Iceland is often referred to as “The land of fire and ice” or “The land of dark and light”, but as I saw it Iceland is an area of all kinds of insane contrasts and geological wonders. The minute you leave the airport you will find yourself glued to the window as you wait to see if an alien will pop out of the Martian landscape you’re starring at in disbelief. We loved driving across this country and watching how quickly and dramatically the land could change, coming from an area where all we see are wheat fields and oil rigs, we were certainly never bored of Iceland’s intense scenery.
#1 Iceland Epic Landscape
Within 10 minutes of arriving in Iceland we began to say things like “This looks more like mars, then it does earth” and “I can see why people believe in trolls and fairies here”. The landscape in this country is unreal, never in my life have I seen the earth so lively. It was hard to feel “stable” when everywhere we went it seemed there was something actively happening with the earth around us, whether it was a volcano bubbling, a Geysir shooting up boiling hot water, a waterfall pouring out into the river, or a steaming crack in the earth hissing out gas.
It’s easy to see why photographers love it here, in one day you can capture lava fields, mountain peaks, glaciers, and moss-covered lowlands, heck you can probably get all those things in one photo if you tried hard enough! Each season will offer you a completely different and unique terrain to explore and if you love to get behind the lens as much as we do, the vast changes offer up more chances for return visits for one of a kind shots.
#2 Viking and Fairy Tale History
For such a young country Iceland sure does have a full history! After visiting a plethora of museums and exhibits we felt that we had learned it all, that is until we started talking with the locals and found that we had only scratched the surface. These Vikings told stories that never disappointed us, we heard about mythical creatures of the sea, faeries of the skies, and trolls hidden in the mountains.
The more dubious information was usually given after a pint or two at the pub but if you befriend a local they may tell you about Iceland’s history of witchcraft and what DNA studies have revealed about the fate of the Irish women who immigrated to Iceland many moons ago.
#3 Iceland’s Addictive Culture
The culture in Iceland is very distinctive, it’s a place where the citizens are laid back and friendly but at the same time firm and commanding. Now when I say firm and commanding I do not mean this in a negative sense, it’s as if they’ve managed to figure out how to have fun and still get what they want when they want it without coming across as unkind.
As for beliefs, 80% of the population consider themselves to be part of the Lutheran State Church, but that’s not the belief I was interested in hearing more about, did you know that in 1998 a study was conducted that said 45.6% of the Icelanders believed in Elves?!
Now the belief in mythical beings does not mean they are uneducated, as a matter of fact, it is the opposite! School is mandatory from ages 6-16 and college is nearly free (maybe $500 in registration fees), the best part for us is American students can attend for free as well!
#4 Steamy Natural Hot Springs
Hot springs, hot pots, lagoons, geothermal pools, hot tubs….if you need to relax in hot water you will not find a better country to do it in. Iceland is a wonderland for anyone who enjoys relaxation, no need to pay $100 for the Blue lagoon though (although the natural mud mask is a nice touch), there are many other tubs of hot water for you to dip your toes in around the country if your budget is tight.
Our favourites are Landbrotalaug which is a very small all natural spring, perfect for a romantic evening soak, and the Lake Myvatyn Nature Baths, the water is filled with healthy minerals for your skin to absorb and its set to multiple temperatures to please everyone and the area surrounding it is incredibly scenic.
#5 Iceland’s Unique Food
Many people overlook this aspect of Iceland but make sure you don’t miss out on the cuisine this country has to offer. It didn’t seem to matter where we ate, how remote we were, or how much we paid, we were never disappointed with our meals. Each establishment we ate at seemed to have a unique take on the traditional Nordic style of cooking, you can tell the chefs are given more room to really get creative and the results are some of the most fantastic meals I have ever had the privilege of consuming.
We can’t decide on just one place to eat because there are so many options to choose from, but if you are in the Djúpivogur area on a drizzly cold day (which is very likely to occur) stop in at the Framtid Hotel for a hot bowl of seafood soup. This old-fashioned hotel just off the harbour is the perfect pit stop to warm up and enjoy a classic Icelandic dish made to perfection.
#6 Iceland Quirky and Interesting People
Icelanders are very friendly people, they have a dry sense of humour and they use it often which makes for some great conversation. The young folk are ultra-trendy in their hipster attire and “alternative everything” lifestyle, whereas the older generation is more traditional and will tell you many stories of folklore and history if you get them talking.
We came to Iceland for its nature and wildlife but we stayed for the culture and history. The locals are so kind, and considering they are welcoming in upwards of 6 million tourists a year, I was surprised at their accepting nature and how excited they were to discuss their way of life. They love their Viking roots and mythological tales and really to show it off in fun and unique ways.
#7 Iceland Exceptional Wildlife
Every day it seemed as though we were searching for a new animal to photograph and we didn’t have to look very far. Just off the highway, we could see an abundance of sheep, horses, and cattle that are all native to Iceland and have adapted to the cold temperatures adorably with their short bulky stature, long eyelashes, and thick coats.
If you are planning a day out on the water you can expect to see seals, several species of whales, dolphins and a plethora of fish ranging in shape, colour, and size. And chances are your captain will stop near an island or two in order for you to get a good view of the unique birds In this region, like the Atlantic Puffin, Arctic Tern or the Snowy Owl.
Now if you’re looking for specific wildlife such as Mink or Reindeer, just look online and you will find a museum, information centre, or rescue facility that will gladly show you around. Our favourite was the Arctic Fox Center. They have a great little museum, and two adorable arctic foxes behind the centre that are well loved and cared for by the staff. We spent a good hour playing with these little critters and really enjoyed our time there.
Iceland has seen more tourist numbers than ever in the recent years. Having a off the beaten track and unique trip is becoming more difficult these days. Iceland Unlimited however helped us develop an amazing Self Drive Tour that let us make the decisions and pointed us int the right direction to beat the crowds. Check them out HERE!