Iceland: the land of fire and ice. This sparsely populated, windswept island in the North Atlantic offers visitors a beautiful and desolate landscape of volcanoes and steaming geothermal fields, glaciers and snow-capped mountains. Here are our top five Must Dos to capture the drama and spectacle that is Iceland.
Gullfoss is one of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions for good reason. It is easily accessible from Reykjavík about 1 and half hour’s drive from the capital or via numerous tours. Fed by Iceland’s second largest glacier, the raging torrent of Gullfoss plunges down 32m over two stages into a 70m deep canyon. The waterfall and surrounds are perpetually shrouded in water vapour thrown up from the falls, and on a sunny day a shining rainbow can be seen over the area. Gullfoss however never fails to disappoint whatever the season or weather, be it cloaked in fog or bounded in snows. The walk from the carpark is long, wet and often slippery, so be sure to wear a raincoat and good walking shoes.
About 40km northeast of Reykjavík you will find the spectacular Thingvellir rift valley. Here two worlds literally collide where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. Tour bus drivers take great delight in announcing “You are now leaving Europe and entering America” as you pass over the rift. The huge rift valley is growing wider by 2cm a year as the tectonic plates separate. From the Visitor Centre at Hakið you can take in a panoramic view of Lake Thingvallavatn and the valley, and walk the immense Almannagjá fault. Admission to the Visitor centre is free and includes a fascinating multimedia show on the history and geography of the region. While driving the area provides truly stunning views, the more adventurous are offered hiking and horseback riding trails.
Located an hour's drive from Akureyri in north eastern Iceland, the Mývatn Geothermal Area provides one of the most dramatic examples of Iceland’s contrasting landscapes and vistas. Much of the area has a blasted, desolate feel, from the steaming geysers and sulphurous mud pools of Namafjall to the haunting, troll-like shapes of the Dimmuborgir Lava Formations. Lake Mývatn and its surrounding marshlands is a verdant, green wonderland of wildflowers and birdlife in the summer. Be sure to pack insect repellent as the midges are thick! End the day in the ‘Blue Lagoon’ silica waters of the Mývatn Nature Baths, floating in the 40°C waters while enjoying the view of volcanos and ice capped mountains.
A part of the Mývatn Geothermal Area, the Dimmuborgir Lava Formations (meaning dark castles) provides a fascinating insight into Icelandic mythology and the extraordinary geological forces that have shaped the land. Here you can wander a maze of dramatic, twisted pillars of jagged black rock, which according to Icelandic folklore, is home to the giant troll Grýla. Visitors are asked to imagine the strange rock formations as trolls caught in the sunlight and petrified for eternity, which children and adults alike will enjoy as every twist and turn reveals incredible new shapes. Be sure to keep an eye out for wild Icelandic sheep wandering among the rocks.
Even the most inexperienced rider will be well rewarded after saddling up on an Icelandic horse. There is no better way to enjoy the Icelandic landscape than a riding tour on these hardy and good natured little horses. The Icelandic horse offers a gentle, comfortable ride due to its four-beat tölt gait, which can reach trot/canter speeds that feels like a walk. No bouncing! The breed is unique to Iceland as importing horses is forbidden and exported horses can never return. Riding the Icelandic horse is an all year activity that is perfect for beginners and children, yet experienced riders will also enjoy the different gaits and riding style. Riding tours available from Reykjavík and Akureyri. And remember, never call an Icelandic horse a pony in front of an Icelander!