Presenting: The Ultimate Grapevine Travel Iceland Guide. Scroll down for our favourite places in the north, east, south, west and more.
It truly feels like we are living in dystopian times. The COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly changed the world in such nuanced ways that we now hesitate before even shaking hands. We’ve been forced to slow down. Our friends, our families, our routines—that we found so boring and tedious before—are now the things we value most. And in some ways, the crisis has also reminded us of how disconnected we’ve become, not only to our nature, but to each other.
Travel Iceland again
Icelanders have been fleeing this godforsaken island for a long time now. When my generation was young—I’m born in 1980, for reference—summers were spent camping with our parents. In fact, when I was 12, my family and I spent three weeks travelling around Iceland, visiting every town that was worth visiting at that time. That’s an undertaking I didn’t repeat for decades. The reason was simple: Icelanders had more money and we could finally afford to travel away from Iceland for vacation. If we didn’t go abroad, we’d visit a summerhouse. Camping ceased to be the national pastime.
See, after the tourist boom at the beginning of 2012, most Icelanders used their vacations to flee to warmer climates. And in that time—eight years later—everything has changed. When you travel around Iceland today, you will not find the rustic island that we once lived in, but instead, you’ll experience a sophisticated travel industry with infrastructure, hotels, and hundreds of activities to do in each sector of the country. Those that haven’t travelled for a while will barely recognise this new country, and it is delightful.
COVID-19 has forced us to travel Iceland again, to revisit our own land, one we’ve so often ignored. Once again, as we did so many years ago, we have to make peace with the rainy summers, constant wind, cold evenings, and choking hot mornings when we wake up suffocating in the stuffy tent. But, oh my, to wake up to the sound of the river surrounded by misty mountains—there is no way to describe what that does for your soul.
Hunting for beauty
So here we are, The Reykjavík Grapevine, advising you to spend this summer not travelling like an Icelander in Iceland, but as a guest in a foreign land.
Our writers have been journeying like madmen around this tiny island for years, finding secret locations, trying every dish in every city, and doing their best to share the magic of Iceland with the world. We’ve compiled it for years not only in our paper, but also in our Best Of Iceland magazines.
Now, in these difficult times, we’ve chosen to do so again, dedicating this issue to the places we love—some of which you might not even know existed. In these pages, comb through lists of our favourite oft-visited and oft-missed spots, read about the best countryside eateries, family camping areas, Reykjavík day trips, and more. It’s a reference for anyone, of course, but especially for you Icelanders, and we hope it helps you rediscover the majestic nature of Iceland once again and the new and exciting things that have popped up in the past years.
It’s no coincidence that in just years Iceland became one of the most popular and celebrated travel destinations in the world. And there’s a reason that NASA trains their astronauts here. Iceland is otherworldly, brimming with history, and uniquely breathtaking.
So since most Icelanders will be taking a stay-cation this summer, we’re here to help you out with a comprehensive selection of famous sites that are worth visiting and unknown places you shouldn’t miss (no matter how out of the way they are). Have a blast, friends.
- Hjalteyri: This town has it all for those about to travel the North of Iceland. Have a soak in their coastal hot tub before exploring whatever eccentric exhibition is on at the Verksmiðjan Á Hjalteyri gallery. For an adventure, grab your SUP board and meet some whales in the fjörd. Then it’s back to the hot tub.
- Langanes: Barely anyone lives on this remote peninsula. It’s the perfect spot for a pensive road trip filled with puffins, gannets and guillemots. You’ll even find a ghost town: Skálar!
- Sauðárkrókur: You never thought anyone would tell you to stop here, right? Well if you’re passing through, don’t miss the 1238 Museum, a virtual and augmented reality museum where you get to relive the Sturlung era and slaughter losers. Check out our town guide for Sauðárkrókur here.
- Mývatn: The Mývatn Nature Baths are popular for a reason. Try to go outside of peak-hours so you can have the pool to yourself.
