Iceland’s oldest settlement is now a modern and vibrant city with many restaurants, nightclubs and cafes. Reykjavik was first settled in the late ninth century by Iceland’s first settler Ingolfur Arnarson who gave the place its name, meaning “Smoky Bay”, after the misty geothermal steam he saw rising from the ground. Today, it heats homes and outdoor swimming pools throughout the city – a pollution-free energy source that leaves the air outstandingly fresh, clean and clear.
The best way to get to know Reykjavik is to take to the streets. Iceland's entire population only numbers little more than 350,000, so it comes as no surprise that Reykjavik is one of the world's smallest capitals. Despite this, it's a charming place to explore, with an incredibly efficient public bus system. You can also feed the swans and ducks on Tjornin Pond next to the City Hall, ride the elevator to the top of the imposing Hallgrimskirkja Church for an incredible view of the city, or explore the colourful neighbourhoods of Thingholt and Vesturbaer.
Opened as a power plant in 1976, the Blue Lagoon is now one of Iceland’s most visited attractions for relaxing, bathing and skin treatments. This geothermal spa is set in the middle of a lava field and the inviting turquoise green waters reaching an average temperature of 37–39 °C are a blissful place to rejuvenate the senses with natural silica, algae, and mineral enriched mud. Just a short drive from the airport and Reykjavik city means no trip to Iceland would be complete without a few hours spent here!
Our pick #3
The Golden Circle
Made up of Gullfoss, the geothermic valley of Haukadalur (containing Geysir and Strokkur geysers) and Thingvellir National Park is the Golden Circle, a 300 kilometre loop from the capital. Thingvellir National Park is home to the largest natural lake in Iceland, as well as being the site of the oldest parliament in the world. In 930AD the first Icelandic parliament was formed here and the site is now a protected area for the people of Iceland. Gullfoss known as the ‘Golden Falls’ is a two stage waterfall that plunges 32 metres. Probably the most exciting part of the Golden Circle is Stokkur geyser which erupts ever 5-10 minutes.
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Just a short drive from the capital of Reykjavik is the rugged Reykjanes peninsula. This beautiful area is full of dramatic coastline, fissure vents, mountains, quaint fishing villages and heaps of geothermal activity. It's little surprise that most visitors to Iceland explore this part of the country thanks to its easy access from the capital and its entrancing scenery. Take a walk along the pretty coastline and breathe in the gloriously fresh air. Look out for the abundant signs of seismic activity on the ground and explore the sparsely populated but friendly villages.
There's no shortage of waterfalls in Iceland but the gorgeous Seljalandsfoss is perhaps the country's best known. The falls tumble 60 metres over a rocky scarp that is often carpeted in vivid green moss and vegetation. Rainbows are a common sight on sunny days as the water spray catches the light and creates multi-hued arcs. But what makes Seljalandsfoss so popular is the chance to get behind the waterfall itself. A slippery path trails behind the sheet of falling water into a small cave from where you can look back out across the surrounding landscape. Just make sure you bring a raincoat!
Our pick #6
Vatnajokull National Park
Iceland's nickname as the "Land of Fire and Ice" is well deserved, and nowhere is this as evident as it is within Vatnajokull National Park. This extensive reserve covers 13% of Iceland's total land mass and is home to the largest ice cap in the world outside of the Arctic. Several active volcanoes are also located within its boundaries. Aside from the mighty glaciers and rugged mountain peaks ,there are powerful rivers, broad wetlands and black sands characterising the surrounds.
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It's not the kind of beach you'll ever plan a summer holiday around but that doesn't stop Reynisfara being one of south Iceland's most popular spots. The black-sand beach is yet another reminder of the land's intense volcanic activity over the millennia with lone, free-standing rock formations punctuating the wild coastline. The beach is backed by a cliff face where smooth, hexagonal basalt columns create the appearance of a large church organ, reminiscent of Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. Along the cliffs you can observe puffins busy around their nests while at low tide it's possible to explore the shallow caves beneath.
The capital of north Iceland barely constitutes a city yet delivers an urban experience not that far from what Reykjavik has to offer visitors. There are hip cafes, gourmet restaurants and popular bars, all overlooked by the hilltop Akureyrarkirkja church. Built by the same architect as Reykjavik's Hallgrimskirkja, the church is Akureyri's most prominent landmark. Thanks to a relatively small population of just 18,000 Akureyri has the charm of a rural town with an impressive setting to match, backed by snowcapped peaks and facing the Eyjafjörður fjord. It's what draws many people to this part of Iceland.
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If you venture away from the more heavily settled southern half of the island and head up to the northeast of the country, then you may come across Lake Myvatn, one of Iceland's real highlights. The shallow eutrophic was - like many geological formations in Iceland - created by volcanic activity with mud pools, expansive lava fields and steaming sulfuric springs just some of the results. The wetlands that envelop the lake are home to a rich offering of fauna, especially water birds, while further afield natural geothermal pools provide the chance for visitors to soak in mineral-rich waters. All this combined makes Lake Myvatn a fascinating microcosm of Iceland's natural diversity.
Our pick #10
In the west of the country just a few hours drive from the capital, the magical Snaefellsnes Peninsula is where the wild landscapes of Iceland are presented for all to enjoy. It's a popular weekend getaway spot from Reykjavik where you can admire the great forces of nature that are displayed in the weather-beaten shorelines, dramatic gorges and black lava fields. Unusually, this region of Iceland is also home to attractive gold-sand beaches where seal colonies reside and camping is popular with holidaying Icelanders. For those looking for more adventurous pursuits, the Snaefellsjokull offers glacial hiking throughout the summer.
Check out the following handy information to help plan your visit to Iceland: