What to see in South Iceland
The name of the town Hveragerði that translates as “hot springs garden” gives a pretty good clue about the town. Nestled between mountains in a valley bubbling and steaming with hot springs and fissures the town is one of the few populated sites in the world actually located in the center of a geothermal area. The town’s church stands just by a substantial urban geothermal field that the locals refer to as Hverasvæði (“geothermal area”) where tiny geysers frequently spout miniature eruptions. There are also various other hot springs, fumaroles, mud pots and steaming vents. Each hot spring has a sign post with educational information and guided tours are available as well. Many of the 1900 inhabitants harness the naturally hot water of the town for heating their homes and numerous greenhouses and Hveragerði has become Iceland’s main horticultural town. A popular location in the town is Eden, a large hothouse with a selection of tropical plants, a souvenir shop and a café much favoured by Icelanders on short weekend trips.
South of Mt. Ingólfsfjall and on the banks of the river Ölfusá lies the largest town in Southern Iceland, Selfoss. The town has 5200 residents, it is a major road intersection and it has a thriving industry of agricultural processing and serves as the service centre for the neighbouring farms and communities. Apart from basic services such as banks, post offices and supermarkets there is a golf course and an family friendly open-air swimming pool.
In the summer of 2004 Þingvellir National Park was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The park is the first area in Iceland to be inscribed on the list. To the visitor Þingvellir holds a partly historical and partly geological importance as well as being dotted with a wealth of natural attractions. This where the old Viking parliament was founded, the name Þingvellir means “Parliament Plains”. From a geological point of view it is a unique site as it is literally situated on the tectonical plates that devide Europe and North America. The rift is more obvious here than in any other place in Iceland and the visitor can take a matchless stroll between the edges of the constantly moving plates. The plains of Þingvellir are broad, fissured and partly forrested. Among the natural highlights there are waterfalls, ponds, streams, springs, canyons, caves and Iceland’s largest natural lake, Þingvallavatn (about 84 square kilometers), flanked by the snowy peaks of neighbouring mountains. The colours of the autumn are stunning in Þingvellir as the tundra vegetation and birch trees flaunt bright red and yellow with a all the possible nuances of the spectrum between them. Well marked hiking trails and tracks criss-cross the area, not missing a single point of interest. Among spots that shouldn’t be missed are Öxarárfoss, the manmade falls of Öxará river, Almannagjá, the greatest rift at Þingvellir and Lögberg, a rock that functioned as the official stage in parliamentary sessions from 930 until 1271, where law was recited and Iceland’s conversion to Christianity was agreed upon. One of Iceland’s first churches is to be found at Þingvellir and the lake has an exceptionally varied ecosystem and the rare underwater landscape attracts divers from all over the world. Peningagjá cleft is almost spellbinding with its uncanny depth and enchanting blue water, dazzling with thousands of shiny coins reflecting the wishes of travellers who have turned the cleft into a one of a kind wishing well. Birdwatchers get their share at Þingvellir as there are 52 species of birds that live by the lake and at least 30 more that come and go. Although a visit to Þingvellir is always worthwile we recommand a visit in the late afternoon or evening, when the area has been cleared of day tour visitors and the immence peacefulness and magic of this astounding place is all but overwhelming.
The geothermal area of Nesjavellir is situated by the foot of Mt. Hengill, just soutwest of Þingvallavatn lake, only about 25 km away from Reykjavík. The boreholes in the area power the 200 megawatt Nesjavellir power station that is the biggest one in Iceland and heats most of Reykjavík. The boreholes can give the visitor an idea of the kind of power in question in the area as the steam pouring out of them sounds like a jet engine and the heat in any of the 2 km deep holes is close to 400°c. Bubbling hot springs, hot steam from the open craters, lakes, rivers, diverse flora and fauna along with the dramatic landscape make the area one of the main attractive nature sites in southern Iceland. The plentiful marked hiking trails through the stunning mountaineous geothermal areas are ideal for light trekking. Both the drive from Reykjavík over the Hengill mountains and the drive along the lake from Þingvellir are equally scenic and enjoyable. Guided tours are free of charge at the Nesjavellir Power Plant.
