Iceland’s Wild Westfjords: Happy Icelanders and Filthy Cars at the End of the World

Iceland’s Westfjords dangle like a giant bunch of grapes from the northwest fringe of this rugged island. The region’s unpopulated northern reaches nearly kiss the Arctic Circle. Relatively few tourists make it up here — some say about one in ten, others say more like one in twenty. It’s remote, rustic, and as off the grid as you can get without a monster truck. And that’s why I’m going. The Westfjords are home to the world’s most impressive bird cliffs (Látrabjarg), rusted old boats and airplanes discarded along the side of the road, endless chains of jagged fjords and mountain passes, and one of Iceland’s most stunning waterfalls (Dynjandi).

As I’ll discover, it takes a special breed of traveler to visit the Westfjords…and a special breed of Icelander to live at the edge of the world. For being so sparsely populated — just over seven thousand people in an area about the size of Connecticut — the Westfjords have an unusually high concentration of happy people ready to chat your ear off. (Or maybe they’re just lonely.) For all its natural wonders, Iceland’s most underrated feature may just be the Icelanders themselves. A bit introverted, but warm, smart, and funny, the Icelandic people have a can-do spirit and an easygoing charm.

Ferry to the End of the World

I’m catching my ferry to the Westfjords from the main town of Snæfellsnes, Stykkishólmur. (I know, I know. But the more you travel through Iceland, the more you grow immune to its silly names.) Stykkishólmur is a tiny town, with about 1,200 people, but compared to where I’m headed, it feels like my last dose of “civilization” for a few days. I gas up my car and stock up on discount groceries at Bónus, then head to the harbor. It’s the first week of September — still prime time in most of Europe — but I’m getting the impression that here in Iceland, the busy summer season will be finished in a matter of hours, not weeks. I feel like I’m boarding the last chopper out of Saigon.

Stykkishólmur’s little harbor huddles behind a basalt islet, which protects the town from the surf of the wide Breiðafjörður. Colorful boats, tethered neatly to no-nonsense piers, bob upon the gentle swells. Of the row of food trucks lining the harbor, only one is open. There I’m warmly greeted by Martin, tall and lanky, with black curly hair. He seems lonesome and chatty — as if he’s been waiting all day for a customer. Perusing the menu, I settle on the lamb burger. “Sorry,” he shrugs, “We’re out of lamb. Actually, we’re out of almost everything. We’ll close for the season as soon as we use up our supplies. We do have some beef burgers left!”

A rousing endorsement. But I decide to help Martin use up his meat. “One, please.”

While he griddles up my burger, Martin tells me he’s from the Czech Republic — a small town in Moravia. He and his girlfriend came to Iceland, bought this truck, and have been slinging burgers here at Stykkishólmur’s harbor all summer. But the customers dried up a week or two ago. “When we signed the lease, it was for five and a half months. So we were optimistic. They didn’t tell us that the actual season is only about two months.”

Still, business has been brisk, and they’re satisfied. In a few days, he says, they’ll close up the truck and drive it 400 miles to the opposite end of Iceland — the tiny village of Seyðisfjörður — where they’ll catch the two-day ferry to Denmark, then drive the rest of the way back home. All in all, it’s about a week’s commute to end the season.

The burger’s ready. And it’s delicious — quality, locally sourced beef, pickles with a sweet Slavic punch, and perfectly seasoned. “Do you have Diet Coke?” He looks in the fridge. “Yep, last one!” I’m all too happy to help Martin zero out his inventory.

Wishing Martin luck, I head for the ferry. It’s a hulking beast of a ship, fittingly named Baldur — the Tom Brady of the Old Norse pantheon. The Baldur, which looks like it could be an Arctic icebreaker, feels too big for what is essentially a tourist vessel. But in the torrid Atlantic waters of northern Iceland, it’s not overkill.

The end-of-season closure extends to the on-board café, which is shuttered tight. The Baldur appears to be at about one-tenth capacity. Once the small number of cars have loaded up, beefy Baldur charges out into the Breiðafjörður. At first it’s calm. But after a half-hour, we hit some serious surf and the ship begins teetering up and down. Thank goodness for my cast-iron stomach.

An hour and half into the crossing, we pull up to a tiny, flat island — aptly named Flatey — in the middle of the fjord. It’s a famously remote place, with just a few colorful shiplap houses, a historic church, and year-round residents numbering in the single digits. As our gigantic ferry sidles up to the dock, an antique deckhand — who looks like Santa Claus, if he were a very skinny whaler — hobbles out and loops our anaconda-sized line around a cleat as big as a garbage can. They winch up a rusted gangplank on spindly wheels and attach it to the side of our ship, allowing two intrepid backpackers to walk off for their night on a desolate rock in the turgid bay. Fisherman Santa helps us untie our line and waves us a grizzled goodbye as we head back out to sea.

Two and a half hours into our journey, we approach a giant boat dock on an uninhabited fjord. A garbled announcement instructs us to return to our cars, so the few passengers on board head down into the bowels of the ship. We run into a closed door with a big sign telling us not to enter the car deck while the ferry is in motion. So we wait for someone to come give us the go-ahead. And we wait. And we wait. Until well beyond the point when it feels like we’ve stopped moving. Finally I grab the giant wheel on the door, give it a spin (as if retracting the periscope), and step through into the car deck…where the crew has been impatiently waiting for all of us to get our cars out of the way.

“I Think He’s Going to Pull Through!”

Driving off the ferry, I split off from the main flow of traffic. After two and a half hours of intense rocking, I’m in need of a little R&R, and I’ve scouted a thermal swimming pool hiding in a tiny settlement a few minutes’ drive away. Spotting the little “head poking above water” sign that promises a hot-water dip anywhere in Iceland, I pull up a gravel road to a little gathering of cute wooden bungalows. Sure enough, a fine swimming pool complex perches on the ridge overlooking the fjord, with not a soul around.

I park and walk up the path to reconnoiter the pool. Someone in the nearby house spots me and emerges tentatively, with a mix of surprise and suspicion. He’s the caretaker of this little holiday camp — a gentlemanly Icelander with a twinkle in his eye. “Swimming pool?” I say. “Yes! Naturally heated, no chemicals. We’re closing next week.”

Now, the thing you have to understand about Icelandic swimming pools is that they aren’t just swimming pools. They’re basically gigantic hot tubs. What looks like a standard backyard pool is bathwater-warm. Nearby simmer “hot pots” that steam at around 100 degrees. When people visiting Iceland — chilled to their bones even in the blustery midsummer months — rhetorically ask, “How do people live here in the winter?”, they don’t realize there’s a very good answer: Icelanders survive their frigid climate by soaking in hot water with their friends and neighbors every evening. This volcanic island has hot water in abundance. And the Icelanders know exactly what to do with it.

It’s sunny but brisk, and I have the pool (and, really, the entire fjord) to myself. The pool is so small I can almost do a full lap without taking a breath. Windows wrap entirely around, offering views over the fjord as I paddle. It’s Icelandic bliss. Welcome to the Westfjords.

As I splash around, I notice the caretaker lurking outside one window. He motions me over, so I swim to him. He shows me a little brown sparrow in his hands. “Poor little bird!” he says. “He flew into the window. He’s very, you know, confused. I hope he will be OK!”

I wish him luck and go back to my laps. A few minutes later, the caretaker brings me a cup of water to stay hydrated. “That little bird — it’s so sad. I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

I voice my sympathy and get back to swimming. A few laps later, the caretaker appears again with another update: “I think he’s going to pull through!”

Finishing my swim, I get changed and thank my host for his hospitality. He points toward the bird, who’s convalescing on the nearby lawn. “I think he’ll be OK. Unless the arctic foxes eat him.” I wave a cheerful goodbye and wish both of them the best of luck.

Back in my car, I drive 45 minutes to the town of Patreksfjörður. Maybe it’s the hot-water coma talking, but it’s one of the most stunning drives of my life — with breathtaking fjordside scenery, then a mountain pass that twists up over a jagged volcanic terrain that looks positively Martian. Way up at the summit, on a little plateau next to a gurgling waterfall, stands a statue made of stacked stones — an Icelandic tradition upon completing a challenging construction project.

