 1734. The frigid temperatures of the area make it the ideal location for winter thrill seekers, and on top of that, the town hosts a Ski Week festival, a Swampsoccer championship, and an entire theatrical festival that pays homage to the art of monodrama — or, acting alone.
Literally translated as “seal pup bay,” the name of this small town promises sightings of these friendly creatures in Kópavogur’s chilly waters. Located directly south of Reykjavík, Kópavogur has plenty of attractions, including Kópavogur Church, the Kópavogur Art Museum, and gorgeous sunsets over the bay. Though Kópavogur is only home to 30,000 residents, it’s the second-largest town in Iceland.
Visit Selfoss, a mere hour from Reykjavík, during the summer, when the lush environs make the town a picturesque getaway. During the warmer months, the city comes alive and offers special events, such as its annual summer festival. Villagers decorate all of the buildings in town, perform in the public squares, and sell homemade goods (both handicrafts and food products) to other villagers or lucky visitors. Be sure to bring a camera on your trip to Selfoss, as the contrast of the water and the rolling hills is quite a sight.
Located on the easternmost side of Iceland, Seyðisfjörður is one of Iceland’s oldest villages. In fact, settlements and graves from the fjord have actually been carbon-dated back to the 8th century. Surrounded by mountains — notably Mt. Bjólfur in the west and Strandartindur in the east — Seyðisfjörður is the ideal location for those who like to be outdoors. Hiking opportunities in this particular village are incredible, as are the waterfalls you’re bound to see. The small town also boasts a thriving art scene, and its roughly 700 inhabitants are known to be welcoming and hospitable.
The northern town of Siglufjörður came to be because of its involvement in the herring industry, which boomed in Iceland in the 1940s and 50s. The herring population has since been depleted, but Siglufjörður still has its appeal. Those who enjoy winter sports should pay a visit to this tiny town, where you can ice skate, snowboard, cross-country ski, and even snowmobile. For a glimpse into the past, visit the Herring Museum and learn how the industry affected Iceland’s economy.
As the southernmost village in Iceland, and one of the most beautiful, Vík is home to just 200 inhabitants who get to call its black-sand beaches and rolling green hills home. Located in the shadow of a massive volcano, Vik is well-known for its towering cliffs, picturesque and colorful buildings, sea stacks of basalt rock, and puffin penguin communities. Located on the Ring Road, the drive to Vík is one visitors won’t soon forget.
Header photo by Whitney Justesen