Iceland is known for its panoramic views and natural wonders. But in order to see it all, you have to explore the far corners of this mystical land. Use this guide to better understand the various regions, peninsulas, and landmarks of the northern island country.
As both the largest city and capital of Iceland, Reykjavík is much more than a destination. It’s a place characterized by incredible views, expansive landscapes, opportunities for adventure, and the largest marketplace in the country. In the winter months, Reykjavík boasts occasional snowfall and displays of the Northern Lights. The city also has a full calendar of cultural events, festivals, concerts, plays, and seasonal exhibitions. During the summertime, the capital truly becomes a city that never sleeps, as the nearly 24-hour daylight hours transform its daily life. Popular summertime activities include whale-watching, sea-fishing, horseback-riding, and day-tripping to nearby natural wonders.
The south of Iceland is comprised of several towns and villages, each with their own style, charm, and list of attractions. Selfoss is the largest town in the region, and offers a variety of shops, restaurants, bars, and entertainment options. Most towns are close to National Road 1, making them accessible and enjoyable. Southern Iceland also has some of the country’s most diverse natural wonders. With glaciers, volcanoes, geothermal areas, glacial rivers, waterfalls, black-sand beaches, meadows, marshes, untouched highlands, and lakes of all sorts, the south is set apart by its beauty. Rich with geothermal energy, this region is home to the famous Geysir as well, whose name has become a synonym for erupting hot springs around the world.
Each town in East Iceland is more distinct than the next. In some of the coastal villages, the influence of Iceland’s northern European neighbors is easily felt — the French had a tangible influence in the area of Fáskrúðsfjörður, where the road signs are still written in French as well as Icelandic, while the Norwegians influenced the architecture of Eskifjörður and Seydisfjörður.
Walking (with or without a guide) is a popular way to travel in East Iceland, as the hiking routes in this area are endless. East Iceland is also known for its calm weather, and is the only Icelandic region where you can spot reindeer from just about any location.
Agriculture is an important component of life in northern Iceland, and many of its towns are dependent upon fishing and food trade. Because of the varieties of food available, North Iceland offers a unique “village hopping” opportunity that is sure to provide a tasty culinary experience.
North Iceland is also home to an array of natural attractions, including Lake Mývatn, Hvítserkur cliff, Drangey Island, and Kolugljúfur canyon; places like Ásbyrgi, Hvitserkur, and Dimmuborgir; and waterfalls, such as Dettifoss, Goðafoss, and Aldeyjarfoss.
Additionally, the Northern Lights are exceptionally visible in the north, as there is little light pollution (it’s even said that if you stay for three nights between the months of September and April, you’re guaranteed to catch the Aurora Borealis).
Nicknamed the “Wild West of Iceland,” the Westfjords peninsula is a nature-lover’s dreamland. Although the region is home to a handful of sparsely populated villages, its landscape remains wild and untamed. The region is an excellent place to encounter gyrfalcons and sea eagles, as well as snowy owls, golden plovers, whimbrels, and redshanks. The Westfjords is also the land of the Arctic fox. These cute, but shy, mammals roam across other areas of Iceland as well, but your best chance of seeing them is in the Westfjords — especially on the Hornstrandir nature reserve, where they are protected from hunting and are relatively tame as a result. Between the sea and the mountains of Westfjords you’ll find a seemingly endless coastline, varying from precarious cliffs to beaches and boulders — so don’t forget to keep an eye out for interesting shells, stones, and glass, which you can take home as souvenirs.
West Iceland is best known for its historic Sagas, folklore, and tales that paint the country’s past. It’s home to Iceland’s “Circles,” as well as Glymur (Iceland’s highest waterfall), Hallmundarhraun (which includes Iceland’s longest and largest caves), Akranes’ Lighthouses, the three thousand islands of Breiðarfjörður, Deildartunguhver (Europe’s highest flowing hot spring), Reykholt (the home of the original book of Norse mythology), the Lava Field Waterfall, Kirkjufell (Iceland’s most photographed mountain), and the Snæfellsjökull glacier (a.k.a. the Center of the Earth).
There is also a network of well-maintained, marked trails all over West Iceland. So, if you’re looking for a trek, west is best!
