Destination of the month: Iceland

Dettifoss waterfall, northeast Iceland, (photo by Ming Tang-Evans)
Dettifoss waterfall, northeast Iceland

Few places on earth can match the raw and intense beauty of Iceland. Both fiery and cold, forbidding and inviting, it is a place of dramatic contrasts, home to immense ice fields, bubbling mud pools, colossal waterfalls and hot springs. Although Iceland has a long, rich cultural history, it is the land itself, sculpted by the forces of nature into a unique, ever-changing landscape, that tells the country’s true story.

June is one of the best times of year to visit Iceland. When summer truly arrives this month, the long winter wait seems almost worth it. Although temperatures are hardly tropical, between 12–15°C (54–60°F), the sun shines almost all night. An extended dusk is the only sign of the day’s passing, and the stars cannot be seen until August. 


Summer fever

June and July are the times when Iceland’s national parks are thronged with visitors on weekends and when the country’s interior is criss-crossed with drivers exploring the country in their huge-wheeled vehicles. The joie de vivre is contagious and normal rules go by the board, with even very small children playing out in the street until midnight. It's not all perfect – visitors can find these endless days difficult to cope with, as it’s not easy to sleep when the sun is glistening through the window. However, the golden light of the early mornings and late nights in Iceland at this time of year is spectacularly beautiful.

It’s only in summer that it’s possible to see the full extent of the country properly. Many of the hotels and restaurants are open only between May and September. Similarly, the bus companies don’t run a full service until late June, when the last of the snow has thawed.

We'll be posting throughout the month on this extraordinary destination, so come back soon for more exciting features.


Where to start

Most visitors start and end their trip in Reykjavík, a pleasantly small, personable and lively capital city. It is the perfect base for exploring the so-called “Golden Circle”, which includes some of Iceland’s best-known natural spectacles such as the waterfall Gullfoss, the eponymous Geysir and Iceland’s historical centre, þingvellir. Also within easy reach is the amazing Blue Lagoon spa resort.

If you want a sweeping view of the capital, climb the Hallgrímskirkja tower

The drive into the capital from the airport across the lava fields to the south of the city quickly reveals the central importance of the massive Hallgrímskirkja (off Bergþórugata). The church is so enormous that it not only dominates the skyline, it reduces everything else to virtual insignificance. The eye is constantly drawn back to it and its bizarre shape resembling a spacecraft ready for lift-off. The church is the most obvious place to begin a visit to Reykjavík, and, unless you are staying nearby, you will ­almost certainly approach it up the steep Skólavörðustígur. As you head up this street, take time to look in the windows of the art galleries that have sprung up here recently, reflecting how much artistic talent such a small country has produced.

The tower

Climb the 73m (240ft) tower – or take the lift – and you are rewarded with the best view of Reykjavík from the viewing platform. Designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, and in almost constant construction since the end of World War II, it is a monument not only to Christ, but also to Reykjavík’s belief that being a small city need not limit its ambitions. The church itself is very bare, as befits its Lutheran status, and the highlight is the magnificent organ, which is 15m (50ft) high and has more than 5,000 pipes.

If you want to bathe in therapeutic waters, choose the Blue Lagoon

One trip out of Reykjavík that should not be missed is to the world’s greatest outdoor bath, Bláa Loníð (Blue Lagoon, Grindavík). Most hotels will have details of tours, but you can also arrive by public bus. The lagoon is a pool of sea­water naturally heated by the geothermal activity below the surface. It sits in the middle of a lava field and you can lounge around here with warm mud oozing between your toes in wonderfully warm water temperatures of 36–39°C (97–102°F) all year round.

Insight Guide Iceland

The lagoon complex

A cave-like sauna is carved into the lava and a thundering waterfall delivers a pounding massage. The complex also contains a spa treatment area, restaurant, snack bar, shop, conference facilities, and, should you care to spend the night, there is a guesthouse just over the lava field. All summer long, however, the changing rooms get crowded and it may be worth getting up early to beat the crowds. If you’re impressed by the Blue Lagoon’s healing properties, a range of eponymous skin and bathing products are on sale across the island. If you are in the lagoon at the end of the day you can watch the sun set while you soak away life’s strains.

Visit Iceland

For Iceland travel information, consult our trip planner or buy one of our Iceland guide books.