If you’re planning for adventure, a frozen land forged by volcanoes at the edge of the earth is a pretty great choice. Iceland is a place that moves you and makes you feel small. It’s a cold, crisp country that forces out the plucky explorer in you.
Cue catchy Of Monsters and Men song: here’s some of the coolest places to get your Walter Mitty on.
Hot springs – beyond the Blue Lagoon
The pale blue waters of the Blue Lagoon are perhaps Iceland’s most famous attraction. It’s no surprise – the springs are vast and gorgeous, and right by the airport for a pre- or post-trip dip. Don’t let that be your only experience of Iceland’s cosy ‘hot pot’ culture, though. The country is brimming with geothermally heated pools for soaking a traveller’s weary bones.
Mývatn Nature Baths in the north are an exceptional alternative to the Blue Lagoon. They’re smaller but cheaper, way less crowded and totally beautiful. Also in the north, try the local swimming pool (geothermally heated, of course) at Hofsós, which offers an incredible infinity view out to the Greenland Sea, or get right off the beaten path by visiting Grettislaug, an isolated pool named for the eleventh-century outlaw who swam seven kilometres from his home on a nearby island to soak in the hot springs there (can’t fault him; it’s awfully lovely). Down south, Seljavallalaug – built into the mountainside in the 1920s – is another wonderful hidden gem worth the short valley trek.
Go chasing all of the waterfalls
Thanks to the glacial melt escaping from the highlands, Iceland is a wonderland for waterfalls. You’re likely to catch Gullfoss on the Golden Circle circuit outside of Reykjavík, but head out onto the Ring Road and it gets infinitely better from there.
In the south, Seljalandsfoss is the famous waterfall you can climb up behind, and it’s a truly exhilarating (if damp) experience to get up there inside the falls. Don’t skip out before taking a peek at Gljúfrabúi, a hidden waterfall just a short walk on from Seljalandsfoss. It’s reached through a crack in the rock which opens out into a misty cavern, where shafts of white light and water plunge down from above. Skógafoss is another majestic waterfall just a short drive further along the Ring Road.
In the north, thundering Dettifoss claims the crown as Europe’s most powerful waterfall. It can be nigh on impossible to get to Dettifoss outside of the summer months, but nearby Goðafoss – directly off the Ring Road – is a more than worthy consolation.
Fish soup for the soul
It’s not known as a gastronomic capital, but there are certainly a few things worth whetting your appetite for in Iceland.
Make plenty of time to hole up at Kaffihús Bakkabræðra in Dalvík, a cosy outpost in Iceland’s north. This cafe-cum-bar is styled on a beloved storybook series featuring three dim-witted Icelandic brothers, and is filled with old-timey knick-knacks and other homespun delights. The fish soup is the star of the show, and after a couple of bowls you’ll want to stay on for a local beer, coffee and homemade cakes. Enjoy more of the owners’ extraordinary hospitality at the Dalvík HI Hostel.
Höfn is a picturesque little fishing village in the south-east corner of the country, and the place to go to for langoustine (scampi) – a lobster-like crustacean renowned for gracing the world’s fanciest menus. Accordingly, it can be pricey, which makes Hafnarbuðin – a bright little shack by Höfn’s shore – a total treasure; fresh langoustine rolls go for about $15AUD. No-frills charm at its finest.
Iceland also has this thing with hotdogs. They’re a big deal. The lines at Bæjarins Beztu in Reykjavík attest to its reputation as the most famous ‘dog stand in the land. The offering is simple – crispy onions, dark mustard, tomato sauce – but welcome in its cheap and cheerful ease. Meistarinn in Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is another favourite, especially with the locals. In fact, each hotdog on offer is named after one of the Stykkishólmur residents.
Iceland has a burgeoning craft brewery scene, and it would be remiss not to support it by taking part in a tipple or two. Kaldi is an excellent brewery in the north, near Dalvik, where you can take an organised tour by appointment, whilst the Kaldi Bar in Reykjavík is also a great place to cosy down and sip on their seasonal brews. Borg Brugghús, which produces beer inspired by the Icelandic landscape and culture, is also another great brewer to watch out for in Reykjavík bars.
And one last thing – do not leave Iceland without trying Skyr. It’s a traditional Icelandic snack like an exceptionally creamy, delicious yoghurt, and veritable marvel of dairy.
Things that make you go woah
Iceland is filled with the kind of stuff that simply defies anything you’ve ever seen before. A small detour off the Ring Road in the south brings you to Svínafellsjökull, an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Iceland. It’s slashed with black volcanic ashes; a stunning display of Iceland’s volatile geology. Jökulsárlón, nearby, is a silvery lagoon left behind by another of Vatnajökull’s outlet glaciers. A temporary home to icebergs slowly floating out to the Atlantic, it’s so quiet and peaceful you can actually hear them crackle.
The volcanic nature of Iceland also means that the beaches are vast and black as night. You’ll find these beaches all around the country, but Dyrhólaey is the most well-known. It’s also got the added perk of being home to nesting puffin colonies from April to September.
And lastly, do not miss Fjaðrárgljúfur. It’s an awe-inspiring canyon that still, somehow, seems to be one of Iceland’s best-kept secrets in the well-trodden south.
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