Cresting the pass and twisting back down to the fjord, I follow the shoreline to my hotel. Patreksfjörður is a functional settlement perched on a flat spit poking into a gigantic fjord of the same name. (Incidentally, this describes essentially every town and village in Iceland.) There’s no “sightseeing” in Patreksfjörður. But — with gas pumps, a few hotels and guesthouses, a smattering of eateries, and two grocery stores — it’s a handy hub for visitors to the southern Westfjords. With just 675 souls, it still qualifies as a metropolis by Westfjords standards.

Here at the fringe of the season, very few restaurants remain open. I can either have a burger at the gas station, or head to what is essentially the only real restaurant in town, Stúkuhúsið. Fortunately, it’s a wonderful spot, with a cramped and convivial interior and three different “fish of the day” meals — all of them fresh and flavorful. I try to resist my server’s suggestion to check out the glass tower showing off a variety of homemade cakes. I fail miserably.

It’s a bit early for the Northern Lights, but it’s possible I’ll spy some. Settling into my fjordside hotel, I keep peeking between the shades, like an excited kid on Christmas Eve hoping for a reindeer sighting. Finally, around midnight, I end my search and get some sleep.

Disassembled DC-3s and Free Sweaters in the Middle of Nowhere

From Patreksfjörður, it’s a long but satisfying day trip south to one of the world’s most famous bird cliffs, Látrabjarg. Along the way, more Icelandic encounters await.

Bright and early, I hit the road and begin winding around the Patreksfjörður. After touch-and-go-weather for the last few days, it’s gloriously sunny. Curling around the shoreline, I spot the rusted hull of a ship beached along the shore — the Norwegian-built Garðar, still wedged where it ran ashore in 1981. While a roadside shipwreck would turn heads in most places, it seems fitting here in the Westfjords.

Continuing around the fjord, the pavement runs out. I’ll be on unpaved roads for the next several hours. My first stop is Rauðasandur — meaning “Red Sands.” To get there, I turn off from the main road and make my way over the pass. Cresting the summit, a breathtaking panorama of rugged rock and epic waterfalls opens up before me. Making my way down to the shoreline, I arrive at the broadest sandy beach I have ever laid eyes on. It’s so big, it barely seems to qualify as a “beach.” I turn left and head for a campground called Melanes. A few battered trailers perch on a grassy lawn, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find toilets and showers with running water.

Leaving my car behind, I walk through shimmying sea grasses — hopscotching over steppingstones to ford churning little streams — to an attractive ensemble of basalt cliffs and sea stacks. I scamper down to the beach, where the saturated sand jiggles under my feet. Gigantic black stones are weathered to a high shine, like the polished marbles of a giant. Above them tower jagged Jenga towers of black basalt. I have rarely felt so far from civilization.

Back in my car, I retrace my path over the rocky pass, then carry on along the fjordside road, passing above an abandoned airstrip. (This area is so remote, even its tenuous aerial tether to the rest of Iceland has been severed.) The road curls around several dramatic headlands — at the base of great, towering cliffs — alternating with little pockets of farmland.

Arriving at one of these, Hnjótur, I pull over at a humble red house (one of about five or six in the settlement). I’m hoping to scope out this guesthouse for our guidebook, but I’m skeptical that anyone’s home. Much to my surprise, my doorbell is answered by Kristinn, the innkeeper. He’s shutting down for the year, he explains, but he’s happy to show me around. Would I like a cup of coffee?

Like many people who choose to live at the end of the world, Kristinn is friendly…almost suspiciously friendly. The kind of friendly that suggests he’s either a chatty small-town type, or a serial killer.

As we talk, I’m pleased (and relieved) to determine that Kristinn is the former. When I ask about the folk museum I’ve heard about — just a few hundred yards up the road, and next on my list — he proudly tells me it’s named for his father, who started the collection decades ago. Pointing out the window, Kristinn explains that the big hangar used to be part of the folk museum, but now it’s his own private exhibition of historic airplanes. A DC-3 sits disassembled in big pieces on the lawn — like a Lego set abandoned by a bored toddler.

“That was built in 1944,” he said, “and later became part of US forces in Iceland, based at Keflavík, now the main international airport. In 1973, it took part in the evacuation of the Westman Islands, when the volcano erupted there. It was retired in 1977 — after some 20,000 flight hours, from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle. My dad had it brought here for the museum. There’s another plane inside the hangar. Would you like to see it?”

Kristinn fishes a loose key out of a junk drawer and hands it to me. “Go check it out. It’s a Russian plane. But I have just one condition: I want you to tell people that the DC-3 isn’t just an old plane. It’s a memorial to all US Navy and Marine Corps troops who served in Iceland. This is very important!”

I head over for a closer look at the DC-3, and let myself inside the hangar. There — tucked unceremoniously between paint cans, old fishing equipment, and all the assorted bric-a-brac you’d expect to find in some remote Icelander’s garage — is a Russian Antonov AN-2 from 1967, covered in Cyrillic lettering. The plane made an emergency landing in Iceland in 1993…and was deemed not worth fixing. So here it sits.

I head back to return the key to Kristinn, who now feels like an old friend. I can tell he’s flattered by my interest in his collection, and I’m enjoying an unexpectedly lively conversation at the edge of the world. Before leaving, I admire the hand-knitted Icelandic sweaters for sale in one corner of the breakfast room. It’s my third time in Iceland, and I still don’t own one — I’m not much for souvenirs, but one of these sweaters is on my list.

Noticing my interest, Kristinn says, “Do you want one?” I’m startled by the question, and politely decline. But I can tell he’s serious. “My wife spends the entire winter knitting those by the fire. We haven’t sold as many as we expected, and our season is over. She likes to stay busy — you’d be doing us a favor to take one!”

Incredibly flattered, I agree. He pulls the $250 price tag off the sweater and hands it to me — and insists that I take a matching beanie, too. Loading the precious cargo into my backseat, I wave goodbye and continue on my way.

The World’s Finest Bird Cliffs

The main reason people come to this godforsaken, pavement-forsaken corner of Iceland is to see one of the most stunning bird cliffs on the planet: Látrabjarg. From Kristinn’s place, it’s another hour, hour-and-a-half on borderline-passable roads. I go over a couple more mountain passes, where the hard-packed surface makes things workable. But the final stretch is harrowing. Coming down over the last pass, I enter a tiny settlement of just a few houses, whose residents really, really, really want you to drive just 30 kilometers per hour — they’ve erected a half-dozen handmade signs to that effect all along the road.

Here the road flattens out, yet it becomes far harder to drive than the many rocky passes I’ve already conquered today. My teeth and my tires rattle as my car plays xylophone along the washboard surface. I straddle red rivulets of iron-rich soil that stream down the middle of what some might choose to call a “road.” At one point I mount the grassy berm to prevent a gigantic puddle from swallowing my little car whole. And then, in the absolute middle of nowhere, I come across a freestanding little toilet. A pungent smell fills my car, suggesting that one of Iceland’s countless sulfur springs is nearby.

Finally I arrive at a big parking lot next to a little lighthouse. I’ve made it: Látrabjarg! But my heart sinks just a bit. After such a long journey, it’s…underwhelming. At least, from the parking lot.

The weather has closed in, and I’ve spent the last hour dodging raindrops. Here at the westernmost point in Europe, there’s nothing to stop storms from rolling in across the Atlantic. Or, more to the point, this cliff is what stops storms that roll in across the Atlantic.

Getting out of my car, I notice a little squall swirling about a mile offshore. I have a feeling that I’m about to get rained on. But I’ve come this far. I bundle up and head up the well-marked path, climbing up some uneven stairs, then following a narrow, rutted path through the middle of a wide meadow. On my right, that meadow abruptly ends at a dramatic drop-off to the swirling seas below.

Hiking about 10 minutes up the path, I turn to look back, and my breath catches in my throat. Finally I understand why this place is so special. From this point, I can see the pockmarked cliff face plunging from the grassy lawn straight down to the churning Atlantic. And embedded in that cliff face are thousands upon thousands of sea bird nests. From here, Látrabjarg stretches for more than seven miles, reaching a height of about 1,400 feet — taller than the Empire State building (or, for Icelanders, six Hallgrímskirkjas stacked on end).

In the summer, this cliff is home to one million sea birds, who drift in with warm currents, nest and breed here, and then head back out to sea when things cool off. (When I asked one local why the tourist season is so short, he gave me a perfectly succinct answer: “Once the birds leave…so do the tourists.”)

