Dear readers, If I go offline for a few days/weeks/months/years/forever it's because this post has sent me into a delicious day-dream back to Iceland that I am refusing to wake up from. To me, Iceland is that all-natural sundae filled with colourful toppings that you seem to be always craving more of, and the cherry on top of that sundae is the capital city of Reykjavik. Unless you have more than a week set aside to explore the continent, I recommend basing yourself in the fun and friendly city which is in itself a reason to go buy yourself an air ticket to Iceland right now. As you amuse the 121,800 locals with your definite mispronunciation of the street names, work through the following bucket list of 10 things that you NEED to do in Reykjavik this summer.
1. People watch from the Hallgrimskirkja clock tower
With a tower that can be seen from almost everywhere in Reykjavik, the Hallgrímskirkja church serves as both the main attraction in the city and the main landmark for navigation purposes. Although many come to purely admire the avant-garde architecture of the church which was built to resemble the basalt lava flows common in the Icelandic landscape, the true reward is offered up the church's tower. Here, the most iconic over-head shot of the city, laced with tiny two-story houses with rooftops taking on every colour of the rainbow and tightly hugged by the Atlantic Sea on one side and volcanoes on the other, is taken. To get to the top will only cost you 500 ISK (for the 2-minute elevator ride) and the energy needed to ascend 30 or so steps.
Located just 30km south of Reykjavik, sits the one-of-a-kind volcano of Thrihnukagigur with it's unusually empty and open magma chamber. The anomalous feature of the volcano is the result of a violent eruption that took place 4,000 years ago. The geological pressure associated with this particular eruption is believed to have vented through various tunnels and arteries deeper in the earth, preserving an opened chamber safe for mankind to wander without worry of being swallowed up by magma or suffocated by gases. Today, if you visit Reykjavik between mid May and late September you have the option of 6 tours run each day by the experienced team at Inside the Volcano. All you need to participate is 42000 ISK ( ~$390AUD), a willingness to hike 3.5 km along flat mostly-even path to the crater and the guts to descend 120 meters to the bottom of the crater in an open cable lift, usually reserved for the task of cleaning exterior windows of sky scrapers.
With both a North Atlantic climate that produces frequent rain and snow and a near-Arctic location that produces large glaciers, whose summer melts feed many rivers, Iceland is home to some of the most powerful and largest waterfalls in the world. It is for these very same reasons that an Icelandic road trip is likely to lead you to the belief that the continent has more waterfalls than people. The good news for the other waterfall-enthusiasts out there is that 3 of the most esteemed and unique of these waterfalls are within 150km of Reykavik and can be easily reached on a half or full day tour from the capital. So when in Reykjavik, ignore the advice of TLC and go chasing waterfalls!
Click here to find out three must-see waterfalls near Reykjavik.
4. Make friends with a viking horse (or two!)
5. Hike a glacier
Although exported to various countries around the world, you will only see one kind of horse in Iceland - the Icelandic viking horse. These horses, venerated in Norse mythology, are direct descendants of the ponies taken to Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries. Selective breeding by humans in hand with natural selection over the centuries since has developed the breed into its current form. Today many stables based nearby to Reykjavik offer horse-riding tours which combine the thrill of riding the beautiful horses with the serenity of gazing at the breathtaking Icelandic landscape. However, if you're short on time like I was then any adventure outside of the central district of Reykjavik is likely to feature an Icelandic horse or two, such as the above pair I befriended in the village of Vik, 180 kilometres south-east of Reykjavik.
5. Hike a glacier
The glaciers and ice caps of Iceland constituent an important element of both the geography and meteorology of the continent, covering a total of 11.1% of the total land area of the country. A vast majority of this coverage can be attributed to the 13 largest Icelandic glaciers, which together cover an aggregate area of 11,181 km² out of a total of 11,400 km² for all Icelandic glaciers. The largest of these glaciers is Vatnajoküll, situated in south-east Iceland, which is so large that it has many glacial tongues on each side, each with their own unique glacier names. For the adventure seekers among you, daily glacier hiking tours operate from Reykjavik to a number of Vatnajoküll's glacial tongues, as well as other glaciers, such as the beautiful Snaefellsjökull glacier, which was described by Jules Verne as the entrance to Earth's centre in his world-famous novel 'Journey to the centre of the Earth'.
