Iceland saw an increase of 24% in visitors in 2014 over 2013, just shy of 1 million tourists. That's over three times the total population of Iceland! Growth in 2015 was between 10-30% per month. According to Skift, one of the largest groups of visitors are US citizens, and a big reason for this growth is the increase in flights from the U.S. Icelandair, Delta and WOW have all added flights, including new routes from Portland (OR), Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Now that getting to Iceland is easier than ever, the "secret" is out. Visitors have discovered the beauty, the wildlife, the culture and people, and word is spreading.
One might think that because Iceland is so close to the Arctic circle, it is only a summer destination. Iceland is however, a year round destination, offering plenty to see and do during all seasons. The island lies in the path of the North Atlantic Current (a warm current that continues the Gulf Stream northeast), thus Iceland's climate is actually quite temperate.
Take note however, that the weather is also quite unpredictable, meaning it can change very quickly.
What is the intrigue? Check out these top adventures. They might inspire you too to visit this stunning island of Fire and Ice.
The summer months are drier and warmer, and offer the largest number of festivals. A few of Iceland's festivals to check out are:
The Northern Lights are one of the biggest draws to visiting Iceland. They are a spectacular, natural phenomenon occurring during the winter months and require dark and clear nights. They can however, be elusive and unpredictable.
Route 1 or Ring Road, takes you around the entire island, connecting most of the uninhabited areas of the country. The route is approximately 830 miles and perfect for a self drive trip. Give yourself 7-10 days to fully take in all of the sites as there are plenty of photo stops! Keep in mind that parts of this road are pretty remote, so bring plenty of water, snacks and toilet paper! Your next stop (and bathroom) may be a few miles. Also take note that gas is expensive - above $6 per gallon.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
The Golden Circle is the most popular day tour for visitors, with organized or self tour options. The route is just under 200 miles, covering a loop from Reykjavik into central Iceland, providing the opportunity to see Thingvellir National Park and Lake Thingvallavatn, Iceland's largest lake, geothermal activity at Geysir and the stunning Gullfoss Waterfall.
GLACIERS and ICE CAVES
More than 10% of Iceland is covered in glaciers. There are many glaciers - too many to list all. Certainly one of the best ways to experience Iceland is by hiking a glacier or exploring an incredible ice cave. An experienced guide is the best way to go on these types of adventures.
The most notable glaciers on Iceland are:
Iceland is known as the land of Fire and Ice, with "fire" coming from the 130 active and inactive volcanic mountains. Volcano tourism is growing, with thousands of people hiking, driving, snowmobiling or flightseeing to the craters. The volcanoes offer a spectacular show, but like glacier experiences, find an experienced guide to take you.
WILDLIFE and ICELANDIC HORSES
Iceland offers some of the best whale watching in the world. Over 20 different species of whales and dolphins can be observed around Icelandic waters. The relatively shallow waters combined with the warmer waters of the southern Atlantic and colder waters of the Arctic waters makes this an ideal feeding ground. Whales can be observed year round. Be sure to visit the Reykjavik Whale Museum which opened in February 2015. It is the largest museum of its kind in Europe and house 23 life-sized whales from Iceland.
Vestmannaeyjar (sometimes called Westmann Islands) is an archipelago off the south coast of Iceland and is best known for its puffin population. 10 million birds come here to breed.
Icelandic horses are a unique breed, developed from horses brought to Iceland by European settlers over 1000 years ago. They are the only breed on Iceland; very hardy and able to withstand the harsh Icelandic climate. And while they are small, they are not ponies! A great place to experience these horses is at Iceland's only horse park, Fakasel Horse Park, about 30 minutes from Reykjavik and on the Golden Circle route.
THE BLUE LAGOON
One can't come to Iceland without a stop at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa just outside of Reykjavik, close to the international airport. An extraordinary spa experience, the Blue Lagoon is a great place to stop upon arriving (before your hotel room is ready) or before leaving (great way to relax before getting on a long flight). This too is one of Iceland's most visited spots.
The water is between 98 - 104 degrees year round, and is self-cleansing, renewing itself every 40 hours. The minerals in the water give it it's milky blue shade.
Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland and it's largest city. Iceland has a population of 330,000 people, of which 220,000 live in the capital. It is the world's most northern capital.
Reykjavik offers plenty to see and do, and serves as the base for many of the island's adventures. The city has many great museums, restaurants, bars and cafes, and a great nightlife. In fact, Reykjavik is known for its nightlife, with most bars being centrally located in the shopping area, close together and rarely have lines to get in. On weekends though, be sure to get a nap in, as the party doesn't get started until well after midnight and goes on to the wee hours (5am)!
Another note is that many people have drinks before going to the bars, as drinks can be expensive. Visitors quite often will bring some wine in from the duty free stores at the airport to have in their rooms before going out for dinner.
The airlines offer the opportunity to stop over in Iceland for up to 7 days. This offers travelers a wonderful way to see Iceland while on their way to another destination. A great way to break up a long flight, and a great value as well.
A number of cruise lines are now including Iceland on their itineraries, and the options are many. Cruises include just Iceland or Iceland and Greenland, may start/end in Iceland from Northern Europe and the Baltics or may be a stop on the way to/from US ports as ships reposition from one region to another. Luxury, premium, expedition - they all include Iceland on one or more itineraries.
In summary, Iceland offers a wide variety of experiences and adventures for just about every taste. A beautiful destination a bit off the beaten path and not overrun by too many tourists.
Has this destination made your bucket list yet?
Laurie Marschall - Owner and Founder