Now in early September, most of the birds have left — but several remain. The cliffs are streaked with white, and the stench of bird shit is overpowering. Delicate little feathers are scattered across the grass, like flower petals after a wedding. The turf is spongy and embedded with hidden rocks and other tripping hazards. And getting closer than several feet from the cliff edge produces intense vertigo. Gingerly, oh so gingerly, I tiptoe up to the edge and peer down.

The cliff stretches infinitely in both directions. I squint to see colorful little dots bobbing along the top of the cliff in the distance — intrepid visitors, bundled like me in their parkas, going for an incredibly scenic hike. Looking down into the tumultuous sea, I think back on a story I heard earlier today — one of those tales you hear when traveling that seem almost too perfect to be true:

In December of 1947, a British fishing trawler crashed against these rocks. A volunteer rescue squad leapt into action and came to the cliffs with ropes and pulleys, ultimately saving 12 of the crew members. A year later, a filmmaker making a documentary enlisted the villagers to re-enact the event. And just as they were all rigged up in their pulleys…a different British trawler ran aground nearby. And so, naturally, the “actors” rescued those sailors, as well.

It’s hard to top an experience like Látrabjarg. So I don’t try. On an intense traveler’s high, I float back down to the parking lot, and only once back in the car do I notice that that squall is still swirling offshore — it never made its way to me.

I drive the two and a half hours back to Patreksfjörður, numb to the bumps and rumbles. Back in town, I pull into my hotel’s parking lot, taking my place in a long row of the filthiest tailgates I have ever seen. Each car’s rear end is coated with a thick layer of multicolored grime. I have a theory that Icelandic car rental companies heavily favor white vehicles, so they can assess in an instant just how much abuse you’ve put your car through.

Not quite ready for this day to be over, I decide to check out Patreksfjörður’s swimming pool — reputed to be something special. The raves are earned. The glassed-in complex clings between the upper road and the hillside, with simmering pools perfectly positioned to look out over the fjord, the town’s rooftops, and the setting sun. Toggling between the different pools — warm, hot, very hot — I realize I’ve enjoyed one of my best travel days ever.

Sea Monsters, Grand Waterfalls, and 50 Unpaved Miles

The next day, I hop into my car and head north. My drive today connects Patreksfjörður (hub of the southern Westfjords) to Ísafjörður (capital of the northern Westfjords). In between are 110 miles of rugged roads — about half of them unpaved. The sun has come out again, and I’m in for a stunning road trip.

Leaving Patreksfjörður in my rearview mirror, I make my way north, connecting a charm bracelet of humble fjordside settlements, linked to each other by scenic mountain passes. At one point, I pull over at a random little complex of open-to-the-public thermal pools, perched high on a cliff…another reminder of how the Icelanders love their hot water.

The tiny town of Bíldudalur — 200 people living on a precarious shelf at the base of a cliff — is the “last chance gas” point on the drive. At the entrance to town, Vegamót Bíldudal has a tiny grocery store up front, and in back is a cozy restaurant that does a brisk business selling travelers fish-and-chips to fortify them for the long drive ahead. When I stop by, it’s too early for lunch, and the dining room is occupied by a little scrum of what look to be retired fishermen, pouring coffee into their white beards.

Leaving town, I head along the shoreline of the Arnarfjörður, grooving in and out of its many arms. The Arnarfjörður, shaped like a giant squid, is famous for its “sea monster” lore. Maybe it’s the latitude, maybe it’s the cold, or maybe it’s the boredom — but locals seem to constantly see mysterious creatures out in the fjord. Back in Bíldudalur, one entrepreneur has even opened a “Sea Monster Museum.” It feels like a wannabe-Loch Ness tourist-baiting strategy, but, given the dearth of other tourist attractions in this area, I have to admire the effort.

Rattling through epic scenery on rutted gravel roads, I lose count of the fjords. On one, I pass an evocative, remote farmhouse with a distinctly triangular roofline. On another, I pull over at a picnic table perched just so, overlooking a rushing waterfall. On another, I drive past a tidy, well-kept, open-air swimming pool — just sitting there alongside the road, with changing cabins nearby — fed by natural thermal springs.

And then I start heading up. And up. And up. As scenic as this drive has been, nothing could have prepared me for the mountain pass I traverse next. The road crests in a rocky landscape that feels like the very rooftop of Iceland, if not all of Europe. Off on the left, I can take in the entire Arnarfjörður, and all its convoluted inlets, with one sweep of the head. From here, it’s easy to understand how this remarkable landscape came to be: It’s a high, flat plateau, out of which have been carved great divots…the Westfjords.

Twisting back down to sea level on the far side of the pass, I steal a distant view of one of Iceland’s most spectacular waterfalls: Dynjandi. I can see it miles before I reach it. It tumbles like a bridal veil over the edge of the high, flat plateau that I’ve just crossed. Following signs to the parking lot, I cross a bridge over a churning river. Visually tracing its course uphill, I see how Dynjandi isn’t just one waterfall: It’s about one dozen, stairstepping into each other on their way down from the top of the cliff to the fjord’s shoreline.

I hike up the rocky trail that leads alongside the waterfall’s many stages. Each sub-fall has its own little viewpoint, where a sign identifies its name. There are no real “crowds” in the Westfjords, but the Dynjandi trail concentrates more human beings than I’ve seen in one place in several days. Still, those ranks thin out considerably as I make my way up the steep trail.

Finally I arrive at the main fall at the top, tumbling over the sharp cliff into a giant, chilly pool. This upper section alone is as big as an American football field laid on end — about 100 yards long, 50 yards wide. The thundering flow pulverizes a heavy mist into the air, spraying my glasses and camera lens with frigid souvenirs of Iceland’s fast-melting glaciers. Iceland fills any traveler with awe in the face of nature. And Dynjandi is one of the best places for exactly that.

Back on the road, I curl around yet another fjord on chunky roads. At one point I pass a busy construction zone. They’re boring a tunnel through the middle of the mountain to connect to the next fjord over. In a couple of years, my journey to Ísafjörður will be at least a half-hour shorter; a few years later, you’ll be able to subtract an hour. But if I’m being honest, I’m happy for the hardship. Driving on paved roads just doesn’t come with the same sense of adventure.

Before heading over yet another mountain pass, I pull over at Hrafnseyri, a tiny, middle-of-nowhere settlement that was the birthplace of Icelandic founding father Jón Sigurðsson, who lobbied the Danish government on behalf of Icelandic independence during the 19th century. Today his statue faces the Icelandic parliament building in Reykjavík. But here on a remote fjord, his birthplace is marked by a picturesque church and a trio of turf-roofed houses…an idyllic Icelandic tableau.

I twist my way up and over yet another epic, unpaved mountain pass. The last few days have made me numb to spectacular scenery — but even in that state, this road takes my breath away.

Returning to sea level on the other side, I also return to civilization for the first time in hours: At the village of Þingeyri, my tires grip pavement and my car seems to breathe a sigh of relief.

It’s midafternoon and I’m famished. So I drive into the lonely waterfront hamlet of Þingeyri and step into Simbahöllin — a hipster café filling an old general store. Despite being in what should feel very much off the grid, they have fast Wi-Fi, crispy waffles, and oat-milk lattes. I pay 20 bucks for a big, delicious bowl of soup and some bread, plus a coffee. Chatting with the clerk, I’m told that this café, too, is a few days away from closing for the winter. Will the last tourist leaving the Westfjords please turn out the lights?

Continuing on, I wind around the fjord and conquer my umpteenth mountain pass, made much easier thanks to the smooth road. Soon I reach the modern tunnel that takes me under yet another mountain pass to the capital of the Westfjords — and the end of my long journey.

Ísafjörður, Capital of the Westfjords

The town of Ísafjörður (literally “Ice Fjord”) occupies a big, flat spit in the center of 360 degrees of fjordland cliffs. From here, the Arctic Circle is just over the horizon. Despite being a regional “capital,” Ísafjörður is a humble burg. Driving into town, I pass Ísafjörður’s main landmark: an eyesore modern church, built in 1995 in an idiosyncratic architecture style that doesn’t quite come together. (I think of it as “beige pebble-clad Cubist-meets-Sydney Opera House.”)

