You can't be all things to all people… unless you are Iceland.
The little country of Iceland has a lot to offer the traveler and makes an equally good adventure destination for the determined as it does a compromise weekend break for the indecisive. How is this possible, you ask? Read on…
Land of contrasts
Is Iceland a cultured city break kind of place, or an outdoor adventure sort of place? Well, it's both and can be as much of either as you personally choose.
A large part of Iceland's versatility can be found underground. The volcanic country is a geological newborn and still belching heat from the center of the Earth. Icelanders have used this to their advantage and abundant spas, hot tubs and outdoor swimming pools are a natural part of that. They even have a beach with geothermally heated seawater!
This, combined with Iceland's 24-hour summer daylight, makes it an equally good destination for heat-seekers as for those who find Mediterranean weather hard to bear – and especially when both types of people are traveling together!
A capital of culture in the North
Reykjavík is the capital city of Iceland – a city which can boast being the northernmost capital in the world and among the smallest capitals in Europe. Visitors to the city often remark, with surprise, that it seems to lack nothing. Indeed its compact size makes it safe and easy to explore, but a quick glance at a guidebook soon makes clear that you're not going to get bored quickly.
Reykjavík was just a farm until the 18th century. As a result you're not going to mistake it for Florence or Tallinn. Instead what you'll find is an airy, low-rise downtown area featuring fishing village style wooden houses, usually clad in brightly colored sheet metal to protect them from the elephants. Sorry, elements. Architecture lovers will find solace in the work of Guðjón Samúelsson (among others), his grand designs including the majestic Hallgrímskirkja cathedral, the cliff-like national theater and the classically classy old hospital building. Also you won't fail to notice the new Harpa Concert Center. Countryside lovers take solace in the fact that Iceland's grand, mountainous nature is tantalizingly visible from all over the city; but more on that in a moment.
Reykjavík is not the money vacuum it once was and the city is now home to an improbably large selection of designer stores; from clothes to art and from furniture to jewelry. The locals are very supportive of their home grown talent, but an increasing proportion of the unique products go home as souvenirs with visitors.
The creativity and playfulness of Reykjavík is no more in evidence than in its restaurants, where nothing short of a revolution has taken place in the last decade or two. Icelanders are no longer obliged to travel overseas to taste true ‘culture' – these days the world comes to them. The bar scene is no less creative and filled with energy; indeed it has created its own culture which draws people to Iceland in droves. But Reykjavík's nightlife is not for the easily intimidated.
So much country to explore
The same could be said of the Icelandic countryside, which is as stark, rugged and as potentially dangerous as it is beautiful. Despite its small population, Iceland is the second largest island in Europe. This means there is an awful lot of countryside to explore – and nobody can say it is all the same.
From the black sand deserts of the highlands, dotted with monumental gleaming white glaciers to the lush meadows and pastures in the south and the surprisingly big forests in the east, there is no single picture that can truly describe Iceland.
If you were going to try and describe Iceland in a single picture, you could do worse than choosing a waterfall; because nowhere in Europe will you find more, or better, waterfalls. The most famous, and most visited, is Gullfoss. The wide, roaring, staircase of a waterfall is in easy reach of Reykjavík and forms part of the Golden Circle tour – alongside the famous geysers and a beautiful national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Other remarkable ‘fosses' include Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe; Glymur, the tallest in Iceland and also near Reykjavík; and Seljalandsfoss, which you can actually walk behind. There are at least ten others that any Iceland veteran will tell you “you simply must see.”
Whale jumping in Iceland
Icelandic nature is not a museum piece simply to look at. There are plenty of opportunities to get out there and enjoy it hands-on. Camping and hiking are extremely popular among locals and tourists alike; and probably the cheapest way of seeing the country. Then there are more adventurous options like snowmobiling on glaciers, jet-boating or white water rafting down raging rivers, kayaking, sea angling, whale watching and scuba diving. There's even paragliding, surfing and heli-skiing on offer. So, as we said before: it is not an exaggeration to say that Iceland has nearly everything on offer for nearly everybody (no Disney World though).
All the seasons present the traveler with different opportunities, experiences and challenges – so pick your travel time, and your travel partner(s), carefully. If you don't go home wanting to return to Iceland again and again then it is probably down to human error. Don't blame Iceland for that!