When I was dreaming up my travel bucket list around the time I was finishing high school, Iceland was not featured in any sort of prominent position. Sure, I had a vague idea of it as a pretty cool place as far as natural sights, puffins, and occasionally ash clouds go, but it was a rock in the middle of the Atlantic, far from everything and far from cheap. It ended up on the "someday, maybe" list and I thought it would stay there for the next few decades at least.
Luckily, I ended up winning a contest and was awarded a trip to any Nordic capital. Since I was already quite intensely familiar with most of them, I decided to get the most bang for my buck and head to Reykjavik. It was a sound decision, as I soon discovered that I had been dead wrong not to prioritise it higher.
As Iceland is defined by a unique geography and history, it is simply like nothing else out there. It's seeing some increased traffic, much helped by Icelandair's stopover programme, but it's still very undeservedly being forgotten about by too many young travellers who do not see a reason to venture so far out of the way to see this country that they don't know enough about. Truth is, it's really not all that cumbersome to get to, and even if it was, a trip there still needs to be on the top of any traveller's wishlist. Here are three reasons why:
- Because it's awe-inspiring - but compact
- Because it's not just for nature enthusiasts
- Because you can also go somewhere else
Iceland is full of contradictions - it's one of the world's youngest land masses and the world's oldest democracy, it's geothermally active with constantly boiling temperatures right under its crust and yet never really warm, heavy with history and yet equipped with a young, progressive heart. It can be downright weird, with its moon-like landscapes almost completely devoid of fauna. However, its unique geography means that wherever you look, you'll see something grandiose and beautiful.
A great deal of its greatest natural sights are easily reachable from Reykjavik, where you will likely be based. This means that you can easily fit in a rainbow of different activities in 72 hours or less without having to rent a car. Taking in the sights of majestic waterfalls and geysirs, walking between two tectonic plates, trotting through a Game of Thrones shooting location on horseback, whale watching, bathing in a geothermal spa, ice climbing - you can do it all and come back every evening to your hotel in time for dinner. The Icelanders are truly spoiled to have all this within reach. If you're like me and always trying to find the sweet spot between having time for the maximum number of unmissable experiences while paying for as few hotel nights as possible, I can't think of a better place to go.
Iceland's unique natural sights are perhaps its biggest selling point, but if you're no fan of the great outdoors (and here they are truly great), don't worry - Iceland's got you covered too.
It's one of the biggest cliches of travel writing, but Iceland's people are really one of its greatest strengths. There's only some 300,000 of them, and their friendliness coupled with a sense of humour of the kind only cultivated in a country where a volcano may spew ash and molten lava on everything you own at any given moment is really what makes any trip here so great.
Reykjavik is certainly no metropolis and doesn't really look like a capital city at all. It feels more like a charming town with brightly painted houses and pretty ponds where pensioners feed bread to ducks and swans, but it still punches well above its weight in terms of culture.
If you're a history fan, you're in luck, especially if you're fond of Vikings and Norse mythology. Iceland is slightly obsessed with its Viking legacy and you will find allusions to it pretty much anywhere you look, but it might be best to turn your eye to the many excellent museums in Reykjavik that explain this country's unique history. If you're looking for something more quirky, Reykjavik's Phallological Museum might be something for you and your Snapchat.
Iceland also produces a bizarre amount of excellent indie music. Björk and Sigur Rós are maybe the two most famous examples, but have a look through Spotify before you go and see if you can be lucky enough to catch a performance here of your new favourites - because you're sure to discover at least one.
Not that you'd want to after spending a day here! But Icelandair's stopover programme needs to be mentioned - it allows its customers that book any of its international flight to take a break in the middle of their journey in Iceland for up to seven days. It's a fantastic way to make a trip across the Atlantic a bit more special. North Americans touring Europe can finish off their journey catching the Northern Lights and Europeans going to New York or Toronto can warm up by soaking in the Blue Lagoon.
This stopover programme has brought a lot of new visitors to Iceland and it's an excellent reason to extend your transatlantic trip by a couple of days. It makes for a great change of pace and removes some of the sadness and ennui of flying back home. You might as well, right?
I was completely sold on Iceland as soon as I put down my suitcases and saw the view from my hotel window, and you will be too.
Check out more tips on what to do in Iceland with my other blog post over at DiscountMyFlight's Travel Tips.