Out at the tip of the peninsula is Ísafjörður’s historic wharf area — a tiny cluster of historic shiplap buildings. One of them is the local historical museum, and two others are, unbelievably, still residences — housing the only people who might be excited about living in a 200-year-old log cabin on a frozen fjord: museum curators.

It’s dinnertime, and I’m ready for a good meal. I step into the log-cabin-like tar factory from 1781, now a restaurant called Tjöruhúsið. While reservations are usually required, the waning season makes it easier to improvise — they’re able to squeeze me in, last-minute. I’m ushered to a big shared table with twentysomething American couple and a thirtysomething French couple. While waiting for our meal, we trade testimonials about how Iceland has stolen our hearts.

Tjöruhúsið is a bit of a tourist trap. But it’s the kind that you’re very happy to be trapped in. The meal begins with delicious fish soup that would, in itself, make a plenty satisfying dinner. But then comes the main course: A buffet line of oversized, sizzling skillets of different fish dishes, each with a different flavor profile, both traditional Icelandic and international. It’s one of the best meals I’ve had, capping another lifetime-best day of travel.

The next day, my guidebook-scouting tasks in Ísafjörður keep me very busy. But before leaving the Westfjords, I drive 15 minutes to Súðavík, on the next fjord over. There, filling an old house, is the Arctic Fox Centre, offering an education in Iceland’s only native land mammal — which ekes out a challenging existence in some of the harshest conditions on earth (their mortality rate is about 80 percent).

I’m warmly greeted by the manager, Sæmundur. He clearly adores the foxes and has dedicated himself to advocating for them. “Icelandic farmers complain about the foxes killing their sheep,” Sæmundur tells me, with a tone suggesting that he takes these allegations personally. “But the foxes only do what comes naturally, and they only attack the weakest sheep — the ones very unlikely to survive anyway.”

I head out back to the pen where two rescued foxes live. I just barely spot them, huddled sleepily under a little enclosure. Just as I resign myself to not getting a closer look, Sæmundur comes out, and the foxes spring to life, running over to greet him. He pulls some treats out of his pocket and begins feeding the two foxes, who eagerly climb up the walls of the cage to get a snack and a scratch from Sæmundur. They are beautiful animals — intelligent, bright-eyed, and clearly wild, without the affable domesticity of a dog or housecat. I can see exactly why Sæmundur has fallen in love with these creatures.

I wish I could hang out with Sæmundur and his friends longer. But I have a flight to catch. I zip back around the fjord to Ísafjörður’s tiny airport for my trip back to Reykjavik. (When I find the rental-car office unattended, I call the phone number on the contract. “No problem. Just slide the keys under the door.”) Arrive 30 minutes before takeoff, free coffee, no security checkpoint, friendly gate agents: Domestic flights in Iceland are my kind of travel.

As we leave the ground, the wheels retract back up into the belly of our little plane, and we fly higher and higher up a grand fjord, I realize I’ll be in downtown Reykjavik in just a half-hour. But I can’t express how happy I am that I took the very long way to get up here.


I was in the Westfjords writing a brand-new chapter for our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook; the second edition (with the Westfjords) is available in April 2020.

10 European Discoveries for 2020

In 2020, Europe will be more crowded than ever. Fortunately, there are still plenty of undiscovered alternatives: A sweet little beach town in Portugal. The quieter sides of London and Tuscany. The thriving tapas scene in an underrated Basque city. Street markets in Ljubljana and Provence. Switzerland’s capital and Bulgaria’s cultural capital. The wilds of northwest Iceland. The Tuscan island where Napoleon rallied for his final stand. And even a pilgrimage to a newly trendy nuclear meltdown site. These are my 10 European discoveries for 2020.

In 2019, my travels took me to London, Paris, and Rome; to Tuscany, Provence, and the Swiss Alps; and to the fjords of Iceland, the Julian Alps of Slovenia, and the white cliffs of England’s South Coast. And yet, reflecting on a  very busy year, I’m struck by how many of my fondest memories were forged not in the big-name destinations, but in out-of-the-way places. Continuing my annual tradition (check out my discoveries for 2018 and 2019), I’ve collected this list of Europe’s lesser-known highlights. You’ll notice a theme: Most of these are close to extremely famous — and extremely overrun — European biggies. It’s striking how, with a little effort, you can discover a little corner of Europe all to yourself.

 

The Westfjords, Iceland

About nine in ten visitors to Iceland hew close to the capital, Reykjavík, making speedy day trips to the Golden Circle, South Coast, and Blue Lagoon. That’s efficient and satisfying, if time is short. But to strike out on your own, head north — way north — to the Westfjords. Up here, just shy of the Arctic Circle, you’ll find boundless fjordland vistas, thundering bridal-veil waterfalls (including one of Iceland’s best, Dynjandi), plucky and kind locals, and one of the world’s top bird cliffs, a magical place called Látrabjarg. If you’ve made brief “layover” forays into Iceland and are ready to invest a few days in getting way off the beaten path…the Westfjords are for you. My trip to the Westfjords in September of 2019 — to write a brand-new chapter for the second edition of our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (coming soon) — ranks as one of my all-time favorite road trips.

 

Untouristy London

London is a world in itself — endlessly, relentlessly, exhaustingly engaging. For some, it can be too much. When visiting London, hit the big sights, sure. (Ideally equipped with some smart crowd-beating tips.) But make a point to also break out of the tourist rut and become a temporary Londoner. During my two weeks in London in 2019, I cycled through “Little Venice” along the Regent’s Canal, explored hipster street markets (my favorite is Maltby Street Rope Walk Market), hiked across the urban wilderness of Hampstead Heath, explored the Shoreditch street-art-and-foodie neighborhood, checked out the food halls of Brixton, and rode a commuter train to the lovely suburban neighborhood of Dullwich. London is one of Europe’s most satisfying cities to explore. So…explore.

By the way, this approach also works like a charm in other overcrowded cities. For example, in Rome, consider skipping the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum and heading to some exponentially less overrun alternatives. (I love Rome’s Monti neighborhood, across the street from the Ancient Forum.)

 

Bern, Switzerland

Switzerland’s seat of government is also its most appealing urban playground. Livable Bern is tucked quietly between some of Switzerland’s most heavily trafficked destinations — namely, the Berner Oberland and Lake Luzern. And yet, it’s one of the only European capitals where locals complain about how few tourists visit, rather than how many. Updating our Rick Steves Switzerland guidebook in Bern this fall, I enjoyed the city’s pristine arcaded streets, playful fountains, engaging museums, super-scenic bridges, warm sandstone townhouses, low-key students-and-politicians pace of life, and convivial park huddled under its towering church steeple. One Friday evening at sunset, I hiked up to a tranquil rose garden where everyone was just hanging out, peering out over the handsome cityscape, and waiting for the sun to go down. It was — in a most unexpected place — one of my favorite travel memories of 2019. (Our Best of Switzerland Tour ends with a night in this fine little city.)

 

Ljubljana’s “Open Kitchen,” Slovenia

Speaking of underrated capitals, Ljubljana has long been my favorite little city in Europe. And it just keeps getting better. While Ljubljana is inviting anytime, do your best to visit on a Friday (from mid-March through mid-October, weather permitting). That’s when the market square plays host to the wonderful Open Kitchen, one of my favorite food events in Europe. Each of the several dozen stalls is operated by a brick-and-mortar restaurant, from internationally recognized chefs to hole-in-the-wall dives. And the variety is bewildering: During my visit in early October, I saw vegan burgers, huge simmering pans of paella, Argentinian steaks, ribs and pulled pork, Indian dosas, Belgian waffles, poke bowls, Slovenian microbrews, Chinese noodles, hearty sausages and čevapčići, delicate macarons, and an entire roast pig on a spit. People settle into big shared tables or grab a seat on the cathedral steps to graze and socialize. It’s a melting pot of culinary Slovenia — home to one of Europe’s most underappreciated food scenes.

