It was four in the afternoon on my first full day in Iceland. My group and I were in a van on our way to a hot spring after spending four hours off-road ATVing through the rivers, creeks, mountains and hills of Western Iceland. We were cold and tired, but couldn’t stop talking about everything we saw, from the incredible waterfalls, to the snow capped fjords, to the amazing rainbow settling just over the valley.
As we began to wind down, our van stopped on a quiet and deserted road. Our guide, a beautiful and outgoing blonde from Iceland, jumped out and said “We’re here! Grab your suits and follow me!” The six of us stepped out of the van and looked around. There were no other cars, no charter buses, vans or loud groups of tourists. As we climbed the sloping hill and found our way to the small and magnificent hot spring, we were shocked that this was just for us.
We kicked off our shoes and began to sink into the natural warm spring. Our guide passed around a few Vikings, one of the local Icelandic beers, and we sipped them. The only sounds you could hear echoing over the mountains was our laughter and the occasional crunch of an aluminum can. In the end, it was just my friends and I, sitting in this nature made spring completely untouched by the changing times, in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Those moments of rare tranquility in a truly untouched natural wonderland are exactly why you need to visit Iceland. A few years ago, it was just another country in the middle of the ocean, a hidden gem that was only foraged by the people who grew up on it. Now, more and more tourists flock to this stunning land every year , and soon enough those quiet moments might not exist anymore.
And if that’s not reason enough to go, here are six more that will have you googling prices to Iceland in 5 seconds flat.
The healing hot springs and blue lagoon
Because Iceland is a volcanic island, much of the landscape is speckled with hot springs. Since visiting every single hot spring might be impossible in Iceland, why not just hit a few of the highlights? To start, visit the iconic Blue Lagoon. It’s the most touristy, but also the most established, with spas, VIP lounges, cafes and a gift shop. The Blue Lagoon rests at about 96 degrees F daily, and has swim up bars and skin products made from the natural muds. Another well-known spring is Geysir, which is located in Haukadulr, or the southern tip. Geysir is known for erupting water columns that reach up to 150 feet into the air. Snorralaug, which is located in the Western region of Reykholt, is home to one of the oldest springs in Iceland that dates back to the 12th century. A little less known hot spring, Hveragerdi, is made up of two springs, the Blue Hot Springs and Riverside and is located in the South.
The surprisingly delicious food
There is so much more to Icelandic cuisine than fermented shark, and thank heavens for that. The cuisine in Iceland is very Nordic, but also has touches of Asian and European influence. If you’re not sure what to order when visiting, always start with the seafood first. The island has some of the most incredible seafood around, from organic cod, to lobsters and langoustines, salmon and more. Start with dishes like Plokkfishkur (fish mashed with potatoes), fresh scallop fish stew with bold seasonings, or seared salmon with fresh berry jam. They are also known for their grass fed meats, like beef and lamb. You actually can’t visit Reykjavik without stopping at the most popular restaurant in town, the hot dog stand. Here you’ll enjoy an all lamb hot dog topped with mustard, crunchy onions, and remoulade.
And if you’re feeling daring, try the fermented shark. But only do it in the company of local Icelandics and have a full shot of Black Death to wash it all down.
The quirky and incredibly beautiful people
If there’s one thing I noticed about the people of Iceland, it’s how incredibly beautiful they are. They aren’t joking about blonde hair and blue eyes. But, that’s not all that makes these people so alluring. They’re incredibly kind, welcoming and hospitable. They also have a serious sense of humor that is as dry and sarcastic as a Ricky Gervais movie. They are both proud and passionate about their culture, and will regale you with stories and myths they’ve heard from their families. This is often disputed by the locals, but about 20% of the population believes in elves. The are also resilient and excited, and are always up for late night drinks, long hikes in the mountains and dangerous ATV rides and ski jumps.
For a taste of true Iceland hospitality, humor, whit, and tradition, visit the Frystiklefinn (or the freezer), which is a professional theatre and hostel in the quiet and quaint town of Rif. If you can, catch the one-man show Hetja, featuring the incredibly talented Kári Viðarsson. The play is about one of the local legends of Rif, and has plenty of that Icelandic humor you can’t get enough of.
The natural beauty everywhere you look
You can’t round a corner in this country without stumbling upon a glacier crystal lake, black sand beach, jagged cliffs and snow peaked mountains, moss covered lava fields, a magical fjord, waterfalls, or an active volcano. The best way to see every piece of natural beauty the island has to offer is to drive along the Ring Road, the 800 mile highway that circles the entire country. If you’re only in Reykjavik for a few days, there is still plenty to be seen right outside the city. From the Blue Lagoon to the Geysir, Gulfuss, and Thingvellir, you don’t need to travel far to experience some Iceland’s most incredible natural wonders.
If you want to escape the city and see a piece of Western Iceland, I highly recommend contacting the people at Wild West Tours for a trip to the majestic Snæfellsnes glacier, and hike up the surrounding mountains. Here you’ll see sweeping views of the black sand beaches, the stunning west fjords, and the surrounding Snæfellsjökull mountain ranges.
It’s closer and easier to get to than you think
Did you know that a flight from NYC, Boston, or DC is less than 5 hours from the Reykajvik airport? And almost every flight out of these Icelandair hubs is nonstop. Nonstop flights aren’t just offered from the East Coast either. Seattle, Vancouver, Edmonton, Denver, and Orlando each have nonstop service into Reykajvik all year round.
Another fantastic part about flying Icelandair is that they offer short or longer stopovers to explore the country while you’re on your way to another destination. Since every flight from the US to Europe stops in Iceland, the airline gives you the option to stay as long as you’d like with no extra charge before heading to your final destination in Europe. Your stopovers can be as short as 5 hours or as long as a week, and the airline will help connect you with local tour groups and hotels to make your time in Iceland incredible.
The dark, the light, and everything in between
For about three months of every year (in the summer), the sky is bright for a full 24 hours. That means the sun only sets for a few minutes each day. During those months, you can do anything, including run outside, go swimming or kayak all night long. And then, for a few months in the winter, there is light in the sky for only 3 – 4 hours. During those months, you’ll get the chance to see the stunning Northern Lights. Visit Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is one of the best spots in the world to catch the aurora borealis.
There are a million other reasons to visit Iceland, but my words won’t do them justice. The only way to see why you have to go to Iceland is to pack your bags and get there.