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 Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, bordering Vatnajökull National Park

  IMAGE: Páll Jökull Pétursson / Visit South Iceland

Iceland: Where beauty and sustainability go hand in hand

September 29, 2021

For a long time, Iceland was a distant, otherworldly place that few travelled to.

But in the last decade, the ‘Land of Fire and Ice’ has stridden rather than seeped into the global consciousness. It’s now a familiar presence on our screens, in our magazines, on our holiday itineraries, and the secret is out: it’s beautiful.

 

However, Iceland’s appeal goes beyond its beauty. It’s also a recognised, respected leader in cultural, social and environmental sustainability. Through hard work and considerate choices, Iceland now ranks highly on many indexes for sustainability and standards of living, and its capital, Reykjavík, has gained numerous plaudits too.

 

When COVID-19 hit Iceland, the country took swift action to prevent the spread of the disease. A partnership between the government and deCODE genetics, a Reykjavík based genome sequencing company, ensured thorough testing and tracking, with each viral isolate sequenced. This yielded valuable early insights about the virus and how it spread. As of August 2021,

 

Iceland has the lowest COVID-19 death rate and one of the highest vaccination rates in the world; almost 90% of the population are now fully vaccinated. In June, Iceland became the very first country in Europe to lift all domestic COVID-19 restrictions. While some minor restrictions have made a temporary comeback due to the rise in Delta variant cases:

for Icelanders, life is very much returning to normal.

 

Considering the country’s sustainability and safety credentials, then, it’s not surprising that (drum roll, please!), Iceland is a winner of Sustain Europe’s Safe & Sustainable Tourism Awards 2021.

 

We’re already convinced that Iceland is a safe and sustainable place to visit, whether for business or pleasure. Now it’s time to convince you!

 

Hverir (Hverarönd) Geothermal Site

IMAGE: Ragnar Th. / Visit Iceland

Iceland’s Sustainability: Plans and Progress

 

Environmental Sustainability

 

Iceland has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% compared to 1990 levels by 2030. The government aims to reach carbon neutrality by 2040 and be fossil-fuel-free by 2050. Iceland is already a leader in renewable energy, producing 100% of electricity and meeting 100% of heating needs with a mix of hydropower and geothermal energy. By harnessing domestic energy resources, Iceland meets 90% of its primary energy needs with renewables!

 

Geothermal Energy

 

Iceland sits on the junction of two tectonic plates and is geologically active. This provides renewable geothermal energy. However, Iceland carefully balances the use of renewable energy against its renewal rate to minimise environmental impacts.

 

Geothermal energy accounts for 30% of electricity production and hydropower for 70%. Iceland has also set up a geothermal district heating system for 90% of buildings, with the other 10% heated with electricity.

 

Iceland promotes the use of geothermal energy worldwide through the Geothermal Training Programme (GRÓ-GTP) that offers developing countries specialised geothermal training in Iceland. A total of 718 fellows have now graduated from the programme.

 

Geothermal Power for Greentech

 

Icelanders pioneered the cascading use of geothermal energy, producing products and processes including synthetic fuel, aquaculture, luxury bathing spas, specialised foods, greenhouse agriculture, cosmetics, and supplements.

 

At the Resource Park at Svartsengi and the Geothermal Park at Hellisheiði, there is no such thing as waste. Companies are striving to make full use of the resources available: geothermal hot water, cold water, steam, renewable electricity, and carbon dioxide.

 

 

ORF Genetics Plant Biotechnology Company

IMAGE: Ragnar Th. / Visit Iceland

Examples of innovative companies:

 

  • The Blue Lagoon is an exceptional example of the direct use of geothermal energy. Both the spa itself and the Blue Lagoon Research and Development Centre use active ingredients from geothermal fluids and cultivated algae for skincare and health products.
  • ORF Genetics is a biotechnology company manufacturing growth factors for medical research, stem cell technology, skincare products, and cell-cultured meat. They use genetic technology to produce growth factors and other proteins from barley plants selectively grown in geothermally heated greenhouses.
  • Carbon Recycling International (CRI) developed an emissions-to-liquids (ETL) technology that turns its captured carbon emissions into liquid methanol. This can be used as a fuel or to make greener chemicals and products. Cars running on methanol produce 90% less carbon emissions than petrol or diesel cars.
  • Vaxa Technologies cultivates micro-algae, rich in protein, lipids and Omega-3. Their patented technology makes use of the geothermal plant’s electricity, CO2 and hot and cold water in a carbon-negative process where the only waste product is oxygen. The algae are used as fish food, a nutrition supplement, food colouring, and even as a cosmetic additive.

 

Carbon Capture and Storage

 

To achieve zero emissions globally, reducing CO2 emissions isn’t enough; carbon needs to be captured and stored safely. Carbfix accelerates a natural geological process by binding

the CO2 permanently deep underground in basalt rocks. The company dissolves the CO2 in water and injects it into the subsurface, where it mineralises in about two years. The cost is currently less than $25/tonne, which is competitive with the ETS carbon price. The technology works best with large emitters such as coal, gas, cement, and steel producers. Carbfix is now setting its sights beyond Iceland, and preparing to receive CO2 transported from Europe in specially designed ships at the Coda Terminal.

 

Climeworks captures CO2 from air with the world’s first commercial carbon removal technology, which uses renewable energy or energy-from-waste. The CO2 is either supplied to customers or to Carbfix for binding.

 

Using Sustainable Energy to Create Sustainable Energy

 

Iceland’s Energy Policy to the year 2050 states that hydrogen is important for Iceland to achieve carbon neutrality and become fossil fuel free. Iceland has tremendous potential to produce and export green hydrogen, transforming energy use in many sectors. Some projects for the domestic market are underway already, and the emphasis will be on heavy transport and shipping, as personal vehicles are expected to be electric.