 

Salema, Portugal

Of the many things that Rick and I agree on, this tops the list: Salema — a tiny town on Portugal’s Algarve Coast — may be the best beach town in Europe. It’s just down the coast from big, glitzy resorts (like Lagos, Abufeira, and Portimão). But Salema feels like an idyllic, Old World hideaway. Visiting recently to update the Algarve chapter for our Rick Steves Portugal guidebook, I was utterly charmed by Salema. It doesn’t have enough hotels, and the ones it has are past their prime (or humble-by-design). Sunbathers share the beach with fishing boats, pulled just beyond the reach of the tide. Grizzled fisherfolk grab the shade at a beachfront café near the communal tractor they use to hoist those boats up onto the sand. The cobbled main drag climbs up through a whitewashed world of simple homes. And Salema’s beach — with powdery yellow sand, just the right amount of surf, vivid-yellow cliffs, and beach bars happy to rent you a thatched umbrella and a lounger — is made to order for a day of sunbathing and splashing.

 

Chernobyl, Ukraine

Yes, really. Chernobyl — a two-hour drive north of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev — is a compelling, moving, and (if science is to be believed) safe place to visit. I went to Chernobyl in late 2018 (before it was “cool”) and found the experience captivating. With the smash success of HBO’s award-winning Chernobyl miniseries in 2019, the site of humankind’s worst nuclear accident is becoming known as a travel destination. Why visit? Touring Chernobyl offers an unforgettable lesson in radiation, and its capacity for both technological achievement and destruction. It lets you walk through a trapped-in-time, Cold War-era Soviet workers’ town, and witness the power of nature to reclaim abandoned civilization. And, most importantly, it shares the poignant stories of the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives to contain the meltdown, saving Ukraine — and, likely, much of Europe — from a horrifying fate. It’s hard to imagine a more memorable day out, anywhere in Europe, than Chernobyl.

 

Lesser-Known Markets of Provence, France

In the fall of 2019, my wife and I spent a week in Provence, making a point to visit a different market each day. We enjoyed the biggies (like the ones in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Aix-en-Provence, and Uzès). But our favorites were the lesser-known alternatives. On Tuesday in Vaison-la-Romaine, we browsed the floral soaps and lavender sachets that were piled on rickety tables between Roman ruins. On Friday in Lourmarin, we strolled into town along a plane tree-shaded boulevard, lined on both sides with stacks of colorful, plump produce and mounds of glistening olives. And on Sunday in Coustellet, at a lowbrow market filling the crossroad village’s dusty parking lot, we picked up a droopy bouquet of sunflowers, plus some smoked meats and mountain cheese for a picnic. The fact is, every day of the week,  a variety of markets enliven no-name towns all over Provence. Figure out which one’s nearest to you (listed in our Rick Steves Provence & the French Riviera guidebook)… and check it out.

 

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Bulgaria remains one of Europe’s most underrated destinations. And if I had to pick one place to visit in Bulgaria, it’d be Plovdiv. This small city of 340,000 has a modern bustle, with a pedestrian-friendly shopping boulevard slathered in vivid street art. It has a funky hipster zone — nicknamed “The Mousetrap” — where communist-kitsch posters laugh down over diners feasting on upmarket Bulgarian fare. And draped over a hillside above the modern city, the atmospheric old town has a remarkably well-preserved Roman amphitheater, colorful traditional homes in the Bulgarian National Revival style, and one of Europe’s very best “hidden gem” art museums, featuring the works of Zlatyu Boyadzhiev —  the “Bulgarian Van Gogh,” who taught himself to paint left-handed after a stroke. If more people knew about Plovdiv, it’d be a tourist mecca. But they don’t…so for now, it’s all yours.

Plovdiv is one of the highlights on our Best of Bulgaria Tour; for a sneak preview, check out this segment from our Bulgaria TV show.

 

Bilbao Tapas Scene, Spain

The Basque Country is one of Spain’s culinary hotspots, and the genteel beach town of San Sebastián hogs much of the attention. But don’t overlook the bigger urban center of Bilbao, just an hour’s drive to the west. On a recent visit to Bilbao, I arrived late on a Friday evening. From my little B&B in the heart of the old town, I stepped out into a commotion of thriving bars and restaurants, each one with a creative array of tapas proudly lined up on the counter. Facing the Atlantic, Bilbao’s tapas bars come with more than their share of mysterious seafood — mounted on a crunchy little disc of baguette or skewered with a toothpick. As a bonus, you can go for an after-dinner stroll along the serene embankment, culminating in a floodlit view of Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Bilbao. (Our Basque Country Tour ends with two nights in Bilbao.)

If you’re headed out on a tapas crawl, and want to increase your odds of getting ostras (oysters) instead of orejas (pig’s ears), consider these tapas tips.

 

The Isle of Elba, Tuscany, Italy

This island is best known as the place where Napoleon was sent into exile. Turns out, it’s also ideal for a beach break from a busy Tuscan itinerary. Connected to mainland Tuscany by an easy one-hour ferry ride, Elba comes with a textbook “salty Mediterranean harbor,” a couple of evocatively faded Napoleonic palaces, scenic drives to secluded beaches, and an unforgettable gondola ride to the island’s rocky summit in an open-air cage that had me feeling like a parakeet going for the ride of its life. The designers of our brand-new Best of Tuscany Tour deserve the credit for this one: After they included Elba on the tour route, I went there to add it to the newly released 19th edition of our Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook… and I was hooked. (Check out my full report on Elba.)  In fact, I’ll be returning to Elba in 2020 as a tour member on that new Tuscany tour. And I can’t wait.

 

How about you? What are your favorite European discoveries? Where are you most excited to visit in 2020?


Need more inspiration? My “discoveries” lists for both 2018 and 2019 are still great choices in 2020.

I’ll be posting more about several of these discoveries — including Iceland’s Westfjords, the markets of Provence, and Switzerland’s underrated cities — in the next few weeks. To make sure you don’t miss anything, “like” me on Facebook.

Wherever you’re going in 2020…happy travels!

Iceland in 72 Hours: The Perfect Off-Season Layover on a Budget

Iceland is made to order for a two- or three-day layover on the way between North America and Europe — allowing a peek at Reykjavík, side-trips to the Golden Circle and South Coast, and a soak in the Blue Lagoon. There are many ways to plan your time, but after working on the first edition of our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (with co-author Ian Watson), I came up with what was — in my mind, at least — the perfect way to see the highlights of that little country on a short timeframe. However, I had not yet had the chance to try it out.

Last October, my parents wanted to stop off for a quick “layover” look at Iceland on their way home from Europe. Could I offer them some advice? Challenge accepted! Not only did I craft the ideal itinerary, I quickly re-routed my own flight schedule home from Europe to join them in Reykjavík. Our goal was to get the best possible taste of Iceland in 72 hours, off-season, on a budget.

Spoiler warning: It worked like a charm. Here’s how.

Day 0: Welcome to Iceland

Touching down at Keflavík Airport, I have about an hour to get my ducks in a row before Mom and Dad arrive. I pick up our rental car with the cheerful assistance of the rental agent, who helps me figure out whether we need to take out extra insurance against blowing sand. (Hearing our itinerary and scanning the weather report, he says, “Nope — you should be fine!”) I load my bags into the car and wait at the baggage-claim exit, just under the sign advertising bus transfers into town.

My parents pop out right on time, and we drive through the twilight to our Reykjavík Airbnb. In early October, Iceland still enjoys nearly 12 hours of daylight (setting around 6:45 p.m.). But the sun doesn’t provide much warmth; driving through frigid, sideways drizzle on the 45-minute journey into the capital offers a foretaste of the days ahead.

Finding our Airbnb — tucked on the residential slope just below the landmark Hallgrímskirkja church, in the heart of Reykjavík — proves a bit trickier than expected, because the nearby streets are torn up. But eventually we ignore our GPS, plunge headfirst up a normally one-way street, and find convenient street parking right out front. (At just a buck an hour, and free overnight, street parking may be the best bargain in Iceland.)

A note about money: I’m saying that we’re “on a budget.” I mean a midrange budget —we’re not starving backpackers. The thing is, Iceland is very expensive. It’s easy to blow through a lot of money here. We spent just enough money to be comfortable and to use our time efficiently. If you’re truly on a tight budget, check out my Top 10 Budget Tips for Iceland.

