In our increasingly crowded world, finding a true getaway that’s not too remote can be a challenge. Iceland remains an exception: Its cosmopolitan capital is easily accessible by plane from North America and Europe, but its wild, unspoiled landscapes can make it seem a world away. That’s why we asked Skafti Jónsson at the Embassy of Iceland in Washington, D.C. to suggest some starting points for exploring all the natural and cultural splendor this one-of-a-kind island has to offer. Here’s what he had to say.
Westfjords: The large peninsula in northwestern Iceland is a great place to get away from it all (it’s mostly uninhabited), but its unpredictable weather and mountainous terrain recommend it to more experienced adventurers. Jonsson recommends using the town of Isafjordur as a base for treks to see the Northern Lights or the midnight sun. For a quirky side trip, stop by the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Holmavik and paint on some “good luck” symbols to keep you safe in the wilderness.
Vatnajokull: The biggest ice cap by volume in Europe (it covers more than 8% of southeast Iceland) is a national park of the same name. Jónsson calls the southern end of the glacier, with its ravishing views of black-sand deserts, the most beautiful part of Iceland. So beautiful, in fact, that it was used as a shooting location for the second season of HBO’s cult TV series Games of Thrones. Glacier tours are available through Vatnajokull Travel.
Eyjafjallajokull: This hard-to-pronounce volcano is famous for bringing European plane flights to a halt when it spewed black ash into the sky back in 2010, but don’t hold a grudge, even if you were grounded. View it from the town of Hveragerði, or get even closer by booking a helicopter tour.
Godafoss: The beautiful “waterfall of the gods” offers a history lesson to boot. When the country adopted Christianity in 1000 CE, an old chieftain is said to have thrown his statues of Norse pagan gods — newly false idols — into the rushing waters. Check in with the tourist center in the nearby town of Akureyri to get maps and detailed directions.
Thingvellir National Park: Iceland’s first settlers sent representatives to Thingvellir, where a parliament was formed in the 10th century (it was moved in 1789). Iceland’s very first national park was established there in 1930 to preserve the parliamentary grounds and the beauty of the surrounding area is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. You can actually see the scars left by the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates as they drift apart.
The Westman Islands: Life in the islands’ only settlement, Heimaey, came to a screeching halt after a 1973 volcanic eruption, but some inhabitants have returned to the sleepy fishing village. Some of the houses are still buried in lava; an effort to excavate them is being hailed as the “Pompei of the North.”
Reykjavik: Iceland’s capital has had time to cultivate a range of cultural experiences since it was first settled in 871. The downtown area is filled with shops, contemporary art galleries (i8), and modern lodgings (try the beautifully decorated 101 Hotel). Take time to visit the Reykjavik City Museum, where you can see a 10th-century Viking-Age hall preserved at its original site. If you’re planning a visit soon, check out the Reykjavik Arts Festival (May 18 to June 3) or catch a concert at Harpa, a new music venue in town.
The capital also has a vibrant food scene. The Cheese Shop offers Icelandic specialties like skyr, a soft, yogurt-like cheese. For a taste of truly fresh seafood, check out Fiskmarkadurinn or Sjavargrillid.
By Antonieta Rico, intern at National Geographic magazine.