Iceland's natural wonders and cultural treasures
Characterized by extraordinarily diverse landscapes, unique geological features, colossal glaciers alongside active volcanoes, geysers and hot springs neighbouring glacial rivers; curious columnar basalt formations, beautiful waterfalls, moss covered lava, glacial lagoons, Iceland is a land of contrasts. With its dramatic natural phenomena and fascinating historical and cultural heritage, Iceland inspires a sense of discovery, awe, delight and pure wonder.
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) is the most important cultural heritage site in Iceland, a national treasure of outstanding universal value. A World Heritage Site since 2004, Thingvellir is also remarkable in that, in a single location, it combines a variety of geological phenomena found in very few places on Earth.
Thingvellir (“assembly fields”) is the site of the Aþingi (Althing), Iceland’s general assembly, established in 930 AD. The Icelandic Althing has a longer continuous history than any other assembly founded in the Middle Ages. Through landscape and archaeological evidence, Thingvellir offers a unique insight into medieval Nordic culture; it was the setting for many Icelandic sagas and remains sacred ground for Icelanders today. As a reflection of its significance to the Icelandic people, Thingvellir was the first national park to be founded in Iceland (1930).
Thingvellir rift valley was formed on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The landscape is characterized by fissures, clearly showing on dry land aspects of tectonic plate separation on a mid-ocean ridge. It is therefore of immense interest to geological science. The biggest fissure is Almannagjá (Everyman’s Gorge), which forms a cliff wall, a natural backdrop to the ancient assembly site. Moreover, Thingvellir is a place of great, awe-inspiring beauty. Surrounded by a ring of mountains, with its lava fields, grassy valleys, echoes of the sagas, the legendary river Öxará (Oxara) and the splendid Lake Þingvallavatn (Thingvallavatn), Thingvellir both embodies and evokes “the myth of a nation –Iceland”.
Gullfoss - “Golden Waterfall” is in the canyon of the glacial river Hvítá (Hvita) which originates at Langjökull glacier. Celebrated for its spectacular beauty, it is one of Iceland’s main sightseeing attractions. The waterfall is two-tiered, 2.5 km long, cascading down over a 20 m wide, 32 m deep crevice. On a sunny day, the waterfall appears golden, and a rainbow can often be seen arching over the whole site.
Geysir geothermal field
Haukadalur is home to geysers Geysir and Strokkur, one of the many sites in Iceland where the volcanic heat reaches the surface, creating a variety of hot springs, bubbling pools, fumaroles, billowing steam and fascinating colours. Although the Great Geysir is now quiescent, Strokkur erupts at 4-10 minute intervals, hurling a 20 m tall fountain of steaming water up into the air. At least 3 kings have visited this area and it remains one of the most famous sightseeing spots in Iceland.
Thingvellir, Gullfoss and Geysir form the essential components of "The Golden Circle" tour.
One of Iceland’s unique and extremely popular attractions is the Blue Lagoon geothermal spring. Thanks to silica, other minerals and algae, the Blue Lagoon geothermal seawater is truly blue in colour and well known for its healing and restorative properties. During the summer, you can experience the Icelandic midnight sun in these surreal, volcanically created surroundings, with stunning views over lava fields.
Vastly contrasting landscapes characterize the highlands of Iceland, the uninhabited interior of the country. Mountain roads and the most popular hiking paths are located in the central highlands, traversing through a variety of impressive settings, from mysterious, intermittently desolate and verdant, to simply stunning wide panoramas. The most travelled hiking trail Laugavegurinn, from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk (Thorsmork), is in the highland wilderness, featuring mountains in almost every colour of an artist’s palette, big rivers, clear mountain brooks, natural hot springs and pools. Þórsmörk nature reserve is a hiker’s and outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, sheltered by glaciers and mountains, with beautiful ravines and valleys, wild rivers and amazing scenery.
One of the phenomena that make Iceland such a fascinating country are Iceland’s volcanoes. Volcanoes have built Iceland and the traces they have left of their activity over the ages are a scientist’s dream. The peculiar landforms, eerie lava fields and lava tube caves, black sand beaches and caldera lakes abound, and it is the ancient lava flows that have sculpted Iceland’s most spectacular mountains, plateaus and other remarkable topographical features. Additionally, the volcanic island Surtsey, also a World Heritage Site, has provided an invaluable opportunity to study the arrival of plant and animal life to a pristine new island.
Hauntingly beautiful, glaciers cover about 11% of Iceland. Together with the volcanoes they have carved “The Land of Fire and Ice”, creating its breathtaking fjords, mighty rivers and awe-inspiring scenery. The shimmering icecaps can be seen from many places in Iceland, and various guided glacier tours are available for closer exploration. Standing on a glacier in Iceland, enjoying the seemingly endless vistas, the extraordinary quality of light on a glacier and its evocative silence is a truly magical experience.
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, is located on the southeast coast of Iceland, between Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and the ocean. As the ice breaks off from the glacier, in all shapes and sizes, it fills the lagoon with shimmering floating icebergs, creating a scene of incomparable beauty. The interplay of the reflections of light with the blues, whites and aquamarines of the icebergs is fascinating. Sailing among the floating icebergs is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland. The lagoon is about 23km2 in size, and sometimes it’s possible to see seals swimming in the lagoon or resting on top of the icebergs.
The Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis, are visible in Iceland from September through March, due to Iceland’s location on the edge of the Arctic, within the northern auroral zone. Considered by many the most magical of all natural phenomena, Aurora Borealis can be seen on cloudless nights. The sight of the luminous colours and forms unfolding in cascades across the starry night sky has inspired many myths. Northern tradition suggests that the Northern Lights were the glinting shields of the Valkyries and their lustrous armour, as they raced across the sky.
Summers in Iceland bring the Midnight Sun, a natural phenomenon, also known as the polar day, when daylight lasts almost around the clock. It can be compared to a sunset or twilight, when the landscape is bathed in very soft light. In Iceland, you can even play a round of midnight golf in Reykjavik, Akureyri and Westman Islands.
Icelandic medieval literature, especially the Sagas of Icelanders and the Kings’ Sagas, are regarded among the most remarkable literary achievements of the Middle Ages. The Icelandic sagas have had an immeasurable impact on world literature. Most of the sagas were written in the 12th and 13th centuries and are the cornerstone of Icelandic nation’s modern culture. Every single part of Iceland has links to the events related in the sagas. Reykholt in West Iceland has a centre dedicated to Snorri Sturluson. Exploring Iceland's outstanding cultural heritage, alongside nature exploration, adds an immensely enriching dimension to an authentic experience of Iceland.