Iceland is most definitely a unique country. My father once told me, “the more you travel, the more places look the same”, which annoyingly is true. I find myself comparing places, scenery and landscapes to previous destinations I have visited. Maybe it is because humans crave the familiar, maybe it is because I really do travel a lot. Either way, I am happy to say that yes places may have similarities (the rugged landscape of Iceland to me was a cross between Wales and New Zealand in case you are wondering) but the culture, history and the people of every country you visit is different, and that is what spurs me on in my adventures.
With only 330 thousand inhabitants on this isolated island, Iceland is incredibly empty and desolate in various parts of the country, with just the call of the wind, the trickling of brooks and the occasional bah of a sheep to add sound onto the silence. Driving along winding paths into various densely filled national parks nestled with rocky granite outcrops, luminous green marshes and cascading waterfalls with no one around- is in fact a normal sight. The deeper you go into the depths of rural Iceland, the more you are able to imagine how the predecessors of Iceland felt travelling in nail bitingly ferocious winds and vast open spaces with no human contact for days in end. It is hard to fully understand how much Iceland has developed since its Viking ancestors first touched soil on this geothermal hive of activity. It’s easy to turn up the car heating and pump up R Kelly’s track Ignition, (I was very relieved to find English music being played on their radio stations) and not fully take in the true jaw dropping beauty of Iceland. To pull over and stand in awe at small clusters of shack like houses that live in the shadow of a heaving volcano.
The view of an impenetrable fortress of solid rock and bubbling lava in the form of a volcano is not an uncommon sight in Iceland, in fact with around 130 volcanoes situated in Iceland, its geothermal activity is a common reason why such a large amount of tourists flock here every year, to experience the unusual. Due to Iceland’s strategic location- situated between two tectonic plates, Iceland experiences a large amount of tectonic activity and is one of the most geothermal countries on the planet- hello long hot showers! (So much so that mini earthquakes kept setting off our hotel’s fire alarm meaning one evening we hilariously sat in our hotel gowns in reception for a good 20 minutes).
Trekking along the crater of an active volcano is just one of the many things that can be done here, expect to have blissfully relaxing soaks in any of their hot springs- or in the iconic vibrant Blue Lagoon, experience exploding geysers, mud popping pits that look as if bubbles of chewing gum explode around it’s edges, glaciers that cut through mountains, rushing waterfalls that thunder down the sides with powerful force, hidden caves, peaceful lakes, meandering rivers that follow roads as if two children playing tag, and volcanic beaches that are home to weathered shaped rocks that jut out on the horizon.
All of this stunning natural beauty and I forget to mention the one attraction which pulls so many tourists to this country- like a moth to a flame, visitors also come here to experience, the Northern Lights, otherwise known as “Aurora Borealis”. I’m not going to get scientific on you-as you may realise that science is not my forte, however, the northern lights are a product of different atoms in the atmosphere which creates this bizarre illusion of vibrant lights- that seem to sprinkle on the dark night sky by a majestic power. Iceland is just one of the places where you are able to see the Northern Lights, and with each country, the style and colour of what is normally seen varies dramatically. With all sightings of the Northern Lights, there is a prominent wavy line of green and off this other colours and shapes sometimes occur.
The main reason my mum and I went to Iceland, (mainly Reykjavik) was to try and catch a glimpse of these magical lights. Arriving in the afternoon we left our snug hotel rooms and boarded the Grayline Tour bus choosing the tour option “Mystery tour” on the basis that the tour would be 4-6 hours. Boarding the bus we soon found out that the 100 people on our bus were not the only “hunters” that evening, in fact 4 other busloads of tourists were also heading to the same destination from the company, which meant we had to wait till all busses were loaded and stick together throughout the journey. Feeling as if a mere piece of cattle in a large operation, we were forced to sit and wait at a service station for the other busses for 40 minutes. The time that we were told would be spent searching for Northern lights kept ticking and we soon realised that the vast amount of time we thought we had- was actually calculated by our 2 hour journey time there (for a 1 hour journey).