 

 

 

ORF Genetics greenhouse

IMAGE: Ragnar Th. / Visit Iceland

Food and Drink: Sustainability Through Science and Nature

 

Iceland’s cuisine has always been heavily influenced by fresh, seasonal ingredients and its fertile fishing grounds. But Iceland’s ‘local’ produce might surprise you. Iceland uses geothermal energy to heat its greenhouses, so tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and much more are grown locally all year-round. Many greenhouses use CO2 from the Hædarendi geothermal plant for soil enrichment and efficient LED grow lights to prolong the growing season. In the Agricultural University of Iceland greenhouse, they even grow honeydew melons, cacao pods and bananas!

 

Vertical farming makes efficient use of both sustainable energy and a small physical footprint. The VAXA vertical farm, just 20 minutes from Reykjavík, grows lettuce, microgreens and herbs for supermarkets and restaurants, saving energy by reducing ‘last mile’ and cold storage transportation.

 

But perhaps the most novel food science project is from MATIS, a food and biotech R&D institute in Reykjavík. Its Future Kitchen project uses fish parts that would usually be discarded (heads, fish, skin, intestines etc.) to make cod mince. Working with the award-winning Icelandic national chef team, the team use 3D printing technology to turn the mince into high-quality food products for top-end restaurants.

 

Today, Icelandic fisheries use research and scientific techniques, too, to ensure that fishing and fish processing are undertaken sustainably. The sector reduced their CO2 emissions by approximately 40% between 1997 and 2018, mostly by using more efficient ships and electrifying fishmeal production. The sector is currently working towards achieving a 100% yield, turning all fish-waste into economic opportunities.

 

However, when natural, traditional methods work well, there’s no need to change them. Sheep are left to roam freely, feeding on plants that are part of their natural diet, such as berries and moss. This gives their meat more flavour and succulence. During the autumn, they’re rounded up in the traditional way, on horseback and on foot.

 

 

 

George, the Kranavatn bartender

IMAGE: Visit Iceland

Water here requires nothing but nature, either. Visit Iceland’s Kranavatn campaign highlighted that in Iceland, Kranavatn—'tap water’—is pure water, naturally filtered through lava and safe to drink. The campaign aims to convince visitors to fill reusable water-bottles with tap water rather than drinking bottled water, to save money and the planet.

 

Sustainability comes into the sale of food, too, and not just the production process. Rakel Halldórsdóttir founded a movement to hold farmers’ markets in rural areas, helping organic farmers sell their produce after the economic crash in 2008. Thanks to her partnership with the National Museum of Iceland, markets are held in historical, abandoned houses which would otherwise be unused.

 

Recycling

 

Iceland’s general policy is to levy waste treatment fees on various products to ensure that parties who produce waste, pay for its treatment. The Icelandic Recycling Fund handles the allocation of waste treatment fees.

 

Iceland was the first country in the world to adopt a nationwide recycling fee for all disposable drink cans and bottles to encourage recycling. Endurvinnslan hf. (Recycling Ltd) operates 60 return facilities where Icelanders can reclaim the deposit on returned containers. In 2019, the recycling rates were 86% for aluminium, 85% for PET and 83% for glass.

 

In July 2021, it became illegal to provide customers with single-use plastics (plastic forks, straws, foam plastic takeaway boxes etc.) without charging for them. This is an important step towards changing the attitude of consumers towards single-use plastics and follows an earlier ban on the free provision of single-use plastic bags.

 

Pure North Recycling is an innovative company that fully recycles dirty plastic waste into plastic beads usable in new plastic products. Its unique, chemical-free process uses geothermal steam, water and electricity, and has a minimal carbon footprint. Pure North currently recycles 2,500 tonnes of plastic hay-baling waste per year, with each tonne saving 0.7 tonnes of CO2eq and 1.8 tonnes of oil compared to producing a new tonne of plastic.

 

Transport

 

Iceland’s current sustainable travel options are discussed later, but an exciting part of their future plan is the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system for Reykjavík: Borgarlína. It will include dedicated lanes for buses that run on clean, sustainable fuels (electricity, biogenic methane or hydrogen). Bicycle facilities will be incorporated, providing an alternative eco-friendly option and ‘last mile’ solution. The first phase is due for implementation in 2024. This will be an important factor in achieving Iceland’s climate goals.

 

The Sogin geothermal area

IMAGE: Thrainn Kolbeinsson

Sustainable tourism

 

The sudden and rapid growth of tourism in Iceland meant the country had to quickly find ways to make the best of its tourism offer while trying to avoid the pitfalls and inevitable environmental consequences of mass tourism. In 2012, the Icelandic Tourist Board established the Vakinn certification to recognise providers operating in a safe, ethical, and environmentally sustainable way. Over 70 providers are now certified, and 310 companies have also signed a Responsible Tourism declaration founded by Festa and The Iceland Tourism Cluster. This has helped pave the way towards continued excellence in safe and sustainable tourism.

 

In 2015, the Icelandic Route Development Fund was started to encourage direct international flights to Akureyri and Egilsstaðir. It’s hoped that this will inspire visitors to arrive at, stay in, and explore other areas of Iceland and prevent over-tourism in Reykjavík. Destination Management Plans were drawn up in 2018 to promote and develop each region’s attractions, aiming again to redistribute tourism. In the same year, the government launched a new 12-year National Infrastructure Plan to protect and develop state-owned and municipal tourist sites and develop new attractions.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has of course affected tourism here. However, it’s also given Iceland a little breathing room, and the chance to review the results of its 2018 tourism impact assessment. Iceland has invested heavily in tourism infrastructure in the last year, and now has a solid, sustainable plan for tourism development.

 

 

The Retreat at Blue Lagoon

IMAGE: Ragnar Th. / Visit Iceland

Holding Your Green Meeting or Event in Iceland

 

Situated midway between North America and Europe, Iceland is an ideal location for international meetings and events. It also offers sustainable accommodation, travel and dining, plus great facilities, a stunning backdrop, and some of the best breakout activities you’ll find anywhere. Who doesn’t want to end a busy day of meetings with a relaxing hour in a geothermal pool—or a puffin-watching picnic? That’s why Reykjavík was named the Best MICE Destination in Europe 2017 by Business Destinations Magazine.

