Spread either side of Reykjavík, southwestern Iceland extends barely 200km from end to end, but nowhere else are the country’s key elements of history and the land so visibly intertwined. Here you’ll see where Iceland’s original parliament was founded over a thousand years ago, sites that saw the violence of saga-age dramas played out, and where the country’s earliest churches became seats of power and learning. Culture aside, if you’re expecting the scenery this close to the capital to be tame, think again: the southwest contains some of Iceland’s most iconic – and frequently explosive – landscapes, compelling viewing whether used as a simple backdrop to a day’s drive, or as an excuse to spend a week trekking cross-country.
Southwest of Reykjavík, bleak, semi-vegetated lavafields characterize the Reykjanes Peninsula, site of the international airport at Keflavík, though the famous Blue Lagoon adds a splash of colour. Due east of Reykjavík, a clutch of essential historical and geological features – including the original parliament site at Þingvellir, Geysir’s hot water spouts, and Gullfoss’ rainbow-tinged cataracts – are strung out around the Golden Circle, an easy route tackled by just about every visitor to the country. Then there’s the central south, a broad stretch of grassy river plains further southeast again, whose inland regions give way to a blasted landscape surrounding the volcano Hekla and hot springs at Landmannalaugar, itself the starting point for the popular four-day Laugavegur hiking trail. Back on the coast, the rolling farmland of Njál’s Saga country is dotted with landmarks from this famous tale, not to mention beautiful scenery and further hiking around the glaciated highland valley of Þórsmörk. The south coast is decorated with spectacular waterfalls fringing the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull ice caps, both of which harbour active volcanoes, before the highway runs east out of the region via the attractive coastal hamlet of Vík. Offshore, a short ferry ride from the mainland lands you on Heimaey, the small, intimate core of the Westman Islands, alive with birdlife and bearing further recent proof of Iceland’s unstable volcanism.
The climate in the southwest is relatively mild, despite it being the wettest, windiest part of the country, prone to fog along the coast and potentially heavy snowfalls through the year on higher ground.