Iceland is a place every photographer, nature lover, and explorer should visit. If you’ve seen The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I’m preaching to the choir. If you haven’t, get thee to Netflix. In every way, Iceland lived up to the promise. The land of fire and ice was alien, ashen, black, green, white, wet, and desolate. I spent nine days there in late April/early May driving the Ring Road and exploring at leisure. I definitely didn’t see it all, but there wasn’t a single site that was “meh” instead of “wow.” These are nine of the things I recommend for a nine-day trip.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
As with most natural sites in Iceland, pictures just don’t do this majestic glacier lagoon justice. Where the once 2,400-foot glacier empties into the Atlantic Ocean, icebergs of all shapes jostle and collide. Some are striped with ash, others sparkle transparently like ice sculptures, and some look like they belong on Easter Island. Seals glide through the icy waters equally curious about the tourists lining the rocky black beach. Get an aerial view of the lagoon from a rocky mound in the car park.The lagoon shimmers pinky-blue and is especially dazzling at sunset. Don’t leave without visiting the iceberg-dotted beach where the fantastical sculptures drift off to sea.
With a population of only 826, this bayside town oozes with small town charm, stunning natural sites, and friendly people. No wonder Ben Stiller bicycled through in Walter Mitty. Photographers flock here for the twin sites of Kirkjufell mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall. Bring a wide angle lens to line them up at Golden Hour. The cylindrical mountain is featured in Jules Vernes “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and is the foundation of Icelandic mysticism. The falls are double-tiered and empty into a river. You can walk to the top of the falls and across on a bridge where you’ll likely see horses grazing. Mist-covered mountains complete the scene for what I consider one of the most serene spots in Iceland.
No outside breeds are allowed in Iceland, which explains why Icelandic horses look a little fantastical. Where My Little Pony meets Barbie, these horses simply have the most beautiful manes you’ve ever seen. They are short and furry, not unlike Shetland ponies. You can book horse riding tours or simply admire the horses at farms along the Ring Road. I approached a pen of horses at a farm and after observing them for some time, was allowed to pet one.
Pingvellir National Park
Also called Thingvellir, crystal blue lakes and a massive tectonic fissure mark this park. Take an easy hike up to the cliff top to see where the tectonic plates of North America and Europe continue to do battle. A river runs through the rift and a waterfall cascades into the river. If you’re traveling from Reykjavik, you’ll first reach Pingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake. Glacial waters sparkle blue and mountain reflections make this a must-photograph spot.
Pretty much the most touristy thing you can do in Iceland, Blue Lagoon is still a must-experience stop. The lagoon is tucked into a part of town that looks positively post-Apocalyptic with piles of black volcanic rubble. The drive out there is a bit spooky, but you didn’t come to Iceland to see anything banal, did you?
The lagoon is bit pricey at over $50 per person, but you can stay all day to soak up the geothermal waters and slather on white clay that makes you look like you belong to an African tribe. As you steam in the baby blue pools, you’ll feel like a red-faced snow monkey. A swim-up bar gives the place more of a pub vibe than a spa feel, but you can also get a massage right there in the lagoon.
The lagoon has showers, changing rooms, a cafe, restaurant, and even a hotel with renovations in progress. The mechanical thud of construction echoing in the near distance only made the scene more weird. We couldn’t help feeling like we were in Logan’s Run, being ceremoniously prepared for Carousel.
At 62 meters, Skógafoss is both one of Iceland’s tallest falls and its most photographed. A path with steps and a rail leads to a viewing platform and the most daring can walk/climb towards the falls at the mid-point of the stairs for hair-raising views and one-of-a-kind photographs. I made it halfway then freaked out. There is a precipitous drop, nothing to hold on to, and in the winter, the tiny path was still lined with ice. I backed that thing up, clinging to the mountainside for dear life while talking myself down like a tiny baby. I was relieved I didn’t die but disappointed I didn’t get the shot. That being said, the views from the bottom include rainbow covered rocks so stay grounded if you suddenly turn into Jimmy Stewart at great heights.
Reynisfjara Basalt Columns
Recalling Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway, these basalt columns are simply awe-inspiring. They are located in the impossibly charming mountainside town of Vik. Hexagonal rock formations line a black sand beach with views of a natural arch called Dyrhólaey and wicked looking sea stacks known as Reynisdrangur. Check the tide before getting too close to the ocean, as some tourists have been caught in the pounding waves and been dragged out to sea.
Harpa Concert Hall
Where Modern Art meets disco, you’ll find Harpa. Reykjavík’s geometric glass concert hall is stunning inside and out. It’s free to enter but you’ll need to purchase tickets to see some performances. Get there at dusk to admire boats in the harbor or dine at the restaurant perched above the water. At night, Harpa lights up in a kaleidoscope of ever-changing colors, like a pulsating equalizer.
Visible from the Ring Road, Seljalandsfoss waterfall is one of the few you can actually walk behind. A slick and narrow path goes 180 degrees around the thundering falls into a hollow in the cliffside. Tread at your own risk and wear a raincoat as you will definitely feel the spray.