Passionate about people, places, adventure and life, Áshildur is a guide, blogger, food enthusiast, and business expert. Hiking is her ultimate therapy, yoga her spiritual practice, and books her escape. She is an Icelander living in Reykjavik.
There are endless reasons to go to Iceland. There’s no question why everyone is travelling to Iceland these days — the country has long been known for its stunning landscapes. Beyond the scenery, however, there are many other things that are interesting about Iceland and Icelanders.
Iceland is the most peaceful country in the world. We have really strong infrastructure and we’re proud of having established the first parliament in the world.
Gender equality is better in Iceland than anywhere else in the world. We Icelanders are somehow all related and we speak a rather rare and unique language.
We are fortunate to drink as much as we like of our pure cold water straight from the tap, and our air is clean and crisp.
Here are 10 reasons to visit Iceland, possibly the biggest small country in the world!
1. Explore our stunning landscape
Iceland, also called the Land of Fire and Ice, is home to glaciers and volcanos. The island was formed over millions of years ago and the landscapes are shaped by these two forces of nature.
As a guide, I often hear visitors describing the landscape as both stunning and unique. That is exactly how I experience the nature of my beautiful country. In Iceland you can explore everything from volcanoes to geysers, glaciers and natural hot springs, black sand beaches and impressive lava fields to waterfalls and sculptural mountains.
Just like all Icelanders, I have my personal favorite nature sites. Many of them are in remote and isolated areas of the country.
First of all is Hornstrandir in the northernmost part of the West Fjords. It is one of the most difficult parts of Iceland to access. It is getting more and more popular to take hiking trips through the awesome landscape surrounded by high cliffs and mountains with shallow bays between. Only accessible by boat, this is the top spot to get away from the crowds and experience unspoiled nature on Earth.
Second is Fjallabak Syðra, or the highland route South Fjallabaksleið. The name Fjallabak literally translates to “The back of the mountains” and is characterised by remarkably colorful mountains, geothermal valleys and volcanic activities. The rich colors of the slopes appear green, blue, pink, red and yellow. Lava fields, rivers and lakes also mark this nature reserve. The area is popular with hikers. The most popular hiking route is the 3-4 day Laugavegur Route from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk. If you're shorter on time, you can still enjoy Iceland's landscapes on a day tour.
Third is the mountain resortKerlingarfjöll in the highlands. Kerlingarfjöll was once a popular skiing resort but today it is the ultimate paradise for hikers that want to go off the beaten track and check out volcanic activity, glaciers and hot springs.
2. Enjoy untouched open space
One of the reasons the landscape in Iceland is so raw and beautiful is because it is relatively untouched by human interference. From a geological standpoint, Iceland is a young country in the midst of its own creation.
Active volcanoes, bright green valleys, glacier-cut fjords, black sand beaches, and roaring rivers are the most distinctive features of the landscape. The highlands are a sparsely inhabited plateau and studies show that 11% of the country is covered by glaciers, one of the main attractions in Iceland. Iceland is also home to Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, which is equivalent to three times the size of Luxembourg and covers about 8% of Iceland’s total landmass.
Many of Iceland’s natural wonders are easily accessible and yet virtually untouched by humans. Route 1, or the Ring Road, runs around the island and is within reach of many of these sites. Here are a few of our favorites:
Seljalandsfoss is a beautiful waterfall located on the South Coast of Iceland. It is one of Iceland’s most famous landmarks and hard to miss as it’s located right off the Ring Road. This spectacular natural wonder drops 60 meters into a tranquil pool below and is one of the few places in the world where you can walk behind a waterfall.
Skógafoss is one of the largest and most elegant waterfalls in Iceland with a width of 25 meters and a drop of 60 meters. A waterfall of this size generates a lot of spray, often creating single or double rainbows on sunny days. You can follow the river down below and stand very close to the waterfall, or take the stairs next to it and get a view from above.
Reynisfjara is one of the most well-known black sand beaches in the world. The beach has fine textured soft black sand and an amazing cave composed of huge angular basalt columns. The roaring waves of the Atlantic Ocean power ashore with tremendous force. The nearby sea stacks of Reynisdrangar make the beach a truly unique place to visit.
Jökulsárlón is an ever-changing natural wonder located on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park in southeast Iceland. The lagoon is famous for the icebergs that break away from the glacier and float majestically in the lagoon before they drift out to the sea. The sculptural mountains are a beautiful backdrop. Seals swim between the icebergs and reindeers wandering freely around the shores.
Minutes away from the lagoon lies the Diamond Beach. Dazzling icebergs glisten on the black sand as they slowly melt into the Atlantic Ocean. One of the most unique things about the beach is that it never looks the same. The icebergs reform, melt away and new ones appear. Many of the icebergs are over 1,000 years old and made their way through the grand lagoon first as enormous ice blocks. The Diamond Beach is a very important breeding ground for many birds including the Arctic Tern and the Great Skua.
