Last October 2015, I decided to embark on my grandest adventure till date- a solo backpacking trip across Iceland. This island nation, situated close to the North Pole, is sparsely populated with only 3,00,000 people living in it. It is also the youngest landmass on Earth, which makes it geologically very active. Read on to find out more about this stunning land of raging volcanoes, spitting Geysers , northern lights and magnificent beauty.
I started off my trip from Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, situated to the southwest of the country. I stayed here for a couple of days to look around this beautiful city. Reykjavik (pronounced as Rek-ya-vik) is home to more than 80% of the entire Icelandic population. I found the city very pretty with neatly arranged rows of bright, colourful houses ,beautiful gardens and lakes, and fun places to hang out in. While you are touring the city, make sure to check out the following places :
One of the most prominent landmarks of the city, this impressive monument is the tallest structure here. You can easily make out the Church in the Reykjavik skyline from any part of the city.
For a token fee of about 900 ISK, you get to ride an elevator to the top of the Church, from where you get an extraordinary aerial view of the beautiful city! I found it extremely cold and windy at the top, but the pretty view made everything so worth it!
This café cum restaurant is located in the heart of the city. Quirky, fun and warm are the adjectives that come to mind to describe this place. As the name suggests, it’s a place where you can eat while you get your laundry done. It has got a nice stock of books and magazines to glance through while you are here. They offer a wide selection of beer. The food here is mostly about sandwiches, burgers, and fries, most of which I found quite tasty and definitely worth a second visit.
Geothermal hot water pools
Another significant aspect of the city is the abundance of indoor and outdoor geothermal hot water pools. The water in these pools varies from steaming hot to room temperature. They have separate sections for adults and children . Usually, these places have two different areas- one for only swimming and another for lounging around in chest-deep water. Spending a few hours soaking in the warm, salty water of the pools can be very refreshing and relaxing.
This beautiful piece of architecture is hard to miss . Situated beside the city’s harbor, this is a musical concert hall cum conference centre where operas are performed and corporate meetings are held. The external steel and glass façade in bold geometric shapes makes the building unique in the way it reflects the light that falls on it. So throughout the day and night, this building can be seen gleaming in brilliant hues of changing colours! It is truly a man-made treat for the eyes.
Lake Tjornin in Central Reykjavik
Whatever you do, the last thing to miss out on would be this beautiful lake located in the central part of the city. Stretched out over a large area, it is surrounded by buildings and pretty Icelandic houses . A wide variety of birds including swans, ducks and gulls swim away with gay abandon on the lake’s placid water. To my amusement, I found these birds to be quite human friendly . At any given moment on the lake side, you would always see at least 4-5 tourists busy feeding the birds and clicking photos with them! Some of the ducks and swans actually came squawking and running after me in the hope of getting some food!
There’s also an enchanting forest-like area close to the lake , where you can roam around and soak up the rich surrounding beauty.
Must Do Day Long Trips Around Reykjavik
I give below details of some day long trips that you absolutely can’t afford to miss out on while staying in Reykjavik:
The Golden Circle Tour
This is an 8-10 hour long bus trip that takes you to some of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions, on the southern part of the island. We saw the volcanic crater lake Kerid , Iceland’s largest and most powerful waterfall Gulfoss , the famous Geysir area and the Thingvellir National Park. The Geysir area is a spot of intense geothermal activity causing hot ,bubbling water from underneath the Earth to burst forth intermittently in large ,fountain like sprays. The entire region is filled with an acrid sulphur smoke. The most famous and notable geyser in the area is Strokkur, which erupts every 10 mins to a height of 30-40m long fountain.
Thingvellir National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Apart from being a site of astonishing beauty, what makes it truly remarkable is the fact that it is the meeting point of two tectonic plates- the Eurasian plate and the North American Plate and you can actually see the crack running between the two plates. It is also the place where the Icelandic Parliament sessions, among the world’s oldest known to man, used to be held until 1798.
You will find plenty of tourist companies in the city offering you the Golden Circle Tour. All you have to do is simply ask the receptionist of the hotel/hostel you are staying at to help you book one of these tours. I decided to do the trip with Bus Travels as I found them to be relatively inexpensive. At a price of around 9000 ISK they would show you all the main places and drop you back to your hotel. Also, I loved how the narrator kept sharing interesting anecdotes about the places we were passing through.
The South Iceland Tour
This is another day long bus trip that takes around 12-14 hours. It would take you all along the Icelandic South coast, starting from Reykjavik all the way down to Jokulsarlon Glacier, a large glacial lake, close to the Vatnajokull National Park. You get to witness firsthand the mesmerizing beauty of the Jokulsarlon glacier. We took a boat ride across the lake , past gigantic chunks of blue icebergs floating away in the sea. The air was freezing cold and the water colder, but nothing could dampen my enthusiasm as we sailed through the frigid waters of the lake.
