Living on the Edge of the Continent: Iceland

I am currently traveling with my sister Marit, and as I have tended to do when traveling, reopened this blog to share pictures and memories. This vacation is two weeks in Iceland, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Estonia – admittedly as not as off the beaten path (or as cheap) as some of my last trips, but no less spectacular as destinations. The first stop was only a five-hour flight away from DC: Iceland.

Iceland was originally just a stopover on the way to continental Europe, now a popular occurrence due to the special layover options offered by Icelandair and WOW Air for no extra cost, but even in the two short days I was there I was taken aback by the country’s natural beauty and it may easily end up being the favorite destination of my trip. Due to its geologically active location, Iceland has always had an extraordinary landscape of glaciers, fjords, and geysers, but its remoteness made it off-the-beaten path as a tourist destination until recent years, when tourism has exploded (we were told by a guide that 2 million tourists are expected to visit Iceland this year, six times the total native population). Still, we arrived before the busy season, and while the top destinations had some crowds, much of Reykjavik and the countryside were still unspoiled (admittedly, the timing also meant windy, cold, and intermittently rainy weather for most of the trip).

Our home base was Reykjavik, the capital and center of Icelandic life (2/3 of the population lives within the Reykjavik region, even though this is only 200,000 people). Reykjavik is a quite pleasant city, with little traffic and pollution and great vistas across the bay, though despite the growing role of tourism in Iceland’s economy it is still a working city with a large fishing port. However, as a city that only came into being around a century ago and one traditionally removed from the cultural and economic flows of Western Europe and the Americas, it has few monuments or historical sites, and its unadorned architecture is unexciting (though there are certainly exceptions, such as the unique modern Hallgrimskyrka Cathedral).

Hallgrimskyrka, Reykjavik

Leif Erikson statue, Reykjavik

Reykjavik Cityscape

But Iceland’s attractions lie primarily outside of the city. In two days, we did not have time to do the Ring Road or other excursions to the wilder parts of the country, however many fantastic features are found within an hour of Reykjavik. Most of our first day was spent on the Golden Circle tour, a classic, if crowded, day trip to the best of Southwest Iceland. This route includes the Geysir thermal basin (though the eponymous geyser – where the word “geyser” comes from – is dead, and the actual eruptions were by its sister geyser Strokkur), the Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir National Park, site of the geological boundary between North America and Eurasia (an obvious system of crevasses and raised plateaus) and the Althing assembly, the first democratic system in Northern Europe.

Icelandic countryside

Church and Glacier

Geysers and Glaciers

Geysir thermal basin

Strokkur Geyser

Hot spring, Geysir

Gullfoss lower falls and canyon

Gullfoss

Mountains near Gullfoss

Thingvellir background

Fault line, Thingvellir

Althing site, Thingvellir

Fault line, Thingvellir

Thingvellir

The second day brought us first to the islet of Videy, just a 15-minute ferry ride from Reykjavik. Though quite small, Videy includes an abandoned village, seabird nesting colonies, and modern art installations, all framed by phenomenal views of Reykjavik and the surrounding mountains. That evening’s trip was to the Blue Lagoon, a world-famous hot spring said (like most other hot springs) to have healing properties and another representation of Iceland’s continuing geothermal activity (luckily, we did not experience a volcanic eruption, which is a danger in Iceland).

Rainbow over Reykjavik harbor

Videy

Viðeyjarstofa House and Church

Videy terrain

Modern art, Videy

Videy terrain and backdrop

Reykjanes landscape

Blue Lagoon

Sunset over Snæfellsjökull