5. Gullfoss & Geysir
The Gullfoss waterfall (“Golden Falls”) and the renowned Geysir hot spring are by many considered Iceland’s main sightseeing attractions. The waterfall is on the glacial river Hvítá as it plummets down 32 meters into a gorge and it is famous for its fascinating beauty. The protected Geysir area is only 10 minutes drive away from Gullfoss, where there is a variety of colourful hot springs, steaming vents and hot pools to be seen. The hot spring Strokkur is smaller than Geysir, but no less impressive with its regular powerful eruptions every 5 – 10 minutes. At the educational information centre of Geysisstofa the visitor can either learn about just about anything that has to do with geothermal activity, glaciers, waterfalls and vegetation or enjoy a technological exhibition on geology in Iceland.
6. Skálholt & Kerið volcanic crater
From 1056 until 1801 Skálholt was bishop’s seat and for centuries it remained one of the most important educational, cultural and political centres in Iceland. During its almost 7 centurys as the centre of religious life in South Iceland 44 bishops served in Skálholt. 31 of them were Catholic bishops, before the Reformation in 1550 and 13 Lutheran ones followed. In 1967 the current cathedral was consecrated. It is less then half of the size of the main cathedral that burned down in 1309. There is some beautiful modern stained glass and mosaics to be seen as well as older relics, such as the damp underground tunnel that linked it to the neighbouring buildings and the mausoleum of Bishop Páll Jónsson whose death in 1211 is alleged to have been followed by natural catastrophies. An ambitious classical music festival takes place in Skálholt during the summer. Just by Skálholt there is a group of craters, including the 55 m deep explosion crater Kerið that harbours a small green lake.
The humble wooden church Strandakirkja on the southwest coast has been central in many seamen’s prayer for centuries. The original church is said to have been built by seamen in peril whose prayers for rescue were answered by an angel that appeared on the shore and guided them to land. People from all over the world still pledge donations to Strandakirkja in hope of help in times of trouble. The wealthy little church and its mesmerizing surroundings are truly worth a visit.
8. Eyrarbakki & Stokkseyri
The untamed sandy coastline around Eyrarbakki is an ideal place to observe bird life and watch as the breakers beat the black seashores. Eyrarbakki has around 600 inhabitants. The town itself has more old buildings than most Icelandic towns which adds to the charm of this colourful little town. The town’s church was built in 1890 and Húsið, one of Icelands oldest buildings, was erected in 1756 and now hosts a regional museum. Many of the other houses are of historical interest and there is also a Seaman’s museum. The broad beaches of Stokkseyri are full of driftwood and legendary for their natural beauty. Stokkseyri has a little under 500 inhabitants. Þuríðarbúð is an old fishing shack that has been turned into a museum. It is named after Þuríður Einarsdóttir, a female captain of a boat based there, who died in 1863. The church of Stokkseyri was built in 1886 and other attractions are a Ghost Museum, kayak tours and a tasteful and charming lobster restaurant.
The Valley of the River Þjórsá is called Þjórsárdalur and it is the longest valley in Iceland. The valley is traversed by three other rivers as well. Flourishing birch woods, sandy lava fields, rivers and waterfalls add to the sharp contrasts of the landscape. Among the impressive waterfalls in the valley are Hjálparfoss and the country’s second highest waterfall, 122 m high Háifoss. In the stunning ravine Gjáin there is an unusual sumptuous vegetation, several springs and peculiar rock formations. From the time when the country was settled until Mount Hekla erupted in 1104 a flourishing little farming community blossomed in the valley. The whole valley was showered in ash after the eruption but one of the buried farms, Stöng, has been dug out and used as a model for the reconstructed Saga age farm “Þjóðveldisbærinn”. There are numerous hiking tracks and nearby there is an isolated and romantic outdoor swimmingpool not to be missed.
10. Mt. Hekla
Iceland’s most famous volcano is without a doubt Mt. Hekla. Some 20 eruptions have been documented since Iceland was settled and Hekla is still very active, the last eruption taking place in year 2000. The mountain is 1491 m high and overlooks the lowlands of the south. In the middle ages Icelanders and many other Europeans firmly believed that Hekla was the gateway to hell. Hence noone dared to climb it until 1750 when the mountain was conquered by two brave naturalists. For hiking on Hekla the north or northwest sides are recommanded. A Hekla information centre with audiovisual presentations was opened, focusing on the history since the settlement.