On past trips, I’ve learned that Airbnb offers the best value for accommodations in Reykjavík — a bursting-at-the-seams city where hotels are in short supply, and priced accordingly. For the cost of a basic double room with a shared bathroom in a cheap-but-cheery guest house, you can rent a one-bedroom Airbnb apartment with a full kitchen, bathroom, washer/dryer, and living area. This trip’s apartment — a freestanding little cottage tucked behind a big apartment block — is exceptionally comfortable, well-equipped, clean, and cozy, for the cost of about $500 for three nights.

Heading out to explore, we discover the reason for all those closed streets: They’re installing radiator pipes beneath a busy roundabout, which will harness Iceland’s bounty of naturally superheated water to melt snow and ice in the winter.

We tiptoe past the construction zone, under cheery street art murals, to the only discount grocery store in the center: Bónus, hiding a block above the main shopping street at Hallveigarstigur 1. The store is packed with fellow budget-conscious travelers, stocking up just before closing time. While it may seem silly for our first stop to be the budget supermarket, the only alternatives downtown are the ever-present convenience stores, which charge double or triple — making this stock-up trip essential for sticking to our budget. We fill our shopping basket with enough skyr (yogurt-like dairy treat), rúgbrauð (dense rye bread), and saltlakkrís (salted licorice) to get us through the trip. For about $60, we’ll have breakfast, snacks, drinks, and a few basic meals to help defray the high cost of restaurants.

Before everything closes down for the night, I make two more shopping stops: I drop into the outdoor outfitter 66° North to buy a knit cap for the next few days (I can already tell that I’ll need it). At about $35, it’s double what I’d pay for a similar hat back home, but I can justify the expense by calling it a souvenir. Then I swing by my favorite pastry shop — the trendy, graffiti-slathered Brauð & Co. — just before closing time, to stock up on impossibly delicious Scandinavian-style sweet rolls to supplement tomorrow’s breakfast.

After unpacking our groceries back home, we go looking for a simple, filling, satisfying meal. We find it a few blocks away at Súpa, offering an appealing variety of affordable soups. For about $15 per person, we get a generous bowl of soup, home-cooked bread, and hummus or butter. Bellies full, we walk back home through the drizzle to get a good night’s sleep before our first big day trip.

Day 1: The Golden Circle

We awake to frigid, blustery weather. No, not blustery…hurricane-y. Ian Watson, the co-author of our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (and longtime Iceland resident), once explained to me that for Icelanders, wind trumps all. They define “bad weather” as “lots of wind,” and “good weather” as “somewhat less wind.” Today? Today is a “bad weather” day. But at least the howling winds will clear out the clouds, providing us with occasional, brilliant sunbreaks.

Our plan is to drive that quintessential Icelandic day trip, the Golden Circle: a 150-mile loop east of the capital, connecting three big sightseeing stops (historic gorge, spurting geyser, spectacular waterfall) through a sampler platter of rugged scenery.

On a previous visit, I opted to begin my Golden Circle trip with a scenic detour, over the low mountain pass called Nesjavallaleið — and was glad I did. Ian had warned me that this pass can close due to bad weather as early as October. But today looks clear, and the sun is peeking out. What the heck? Let’s chance it. So off we head to Nesjavallaleið.

The Nesjavallaleið road was built to connect Reykjavík to a steaming geothermal plant, deep in the interior. And driving along that road, we follow a burly pipeline carrying scalding water to city radiators, taps….and those pipes buried under city roundabouts.

Pulling over to photograph some lonely sheep, grazing miles from civilization, we notice that the surrounding landscape has grown frosty. As we drive onward, gradually gaining altitude, the frost becomes flurries, and the flurries become snow. And by the time I begin driving up the road over the pass, my four-wheel-drive tires are sputtering over a few inches of uncleared snowfall.

We’re most of the way to the summit — we can practically see where the road drops down to snow-free lowlands. And we know that going back will cost us at least an extra hour of retracing our steps. Can we make it over just…a…couple….more…hills?

No. No, we cannot. Cresting the penultimate hill, we get out of the car and survey our options: If we proceed, we’ll most likely slide our way down this next incline — getting hopelessly stuck in a snowbank in the middle of nowhere, wasting a precious day awaiting rescue. Or we can turn around and face the music. The choice is easy. I execute a sloppy 12-point turn, then put the car in first and let it ever-so-slowly trundle us down the snow-covered road, inch by inch, tire tread by tire tread. Feeling our tires grip bare asphalt after that white-knuckle descent, we don’t even mind the lost time…we’re just happy to not be stranded. A mile back down the road, with that treacherous pass in the rearview mirror, we see a tour bus zooming past us, in the opposite direction, towards certain doom. We’ll spend the rest of the trip speculating whether he made it (no way) and how many of his passengers froze to death that day (I’m guessing 10, maybe a dozen?).

Circling back around to the main road, we make our way to the Golden Circle’s first stop, Þingvellir (or Thingvellir) — a national park filling a gorge where the European and North American tectonic plates are slowly pulling apart. Þingvellir was also the site of the AlÞingi — the great gathering of the original Icelandic settlers (peace-loving cousins of the Vikings), dating back to the ninth century.

Stepping out of the car, we grip fast to our car doors; on a day like today, the whipping winds can pull them right out of your hand and crashing into adjacent cars (at best) — or even pull them backwards on their hinges. Pausing in the shiny new visitors center to pay the parking fee with our credit card, we stumble upon a giant screen showing road conditions all over Iceland…yup, Nesjavallaleið is closed, all right. Next time, I’ll check the map before heading out. (Side-note: In Iceland, you can pay for just about everything — parking, bathrooms, a cup of coffee — with your credit card. Cash is rarely necessary and never preferred. On this trip, we experiment by not taking a single Icelandic króna out of an ATM — and it’s never once a problem.)

Bundling up, we venture out for a look at the Þingvellir gorge, with a death-grip on the viewpoint’s railing to avoid being blown into Iceland’s “tourist casualty” statistics. Then we walk down the gorge itself — with North America on our left side, and Europe on our right — to the site of “Law Rock,” the focal point of those early clan gatherings. Battered by wind, we decide a few minutes is plenty; skipping the optional detour up to a pretty waterfall, we hike back up to the full blast of our car heater.

We follow rainbows through the Icelandic countryside, stopping periodically to snap photos of the pint-sized yet majestic Icelandic horses — who hitched a ride with those original Viking Age settlers. We pause at the lakeside settlement of Laugarvatn just long enough to stroll along the steaming shoreline, where natural reserves of superheated water bubble up in little hot spots in the sand.

It’s lunchtime, so we stop at a hilltop dairy farm, called Efstidalur II. I dropped by here on a previous trip for ice cream, but Rick Steves — who passed through a few months before — tipped me off that they also had a great full-service restaurant upstairs. There we settle into a rustic wooden table, peering through windows into the barn below, where cows munch on hay. We dig into tasty and filling $25 hamburgers (reasonably priced by Icelandic standards)…followed by $5 ice cream cones, of course.

Next up: the geothermal field called Geysir, which gave its name to hot-water spouts worldwide. Hiking in from the parking lot, we’re drawn close to the giant, steaming pools that bubble and spurt periodically, foreshadowing a big eruption. We wait in the frigid winds, lined up with dozens of other icicle tourists, gazing expectantly at that giant hole, well aware that the big geyser shoots up “about every 10 minutes.”

We wait. And shiver. And wait. And shiver. And wait. The geyser gurgles a few times, spurting up a few feet into the air, as if revving up for the big show. But eventually the cold overwhelms our curiosity, and we retreat back toward the car…only to hear, moments later, a big eruption splash behind us. Oh, well. You’ve seen one geyser…

The final big stop on the Golden Circle — unlike hit-or-miss Geysir — never disappoints. Gullfoss’ name (“Golden Falls”) is particularly apt today, lit up like a spotlight by the warm late-day sun.

Pretty as it is, it’s still darn cold. We batten down the hatches, pull our hoods tight around our hot red cheeks, and gingerly follow the damp, slightly icy trail down for a closer look at the falls. Icelanders call weather that looks pretty, but feels not so pretty, “window weather” (gluggaveður)…and today was a classic gluggaveður day. But it’s worth braving the cold, wind, and mist to stand in awe of Gullfoss’ thundering power.

Completing our loop back to our Reykjavík home base, we enjoy late-afternoon gluggaveður views of Iceland’s cinematic landscape. If we hadn’t lost time with our snowy dead-end, we’d consider a couple of more stops: the historic church at Skálholt; a quick hike around the rim of the colorful crater called Kerið; or maybe even a splash in one of the various thermal baths in the area. But the sun is sinking low in the sky, so we make a beeline back home.

