Top Things To Do On A Short Break To Iceland
Being just two hours away from the UK, Iceland makes for a great short break. But what exactly is there to do in Iceland? Beyond Bjork and Eyafjallajokull, does anyone know anything at all about this country? Luckily HasAnyoneBeenTo… has teamed up with Icelandic experts Discover the World to show people that Iceland is country that everyone can enjoy, and that far from the desolate wasteland it’s name conjures up, it’s an island which gives frankly too many options.
1. Get Out of the City
This may seem harsh, especially as there are few cities as pleasant to wander around as Reykjavik. However, as lovely as Reykjavik is, with some fine attractions, most notably the enormous Hallgrímskirkja Church and the distinctive Perlan Arts Centre, it is very small and frankly if you’re coming to Iceland, it’s probably in part to see some geography in action. Reykjavik is so well situated for some really spectacular scenery, even if you’re only in Iceland for three days, spend one of them getting out and seeing it.
2. Get Up Close to a Waterfall
Driving around Iceland it does appear that it must be impossible to buy any land in the country without getting a free waterfall thrown in. The sheer number of them means that many are tiny, many are unmarked but also that many are completely pristine and undisturbed if you’re willing to hit a side road or two. However, the ones that are visited by lots of people are really, stupendously spectacular, and worth going in the company of a few other tourists. If you like your waterfalls fearsome and powerful, the much photographed Gulfoss really is the one to see. It’s just 2 hours drive from Reykjavik, and even that short drive takes you by Thingvellir National Park, another key sight in South Iceland, not just for the sight of the rift between two tectonic plates, but because it’s the site of their first Parliament. If you prefer your waterfalls a bit more ethereal and gentle, Seljalandsfoss is where it’s at.
A different 2 hours outside of Reykjavik, following Road 1 as it hugs the South Coast, this waterfall drifts over the cliff like a ribbon. The extra special bonus here is that as well as being marginally less busy than Gulfoss, you can walk right behind the fall and pretend you’re Daniel Day-Lewis. To find some less visited gems, check out the South Iceland section of the fabulous World of Waterfalls website, or the excellent blog 14 Icelandic Waterfalls You Have To Visit from Northern European travel specialist Hekla.com.
3. Visit a Museum
Not something that crops up often on lists in a country that includes some of the Earth’s most outstanding natural features, but the Icelandic people it seems are both very entrepreneurial and love a good museum.
There are hundreds of museums, all over the country, some large and sombre as we all know museums should be, but also a huge number of tiny ones people have started through love of a subject, or through spotting a niche market for their specialist subject.
The volcano museum Eyafjallajokull Erupts (there are unsurprisingly many volcano museums in Iceland so best check you know which one you’re heading to!) is probably the one of most interest to Europeans. This is the volcano that made Iceland famous, briefly, in 2010 when its eruption and subsequent ash cloud grounded flights across the continent. The museum is small, consisting of a few boards, a shop and a beautifully done film. This tells the story of the people who set up the museum. They are a farming family who live just by the museum, directly under Eyafjallajokull. Watching the impact that this eruption had on their lives makes you feel very guilty for tutting about grounded flights.
There are also weird museums in Iceland- from the notorious Phallus Museum in Reykjavik to the museum in the back of Hotel Anna, dedicated to the owners continent-hopping, travel-writing ancestor, Anna the Milkmaid. The one that stands out as possibly the best subject for a museum ever, however, is the spectacular Icelandic Ghost Centre. Whatever you want from your museums, you will find it in Iceland.
4. Get on a Glacier
While Iceland certainly has its treats for those sedate viewers of nature, it really saves its best rewards for doers.
From snowmobiling and hiking, to helicopter flights and rides in the famous SuperJeeps, Iceland gives you the chance to see a Glacier in more ways than is strictly necessary. Many tour companies offer pick-ups from hotels in Reykjavik if you want to explore the nearby glaciers of Eyafjallajokull or Myrdalsjokull, while Vatnajokull further to the East is bigger than all of Europe’s other glaciers combined. Vatnajokull is about 4 hours drive from Reykjavik so to do any excursions on it you will really need to stay a night on the East side of Iceland, but the scale of this glacier is so incomprehensible, it is well worth the drive to get there.
For those who love a glacier but are looking for something a little more hands off, the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon at the base of Vatnajokull is a breathtaking experience and a highlight of the country. Two boat companies operate here, one in an amphibious vehicle, taking people out for twenty minute cruises around the enormous icebergs, the other in zodiacs which zip you across to the glacial cliff face before meandering back through the icebergs slowly for your photo opportunities.
5. Make the Most of the Season
Not one to reveal all her treasures in one go, Iceland has different draws at different times of the year. The main attraction for summer trips is whale watching. While Husavik in the North of the country is known as the whale watching capital, there are several companies running from Reykjavik, with whales spotted on as many as 95% of trips. Some companies also offer a free second trip if you are unlucky enough not to see a whale first time around. While minke whales are the most common, you might also be lucky enough to spot humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, orca and sperm whales.
For the winter travellers, you really need to have a hunt for the Northern Lights. There are tours available from Reykjavik, by coach and also by SuperJeep, which take you out from the city lights and increase your chances of seeing the aurora borealis. The SuperJeep tours are expensive, but they do get you to some unforgettably remote locations. There are also hotels within a couple of hours of Reykjavik, but away from all other light pollution, which specialise in the Northern Lights. The Northern Light Inn has a special heated glass viewing tower for you keep watch in, while Hotel Ranga and Hotel Glymur both offer wake up calls if the look-out staff see any activity.
For those who really want to see Iceland in one visit, in February you can see, if you’re lucky, both killer whales and the northern lights. But that’s just being greedy.