From thermal springs and puffins, to wrecks and witchcraft, here’s the classic, cool and weird things to do in Iceland
For some years now, Iceland has been a very fashionable place to go, and yet, despite the fact that all and sundry on your Instagram feed seem to be hanging out in hot springs or wandering by waterfalls, it still feels like a strange and distant land.
This might be because it is – after all, it’s closer to Greenland than anywhere else. The nearest capital city to Reykjavík is, oddly, Edinburgh, and that’s still 850-odd miles. The commonly-held notion that not even trees can survive there is a myth, but it seems like it could be true, you know? Anyway, if you fancy investigating for yourself, we’ve got fifteen ideas of what to do right here.
Reykjavík’s most iconic structure is this Middle Earth-esque church, spearing upwards in a combination of elegance and strength. Construction on Hallgrímskirkja began in 1945, but wasn’t actually completed until 1986, and the interior is pretty minimalist, but it has a glorious organ (and there are frequent concerts performed), and if you feel like paying the equivalent of $15, you can climb to the top of the tower for views over the city.
2. Puffin and whale watching
Minke whales, humpback whales and fin whales can all be seen in the chilly waters around Iceland, but if you’re really lucky you might get to see killer whales or even a blue whale! Imagine seeing the largest creature on earth in the wild… amazing. While you’re out in the boat, a more common sight is a wide variety of seabirds: Arctic terns, guillemots and the aforementioned puffins can be seen swooping and diving for fish. Just don’t get too attached to the puffins… they’re kind of a speciality.
3. Blue Lagoon spa
The Blue Lagoon spa is the one you may have seen on TV whenever Iceland is featured. The other-worldly blue glow and the steam rising from the water make this place almost a cliched image of the country, but it’s something you should do if you’re there. It is expensive (but then virtually everything is), you’ll have to pre-book, sometimes weeks ahead, and there are other spas that offer similar treatments – silica mud and the like – but if you’re there late at night with a seemingly endless bowl of stars above you, it’s an experience like no other.
4. The Golden Circle
A tour of three locations in southwestern Iceland (Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and the Gullfoss waterfall), there are many tour companies that offer a bewildering variety of itineraries, each with their own length, price, number of detours, stops, but what you need to know basically is that the three sites can be visited in around six hours. This is the bare minimum, mind you, and if you’re feeling particularly devil-may-care, you could rent a car and create your own tour, taking as long and circuitous a route as you like.
5. See the Northern Lights
Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, are one of the most amazing things you’re ever likely to see, and Iceland one of the finest spots to witness them. Due to the lack of ambient light, once you’re out in the wilderness, it’s just you and nature’s most spectacular light show. You can, of course, opt to just head out by yourself and hope you’re lucky – and in the depths of winter you may very well be – but there’s a lot to be said for doing a trip with a guide. They’ll know the most likely locations, the darkest skies, and will be able to let you know some of the science behind the whole thing, as well as giving you photography tips
6. Nauthólsvík geothermal beach
If you’ve already done the Blue Lagoon – or decided you couldn’t afford it – you could do far worse than coming here. I know it seems a bit of an oxymoron to head to an Icelandic beach, but the shore runs down to a man-made lagoon which, in summer, has hot water pumped into it, maintaining the water at a pleasant 15 – 19ºC. On top of that, there are showers, steam baths and hot tubs. The seawalls protect the bathing area from the more aggressive tides, and each year it attracts around half a million visitors.
7. The Diamond Circle
Again, we’re contrasting this to something suggested above, and while the Golden Circle is the easiest to get to from Reykjavík, if you start from the northern town of Akureyri, you can see the might of both the Goðafoss (the Waterfall of the Gods) and the Dettifoss, which is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Add to this Hljóðaklettar, basalt rock formations that look like something from a fairytale – and some sections of which look like trolls’ faces! – Ásbyrgi, a calm hollow with a beautiful pond, the lunar landscape of Hverarönd, and the quaint little town of Húsavík, and you’ve got something that more than rivals its more celebrated cousin to the south.
8. Laugavegur – Bankastræti – Austurstræti
This is basically one street, but it’s the place with a large number of Reykjavík’s bars and nightlife. The bars and the street itself get busy at night, and a nice way to spend an evening is just to do a bit of bar-hopping to see what’s going on. Do this long enough, and you’ll start to see the same faces over and locals are always bound to bump into someone they know; it’s not a big city, after all. There’s not a huge clubbing scene in the sense of European superclubs, but the line between bar and club gets more blurred as the night wears on. Almost nowhere will charge for entry unless there’s a specific event happening, and the whole scene is very laid-back.
