I have been posting here since 2009 and for the first time in six years I have had a request. My blogging friend Sue from Travel Tales of Life has asked me to put together of top ten things to do in Iceland and I am therefore delighted to offer these suggestions.
This may seem rather too obvious to mention but I do so because some friends of mine recently visited Iceland and stayed in Kevlavik. The man at the hotel gave then some useful travel tips but bizarrely suggested that it wasn’t really worth going to Reykjavik because it is just a city. Now, I would guess that unless all you want to see are whales and puffins then a visit to the capital of the country is on everyone’s itinerary. If you ever stay in that particular hotel then I urge you to ignore the ‘don’t bother with Reykjavik’ advice!
So, some top things to do in Reykjavik:
Discover the Vikings
On the seafront along a granite boulder promenade you will find the Sólfar Suncraft, which is a stainless steel 1986 sculpture of a Viking long boat that occupies an impressive spot overlooking the bay and Mount Esja on the other side.
Iceland is proud of its Viking heritage because the country was first colonised by Norwegians in the ninth century and the story goes that the first permanent settler was a man called Ingólfur Arnarson who landed here in 871 and named the location Reykjavik, which means smoky bay, on account of the comforting plumes of hot steam that were escaping from the nearby hot springs.
Climb the Cathedral Tower
Hallgrímskirkja is the Lutheran Cathedral and the tallest building in the city which took nearly forty years to build and was consecrated in 1986. The design is said to be based on a geyser plume or a lava flow but if you ask me it looks more like a space shuttle about to blast off.
The main purpose for visiting the cathedral is to take the lift to the observation tower at the top of the seventy-three metre tall tower. It cost 700 krona (about £3) and it was worth every one because from the top there are glorious uninterrupted views in all directions, to the sea in the west, the glaciers in the north, the islands in the south and the ragged coastline to the east.
The Penis Museum
I am confident to declare the Penis Museum the oddest in the World, even more bizarre (although I haven’t been there) than the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum in the USA, the Dog Collar Museum in the UK or the Toilet Museum in New Delhi, India. If anyone has any alternative suggestions by-the-way then I am happy to consider them for inclusion in this list!
“…collecting penises is like collecting anything. You can never stop, you can never catch up, you can always get a new one, a better one a bigger size or better shape…” Museum owner, Sigurður Hjartarson
Search for the Hidden People
The hidden people are called Huldufólk and are special here and it is said often appear in the dreams of Icelanders. What makes seeing them difficult is that they are invisible and Icelanders prefer big people to be careful in case you accidentally step on one and they even frown upon the throwing of stones in case you inadvertently hit one of these small invisible people.
These are said to be thousands of elves who make their homes in Iceland’s wilderness and coexist alongside the Icelandic people and in a survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 it found that sixty-two percent of the respondents thought it was at least possible that they exist and if you only need one reason to visit Iceland then that must surely be it!
See the Northern Lights
Unfortunately the sighting of this natural phenomena cannot be guaranteed, it is not like the Blackpool Illuminations, they can’t just be turned on and off for the benefit of tourists, no one is assured to see them (unless you happen to be Joanna Lumley making a television programme that is) and many people leave disappointed.
“Always travel in hope, rather than expectation, of seeing the Northern Lights. For the best chances of seeing the lights, head north – but not too far. ” Alistair McLean, Founder of The Aurora Zone.
“No waterfall in Europe can match Gullfoss. In wildness and fury it outdoes the Niagra Falls in the United States” From the Travel Diary of two Danes in the retinue of Frederick VII of Denmark (1907).
The falls are where the wide Hvítá river, swollen with melt waters from the nearby glacier rush southward and about a kilometre above the falls turns sharply to the left and flows down into a wide curved three step staircase before abruptly plunging in two stages into a crevice thirty-two metres deep with a thunderous roar and unstoppable force.
The river is wild and untamed dashing madly over rocks and advancing like a cavalry charge racing to the precipice and the final crevice which is about twenty metres wide, and is at right angles to the flow of the river which results in a dramatic water plunge and an atmosphere full of hanging mist which leaves no one in any doubt about the wonderful power of nature.
Visit the Geysers at Geysir
The original great Geyser erupts only infrequently now so you could be a long time hanging around waiting for a show. Apparently people used to encourage it to blow by pouring soap powder into the borehole as this was a generally reliable way of encouraging it to perform but eventually this stopped working because the residue of the soap clogged up the underground vents and geologists now believe that it requires a dramatic event such as an earthquake to set it off again.
Luckily the nearby geyser Strokkur erupts much more regularly every five minutes or so to heights of up to twenty metres (that’s the equivalent of about five London double decker buses). Crowds of people gather expectantly around the glassy pool waiting for the translucent blue water bubble to foam and then dramatically break through the surface forcing many gallons of boiling water and hissing steam into the air.
Þingvellir National Park
This is the site of the historic Icelandic National Assembly. This was called the Althing and was an open-air assembly that represented the whole of Iceland that was established in the year 930 and continued to meet for eight hundred and fifty years or so after that.
This history and the powerful natural setting of the assembly grounds has given the site iconic status as a national shrine and on 17th June 1944 thousands of Icelanders flocked to this place for the historic foundation of the modern independent republic of Iceland.
This is also a place where the land is literally tearing itself apart in a sort of messy divorce settlement as the tectonic plates of Europe and America meet and are in continual conflict with each other as they are drifting slowly apart at a rate of 3mm per year, which may not sound a lot but in geological terms is almost as fast as Usain Bolt!
Finally – Take a Swim in the Blue Lagoon
This place is horribly commercialised and wickedly expensive but having travelled all this way it is stubbornly on most people’s ‘to do’ list.
The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. The steamy waters are part of a landscape constructed by lava formation with warm waters that are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur and are used as a skin exfoliant. The water temperature in the bathing and swimming area of the lagoon averages a very comfortable 40° centigrade all year round.
If anyone is put off by the absurd €40 basic admission price (a premium spa and treatments package costs a wallet busting €430) there are a number of alternative geothermal heated pools in Reykjavik without the marketing hype for only a fraction of the price (but also without the location).
So, that is my top ten Iceland suggestions. There are other things to do of course like whale watching, pony trekking, hiking and land rover safaris to the glaciers but I haven’t done any of those. Yet!
Sue also suggested a list of things not to do in Iceland and I can only think of one – Don’t get too close to an active volcano especially if you haven’t taken out the additional volcano damage insurance on the hire car!