Iceland had been on our list of desired destinations for years, but our visit in July of 2021 was planned somewhat on a whim. When the nation announced in the spring that it would open to vaccinated travelers without requiring quarantining, my husband, Kyle, and I quickly booked a trip and started planning. Relying on advice from friends and family who have visited in the past and doing our own extensive research, we planned an eight-day trip along the western and southern coasts of the island.
Iceland is a small island — roughly the size of Kentucky — but there is so much natural beauty to explore that focusing on one region is the best way to make the most out of your trip. With a population of just 350,000, Iceland relies heavily on tourism — roughly 3 million visitors per year — but much of the nation is still largely undeveloped. It’s not uncommon to drive through tiny fishing hamlets that boast a single restaurant and a lone gas pump. But as a result, the countryside is relatively unspoiled, and an expanse of majestic scenery awaits at every turn.
Nicknamed the Land of Fire and Ice, Iceland is a bewildering blend of varying landscapes. On any given drive, you may spot a glacier out the window, navigate through a lava field that looks like the surface of the moon, wind through lush green meadows dotted with wildflowers, spot jagged mountains in the distance, pass by the turquoise waters of a glacial lake, witness the bubbling of a natural hot spring or gaze with wonder at a massive waterfall just off the main road. This summer, when we visited, we were lucky enough to spot whales and puffins, ride Icelandic horses, hike to countless waterfalls, relax in geothermal pools, enjoy the midnight sun, walk along the continental divide and witness a volcanic eruption (from a safe distance, of course). There is simply no limit to the wonders this island nation holds.
Where to Stay
360 Hotel and Spa
Tucked away on thousands of acres in Selfoss in southern Iceland and boasting just 13 rooms and suites, 360 Hotel and Spa offers seclusion, relaxation and luxury all in one. The hotel’s industrial and modern design includes floor-to-ceiling windows in every room, providing guests with spectacular views of the countryside. Depending on the season, it’s not uncommon to enjoy the sight of Icelandic horses or the Northern Lights from your bed. Don’t miss the sauna and geothermal baths filled with warm, mineral-rich water that is pumped through lava from 1,000 feet below the ground. 360hotel.is
This isn’t a luxury hotel by any means, but the location can’t be beat. Perched atop jutting cliffs and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the most stunning rock formations, the quaint fishing village of Arnarstapi is a must-visit on a trip around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The Arnarstapi Center includes a hotel, guesthouse and cottages, the latter of which are Scandinavian-style structures of wood and glass. We highly recommend the one-hour walk to Hellnar, which takes you through a lava field and ends at a seaside restaurant and bar with a huge deck that juts out over the water. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a beer or glass of wine after your hike or to warm up with a bowl of soup. arnarstapicenter.is
Where to Dine
Food Cellar, Matarkjallarinn
Located on the bottom floor of a 160-year-old building in Reykjavik, Food Cellar is an unparalleled dining experience right in the heart of the city. Billed as “an Icelandic brasserie,” the restaurant elevates traditional Icelandic cuisine with the finest and freshest ingredients. Be sure to try local specialties, like the fisherman’s fish soup, the pan-fried arctic char or the glazed lamb fillet. For a truly memorable experience, order the Food Cellar’s Secret Menu and let the chef surprise and delight you with a six-course feast, available with wine pairings, that changes nightly. matarkjallarinn.is
If you’re looking for fine dining along the Golden Circle, make a reservation at Tryggvaskáli. Housed in the oldest home in the area (originally built in 1890), the restaurant is a comforting and charming destination in Selfoss’ quaint city center. Specializing in Scandinavian cuisine and local ingredients, the menu offers a few surprises, like the incredibly decadent and delicious whale tataki appetizer, a horse tenderloin steak or licorice cake. Don’t be afraid to get a bit adventurous! tryggvaskali.com
What to Do
There’s a reason the Golden Circle is among Iceland’s most popular tourist destinations. Starting just outside of Reykjavik, the 186-mile loop in southern Iceland weaves through stunning natural wonders and mind-blowing scenery. The three most popular destinations on the route are the Geysir Geothermal Area, filled with hot springs and the Strokkur geyser, which erupts every five to 10 minutes; Gullfoss, a spectacular 105-foot, two-tiered waterfall; and Thingvellir National Park, home to the continental divide between North America and Eurasia and the location of Iceland’s first parliamentary proceedings in 930. You can even snorkel or scuba dive along the continental divide in the Silfra fissure, formed by the shifting of the tectonic plates in 1789. There are plenty of other breathtaking sights along the Golden Circle, like the Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls, the Langjökull glacier (Iceland’s second largest) and the Secret Lagoon, the oldest swimming pool in the country.
Nicknamed “Iceland in Miniature” for its varied landscapes and features, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is every bit as beautiful as the famed Golden Circle but with far fewer tourists. Located just two hours north of Reykjavik, the peninsula packs all of Iceland’s rugged landscapes — a glacier, a volcano, lava fields, waterfalls, craters, mountains, black and white sand beaches, jagged cliffs, lush meadows, charming seaside villages and a national park — in one small drivable loop. The entire loop takes about three hours to drive, but there are so many sights along the way that it’s worth planning to spend a couple nights in the area to properly take it all in.
Icelandic Horseback Riding
Iceland is known for its unique breed of horses, which have been purebred on the island for more than 1,000 years and, as such, have the ability to “tölt,” a rare gait exclusive to the breed that is known for its rapid acceleration and smoothness. Although the horse is moving at a quick pace, to the rider, it feels as steady as a slow walk. Horseback riding in Iceland is a popular pastime and an exciting new way to explore the rugged landscape, regardless of what part of the nation you’re visiting.
If you visit in the summer, you’ll miss out on the Northern Lights, but you’ll be rewarded with 24 hours of daylight, making it considerably easier to pack in even more sightseeing each day. And while the colorful city of Reykjavik is certainly worth a visit, be sure to rent a car so you can explore the countryside and take in the spectacular views.