This was not what we had expected. When we finally made it to the location where on previous nights the Northern lights were seen, I could see the glow of the green line in the night sky- which is known to be the focus of the spectacular light display, but it quickly began to fade leaving us with the pitch black night sky filled with a carpet of sparkling stars. We were disappointed. Obviously the northern lights is mother nature and so we cannot control it, or rely on her to always show this glorious formation of colour in the sky, but the mass shifting of tourists made the situation even worse. Personally, I think you have more chance of seeing the Northern lights if you spend more time heading into Iceland, away from the harsh lights of the city, maybe even hiring a personal driver, be on a boat, or hiking through the countryside and camping in the unknown. It is pure luck and chance, but the way the tour was handled by Grayline, made the experience less enjoyable.
Nevertheless, Iceland is still a remarkable country and we were not going to let this stop us from enjoying our stay in Reykjavik. Reykjavik oozes Scandinavian influences however still manages to be unique. It carries this similar consciousness to well being, health and the environment which countries like Sweden and Denmark are known for, I mean there were exhibits of car crashes hung up on a display on the side of the road to remind drivers to drive safe, for example. But this consciousness also affects their culture and style. A hub for creative energies and literary minds, Reykjavik is covered with vibrant outlandish street art which locals don’t even bat an eyelid at and the cultural and historical significance of the traditional sagas, only further highlights that Iceland’s own culture is what makes them who they are.
Icelanders dress as if the original hipsters, the ones that don’t care what they look like, that combine rock and vintage with ease and with no other countries nearby influencing them and very little commercial chain stores, clothes shops are every London lover’s dream. Second hand shops stand next to dirty record shops (yes that is its name) and whilst everyone is urged to buy, they are urged to recycle as well. The music scene shapes Iceland’s originality, with no neighbouring countries directing their music choices; Iceland’s eccentric and diverse music scene caters to all types of genres, and music that you will probably have never heard of too. I immediately felt this eccentric, artsy vibe walking along the main street Vanyegur, which although now covered in ever increasing tourist shops, I still manged to feel this underground scene which has developed from their cultural roots, and which has put Reykjavik on the map.
Meandering through the colourful houses and spaced out streets, it is quite easy to find the popular sites in the city. Spread out in the sprawling metropolis, it would be best to either cycle around the sites, or drive. We did the latter. Renting a car was an easy process and apart from the minor incident of me driving on the wrong side of the road (very briefly might I add) it really is very easy to drive around the city and the entire country itself (however using a Satnav is best advised as some tourist maps are not as detailed as one would hope, and can make navigating around the city stressful). Sights you should check out are; the concert hall named Harpa which is styled in an interesting glass formation, the Sun Voyager– the iconic sculpture of a boat which Icelanders culturally identify with (being a nation of fisherman and farmers). Hofi house, a structure that emphasises Iceland’s political alliances and ties around Europe is nearby too and although stunning architecture, the house is actually closed for visitors- which makes visitors that drive to this site in a much better position than those who have to wait for a tour bus.
Nearby is the Sigurjon Olafsson Sculpture Garden which although small, does offer a number of detailed designs varying in texture, however there are other sculpture gardens which are supposedly more aesthetic. Hallgraimskirkja is another famous sight to see, an ornate church that has intrinsic architecture that is supposed to resemble basalt lava flow in Iceland, either way it’s a stunning sight.
Perlan is a must visit too, it is a national landmark of Reykjavik and it hold a cultural significance over the city. A quick trip can be easily had here as well as a lengthy one, the well-stocked café has a number of food options to choose from and is open late-some visitors organised their visit well by visiting prior to sunset over the city and eating in the café after. If you would rather dine at the luxurious restaurant of Perlan on the top floor, you can do so too (we did and to read about our experience head to the end of this post). Wanting to learn more about the historical evolution of the country of Iceland and its people, we headed to the National Museum of Iceland. It did provide interesting scope on Icelanders originally being Vikings and their journey to what the country is like now, however I did find the museum quite drab and stuffy, and in hindsight, would have probably preferred visiting a modern art gallery in which I could focus on Iceland’s culture as it stands now and research the rest online.
