Rising out of the rough, icy waters of the North Atlantic ocean at the maritime crossroads between Greenland, Norway and Scotland, just beneath the Arctic Circle, Iceland is a country quite literally bursting at the seams with natural splendour. From glistening glaciers and thundering waterfalls to snow-capped volcanoes and lunar-like lava fields, it’s no wonder it has been chosen as the backdrop to countless film and television hits, including Game of Thrones, Star Wars and James Bond.It’s a place of extraordinary contrasts, both in terms of its diverse landscapes and its perpetually shifting character between seasons. Visit in the summer and you’ll experience the mesmerising (if somewhat disorientating) phenomenon of 24/7 daylight; in winter, gleaming white sheets of snow and ice and the hauntingly beautiful glow of the Northern Lights provide a welcome antidote to the near-constant darkness. No matter how long you spend in Iceland, you’ll almost certainly find yourself yearning to return to explore more of what this endlessly captivating country has to offer.
Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital city, is far more than just a convenient starting point for a longer Icelandic adventure – it’s a very worthy destination in its own right. Between its cosy cafes, artisan bakeries, trendy craft beer bars and fascinating museums, it’s a remarkably vibrant and cosmopolitan city that lends itself perfectly to being explored on foot at a leisurely pace. It’s also home to an eclectic blend of architectural styles, from the stark, imposing Hallgrímskirkja church and the futuristic, sharp-angled Harpa concert hall to the array of brightly painted townhouses that provide a non-stop stream of photo opportunities. Keep an eye out for murals, too – Reykjavik has a thriving street art scene that gives many of its buildings a totally unique aesthetic. And of course, a trip to the Blue Lagoon (or the newer, lesser-visited Sky Lagoon) is always on the cards.The Golden Circle, meanwhile, is an ideal way to get a taste of Icelandic nature within easy reach of the capital. This 300-kilometre loop takes in three major landmarks – Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall, and the Geysir Geothermal Area – and can be completed either as a day trip or with overnight stops, allowing you more time to fully appreciate the region’s awe-inspiring scenery. If you’re hiring a car, you might also be tempted to venture along the south coast to visit Skogafoss waterfall, Reynisfjara black sand beach and Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, or north, to the spectacular Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
Keen to venture off the beaten track? Consider flying straight into Akureyri, the gateway to North Iceland – a land of majestic fjords, vast canyons, shimmering lakes and rust-coloured geothermal fields blistered by mud pots and fumaroles piercing the Earth’s crust.The small but happening town of Akureyri makes an excellent base for adventures further afield, including to the Diamond Circle, which encompasses five of the region’s most captivating sights, including Husavik (the whale watching capital of Iceland) and Myvatn (an area humming with volcanic activity). Several of Iceland’s finest geothermal spa complexes are found up north, too: the Forest Lagoon in Akureyri, GeoSea Geothermal Sea Baths in Husavik and the Myvatn Nature Baths. With an abundance of opportunities for hiking, snowmobiling, skiing, whale watching and Northern Lights hunting, Iceland’s far north is an outdoor adventure haven like no other.
Although you could in theory drive around Iceland in a single day (if you didn't stop), you wouldn't have much time to take in the array of incredible sights along the way. In fact, you could quite easily spend a month exploring the island, and even then you wouldn't be able to cover it all. A ring road (also known as Route 1) circles the whole country and passes between the majority of its best-known attractions, which is really handy. A great way to sample the highlights is to take this single-lane highway in small sections, perhaps over the course of a week or so.
If you’re in Reykjavik, it’s only a short 50-minute trip to the Blue Lagoon, via the same stretch of the ring road as the International Airport. The Golden Circle route can also be done in a day from the capital.