- Arctic Coastal Highway: The most underrated drive in all of Iceland. Go north on Highway 82 outside of Akureyri and do the loop through Dalvík, Ólafsfjörður and Siglufjörður, ending at the Hofsós pool. Put on atmospheric music, ponder your own existence, try not to jump into the Atlantic to join the selkies, and stuff your face with chocolate at the Frida Chocolate Coffeehouse in Siglufjörður. Then write poetry.
- Forvöð: Why don’t we talk about this uninhabited and isolated area more often? Take a few days here to see Dettifoss—which is to Gullfoss what a lion is to a cat—the unreal Ásbyrgi canyon, and, you know, other cool stuff.
- Þingeyri: After you’ve stopped by the Látrabjarg cliffs to chat with the delightful terns and tell some secrets on the planes of Rauðisandur, head to Jón Sigurðsson’s Musical Instruments Museum to learn how to play the langspil, the traditional Icelandic drone zither. Check out our town guide for Þingeyri here.
- Árneshreppur: Stay a night at Hotel Djúpavík to soak in the silence, then drive one town north (yes, there’s a north of Djúpavík), obviously with a quick stop to soak at the sickeningly scenic Krossneslaug pool, to Norðfjörður. Check out their abandoned herring factory then learn about nature and ancient handicrafts at Elín Agla Briem’s Yurt. Yes, the Westfjords have a yurt. And you thought travelling in Iceland was all about waterfalls.
- Selárdalur: If you want concrete proof that Iceland was full of kooky artists long before Björk, take the unserviced Route 619 to the Samúel Jónsson museum. Filled with pastel plaster buildings and sculptures, it’ll inspire you to let your wild side out.
- Tjöruhúsið: Just eat here.
- Hornstrandir: Go. Just. Go. Trust us.
- Búðir: Hotel Búðir is a given for both food and rest, obviously, but next door there’s a random magical witch store simply marked by a sign that says SHOP. Stop by for amulets, mysterious powders, herbs and other spiritual objects. Then have a seance at the eerie Búðakirkja church.
- Snæfellsbær: Lýsuhólslaug, a.k.a. ‘The Green Lagoon’ is worth the drive out just for its skin-healing Chlorella-laced waters. Afterwards, drive to the Ytri Tunga beach and make friends with seals.
- Húsafell: Camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, hot pots, hiking, this town is an outdoorsy dream come true. Get that blood a’pumping! Oh, and shell out for a stay and meal at Hótel Húsafell.
- Stykkishólmur: Stykkishólmur is a town where you don’t even need to plan activities—simply staring out on their grassy peak at the thousands of birds flying around the Breiðafjörður bay is majestic enough. Taking a boat—or better yet, a kayak—into the water comes recommended though. Stopping by Helgafell on the way over ain’t a bad idea either.
- Snæfellsjökull: Hike up it (with a glacier guide and the right clothing and equipment, of course). Yes, it’s hard.
- Vatnsleysuströnd: Here’s a hidden gem. As you’re driving on Highway 41 towards the International Airport, take the side route on what Google Maps calls Highway 420 (lol) to snake around the north shore of Reykjanes. Hello and welcome to the scenic route along the Vatnsleysuströnd beach. Take great care, though, because it’s a bird breeding territory so don’t fuck up their nests. If you look hard enough, there will be a very dodgy side road, which Google Maps calls Jonathan Road (lol) that’ll lead you to an abandoned farmhouse which has become a haven for graffiti artists and also contains a selection of concrete sculptures. Stay weird, Reykjanes.
- Skaftafell: First, get your goth on at Svartifoss, the most black metal waterfall in the world. On the walk back, take every opportunity to hang out at the national park’s random areas covered with gnarled trees and mossy knolls. Send the trolls there our love. Afterwards, get some lamb at Freysnes, an unassuming gas station across the street from Hotel Skaftafell. If you have time, try to hop over to the Ingólfshöfði black sand cape to see some birds. Give them our love, too. Check out our Skaftafell town guide here.
- Sólheimasandur: An ATV tour is the way to go to see a black sand beach. It’s a weird mix between feeling like the Fast & The Furious and a meditative yogi that’ll really get you in touch with the Mother Atlantic. Pro-tip: Make sure to pick a tour that stops at the DC3 plane wreck. Do not miss this chance to see it without the Instagram crowd.
