Where can I start when it comes to talking about the country of Iceland? Well, let’s just say there are so many beautiful things to see in this country and know there is no time like the present to book your flight
to the land of the elves.
- What I learned from my travels around Iceland is that it is a mysterious land of natural splendors where so much of it is still untamed and the locals work very hard to maintain the rich history of the land and the culture. As mentioned in my post 8 More Things to See on Oahu, social media has really opened the worldwide public’s eyes into a realm that previously did not see the boom in tourism that it currently has. Now the country actively works to showcase the majesty of their island while aggressively working hard to maintain a stringent level of environmental conservationism as well as utilize the natural resources to fuel their daily lives. It’s admirable how hard the people of Iceland work but it seems to run in their blood and date back to a time long ago when the Vikings first settled the island.
I’ve compiled a list of places and things to see around the western and southern parts of the island to hopefully give you a good taste of what Iceland has to offer. I hope to go back and see the difference in the northern and eastern parts which you’ll see sometime in a blog post in the future. I’ve also included tips on staying safe while traveling around. First and foremost, you can’t go to Iceland and not see at least one of the super mega ultra spectacular waterfalls. There are waterfalls scattered all throughout the lands, but numbers 1-3 are kind of the “must see” falls.
Seljalandsfoss is a 200 ft horsetail waterfall in the southern region of Iceland. This waterfall is pretty popular because you can go behind the falls and look out through the water. Be careful if you go when it’s icy as the path is rough.
Gullfoss is one of the more popular waterfalls to see, so you’ll be sure to see loads of tour buses and people scattered about on the grounds. The falls themselves are a short walk through the gift shop and down a small trail. Of course, watch your step as you navigate the trail to the bottom as it’s uneven in places. I really think that Gullfoss is marvelous regardless of which season you go in. It’s so massive that you’re sure to feel the mist of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of water that rush over the shelves of the falls. We went toward the end of the winter so it was still cold and icy. I’ve seen photos of Gullfoss in the spring/summer, so if you like flowers and seeing greenery, you may want to wait until then to see the falls. Plus, you will be less apt to freeze your tater tots off. Be sure to walk down to the lower platform which is closer to the actual falls if you can make it. Either way, you’ll get a great view and at least one good photo.
Skogafoss was actually my favorite of the falls. Although it was still quite chilly outside, it happened to be one of the few days that we had where it wasn’t gray and gloomy skies. As you will find out in Iceland, the weather can change quite suddenly and quite drastically. So, come prepared for just about any kind of weather. That is why they say to dress in layers as one minute you can feel the freezing winds blowing up in your loins and the next it is clear skies and about 60 degrees F (15 degrees C). The reason this was one of my favorites is that all the tour buses have to park at a distance so when you walk out toward the falls, the view is unimpeded and you really have a mouth-dropping awe-inspired moment. Since the sun was out when we went, we were able to capture the rainbow that appears from the mists as the water cascades over the falls.
Many people say that there is often a double rainbow, but I wasn’t quite able to capture it on camera. There is also a staircase that leads up the falls so that you can get another view of the falls from overhead. My favorite view though was from down below. I also like that, as with many of the falls in Iceland, you can get as close as you want without barriers. Obviously, you go at your own risk but it’s the true way of experiencing nature.
Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)
The first night was through our tour company Gate1 but the following nights we booked through Reykjavik Excursions. Reykjavik Excursions is one of the most organized and knowledgeable of the touring companies in my opinion. They are very quick to respond to online questions on the website and on their Facebook page. I also like that several of the guides on the tours, as well as the Facebook page, provided tips on getting your camera settings somewhat correct in order to try to accurately capture the aurora borealis. Another positive about Reykjavik Excursions is that if you don’t see the lights on one night, you can re-book for free to go on any of the other following nights of your trip until you see them.
Sadly, I got a few images but they are nothing like the edited super awesome pics you see all over the internet. We had also had clouds on the nights we went.
