A couple of posts ago, in the post about Norway, I was saying that this winter, I am going to see the northern lights. Instead of Norway, we went to see the aurora borealis in Iceland. So we checked off two items from my to-do list in one go: finally visiting Iceland and also catching a glimpse of the northern lights.
We only stayed in Iceland for five days, but it was enough to be positively impressed by this amazing country and to start making plans for our next visit.
Iceland offers experiences and sceneries that we haven’t seen before. Northern lights, lava fields, volcanos, hot springs, geysers, waterfalls, the ocean, and continental drift are not just words taken out of a geography book, they are the norm in Iceland. It is simply impressive how many natural wonders you can experience in one single place. This makes Iceland a must-see and a unique place.
Our trip started with an Iceland Air flight to Reykjavik. The Icelandic experience began right from the plane, since the Icelandic sceneries were promoted in an original way both in the on-flight menu and in the short video with safety instructions. We rented a car and were pleased to discover that it was equipped with heated seats, a must-have in order to survive the Icelandic cold :).
Our first surprise was that during the winter, the sun rises at around 9AM in Iceland but, on the other hand, unlike in other Northern European counties, there was still sunlight at 5pm. The other surprise was the amount of snow. The layers of snow outside the windows and the balcony confirmed our location: we were in the land of Ice!
Visiting Iceland might prove a bit overwhelming, since there are so many places to see. It is important to make a plan well in advance. Afterward, it is important to check the opening hours for each destination, the earliest/latest tour time or if an appointment is needed, so you can adjust the plan accordingly.
Another important aspect when visiting Iceland is clothing. Remember to take some waterproof shoes, a waterproof and windproof jacket and appropriate clothes for visiting hot springs, outdoor thermal pools, and glaciers.
Because it was our first visit to Iceland, we took the safe path and visited the most touristic places. Here are some photographs and a list of my favorite destinations in Iceland:
Hunting for the Northern Lights
This was the main reason for visiting Iceland in February and I was very happy with the decision. Seeing the Northern Lights was one of the most spectacular phenomena I have ever experienced. I got to see the Lights in full color, bright green but also purple, moving in waves across the sky, in a sort of a dance which left me awestruck and lost for words.
By hunting for the Northern Lights I mean that they can rarely be seen from the city because of the street lights. So we took the car and drove outside the city until we could spot them on the clear night sky. We were so lucky that we actually saw them every single night during our stay. During the night with the highest geomagnetic activity level, we could even see them from Reykjavik from just outside our hotel, but they were barely visible compared to the spectacle that could be seen from just 20 kilometers outside of the city.
There are many tourist agencies that offer this service, you will probably see it advertised at your hotel. In our case, we chose to drive on our own.
It was of course a tough challenge to photograph them. We didn’t have a tripod with us and it was freezing cold outside. Thanks to my partner’s skills in manually adjusting each setting on the camera (MF, aperture, exposure, ISO, white balance), and by using the car’s doorframe to stabilize the shots, we took some amazing photographs both of the Lights and the starry sky. The heated seats were a big plus, since there were -17 degrees outside 🙂
We stayed at a hotel in the capital and spent most of our trip in the city’s cafes. Reykjavik, which translates to The Smoky Bay, has a cozy, slow-paced vibe that reminded me of another capital in Northern Europe, namely Copenhagen.
Read the entire post about Reykjavik here:
Thingvellir National Park
This was the first tourist destination that we visited in Iceland. While driving toward the park I was completely surprised by the view. I had never seen such vast white fields backed by white mountain peaks. Even the road was white because of the howling wind blowing powder snow across the road in front of us.
The park is one of the most important tourist attractions in Iceland because it is home to the largest lake in the country, and also because this was the place where the Icelandic Parliament would gather between 930, when it was established, and up until 1798. Here, you can also clearly see the drift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Gullfoss is the most famous waterfall in Iceland. It seemed even more impressive because it was partially frozen, and the ice gave the water an intense blue color.
At the Gullfoss Visitor Center, I tried the traditional Icelandic lamb soup that was both tasty and much needed because of the cold weather.
After seeing Thingvellir and Gullfoss, we drove to the geysers and hot springs in the Hvita River area. Thingvellir, Gullfoss and Geyser are part of the well-known one-day tour called The Golden Circle. You can book the tour online or ask about it at your hotel’s reception. You can also drive there, since all three destinations are relatively close to Reykjavik and you can then visit them at your own pace.
The Strokkur geyser in Iceland is the first one I have ever seen. It was quite impressive to see boiling water erupting every 8 minutes to a height of 15 to 20 meters. Everyone was fascinated and although it was freezing cold, people were waiting patiently for the next eruption, with a phone or camera in their frozen hands, ready to capture the show. I think we watched it at least five times before giving up because of the cold.
You can also check the blog’s Facebook page for a video of the Geyser erupting:
The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa about 20 km from Reykjavik. There are many geothermal spas/pools in Iceland, but this one is the most famous. It is a nice place for relaxation its hot, blue water contrasting the surrounding black lava fields.
Keep in mind that you need to book your visit on their website beforehand.
The Icelandic horse
Many times while driving in Iceland, besides the striking landscapes, we saw horses with beautiful long hair roaming around freely all over the island. Despite the freezing cold and the long nights, the horses remained outside without any shelter in sight. I was curious if it was even safe for them to be outside in -10 degrees, and if there was anyone taking care of them.
Just before calling the animal protection service 🙂 I found out the answer to these questions when we visited a stable/horse farm close to Reykjavik: the Icelandic Horse Park Fakasel.
I didn’t know anything about this breed, I actually believed that they were ponies. But it turns out that the Icelandic horse is a pure breed and the only horse breed that exists in Iceland. If a horse ever leaves Iceland, it is not allowed to come back. This also applies to horses partaking in world competitions. Importing horses from outside Iceland is also forbidden.
The Icelandic horse was first brought to the island by Viking settlers. Another interesting fact about the Icelandic horse is that their hair is never cut. They are also very easy to train. In their first three years, they are left outside to grow freely as they would in the wild, and afterward they are trained for different purposes. They have very thick hair that is appropriate for Icelandic weather, keeping them warm and preventing them from getting wet.
The Witchcraft museum
We also tried to visit the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft in Holmavik, however we were stopped by a snowstorm about 20 km away from the museum, and needed to turn back. This is definitely a destination we will try to reach during the summer. On the positive side, it was during our return trip that we saw the most beautiful Icelandic landscape and an amazing sky covered in Northern Lights.
Iceland’s landscapes are unique, and look amazing during the frozen winter. The endless white fields and frozen-blue ice inspire calm and quietness. They made me realize once again how beautiful nature is, even in its most harsh conditions.