A starkly beautiful country on the edge of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is home to glaciers, hot springs, fjords and a growing hipster culture. The warming effects of the Gulf Stream create a climate milder than expected so far north. Conditions are fickle however, so pack a decent jacket for inevitable rainy days. As Icelanders say, “there’s no bad weather, just poor dress choices.”
Here’s how to spend five days in the Land of Fire and Ice.
Day 1: Reykjavík
After landing at Keflavík Airport, take a taxi or shuttle 40 minutes west to Reykjavík. Here, the art deco Hotel Borg has hosted Iceland’s grandest visitors since opening in 1930.
Recover from jet lag with a walk around the city centre’s charming streets. Pass by impressive murals and cottage-like homes painted yellow, red, blue and green while venturing northeast to the ultra-modern Harpa glass concert hall on Reykjavík’s waterfront. It offers unique vantage points to barren mountains across the sea. Then head to Laugavegur — the city’s main street — and explore boutiques like Kiosk selling Icelandic-designed apparel, stylish bars, and restaurants. For more traditional fare, the waterside seafood restaurant Saegreifinn serves fresh lobster soup with bread and butter.
Tip: Visit from September to mid-April to see the Northern Lights. Reykjavík’s Grótta lighthouse is the best place in the city to spot flashing bands of green and pink dancing overhead.
Day 2: Reykjavík – Golden Circle – Reykjavík
Car rentals in Iceland are recommended. Canadian driving licenses are valid for short-term visits and the roads are quiet and easy to navigate. On your way out of the city, pick up flaky croissants and baguette sandwiches from Sandholt bakery on Laugavegur to fuel your journey along the 237-kilometre Golden Circle loop.
Venture east to visit Almannagjá gorge in Thingvellir, where Iceland’s first parliament held meetings over a thousand years ago. The national park is also home to Thingvellir rift valley, an otherworldly 40-metre-deep slash in the earth where the North American and Eurasian continental plates are slowly separating.
In the Haukadalur geothermal valley, hot pools and fumaroles steam in the Geysir Hot Spring Area. Every few minutes, the fountain geyser Strokkur erupts with 30-metre spouts of hot water. Ten kilometres to the west, sunlight brings rainbows along a cascade of waterfalls called Gullfoss, whose name translates to ‘Golden Falls.’
The Gullfoss café serves a decent lamb soup. But if you can wait for the 90-minute return to Reykjavík, head to Fish Company for an excellent Nordic/Icelandic seafood dinner among candles and copper lamps.
Day 3: Reykjavík – Vík
Pass glacial rivers and lava fields driving southeast along the island’s Ring Road to Eyjafjallajökull — the volcano whose giant ash clouds brought European air traffic to a halt six years ago. Break up the two-and-a-half hour drive with stops at the Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls. Just before your arrival in Vík (population 300) pop into Skógar Folk Museum to experience Icelandic living, 1890s style.
IcelandAir Hotel Vik offers modern, light-filled rooms. Go horseback riding on the village beach or embark on a moody walk along Reynisfjara. Its lava sand, basalt stacks, and troll-like rock formations sticking out of the ocean make it one of the most unique and beautiful beaches in the world. Summertime brings breeding puffins to cliffs west of the beach.
For dinner, head to Halldorskaffi (closed Sundays) for home-style cooking: gravlax, fillet of lamb, and traditional skyr cake for dessert.
Day 4: Vík – Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon – Reykjavík
EEnjoy breakfast at the hotel before a 40-minute drive to the Jökulsárlon glacier lagoon at the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. Zodiac boat tours run from June to September for a closer look at the glittering blue icebergs. In the wintertime, ice caves form in the glaciers here. Book a guided tour well in advance to explore these impressive formations. Or visit Diamond Beach where icebergs wash up ashore like giant jewels while seals lap the water.
Day 5: Reykjavík – Blue Lagoon – Keflavík
Spend your last day in Iceland exploring Reykjavík’s cultural institutions. The acclaimed National Museum and Saga Museum offer glimpses into Viking culture while the Space Shuttle-like Hallgrímskirkja church, the most iconic building in the capital, affords 360-degree views from the top of its curved tower.
A trip to Iceland isn’t complete without a dip into its many thermal pools. The water at Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach, a perfect crescent of golden sand on the capital’s fringe, is heated to a comfortable 18-to-20 degrees in the summer. Alternatively, on your drive through the Reykjanes Peninsula back to the airport, stop at the Blue Lagoon. The milky blue water and mineral-rich silt at the bottom of the pool is full of skin-conditioning properties.
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