Rick Steves Iceland is one of just two Rick Steves guidebooks (along with Istanbul) that has its own “Experiences” chapter. That’s because here in the land of fire and ice (and puffins), visitors enjoy experiences they can’t have anywhere else. This post — the grand finale of my Iceland blog series — is a roundup of 10 Icelandic experiences you should not miss. As always, thanks to our co-author, Ian Watson, who taught Rick and me everything we know about Iceland. And thanks for following along with my series. Goða ferð!
Experience a volcanic landscape.
Iceland sits smack in the middle of the Mid-Atlantic Range, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are constantly pulling apart. This line — carving a lopsided “X” through the middle of Iceland — is where you’ll find Iceland’s many volcanic and geothermal sights, from the famous Blue Lagoon spa to the simmering plain of Geysir, and from to the geothermal sights around Lake Mývatn to Eyjafjallajökull (the volcano that halted European air travel in 2010). The odds of seeing an active volcano during your visit to Iceland are slim (but not nonexistent). However, signs of past volcanic activity — and ongoing geothermal mischief — are everywhere. Iceland’s best museum about volcanoes is in the Westman Islands: Eldheimar Museum, built around a family home that was swamped by liquid rock during a 1973 eruption, and left just as it was when they fled. Outside, you can hike along a jagged ridge, noticing street signs marking where (50 feet below your feet) residential streets once ran. And you can even summit the still-warm volcano itself, which slumbers over the town it nearly wiped out.
Cruise a glacier lagoon and stroll “Diamond Beach.”
Southeast Iceland’s gobsmacking glacier lagoons (Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón) are some of the most stunning sights in all of Iceland. You can ogle the bobbing icebergs from shore, or go for a trip on a RIB (rigid inflatable boat). You’ll bundle up and cruise across the frigid water, ogling the deep-blue hue of newly calved glaciers. Then your captain leans over and hauls in a giant chunk of 500-year-old-ice for everyone to touch.
And just across the road from Jökulsárlón is another great sight that might even rival the lagoon itself: the so-called “Diamond Beach,” where those bobbing icebergs wash up on black sands on their last stop before being swallowed up by the open Atlantic. Diamond Beach looks like thousands of gigantic precious stones, tumbled by the turgid river, sprinkled across an endless expanse of black velvet.
Get to know a puffin.
In downtown Reykjavík, you can’t escape the puffins…in stuffed-animal form. As the unofficial mascot of Iceland, puffins are everywhere. Puffins live most of their lives adrift in the Atlantic, coming ashore only during the summer breeding season (usually from late May or early June until late August). if you’re in Iceland during those summer months, there are ample opportunities to see puffins in nature. Reykjavík has several companies offering birdwatching cruises to the so-called “Puffin Island” (Akurey), where the adorable birds roost. But the Westman Islands, with the largest puffin population in the world, is Iceland’s best puffin destination. And even outside of summer, you can be all of guaranteed of meeting a real-live puffin at the Westman Islands’ aquarium. This is the home of Tóti, a puffling who couldn’t take flight, and has since been rehabilitated and adopted by the museum. Tóti waddles around the exhibits, thrilling visitors with a close puffin encounter.
Hang out in a fjordside village.
Iceland has no real cities outside of Reykjavík (the “second city,” Akureyri — with just 18,000 people — feels like a small town). And yet, Iceland is surprisingly cosmopolitan; even ridiculously remote “backwaters” can be unexpectedly on-trend. One of my favorite examples is a little village of 670 people on the far-eastern fjords of Iceland, about as far as you can get from Reykjavík — Seyðisfjörður. Buried at the deepest point in a claustrophobic fjord, Seyðisfjörður is the only place in Iceland tethered to the outside world (by a ferry line to Denmark). A top-quality sushi restaurant sits across the rainbow-painted main street from an enticing microbrew pub. And just up the fjord is a funky bar/pizzeria downstairs from an art gallery. The bartender explained that, in the 1950s, a German artist moved to Seyðisfjörður and opened an art academy. And today, students come here from all over the country— and around the world — to study art and be inspired by Iceland’s majesty. Exploring places like Seyðisfjörður gives me a new appreciation for the can-do pioneer spirit that has kept Icelanders thriving since the first settlers sailed here in the Viking Age. Other delightful fjordside villages worth lingering in are Borgarnes, Húsavík, and Siglufjörður.
Splurge on a quality Icelandic meal.
Iceland’s high prices force many visitors into subsiding on hot dogs and groceries (and occasionally, on a dare, suffering through a bite of the notorious “rotted shark”). But if you cheap out on all of your meals, you’ll miss the fact that Iceland has an excellent food scene…no, really! Set aside enough of your food budget to splurge at least once at a quality restaurant where you can experience what top Icelandic chefs are doing today. As a compromise, consider doing your splurge at lunchtime, when even the most expensive restaurants have relatively affordable lunch specials in the $25-35 range. I had a memorable blowout dinner at Grillmarkaðurinn, in Reykjavík, but for other ideas — and an overview of what makes Icelandic food so enticing — see my post about Icelandic food.
