Until just a few years ago, Iceland was an isolated island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, right where the Eurasiatic and North American tectonic plates collide. Following a disastrous banking crash in 2008, the Icelandic government implemented a visionary strategy to increase the tourist flow into the country. On the verge of economic collapse, they bet on its tourism industry to drive the recovery. The strategy worked: last year, the country hit a record of 1.8 million people visitors, a number that is more than five times its population of 330 thousand people.
What attracted so many tourists was probably the establishment of WOW Air, the Icelandic low-cost airline that connects the island to Europe and North America. The flight ticket, however, is the only “low-cost” item you’ll pay for in this trip. Indeed, Iceland is one of the most expensive countries in the world, and due to the overwhelming and sudden flow of foreign visitors, it may become even more so in the future.
I spent one long weekend there, staying in Reykjavik and visiting some of the country’s major tourist sites—including the Thingvellir National Park, the Fludir Secret Lagoon, the Black Sand Beach, and the Skógafoss waterfall.
What struck me as I drove from Keflavik Airport to the capital and during the entire weekend I spent in the country, was the 360-degree view that constantly surrounded me. Wherever I was, I would turn around and embrace the never-ending view, that is often a puzzle of several different natural landscapes: mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, streams of water, sheep, horses and, of course, the ocean.
As I talked to locals about their country, I noticed that they refer to the environment as if it were alive. This personification of nature is one of the most romantic features of Iceland. It’s easy to realize why: nature here constantly manifests itself in the form of erupting volcanoes, geysers, and aggressive waterfalls—it’s impossible to ignore its presence. It wraps all of the senses: the sight of the landscape, the smell of sulfur, the touch of the wind, the taste of the rain, and the hearing of loud waterfalls.
Bathing in geothermal waters is a must while visiting Iceland, but while tourist guides and friends will recommend a visit to the Blue Lagoon, you should know that there are many other options, which are cheaper and less crowded. The Secret Lagoon natural hot springs, for example, are located in the Golden Circle area and they are worth a visit.
One downside of visiting Iceland is that wherever you go, you often meet more fellow tourists than locals. A way to meet locals is to go to one of the several thermal pools in Reykjavik, where many of them love to hang out in the evening or during the weekend.
Nature may dominate Iceland, but the city of Reykjavik is also worth a tour. Its architecture is quite nondescript, with the exception of the Harpa concert hall, which opened in 2011; but the vibe compensates for it. The capital was reborn as tourists started arriving a few years ago, allowing locals to open dozens of restaurants, bars and coffee places. In the meantime, Iceland has developed a sophisticated coffee culture. Even when you order coffee in a shack in the middle of nowhere, it’s likely to be delicious. Quite a difference from New York, where I find it challenging to find a good shot of espresso, despite having so many more coffee shops than Reykjavik.
The sushi is also great. Being in the middle of the Atlantic has had an isolating effect on Iceland, but it has also given it access to some excellent fish. Pair a Japanese sushi chef and Icelanding raw fish and the result will be mouthwatering.
Just a five hour flight away from New York, Reykjavik is an ideal destination for those who want to reconnect with nature or escape the city heat during the summer. One tip: leave your laptop at home and drift into the Icelandic magic.
Photos by Simone Somekh.