Iceland Becomes a Hot Tourist Destination
If traveling to Iceland in the dead of winter strikes you as, well, cold, you’re not wrong. The land of fire and ice not only lives up to its name but also grants just four hours of daylight on average.
Yet winter in Iceland gives travelers an entirely different kind of magic than the festival-filled warmer months, when the sun shines 20 hours each day. For one thing, if your bucket list includes seeing the aurora borealis against a dramatic landscape, the long winter nights in Iceland offer more chances. It turns out that in any season, this country of glaciers, hot springs and Arctic tundra lives up to its “It” status: Iceland made both the U.S. Tour Operators Association’s and Lonely Planet’s must-see lists for 2016.
Iceland’s dedicated WOW Air is capitalizing on the spike in interest by bringing back its $99 one-way fares to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, with continuing flights to 21 European destinations, bringing round-trip fares from seven cities in North America, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, to $200—including tax. And Icelandair’s “stopover” promotion allows travelers from 15 North American cities to 25 European cities to stay in the country for up to seven days at no charge. The airline has even developed special packages around the promotion.
Whether you’re taking advantage of a stopover or planning a longer stay, don’t miss the country’s key attractions. The capital, Reykjavik, is a tiny gem skirted by attractive harbors and filled with restaurants and Scandinavian design boutiques. It takes just 15-20 minutes to walk from the city center to the harbor. To get a sense of its history, head to Hofsstadir, a park whose turf walls echo an impressive Viking-age longhouse that stood here from the 9th to the 12th centuries; its museum contains nearly 300 Viking artifacts. Don’t miss the city’s buzzing nightlife, equally delightful in endless summer days or long winter nights. Recover with a bit of the fish market’s dried salted cod with butter, a national specialty.
The milky waters of the Blue Lagoon are about halfway between the airport and city center; a day pass gives visitors access to the tubs of natural silica (said to be great for the skin), plus saunas and waterfalls.
Make time for the famed Golden Circle tour, where you’ll take in the Great Geysir, a geyser in the southwest that has been active for 10,000 years, the incredible “golden falls” of Gullfoss, and Thingvellir National Park, the only place in the world where you can view the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates above sea level.
“Game of Thrones” fans will not want to miss Vatnajökull National Park, which was used for “North of the Wall” scenes for the HBO series, and whose massive glaciers have always been an Icelandic must-see. Vík, the country’s southernmost village, sits on dramatic black basalt beaches and is ringed by mountain ranges that “Thrones” watchers will recognize as the Frostfang Mountains of the series’ first two season.
Before leaving, visit one of the geothermal pools at Nauthhólsvík beach or Laugardalslaug and search for the northern lights as well as the oddly shaped lava rocks Icelanders build around, rather than through, for fear of destroying important elf sanctuaries. If you find them, you might begin to understand why many Icelanders believe development should respect the hidden elves and fairies—and why this country is so very pristine.