Iceland, aptly nicknamed the land of fire and ice, is a country where Mother Nature reigns, rules and triumphs wherever you look. Sitting atop one of the world’s most volcanically active hotspots, the magical island, just off the Arctic Circle, has long been shaped by the raw power of volcanoes, glaciers and geothermal activity. Expect a seemingly unlimited supply of otherworldly scenery, where deep fjords contrast with glacial marvels and fast-flowing waterfalls plunge into lush valleys near barren lava deserts. The country’s cultural and architectural wealth is just as varied, including ancient sagas and a flourishing contemporary literary scene, hobbit like turf houses and futuristic churches, design boutiques, and traditional weaving and woodcarving workshops. Iceland’s cosmopolitan capital city, Reykjavík, may be small but it packs in a hefty punch when it comes to museums and galleries, restaurants and microbreweries, as well as music and nightlife. Is it any wonder that visitor numbers to the country have been soaring in the past few years?
Tiny Reykjavík, with a population of roughly 120,000 people, is proof that size really doesn’t matter. Set between mountains and coastline, the Icelandic capital is teeming with eye-popping vistas: wander around its magnificent seafront, featuring shimmering glass Harpa, Iceland’s iconic concert hall, and take the lift right up to the top of cone-shaped Hallgrímskirkja for unmissable views of the city and its gorgeous surroundings. The centre of Reykjavík can be walked in less than a day, but it is packed with cultural delights, including first-class museums showcasing medieval sagas and Viking heritage, edgy art galleries and an epic music and nightlife scene.
Iceland is located right on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates split and are slowly drifting apart at a rate of a couple of centimetres a year. This enormous crack in the ocean floor has created much of the country’s spectacular scenery, including its feisty volcanoes, rift valleys, dramatic cliffs and black sand beaches as well as its largest natural lake, Þingvallavatn (Thingvallavatn). Make sure to visit Þingvellir National Park (Thingvellir) at the northern end of the crystal-clear rift lake, less than an hour’s drive from Reykjavík. The dramatic valley, a UNESCO-protected geological wonder, doubles as the site of the world’s oldest parliament and is one of the few spots on earth where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge comes above water, meaning you can take a scenic stroll between the plate boundaries. Or make your way to the Reykjanes Peninsula and stand above the ever-widening gap on the Bridge Between Two Continents, surrounded by vast, eerie lava fields.
Words don’t do justice to the sheer magnificence of Iceland’s landscapes, which have played host to blockbusters like Interstellar, Noah and Star Wars and of course, the cult series Game of Thrones. Wherever you turn, you’ll find prime hiking territory as well as varied bike trails, from exhilarating hill climbs to gentle rides on flat terrain. For a medley of rumbling waterfalls, highland meadows and blue-white glaciers, visit Skaftafell, the country’s most popular and most accessible national park to the south of Reykjavík. Fancy a walk by the sea? Windswept Vík at the island’s southern tip offers black-sand beaches, spectacular basalt formations and the rare chance to see puffins on land. Looking for a more remote experience? Head for Landmannalaugar in the island’s wild, uninhabited interior, home to multi-hued mountains, mineral-rich hot springs and stunning lakes, or check out the jaw-dropping vistas of the Westfjords.
If you’re looking for once-in-a-lifetime activities, Iceland certainly has your back. In fact, the challenge you’re likely to face is how to narrow down your wish list. Go snorkelling in the crystal-clear waters of Þingvellir National Park and swim between continents? Descend into the belly of the dormant Thrihnukagigur volcano? Or visit Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in the whole of Europe? How about setting out to sea on a whale-watching tour? And that’s far from all. You can also take a boat trip among icebergs on Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon – keep an eye out for sunbathing seals on the way. Itching for more icy action? Don crampons and walk on a glacier in Skaftafell, or venture inside one through a 300-metre tunnel leading deep into Langjökull glacier in the Western Highlands. And if you’re an avid sky gazer, make sure to time your visit for between September and March for a chance to admire the celestial light show that is aurora borealis.
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