Still satisfied from our hearty hamburger lunch, we make an Airbnb picnic dinner out of our discount groceries. Then it’s early to bed, in preparation of yet another day of Icelandic day-tripping.

Day 2: The South Coast

We awake to a rare Icelandic phenomenon: Sun and minimal wind. In October! We can tell immediately that it’s going to be a delightful day for touring Iceland — without requiring nearly as many layers as yesterday, when we encased ourselves in just about everything in our luggage.

On our way out of town, we pay a quick visit to the landmark church crowning Reykjavík, the Hallgrímskirkja. After strolling the tranquil, austere, light-filled Lutheran interior, we pay about $10 apiece to ride the elevator to the top of the tower. The cute Monopoly houses of Reykjavík splay out from our feet, with cheery colors that pop in the bright autumn sun — offering an ideal visual overview of the sprawling capital. From the top of this tower, we can see the homes of two out of every three Icelanders.

Back down on earth, we hit the road for the South Coast. Ever since working on the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook — and offering lots of travel tips to friends and relatives making their own Icelandic stopovers — I’m constantly debating which of the two big day trips from Reykjavík is better. Yesterday’s Golden Circle drive was a delight. But today’s 230-mile round-trip South Coast foray will come with perhaps even more epic scenery. (That’s why we saved it for the better-weather of our two days.) I warn my parents that I’ll be polling them later about which they prefer.

From Reykjavík, we drive through sunny mountains down to the southern coastline, where the jagged Westman Islands loom like a mirage just offshore. (If we had another 24 hours, that’s where we’d spend it.) We pull over for a WC and coffee break at the Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur, where the free exhibits in the lobby illustrate the tectonic fissures that run diagonally through the island — the cause of all that geothermal water and volcanic activity. (With more time, or with kids in tow, we might pay to tour the Lava Centre’s exhibits. But we have a lot of miles to cover…)

Pro hack: Mid-morning, we pass the turnoff for the spectacular Seljalandsfoss waterfall. But I recall from past trips that at this time of day, the grand cascade will be mostly in shade. We’ll stop, instead, when we pass back through here on our way home — when the afternoon light will be perfect.

Instead, we carry on to the next stop on our South Coast day, a little pullout in the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull — the volcano that famously erupted in 2010, halting European air travel. We snap a photo of the farmstead that you’ll see in all the famous images of that erupting giant — today slumbering again, under its snowy blanket.

Carrying on, near Drangshlíð, we come upon a pair of rocky, steep cliffs with cow shed burrowed into the sides. We pull over for closer inspection (obeying the local farmer’s polite posted request not to actually enter the rickety buildings) and find our imaginations tickled by such fanciful structures. They call to mind the Huldufólk — they mythical Icelandic “hidden people” who must be appeased by humans.

Next up is Skógafoss — yet another grand waterfall, this one perfectly lit mid-day. After ogling the rainbows that dance in the mist, we find a picnic table and dig into another round of our discount groceries for lunch. It’s sunny, warm, and still — stripping out of our windbreakers and feeling perfectly comfortable in just long sleeves, we’re struck by the changeability of Icelandic Octobers.

Onward to the glacier called Sólheimajökull. We park our car and scramble over a gravelly path about 10 minutes toward a glacial tongue that reaches down and laps at a brown lagoon bobbing with little icebergs.

The sign suggests that we proceed only at our own risk; while my folks head back (looping down along the lagoon shoreline, then cutting across the pebbly plain to the parking lot), I venture farther, carefully hiking up troughs that have been carved into the nearest appendage of the glacier. Shovels are standing by to add more grit underfoot for traction. Reaching the point where properly outfitted adventurers begin their cautious hike on top of the glacier’s icy slope, I double back and follow the muddy lagoon back to our car.

We’re getting low on gas — alarmingly low — but I know that there’s a gas station in Vík, just over the next ridge. A half-hour’s drive later, we pull into that N1 station…and discover that the power’s out and the pumps don’t work. We have maybe 20 miles’ worth of gas, but the next nearest station is 50 miles in either direction. We cut it too close. The guy at the next pump matter-of-factly tells us he’s been waiting there for two hours, and was told it could be hours longer.

Just as our idyllic day is about to crash down around us, the gas station attendant walks up, tears down the “out of order” sign, and flips the switch to reboot the pump. Phew! A few minutes later, we’re gassed up and heading back toward Reykjavík. The lesson: Never wait too long for gas.

It’s getting late in the afternoon, but a few more stops temp us to delay our two-hour return drive to Reykjavík. First up, we turn off for the black-sand beach at Reynisfjara, where otherworldly sea stacks loom just offshore, and mind-bending basalt formations are etched into the cliffs.

Next up, we take another turnoff for the looming promontory called Dyrhólaey. Our four-wheel-drive car makes easy work of the steep, chopped-up-gravel road to the top. Once up there, we bask in spectacular views in all directions — black-sand beaches as far as the eye can see, with the open Atlantic on one side, and glacier-capped volcanoes on the other.

Circling around the lighthouse at the promontory’s peak, we peer down into sea caves excavated by the pounding surf.

On our way back down from Dyrhólaey, crossing the causeway connecting the promontory to the mainland, we notice several cars pulled over. We join them and venture out onto the black-sand flats at low tide. The bright sun, low in the sky, casts miraculous reflections against the wet black sand — making us feel as if we’re walking on water. It’s one of those giddy encounters with nature that seem to happen far more here in Iceland than just about anywhere else. Our stroll across the glassy water is the ideal grand finale to our spectacular South Coast day.

But there’s still a long drive back home — mostly back the way we came. On our way through, we pull off for a better look at Seljalandsfoss waterfall, now perfectly illuminated by the late-afternoon sun. It’s getting cooler now, so we skip the exhilarating but very wet hike on the heavily misted path behind the waterfall.

Heading back toward home, we enjoy the last few moments of sunlight. We could head all the way back to Reykjavík for a late dinner. Or we could stop for dinner along the way — getting home later, but full. I think through my favorite options in this area. For microbrews and excellent pizza, we could stop off in the town of Hveragerði at Ölverk. But it’s likely crowded this time of night…and it is our last night in Iceland. Maybe something a little more Icelandic?

I suddenly remember a tip from my colleague (and Rick Steves’ Europe cartographer), Dave Hoerlein, who had told me about a memorable place to try the Icelandic delicacy humar. Somewhere between a little lobster and a giant shrimp, the humar is the top-tier foodie treat for Icelanders. We call ahead to book a table, then take a slight detour to the coastal village of Stokkseyri, where we have a humar dinner at Fjöruborðið (“The Water’s Edge”).

We’ve been watching our budget so far, but we decide to invest in a blowout, when’s-the-next-time-I’m-gonna-be-in-Iceland feast, ordering a copper kettle with humar tails luxuriously sautéed in garlic butter and spritzed with lemon, plus generous side salads. At around $160 for all three of us (including drinks and a shared dessert), we realize it’s not that much more than we’d pay for a quality seafood feast back home. Who says Iceland is demoralizingly expensive?

On our way home to Reykjavík, I conduct my informal poll with my sample size of two: Golden Circle or South Coast? When all was said and done, my folks say they preferred the South Coast — despite the longer hours in the car, the scenery was that much more spectacular and varied. But it’s hard to know whether the significant difference in weather is what put the South Coast over the top. They agree that either would be a satisfying, concise look at Iceland…but doing both was well worth the time. Why not?

Back at the Airbnb, we’re ready to turn in early. But then, as I’m out for a late stroll, I glance up in the sky and notice a shimmering sea of lime-green light. My previous visits to Iceland have always been in the summer; not only had I not seen the Northern Lights, but I’ve never even seen Iceland in the dark. So this is my first time experiencing the aurora borealis dancing over Iceland — faintly, but it’s there. I instantly grasp why those swirling lights capture travelers’ imaginations…they are mesmerizing, almost mystical.

Grand scenery, check. Waterfalls, check. Thermal springs, check. Humar feast, check. And now, Northern Lights…check!

