Iceland is known for its stunning natural sights (so stunning in fact that Game of Thrones was filmed here), geothermal hot springs and volcanic activity (yes, that unpronounceable volcano Eyjafjallajökull that stopped airline traffic in 2010 is in Iceland). It has also more recently been in the news over a clash with the British supermarket Iceland, which is stopping Icelandic companies from using the word 'Iceland' in their names.
We visited Iceland for a long weekend, which was packed with tours. Read on for a travel guide to the places that we saw.
Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa located in Grindavik, is probably the most famous place in Iceland and what a beautiful place it is! A vast expanse of warm light blue water that is especially enjoyable (in my opinion) when it's winter and cold and snowy all around. The steam emanating from the water as well as the contrast of the light blue water colour and black rugged volcanic surroundings make the place look surreal.
To think that we almost didn't get to see the Blue Lagoon because when reading reviews the comments often said it was expensive and touristy! That might well be the case, but it is still most definitely a must see if you're in Iceland! Yes, there are a lot of people visiting, but the lake is so big that it doesn't feel crowded. And while the price is steep, where else would you get a chance to luxuriate in a mineral-rich mix of freshwater and seawater in such a beautiful setting? We went for the basic package and we thought it was worth the money spent.
Blue Lagoon is located between the airport and Reykjavik, so you can pop in on the way to or from the airport (luggage storage available at the spa, so no worries about what to do with suitcases if going by bus). We got a bus transfer from Reykjavik to Blue Lagoon and then from there to the airport.
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir (or Þingvellir) is a national park about 40 km northeast of Reykjavik. It is a stunning natural sight as well as an important place from a historical point of view. It is in Thingvellir that the Icelandic open-air assembly, which created laws, was established in 930.
The park covers 24,000 hectares and has hiking trails as well as submerged rifts for diving, but even if you don't have time for either, just stopping at the viewing platform to take in the beauty of the area will be worth your while.
Haukadalur (Geysir Valley)
Haukadalur is the valley that houses the famous Icelandic geysers, the biggest of which are Strokkur and Geysir. You will definitely see the eruption of Strokkur during your visit as it erupts every 5-10 minutes.
Gullfoss waterfall is yet another stunning natural sight in Iceland, located on the river Hvita. The water drops down 32 metres into a canyon.
We arrived there in the worst possible weather - it was icy, windy and rainy and even making it across the parking lot was difficult without falling over, so we didn't walk around very much, but in good weather I can imagine wandering about the place and looking at the waterfall from different angles.
Laugarvatn Fontana Wellness
Laugarvatn Fontana is a geothermal spa on the shore of lake Laugarvatn. We visited it as part of the Golden Circle tour and what a pleasant way it was to finish the tour!
The experience starts with learning about bread making in the soil. A pot with the dough is buried in the ground, which is so hot that the bread gets baked. One of such pots gets dug out and everyone in the group can taste the bread (which incidentally is delicious!).
The second part of the visit is the spa experience. After changing, you proceed outside where you can wander (in the winter the more likely word is 'jog') between the various small pools and a sauna. The more adventurous can also try the cold waters of lake Laugarvatn (I didn't dare). Laugarvatn Fontana is a lot smaller than the Blue Lagoon, but it's less touristy and you can also enjoy views over the lake.
Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland and its largest city, home to ~120,000 people. It is located on the coast and surrounded by beautiful volcanic landscape.
The old town area has numerous restaurants and if you are short of funds or time to visit the Blue Lagoon, you can find some cheaper albeit less picturesque hot springs in Reykjavik itself. We went to Laugardalslaug and enjoyed sitting in an outside hot tub while snowflakes were landing on our heads.
As we only spent a long weekend in Iceland and the days were filled with tours, we wandered around the streets of Reykjavik in the darkness of the evenings, but even so, I was very surprised to find only one photo of the city, taken from our hotel room. Looks like we need to revisit, so I can top up the photo collection!
Northern Lights Watching
Though Northern Lights are of course not exclusive to Iceland and can be seen in many other places, Northern Lights watching is a typical tour here, so I thought I would include it in this section. There are different ways of going on the hunt - we went for the bus option, but you can also do it by boat or car. The tours depart in the evenings and are weather-dependent, as you need a reasonably clear sky as well as specific conditions which make seeing the Northern Lights likely.
As it's a natural phenomenon, there is no guarantee that the Northern Lights will show on a particular day in a particular place, so even though the tour guides try the best spots (you will probably drive to several areas unless you get lucky straight away), you might not see anything. In that case, you can sign up to another tour free of charge, so don't leave this tour until your last day. We went on two tours before we saw something. And the reason I say 'something' is that it looks a lot more impressive on camera than it did in real life. What the eye saw was just a whitish blob, none of the stunning green colour that the photos show.
If you are going in winter like us, remember that it will be cold. No, scrap that, it will be COLD. I thought that with this being a bus tour, I didn't need to dress too warm, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Once you get out of the bus, it gets very cold very quickly. For the second tour, I wore all my clothes in layers and still a thermos with some hot tea would have been very welcome.