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Iceland has been a very popular place for a few years now, and yet despite everyone on your Instagram feed seemingly hanging out in hot springs or wandering near waterfalls, it still feels like a strange, distant land.
Maybe that’s because it’s – after all, it’s closer to Greenland than anywhere else. The closest capital to Reykjavík is, oddly enough, Edinburgh, and it’s still 850 kilometers away. The popular idea that even trees can’t survive there is a myth, but it looks like it could be true, you know? With this detailed travel guide, we want to give you an overview of all the fun and adventurous things you can do in South West Iceland.
Your own Reykjavík city tour
For a capital, Reykjavík is oddly small and can be seen in less than a day. The city is vibrant and cute with many sites to see.
In about half an hour you can see the whole of downtown Reykjavík. From the Old Harbor – which is the main departure port for whale and puffin watching tours, as well as Northern Lights cruises – walk to Harpa Music Hall, Tjörnin Pond, and Hallgrimskirkja Church, Reykjavík’s most iconic structure. It is this Church of Middle-earth, which rises upward in a combination of elegance and strength. The construction of Hallgrímskirkja started in 1945, but it was not completed until 1986. The interior is quite minimalist, but it has a magnificent organ (there are frequent concerts), and if you feel like paying the equivalent of $ 15 you can climb to the top of the tower for a view of the city.
If you fancy a geography class, the Perlan – Wonders of Iceland Museum, as the name suggests, is devoted to the natural wonders of Iceland. From ice caves to volcanoes, you’ll know it all here. Otherwise, skip the museum if you want to and head to the free viewing platform. Perlan is located on a hill from which you will have a breathtaking view of Reykjavík and the surrounding mountains. For a quick treat, relax in the cafe inside and enjoy breakfast, with or without a heartwarming cup of hot chocolate.
Hunting for the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights (or the Northern Lights) are one of the most amazing phenomena you can encounter, and Iceland is one of the best places to witness it. You will have the best chance of seeing a light show when the nights are darkest, from late September to early April. If you spot a lot of solar activity and clear skies during the day, your chances double.
To see such a natural wonder, one must also venture away from light pollution. A great spot within Reykjavík city limits is around the Grótta Island Lighthouse – just make sure you park in the parking lot in front of the island and stay there. If you go to the lighthouse, the tide may rise and you will be stuck there until the next day. Two other interesting sites are Lake Kleifarvatn and Thingvellir National Park, just 30 kilometers from Reykjavík. The Perlan Observation Deck and the square in front of the Hallgrímskirkja Church are also ideal, but only in December and January.
Generally speaking, the further away from the city the better. You can see the Northern Lights from almost anywhere in Iceland weather permitting.
Your taste for adventure in southwest Iceland
Powerful waterfalls and volcanic hot springs
Waterfalls in Iceland are not just waterfalls; they are almost an all-powerful presence that consumes you. It’s hard to put into words the feeling of standing next to Skógafoss – it’s a very powerful waterfall with a soft side and a magical side, created by the ubiquitous rainbow. If you climb the steps to the top, you can see it from above and explore the scenery even further. For some reason, it has a Noah’s Ark vibe. I can’t explain why.
Two hours from Reykjavík, you can see Seljandsfoss from the road and right next to it, the smaller Gjiúfrabúi. If possible, you should venture behind the waterfalls to get an interesting alternate view.
When it comes to the beautiful bodies of water, the Seljavallalaug hot springs are a must see if you are nearby. To get there from Seljandsfoss, you need to take the ring road (1) and turn onto road 242 (Raufarfell) – the first left after Þorvaldseyri, which houses an exhibit on the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Continue along the 242 until you see the sign for Seljavellir, then walk along the beaten path for about 20 minutes and cross the narrow river. The thermal pool is nestled there, well hidden behind a small hill.
(In) active volcanoes, black sand beaches and icebergs
Fagradalsfjall, the volcano on the Reykjanes peninsula southwest of the Icelandic capital, began spitting lava on March 19, 2021. Eight months later, it is still active. With its constant flow and geyser-like lava jets, Fagradalsfjall is currently the most visited tourist attraction in the Nordic island state. This natural spectacle has already drawn hundreds of thousands of spectators, and if you are driving south of Reykjavík you should stop by as well.
At the southern tip of Iceland lies the sleepy seaside town of Vík í Mýrdal. This windy fishing village is close to the black sand beach of Reynisfjara, with its famous basalt columns formed from solidified lava. Head to Dyrhólaey Lighthouse for a wonderful view of the waves crashing on the beach. If you are feeling adventurous, you can even try to ride them.
Near this black sand beach is the wreckage of the Sólheimasandur plane. The walk there seems endless as the scenery around you doesn’t change – it’s like you’re in a desert, just dark and windy. Although the plane wreckage is a popular attraction, few people know the extent of what happened here. In 1973, a US Navy DC plane crashed on the black beach of Sólheimasandur. Everyone survived the impact, but to date the cause of the crash is unclear. Some say the plane ran out of fuel, others think it was a storm and others think it was a technical malfunction – or it could have been a combination of the three.
Two and a half hours east of Vík í Mýrdal is the iceberg beach of Jokulsárlón. Icebergs are around 1,000 years old and every year around 100 meters of ice break away from them. We recommend that you book guided tours to see the insides of glaciers and icebergs – it’s a breathtaking experience.
The Golden Circle: spray geysers, not-so-secret hot springs and cracks in the earth
Thingvellir National Park is located in a fault zone created by two slowly separating continental plates. This crack in the earth is called Silfra’s Fissure, and if you’ve ever wanted to be in two places at the same time, now is your chance. If you dive into the Silfra Fissure, you can touch both the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and effectively be on two continents at the same time.
The Great Geysir of Iceland is a jet of boiling water from a crack in the earth, emitted almost every half hour. It’s quite a sight (despite the overwhelming sulphurous smell) – many people love to watch the earth go wild. Right next to the Geysir is the fabulous Gullfoss waterfall, seagull meaning “golden” – hence the golden circle takes its name. The water cascades from two points: one is 11 meters high, the other 21 meters high.
There are several tour operators that offer a bewildering variety of itineraries, varying in length, price, number of detours and stops offered. A basic tour of three sites in southwest Iceland – Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss Waterfall – will take around six hours. Whichever way you decide to do it, it’s worth ending your trip to the secret lagoon of Gamla Laugin (which is no longer so secret). Entrance to these hot springs is not free, so it is advisable to book tickets in advance to avoid the queues.
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