North of the villages of Hella and Hvolsvöllur is the ancient farm of Keldur, mentioned in several Sagas, including Njál’s Saga. It is located by a natural spa at the edge of a lava field. The current church is an ironclad timber church that was built in 1975 and it holds numerous items of historical interest.
12. Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfurárfoss
Seljalandsfoss is a narrow, 40 m high waterfall in the Seljalandsá river as it plunges over the edge of Mt. Eyjafjöll. It is one of very few waterfalls that one can safely walk behind, on a foot path at the bottom af the cliff. Gljúfurárfoss is only about 10 minutes walk from Seljalandsfoss, hidden between rocks in a deep ravine.
The mighty Eyjafjallajökull glacier is a 1666 m high glacier-capped stratovolcano. Its crater is 3 – 4 km wide, created by frequent eruptions from the middle of the Ice Age to the Haloscene. It covers an area of about 100 square kilometers.
14. Skógar Folk Museum and Skógar Waterfall
One of the finest folk museums in Iceland is situated in extraordinarily beautiful natural surroundings. The collection of tools and equipment used at land and sea is outstanding. The museum is housed in a turf farm and a new exhibition building and gives the visitor a rare opportunity to see how Icelanders lived in past times. The Skógar waterfall is 60 m high and without a doubt one of the most impressive ones in Iceland. It is the last fall in a series of 20 on the river Skógá. Folklore has it that the first settler at Skógar, Þrasi, buried a treasure under it.
The precipitous 120 m high promontory of Dyrhólaey, close to Vík and west of Reynishverfi, is the southernmost point of the Icelandic mainland. A narrow point extends into the ocean with a massive arch that the sea has eroded. The opening is large enough for boats to sail through it when the sea is calm. It is also possible to drive to the picturesque lighthouse on top of it. Dyrhólaey is rich in birdlife and an important nesting site for Arctic terns, eider ducks and puffins.
The southernmost glacier in Iceland, and the country’s fourth largest one, is the 1493 m high Mýrdalsjökull. It covers an area 595 square kilometers and its glacial tongues reach down into the lowlands. The most famous one of those is Sólheimajökull which is close to Skógar and the main road and can easily be reached by a regular car. The notorious off-rift volcano Katla beneath Mýrdalsjökull has a caldera up to 10 km in diameter. Katla has erupted at intervals of 40 – 80 years on average, melting the 600 m thick ice cap and causing violent floods that sweep bits and pieces of the glacier across the entire sands. Since Iceland was settled 16 eruptions have been recorded but they have most likely been 20 in all. The last Katla eruption took place in 1918 but did not cause considerable damage.
17. Eldgjá (280 km / 3 hrs drive from Höfn)
Eldgjá is truly a rare natural phenomenon. The name means “The Fire Fissure”. It is 40 km long, stretching from Mýrdalsjökull glacier to Gjátindur mountain and further beyond it in the direction northeast and is reputedly the longest volcanic fissure in the world. It was formed in a great eruption around the year 900 and in some parts it is 600 m wide and very deep. The eruption also created a lava field that covers almost 700 square kilometers and is therewith the largest historical lava field in Iceland. The main entrances to the fissure are two, one from the eastern side and one from its depression. Both the entrances lead to the Ófærufoss waterfall where there used to be a magnificent natural stone bridge that caved in during the nineties. From the top of the aforementioned Gjátindur there is excellent view in good weather conditions. The Austurleið – SBS pass by Eldgjá every day in the summer.
