If You Don't Stop in Iceland on Your Way to Europe, Here's What You're Missing
Between a weakened Euro and borderline crazy-low transatlantic airfares, a trip to Europe is looking particularly tempting at the moment. Granted, the flights in question may not be direct, but on at least one airline, that's a bonus.
WOW air -- of $99 one-way fare fame -- is a fresh-faced, no-frills Icelandic carrier flying sleek, purple planes from 14 gateways in the U.S. to 20 cities across Europe, plus Tel Aviv ... all via Reykjavik. Here in Iceland's capital, you get two choices: Carry on to a connecting flight, or -- for no extra charge if you've booked round-trip -- slip away for a vacation within your vacation.
Here are seven reasons we recommend the latter.
Life moves at a glacial pace
Not for nothing is this place called ICE-land. There are nearly 270 resident glaciers -- and those are only the ones that have names. The biggest, Vatnajökull, wraps around the country's highest peak -- a nearly 7,000-foot pyramid on the rim of a volcano. And while there are climbing routes, if you don't have a full day and an abiding love of frigid ascents, consider taking in the whole spectacle from a kayak in a calm neighborhood lagoon.
The second-largest glacier, Langjökull, can be explored from the inside out: Wind through its (not gonna lie) chilly, man-made tunnels -- or head to the top on a snowmobile. This might just be the perfect place to chill out.
Iceland has some of the best Northern Lights shows on the planet, and winter is prime time. You'll find all kinds of Aurora Borealis-hunting excursions here, some of which stay close to town, others of which take you deep into the countryside, where less light pollution means more spectacular displays. Of course, there are no guarantees: Those mind-blowing waves of green and purple won't dance for you (not that you'll see, anyway) unless there's a reasonable patch of clear sky -- the perennial question mark in Iceland. So give yourself at least a few nights to try, and not during a full moon, if Aurora spotting is important to you.
Of course, the other great light show here is much less chancy: summer's fabled midnight sun, brightest from May through July.
There's a lot bubbling beneath the surface
Volcanic little Iceland is a geothermic wonderland, with something steaming, bubbling or spewing at every turn. The most famous of the country's hot spots is Geysir -- that is, the OG geyser from which all others take their name. The spot is actually an entire geothermic field, complete with boiling mud, projectile plumes and the occasional vapor trail.
Needless to say, this is not the place for a dip, but a more immersive experience awaits at a place that has already likely flooded your Instagram feed: The Blue Lagoon, where sybarites go to soak in the mineral-rich geothermal waters to skin-softening and generally bliss-inducing effect.
Eating is an adventure sport
Ever had fermented shark (hákarl)? What about smoked sheep’s head (svið)? Well, now's your chance, especially if you're in the countryside during the midwinter festival of Þorrablót. The celebration runs mid-January to mid-February, and showcases not only these delicacies, but the fabled brennivín (a liquor that also goes by "the black death").
Too adventurous? Fret not. Iceland is also home to stellar smoked salmon, fish stew (plokkfiskur) and yogurt (this is the birthplace of skyr, after all). Carboloading isn't frowned upon either -- hence all the dense, delicious breads (don't miss esrúgbrauð, the quintessential rye).
Reykjavik might be the world's coolest city
Though it's home to only about 120,000 people, the world's northernmost capital has a lot going on -- especially after dark (which is to say, most of the day in winter). For the highbrow version of a night on the town, dine on New Nordic specialties at the Michelin-starred Dill before catching a performance at the award-winning Harpa concert hall. For the lowbrow version (the one endless visitors flock here for), scarf down one of the famed hot dogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur then join a rúntur, a weekend pub crawl that lasts until 4 or 5 a.m.
During daylight hours, check out the colorful cityscape from above: Climb the church tower at the Hallgrimskirkja, and you'll get amazing views.
You can ease your GOT withdrawal
Help fill the interminable wait until the final season in a land where a lot of the action is set. In fact, Game of Thrones tourism has become such a thing here, you have your choice of organized tours. Among other places, you'll see where White Walkers attacked Samwell Tarly, where Northern battles played out -- and where Jon Snow and Ygritte trekked to the Wall (yes, even the cave where they declared their love).
There's a cascade effect
One of the handiest suffixes to know here is foss. It's the Icelandic term for falls, and whenever you see it at the end of a word on a sign at the side of the road, pull over. Something magical no doubt awaits -- especially at the most famous of the falls: Gullfoss, the result of a glacially-fed river doing a two-stage dive into a massive canyon.
For an entirely different kind of drama, visit Seljalandsfoss -- a tall and narrow curtain of water that you can walk behind for an otherworldly experience (and photos).
On the other hand, there's almost no element of nature that isn't otherworldly here, so go see what all the foss is about.