An Iceland travel guide – Viking sagas, geological wonders and rugged outdoor adventures
Get your bearings
Iceland, just south of the Arctic Circle in the north Atlantic, is an extraordinary geological site alive with volcanoes, hot springs, geysers and glaciers. Iceland’s southwest capital, Reykjavik, is one of the hippest cities in Europe. Along the north coast, some of Europe’s finest fishing rivers meander through mountain ranges and rounded hills. North of the centre is Iceland’s second town, Akureyri, a tourism hub offering some of the country’s best summer weather. The northeast’s main attraction, Lake Mývatn, is surrounded by hot springs amidst lava fields. Moving south from the eastern town of Egilsstaoir, the countryside is dotted with small farming communities and coastal fishing villages. The central highlands are a raw, uninhabited wilderness, and provided the perfect landscape for Apollo astronauts to train for lunar missions. Its rocky deserts, icy expanses and lack of roads present a real challenge to the adventurous.
Vikings and sagas
The story of the Icelandic Sagas is unveiled in the darkened displays of richly decorated manuscripts in Reykjavik’s Culture House. Thingvellir is the site of the world’s oldest surviving parliament, founded in 930AD. Immerse yourself in the saga of bloody battles, poetry and pagan lore by the powerful leader, Egil Skallagrimsson, at Borgarnes’ Icelandic Settlement Centre. You can also all learn about the harsh realities of 9th- and 10th-century life at Eric the Red’s farm at Eiríksstaðir. Proud of their Viking past, Icelanders celebrate in January and February with traditional feasts at Hafnarfjörður. Discover the techniques of jewellery making, bread baking and fighting at Reykjavik’s lively Viking Summer Solstice Festival.
The Earth’s surface around Thingvellir is continuously shifting as Eurasian and American tectonic plates move apart under volcanic pressure from the planet’s core. Throughout Iceland geysers erupt with huge plumes of water and steam. Fine rainbow-tinted sprays are created by the sun shining on the mighty waterfalls of Gullfoss and Skógafoss. Man seems very small in Skaftafell National Park beside the icy wastes of Europe’s largest glacier Vatnajökull and vast Jökulsárlón lake. In the north, the summer midnight sun barely touches the horizon before rising again, while winter’s Northern Lights flash their brightest in Iceland.
Take serious walking boots to hike to mighty Glymur, Iceland’s highest waterfall. The adventurous can explore the uninhabited Hornstrandir peninsula in the west where jagged glacial fjords plunge into the sea. Carry binoculars wherever you go to spot geese, swans, arctic fox and reindeer. Watch for humpback whales, minkes and a rare sight of the gigantic blue whale at northern Husavik or Olafsvik in the west. In mid-August, bird watchers flock to witness the annual release of pufflings (baby puffins) on Heimaey island. Winter brings serious sports enthusiasts to Akureyri to slalom, snowboard and ski cross-country. Fishermen prefer the River Skjalfandafljot when the melt-off into the river is slight and the water remains crystal clear.