Heading out of the city on a day trip is advised to all who visit Iceland. Iceland is highly regarded for its natural beauty and getting away from the clutches of the city is the best way to do so. There are a number of directions and locations that are close, where visitors normally head to and with time limiting our full desire to see the entirety of the country, we chose to head to the most popular spots. Hundreds of tour busses flood the winding roads, herding people from one site to another which seemed so… unpleasant. Hiring a car meant we had the freedom to pull the car over and stop and explore a craggy peak, take pictures of a certain sight and go exactly where we wanted to go, whenever we wanted.
Heading to the national park of Pingvellir allowed us to appreciate the dramatic change in scenery, where we caught a glimpse of the rugged coastline, towering mountains and bushy heaths. We passed pine trees that would have not looked out of place in Canada, peacefully still lakes, flowing brooks and trickling waterfalls. The weather continuously changed as we plunged into the depths of Iceland with the sun beginning to peek out behind the clouds to then change to erratic rain hammering down on the windows, whilst driving into an ominous mist. The rapid change in weather made our tiny little car meandering down empty roads into nature even more eerie and unusual.
Another famous sight is the Geysir, where one geyser erupts suddenly to the ecstatic cry of excited tourists whilst the other enviously gurgles nearby. A large hill stands over the site and is worth the climb up to see the sweeping views of the landscape that alters so differently in various directions. Gulfoss Waterfall is the next attraction to see – do make sure you turn off before the Gulfoss sign down a smaller path, this leads to a more accessible view of the waterfall and a carpark. It is worth stopping here to see this example of nature exert so much force and power, tumbling water over layers of rock into a deep gorge.
From here, we headed to a nearby town called Haebradi where waterfalls and geysers were dotted around the tiny village, although not as impressive as the previous sites, you can directly see the impact of these marvellous pieces of nature on the towns geothermal energy and their vivacious way of life. What really makes the journey to this remote town worthwhile is the landscape that surrounds the town, it is more mountainous here and the rolling hills and dipping valleys are stunning. Although we did unfortunately have a time restraint, we were told that Selfoss, Vik, and the Black Beach on the South Coast were equally as beautiful to explore too.
Food in Iceland, just like its landscape, varies dramatically. A popular tourist rumour is that Icelanders eat puffin, whale and shark and so many tourists head to restaurants that serve this meat to “live as the locals do”. Many years ago, back when the people of Iceland first inhabited the country, yes they did eat this meat- due to the fact it was the most accessible and easiest meat to find, however now days, Icelanders taste buds are tantalised by the Nordic style cuisine, French bistros and even American style hotdogs. In fact, there are signs in restaurant doors with images of whales and the message “meet me don’t eat me”, highlighting this very issue. Why would such an environmentally conscious country eat the incredible natural wildlife that surrounds them? So please when visiting, avoid these restaurants.
The ones you should head to is; Hornio, for a pizza that tastes as good as in Rome, The Scandinavian restaurant for soft tasting fish or Perlan for an intimate revolving dining experience- with the soft notes of a piano being played in the background, a dancing candle that imitates the city lights outside and outstanding table service. My personal favourite is dinner at Old Iceland, this place is incredible! Each dish was created out of fresh wholesome ingredients that complimented each meal so well and gave a sense of traditional Icelandic dishes, without harming the environment. It is incredibly popular- some visitors were even waiting outside in the cold for a table- so do make sure you go early, or book for 6pm- the latest table they have.
Although I didn’t experience the magnificent Northern Lights in Iceland, I did experience a country like no other.