Iceland is a Nordic island country located about halfway between North America and Europe, and it is an adventure traveler’s dream destination! Icelandair has several non-stop international flights from New York, Boston, Seattle, Denver, and DC (they fly from 16 US destinations in total) and you can even add an Icelandair Stopover, for up to 7 nights, at no additional cost en route to Europe. With some of the craziest scenery and wildest nightlife (did I mention that the Northern Lights are also viewable from Iceland?), Iceland is a must-visit destination for 2016.
Iceland is approximately 40,000 square miles (about the size of the state of Kentucky), where the majority of its approximately 325,000 inhabitants live in the capital and largest city of Reykjavík. This makes Iceland one of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe.
Visitors should spend a few nights in the bustling coastal city of Reykjavík (a 45-minute drive from the airport in Keflavík) and consider staying at the 101 Hotel. While tourism has been on the rise in Iceland over the past decade, hotels have been slow to catch up. Be sure to book your accommodations well in advance of your travels since the best properties tend to sell out fast.
While in Reykjavík, enjoy farm-to-table dining at incredible restaurants, including Fish Market, Matur og Drykkur, Snaps Bistro Bar, and Dill Restaurant. Make dinner reservations in advance as restaurants tend to be very small and only accommodate a limited number of seatings per evening. Many will do tasting menus, which is highly encouraged to take full advantage of local specialties, but can also take some time to enjoy the dining experience.
Reykjavík is easy to navigate, relatively small, and most of the shops and restaurants are located in the heart of the city (which line Laugavegur Street), so a rental car is not necessary for this portion of your itinerary. The best way to explore the city of Reyjkavík is by foot. There’s a free walking tour through CityWalk Reykjavík that departs daily from the center of town. Book this tour (online – and again, in advance of your arrival since spots book up fast) for the start of your trip to become well acquainted with the destination. The tour focuses on the history of Iceland, the evolution of the city, and Icelandic culture in general. Once you get a good lay of the land, you can then experience Reykjavík on your own. Take in a sunrise or sunset atop the Hallgrímskirkja Church and snap beautiful panoramic photos of the city. Other things to do include visiting the charming Skogár Folk Museum to learn about life in Iceland and shopping for local unique goods such as wool, sheepskin, lava salt, ceramics, and art. Reykjavík is famously dubbed the “Nightlife Capital of the North” and it sure lives up to its name. Plan to enjoy all that the city has to offer after dark by experiencing the Reykjavík Nightlife Bar Crawl via Wake Up Reykjavík – a fun experience you’ll be sure to remember (if the last rounds of shots don’t get to you).
You’ll then want to leave the bustle of Reykjavík behind in order to gain a unique perspective on the rest of Iceland's landscape, which is often referred to as the “Land of Fire and Ice.” From exploding geysers and thundering waterfalls to steaming hot pools and rugged ponies, you can experience it all!
From your hotel in Reykjavík, book a private Super Jeep tour of the Golden Circle, a route outside Reykjavík that passes some of the country’s most-visited tourist attractions, like the Gullfoss waterfall and the geysers. A stop in the geothermal Haukadalur valley will reveal the Great Geysir and Strokkur geysers, where boiling water erupts every ten or so minutes up to 65 feet into the air. Next, enjoy a visit to the dramatic Gullfoss waterfall and a stop at Thingvellir National Park. For a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, you can dive between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates at the Silfra rift within the park. You’ll be submerged into one of the clearest waters in the world – pretty unbelievable! Don’t worry about the freezing cold glacial water; your dry suit will keep you warm. If you’re visiting during the summer months, go for a midnight dive between the plates when the sun will still be shining bright.
After a full day of exploring, head to the ION Luxury Adventure Hotel in Selfoss, which is not far from the Golden Circle, yet far enough outside the city to experience some rest and relaxation. The bare-chic property overlooks Mount Hengill (a massive volcano) and vast lava fields and hot springs. ION, which is part of the Design Hotels consortium and is built out of green and sustainable materials, does not disappoint. The abandoned inn turned luxury hotel is well situated, allowing guests to explore various parts of the country, including the famous aurora borealis – also known as The Northern Lights.
Book a private evening expedition on a Super Jeep to see this phenomenon, which the hotel can arrange. The Northern Lights are a key Icelandic attraction in the winter months and is sure to top your bucket list! If you’re lucky enough, you might even see this natural wonder from the hotel’s aptly named Northern Lights bar or the open-air deck at the back of the property featuring a natural, heated pool with water from the hot springs. It doesn’t get any better than viewing this nocturnal fireworks show from the comforts of a hot tub!
During the winter months, the hotel can arrange for snowmobiling on the Langjökull glacier, dogsledding, horseback riding, ice climbing, and backcountry skiing. That said, a lot of the outdoor attractions in Iceland are better enjoyed in the summer, when it’s much warmer and brighter, with nearly around-the-clock hours of daylight. If you’re visiting in the winter and want to explore, be careful if you’re renting a car. Roads are often closed due to extreme weather conditions and the weather is often very unpredictable. Be sure to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle if exploring on your own and consult with the locals.
A trip to Iceland wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a geothermal spring, the most well-known being Grindavík's Blue Lagoon. While some might suggest skipping this “tourist trap,” only a certain number of visitors are allowed in per day making the experience very enjoyable. Book tickets in advance (spring for a Premium access pass to skip the entrance line) and pack some extra towels and your hotel’s bathrobe to truly enjoy the relaxation and comforts of the lagoon (just make sure to bring the robe back). During your time at the lagoon, indulge in a silica face mask (fun photos!) and enjoy lunch at the on-site restaurant, Lava. Again, you’ll want to pre-book your meal reservation and definitely consider dining in your plush terrycloth robe.
Iceland is fast becoming a year-round vacation destination and tourism is growing at a rapid rate every year. To avoid running into jam-packed bus tours and to enjoy the better hotels and restaurants, a visit in the spring, fall, and even the cold winter months (which don't see much daylight but have great viewings of The Northern Lights – plus, the Icelandic are avid Christmas and New Year’s celebrators) is suggested.
Photos courtesy of Whitney Spielfogel