Iceland offers a multitude of interesting places and attractions and near endless untouched natural scenery. However, there are a few places that should not be missed so here are, in no particular order, ten things you should really try to fit to your schedule. Most of those places are easily accessible and a short distance from the Ringroad that circles the island.
1. Northern Lights
If you have never witnessed the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, then you came to the right place here in Iceland. The scientific explanation of the phenomenon is that when charged particles from the Sun strike atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, the electrons in the atoms move to a higher energy state. When the electrons drop back to a lower energy state a photon is released. This results in a splendid colourful display in the night sky and Iceland is one of the best places on earth to witness the magic. There are countless Northern Lights tours on offer, but if you have your car with you, it is easy to witness them by yourself. Just drive at night out of the cities and villages, as the light from the houses and the streetlamps spoils the fun. When out in the open and in the dark, and if the weather permits, the splendid Aurora Borealis should appear before your eyes. Enjoy.
Thingvellir National Park
If you are interested in the history of Iceland, Thingvellir National Park is a must see place. Literally, the name of the place means, the fields of the Parliament. Here, the Icelandic Parliament, the oldest in the world, assembled regularly. It was established in 930 AD and continued to convene there until the year 1798. All the chieftains from all over the country made the trip once a year, so settle scores and grudges with the other chieftains and to lay down the law. Today it is a National Park and apart from the rich history that surrounds the place, it is also one of the most beautiful places in the whole of Iceland. And for geology buffs, it is an interesting place for the fact that the area is a visible part of the fissure zone that runs through Iceland, as the island sits on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. In recent years, the place has also become famous for the filming of the immensely popular fantasy TV show, The Game of Thrones.
Almost everybody who visits Iceland goes to the Blue Lagoon. Not a natural wonder in the true sense of the word, the lagoon was formed when a geothermal plant on the Reykjanes peninsula started operation. After the hot water has passed through the plant, it streams out onto the lava field. Shortly after, people with skin problems started to bathe in the newly formed lagoon and swore by the healing qualities of the silica rich water. Now it is the biggest tourist attraction in the whole of Iceland with accommodation, restaurants and souvenir shops. Although it can become crowded, we do recommend a visit, as there really is no other place in the world quite like it.
Situated in the North of Iceland, Lake Myvatn is truly unique. Rich in bird and plant life, it is one of the most beautiful places in the country. As in many other places in Iceland it is an area of active volcanism and is situated not far from the active volcano called Krafla. The lake and the surrounding wetlands have an expeptionally rich fauna of waterbirds and desolate craters and bubbling mud pools and geothermal caves make the area a magnificent place for a visit. Near the lake there is also a geothermal lagoon, not unlike the famous Blue Lagoon in the south of the country.
Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
For the truly adventurous, Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is not to be missed. It is Icelands northernmost peninsula, situated in the Westfjords, and it is mostly untouched by the hand of man. Getting there is quite tricky though, as it is completely inaccessible by car or plane. Boat tours are available from the town of Ísafjörður and other towns in the Westfjords. The wildlife is rich, with the Arctic Fox and seals in abundance. Hiking tours are widely available and come highly recommended.
One of the most popular tourist destinations in the capital Reykjavik and probably the most photographed building in the whole of Iceland. The Hallgrimskirkja Church is a huge concrete building designed by the famous Icelandic Architect, Guðjón Samúelsson. As it sits on top of the Skólavörðuholt hill, it towers over the Reykjavík centrum. For the best view in town, head to the top of the 73 metre high church via elevator.
Iceland is teeming with swimming pools. The abundance of geothermal water means that swimming pools are quite cheap to run and almost every small town or village has at least one pool, of differing sizes and amenities, of course. Seljavallalaug is something else though, and is often called a hidden gem in the south of Iceland. It is one of the oldest pools in the country, built in 1923 and is well off the beaten track. Here there are no luxuries, no shower and no service. What you get instead is the incredible scenery as the pool is built into the side of a mountain and the water flows into it from a geothermal natural pool.
The awesome power of the Icelandic nature can be clearly seen at Reynisfjara beach on the south coast. The beach has pitch black sand for miles and the surroundings have clearly been formed through time by the pummelling of the huge waves that crash on the beach. Be advised though, this place can be dangerous as the waves have been known to catch tourists unaware and drag them out to sea. The Reynisdrangar stacks, a collection of almost 70 metres high rock pillars that rise majestically out of the sea are also a sight to behold.
Icelanders are very proud of the Icelandic Horse. The breed has stayed unchanged for centuries and what the horse lacks in size, it more than makes up for it with its hardiness. Icelandic law prevents horses to be imported to the country so that the breed has stayed more or less the same since the days of the Vikings, who brought them over when the land was settled. The horse is also gaining popularity in other countries as it is easy to ride and many horses are exported annually. Most horse breeds in the world have only three gaits; walk, trot and galloping. The Icelandic horse adds two more, called ambling or tölt in Icelandic, and flying pace, or skeið. This makes the breed very sure footed and an exceptional riding horse. Horse rentals for beginners and experts alike have sprouted up everywhere and are easy to find.
Icelanders have a complicated relationships with the whales, the giants of the seas. Iceland is one of very few nations in the world that still hunt these gentle creatures and the eating of whale meat is quite common and widely available in local restaurants. However, the whale watching industry has grown hugely in the last few years and now that industry outperforms the whale catching industry, by most accounts. Tours are available from Reykjavík and many other smaller towns around the country, notably from Húsavík in the north, often called the Whale watching capital of Iceland.