9. The Westfjords
A beautiful area steeped in mythology, folklore and magic, this area is, again, less-frequented by tourists. It’s basically the bit that, if you’re looking at the country on a map, sticks out of the north-west of the island. The nature reserve of Hornstrandir boasts mighty cliffs on which thousands of birds perch. Drangajökull is the most northerly glacier in the whole country. It’s an area of islands and bays, and if you’d like to learn more about the history and culture of the area, there are a couple of good museums as well. The Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft is mentioned below, but what about the Skrímslasetrið, or Icelandic Sea Monster Museum? Maybe there’s more to this region than at first glance…!
10. Phallological Museum
This is exactly what you probably think it is. The only phallological (that’s penises, if you didn’t know) museum in the world is located in Reykjavík. It is, mind you, mainly animals: polar bears, whales, seals and so forth… although there are a couple of human specimens in there as well. Their website states: “Thanks to The Icelandic Phallological Museum, it is finally possible for individuals to undertake serious study into the field of phallology in an organized, scientific fashion.” Thank goodness for that.
11. The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft
The coastal town of Hólmavík is the location of this privately-owned museum. Known in Icelandic as Strandagaldur, it was opened in 2000 by Sigurður Atlason who did four years of collection and research on such creatures as the Tilberi (a creature created to steal milk), the grimoires (a series of texts on how to create magical items, summon supernatural entities or deities) and, most famously, the Nábrók – or Necropants – a pair of trousers made from the skin of a dead man which are believed to be capable of producing an endless supply of money.
12. US Navy DC-3 wreck and Garðar BA 64
Two dramatic wrecks are sat rusting on the shores of Iceland, and for those of you for whom rusting hulks are your thing, you can visit them both. In 1973 a US Navy Douglas DC-3 made an emergency landing – with everyone on board surviving, no less – and has just been left to rot. You can’t drive up to the wreck; you have to park up and walk the two and a half miles across a desolate landscape to the plane which, despite its remoteness, still attracts curious visitors.
In a similar vein, the Garðar BA 64 is a beached whaling ship which can be found run aground in Skápadalur Valley. It’s in better condition for clambering over and inside than the DC-3 mentioned above, and is a popular site for photographers wanting a startling contrast between the blustery scenery and some rusting industrial muscle.
13. Viking Village
If you’ve ever fancied indulging in any pillage-based fantasies, then boy oh boy, do we have a treat for you! Off the road running between the settlements of Djúpivogur and Höfn is what looks like a perfectly preserved Viking village, and, well… that’s kind of what it is. Kind of. It’s actually a film set that was built for a film that was never made. It’s built on land belonging to a local farmer, who has made something of a trade of charging visitors a small fee to wander around it. And it truly is fabulously done, with an amazing amount of attention to detail. You can enter the houses, peer into the rooms behind heavy wooden doors and imagine a time long ago when this was all there was.
14. Icelandic Punk Museum
Iceland, for its size, has made a fabulous contribution to many genres of music. From the pianist, composer and conductor Jón Liefs through to the energetic bounce of the Sugarcubes – where Björk was brought to the attention of the wider world – via her own wondrous solo career, to the beautiful, swelling melodies of Sigur Rós and the metal and rock of Solstafir and Agent Fresco. But punk? Hmm. Well, perhaps suitably located in an underground toilet, the necessarily small Icelandic Punk Museum houses its exhibits in the loos and washbasins, with the exhibits crammed in as tightly and haphazardly as you’d expect from a punk museum in a toilet. You can listen to Icelandic punk on headphones, try your hand at the drums, or examine the photos of the museum being opened in November 2016 by Johnny Rotten himself.
15. $9 Nature Condoms
Not necessarily a tourist attraction, but certainly an oddity. Labelled a “High quality condom from the land of explosions”, these are available in various colours and designs, all themed around the nature of Iceland. Enjoy Your Nature condoms are individually wrapped and, at $9 are pretty pricey, but what with all the waterfalls, penis museums, witchcraft and punk permeating the very air of the country, maybe you and your partner could finish your trip in style…?