The population in Iceland is around 365,000 people. Like many sparsely populated countries, most people live in towns and cities. Iceland has the lowest population density of all European countries. On average, Iceland has about 3 people per kilometer (or 9 people per square mile).
Iceland was uninhabited long after the rest of Western Europe had been settled. The first recorded history of Iceland began with the settlement by Viking explorers, many of them small lords and kings from Norway who fled the tyranny of Harald the fair-haired.
4. Meet a people who are all somehow related
We Icelanders can all trace our ancestry to the year 874 CE when the first settlers sailed from Norway on their viking ships. And since Iceland is a remote island we have only dated other Icelanders through the centuries, meaning we are all related to one another. This means that the whole population derives from the same family tree.
We even have our own online genealogy database called Íslendingabók or “The Book of Icelanders” with everyone’s family tree. The online “book” is complete with original source citation and open for all Icelanders free of charge.
We can thus easily go online to check how related we are to friends, acquaintances, classmates or well-known Icelanders.
5. Hear a unique language
Icelandic has been spoken in Iceland since the country was settled in the 9th century and has changed little since. It is mostly the language that the Nordic people spoke in the Middle Ages throughout the Nordic countries as well as within certain regions of England, Ireland, Scotland, along with the Shetland Islands, the Orkney Islands and the Hebrides, some parts of France and Russia and even as far south as Constantinople.
Despite centuries of foreign rule, the Icelandic language has not been greatly influenced and the difference between old and modern Icelandic is insignificant. Icelanders can still read and understand ancient Icelandic texts such as the Icelandic Sagas without difficulty.
But don't worry! English is taught as a second language in Iceland and all Icelanders speak English fluently. Most Icelanders also speak several other languages including Danish, German, Spanish and French and welcome the opportunity to practice their language skills.
6. Visit the most peaceful country in the world
Iceland is the most peaceful country in the world and has held that position since 2008. The Global Peace Safety index considers factors like crime rate, political landscape, natural disasters and health risks. Official categories are social safety and security, ongoing domestic and international conflicts and the level of militarization.
The crime rate in Iceland is very low and for many more reasons, Iceland is considered one of the safest countries in the world. This is rooted in our tightly knit family-oriented culture and homogeneous and egalitarian society. We have no standing army, navy or air force in Iceland, and our police do not carry firearms on duty.
Our education and welfare system ranks among the best nations in terms of jobs and earnings and subjective sense of well-being. All Icelanders have equal opportunities in education, we all have easy and equal access to good health care services, and Iceland has the lowest level of unemployment in Europe with an average of 2.5%.
7. Learn about the world’s first parliament
The Icelandic national parliament (Althingi) was founded in 930 CE at Thingvellir. Althingi was the first parliament to be created in the world. Back in the day, the parliament was an outdoor assembly where Icelandic leaders decided Icelandic law. The parliament stayed in Thingvellir until the year 1798. Now Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site based on historic and geologic criteria.
Gender equality is a fundamental human right and a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Iceland has been the front runner in gender equality since 2009 according to the World Economic Forum, something I am really proud of.
In 1975, women across Iceland brought the country to a standstill. They stopped what they were doing at work and at home to protest the gender wage gap and to demonstrate the vital role women play in the functioning of Icelandic society.
I was only 9 years old at the time. I still remember holding my mother’s hand at the rally in downtown Reykjavík as if it happened yesterday. How optimistic and hopeful I felt, and how empowered for the future of women in Iceland.
This single event marked a turning point for women in Iceland. It helped put Iceland at the forefront of the fight for gender equality and more women entered politics and government.
I can honestly say that Iceland is one of the ultimate countries in the world to be a woman. It is a country where women are free to make any and all decisions about their lives, which is something we do without hesitation.
9. Have a sip of our cold pure water
We have the fortune of having limitless access to ice cold pure water straight from the tap. Icelandic water comes from the springs and filters through lava for decades before it reaches the taps.
Unlike water in most countries, Icelandic tap water is free of chlorine, calcium and nitrate and is regularly monitored and tested for high quality results. Our tap water is therefore the cleanest and purest water you can get. It also tastes extremely fresh and delicious. You can drink as much of it as you want and all for free!
With the clean water comes a number of creative microbreweries. The brewery community in Iceland is in constant growth. Give or take 35 breweries produce world-famous and award-winning beer with pure Icelandic water, which adds a subtle yet distinctive flavor to local brews.
10. Take a deep breath of our clean air
One of the things you will definitely notice when visiting Iceland is our clean and crispy air.
You will always get the feeling that it is a bit windy in Iceland. This has to do with the fact that Iceland is an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The wind hitting the shore has travelled great expanses of uninterrupted sea. But because of the wind, strong or mild, we also have among the purest and freshest air you will ever breathe.
We Icelanders tend to take our clean air for granted. But whenever we travel, we truly miss taking a deep breath of our crisp and clean air.
The best way to explore the country is without the crowds, join our small group tours, which allow you to experience Iceland more intimately.
Iceland is a small country with a big heart and natural wonders to match. Come and visit the biggest small country in the world and take in its pure water and clean air.