With mountainous glaciers cozying up to searing hot volcanic springs and more than 100 volcanoes rising out of the sea, plus the chance to soak in a geothermal pool with northern lights overhead, it’s no wonder Iceland has become a magnet for adventurous travelers seeking one-of-a-kind experiences.
Many of us fly over this 300-mile-long, 200-mile-wide island country that sits between Greenland and Norway en route to Europe, but ever since PLAY airlines began nonstop service from BWI to Reykjavik with prices as low as $360 round trip, getting there is both a bargain and convenient. The flight takes as long as a trip to Seattle.
Because volcanic eruptions sculpted this natural beauty some 20 million years ago, Iceland appears to be lunar-esqe—so much so, locals like to say with a smile that when Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon in 1969, he thought he was in Iceland! The country has become an ideal setting for unearthly films and TV series including “Game of Thrones.”
Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital, offers everything you’d expect in a European capital—exceptional museums and art galleries, creative shopping, interesting food, lots of coffee houses and an Old Harbour that’s ideal for wandering.
At first glance, Perlan Museum looks like something you’d expect to find on another planet. The building’s massive glass dome (known as The Pearl) sits on top of a group of converted hot-water tanks housing the museum’s exhibitions. The architecture is as unique as what’s inside: a real indoor ice cave and planetarium show, plus a 360-degree viewing platform for jaw-dropping vistas of the capital area. Stay for lunch or a snack in the museum’s rotating top floor restaurant for changing panoramic views with every bite.
The best way to explore Iceland’s natural beauty is to hire a car and drive the Ring Road. This 832-mile journey takes you past breathtaking waterfalls, ice caps and moss-covered lava fields. It takes about 10 days to make the trip, provided you don’t detour along the way. For hearty adventure seekers, the Westfjords is Europe’s last true wilderness. Only about 10% of Iceland’s visitors ever see this region known for its challenging hiking terrain and for spotting Arctic foxes, seals and whales. On the Latrabjarg Peninsula, visitors are treated to pink and red sands, plus a massive lagoon offering a chance to see seals at nearby bird cliffs.
For a shorter trip, drive the four-hour 185-mile Golden Circle to see where tectonic plates meet and water erupts more than 100 times a day. Nearby, explore a 6,500-year-old crater, go rock climbing or rafting or take a soak in a geo pool. At Jökulsárlón, Iceland’s most famous glacier lagoon, watch luminous blue icebergs drift by before they float out to sea. It’s a place so unique it was used as backdrop for scenes in “Batman Begins” and the James Bond film “Die Another Day.”
Icelanders’ unofficial pastime is floating in geothermal waters. Bathing in hot springs is a beloved tradition. Not only is this incredibly relaxing, but it’s a great way to meet locals. (It’s Iceland’s equivalent of the local pub or town square.)
The Blue Lagoon is the most famous. Located in a magnificent black-lava field, the lagoon spa boasts clouds of steam, therapeutic silica-rich waters and bathers covered in white silica mud. The experience is so unique that in 2012, National Geographic named the Blue Lagoon one of 25 wonders of the world.
Newer on the geothermal scene, Sky Lagoon opened in 2021. The cave-like entrance to the lagoon enables visitors to float through a breathtaking canyon to an infinity edge pool surrounded by faultless mountain views. The seven-step experience combines the healing powers of warm and cold waters, steam, dry heat and a cold plunge topped off with an energizing mist.
The best time of year to visit Iceland depends on what you want to experience. The midnight sun extends from mid-May to mid-August—when the sun sets just before midnight. The longest days are from May through July when the sun doesn’t set and the country experiences 24 hours of daylight. Between September and April, the skies are dark enough to see the phenomenon of aurora borealis, known as the northern lights.
Where to Stay
Silica Hotel at the Blue Lagoon offers guests their own private geothermal lagoon filled with seawater rich in silica, algae and minerals said to have healing, rejuvenating and nourishing abilities. For adventure seekers, ATV trips include a chance for guests to motor through the Reykjanes Peninsula on an adrenalizing guided excursion across black sand beaches and primordial lava fields surrounded by volcanic vistas.
The Retreat Hotel is a modern complex featuring a 62-room luxury hotel, subterranean spa, mineral-rich lagoon and two restaurants exclusive to guests. Lagoon Suites offer floor-to-ceiling windows that provide a seamless transition from a two-room sanctuary
to a private lagoon. The Retreat was included in Time Magazine’s list of the World’s 100 Greatest Places.
Where to Dine
Experience Icelandic fine dining at Lava Restaurant with Arctic charr, cured beef or lamb fillet with bok choy or langoustine soup.
Don’t leave Iceland without a visit to Café Loki to experience classic Icelandic dishes including the Icelandic pancake, traditional lamb meat soup and rye bread slices topped with mashed fish and smoked trout. Queasy diners might be tempted to pass on the sheep-head jelly with mashed turnips or the fermented shark, but hey, you’re in Iceland. Give it a try!