- Westman Islands: Of course, the Westman Islands are always a nice day trip for a walk about, but while you’re there, block out an hour or two for the Eldheimar museum, which is potentially the most exciting one in the country. Make a reservation at Slippurinn for a late lunch you’ll never forget. Check out our town guide for the Westman Islands here.
- Þórsmörk: One, if you’re going to hike up Þórsmörk, do it on the solstice. That’s spiritual af. Second, as you’re getting up to Þórsmörk, driving on the road past Seljalandsfoss, don’t stop there and keep going, it’ll eventually turn into a gravel path that’ll bring you into a 10-year-old glacial flood plane. There, commune with the rocks. After you’re done investigating, drive past the Eyjafjallajökull waterfalls on the path until you get to a series of lesser-known and even unnamed waterfalls. Many are close enough to walk to, so mosey over, stand in the spray, get naked, go swimming, and become friends with your new waterfall. Then, tell these new friendly waterfalls about the Reykjavík Grapevine.
- To start with, our favourite travel car game in the East of Iceland is called “Count The Reindeer.” On a recent road trip, we got up to 600. Can you beat our record?
- Hallormsstaðaskógur: A lakeside forest filled with gushing streams, tucked away cabins, the lovely Lake Lagarfljót and the picturesque Atlavík camping ground. Count us in.
- Jökuldalur: C’mon do we even have to recommend going to the Stuðlagil canyon? That emerald green water? Those imposing basalt columns? Are you serious? Here’s a pro-tip: Bring your LARPing gear to really get the feel of the place. Afterwards, take the one-hour drive to the Vök Geothermal Spa for some luxurious luxury. Maybe leave the LARPing gear in the car, though.
- Egilsstaðir: Vegans will rejoice at Sláturhúsið, a converted old slaughterhouse which is now an art house featuring exhibitions, music studios, artist apartments and more. Then, next door lies Tehúsið, a teahouse complete with vegan treats. The vegan dream is alive and well in Egilsstaðir. Check out our town guide here.
- Seyðisfjörður: LungA Festival is cancelled for 2020, but we’ve still got to mention our favourite countryside arts festival. We’re already pre-gaming for 2021. Drown your sorrows with Norð Austur’s tasting menu before getting shitfaced at the Reykjavík transplant Sirkus. Check out our town guide here.
- Obviously you need a 4×4 car to traverse the F-Roads of the Highlands. Our recommendation? Step it up and get a 4×4 camper van for your travel-Iceland-Highlands journey. Check out our camper van road trip here.
- Askja: First off, you’ve got the Holuhraun lava field, best known for its recent eruption as well as its raw beauty. Next, you’ve got the Askja caldera, which overlooks the milky Víti lagoon. Last up? Drekagil—”Dragon Gorge”—full of dark and spooky rock formations that feels very ‘Game Of Thrones’. Name a more iconic trio. Pro-tip: Do the hike from Askja to Drekagil. Yes, it’s seven hours, but yes it’s worth it.
- Hvannalindir: Fjalla-Eyvindur was Iceland’s most famous outlaw, who fled into the Highlands in 1760 with his outlaw wife Halla. They settled in Hveravellir and, though they are dead now (SAD!), you can explore their old hut and cave, called Eyvindarhellir, as well as Eyvindarhver, the hot spring dedicated to them . The whole area feels like an oasis. You can also sometimes see desert flowers.
- Hveradalir: If you thought the Seltún geothermal area was nice, the Hveradalir geothermal valley will blow your fucking mind. Get ready to travel through a bubbling sulfur-infused cloud of bright yellow, earthy red, mouldy powder blue and vivid emerald green as you traverse the dusty landscape. Stay at the Kerlingarfjöll Mountain Resort for extra luxury.
- Friðland að Fjallabaki: Landmannalaugar… need we (pardon my French) say any fucking more?
Note: Due to the effect the Coronavirus is having on travel in Iceland, it’s become increasingly difficult for the Grapevine to survive. If you enjoy our content and want to help the Grapevine’s journalists do things like eat and pay rent, please consider joining our High Five Club.
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