 

In Reykjavík, all venues are within walking distance from the city centre. There are around 180 hotels and guesthouses in the capital and its outskirts, offering 6,500 rooms, and all venues and hotels in the greater Reykjavík area are under 15 minutes away by road. Visit  Iceland has a dedicated sustainability manager to help you make your event and stay as green as possible. This includes assisting you with carbon offsetting through the Icelandic Carbon Fund, and charitable donations.

 

Working through the Green Reykjavík Checklist is a good way to make your event greener:

 

  1. Carbon offset your flight.
  2. Walk, don’t drive.
  3. Choose Iceland’s culinary treasures.
  4. Do you need all this stuff? Try to stick to reusables or things that can be donated. For instance, leftover material can go to The Good Shepherd (Góði hirðirinn), a second-hand market for used goods run by Sorpa. Profits go to local charities.
  5. Drink water responsibly. Icelandic tap water is very pure, so bottled water is unnecessary.

 

 

Harpa

IMAGE: Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre

Most meeting and conference hotels in the Reykjavík area have eco-certifications, and you’ll find eco-certified hotels near Iceland’s biggest attractions and towns too. However, if you’re hosting a large event or want a venue that’s a little different, consider:

 

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre

 

The Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre is architecturally stunning, and suitable for up to 3,500 guests. It’s close to all the facilities your delegates need, reducing travel distances. Harpa is designed to use natural light and minimise energy use. It uses renewable electricity from the grid, pure local water and Swan eco-certified cleaning products. Its recycling system is comprehensive, and its restaurants and catering services use mainly local produce. As for surplus food, this isn’t wasted—instead, it’s donated to charities that work directly with people in need.

 

The Reykjavík Art Museum

 

The Reykjavík Art Museum consists of three buildings in Reykjavík: Hafnarhús (The Harbour House), Kjarvalsstaðir, and the Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum. Up to 1,400 guests can be accommodated.

 

 

 

Viðeyjarstofa on Viðey Island

IMAGE: Ragnar Th. / Visit Reykjavík

Viðeyjarstofa

 

Viðeyjarstofa on Viðey Island is the first stone house built in Iceland. This novel venue has a hall for up to 150 guests and smaller rooms suitable for 10 to 25 guests each. It also offers top-quality catering and nature tours of the island. Viðey Island is also the site of the amazing Imagine Peace Tower, a tower of lights designed by Yoko Ono and dedicated to her late husband, John Lennon. It symbolises the couple’s commitment to peace and is lit up on significant dates, including Winter Solstice to New Year, and from October 9th (John’s birthday) to December 8th (the anniversary of his death).

 

Blue Lagoon Iceland

 

The Blue Lagoon complex offers a spa, accommodation and catering. This eco-certified venue is a real jewel in Iceland’s crown. It has a well-equipped meeting room for up to 80 people and a board room suitable for up to 12 people. The restaurant can accommodate 400-500 seated guests and up to 1000 guests for stand-up receptions. Geothermal energy, harnessed and produced at the Svartsengi Resource Park, provides all the hot water, heating and electricity at this luxurious spa. Outside, maintained paths allow you to appreciate the stunning lava fields surrounding the complex while keeping the area protected.

 

Háifoss Waterfall

IMAGE: Gunnar Freyr / Icelandic Explorer

Your Sustainable Visit to Iceland

 

Before you go, sign up to the Icelandic Pledge online:

 

The Icelandic Pledge:

 

I pledge to be a responsible tourist.

 

When I explore new places, I will leave them as I found them.

 

I will take photos to die for, without dying for them.

 

I will follow the road into the unknown, but never venture off the road, and I will only park where I am supposed to.

 

When I sleep out under the stars, I'll stay within a campsite, and when nature calls, I won't answer the call on nature.

 

I will be prepared for all weathers, all possibilities, and all adventures.

 

You should also take the short, humorous, yet vital lessons offered by the Iceland Academy. This will help you get the most out of your trip and enjoy Iceland safely, sustainably and responsibly. The Academy’s lessons are:

 

  • How to drive in Iceland
  • Responsible travelling in Iceland
  • Avoiding hot-tub awkwardness
  • A guide to safe selfies
  • Staying safe in Iceland
  • Pack Warm

 

Eco-friendly travel

 

If you’re flying to Iceland, you’ll arrive at Keflavík Airport (unless you’re arriving from Greenland or the Faroe Islands, when flights are available to Iceland’s smaller domestic airports). Two domestic airlines (Icelandair and Play) and many other international airlines offer regular flights between Keflavík and numerous airports across Europe and North America. Keflavík Airport is around 45 minutes from Reykjavík by road and several bus companies run shuttles.

 

Icelandair strives to make their flights as green as possible, implementing measures to reduce drag and save fuel. Pilots are trained in techniques such as CDA (constant descent approach) and RAA (reduced acceleration altitude) to reduce noise pollution and fuel consumption. The company also runs a carbon-offsetting scheme. Currently, all carbon-offset contributions are used to plant and maintain forests in Iceland in co-operation with the Icelandic Carbon Fund, Kolviður.

 

Of course, you can also travel to Iceland by ferry. The Smyril Line car ferry M/S Norröna sails between Seyðisfjörður in Iceland, Hirtshals in Denmark and Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands once a week. It’s a 65-hour journey between Hirtshals and Seyðisfjörður, but the ferry’s restaurants, cinema, swimming pool and hot tubs make the trip part of your holiday experience.

 

Once you’re here, forget fossil-fuel powered cars; there are plenty of less polluting ways to explore. There’s no railway, but there are plenty of buses, many operated by national bus company, Strætó. Strætó already runs many electric buses on its routes and is investing in hydrogen and methane buses too, aiming for a carbon-free fleet by 2030. Its mainline services often have an outside bike rack or space for bikes in the luggage compartment.

