Iceland, the Land of Fire & Ice

My family has an ongoing joke that it isn't a Tate-summer if I haven't found myself somewhere in the world where I can throw a snowball in the middle of August.

I've always been more inclined for colder regions - humidity makes me lethargic and grumpy but cold gives me adrenaline - so one year, I was surprised when it dawned on me that I hadn't yet been to a place that's famous for its glaciers, its snow fields, its timeless sensation of long, dark winters and bright summers illuminated by a hovering midnight sun.

I decided to go to Iceland.

I never had any doubt that I wouldn't fall in love with Iceland. The year that I traveled there - 2012 - was right before the internet's craze and obsession over this small island nation really came to fruition. Now it seems that just about every photographer, filmmaker, Instagram-famous travel-blogger and their mom have all been to Iceland, so if you've spent any time perusing any travel social media, the hype for this remote country is undeniable. I'm usually wary of traveling to countries, cities, or regions that are super-duper amped up for being tourist destinations (such as Santorini or Paris, both of which I've had my qualms) because I've found that they're usually saturated with foreigners and tourists, tourbuses and cruise ships. While there's nothing inherently wrong about going to tourist-popular destinations (because hey, they're usually popular for a reason, and I know I am a foreigner too), it gets exhausting when each vista, trail, cafe, and hostel is overcrowded with people elbow-bumping each other to get to the view that seemed so perfectly remote and untouched in all of those Instagram posts.

Iceland, however, is different. The glorious exception to the rule.

With only 300,000 residents in its 40,000 square miles, Iceland is the least inhabited country in Europe, with 80% of the country uninhabitable due to its fjords, glaciers, mountain ranges, lava fields, geysers, and volcanoes (x). En yet, I was still shocked at how alone I felt, and how easy it was to become completely lost with only a few turns off the main road. Most famously, there is the Ring Road, which is the highway that circles the entirety of the island's coast, but most visitors stick to the little Golden Circle; a popular 300km tourist route in the south that makes for a convenient loop from Reykjavik in order to see some of Iceland's southern highlights. Tour buses leave daily from Reykjavik for this route, however if you have more than a few days in Iceland, I recommend renting a car in order to take your time when visiting the sights of the Golden Circle (you'll also have the luxury of being able to see locations during off-hours when they're not flogged with crowds).

But whether you have a week, two weeks, or a month or more in Iceland, I put together some of my favorite highlights.

If you're going to do Iceland, you have to do it right.

Highlights & Must Do's

  1. Spend a full day (or two, depending on your time) exploring Reykjavik, Iceland's charming and compact capital city. Almost everything is in walking distance here, so spend an afternoon strolling the winding streets that snake down to the harbor where you can catch a whale-watching ferry or have lunch at any of the tiny cafes where chic islanders sip their espressos next to burly men who just docked on their fishing vessels. Have a hot chocolate at the colorful Cafe Babalú and watch the dusky evening settle from one of Reykjavik's highest points at the Hallgrímskirkja church. And of course, you have to spend half a day at the Blue Lagoon hot springs; natural thermal hot springs warmed by Iceland's enormous underground volcanic activity (45 minutes outside of Reykjavik).

2.   Rent a car from Reykjavik and spend a day at Snæfellsjökull National Park on the Snæfellnes peninsula. Make your way from the city (approx. 3 hours) to Hellnar, an ancient fishing village perched on rocky cliffs and the southern entrance to the park. As you drive through, you'll pass trails and vistas and careening glaciers, and can end with a steaming bowl of traditional stew in one of the moss-covered cafes in picturesque Hellissandur (the village at the park's northern entrance). Side note, if you want to spend more time up here or just don't want to drive the 3 hours back to Reykjavik all in one day, there are small places for accommodation in Hellissandur.

3.   Iceland is famous for its waterfalls, and for good reason; with over 10,000 falls in the small country, some of the most powerful and spectacular spots are just a day's drive away from Reykjavik. Be sure to see Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Skógafoss, and if you're inclined to turn these three waterfall visits into a couple days of exploration near Reykjavik, consider stopping to see the famous Geysers explode in a valley pinpricked with neon thermal pools, and visit Thingvellir National Park for a quick hike or a picnic; or for the more adventurous, you can go diving or snorkeling in a trench where the North American and European continents divide.

  Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

4.   Spend at least three days in Vatnajökull National Park in Eastern Iceland, which holds sprawling meadows and mountains making for epic climbing, as well as the Vatnajökull Glacier, the second largest glacier in Europe. Stay in the campsite in the meadow valley at the foot of the national park and lay in your tent listening to the glacier as it comes to life, creaking and groaning as the volcano it's nestled on top of makes the ice crack and shift, sending eery echoes down into the valley. The hikes around Vatnajökull range from lovely meadow walks among the wildflowers to intense backpacking trips, as well as offering a host of ice climbing tours, from easy glacier walks to an attempt to summit the highest peak in Iceland.

Note: nearby to the national park is the iconic glacial lagoon, Jökulsárlón, where icebergs that have broken off from the glacier float in a frigid lagoon, nestled in an amphitheater of peaks, glaciers, and volcanic black sand beaches.

  Picnic on a hike in Vatnajökull National Park

Picnic on a hike in Vatnajökull National Park

  Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

  On the way to our ice climbing spot on the Vatnajökull glacier

On the way to our ice climbing spot on the Vatnajökull glacier

5.   Often missed on most tourists' itineraries is Landmannalaugar. This mountain region hidden deep in the center of Iceland is perhaps one of the most brilliantly unique natural landscapes that I've seen in all of Europe. Multi-colored mountains painted in rich ribbons of pink, purple, burgundy, turquoise sands, sloping against a backdrop of neon green volcanic hills. There's a campsite in the Landmannalaugar valley that's the perfect jumping-off point for day-hikes or extended treks through the backcountry.

To hit all of those sights I just listed, you could do it in minimum 10 days or extend it all the way into an epic month or more. Take your time and pause in the villages perched on the cliffs, talk to locals about their history and their story, visit a viking museum or two, sink your feet into the hidden black sand beaches, have a frisbee game at midnight (thanks, midnight sun!), follow trails of wild horses and streams of bubbling thermal waters, be captivated by the farmhouses covered in vines, the herds of sheep grazing beneath magnificent waterfalls, the steam from a volcano rising from just over the next horizon.

I promise you.

It's worth the hype.