7 Stunning Reasons Why You Need to Visit Iceland
The number of visitors to Iceland increases each year. It might have something to do with the otherworldly topography, amazing food and surprisingly temperate climate.
For such a small place (the population is just over 120,000), Reykjavík has some excellent art. When you aren’t gallery-hopping, squeeze in a visit to the Hallgrímskirkja Evangelical-Lutheran Church (hallgrimskirkja.is) and the Harpa concert hall (harpa.is). If you’re in the mood, drop by the Icelandic Phallological Museum (phallus.is) for an hour and check out the world’s largest collection of mammal penises—215 at last count. #RomanceNotDead
There are lots of hotels and inns in Reykjavík, but there never seems to be enough to satisfy the constant influx of people, so book well in advance. Visitors opt for two-star digs or sharing accommodations to offset travel expenses, which can run on the high side. Two more-than-comfortable options include the chic Apotek Hotel (keahotels.is) and the arty 101 Hotel (101hotel.is).
The new Nordic cuisine is built for both comfort (grilled lamb, tuna steak, to-die-for butter) and adventure (fermented shark, horse carpaccio, smoked puffin); try to strike a balance. Gastro hot spots worth checking out include Dill (dillrestaurant.is), Grillmarket (grillmarkadurinn.is) and Vox (vox.is), the latter in the Hilton Hotel. Keep in mind that you will need reservations everywhere. For bars, the cool kids gravitate to Kaffibarinn (kaffibarinn.is), which gets going around 10 p.m. Style tip: Dress it down.
There are more than 20 active volcanoes and countless geothermal hot springs in Iceland, so the word “spa” takes on a whole new meaning. The island’s abundance of geothermal energy is one of the reasons pool culture is so entrenched: Locals treat the swimming pool like a pub; they pop in before or after work for a chat. Reykjavík has seven pools—Sundhöllin and Laugardalslaug among them—offering a chance to soothe the skin and soul. Out of town, the Mývatn Nature Baths (myvatnnaturebaths.is), in the northeast about one hour from Akureyri, is a relaxing, rustic spa experience. Swim in geothermal water rich with minerals and silicates drawn from depths of up to 2,500 metres. If you haven’t seen gorgeous Blue Lagoon (bluelagoon.com), located close to Iceland’s gateway, Keflavík Airport, then you’re not on Instagram. Nighttime visits here are especially romantic, and there’s a swim-up bar.
Road tripping is the thing to do in Iceland, but if your time is limited, prioritize the Golden Circle. This 300-kilometre tour includes a visit to Thingvellir National Park (thingvellir.is), Geysir and Gullfoss. Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, once the centre of Icelandic culture and now recognized as the birthplace of the world’s first parliament in 930 AD. Geysir (extremeiceland.is) is an active geothermal region of boiling mud pits and more than a dozen hot-water geysers, the most predictable being Strokkur, which erupts every 10 minutes. Make sure you sample the geothermal-baked bread—fresh from the ground. A little farther east, two-tiered Gullfoss (gullfoss.is), or Golden Falls, on the White River, is one of Europe’s prettiest waterfalls in that sunny, made-for-rainbows kind of way. You can get really close to the edges, too. Be careful.
The thing to remember while shopping in Iceland is that everything has to be shipped in, hence the hefty price tags. This makes local woollen ware especially attractive and exclusive. Hand-knit sweaters and accessories will deliver traditional, homespun luxury (handknit.is), and the 1970s-designed Fuzzy stool (fuzzy.is), crafted from sheep’s wool, will look smashing in most foyers. Gourmet Saltverk salt (saltverk.com), in flavours like Arctic thyme, licorice and smoked birch, are worth a lick.
If you have a bit more time on your hands, consider taking a 45-minute domestic flight north to the town of Akureyri for at least a couple of nights. Besides the history and geological oddities—the region includes waterfalls, fumaroles and a visible fault line between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates—this is arguably the best place to see the northern lights, visible on clear nights from September to April. The town has a few extremely nice restaurants to sink your teeth into, including seafood restaurant Rub23 (rub23.is) and the more casual Hamborgarafabrikkan (fabrikkan.is). The Akureyri Thermal Pool (visitakureyri.is) is one of the best swimming-pool facilities in all of Europe.