Iceland is Mother Nature at her most bipolar. Known as the land of fire and ice, this study in contrast may be the hottest destination going. The New York Times, Lonely Planet guidebooks, and National Geographic Traveler all put it at the top of their 2011 and 2012 must-see lists. With its “what planet am I on?” scenery, Old World charm, and nonstop nightlife, Iceland is like nothing you’ve experienced before.
Don’t let its proximity to the Arctic Circle mislead you. Greenland is icy, Iceland green. Warm ocean currents keep this volcanic outcropping in the North Atlantic surprisingly temperate. Reykjavik summers are brisk in the mid-50s, with midwinter days warmer than Minnesota’s, averaging in the 30s. Precipitation is erratic and unpredictable, but even ornery weather is nothing a couple of layers can’t handle.
Iceland’s interior is a landscape photographer’s dream. A two-hour drive from Reykjavik will net you vacation pictures that will be the envy of all your pals. There’s a breathtaking vista around every bend: horizon-to-horizon double rainbows, eerie black-sand beaches, sapphire geothermal pools, glacial peaks, and “Holy Mordor!” rock fields laced with steam fissures and occasional volcanic hissy fits.
If you want to explore the island’s deeper hinterlands, plan to visit between April and September when they’re accessible, and take advantage of myriad escorted tours via off-road monster jeeps (about $300 for a 10-hour jaunt). Do-it-yourselfers can save money and discover plenty of astonishments with a rental car, hiking boots, and some apples for the shaggy, free-roaming Icelandic ponies. With minimal effort you can find a miraculous panorama without another soul standing between you and a spiritual experience.
Some of the island’s top attractions are an easy drive via the Golden Circle route, a 190-mile loop from Reykjavik into central Iceland and back. First stop is Þhingvellir National Park, just 45 minutes east of town. Here you can walk through the cliff-lined gully between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates—one of the only places on earth where they rise above sea level. In the park you can snorkel or dive beneath the water line at Silfra, a section of the rift between the continents containing a surreal, cathedral-like reservoir of crystal-clear glacial water. Topside, you’ll find cushions of green moss on the ground that are so thick the kids can use them as a trampoline. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which means it’s “considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.”
Next up is Gullfoss, the largest waterfall by volume in Iceland and all of Europe. Pouring over two massive downward steps, the Hvítá river plunges dramatically into a deep gorge. There are no pushy U.S. Park Service–style safety barriers. Follow a footpath right to the edge of the precipice and let a glacial spray kiss your face, ice-cold and bracing as a gin martini.
The third primary stop, the Geysir geothermal field in Haukadalur valley, is not what it used to be. Geysir, the island’s biggest spouting hot spring, once shot gushers 200 feet in the air, but it has been dormant for years. The biggest attraction at the park now is the little hot pot Strokkur. Its fountain reaches only about 60 feet, but it makes up in reliability what it lacks in majesty, erupting every seven minutes or so.
Iceland has been a nature nut’s destination for decades, but Reykjavik has plenty to offer urban hipsters. To grasp the capital’s unconventional mindset, you should know that gadfly TV comedian Jon Gnarr is the mayor, which is like Jon Stewart being the mayor of New York City. The city, home to a third of Iceland’s 320,000 citizens, has some newfangled Euro-generic architecture scattered around, but much of the Old Town has one foot charmingly planted in the 18th century. Even without a map it’s easy to navigate.
The historic district, with its narrow streets of brightly colored corrugated iron houses, is compact enough to stroll in half a day (especially in mid-June, when there’s 20 hours of sunlight). In the center of things in Austurvöllur square is the parliament, home of the planet’s oldest parliamentary democracy (the “Alþhingi” or general assembly, founded in 930). Skólavörðustígur, downtown’s handsome six-block promenade of galleries and jewelers, leads to the Hallgrímskirkja, a severe art deco house of worship resembling a Lutheran rocket ship. The all-white modernist church is the tallest structure in town, its pale spire appearing in every tourist snapshot like a pushy cousin who butts into all your family photos. Go up in the tower (there’s an elevator) for a stunning city view and check out the amazing acoustics during a Sunday choir performance or a late-night rock concert.
For those looking for a concentrated shot of native and international pop, Iceland Airwaves is Lollapalooza with umlauts. Reykjavik’s weeklong late-October rock festival draws fans and bands from this music-loving country, elsewhere in Europe, and the Americas to intimate venues all over downtown. The more classically inclined should visit Harpa, the new multimillion-dollar symphony and opera hall on the harbor. The shimmering silver-blue glass façade, designed by iconoclastic Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, suggests a giant disco ball mating with a melting ice cube. The acoustics have reportedly moved some performers to joyful tears.
If barhopping is more your speed, Laugavegur is not only downtown’s main shopping street but also ground zero for the city’s many enthusiastic drinkers who turn every weekend into a Mardi Gras parade. You must sample Icelandic party culture; it’s a matter of national pride and you don’t want to be deported. Ditch your parka and make an effort to look sophisticated—Icelanders are a fashion-conscious bunch (those snowflake-patterned wool pullovers are strictly for export). The revelry starts around midnight, a boisterous but not aggressive affair with nary a broken bottle in sight. The fun goes on till sunrise, with a mandatory stop or two at the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (“town’s best hot dogs”) all-night stand, on Posthusstraeti, near the popular Kolaportið flea market. For four generations, the owners have dished out their special-recipe wieners, a beer-steamed combo of beef, pork, and lamb, to locals and brave visitors (yes, that customer in the framed photo above the cash register is a gorged-looking Bill Clinton). And then . . . sorry, after this point it’s all a blur.
The next day, relax (and soothe your classic Reykjavik hangover) in one of the city’s 20 public pools. These are handsome open-air affairs with seawater and sulfur baths. It’s on the far edge of town, but the slick new Árbæjarlaug Geothermal Pool (via Fylkisvegur) offers a great hilltop view of Reykjavik in the western distance. If you’re there on a clear moonless night, you may see the iridescent gossamer drape of the northern lights. This is predicted to be the best year yet for spotting the aurora borealis. There’s a world of wonders behind that magic curtain just waiting for an adventurous traveler to discover them.
Getting There: May through October, Icelandair icelandair.com offers nonstop flights from Minneapolis, with daily service during high season, mid-June through mid-August. It’s a brief five-hour flight, so there’s no jet lag to speak of.
What it Costs: Pack a fat wallet. Iceland is challenging for the bargain traveler, with prices at the high end of the European scale. But look at it this way: If it were a cheap destination, it would be overcrowded and Waikiki tacky faster than you can say Eyjafjallajökull.
Where to Stay: The Kex Hostel (Skúlagata 28, +354-561-6060, kexhostel.is) is the hip address of the moment for the backpack and MacBook crowd, with dorm beds from about $20 (2,200 Icelandic krona) and double rooms from $80, including breakfast. For upmarket types, the swank Hotel Borg (Pósthússtræti 11, +354-551-1440, en.hotelborg.is) is the ticket, with doubles costing about $400 a night in summer. A good compromise would be the Hotel Reykjavik Centrum (Aðalstræti 16, +345-514-6000, hotelcentrum.is). It’s a welcoming modern 89-room hotel located on one of the city’s oldest streets. Housed in a lovely historic building, it’s an easy walk to the city’s top attractions. There are also lots of tidy, modestly priced flats for rent in the city, usually with a three-day minimum. It’s a nice alternative to the chain hotel experience and gives you a feel for how the natives live (pretty comfortably, actually). A good resource is the website apartmenthouse.is. A must-avoid is Iceland’s largest hotel, the Grand Hotel Reykjavik (Sigtún 38, +345-514-8000, grand.is). Inconveniently situated two miles east of downtown, it is a soulless 1980s prison camp for business travelers, with an atrium that serves as a resonating chamber for drunken vocalists rolling back to their rooms at 3 am. At about $350 for a standard double, it’s no bargain.
What to Eat: Iceland isn’t a culinary destination, but you’ll discover interesting foods that are rarely found elsewhere, if at all. The dessert menu at Silfur, the restaurant at Reykjavik’s luxurious old Hotel Borg, included scrumptious red beer sorbet and birch-flavored ice cream, which are not to be missed. More exotic traditional dishes include puffin, sheep’s head, reindeer, and putrid shark, which I can’t vouch for. I did fall hard for skyr, the local milky yogurt, and whale sushi. Don’t judge me: Minke whales are not endangered, and eating them is legal in Iceland.
Attractions/Distractions: The Blue Lagoon (240 Grindavík, +354-420-8800, bluelagoon.com), Iceland’s best-known geothermal spa with its warm azure waters and luxurious amenities, draws 400,000 visitors a year. It’s impressive and impeccably efficient but overpriced ($40 adult admission) and touristy. As the locals say, you can hear every language spoken there but Icelandic. The locals know better. Instead, bundle up against the ocean breeze and take a whale-watching tour from one of the excursion companies on the harbor. Or, if you’re a devotee of Viking lore, visit the Snorrastofa medieval cultural center and library in Reykholt (320 Reykholt, +354-433-8000.)
Learn More: Iceland’s North American tourist authority goiceland.org maintains encyclopedic listings of tour operators, events, and accommodations. When you arrive, check in at the Reykjavik Tourist Information Centre (Aðalstræti 2, +354-590-1550, visitreykjavik.is) in the center of Old Town; its helpful staff are unstumpable. Or just stop anybody on the street. Icelanders are invariably smiling, cheerful, and fluent in English.