THE SNAEFELLSNES PENINSULA
Situated to the west of Borgarfjörður, the Snæfellsnes peninsula is one of the few locations in Iceland that boasts both golden and pink beaches. With stretches of lava fields, gorges, waterfalls, and quaint villages, Snæfellsnes is a historic part of the country. It’s often called “Iceland in Miniature” because many national sights can be found in the area, including the Snæfellsjökull volcano, which is regarded as one of the main symbols of Iceland. With a height of 4,744 feet (1,446 meters), it is the highest mountain on the peninsula, and it has a glacier at its peak. There are a lot of interesting stories connected to the glacier — it is believed to be the meeting place of aliens and one of the seven chakras (energy centers) of the world. The mountain is also known for being the setting of the novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” by French author Jules Verne, and its surrounding area has been designated as one of the four national parks of Iceland. Local fishing villages and small towns on the northern shore of Snæfellsnes include Arnarstapi, Hellnar, Rif, Ólafsvík, Grundarfjörður, and Stykkishólmur.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
The Golden Circle (or, Gullni Hringurinn) is a popular travel route in southern Iceland, covering about 190 miles (300 kilometers) of looped road from Reykjavík to the southern uplands of Iceland and back. The three primary stops on the route are Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and the Geysir Geothermal Area — all equally stunning locations in southwest Iceland. These sites are renowned across the world and are all as spectacular as they are unique. None of them are further than a two-hour drive from Reykjavík, so all three can be visited in a single day. Other stops along the circle include the Kerið volcanic crater, the town of Hveragerði, the Skálholt cathedral, and the Nesjavellir and Hellisheiðarvirkjun geothermal power plants.
Visiting the Golden Circle on your own allows you to visit locations after-hours and explore exciting attractions further afield. Almost every tour company in the Reykjavík area offers a Golden Circle excursion (from bus to bike, or super-Jeep), and these tours can often be combined with other sights as well.
THE RING ROAD
Iceland’s Ring Road encircles the entire country, covering over 800 miles on National Route 1. While you could technically drive the whole thing in less than 24 hours, realistically, it takes about a week. Although most of Iceland’s Ring Road is paved, road conditions vary greatly between the summer and winter months. Weather can be a factor any time of year though, as sudden changes are common in the area, and some roads can be treacherous or even impassable. The general rule of thumb is to take at least a week to drive the route in the spring, summer, or fall, and up to two weeks during the winter.
Note that although many of Iceland’s attractions are just off the Ring Road, there are also some main attractions in Iceland that are not. For example, neither the Golden Circle nor the Blue Lagoon are near the road. Additionally, the Ring Road does not include most of the fjords of East Iceland, Snæfellsnes peninsula, the Westfjords, or the Highlands. But, it does pass by popular towns, villages, and attractions in North Iceland, such as Húsavík, Ásbyrgi, Dettifoss, Siglufjörður, and Hofsós. That said, there are plenty of sights along the way, and you’ll have more than enough opportunity to explore the countryside on foot.
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) is a historic site and national park in Iceland, just east of Reykjavík. It’s best known for the Alþing (Althing), which was the site of Iceland’s parliament from the 10th to 18th century. Þingvellir is a protected national shrine, and according to the law passed in 1928, the area will forever be the property of the Icelandic nation. The area also contains the Þingvellir Church and the ruins of old stone shelters, and the park itself sits in a rift valley of rocky cliffs and fissures on a tectonic-plate boundary. Today, Þingvellir is one of the most frequently visited areas in the country. Each year, thousands of visitors enter the grounds to become better acquainted with Iceland’s greatest historical site.
Eyjafjallajökull, which translates to “the island’s mountain glacier,” is one of the smaller ice caps in Iceland. The ice cap covers the caldera of a volcano with a summit elevation of 5,417 feet (1,651 meters), and includes many outlet glaciers as well. Its main outlet glaciers lie to the north: Gigjokull, which flows into Lonid, and Steinholtsjokull, which flows into Steinholtslon. The volcano has erupted relatively frequently since the last glacial period, most recently when it made international headlines and disrupted air traffic around the world in 2010. After the last eruption, Eyjafjallajökull was considered dormant, but evidence of its aftermath can still be seen in Thorsmork Glacier Valley — the natural oasis that lies just beyond the volcano. You can also see that part of the ice cap is covered in ash, though it is slowly disappearing under layers and layers of new snow.
Header image by Steinar Þór Ólafsson.