Iceland is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful travel destinations in the world. Its unique position on the globe has given rise to some stunning geological features, but there’s something about the place that goes beyond just prettiness. As soon as you step off the plane, you get a feeling this is a place unlike any other you’ve been to. Here are some reasons why I think Iceland is one of the world’s greatest and most unique travel destinations…
The individuality of the people and the whole nation
There are only 300,000 of them and they’re pretty cut off from everyone else. There is an individuality to the culture, something particularly Icelandic that makes your visit unpredictable, in the best possible sense.
You can see this in their politics. Unlike other countries, they refused to bail out their failed banks and refused to pay off the foreign debts. They then elected the world’s first openly gay head of state and decided to rewrite their constitution by crowdsourcing.
It is reflected in their architecture, from the brightly colored corrugated iron houses, found in every town and village to the marvelous Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrim’s Church) in Reykjavik, which was inspired by the basalt columns found around the country. And you can find it in the all the other factors I mention below.
Iceland’s wonderfully surreal and unique landscapes
Waterfalls, glaciers, rock formations, volcanoes, geysers, craters, tectonic plates, beaches… the list goes on and they are just some of the remarkable sights you can see on the island. But Dettifoss, for example, isn’t just any waterfall, but Europe’s most powerful, kicking up huge, foggy clouds of moisture. And the Vatnajokull glacier is the largest ice cap in Europe and covers 8% of the whole country. The rock formations of Dimmuborgir are the result of a 2300-year-old lava field, and at Hvítsekur, you can see a rock creature emerging from the sea.
The Eyjafjallajökull volcano spewed out enough ash to bring European air travel to an almost total standstill in 2010. Geysir is the original geyser, from where the name originates, but it’s the neighbouring Strokkur that you need to watch if you want to see one in action. At Vik the beach is not going attract many sun worshipers, but with its dark black sand and rock formations you won’t be alone amongst the thousands of puffins that make it their home. Bizarre geological features make Hverarönd in the north of the island feel positively Martian as boiling blue mud spits from bright orange holes in the ground as sulfur smelling steam pumps out of nearby fumaroles.
So when Iceland does nature, it doesn’t do it by half measures. It’s obvious why they call the island a geography buff’s heaven on earth.
It’s unique capital Reykjavik
The thing that strikes you about downtown Reykjavik is not only what you can see, but also what you can’t. As you stroll down the main shopping street Laugavegur, you can’t help but notice the absence of any of the large US and European chains stores. What you do see are vintage stores, book shops and cafes and it feels much more like you’re in the independent, arty part of town, like Greenwich Village in New York or Brick Lane in London.
Reykjavik is a small city (population 200,000), so it’s easy to get around in a day. There’s plenty to do, with the shopping, museums, restaurants, clubbing, the aforementioned cathedral, and The Pearl with its panoramic views of the city. Just outside of town, you can find the wonderfully luxurious geothermal springs of the Blue Lagoon, YokoOno’s Imagine Peace Tower, or go on a whale watching tour. And if it’s the right time of year, you’ll even see the Aurora Borealis. You can’t say that about most cities.
The tiny museums
As you travel around Iceland, you come across very small museums, often on the outskirts of villages and towns. These museums, with the Icelandic spirit I described, have uniqueness and charm that you don’t find in most places. Here are two of my favourites.
Petra’s Stone Collection in Stodvarfjordur is a private collection belonging to local resident Petra Sveinsdóttir. A collection that goes back over 70 years, it has grown to be one of the largest collections of minerals in the world. Based in her house, the collection has taken over to the extent that the only rooms without exhibits are her bedroom and the kitchen. As you wander around the house and the beautifully kept garden, you might also observe her collection of keyrings, branded pens (and they have to be branded!), matchboxes and if you’re really lucky, Petra herself, taking in her life’s work.
Safnasafnid, known to me and you as The Icelandic Folk and Outsider Art Museum, can be found near Akureyri on the north of the island. It contains a wonderful collection of folk art, at which the Icelanders excel. Housed in a stylish modern building, with incredible views of both lakes and mountains, the collection contains both traditional Icelandic art alongside contemporary outsider art. If you are a fan of this naive style, it’s a must-visit.
The absence of commercialism
I hope the impression I’ve given you so far of Iceland is one of a country where the people are individual, full of character and culturally unique. One of the most enjoyable ways that this manifests itself for a visitor is the absence of pushy commercialism at tourist destinations. Some of the more capitalist among you might suggest that, given some of their recent financial troubles, it might be a good idea for them to cash in more, but as a tourist, I enjoyed the more laissez-faire approach to souvenir selling.
What typically happens when you look for a landmark in Iceland is that firstly you will be guided into a car park without any problems as everything is clearly signposted. There you’ll find information in a variety of languages, before heading off down a litter-free, well-maintained path. After taking in the sight, you’ll head back to your car or, if you’re particularly hardy, your bike and head off to the next sight. No shops, no street sellers, no ice cream vans and probably not even that many fellow tourists. At the bigger locations, you’ll find facilities with a cafe and a souvenir shop, but the focus is always on the attraction, which you’ll almost never pay to enter.
As a tourist, I love that kind of hassle-free, hands-off tourism. It’s indicative of the Icelandic people and how they value their culture and history over the opportunity for a quick buck. With an island that beautiful, historic and unique, I don’t blame them one bit.
Also check out our Top 10 Cool and Unusual Hotels in Reykjavik and 10 of the most beautiful places to visit in Iceland.
All images and words for 5 things that make Iceland unique are by guest blogger James Taylor he has also written about his travels to North Korea.