 

Coach tours are also a great way to travel to Iceland’s highlights in a more sustainable, stress-free way. Grayline holds Iceland’s Vakinn environmental certification, as does Reykjavík Excursions, which was the first Icelandic tour operator to be granted the ISO 14001 certification for environmental management. Hópbílar has also implemented the ISO 14001 Environmental Management standard and last year, it became Iceland’s first coach provider to offset carbon emissions through the Icelandic Carbon Fund.

 

In the Reykjavík region, there are bikes, electric bikes and electric scooters to rent. Hopp and Wind both offer electric scooters that are easily located using an app, and Wind offers weekly rental passes. Reykjavík Bike Tours arrange cycling and walking tours around the capital and other scenic areas in the country, and their rental bikes are bookable by phone or at their office at the Old Harbour. You can also rent a bike from Donkey Republic, for as long as you need it, via their app.

 

If you need to hire a car, consider an electric car. Several companies offer them, including Green Motion, a company that only rents out low emission vehicles and considers sustainability throughout their operation. Iceland has an excellent network of electric fast-charging points, so you can travel with confidence, and all its electricity is ‘green’.

 

 

 

Hiking on Hornbjarg Cliffs in Hornvik

IMAGE: Haukur Sigurðsson / Visit Westfjords

The Great Outdoors

 

Iceland is very much about the great outdoors, and the most sustainable ways to enjoy its wildlife and natural beauty are by foot, bike, kayak, paddleboard, skis, snowboard or horse!

 

You’ll find companies offering eco-friendly sea trips on electric or fuel-efficient boats, too. Watching whales, puffins and seals is a popular activity here, as are trips to experience the glorious Northern Lights. Family-run Elding Adventures has a responsible attitude to wildlife and the environment, offering boat trips from Reykjavík and Akureyri. The company has received the Blue Flag certification, signifying that it’s met and maintained stringent environmental, educational, safety and accessibility criteria.

 

Besides volcanoes, Iceland is probably most famous for its geothermal pools and spas. Don’t go home without taking a dip or enjoying a sauna. There are also plenty of golf courses, although take care not to hit the ball too hard—it could end up in a volcano!

 

Most of Iceland’s villages, towns and attractions are on or near ‘the’ ring road known as Route 1, but you'll also find other gems which aren't connected to this main route, such as the awe-inspiring and breathtaking Westfjords. Always be sure to plan your journey in accordance with the local weather forecast, check for any road closures and respect the road conditions prior to heading out on any routes off the beaten path. A little bit of extra planning goes a long way in creating a safe and enjoyable experience in Iceland.

 

 

Organic cuisine in Vallanes

IMAGE: Gunnar Freyr / Icelandic Explorer

Sustainable Dining

 

Most restaurants in Iceland focus on local and seasonal produce. Using biodegradable single-use items, reducing waste and conserving energy is ingrained in the culture,

so mentioning specific sustainable restaurants isn’t relevant here: there are too many! You’ll find plenty of organic, vegetarian and vegan options, and there are exclusively vegan and vegetarian restaurants too, although most are in Reykjavík.

 

Fish and seafood feature heavily on Icelandic menus, as does the famous ‘free-range’ lamb. But you’ll also find beef, game and poultry dishes, and plenty of Iceland's famous dairy products, such as Skyr (technically a cheese, but used more like a yoghurt). For a taste of Iceland’s past, if you’re feeling brave, seek out restaurants offering historic dishes like fermented shark, singed sheep heads or pickled ram's testicles! If you want a change, many restaurants offer international cuisine and you’ll find Italian, Thai, Indian or Chinese restaurants in the larger towns, with a huge choice in Reykjavík.

 

In 2017, the Dill restaurant in Reykjavík became the first-ever Icelandic restaurant to be awarded a Michelin Star, and it’s been featured on Zac Efron’s sustainable travel show, Down to Earth. Four other restaurants have a Michelin plate, given to restaurants serving ‘good food worth a detour’: the ÓX, Sümac and Matur og Drykkur in Reykjavík, and the Moss in Grindavík’s Blue Lagoon.

 

Kirkjufell Mountain and Waterfall

IMAGE: Brynjar Snær Þrastarson / Visit West Iceland

Regional Highlights of Sustainable Iceland

 

Iceland can be roughly divided into seven regions, all with unmissable attractions.

 

West Iceland

 

This area is often called ‘Sagaland’, as many of the Icelandic Sagas, including Sturlunga and Laxdæla, were written here. It’s also home to some of the country’s most outstanding natural features.

 

Of course, there are bathing pools and spas too. The Krauma geothermal spa is just north of Deildartunguhver, the largest hot spring in Europe. Here, you can enjoy five hot pools and one cold pool, plus a sauna, restroom, and a restaurant with lovely views.

 

Follow in the footsteps of Snorri Sturluson

 

Snorri Sturluson is Iceland’s most famous poet, historian, politician and landholder of old. He was the author of Heimskringla, a history of the Norwegian kings, and Snorra-Edda, a recounting of Norse mythology alongside a discussion of Icelandic poetry forms. A descendant of poet and hero Egill Skallagrímsson, he may have written and/or compiled the Egils Saga too.

 

Snorri lived in Reykholt from 1206 until 1241. Here, you can walk in his footsteps and see artefacts from that time, including a hot-spring bath, tunnel, farm ruins and aqueducts. Visit the culture and history centre, Snorrastofa, or go to the Icelandic Settlement Centre in Borgarnes, where the sagas and the adventures of early settlers are brought to life through multi-media and theatre.

 

More ‘living history’ can be found at Eiríksstaðir in Haukadalur, a living museum and conjectural reconstruction of old ruins. Learn about the life of Erik the Red, rumoured to have lived here before he was outlawed, and his son, Leif the Lucky, who was born in Eiríksstaðir. Erik went on to find Greenland, while Leif became the first European to discover the New World. You can find out more about Leif and Erik’s expeditions at the Leif Eiríksson Center in Búðardalur.