18. Lakagígar (252 km / 2.5 hrs drive from Höfn)
In a fairly short, but intensive and catastrophic eruption between June 1783 and February 1784 a 25 kilometer long row of craters called Lakagígar was created. This lava eruption was one of the biggest and most poisonous ones on planet Earth since the beginning of historical times. Two vast lava fields were created, with a total area of 565 square kilometers. The total volume of the tephra released in the eruption is estimated to have been about 12,3 cubic kilometers and ash fall extended as far as the European mainland. The consequences were shattering. Most of Icelands lifestock parished after eating fluorine contaminated grass and almost one-quarter of the human population starved to death. The island was under Danish rule at the time and the Danish parliament wanted to evacuate the 40.000 islanders that were left to Denmark, but they opposed strongly. The largest known volcanic-induced cooling in historic times resulted from the eruption as the gases emitted in the event formed aerosols that caused the temperature in the Northern Hemisphere to drop by up to 1°c. Today most of the crater is covered with Woolly Fringe Moss and the area was proclaimed inviolate in 1971. The landscape is exceptionally picturesque. Daily tours to the Laki area are available from Kirkjubæjarklaustur and Skaftafell during summer at the Austurleið – SBS bus company.
19. Fjaðrárgljúfur (210 km / 2 hrs drive from Höfn)
One of Icelands most attractive canyons is Fjaðrárgljúfur. Fjaðrá river falls headlong over the rim of the canyon from the moors of the Síða county. The canyon has been declared inviolate and it is easily accessible from road number 1 in the south, west of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. It can be approached from the “Laki Road” with a walk down to it’s mouth. It can also be entered from below, after fording the river several times. A hike along the brink is recommanded, to marvel the peculiar basalt formations that resemble soft molded sandstone sculptures.
The 767 m high Lómagnúpur is one of the most outstanding precipices in Iceland. It is the southernmost part of Mount Björninn, west of the alluvial plain Skeiðarársandur. It is a former sea point, dotted with the evidence of great landslides and scared from a great rock that broke away in 1790.
21. Vík in Mýrdalur (272 km / 3 hrs drive from Höfn)
The coastal hamlet of Vík in Mýrdalur valley is the southernmost village in Iceland. With a population of about 300 individuals it is a local service and commercial centre. There is no harbour in Vík, making it the only seaside village in Iceland without a harbour. Just 10 minutes drive from Vík in the direction of Dyrhólaey is Reynisfjara, a stretched sandy peninsula that encloses a peaceful lagoon. There are caves and lava formations of all kinds, rocks of various sizes and types in an amazing variety. Among the other activities available to tourists are snowmobile trips on the glacier Mýrdalsjökull, salmon and trout fishing, horseback riding and sightseeing flights. Bird lovers also get their share as the biggest artic tern breeding grounds in Europe are just east of Vík. There are also large settlements of puffin and kittiwake and fulmar live in the cliffs towering over the village to the west. The landscape is, to say the least, spectacular. The beauty of the flat, black sand beach south of Vík has been acknowledged worldwide. To the south of Mount Reynisfjall the fantastic pointed black set of rock pillars named Reynisdrangar rises out of the ocean. Mýrdalsjökull glacier is situated just north of Vík and the subglacial volcano Katla lies below its icecap. There is plenty of fascinating places around Vík. There are some spectacular lava rock formations on the southern slopes of Reynisfjall and caves that the waves of the Atlantic Ocean cut into the cliffs. The palagonite mountains of Hjörleifshöfði, Pétursey and Hafursey played important roles in the sagas and Sólheimajökull, the southwestern outlet of the Mýrdalsjökull icecap, marks the western part of the region. The hot springs beneath it are the source of the river Jökulsá on Sólheimasandur. The river also has earned another, less flattering, name, Fúlilækur which translates “Stinky Stream”. This is due to the strong smell of solfataric hydrogen sulphide, often found in areas of volcanic activity. The travel services and the natural environment put Vík and its vicinity among the best that Iceland has to offer.
22. Kirkjubæjarklaustur (201 km / 2 hrs drive from Höfn)
Kirkjubæjarklaustur is the trade centre of a flourishing farming community. It has a total population of 140 residents. Before the village started developing the land belonged to a large farm called Kirkjubær. From 1186 to the Reformation it was the site of a Benedictine convent. Many topographical names in the area remind of the Catholic past and the remains of the nunnery can be seen a just east of the farm. West of the village is the steep-sided rocky mound of Systrastapi (Sisters’ Mound). According to folklore two nuns were buried there after being burned at the stake for their sins.