Relax in hot water.
Many Iceland-bound travelers are familiar with the famous Blue Lagoon lava-rock spa. But that’s just the beginning of Iceland’s thermal bathing culture. Imagine ending each long day of sightseeing, hiking, and driving with a long soak in hundred-degree water. Aaaaahhh! Your choices range from “premium” thermal baths (my favorite is Mývatn Nature Baths, in the North), to hot springs that require a hardy one-hour hike, to municipal swimming pools where Icelanders gather with family and friends, and tourists find they’re outnumbered. If you need to escape from Iceland’s chill, or just recover from a busy day of Icelandic experiences, you’re never more than a short drive from a thermal bath. For all the details, check out my “Blue Lagoon and Beyond” post.
Geek out at an obscure museum.
Iceland does museums exceptionally well — even in the farthest reaches of the country. For example, one of my favorite sightseeing experiences in all of Iceland is the Herring Era Museum in little Siglufjörður, two hours away from just about anything, clinging to an almost-Arctic pinnacle of the North Coast. I never thought I could be fascinated by the herring industry. But this wonderful museum achieved that feat. In a trio of rustic buildings, thoughtfully designed exhibits explain how shoals of herring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created a huge industrial boom in this little town — singlehandedly generating half of Iceland’s GDP and arguably helping bring about Icelandic independence, by making the country economically viable. In the attic of the salting station, you can walk through the dorms of the “herring girls” who came to Siglufjörður to work round-the-clock during the brief summer herring season. Walking between the bunkbeds and still-set tables, you feel like the workers have just stepped away for their shift. The Herring Era Museum is just one of dozens of unaccountably riveting sights scattered around Iceland; other favorites include the open-air folk museum of turf houses at Glaumbær, the Whale Museum in Húsavík, the state-of-the-art Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur on the South Coast, the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes, and the Icelandic Emigration Centre in Hofsós.
Appreciate the midnight sun…or the northern lights.
For hyperactive sightseers, it’s a thrill visiting Iceland in the summer, when it never really gets dark. You could spend the morning splashing around the Blue Lagoon, then have lunch and putter around Reykjavík, before heading out in the mid-afternoon for a long day trip into the countryside (such as the Golden Circle). The sun technically sets, but dawn commences before twilight is complete. (In fact, summertime road-trippers are in danger of falling asleep at the wheel, because it’s so easy to lose track of how late it’s getting.) But the one disadvantage of visiting when it never gets dark is that you certainly won’t see the northern lights. For that, you’d have to come in winter — when (if you’re lucky, and it’s not too cloudy) you may get a glimpse of those mysterious dancing lights in the sky. Coming twice — once in summer, once in winter — is not a bad option. (For the pros and cons of off-season travel, see my post on itinerary tips.)
Appreciate Reykjavík’s street art.
Reykjavík has a salty harbor and some fine museums. But my favorite activity in the Icelandic capital is simply strolling and appreciating its endearing ambience. Reykjavík’s funky artistic spirit comes with some of the most eye-pleasing street art anywhere — the work of well-respected local artists, who are invited to paint blank walls before they can be tagged with ugly graffiti. Another fun Reykjavík pastime is to go on a scavenger hunt for little plastic action figures, which a local prankster nicknamed “the Toyspreader” has glued to signs all over the city center. For more on the Icelandic capital and its street art, check out my Reykjavík post.
Ford rivers in a monster-truck bus and hike high above the Valley of Thor.
Our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook focuses on destinations that can be easily reached with a two-wheel drive car. But we also include coverage of one of Iceland’s more difficult-to-reach hiking destinations, Þórsmörk — the “Valley of Thor.” While it’s only about 15 miles as the crow flies from the dramatic Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the South Coast, getting there is part of the adventure — you’ll need to ford several gritty rivers filled with milky glacial melt. If you don’t have a four-wheel-drive car, no problem: Various companies offer day excursions into Þórsmörk, on tour buses with gigantic monster-truck tires. After a long, slow, bumpy ride — thundering through of streams and rivers, windshield wipers flipping furiously to and fro — the bus deposits you at the base of some of the most rewarding hiking trails in Iceland. Summiting the little peak called Valahnúkur (a moderately strenuous, 3-hour-round-trip hike), you look out over a starburst pattern of valleys separating glacier-topped dormant volcanoes.
These 10 experiences are just for starters. Head over to Iceland and make your own list. You won’t regret it.
In case you missed some of my other Iceland posts, here are all the links: