Iceland: Mother Nature’s favorite place

by Emily Alvarenga
Stripes Europe

A small island in the Atlantic just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland has an impressive reputation for its abundant natural wonders. Where else can you visit a country that has active volcanos, glaciers, hot springs, northern lights and to top it all off, is being pulled apart constantly by the Earth’s tectonic plates? With an extensive list of things to do, it’s hard to know where to start, so here’s a list of the best places to visit including some hidden gems!

Things to do

  • Soak in one of the many geothermal pools. Bathing in thermal spas is a deep-rooted Icelandic tradition and you can find outdoor heated pools just about anywhere. Make your way to the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most iconic spa, for an otherworldly experience. This huge, geothermal spa has naturally heated milky-blue water filled with minerals that are great for your skin. Add the jet-black volcanic boulders that surround the lagoon, thick blanket of steam and people covered in white mud, and you’ll feel like you’re on the set of a sci-fi film. Then, take a hike to Reykjadalur valley because nothing comes close to finding a natural hot spring in the middle of the mountains. The 45-minute hike leads you past a waterfall cascading down into the valley, boiling mud pools, steaming vents and finally to a hot river where you can bathe and relax in the warm waters.
     
  • Search for the northern lights. Seeing the northern lights is not as easy as it may seem as they are actually extremely elusive and unpredictable. Although there’s no guarantee, if you’re visiting Iceland between September and April, you have pretty good odds of spotting the Aurora Borealis illuminating the night sky. The lights are best seen in a remote place away from the city lights, so taking a trip outside of Reykjavik can also increase your chances of catching them.
     
  • Visit the black sand beaches. Though Iceland certainly isn’t tropical, the dramatic shorelines shaped by volcanoes and glaciers are still breathtaking. Reynisfjara beach on the south coast is widely considered to be the most beautiful black sand beach in the world. And with its enormous basalt columns, roaring Atlantic waves, towering sea stacks, and unique basalt caves it’s not hard to see why.
     
  • See a geyser erupt. Visiting the Haukadalur valley means seeing more geothermal activity in action. Every few minutes you can see the Strokkhur geyser shoot boiling water 100 feet into the air. Also cool to see is Geysir, the hot blowhole which lent its name to all other geysers around the world and gave rise to the word “geyser.” It has been dormant for years, but was known to reach heights of over 500 feet in the 19th century.
     
  • Discover waterfalls big and small. With frequent rain and snow, combined with the multitude of glaciers, Iceland is a county with waterfalls around every corner. One of Iceland’s most impressive waterfalls is Gullfoss, which plunges down through a tight canyon, turns almost 90 degrees, then drops again. Its power offers a remarkable insight into the forces of nature at work. Although small, Bruarfoss is another unique waterfall that cannot be missed. Its bright blue water runs through the center of a volcanic rock formation creating sky blue rapids that are one of a kind.
     
  • Walk between continents. The Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are continuously drifting apart. While this typically happens deep in the ocean, in Iceland, it’s literally causing the island to be ripped apart, exposing the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It’s best visible at Thingvellir National Park, where you can walk in the valley between the plates and clearly see the cliffs that are the edges of North America and Eurasia. If you’re up for braving the glacial water, you can even snorkel in the rift. Silfra is the only place in the world where you can snorkel directly in a crack between two tectonic plates and see down into the center of the earth.
  • Tour the Golden Circle. A quintessential day trip from Reykjavik, taking this 200-mile loop is an easy way to see some of Iceland’s best-known features including some that have been featured above. This route takes you through amazing terrain with stops at Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss.
     
  • Spend some time in Reykjavik. This colorful, capital city has a lot to offer despite its small size. There are a multitude of delicious restaurants, a stroll-worthy harbor, a legendary nightlife scene and a picturesque old town to explore. Make sure to visit Hallgrimskirkja, a church whose concrete columns resemble volcanic formations, and go up the tower for fantastic views of the cityscape.

Tips and tricks

There’s no way around it, Iceland is an expensive country. Don’t worry! There are a few strategies to make your visit more affordable and help you make the most of your trip.

  • Decide when to visit. The time of year you choose to visit has a great impact on what you will be able to do and see during your trip. The summer months are the main tourist season when the weather is the mildest, everything is accessible and you can take advantage of the longer daylight hours, but they will also be the most expensive. Visiting in the winter can save you a fortune. Although you’ll trade the warm days for snow and less sunlight, you’ll get stunning sunsets, less crowds, and a chance to visit some ice caves and see the northern lights in return. Some attractions do become inaccessible during the winter, but many of Iceland’s most famous spots are still easy to visit.
     
  • Rent a car. There’s no better way to see Iceland than by car. It will not only be cheaper if you rent a car, but you will also acquire both the freedom to control your own pace and the power to go where you choose.
     
  • Sacrifice your healthy eating habits. Eating out in Iceland can be very expensive, so you’ll have to opt for fast food if you want to stay within your budget. Trading a sit-down lunch for a popular Icelandic hot dog can save you $20 or more. If you’re itching to try the local cuisine, do so at lunchtime as dinner prices are often much higher. And if you have access to a kitchen, grocery shopping can allow you to still be healthy while staying cost efficient.
     
  • Balance is key. The last thing you want to do is visit Iceland and miss out on everything because you were trying to save money. The key is to balance a few sacrifices while still leaving yourself some room to splurge.

Iceland is truly one of a kind and filled with grand adventures, so start packing and prepare for the trip of a lifetime!

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