Iceland is on lots of travelers’ bucket lists. While the island country is close to the Arctic Circle, it’s not as remote as you might think. In fact, direct flights from Boston and New York can take as little as five hours, less time than it takes to get to California.
Whether you’re in the country for just a few days or a longer stretch of time, guided tours are a popular option, although renting a car and going it alone is also easy to do. Most visitors base themselves in the capital city, Reykjavik, and head out for day trips to some of the country’s most dramatic sites.
The Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle route are usually at the top of visitors’ itineraries, with many visiting between September and April to chase after the northern lights. Getting out and about – whether by hiking, taking an all-terrain-vehicle tour or driving around the island – is a great way to explore all the Land of Fire and Ice has to offer: hot springs, glaciers, lava fields, volcanoes and mountain ranges.
Reykjavik has a population of about 120,000. While that’s relatively small as far as capitals go, it seems large considering Iceland’s total population hovers around 340,000. The cosmopolitan city is easily walkable, with many attractions clustered together. Laugavegur is the city’s main street for restaurants, bars and shops, while a walk along the waterfront offers great views.
Look into purchasing a Reykjavik City Card, which gives you access to a great selection of museums and galleries, unlimited bus travel, and access to the city’s thermal-fed public swimming pools.
A visit to the Hallgrimskirkja church is a must. You won’t need directions to find it; its tall tower can be spied from almost anywhere in the city. The distinctive design was inspired by the shapes and forms created when lava cools into basalt rock. Make sure to go to the top of the tower for amazing views. Many people love to pose for a photo by the Leif Erikson statue in front of the church that pays homage to the famous Icelandic explorer.
As far back as the 12th century, Iceland discovered that its abundance of geothermal pools was both a luxury and a benefit. Visitors today can enjoy a variety of deliciously hot public swimming pools and natural springs. The most famous of all is the Blue Lagoon, which is located in a lava field about 45 minutes from Reykjavik. The water temperature fluctuates between 98 and 104 degrees.
Visiting the Blue Lagoon can be an all-day affair if you choose. The area has swim-up bars, saunas and steam rooms, plus a cafe and a restaurant. You also can book an in-water massage, upgrade to a private lounge or take a break at several indoor relaxation areas.
Transportation to and from your hotel or the airport is easily available and can be booked when you buy admission tickets. It’s not unheard of for people to spend a few hours at the Blue Lagoon before hopping back on a plane to another destination, especially since Icelandair allows passengers to make free stopovers for as long as seven days or as short as 24 hours.
The 200-mile-long Golden Circle drive includes three of Iceland’s best-known attractions: Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir geyser and Gullfoss waterfall. Many outfitters offer the immensely popular daytrip as an excursion.
Thingvellir National Park is the site of Iceland’s ancient parliament, which dates to 930 and met there until 1798. In fact, the word Thingvellir means “parliament plains.” It is also where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. The plates are slowly separating from each other, creating deep fissures in the ground.
Next up is Haukadalur, a geothermal area that’s home to famous geysers Geysir and Strokkur. Wait around long enough and you’ll be rewarded with Strokkur shooting water up to 100 feet up in the air.
The last, and perhaps most spectacular, stop on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss, where the Hvita River roars down three separate drops before continuing south. On a sunny day you might just glimpse a rainbow.
Invariably, visitors come away from Iceland vowing to return. So even though you may check it off your bucket list of destinations, Iceland will often become a destination you want to experience again and again.
To book your own Icelandic vacation, visit AAA.com/Travel.
By Kim Foley MacKinnon