Iceland, “The Land of Fire and Ice”, is a gorgeous, mountainous, island nation that is known for its volcanoes and glaciers alike. The land was the last part of Europe to be settled. Norse settlers took the area easily because it had so few people. Much of the inhabited land is on the coasts of Iceland, with more than 50% of the population living in or near the capital city of Reykjavik.
The country is divided into eight regions. Each region has something special to offer visitors. Because the country is easy to navigate as a self-drive experience, you might consider some of the following highlights from each region for your next vacation to Iceland. You will likely notice the Viking influence in all things and how the Icelandic language has changed very little over the centuries.
Located in southwestern Iceland, this region includes the capital city, Reykjavik. One of the most notable sites to visit in this region includes the famous Hallgrímskirkja Church, a Lutheran/Church of Iceland church, which is the largest and tallest church in Iceland. Outside of the church is a statue of Leif Ericson who was born in Iceland around 970AD. He is thought to be the first European to land in North America, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus. You can also visit Althing, the world’s oldest and longest running parliament, created in 930AD. In winter and summer shoulder months, one of the most enticing things to experience in Iceland is the Northern Lights which you can observe from the Grótta Nature Reserve on the tip of the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula.
Part of Reykjanes Peninsula, this area is home to the Blue Lagoon, a luxury spa and hot spring. It is also home to a volcano that erupted in March 2021 after lying dormant for about 6,000 years. Another thing worth experiencing in this region is the Bridge between Continents. As it sounds, you can walk from Europe to North America where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet.
This west coast region is unique with its diverse ecosystem. It has waterfalls and volcanoes, flora and wildlife. Snag a picture of the black church of Budir before you see the highest waterfall, Glymur. Then enjoy a Krauma geothermal bath at the powerful hot spring, Deildartunguhver. The oldest lava tube cave, Vatnshellir, is also worth seeing in this region.
In Northwest Iceland, the Westfjords are the second most remote area as they are not accessible right off the main Ring Road. You can see the Drangajökull Glacier and visit Látrabjarg, one of the biggest bird cliffs in the country where the puffins are very tame and not intimidated by visitors. You can also find Raudisandur, a unique red sand beach.
This region is known most for the Diamond Circle sightseeing trail with five key stops. Follow the trail clockwise to see Godafoss Waterfall, known as the Waterfall of the Gods. It is said that in 100 AD, Porgeir Ljosvetningagooi threw the Norse god statues into the water after making Christianity the official religion. Next stop is Húsavík, the oldest settlement in Iceland, considered the Whale Capital of Iceland. This area boasts 23 different whale species, so it is the premier place for whale watching. The third site is Asbyrgi Canyon, a natural wonder. Part of the Vatmajokull Nation park, you can hike to see this crescent-shaped canyon. Take in Dettifoss Waterfall, the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe, with water flowing at a rate of 500 cubic meters of water per second. Then you can hike along a canyon trail from Asbyrgi to Dettifoss. Finish up your time on the Diamond Circle at Lake Mývatn, a shallow lake near the Krafla Volcano surrounded by wetlands. This area also is rich in freshwater seaweed and is home to abundant birdlife, specifically a very large variety of ducks during summer.
Also known as Austurland, this region is made up of waterfalls, mountains, narrow fjords, and small villages. The primary experience in this area is to explore the Ring of Riverdale which is designed around the Largarfljot Lake and starts in the main village of Egilsstaðir. Be sure to allow time for a visit to Vök Baths, one of the premier geothermal spas in Iceland. Also in this region, you can visit Hallormsstaðaskógur, Iceland’s largest forest.
Take a hike up to Hengifoss, the country’s second largest waterfall. Other noteworthy things to see are the Tvísöngur sculpture by Lukas Kühne which is a combination of concrete, nature, and sound which represents Iceland’s five-tone harmony, and the Regnbogagata (rainbow street) in Seyðisfjörður which is popular to locals and visitors alike.
Despite being a completely uninhabited region, there is much beauty to behold in this area that is most accessible during summer months. Landmannalaugar nature reserve has premier hikes that show off its colors and beautiful sites like the Ljótipollur Explosion Crater Lake and Bláhnúkur Volcano. This region is home to Helka, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and many glaciers like Eyjafjallajökull, Mýrdalsjökull, and Tindafjallajökull. There is also Europe’s second-largest national park, Vatnajökull National Park, which was established in 2008 around the Vatnajökull glacier and geothermal activity. Vatnajökull is also Europe’s largest glacier.
This region is best known for the Golden Circle sightseeing route with three natural attractions – the Geysir Geothermal Area, Gullfoss Waterfall, and Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thingvellir is a shrine to the history of Iceland as it was where their Parliament began. The Great Geysir is inactive now, but you can also visit its sister geyser called Strokkur, or the Churn, which erupts about every 10 minutes. The third site, the Gullfoss Waterfall, is both powerful and beautiful when rainbows float up from the water.
So, grab some local snacks, like harofiskur (fish jerky) and skyr (soft cheese), a few bottles of water and head out on an epic road trip around Ring Road to the different Iceland regions. You won’t be disappointed by the natural wonders you will see and experience along the way.