You can’t blame the lights though and the most exciting part is the hunt for the lights. It’s relatively inexpensive to go on a tour but you can always rent a car and try to find them on your own and that way you can stay as long as you like. We actually stayed a very long time on the tour, so we didn’t feel rushed to try to take it all in. The guides try to prep you as much as they can but you just have to keep your eyes open as the lights can appear and disappear in a matter of seconds.
*A couple of tips:
- Bundle the Eff up! Since you’ll be going at night, it is going to be freezing or below freezing probably. Wear at least two layers. We also bought hand and feet warmers which helped a great deal. Wear a hat and bring gloves that allow you to use your camera. Possibly take a balaclava and wear a down jacket. Thermal top and bottoms are a must or fleece-lined pants. Layers are key!
- Bring a good quality camera. It doesn’t have to be super expensive though. Some people can capture the lights on a normal cell phone but if this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for you, get a good camera. Learn how to use it well before you arrive in Iceland. Practice using the night settings and using the manual functions and not using auto. Bring a tripod and possibly a remote control shutter release so you don’t blur the image. There is no exact science to getting the shot as the conditions change every time you move your camera. Practice! In general, you’ll want a low aperture (as close to f/2.8 as you can get). Exposure or shutter speed between 5-30 seconds or longer depending on what you’re looking for. ISO between 800-3200 or higher but the higher the ISO, the more degraded your picture will be. You may want to play with the white balance as well. If I haven’t said so already….practice!
- If you’re not going with a tour group, go somewhere that is super dark with minimal to no light pollution. Check the weather report because clouds and/or rain can really mess things up.
- Check online or use a northern lights app to check the possible intensity of the Borealis activity for the night. Again…the lights are predictably unpredictable and can be gone in a flash or can last several seconds or longer. You just never know.
- Some countries have a higher percentage of Borealis activity for longer periods of time. Do your research.
- Be aware of how much sunlight will be available when you visit as the sunlight amounts change and some months the sunlight is almost 24 hours a day.
We also had the opportunity to visit one of the Icelandic horse farms while traveling around the southern part of the island. You can learn more about these extraordinarily special horses in this video I don’t know a whole bunch about horses, horse riding, or anything else equestrian, but it was really nice to learn a bit about the history of the horses and how in line the horses are with the culture and history of Icelanders. We were given a demonstration of the five gaits of the horses as normal horses have only three (walk, trot, and canter/gallop.) Don’t be fooled by the size of these horses as many people say they look like ponies. They pack a lot of power and are very fast and stay true to their name as horses. They are not ponies! Icelandic horses are the only breed of horses in Iceland as the law bans the importation of horses and if an Icelandic horse is exported, it is not allowed to return to the country. Icelandic horses are some of the purest in breed and date back to around 900 AD.After the demonstration, we were allowed to walk around the property and interact with the horses. I can see why people fall in love with these horses. They are so gentle and calm and are a bit cautious at first but harbor the wild untamed lands and spirit of Iceland in their hearts and soon warm up to all who approach. If you’re lucky enough to get a chance to visit one of the many farms around the island, you won’t be disappointed.
The Harpa Concert Hall is such an attractive looking structure situated toward the end of the harbor walk. The Harpa is home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and Opera and has numerous performing arts events all throughout the year. If you haven’t had enough of the culture while traveling around the island, visit the Harpa to get in tune with some of the best in music, cinema, and art. If you’re not into that scene, then you should still take a moment to admire this gorgeous glass building. Go inside and up the stairs and look out onto the harbor over a cup of coffee or marvel out how the sunlight beams through the various colors of glass onto the walkways and brightens up even the glummest person with a dash of yellow or orange. There are so many reflective surfaces built into the ceiling and walls that it almost feels like you’re walking around in a gem of some sort.
