Northern Europe is home to “The Land of Fire and Ice”—also known as Iceland. But don’t be deceived by the name of this Nordic island country. According to Iceland On the Web, ice covers only about 11% of Iceland’s terrain.
From the celestial glow of the Northern Lights to the ethereal beauty of Blue Lagoon’s geothermal spa, Iceland offers countless sights to behold.
Read on to learn more about the country's natural phenomena and discover 5 reasons to add this breathtaking country to your travel bucket list.
1. Iceland's landscape is a true miracle of nature.
The dramatic terrain of this awe-inspiring destination has been featured on nearly every “most beautiful places” list, from Condé Nast Traveler’s "The 50 Most Beautiful Places in the World" to Bored Panda’s "40 Breathtaking Places to See before You Die."
Iceland’s topography is shaped by both glaciers and volcanoes, resulting in a variety of landscapes that are truly extraordinary. As you navigate the countryside, you will stumble across glaciers, waterfalls, hot springs, lava formations, lakes, rivers, mountains, and cliffs—all saturated with rich colors.
Natural Landscapes to See and Explore:
If you follow any travel accounts on Instagram, chances are you’ve seen Grindavík’s Blue Lagoon on your feed.
Travelers from all over the globe come to relax in the milky-blue waters of this world-famous geothermal spa. The spa houses 2 million gallons of hot water (temperatures fall between 98°F and 104°F) which is self-cleansing, renewing itself every 40 hours.
Iceland’s most popular tourist circuit, known as the Golden Circle, allows you to see three separate wonders. The first is Þingvellir, which Lonely Planet describes as the “meeting-point of the continental plates and site of the ancient Icelandic parliament.”
The second is Geysir, a famous spouting hot spring located in the geothermal field of Haukadalur.
Lastly, there’s Gullfoss (golden waterfall), an iconic waterfall located on the Hvítá (white) river in South Iceland. Be sure to take your camera. According to Gullfoss.is, a “shimmering rainbow” may be visible over the falls on any given sunny day!
2. The food in Iceland is an adventure in itself.
If tasting traditional Icelandic delicacies like hrútspungar (pickled ram’s testicles) and hákarl (petrified cubes of shark) is not on your to-do list, don’t panic— there are plenty of places for you to dine on pizza, burgers, and hot dogs in Reykjavik.
But if you’d like to indulge in the local cuisine while abroad, expect to find things like whale meat (see Icelandic culture and etiquette), fish, puffin, sheep, and lamb on the menu.
Popular snacks worth tasting include:
- Skyr – An Icelandic dairy product with the consistency of Greek yogurt
- Kleinur – A fried pastry
- Bollur – A type of cream puff
And if you're looking for a one-of-a-kind dining experience, be sure to check out Perlan. Not only is Perlan a stunning piece of futuristic architecture, but it is also a revolving restaurant. Its glass dome completes a full rotation every 2 hours, offering a glorious, panoramic view of Reykjavik and the woodland setting upon which it rests.
Plan to head to the viewing deck on level four to observe the panorama through the lens of a telescope, or visit the dome’s café or gift shop for an Icelandic treat.
3. Most Icelanders speak multiple languages – including English.
Though Icelandic is the nation’s official language (and one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn), North American travelers typically find that they have little trouble communicating with locals. In fact, both English and Danish are mandatory subjects in primary school, and many Icelanders – especially those under 50 – speak English fluently!
However, you might rest easier knowing you've got a few key Icelandic phrases up your sleeve. This concise, easy-to-use Insight Guide shares Icelandic greetings, useful words and phrases, signs, numbers, restaurant lingo, and even pronunciation tips to keep you at the top of your game.
DID YOU KNOW? In 2016, Vision of Humanity’s Global Peace Index ranked Iceland #1 in national peacefulness.
4. There is no shortage of things to see and do in Iceland.
Whether you’re interested in hiking, food, music, history, or photography, Reykjavik has something for you. Here are 4 places to be sure to add to your travel itinerary:
Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Center sits in the heart of Reykjavik, providing spectacular views of Iceland’s mountainous terrain and the North Atlantic Ocean. This “cultural and social center” is home to Iceland’s renowned Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Icelandic Opera, and Reykjavik Big Band, notes Harpa.is.
The distinguished landmark’s concerts, conferences, and music festivals have attracted 7 million visitors since the venue’s 2011 opening. If you’re interested in visiting Harpa, you can book a guided tour for about 16USD or purchase event tickets online.
Located in downtown Reykjavik near the University of Iceland, the National Museum of Iceland is a fascinating attraction for curious travelers and history buffs alike. The museum houses over 2,000 artifacts “illustrating lavishly the story of Iceland’s past, from the medieval days of Viking settlements to current contemporary culture,” shares VisitReykjavik.is.
Ready to see Iceland’s most photographed site in person? Hallgrimur’s Church is Iceland’s tallest and largest church. It took 50 years to complete!
The building offers church services and tours, as well as an elevator ride to the top, where you can drink in the stunning cityscape from above. If you visit the church between June and August, you may even get to take in a summer choral or organ concert.
Love to collect vintage records, antiques, and knickknacks? Then you’ll want to check out the Kolaportið Flea Market, located along Reykjavik’s northern harbor. This indoor market is an ideal destination for adventurers looking to try traditional Nordic delicacies like fermented shark, pickled lamb testicles, and birch cheese. (But don’t worry—there are plenty of candies and pastries to indulge in, too.)
PRO TIP: If you plan to visit the flea market, remember to withdraw money ahead of time, as most vendors accept only cash. There’s an ATM located inside the building, but VisitReykjavik.is notes that the line can get very long.
5. Public transportation is easy and affordable.
Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik offers a first-rate bus system with routes to and from nearby towns, landmarks, and attractions. You’ll find its central bus station located in Hlemmur Square on Laugavegur, the main shopping street in the city.
Expect to pay only about ISK350 (about 3.50USD) for a one-way ticket, which you can purchase aboard the bus.
You can also purchase a Reykjavik City Card, which serves as an all-access pass to 24, 36, or 72 hours of unlimited city bus travel. It also provides discounts at many shops, restaurants, and attractions!
PRO TIP: According to VisitReykjavik.is, bus drivers do not carry change. So you’ll need to have the correct amount on you!
Ready to visit Iceland? You may need a Schengen visa!
From the steamy baths of the Blue Lagoon to the cascading waterfalls of the Golden Circle, there are boundless activities and natural wonders to experience in this “Land of Fire and Ice.”
But if Iceland is just one in a longer list of European countries you plan to visit on your bucket list trip, you may need a Schengen visa.
Here are some resources to help you get started: