Lay of the Land
Roughly the size of Kentucky, Iceland has some 330,000 inhabitants, and two-thirds live in the capital, Reykjavík, located on the southwest coast. International flights land at Keflavik International Airport (KEF), about a 45-minute drive from the capital.
First-time visitors will most likely focus on exploring the Golden Circle, a route outside Reykjavík that passes some of the country’s most visited tourist attractions, like the Gullfoss waterfall and the geysers. Also on a first-time itinerary is the Vatnajökull area, around the massive Vatna Glacier, the largest in Iceland that covers eight percent of the island. This is located along the southeastern coast.
The more extreme activities are found in the country’s interior, most of which is accessible only via four-wheel drive or helicopter. The northern coast holds more natural treasures, most of which only return visitors or travelers spending more than a week set out to explore. Domestic flights, including to the northern town of Akureyri, take off from small Reykjavík airport, closer to the center of the city. The northern coast is also home to Iceland’s most pampering hotel, Deplar Farm.
When to Go
Located within easy travel distance of the East Coast of the United States, Reykjavik has become a hugely popular destination, particularly in the summer, when the sun sets for only a few hours. Despite what was once a relatively short high season, historically May–August, Iceland is fast becoming a year-round vacation destination and tourism is growing at a rapid rate of 15–20% every year. In 2013 the country saw 800,000 tourists pass through and 2016 it jumped up to 1.5 million visitors. To avoid running into bus tours and the masses spilling from the large cruise ships, come in late April, September or early October, when the weather is moderate and the landscapes lush and beautiful.
Who Should Go
Active types will enjoy exploring the strikingly diverse terrains that Iceland has to offer. Amazingly, widely varied landscapes and geographical wonders are within relatively short driving distances of one another. One day you can hike to a dormant volcano and explore the inside of its cavernous base whose beautiful red, blue, and yellow streaks are the results of ancient sulfur and iron deposits. And the next day, you can strap on a pair of crampons and conquer the ever-changing face of an ice glacier.
Less adventurous travelers can also expect to enjoy many of Iceland’s natural wonders. Gorgeous waterfalls, black sand beaches, horseback riding trails, hot spring hikes and birding tours are all easily accessible by car and offer unforgettable experiences for explorers of all ages and levels of fitness.
Note: Reykjavik does not yet have a true five-star hotel. While the hotels are cozy and comfortable, they are not particularly upscale. Most accommodations are relaxed and closer to a four-star level.