Everyone knows the old adage that Greenland is made of ice and Iceland is green. This is true to an extent but Iceland is cold in many places and has quite a bit of ice for a large portion of the year. This is why it is quite easy to take a hike on a glacier in the chillier months of the year. On your way, you will probably pass Eyjafjallajökull which was the site of a major eruption on 2010 which stopped travel to and from the island and other parts of the world due to ash in the sky. Our tour guide advised that Icelanders feel that there will be another major eruption in the next 10 years similar to Eyjafjallajökull. Iceland is a land of volcanoes and you might be mistaken if you think some of the mountains are just mountains. Solheimajokull is in the southwest portion of Myrdalsjokull or Myrdals glacier. We did our glacier hike with the help of Arctic Adventures. You can read my review of Arctic Adventures and see a more detailed break down of the tour here. We did the Blue Ice tour which includes time on the glacier, ice climbing, and a stop at Gullfoss afterward. I thought the length of this tour and the depth of the tour was well worth the money.
I’ve never been ice climbing before and I really wish we had more time as it was a once in a lifetime experience.
Churches & Hallgrimskirkja
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the various churches around Iceland. The structures are impeccable in their design and craftsmanship and many of them have been around for quite a long time. One of the largest and most noteworthy, at least in Reykjavik, is Hallgrimskirkja. Its tower is visible from almost every direction in the city. If you’re looking to get a 360-degree view of the city from up high, make sure you head over to the tower. Buy a ticket in the gift shop to take the elevator which fits about 4-5 people at a time. Then, once you’re up top, spend a few moments walking around to each of the north, south, east, and west walls to see different views of the city. It’s quite windy up there on most days so put on a hat or pull your hair back in a ponytail unless you want to look like an ogre when you come back down. Aside from the view up high, you’ll be astounded by the view from within the church as well as the view if you walk around the back of the church on the outside. They hold church services, so make sure you check to see if you can enter. Hopefully, they’ll be playing the organ when you go as the organ and the magical pieces they play are masterpieces all by themselves.
Street Art & Odd Images
Getting to Iceland at a low cost is one thing but surviving inexpensively while you’re there is another story. At the time of this blog post, 1 U.S. Dollar (USD) is valued at 106.416 Icelandic Krona (ISK). So, the USD is worth less. One activity that won’t cost you a dime is walking around the streets of Reykjavik and looking at all the street, wall, and sidewalk art and odd images around town. The images seem to change regularly so you might not see the same things each time you go.
*While you walk the streets note this fact I learned after visiting one of the many geothermal plants. The streets of Reykjavik are heated from below by water heated by the volcanoes. So whenever it snows, you won’t ever have icy streets because they harvest the power of nature to melt snow on the streets. I also learned that the homes of Reykjavik are heated with geothermal heat and they regulate the heat in homes by just opening their windows. The electricity of the country of Iceland is almost 100% from renewable sources. I recommend visiting a geothermal plant while in Iceland since the Icelanders are very responsible when it comes to protecting the environment and utilizing natural forms of energy. You can read more here*
No trip to Iceland is complete without a dip in the Blue Lagoon. Day or night, the lagoon is a beautiful place to relax and just let all your cares melt away. You must book in advance in order to come here as this place generates a lot of traffic. Once you get through the locker rooms, you can start in the pool inside the shelter and ease your way out into the general population or go balls out and make a mad dash to the main wading area. The reason I say this is because we went in March and the outdoor temperature was about 30 degrees F (-1 degree C). So, if you’re not used to the cold, you have to take off your shoes and any other things you don’t want to get wet and walk across the walkway (again…with no shoes) to get to the lagoon. It’s a short walk but it will feel like the longest walk of your life! Once you’re in, it’s smooth sailing and you can wade around to different areas of the lagoon until your skin is ripe and supple.
You wouldn’t even know that is little pool of happiness was tucked away in the black rocky hills of the surrounding area.As a final note and as previously seen in a Wall Street Journal report, tourism is thriving in Iceland and has brought the country back from the brink, but you still have to wonder at what costs.There are so many interesting areas to explore and many other sites that I haven’t listed here. Don’t define your entire experience by your travels within Reykjavik. Try to venture out. Hopefully, although tourism is booming, the integrity and the pride the Icelanders have as well as the peace and raw serenity of the natural surroundings will remain as untouched as they are today. Thanks for reading!
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