 

The town of Stykkishólmur

IMAGE: Brynjar Snær Þrastarson / Visit West Iceland

Don’t miss West Iceland’s amazing natural features, including:

 

  • The Cave: regarded as ‘the king of Iceland's caves’, the huge 148,000m3 Víðgelmir cave has colourful domes, 1,100-year-old lava structures and seasonal ice formations that create a magical underground landscape.
  • The beautiful Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord), with its shores, canyons and waterfalls, including Glymur, the highest waterfall in Iceland (198 metres).
  • The beautiful landscape and wildlife near Snæfellsjökull National Park; here you’ll find several very different lighthouses, Kirkjufell mountain, the magnificent Snæfellsjökull glacier and the beautiful town of Stykkishólmur, with its colourful houses and interesting museums. This area boasts a vibrant culture, unparalleled biodiversity and beautiful landscapes. It was the first community in Europe to be awarded the EarthCheck certification, recognising it as an environmentally conscious community constantly working towards sustainability.
  • Grundarfjörður, with its picturesque houses, attractive bay and great views of neighbouring Mt Kirkjufell. See the colourful 18-metre-long Veðurhorfur, featuring 112 of the 130 Icelandic words for wind. This number was chosen to symbolise the emergency services number (112) and how dependent Icelanders are on the weather for their survival and livelihoods.



Hiking on Hornbjarg Cliffs in Hornvik

IMAGE: Haukur Sigurðsson / Visit Westfjords

The Westfjords

 

The quiet, largely untouched north-west is known as the Westfjords, and it too has an Earth Check certification. This area is ideal for exploring by kayak, or you could rent a bicycle and tackle Svalvogar, the ‘Dream Road’. This 49-kilometre circular route between the magnificent fjords of Dýrafjörður and Arnarfjörður is well worth cycling and includes some beautiful coastline.

 

If that sounds too strenuous, then admire your scenic surroundings while relaxing in an outdoor hot pool, such as Hellulaug. It’s close to the beach in Vatnsfjörður and offers amazing views. Or why not take a horse ride through the picturesque Heydalur Valley?

 

You can also take a boat trip from Ísafjörður or Bolungarvík to Hornstrandir. This remote, uninhabited peninsula is a nature reserve. While facilities are limited, it’s a haven for birdlife and Arctic foxes, and the dramatic cliffs and rock formations make it a hikers’ paradise!

 

Rauðasandur Beach (Red Sands Beach)

IMAGE: Björgvin Hilmarsson / Visit Westfjords

The Vestfjarðaleiðin #TheWestfjordsWay

 

The 950 kilometre (590 mile) long Westfjords Way is a new touring route taking you to (or nearby) some of the Westfjords’ most amazing landscapes and wildlife sights, including:

 

  • Ísafjörður, the largest town in the Westfjords. The fjords and crystal-clear waters make it a great place for paragliding, watersports and winter sports. Why not book a trip with Borea Adventures, a 2020 nominee for the Nordic Council Environmental Prize? This company focuses on low impact, sustainable tourism and the protection of landscape and wildlife, particularly the Arctic Fox (Iceland’s only indigenous land mammal, and vital to its ecosystem). Borea Adventures offers everything from short trips to multi-day excursions, whether you like sailing, kayaking, hiking or climbing. It uses only local, knowledgeable guides confident in outdoor skills.
  • The island of Vigur just off Ísafjörður’s coast is home to Iceland’s only preserved wooden wind-powered grain mill and its smallest post office, together with beautifully restored houses. There’s also an array of waterbirds, including puffins and eider ducks.
  • Dynjandi waterfall, one of Iceland’s most photographed landmarks: a breath-taking height, width and noise!
  • Látrabjarg: This cliff hosts nearly half of the world's population of certain bird species, making it an absolute must-see for any birdwatcher. It’s possible to get close to the birds here, providing wonderful photo opportunities and an unforgettable experience.
  • Rauðasandur (Red Sand), a stunning, unspoilt, 10 km long beach of red sand, although you’ll find white, yellow and black sand in nearby coves.
  • Gvendarlaug: visit this tiny geothermal spring, which legend has it possesses divine healing powers.

The inimitable Goðafoss

IMAGE: Visit North Iceland

North Iceland

 

This is the ideal place to experience the Midnight Sun. During the summertime, sundown occurs just minutes before sunrise, and the views across the rugged landscape are spectacular. It’s also a great place to view the Northern Lights, visible from the end of August to mid-April. Take a tour of the best viewing points. It’s estimated that a three-night stay in north Iceland gives you a 66% chance of seeing the Lights, but a five-night stay increases the chances to 90%!

 

North Iceland is a truly all-year destination with a great variety of activities and scenic, awe-inspiring landscapes. There are two official tourist routes here: the Diamond Circle and the Arctic Coast Way.

 

The Diamond Circle

 

The Diamond Circle is a 250-kilometre route that links the area’s top attractions.

 

You can easily spend a whole day (or more!) in picturesque Húsavík, with its beautiful wooden church. It featured in the 2020 film ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga’ as the hometown of the two lead characters, and you can even take A Fire Saga Tour. However, Húsavík was already famous as the ‘Whale Capital of Iceland’ due to the 23 whale species that visit its bay. North Sailing, a company with robust sustainability standards, offer silent, eco-friendly whale watching trips on an electric boat or hybrid electric schooner.

 

A whale watching tour on the all-electric schooner Opal

IMAGE: Nick Bondarev

The town has several museums including a Whale Museum and The Museum House cultural centre. It also offers the Geosea ‘geothermal bathing mecca’: clifftop pools where you can relax and watch whales or the Northern Lights at the same time! There’s a swim-up bar and showers with toiletries provided by Icelandic natural skin care company, Sóley Organics.

 

Also, head to Goðafoss, ‘Waterfall of the Gods’, two wide, dramatic cascades plunging from a semi-circular cliff. This is supposedly where the Lawspeaker and Chieftain, Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, threw his statues of his Nordic gods into the water after deciding that Iceland should convert to Christianity.

