There aren’t any forests in Iceland, the beaches are often black in color and there aren’t even any polar bears. But there are plenty of good reasons why tourism in this Nordic island country has been on the upswing in recent years, and not just because of its national soccer team. While the Icelandic national team made a huge splash at the recently completed UEFA Euro 2016 soccer championship, this small European country about the size of Ohio has steadily emerged from its economic woes of 2008 and now has triple the amount of annual visitors as it has residents. If you’re interested in visiting one of the world’s most fascinating countries, this sightseeing guide introduces you to many of the best attractions to see in Iceland.
240 Grindavik 420-8800, Iceland
+354 420 8800
Alternatively praised and criticized, the Blue Lagoon does deserve much of the credit for Iceland’s economic boost and rise in tourism. Located in a centuries old lava field on the Rekjanes Peninsula in southwestern Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is a breathtaking geothermal spa created by accident, but known around the world for its healing properties and stunning vistas. The Blue Lagoon was formed in 1976 as a result of operations from the adjacent geothermal power plant. Within a few years, people began bathing in the silica, algae mineral rich waters, and led to the development of the current property. The color of the waters is credited to the presence of the silica and how it reflects sunlight. In addition to the enormous lagoon, the sprawling property also features the luxurious Silica Hotel, an acclaimed skin care shop, in water massages and other spa services, and fine dining at the signature LAVA Restaurant. Just a short drive from Keflavík International Airport and a 50-minute drive from Reyjavík, the Blue Lagoon can also be reached through local tour operators like Reyjavík Excursions and Extreme Iceland.
Geysir, as the name suggests, is a geyser but is also said to be the oldest known geyser on Earth. One of the three major attractions along Iceland’s famed Golden Circle route, Geysir, or the Great Geyser, has been largely dormant since 1916 although its surrounding area remains geothermally active. But after a few large scale man-made efforts to revive it and an earthquake in 2000, a few eruptions currently occur daily. Yet, as the world’s oldest geyser, with the earliest accounts dating back to 1294, it’s truly a must-see, especially for first time visitors to Iceland. In all, there are approximately 30 geysers in the surrounding area, including the far more active fountain geyser about 100 yards away known as Strokkur (Churn), with eruptions occurring once every 8-10 minutes and reaching a height of up to 131 feet.
+354 486 6500
Another of the premier attractions on the scenic Golden Circle route, Gullfoss is considered to be the most beautiful waterfall in the country. Translated into English as “Golden Falls,” Gullfoss is a two-tiered waterfall on the Hvíta, a river fed by Iceland’s second largest glacier just north known as the Langjökul (long glacier). Open year ’round with free public access to a wooden boardwalk, Gullfoss is just a short walk from the Gullfoss Cafe, which sells items like soups, salads and sandwiches. Reyjavík-based Reyjavík Excursions, GeoIceland and Extreme Iceland offer day trips to Gullfoss.
Reyjavík 121, Iceland
+354 510 1000
Named after a famous 17th century poet and clergyman, Hallgrímskirja is the largest and most prominent church in the country. Standing 244 feet high, it’s also the tallest building in Reyjavík and sixth tallest architectural structure in the entire country. Built over a period of 41 years and consecrated in 1986, the towering Lutheran church was built in honor of Hallgrímur Pétursson, one of the most influential pastors during the Age of Orthodoxy whose most famous works was a collection of 50 poems known as the Passíusálmar or Passion Hymns. Known to be visible throughout the capital city, Hallgrímskirja was designed to resemble Iceland’s columnar basalt formations created by ancient lava flows, such as what’s seen at Svartifoss (Black Fall) in Vatnajökull National Park.
National Museum Iceland
101 Reykjavík, Iceland
+354 530 2200
The National Museum of Iceland (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands) offers visitors an in-depth look into the Iceland’s fascinating history through a series of ongoing exhibitions and a must-see permanent exhibition. Founded in 1863, the National Museum’s permanent exhibition is the Heritage and History in Iceland, featuring about 2,000 important artifacts, including a bronze figure dating back to the Settlement Age during the second half of the 9th century to the present day. The permanent exhibition, which has four thematic routes, also has on display hundreds of photographs taken during the 20th century, primarily in the Reflections of a Century exhibition. The museum also offers several multimedia displays as part of the permanent installation, as well as hands on exhibits for families with children. Other notable museums in the capital city to consider exploring are Vikin Maritime Museum, Culture House, Arbaer Open Air Museum and Reykjavík Art Museum, in addition to the must-see, family-friendly attraction Aurora Reykjavík Northern Lights Center.
Snæfellsjökull National Park
360 Hellisandur, Iceland
+354 436 6860
Situated on the westernmost part of the namesake peninsula, Snæfellsjökull National Park is the first national park established in Iceland. Covering an area of more than 42,000 acres, the park’s most prominent landmark is the 700,000 year old glacier-capped Snæfellsjökull stratovolcano, which served as the real life inspiration for the Jules Verne science fiction classic “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” published in 1864. The national park also features a visitor center where information brochures can be obtained and more than 30 hiking trails, including trips to lava, fields, the seashore and a 3-5 hour hike to the 4,744-foot summit of the Snæfellsjökull Glacier. Among the Reyjavík-based tour operators offering trips to the national park are Extreme Iceland, Another Iceland and Arctic Adventures.
Thingvellir National Park
+354 482 2660
The last of the three top attractions along the Golden Circle, Thingvellir National Park is called the “national shrine of Iceland.” Located along the northern shores of the country’s largest lake, Thingvellir or Þingvellir in Icelandic, is an important location in history as the world’s oldest existing parliament is known to have first assembled there in 930 AD. Further proclaimed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and renowned for its natural beauty, Thingvellir is a very popular visitor destination, offering outdoor activities like fishing, camping, hiking and horseback riding, as well as scuba diving. Also on the grounds of the national park is Thingvellir Church, with a documented church history dating back to the year 1000 AD. As part of the Golden Circle tour, the National Park and is typically the first stop of a day long excursion.
Vatnajökull National Park
785 Öræfi. Iceland
+354 470 8330
Established in 2008, Vatnajökull National Park is the largest of Iceland’s three national parks and second largest in all of Europe. Extending across more than 3.4 million acres, more than half of the total surface area is occupied by the majestic Vatnajökull glacier, with a peak height of 6,561 feet and a low point at 984 feet below sea level. Due to its enormous size, Vatnajökull National Park is divided into north, south, east and west territories and features five visitor centers. Most travelers will take a tour through the southern territory to enjoy popular attractions like Svartifoss waterfall and the spectacular Jökulsárlón ice caves, the mesmerizing setting for four Hollywood movies, including “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “Batman Begins.” More recently, Vatnajökull glacier has been depicted in famous Beyond the Wall scenes from the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones.”
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Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering national/international travel for CBS Local and all things San Francisco for CBS San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. He may be contacted via Twitter or Linkedin .