Day 3: A Quick Look at Reykjavík & Soaking in the Blue Lagoon

Our flight home to Seattle is scheduled for 5 p.m. Working our way backwards, that means dropping our car off at 3, and reserving a slot at the Blue Lagoon (near the airport) at 1. That gives us until noon to see Reykjavík.

You might have noticed that our “perfect” 72 hours in Iceland includes very little time in Reykjavík. The Icelandic capital is a fine city and a wonderful home base, and there are some worthwhile sights to be seen here. But if all you have is two (or even three) full days in Iceland, they’re best spent in the spectacular countryside. You can still explore Reykjavík in the morning and evening — or, like us, do an “express tour” on your morning of departure.

With our morning in Reykjavík, we pack up our bags, throw them in the back of our car, lock up our Airbnb (and stick the key in the lockbox), and head out to explore the city. We stroll through the compact core of town, pausing at “The Pond,” the city hall (with its giant topographical model of Iceland — allowing us to trace the routes of our two day trips), the sleepy parliament square, and the historic core of town, with its colorfully painted, steel-clad houses.

Since it’s a Saturday, we swing by the indoor flea market, Kolaportið, just as it opens at 11. it’s a fun opportunity to browse secondhand Icelandic sweaters, ruffle through used books in Icelandic, and get in from the cold.

Another pro hack: Iceland’s famous “hardship foods” are rarely sold in restaurants, and when they are, they’re way too expensive (priced to gouge curious tourists). If you’re in town on a weekend (Saturdays and Sundays, 11:00 until 5:00), the flea market’s food section has free samples of unique munchies ranging from dried-out “fish jerky” snacks (harðfiskur) to the notorious “rotted shark” (hákarl). This infamous dish — which tastes like strong fish mingled with ammonia — is sold for about $10-12 in a few restaurants, or you can buy a little plastic tub for $5. Or, at the flea market, you can just sample a tiny little gelatinous jiggling cube on a toothpick — the most you will ever want to eat, I guarantee — for free. To cleanse the palate (and you’ll need it), a nearby stand dispenses generous free samples of licorice treats dipped in milk chocolate.

Leaving the flea market, we head back to our car, wave goodbye to Reykjavík, and drive 45 minutes toward the airport. We have one more Icelandic experience on deck: the famous Blue Lagoon lava-rock spa, nestled in a jagged landscape a short drive from the airport. Knowing we’d want only a quick dip, we’ve reserved for 1:00. In retrospect, 12:00 would have been a less rushed timeframe before our 5:00 flight. But as it turns out, our timing is ideal…today is not the day to linger at the Blue Lagoon. As we drive through the lava landscape, a howling sideways wind kicks up, pelting our windows with frigid liquid BBs and threatening to muscle our car right off the road.

We grab our swimsuits, bundle up, and walk from the parking lot to the Blue Lagoon entrance. The quarter-mile walk, through horizontal sleet, feels like climbing Everest. We’re soaked to the core by the time we get inside. But as soon as we change and lower ourselves into the opaque, hundred-degree water, we forget all about the cold and rain.

Except…we can’t really forget about it. Because the wind is skimming across the surface of the lagoon like a jet ski, swirling up substantial white caps that keep slapping us in the face. Our skin turns pink from being pelted by freezing rain. We try to ease the pain by smearing the free exfoliating silica goo on our faces. But it just gets blasted off by the rain.

Seeking a more relaxing experience, we find our way to a little cove, more protected by chunky rocks, and where thundering waterfalls offer an incredibly relaxing shoulder massage. (If only I could do this just before every transatlantic flight…) Periodically I venture out across the sloshing lagoon waters, swimming hard against the current, with frigid hurricane-force winds whipping refrigerated needles at my face. But I soon return to the relative tranquility of my protected cove. Usually the Blue Lagoon is an entirely relaxing soak — but today it feels like an adventure water park.

A word about the Blue Lagoon: It’s expensive (around $100 per person) and requires advance reservations. For these reasons, it’s not worth a visit for every traveler — particularly those on a budget, or those for whom a hot-water soak is not appealing. (For penny pinchers, Iceland has a whole world of municipal swimming pools, fed by natural thermal water that’s every bit as hot as the Blue Lagoon, for a tenth the price…but without the dramatic setting and spa elegance.) As for me, I’m a fan: Even under the worst possible circumstances, the Blue Lagoon is undeniably memorable.

After soaking, we head back inside, dry off, get dressed, and head to the airport. (Total cost for the three-day car rental: $250, plus one-and-a-half tanks of gas for about $120 total.) And before we know it, we’re heading home from our Icelandic layover — pleased as punch about how we’ve made the most of our limited time.

Despite sticking to a budget and traveling outside of peak season, we were able to bring home memories of a unique land that we’ll treasure for a lifetime. We’ll be back…and next time, we may be tempted to stick around even longer.


This is just one family’s 72-hour Iceland layover. But you could use it as a blueprint for a trip of your own, modifying it as you like. Step-by-step details for every last thing described here are laid out in the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook.

In the summer, things are more crowded (and more expensive), but the daylight is endless — allowing you an even better look at Reykjavík early or late.

And in midwinter, days are much shorter and roads can be dicey, making it more tempting to stay close to Reykjavík, or to book guided excursions to leave the driving to an expert.

If you’ve got 48 hours, pick just one of the day trips — I’d give a slight edge to the South Coast over the Golden Circle, but it’s a toss-up. With an extra day, add the Westman Islands. With yet another day, settle into Reykjavík. For more advice, see my posts on Icelandic itinerary tips and the best day trips from Reykjavík.

For more on Iceland, pick up a copy of our new Rick Steves Iceland guidebook; check out the blog series I wrote while working on the book; and watch my 75-minute Iceland travel talk.

2019 Discovery: Glacier Lagoons and Diamond Beach, Iceland

Crowds got you down? This post is part of a series of 10 European Discoveries for 2019 — off-the-beaten-path gems where you can escape the tourist rut and find a corner of Europe all your own.

Iceland’s rugged, stunning South Coast can be seen on a long day trip from Reykjavík. But, as with many things in Iceland, those willing to venture farther are rewarded with even more spectacular sights. Beyond the casual tourists’ South Coast, about four hours from Reykjavík, sit two dramatic glacier lagoons: Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón. Formed where tongues of great glaciers lap at serene pools, the lagoons bob with giant chunks of centuries-old ice.

Visitors bundle up, pack into RIBs (rigid inflatable boats), and zip across the frigid, glassy water, weaving between icebergs and listening for the shotgun-like crack of new ones calving off the glacier.

Arguably even more stunning — just downriver from Jökulsárlón — is “Diamond Beach,” where those icebergs wash up on a black-sand beach in the last stage of their slow-motion journey to the open Atlantic. I was on the beach around sunset (in June, that means midnight) to watch hazy sunbeams filter through these glittering chunks of ice — gigantic diamonds scattered across an endless expanse of black velvet.

While there are plenty of reasons to invest an entire week in doing the full “Ring Road” drive around the perimeter of Iceland, these glacier lagoons may just be reason enough to extend your Icelandic layover.


Heading to Iceland? Here’s how to get ready:

1) Pick up a copy of our new Rick Steves Iceland guidebook.
2) Check out the blog series I wrote while working on the book.
3) Watch my 75-minute Iceland travel talk.

Top 10 Icelandic Experiences: Volcanoes, Glaciers, Puffins, and More

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.

Westman Islands, Iceland

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.

Myvatn, Iceland

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.

Happy travels!


Thanks for joining me for my Iceland blog series. Of course, you’ll find details on all of the experiences mentioned in this post in our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook, co-authored by Ian Watson.

In case you missed some of my other Iceland posts, here are all the links:

Top 10 Budget Tips for Iceland

Welcome to Iceland: A Stroll Through Reykjavík

The Westman Islands: Volcanoes and Puffins in Iceland’s Undiscovered Gem

How to Enjoy Iceland’s Thermal Baths: The Blue Lagoon and Beyond

Lake Mývatn: North Iceland’s Geothermal Wonderland

How to Drive Iceland’s Ring Road: The Ultimate 800-Mile Road Trip

What to Eat in Iceland

Iceland’s 4 Best Day Trips from Reykjavík

How to Plan an Iceland Itinerary — From a 24-Hour Layover to a 2-Week Road Trip

Family Travel: Visiting Iceland with Children