 

Nearby is Lake Mývatn, set in a stunning volcanic landscape of basalt spires and lava formations. Home to a variety of waterbirds, including thousands of ducks, it sits on its own ring road inside the Diamond Circle. Travel this inner road to see dramatic features such as Dimmuborgir (‘Dark Cities’), a labyrinth of caves and arches, and Grjótagjá geothermal pool and cave. At the nearby Mývatn Nature Baths, you can enjoy the lagoon, steam baths and outdoor showers amidst stunning views, then enjoy a meal at the Café Kvika (including ‘geyser bread’ baked underground!).

 

Another stop, Hverir, is famous for its bubbling pools and vibrant ochre to purple colours on the slope of Námafjall mountain, caused by chemical reactions. The volcanic fields of Krafla are nearby, including the impressive 300 m wide Víti crater.

 

You’re then on the edge of the beautiful Vatnajökull National Park, near Jökulsárgljúfur—Iceland’s ‘Grand Canyon’. 25 km long and 500 m wide, it’s home to several waterfalls, the closest being Dettifoss. Used as the backdrop for Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ film, Dettisfoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall, creating an enchanting mist that’s visible from miles away.

 

A good final stop is Ásbyrgi, a towering, horseshoe-shaped canyon with a forested floor, abundant birdlife and scenic hiking trails. This was formed when Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir touched the land with one of his hooves—or so legend has it.

 

Maybe you’ll find some of the hidden corners and forgotten spaces on this route, too, such as the beautiful Tjörnes peninsula with its fossils and bird nests, and the lush valley of Hólmatungur. But no matter which sites you visit, the Diamond Circle offers the chance for an epic and unforgettable adventure.

 

Vök Baths on Lake Urriðavatn

IMAGE: Gunnar Freyr / Icelandic Explorer

East Iceland

 

Life moves slowly in East Iceland, allowing time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. Discover its charming towns, full of character, and take a tour to see more remote treasures.

 

Around Egilsstaðir

 

Egilsstaðir, the largest town in the east, is home to a good selection of restaurants and the East Iceland Heritage Museum. Take time to relax at the Vök Baths on the beautiful Lake Urriðavatn, just north of Egilsstaðir. They have amazing views and hot water so pure that it’s safe to drink. The stunning Fardagafoss waterfall is close to the town too.

 

Around Seyðisfjörður

 

Overlooked by mountains and perched on the edge of a lagoon, this village of colourful, timbered 19th-century houses is a truly scenic spot. It describes itself as “the heart of culture, heritage and hospitality in East Iceland,” and there’s plenty to do here, both indoors and out.

 

Seyðisfjörður has a vibrant arts scene, so don’t miss the Skaftfell Center for Visual Art, with a gallery, library, bookshop and Bistro where you can enjoy pizza or cake. You can also visit East Iceland’s only cinema. Try kayaking and sailing, or head to the Fjarðarheiði mountain pass and heath a few miles away, with its Stafdalur Ski Station. It’s a great area for hiking and cycling in summer, and for skiing and cross-country skiing in winter.

 

Hike to the nearby waterfalls, nature reserve and the ‘Cave of the Mountain Maid’ or stay in town to admire Rainbow Street. The colourful temporary repairs to this road were so popular that they’ve become a permanent and much-photographed feature. At the end of the street is the Blue Church, a photogenic building and popular concert venue.

 

Despite its small size, when it’s time for dinner, Seyðisfjörður offers a warm welcome and a choice of cuisines. Choose from sushi, barbecue, and Icelandic cuisine based on the freshest local produce, with an international twist.

 

 

The Highlands of Iceland

IMAGE: Gunnar Freyr / Icelandic Explorer

The Highland Circle

 

This route is just one of many that take you around East Iceland’s highlights.

 

Start at Vallanes Organic Farm, winner of multiple sustainability and innovation awards, and enjoy breakfast at the vegetarian café. Iceland’s biggest woodland, Hallormsstaður National Forest, is next. Visit the fascinating arboretum or hike the forest trails.

 

Carry on to Hengifoss, Iceland’s second-highest waterfall, falling into a gorge with red-striped cliffs, before visiting the Wilderness Center. This living museum is a great place to eat a homemade lunch created from local ingredients. You can also book nature, wildlife and history tours here, including a hike to an abandoned farm that involves a cable trolley trip across the glacial river!

 

Next is the impressive Kárahnjúkar Dam and Hafrahvammagljúfur, the deepest canyon in Iceland. But possibly the most unique stop is the last, at Stuðlagil. Here, the stunning basalt columns look like a science fiction film set. They’ve only been revealed since water levels dropped with the opening of the Kárahnjúkar Power Plant.

 

Around Djúpivogur

 

The scenic coastal town of Djúpivogur, further south, is part of the Cittaslow movement, ‘an international network of cities where living is good’. This tiny town promotes the protection of nature and cultural heritage, the beautification and quality of the environment, the use of technology to benefit society, local food culture and production, safety and accessibility, and hospitality, courtesy and friendliness.

 

Langabúð, Djúpivogur’s oldest house, is now a cultural centre (and serves homemade cake). Admire local arts and crafts in the town’s galleries and the outdoor sculpture, Eggin í Gleðivík, made of 34 oversized eggs. Nearby, both Búlandsnes sanctuary and Papey island are scenic spots with an abundance of birdlife.

 

Djúpivogur has a beautiful black sand beach and, a small forest, Hálsaskógur, just west of the town. Hálsaskógur has well-marked trails, cliffs, ruins, and a cave, Álfheiðarskúti, named after a girl who hid from robbers there in 1627.

 

Þingvallavatn: the largest natural lake in Iceland

IMAGE: Páll Jökull Pétursson / Visit South Iceland

South Iceland

 

South Iceland is home to two National Parks that are also UNESCO World Heritage Centres, and the Katla UNESCO Global Geopark.