6. Take a day trip to the Jokulslaroon Glacier Lagoon
7. Make yourself at home in the giant beehive that is Reykjavik's Harpa concert hall
The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is a large glacial lake situated at the head of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier (which you can see in the background of the image above). By the end of the Little Ice Age (1300-1800 AD), the tongue of the glacier reached over 1 km from the Icelandic coastline. As temperatures warmed during the subsequent warm periods, the glacier tongue started to rapidly recede, continually carving icebergs and thus a lagoon in its wake. To this day, huge blocks of ice continue to break off the glacier forming the large icebergs of which you can see floating on the lagoon. Fortunately for car-less travelers like myself though, Grayline Iceland offers a South Coast and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon day trip from Reykjavik, with plenty of stops along the way at a number of my bucket-list waterfalls and beaches. Let's just say between catching up on some sleep and the constant views of glacier after glacier, viking horse after viking horse and waterfall after waterfall the 9 hour return drive flew by! Oh and did I mention that included in the tour is a boat ride on the glacial lake where you get to experience sailing between and even tasting the icebergs!?
Click here to see more from my day trip to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon from Reykjavik.
7. Make yourself at home in the giant beehive that is Reykjavik's Harpa concert hall
Although initially quite controversial, Reykjavik's Harpa concert hall has quickly become a favourite spot for both locals and visitors who come to be entertained by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and Icelandic Opera that today call the Harpa home. Not looking for a night out? The Harpa is still worth taking a tour of and is one of my favourite spots to curl up with a book while resting in one of the many windows that constitute the unique architectural framework.
8. Take a sunset dip in the Blue Lagoon
After a full day's sightseeing, there’s no better way to soothe both the mind and body than with a trip to the Blue Lagoon; Iceland’s most famous (but far from only) geothermal spa. Nestled among black lava formations, the geothermal wonderland feels like nowhere else on earth, especially at sundown. From the changing shades of the sky to every colour of the rainbow as the suns visible light rays scatter at deepening angles, to the fiery red backdrop set behind a landscape of volcanoes providing the illusion of a fiery eruption, the experience of sundown at the Blue Lagoon has just got to be an otherworldly one. Of course if you can't fit in a sunset trip, the lagoon is worth visiting anytime of day for a truly relaxing experience. Some even claim the lagoon to have healing properties due to its constant temperature of ~37°C and rich mineral content provided by the underground geological layers being pushed up to the surface by the hot water used by the nearby geothermal plant. Just a 40 minute drive by car or tour bus from Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon is waiting for you, softly whispering in the arctic Icelandic breeze 'Come on in, the water's divine'.
For further proof of the otherworldly experience of sunset at the Blue Lagoon click here.
Akin to a human childhood friendship, the friendship between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates that together form the continent of Iceland is slowly breaking up, as the two plates grow apart at a rate of approximately 2 centimetres per year. The result of this disintegrating friendship is a huge rift that cuts right through the country, creating fissures flooded with crystal clear glacial water such as the Silfra Fissure located in the Þingvellir National Park. Here, you are offered the unique experience to snorkel between the two tectonic plates and witness first hand the unique and ever-changing environment.
Click here to read my first-hand account of the experience of snorkelling the Silfra Fissure in Iceland.
The Golden Circle is a popular sightseeing route that takes you out of Reykjavik and into the Icelandic countryside to three of Iceland's most famous natural wonders. The first stop is Gullfoss, or the Golden Falls in English, which is arguably the most famous waterfall in Iceland and features a 3-step staircase waterfall with a 32-metre crevice drop. Next up is the highly active Geysir Hot Spring Area which features endless boiling mud pits and exploding geysers. Although Geysir, the original geyser, after which all other geysers in the world were named, isn’t very active these days, visitors are offered the opportunity to witness the nearby Strokkur blow water a hundred feet into the air every four minutes instead. Last but definitely not least is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pingvellir National Park. As both the home to the world's first parliament and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, this site is a never ending story of Iceland's history and landscape. Although an easy self-drive itinerary, I recommend taking an organised tour as at all three sites you will benefit from the insightful commentary and charming folk tales about elves, trolls and other hidden folk.
10. Go house hunting for your dream home in the Icelandic wilderness
With a country-wide population of only 323,000 - the majority of whom are compacted into the capital of Reykjavik - there is no shortage of lonely town houses located seemingly in the middle of no where (even when they are in fact a mere 20 minute drive from the capital!). What's more is that many of these houses feature waterfalls, glaciers and volcanoes in their backyard. So go ahead and hunt for your dream home in the Icelandic wilderness and let it take you on the most serene day dreams of a simpler life.
Have you experienced the Icelandic summer? Let me know your must-do's in the comments below.