Iceland, the land of story, is located on the edge of the arctic circle. It is home to Europe’s largest glacier and also has hundreds of volcanoes. Iceland is also called the Land of Fire and Ice as it is nicely warmed by the Gulf Stream.
There are many stories that still linger on till today but there are a few marks of human hands on this windswept land. Iceland has turned Viking warriors into poets, and family stories to epic sagas with its sheer force and beauty.
Over 1100 years ago, Ingolfur Arnarson, a Norseman, vowed to build his farm when he first caught sight of Icelandic shores. He cast the wooden seat pillars of his chieftain’s throne overboard. A settlement was born three years later when these pillars were found. This settlement is now home to two-thirds of the Icelanders and its capital, Reykjavik.
To many people, Iceland can feel like the most isolated place on earth with only a population of 300,000 but it is only a three-hours flight away from London and under six hours from New York.
Reykjavik is one of those places that’s not sure if it’s a big town, or a small city, therein lies its charm. It’s relaxed and welcoming, yet possesses fierce creativity and cultural life that holds its own against other European capitals.
Most buildings here are a response to the natural environment, simple and low, to beat the North Atlantic winds, colorful, to brighten the spirits through the long dark winters. Many buildings in Iceland are truly inspired by its natural beauty and there’s grand civic architecture here too.
Like a spire from a fairy tale ice-castle, the soaring central tower of Hallgrimskirkja watches over all Reykjavik. There are only a few churches in the world that are designed to mirror the geometric shapes of ancient lava flows and so honor the natural world.
Iceland’s conference and concert center, Harpa, is designed to reflect the city’s sky, harbor and cultural energy.
Once again, the island’s dramatic geologic formations are honored here, as well as the incredible winter spectacle of the Northern Lights.
Icelanders value their heritage buildings too. When Reykjavik modernized in the mid-twentieth century, dozens of the city’s older buildings were relocated to the last of the city’s farms.
If you would like to walk through the pages of earlier times, then visit the Arbaejarsafn museum. You can take a voyage through the Icelandic history till the Settlement Age at the National Museum of Iceland. The city has everything to offer whether it is windswept waters, mountains, and its limitless horizons. Many of the country’s most popular sights are within easy reach of Reykjavik, often by public transport.
You can also visit hundreds of volcanic baths across the island and feel the spirit of Iceland. One of the most famous volcanic baths is the Blue Lagoon. You will meet many locals here who come to soak in the healing thermal waters. Many even conduct business meetings.
Not far from Reykjavik is an area known as The Golden Circle, which encompasses three of Iceland’s greatest natural wonders.
The Thingvellir National Park is situated only 30 miles from the capital and is considered to be the heart and soul of the country. For a millennia, the tectonic plates of North America and Europe have been drifting apart but you can actually take a walk on these tectonic plates here.
Stand upon the shore of the country’s largest lake, wander the grass-covered lava flows and imagine the clans who gathered here for Iceland’s open-air parliament, for two-weeks each year, for over 800 years. Also, in the Golden Circle, experience a boiling cauldron of hissing steam vents and belching mud pools, at the Geysir Geothermal Field. The Great Geysir itself has been quiet in recent years, but nearby, it’s little brother Strokkur, still puts on a show, thrusting water into the heavens every 10 minutes.
If there’s one natural wonder in The Golden Circle that outshines them all, it’s Gullfoss. A local farmer’s daughter had walked barefoot to Reykjavik and threatened to throw herself from the falls early last century when the waterfall was threatened by a hydroelectric project. Today, that woman is regarded as Iceland’s first environmentalist, and The Golden Falls has been protected forever.
All the epic landscapes are connected with the main ring road that circles the entire Iceland.
An hour and a half’s drive east from Reykjavik is one of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss.
There’s a local folklore in Skogafoss which is another 18 miles east. It is said that a viking buried his chest of gold behind the falls and many years later, the chest was found by a young boy who had attempted to wrench it from its hiding place but accidentally tore off its handle before the chest vanished again. The falls create a double rainbow which is another treasure that can be found on sunny days.
Continue eastward towards Vik, the southernmost village in the country. You will find some of Iceland’s most dramatic landscapes, weather, and legends wedged between the mountains and the sea.
The basalt sands of Black Beach are considered one of the most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world. Locals say the formations at Reynisdrangar are the remains of two trolls heading out to sea, who, when caught in the rising sun, were frozen in the morning light.
The shorelines like Halsanefshellir are made up of otherworldly rock formations and caves, said to be a monster’s lair until a landslide sealed the entrance only a century ago.
You can go for a hike across the natural arch of Dyrholaey and sit surrounded by puffins. At Iceland’s most southerly point, many waves that have traveled uninterrupted all the way from Antarctica end their journey.
Follow the ring road for another two hours, into the ethereal light of Jokulsarlon Lake. Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajokull, icebergs break away and float for years, melting down until they are small enough to tumble out to sea. A magnet for photographers and filmmakers, Jokulsarlon has been the setting for modern-day legends, like James Bond, Batman, and Lara Croft.
Iceland’s ring road offers one jewel after another that is all strung together with mile upon mile of absolute solitude. Stand before the northern horseshoe falls of Selfoss. You feel the earth rumble beneath your boots at Europe’s mightiest waterfall, Dettifoss, who’s plume can be seen over half a mile away.
Nearby Myvatn, visit a tranquil lake that’s surrounded by nature in all its violent beauty. Take a careful walk through the boiling landscapes of Namafjall. Visit the lava pillars and dark castles of Dimmuborgir. It is said that Satan had landed here when God cast him from Heaven. From there, visit the caldera of Krafla Volcano, and witness the incredible geothermal power that resides just beneath the ice.
A little west of Myvatn, is a waterfall forever linked to a turning point in Iceland’s epic narrative. In the 10th century, Iceland’s law speakers united the country under one faith, Christianity when civil war threatened to tear the island in two. The waterfall of the gods, Godafoss, came into existence when the chieftain, in a symbolic act of conversion, hurled his pagan totems off the falls.
The tiny city of Akureyri is like an arctic oasis. It is also known as the Capital of the North. Before heading off into the wilds again, Akureyri is the perfect place to warm up and enjoy some comfort and culture.
There are some stories we never want to end, that we never want to put down, but rest assured, this, is only an introduction. Everywhere you go in Iceland, every side road, every path is a story waiting to unfold.
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