 

Þingvellir National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Centre

 

Þingvellir means ‘parliament plains’. This area is key to Icelandic history and democracy, as the Alþingi general assembly was established here around 930. The Assembly continued to meet here until 1798, and you can still see the remains of around 50 turf and stone booths. This early move to democracy is mentioned in Iceland’s sagas and documented in Grágás Laws. Signs of historic agricultural and residential use remain too, including Þingvellir Church and farm.

 

It’s also an unspoiled area of natural beauty. Visit the Almannagjá canyon and admire the area’s rugged cliffs, towering mountains, grass-covered lava fields, and Lake Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s biggest lake. The brown trout and lake char here have been isolated since the last Ice Age, evolving to become some of the largest specimens in the world!

 

The famous Golden Circle sightseeing route takes you to Þingvellir National Park and also to:

 

  • The beautiful Gullfoss waterfall, and the spectacular canyon below where you can enjoy river rafting on the Hvítá river.
  • Geysir, a hot spring famous for being very active until 1916 and then suddenly stopping. There’s only been a very brief spell of activity (in 1935) since! Luckily, the stunning surrounding area boasts other impressive springs, including Strokkur (The Churn), which spouts every 10 minutes.

 

 

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

IMAGE: Páll Jökull Pétursson / Visit South Iceland

Vatnajökull National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Centre

 

This huge national park encroaches into other regions too, as it covers nearly 14% of Iceland's territory. Interactions between the park’s ten volcanoes and rifts under the ice cap have forged a spectacular, constantly evolving landscape of sandy plains, rivers, canyons and waterfalls. It’s the ideal place for scientists researching fauna and organisms that survived the last Ice Age.

 

This is where the phrase ‘fire and ice’ originated, but sadly, it’s also where the effects of climate change can clearly be seen by the retreating of the Vatnajökull ice cap.

 

The whole park is amazing, but make sure you see the stunning Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.

 

Katla UNESCO Global Geopark

 

The Katla UNESCO Global Geopark is Iceland's first geopark, prioritising the protection of the natural environment, and the promotion of local sustainable development, culture and nature tourism. It overlaps Vatnajökull National Park, with a diverse landscape that includes mountains, lakes, black sandy beaches, green meadows, formidable glacial rivers, scenic waterfalls and vast lava fields.

 

 

 

Hálsanefshellir Cave

IMAGE: Páll Jökull Pétursson / Visit South Iceland

Katla offers a wide variety of sustainable outdoor activities, such as climbing and glacier walking, hiking, caving, horse-riding and golf. Don’t miss the Eldgjá (‘fire fissure’) canyon with its Ófærufoss waterfall, the waterfalls along the Djúpá River, the Efra-Hvolshellar caves, The Icelandic Lava Show in Vik, The Saga Centre, or the Park’s art cafés, museums and exhibitions.

 

Other highlights:

 

  • Reynisfjara black-sand beach. Visit the Reynisdrangar stacks, 66 m high rock pillars, and Hálsanefshellir, a beautiful cave.
  • The 60 m high Skógafoss waterfall.
  • The magnificent, twisting Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon.
  • The Lava Centre in Hvolsvollur, an interactive exhibition exploring the art and science of Iceland’s volcanic geology.
  • You can also visit the Laugarvatn Fontana spa inside the Golden Circle route, with its geothermal steam sauna and bathing pools—and enjoy products cooked in the geothermal bakery!


Friðheimar restaurant

IMAGE: Friðheimar / Visit South Iceland

Culture, Cuisine and Geothermal Energy

 

South Iceland is a major farming and fishing area, and a hotspot (pun intended!) for geothermal energy and its use in cultivation. Some classic stops for foodies include Friðheimar Farm, where a tonne of tomatoes is produced in geothermal greenhouses every day. In true circular fashion, any tomatoes that aren’t top grade are used in their restaurant’s tomato soup. You can also enjoy more tomato-based products such as ravioli, tomato ice cream and Bloody Marys.

 

  • Farmers Bistro is run on similar principles to Friðheimar. The restaurant serves white mushrooms, brown chestnut mushrooms, portobello mushrooms and bell peppers grown in its geothermal greenhouses, as well as herbs and other vegetables that are grown outdoors. The parent company also makes its own organic substrate in which to grow its mushrooms, using its homegrown corn and elephant straw mixed with locally sourced chicken manure.
  • Slippurinn in Vestmannaeyjar, a restaurant that works closely with small producers, seamen and farmers. The owners forage wild herbs and seaweeds and grow the rest of the herbs that they need themselves.
  • Sólheimar, considered the oldest Eco-Village in the world. Originally established as a children's home some 80 years ago, Sólheimar is a close-knit sustainable community that focuses on environmental issues and a diverse and vivid cultural life for people with special needs. From organic baking, horticulture and forestry to catering, hospitality and even an organic café, you’ll find all of their wares for sale at the Vala grocery store and art gallery.
  • Skaftholt, a sustainable, inclusive organic farm providing employment and accommodation for people with developmental disabilities. You can even choose a medieval food experience here, enjoying spicy wine, vegetables, goose soup and blackbird!
  • The village of Höfn, famous for its lobster and langoustine.

 

 

 

Witnessing an active volcano up close and personal

IMAGE: Thrainn Kolbeinsson / Visit Iceland

Reykjanes peninsula

 

If you don’t have time to explore far beyond Reykjavík, fear not. This peninsula can give you a taste of everything that’s great about Iceland: outdoor activities, spectacular landscapes to hike through, charming villages, history, great cultural and food experiences. In fact, there’s so much to do here that it might be hard to tear yourself away!

 

The Reykjanes peninsula was recognised as a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2015. This comparatively ‘young’ and highly volcanic part of Iceland features abundant birdlife, and magnificent cliffs, coasts, craters and lagoons. Difficult to access for centuries due to the rough terrain, the area developed a unique culture, and has a tradition for being very musical—the ‘Liverpool of Iceland’!