You get to stop at the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, which is unique in how you can walk behind the waterfall. The tiny little village of Vik, at the Southern tip of Iceland , is another popular attraction among the many tourists who visit this country. The black sand beaches make for a spectacular view .
For more information on South Iceland, you can click on this link.
The Blue Lagoon
My next destination was the Blue Lagoon – a large man-made geothermal hot water lagoon located in the volcanic lava fields of Reykjanes peninsula, southwest Iceland . It is counted as one of the top 25 wonders of the world. This was undoubtedly, the most fun part of my 15 days epic trip to Iceland. I ended up spending close to 4 hours floating in the balmy, mineral rich water of the lagoon. This spot is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country with hundreds of them thronging the pool at any given time. The water is milky blue in colour due to its high silica content. The water here comes from 2000 ft underneath the Earth and is rich in mineral and algae, which is considered therapeutic . The water is naturally hot and the temperature varies from pretty hot to mild across the lagoon. There is also a bar right in the middle of the lagoon, where you can buy a drink from and enjoy it while floating in the water.
The Blue Lagoon also has an indoor pool , a spa and a fancy restaurant .
Stykkisholmur : A small fishing town North West of Iceland
I next headed up to the northwestern parts of the country. I took a bus ride from Reykjavik to the sleepy little harbor town of Stykkisholmur. I stayed at the Harbour Hostel which happened to be a particularly cute looking place ,right by the sea (!). It offers both single rooms as well as dormitories. I chose the latter . I stayed in this quiet town for a couple of days. I would spend the days walking around the small town, along the shore of the Breidafordjur Bay. Right next to my hostel, was the harbor , where I could see small ships docked. The landscape and scenery all around is staggeringly beautiful. There is a small mountain, also known locally as the Wishing Mountain, a few km from the Harbour Hostel. The receptionist told me the people here believe if one can hike up to the mountain without once looking back, then whatever one wishes for once on top of the mountain, would come true. The climb in itself was a very short one and took just 15 mins . However, the walk from my hostel to the mountain took me around a couple of hours.
What I found remarkable about Stykkisholmur is how eerily quiet this place can be even at 10 in the morning on a normal weekday! You could be standing right in the middle of a residential area with houses filled with happy families, yet all you would hear would be the sound of the waves in the distance or the occasional cries of the sea gull.
I teamed up with a few of my hostel mates and we took a drive across Iceland ‘s famous Ring Road. This is a road that runs in a circle all along Iceland’s coast. A good idea is to rent a car and embark on a 4 day road trip along the Ring Road driving past volcanoes , icebergs and geysers to get a feel of what Iceland truly is all about !
Up North to Akureyri
From Stykkisholmur, I hitchhiked to the enchanting city of Akureyri, the second biggest city in Iceland after Reykjavik . Located in the northernmost part of Iceland, close to the north pole, this city is famous for its botanical garden. I visited in October, which was the start of the winter season in this country. The snow had just started falling , whitewashing all the plants and trees in the garden in inches of soft, white snow. The garden is quite big with a restaurant in the middle. October being the off-season for the tourists, I was the only one roaming across the garden. And then the snow suddenly started drizzling in on me and all around me! That was a magical moment for me ! That was the very first time I experienced snowfall. I was standing in the middle of this quiet, solitary garden, with acres of trees and shrubs and bushes around me, all covered partly or fully in snow, and a ghostly silence all around. It felt heavenly!
Akureyri is also the land of the snow- capped mountains. All across the city, you can see the magnificent mountains looming on the horizon, lending a surreal touch to the place. You can visit The Akureyri Tourist Information Centre , located close to the windy sea beach, for any information you might need. They will tell you about the best place to eat , hang out and have fun in Akureyri. They also have a good collection of souvenirs you might want to take back with you.
I stayed here for only two days. But my advice is to spend at least 3-4 days or longer while you are here in this city. With the mountains and the sea, this place is nothing short of magical and two days is just too short a time to take in its beauty. If you venture a little farther north of the city, you will come to the island of Grimsey, where the arctic circle passes through Iceland. This is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights from.
Back to Reykjavik
Public transport in Iceland consists of buses-intercity and local. While the local buses, the ones that run within a city, are easy to come by all throughout the year, the inter-city ones get severely restricted during winter. So if you don’t have a car and rely solely on buses to take you from one city to another, traveling across Iceland can be a major problem in the winters. This along with the steadily increasing cold persuaded me to drop all ideas of further exploring the North and to return back to the relatively warmer Reykjavik down south. I stayed back in the city for a few more days before heading back to my country.
My fortnight in Iceland taught me if ever there was magic on Earth, it had to be in Iceland, the most gorgeous of all places on planet Earth! Nothing can ever prepare you for what Iceland has in store for you! A trip to this island is the best thing you would ever do in your lifetime.