Icelanders have a motto which visitors should know: þetta reddast – “It’ll all work out.” Hoping to go for a day in the wilds, but the roads are too icy? þetta reddast, there are plenty of other things to do. In the mood for shopping, only to find Reykjavík packed with tourists? Don’t worry, þetta reddast.
Not only is it a lot of fun to say, but it’s an eminently sensible mantra for a place ruled by unpredictable weather. In addition, it’s a helpful attitude to take when hoping to avoid peak-season crowds. With more than ninety percent of travellers staying in the capital region, if you’re visiting Reykjavík, you’ll want to have a few ideas up your sleeve to help find some breathing space.
Fortunately, there’s plenty to to do within day-trip distance of Iceland’s capital. You’re in one of the world’s most bizarre and beautiful countries, so kick back, relax and take your pick. It’ll all work out.
It’s impossible to miss the Esja mountain range (or Esjan) from Reykjavík – a solid, calm presence visible from anywhere along the city’s waterfront. It’s close not only to the capital – you can reach it by city bus in about 45 minutes – but also to the hearts of Reykjavíkers, many of whom enjoy popping over for a walk and a picnic in good weather.
Hike up Esjan for views over the city and out to sea. Though it’s close to the city, you’re unlikely to see anyone else as you wander. There are well-marked trails leading up the 914m-high mountain, each clearly graded by difficulty.
Esja mountain range © Juergen_Wallstabe / Shutterstock
Iceland gets more than two million visitors annually, and at times it can feel like they’re all in Reykjavík. If you want to get away from it but aren’t in the mood for communing with nature, try a visit to Hafnarfjörður instead.
Less than half an hour south of the capital, Hafnarfjörður is like a mini version of Reykjavík, making it a great alternative for good food and shopping. It’s also the perfect place to find out more about the mysterious huldufólk (elves). Most Icelanders believe in the ‘hidden people’, albeit to varying degrees, and tours around town to see their homes are available. Be warned, though: only those with second sight will be able to see the huldufólk.
Hafnarfjörður holds plenty of diverting events throughout the year, too. If you’re in Iceland in June you shouldn’t miss the Viking Festival, while the Christmas market makes November and December even more magical.
Hafnarfjörður near Reykjavik, Iceland © Johann Helgason / Shutterstock
Þingvellir and Silfra
As the site of the world’s first parliament, the Alþing, Þingvellir is a hugely important place. Add to that the fact that this national park is the only place on earth where two tectonic plates meet on land, and you have a dramatic and highly popular spot. While it’s absolutely worth hiking, biking or horse riding in Þingvellir, the area around the Alþing tends to be very crowded.
For a different view of the astounding geological phenomenon which draws people to the park, try snorkelling (or even scuba diving) at Silfra. Arctic Adventures run both snorkelling and scuba trips, followed by a well-deserved hot chocolate. It’s a truly otherworldly experience to drift through the bitingly cold, utterly clear glacial water, looking down at the earth as it slowly splits apart.
Scuba diving at Silfra, Iceland © Hoiseung Jung / Shutterstock
The waters flowing into Silfra come from Langjökull, or ‘long glacier’. Staying frozen year-round, it’s the ideal place to get out on the ice – or perhaps into it. A man-made tunnel and caves are dug into the ice, and by venturing inside on a tour you can find out how glaciers are formed and marvel at the environment. You’ll need to be quick though – the tunnels were never meant to be permanent, as the glacier shifts constantly, so they may well be gone in a few years.
Another once-in-a-lifetime experience is snowmobiling on Langjökull, preferably under the midnight sun – Mountaineers of Iceland is a great option. Like the glacier tunnel tour, it doesn’t come cheap, but you’ll always remember the thrill of speeding across the barren landscape, watching the sun as it sets (at an appropriately glacial pace), dyeing the snowfields red, pink and gold.
Man-made tunnel inside Langjökull glacier, Iceland © Ami Parikh / Shutterstock
For a more affordable way to be awed by nature, head to Landmannalaugar, 125km from the capital. This is the starting point for the excellent Laugavegur hike, which stretches for 55km to Þórsmörk. Even if you’re not up for a four-day route, it’s worth spending some time experiencing the rugged landscapes and jagged, multicoloured peaks in the area.
Also at Landmannalaugar, you can spot two streams flowing from underneath a long-cooled lava flow. One is much too hot for comfort, the other far too cold, but where they meet it’s just right for a spot of wild swimming – or just a luxurious soak, al fresco – ideal after a trek up a mountain.
Landmannalaugar landscape with multicoloured mountain peaks © Martin M303 / Shutterstock
While hardly a hidden gem, the Blue Lagoon is famous for a reason. In stark contrast to the back-to-nature feel of Landmannalaugar, here you can soak in temperature-controlled (but naturally occurring) hot spring waters, indulge in a mineral-rich mud mask, and even order a beer while you enjoy the balmy waters. Their creamy turquoise tone makes an Instagram-friendly pop of colour against the black lava field in summer, or the layers of snow in winter.
If possible, make time for the unexpectedly excellent in-house Lava Restaurant afterwards – lunch is pleasantly affordable. The lagoon is on the way to Keflavík airport, so if you time it right, you can board your plane home both relaxed and extremely well fed.
Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, Iceland © Puripat Lertpunyaroj / Shutterstock
Rebecca flew to San Francisco via Reykjavík with Icelandair on their inaugural flight; flights from Heathrow have a lead-in price of £447.80, and passengers can opt to stopover in Iceland for up to seven days for no extra cost. Rebecca stayed at Hotel Marina Iceland in Reykjavík and Hotel Zeppelin in San Francisco.
Top image: © Bahadir Yeniceri / Shutterstock