 

Explore the history

 

Historical highlights include:

 

  • Near Eldvörp, where scoria and spatter cones formed in the Reykjanes Fires 1210-1240, you can find rough rock shelters, old stone stack walls and ancient paths.
  • In the Húshólmi area, visit the remnants of Krýsuvík farm, dating from before the year 900, and other ruins of houses, a church and a cemetery—left nearly untouched by Ögmundarhraun lava flow in 1151.
  • The remains of Selatangar fishing village, abandoned in 1880.

 

  • Explore the landscape

 

There are so many sites to choose from here, but don’t miss:

 

  • Brimketill, a small, beautiful pool naturally carved by sea erosion, at the lava shore west of Grindavík.
  • Festarfjall, an eroded subglacial volcano that’s exposed on coastal cliffs.
  • Grænavatn, two craters filled with clear blue water.
  • Reykjanes Nature Reserve, which includes Kleifarvatn, Iceland’s deepest lake, and the Krýsuvíkurberg bird cliff.
  • Gunnuhver, a colourful area of bubbling pools, hot springs and steaming earth. It’s named after Gunna, a troublesome ghost who was finally lured into a boiling pit thanks to a priest’s cunning plan. See Iceland’s largest mud pool—20 metres in diameter and always boiling vigorously—and marvel at the giant steam plume emanating from the earth.

 

 

Brú Milli Heimsálfa (Bridge Between Continents)

IMAGE: Thrainn Kolbeinsson

Explore tectonic and geothermal forces

 

The Bridge Between Continents at Sandvík is a footbridge crossing the fissure between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, which are moving apart by roughly 2 cm a year. But you can experience geothermal forces more personally at the Blue Lagoon, a sustainable spa offering geothermal waters, wellbeing and skincare treatments. The complex includes hotels, research and development facilities and restaurants, including the Michelin Plate Moss restaurant. The mineral-rich waters of the Blue Lagoon are one of National Geographic’s ‘25 Wonders of the World’ and have proven benefits for skin conditions such as psoriasis. In 2018, the complex was included in Time Magazine’s list of ‘The World’s 100 Greatest Places’.

 

As for volcanic activity, you can also admire (from a safe distance!) a new volcano. The peninsula hadn’t had an eruption for nearly 800 years. But on the 19th of March, after more than a year of increasingly forceful and frequent earthquakes, lava erupted near Fagradalsfjall, a flat-topped mountain. Scientists think there may be more eruptions in the peninsula to come.

 

 

 

A bird’s-eye view of Reykjavík

IMAGE: Ragnar Th. / Visit Reykjavík

Reykjavík City and surroundings

 

Reykjavík is a compact and vibrant city, with an array of activities and attractions just a quick walk or bike ride away.

 

Outdoor Experiences

 

Special Tours, based in the old Harbour, is an excursion company with robust sustainability policies, and holds both a Blue Flag award and Vakinn certification. It offers whale and puffin-watching trips, horse-riding excursions, Northern Lights tours and a host of other hikes and visits to Iceland’s attractions.

 

There are 18 geothermally heated swimming pools in the greater Reykjavík area. Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach, where geothermal waters mix with the sea, is a popular recreation area, as is Laugardalur Valley and Park. The Park has excellent sports facilities and biking and walking trails, and is home to Reykjavík’s beautiful Botanical Gardens. For somewhere more peaceful, take a trip to Viðey Island to experience its modern art, history and birdlife, or walk to Grótta lighthouse via a causeway from the beach.

 

Perlan Nature Exploratorium

IMAGE: Ragnar Th. / Visit Reykjavík

Indoor Experiences

 

Reykjavík has a wealth of fascinating museums, including one dedicated to punk and another to penises! But don’t miss:

 

  • Perlan Exploratorium Shaped like a pearl, it’s in a beautiful location and is a microcosm of Iceland’s wonders. It’s a fun, family-friendly and interactive space that includes a real, 100-metre-long ice cave and a 4K planetarium.
  • Reykjavík Art Museum, with separate exhibitions housed in three buildings.
  • The Natural History Museum of Kópavogur, just a few miles south of Reykjavík, which focuses on Iceland’s geology and zoology.

 

 

 

Árbær Open Air Museum

IMAGE: Roman Gerasymenko / Visit Reykjavík

Indoor/Outdoor Experiences

 

The lovely Elliðarárdalur valley is rich in history and a beautiful place to explore, with beautiful forest and river walks. You could also buy a permit and try salmon fishing or visit the new OR Elliðaárstöð experience. This takes the form of a live game, allowing children and adults to explore the science and history of the power station in Elliðaárdalur, the nearby buildings and the surrounding area.

 

Then there's the Árbær Open Air Museum, a living history museum in a farm setting which provides a glimpse of what life, work and play was like for the people of Reykjavík in a bygone era.

 

After a busy day of sightseeing, rejuvenate your body and mind at the Sky Lagoon spa in nearby Kópavogur. Here, you can enjoy the seven-step Sky Ritual and spectacular views. Stay to eat or drink at the Lagoon’s excellent bars or café, or head into town to seek out one of Reykjavík’s many restaurants and bars.

 

 

The coveted Northern Lights

IMAGE: Ragnar Th. / Visit Reykjavík

Here Be Dragons

 

Every one of Iceland’s seven regions has enough attractions to fill a holiday by itself, meaning one trip will never be long enough to see everything. So how can you sample what each region has to offer?

 

This is where a themed tour comes into its own. In recent years, Iceland’s fame was boosted by hosting multiple film crews for Game of Thrones. Parts of the hit show were filmed at some of the most breathtaking spots around Iceland, including glaciers, mountains, caves, canyons and waterfalls. Even if you’ve never seen the show, it’s a good way to see all corners of this beautiful country.

 

And beautiful is the only way to describe Iceland. It's the only word for an island with such magnificent landscapes, rich culture, and bright visions for the future. And in the post-Covid-19 tourism era, Iceland’s ‘roads less travelled’ have become even more enticing.

 

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

Plan your trip to Iceland by visiting:

 

 

 

 

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