It’s no wonder that so many films and television shows, including the The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Game of Thrones, and Prometheus, among others, filmed in this part of the world. The landscape is awe-inspiring, wondrous and so beautifully primal it stays with you long after leaving. Sure, you could use your cash and mileage to see the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge, or Leaning Tower of Pisa. But tell your friends and family that you’ve hiked a glacier or basked underneath the Northern Lights, and those will be vacation photos they’ll actually ask to see.
1. Traveling From The US Is Easy
Flying time from NYC to Reykjavík is only about 5 1/2 hours. Also, Iceland Air has direct flights to Reykjavík from many U.S. cities including Anchorage, Boston, Denver, Minneapolis, New York, Orlando, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Travel discount sites, like travelzoo.com, and airlines offer discounted 3-day Iceland package trips starting as little as around $700. There are also specially-priced, stop-over packages en route to Europe.
Iceland Air makes it easy to learn about the county’s culture en route with its deep catalogue of music, well-beyond Björk and Sigur Rós, tutoring flyers on one of the country’s most influential exports; there’s Icelandic poetry printed on their pillows; a menu stocked with local flavors; and programming including "Icelandic Sagas," a “Project Runway”-type show called "Hannað Fyrir Ísland"/Designed For Iceland (You’ll see that stylish and layered clothing fit in, including sleek all-weather coats and perhaps a “lopapeysa" Icelandic sweater) and films referencing Iceland’s economic crises, like “Revolution Reykjavík.”
2. Reykjavik is a Fascinating City
The city, where about half of Iceland’s roughly 320,000 citizens call home, is a designated UNESCO City of Literature; they’re geothermal power leaders; the city’s mayor, Jón Gnarr Kristinsson, played in a punk band and was a stand-up comedian, the country’s been called The Most Feminist Place in the World. It’s easy to sightsee on foot in Reykjavik as many tourist attractions are in a condensed area. The Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina with its stylish Nordic design, welcoming lobby fireplace and popular Slipp Bar, is right in the downtown Harbor. The Kex Hostel, located downtown, has a gastropub, bike rentals and holds social events.
While here: Take the elevator to the top of Hallgrimskirkja church (about $4) for panoramic city views; shop on Laugavegur street; visit museums including the National Museum of Iceland; walk along the water and take pictures next to Solfar Sun Voyager then stop in Harpa Concert and Conference Centre. The Official Tourist Information Centre is a centrally located, terrific place for postcards, stamps and directions.
Iceland is known for incredible seafood, fish, skyr, dark rye breads, lamb and more unusual foods including whale, shark, dried cod, reindeer, puffin and sheeps head. Feast at a score of restaurants offering updated takes on traditional food like Fish Market and Kopar. The libation-curious wash it down with a shot of Brennivín, aka “Black Death,” made from potatos and caraway seeds.
3. The Landscape is Unlike Anywhere Else in the World
Where else can you see lava fields, geothermal hot springs, waterfalls, geysers, glaciers, and volcanos, all in one afternoon? Many tourists rent a car to drive Iceland’s 830-mile Ring Road that circles the country and connects to roads leading inland, but a day excursion via the Golden Circle, a 190-mile loop by Thingvellir National Park just outside Reykjavik, is easily manageable and includes natural wonders like Gullfoss waterfall. Consider heading out with a knowledgeable tour company, like Icelandic Mountain Guides. If you’re in a lava field, crossing a shallow river, an expert (and an expert’s vehicle) is welcome. We’ve been told tourists are surprised at what their car rental agreement doesn’t cover.
Other Southern Icelandic sights include Skógafoss Waterfall, Þórsmörk Glacier Valley (aka Valley of Thor); Sólheimajökull Glacier; and Valley of Reykjadalur with its terrific hiking and hot springs.
The infamous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa impresses with its striking architecture. If you’re adverse to crowds, note this popular attraction is often packed with visitors. Otherwise, Blue Lagoon is most convenient to visit, because of its location near the airport, immediately before or after your flight.
4. You May Get to See the Northern Lights
From anywhere in the West Nordic region, it is possible to have an unforgettable viewing of the Northern Lights. Just one hour outside of Reykjavik, the high-design Hotel Ion even has its own Northern Lights Bar, where you can enjoy the breathtaking sky with a cocktail in hand. While wildly unpredictable, the best months to see the Aurora Borealis tend to be February and March, and October and November.
5. A Bragging Rights-Worthy Side Trip is a Quick Flight Away
Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands make up the West Nordic region. Consider visiting two or three of these destinations in one trip. Both Atlantic Airways and Air Iceland fly from Iceland to the Faroe Islands. Norröna ferry from Hirtshals in Denmark goes to the Faroe Islands capital Tórshavn and also Iceland.
The Faroe Islands, a self-governing Kingdom of Denmark region, settled largely by Norwegian Vikings, are in the North Atlantic, northwest of Scotland, halfway between Iceland and Norway. They’re an archipelago of 18 islands connected by tunnels. Helicopters and ferries also serve as public transportation.
The land, dreamy as the fog settles over its scattered, rugged mountain tops, is a lure for photographers and known for bird watching (over 300 species). Take a helicopter or boat trip to the island of Mykines to see fantastic bird colonies and dramatic Lord of the Rings-evoking scenery. Also, sightsee and shop in the captial Tórshavn. Include a stop in legendary sweater shop Guðrun & Guðrun, and the record store Tutl for both tradional and cutting-edge music. Try Faroese cuisine at Koks retsaurant in Hotel Føroyar, where chef Leif Sorensen serves traditional Faroese cuisine in inspired, modern ways.