The recent volcanic eruptions have brought the world’s attention back to Iceland. With new land being created by frequent lava flows, Iceland is renowned for its sensational geology, landscapes, and natural phenomena.
Yet, while tourists love to discover the vast open spaces, the majority of Iceland’s small population lives in a handful of towns and cities.
Even if you plan to explore the best of Iceland’s natural landmarks, basing yourself in a city when visiting Iceland is a good idea to have access to quality services including hotels, restaurants, stores, and other attractions.
Reykjavik has the widest selection and is close to many of the country’s great natural sites, but it isn’t the only option to consider.
Reykjavik And Capital Region
The capital city Reykjavik is the starting point for most travelers. Impressive landmarks include the towering church Hallgrimskirkja, the statue of explorer Leif Erikson, and the eye-catching waterfront concert hall, Harpa.
Visitors can get a great introduction to the cultural heritage and natural story of Iceland at the National Museum, where exhibits span from the Viking Age to modern times. It provides context to the natural wonders elsewhere in the country.
Speaking of which, many organized tours of the famous Golden Circle route are available from the city, as is car rental to do your own version of the tour.
Home to approximately one-third of Iceland’s 376,000 population, Reykjavik is by far the country’s biggest city.
As an urban area, Reykjavik is even more dominant. Of Iceland’s ten biggest cities, five of them make up the Reykjavik ‘capital region’, home to almost two-thirds of the country’s residents, living on less than 2% of Iceland’s land. Reykjavik is a compact city.
Selfoss: Gateway To The South
A major stop on Iceland’s route 1 ring road, Selfoss is home to nearly 10,000 people and is growing fast as a calmer alternative to Reykjavik.
For travelers, Selfoss is an ideal base for exploring the Golden Circle or as a stop for driving on to the volcanic landscapes and black sand beaches of Southern Iceland.
There’s a lot more of interest to Selfoss besides its handy location. The town center recently underwent a facelift and is now home to more than thirty distinctive buildings from around Iceland that had fallen into disrepair. They were reconstructed and renovated to create an attractive new cultural hub in the heart of Selfoss.
Selfoss is also the place to dive into the Icelandic superfood, skyr. Located in the new town center, Skyrland reveals the story of the traditional dairy product that dates back to the Viking Age, and allows you to try it for yourself.
Northern Lights In Akureyri And Husavik
Although Reykjavik is often marketed as a northern lights destination, travelers with a desire to see an aurora display should head to the north to improve their chances.
Known as the capital of North Iceland, Akureyri has an attractive position sheltered at the end of a fjord. In recent years Akureyri has built a growing reputation as a spa destination, while nearby Husavik stakes a claim as Iceland’s whale watching capital.
Both towns provide unique opportunities to experience the natural wonders of Iceland, combining the wonder of the northern lights (or the midnight sun in the summer months) with the beauty of the surrounding landscapes and the richness of local nature.
An expansion of Akureyri Airport set for completion in 2024 should attract more airlines to offer direct services to Iceland’s northern region. At present, there are seasonal routes available from the U.K., Austria, and the Netherlands, together with year-round service from Reykjavik.
Isafjordur: Gateway To The Westfjords
Isafjordur is the largest town in the Icelandic Westfjords, a region known for its dramatic landscapes and stark beauty.
The isolation of the Westfjords lends a unique charm to Isafjordur, with its stunning fjord setting and historic buildings. Those arriving by small aircraft from Reykjavik will enjoy a memorable landing, as planes must perform a sharp bank immediately before landing.
A gateway to outdoor adventures such as hiking, kayaking, and bird watching, Isafjordur is worth considering adding to your itinerary to explore this less-trodden but no less intriguing part of Iceland.
The town itself has a population of just 2,600, but offers the Westfjords Heritage Museum along with places to stay and some excellent restaurants specialising in seafood.
Seydisfjordur: Creativity And Connectivity
Seydisfjordur, distinguished by its colorful wooden houses and artistic atmosphere, is a beautiful small town on the sparsely populated eastern coast. It’s best known for being Iceland’s gateway to the European mainland through its regular ferry connection to Denmark and the Faroe Islands.
The town is embraced by mountains and waterfalls, making it a picturesque setting for visitors and a destination for keen hikers.
Those staying in the town on a road trip or a longer stay will enjoy an artistic vibe with a few independent shops and galleries despite the settlement’s small size. Don’t miss the charming pastel blue church and the striking monument to a devastating avalanche.