An isolated island perched in the North Atlantic, Iceland is defined by its majestic landscapes and the historic efforts of this Nordic culture to survive harsh conditions on land and at sea. With history built on a blend of folklore and real-life legends, Iceland is country of intrepid explorers and seafaring farmers, rich with tradition and vibrant cultural heritage. A geologically young island made up of active volcanoes and carved by glacial ice, the physical landscape changes drastically throughout the country. From the flat-top mountains of the Westfjords to the jagged peaks of the Eastfjords, traveling through Iceland is a windswept smorgasboard of dazzling views and jaw-dropping beauty. Get your fill of boisterous nightlife in Reykjavik on summer nights when the sun doesn’t set, and then head onto lonely roads that curve along fjords and zigzag over plateaus. A land where mountains crash into sea, sandy beaches are a rainbow of color, the hills burst alive with summer greens, and snow glows purple in the long nights of winter, Iceland is an outdoor paradise waiting to be explored. Relax in natural hot springs, kayak in remote fjords, hike along coursing streams, mountain bike, horseback ride, whale watch, or bask in the Northern Lights; there is truly no end to adventure in this country of surreal natural beauty.
Home to two-thirds of the country’s population, Reykjavik is a young and vibrant city packed with trendy bars, excellent museums, and colorful buildings. Compact and immaculately clean, this a great city to tour on foot; walk along the waterfront and you quickly leave the buzz of the city behind. A charming capital city with unique modern architecture, Reykjavik is a great base to explore some of the country’s most iconic sites. Take a full-day tour on the Golden Circle and you will see the thundering Gullfoss waterfall, jetting geysers, and the crystalline-waters of Silfra lake in Thingvellir National Park. Travel along the stunning south coast and visit black sand beaches, or spend a day soaking in the geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon.
Perched on a narrow peninsula jutting out on the southeastern coast of Iceland, Höfn is one of the larger towns in this part of the country with a population of around 2,000 people. An active fishing town, Höfn is a gateway for exploring the waterfalls and hiking trails of the Skaftafell area of the larger Vatnajökull National Park. An area known for its variety of bird species and a high concentration of arctic foxes, it is also home to the immense blue walls of the Vatnajökull glacier.
Vík í Mýrdal
The southernmost village in Iceland, Vík is a great base for exploring this part of Iceland, and offers its own magnificent landscape. The black basalt sand beaches, vivid green-clad cliffs, and the crash of icy waves offer a hint of the rugged and unique beauty of Iceland. Located in the shadow of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, this area is a paradise for bird-lovers, with one of the largest arctic tern breeding grounds nearby; Vík is also a summer home to puffins. From the Reynisdrangar rock pillars surging out of the ocean, to the nearby waterfalls of Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss, the surrounding area is home to an array of natural treasures. Travel further east towards the tiny town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur, and you can visit the Laki craters or the dramatic Eldgjá canyon.
A fishing village with fewer than 3,000 people, sitting on a sand spit that forms a natural harbor on the fjord, Ísafjörður is a great base to explore the vast and mystical Westfjords. There a handful of cozy bars and cafés, and several tour operators to get you biking, hiking, kayaking, or skiing in the winter. Sweeping valleys of green summer pasture climb the rocky slopes of the distinctive flat-top mountains of the region. Quiet roads wrap around fingers of land reaching out into the sea and offer infinite views and endless options to hop out of the car and hike. Head to Bolungarvik, to the north of Ísafjörður, and take in the amazing view from Bolafjall mountain, or drive out to the isolated black sand cove of Skálavík. Stroll through downtown isafjordur and visit the Westfjords Heritage Museum, or walk along the crumbling old road to Bolungarvik for view out across the water to Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, a remote and unbelievably serene landscape reachable only by boat.
Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is home to an abundance of birds, seals, and is one of the best places in the world to see arctic foxes. This area is incredibly isolated, reachable only by boat, but offers some of the most rewarding hiking for all levels and great backcounty skiing in the winter. Hike along the bay of Hornvik and visit towering cliffs that are home to countless birds, or simply relax along the water and enjoy the silence of this magical place. Accessible on day trips or for longer overnight stays at rustic base camps or for more remote camping, Hornstrandir is a standout landscape in a country of unsurpassable beauty.
Tucked out of the way down a winding valley, Rauðisandur is a seemingly infinite beach of red sand that is another unique treasure of the Westfjords. If you have the time to drive the long way around the Westfjords you will be rewarded with incredible waterfalls, views across the top of the world, solitude, and this amazing beach. Rauðisandur stretches six miles along an estuary, below towering cliffs, and is the perfect place for a long walk and a picnic. With sights like these, you won’t regret spending an extra day or three traveling through the Westfjords.
A bustling town of 18,000 people, a large city by Icelandic standards, Akureyri is a vibrant cultural hub and also remains an important port and fishing center. Situated on the end of Eyjafjörður, a nearly 40 mile long fjord, and surrounded by mountains, Akureyri is a great base for exploring the trails and slopes of the area. The compact city center is pleasant place to spend a day with shops, a trendy café and restaurant scene, and a handful of museums and art galleries. Visit the Botanical Gardens where they have every endemic plant species, or time your trip for one of the many festivals Akureyri hosts throughout the year.
Known as the whale-watching capital of Iceland, you can head out on the water for the chance to see humpback, minke, and blue whales. Colorful houses along the waterfront and a handful of cafés and restaurants serving fresh seafood and local products create an atmosphere of welcome and comfort. The terrain surrounding Húsavík is a unique combination of cliffs, coastal lakes, and beaches, and makes for fantastic hiking and is a great area to see a wide-variety of Iceland’s birds. Húsavík is also a prime destination to find natural and hand-crafted hot springs, so take your time and relax under the midnight sun of summer or the long starry nights of winter.
On the road between Akureyri and Húsavík, Lake Mývatn is an incredible fusion of landscapes into a bricolage of natural splendor. Bubbling mudflats and steaming volcanic craters collide with lush pasture, desolate lava formations and the phosphorescent glow of mineral-rich waters. The lake itself is home to a dense concentration of many different varieties of Iceland’s birds. Take your time and enjoy the incredible singularity of Lake Mývatn before heading off to find the next gem Iceland has in store.
An inviting little town in the Eastfjords, Borgarfjörður Eystri is an active fishing town and a hub for outdoor adventure. Encircled by jagged peaks, distinct from the flat-top mountains of the Westfjords, there is a well-marked network of paths for every level of hiker. This area is also popular for mountain biking and horseback riding. Beautiful waterfalls, panoramic views over the ocean, local folklore, delicious fish soup, and a soothing spa, this town is well-worth heading off of the ring road; time your visit right and it is also a great spot to see puffins.
Accessible only by boat as recently as 1950, this town of 1,500 people sits out at the end of a narrow road and is known for its music scene and incredible hiking trails. In town you can visit the Museum House—a delightful mix of art, natural history, and Iceland’s maritime legacy—or take a walk over the massive avalanche walls that are the center of a pleasant town park and a great place for views over the fjord. Enjoy the serenity of the Neskaupstadur Nature Reserve on the edge of town, or head up into the hills for spectacular hiking and horseback riding, or get out on the fjord in a kayak. You can also take a tour to an unpopulated peninsula across the fjord for a taste of true solitude.
A tiny town in the northeastern part of the country, Vopnafjörður is surrounded by mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and history. Visit the historic turf and stone buildings of the Bustarfell farm, or meander along scenic walking trails in the valley that connect different historical and natural highlights. Dynamic coastline stretches out on both sides of the town to magnificent beaches and jagged cliffs, and turning inland, the mountains form a dramatic skyline of pointed peaks. Enjoy home-cooking at a guesthouse, and get the locals’ insight on hidden coves and scenic overlooks to discover the wonders of this isolated valley. Like anywhere in Iceland, your journey to get here is half the joy.