Iceland is the stepping stone between North America and Europe. The island nation is crossed by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a (mostly underwater) seam between the tectonic plates of the two continents. It’s perhaps this divide that gives the country its otherness – full of style, sceneries, and sensibilities that are uniquely Icelandic. Descending from hearty Celtic and Viking stock, Icelanders have built a nation by harnessing the powerful nature around them. Geothermal volatility is converted into clean energy, cold waters into a robust fishing industry, and spacious settings into a tourism destination built around getting outdoors.
Most trips to Iceland begin with a flight into Keflavik Airport which puts travelers within a close distance of many of the country’s iconic attractions. The Blue Lagoon is a short detour off the road from the airport to Reykjavik and is a relaxing way to start a vacation after arriving to the country. Reykjavik and surroundings serve as a base for exploring the Golden Circle, a route that includes the namesake Geysir, the thundering Gulfoss Waterfall, the bucolic site of the original Icelandic parliament, and the option to dive or snorkel in the crystal-clear rift between the continental plates. There are also plenty of opportunities for glacier hiking, whale watching, horseback riding, or viewing the Northern Lights.
Along the west coast of the country, the Snaefellsjökull National Park lies at the end of the Snaefellsnes peninsula. The Snaefellsjökull volcano is the setting of Jules Verne’s classic Journey to the Center of the Earth, and the Park features lava caves, glaciers, and rocky coastlines. Further north, the scarcely populated islands and fjords of northwest Iceland are popular for birdwatching. The dramatic backdrops of the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, Látrabjarg cliffs, and Flatey Island are all home to myriad bird species.
Continuing east on Ring Road along the north coast, a stop in the Vatnsnes peninsula promises seal colonies at Ósar and the photo-baiting Hvítserkur rock formation jutting out of the shallow sea. Further east, the town of Húsavík is the best place to see whales in Iceland. Inland from the coast, Lake Mývatn is another hub for exploration with rare birds and ducks, hot springs in caves, and trails through craters and lava fields formed from past volcanic activity.
Finally, eastern Iceland’s Vatnajökoll National Park is not to be missed. The park stretches from north to south, comprises 13% of all the land in Iceland, and has multiple access points. The northern end features the steep cliff faces of the Ásbyrgi canyon, said to be the capital of the legendary Icelandic elves, while the south-eastern side hosts the immense Skaftafell ice caves.
Greenland is the world’s largest island and has a population of only 56,700 residents. Even with 80% of the territory covered by ice, there is plenty of room to breathe in the cool Arctic air. The landmass was originally settled by several waves of Inuit cultures who first traversed a frozen strait from Canada to Northern Greenland more than 4,000 years ago. Today Greenland is primarily made up of Inuit descendants of the Thule culture who have a rich tradition of hunting, fishing, and survival skills which have allowed them to persist among desolate coastlines and extreme conditions.
The geographical extremities of Greenland separate the island into several distinct coastal regions:
South Greenland is where Erik the Red landed after his exodus from Iceland. The warmer climate makes it the “greenest” region of Greenland where sheep graze in grassy fields among Viking ruins and enticing hot springs. Further up the west coast lies the Capital Region, home of the capital city of Nuuk, the political and economic heart of Greenland and the most modern part of the territory. The nearby Nuup Kangerlua fjord is a popular escape with locals and tourists alike for its mountain flanked inlets, fishing and whale watching opportunities, and small coastal settlements. Continuing north up the coast is the Arctic Circle region where travelers can spot musk oxen, visit the Greenland Ice Cap, and cast fly fishing lines for Arctic char.
North Greenland is the most visited region of Greenland. Many travelers stay in the Disko Bay area to marvel at mammoth icebergs breaking from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier into the UNESCO World Heritage recognized Ilulissat Icefjord. The Ilulissat area is also home to 3,500 sled dogs eager to bolt across snowy terrains and hiking trails perfect for viewing sparkling ice under the midnight sun. The coastline extends thousands of miles further north and is dotted with small hunting and fishing settlements where many aspects of life remain the same as when the Thule first arrived in the 9th century.
With only 3,500 residents and a language distinct from the rest of Greenland, the few inhabited areas of East Greenland offer a secluded and inimitable view of Greenlandic life. The mountainous lands near Tasilaq provide all levels of hiking opportunities while Ittoqqortoormiit offers summer kayaking and a gateway to the world’s largest national park.
The high season for travel to Iceland and Greenland is mid-June to late-August when the weather is best and the days are long with near constant sunlight. Many museums and attractions outside of Reykjavik are closed in Iceland in the off-season and some roads to more remote areas are inaccessible. Unpredictable weather and ice conditions in Greenland also make boat trips, hiking, and other outdoor activities tentative outside of the summer season.
However, the fall, spring, and even winter can be good times to visit Iceland and Greenland. The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis appear from September to April, giving travelers a chance of reveling in their electro-magnetic splendor. Other activities such as ice caving and dogsledding only take place outside of the summer season, and prices and crowds are generally lower.
How to get there?
Most international flights to Iceland arrive in Keflavik International Airport (KEF), about a 45-minute drive from the capital city of Reykjavik. Non-stop flights range from 5 hours and 30 minutes from New York; to 7 hours and 15 minutes from Seattle; to 6 hours from Minneapolis.
There are no direct flights from the United States to Greenland. Most travelers connect via Iceland or Copenhagen, Denmark. There are flights year-round from Iceland to Kulusuk and Nerleit Inaat/Constable Point airports in East Greenland, Ilulissat Airport in North Greenland, and Nuuk Airport in the Capital Region. There are also flights from Iceland to Narsarsuaq Airport in South Greenland in the summertime. Non-stop flights from Reykjavik Domestic Airport (RKV) to Greenland range from around 2 to 4 hours depending on the destination.
Alternatively, flights from Copenhagen arrive year-round in Kangerlussuaq Airport and Narsarsuaq Airport in the summer period.
How much time?
Reykjavik and the nearby attractions of the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle can be tackled in as little as four or five days. Allow at least 10 days to include driving the famous Ring Road, backpacking the Laugavegurinn/Fimmvörðuháls Pass, or exploring part of Greenland to a trip.
Who is it for?
If you like hot springs, Viking history, exotic eats, remote hiking, geothermal activity, puffins, and wide-open landscapes, Iceland is your place. If you’re a true travel pioneer who wants to experience isolated settlements, ice fjords and glaciers, dogsledding, and the proud and resilient Inuit culture, visit Greenland.
Visitors from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand do not require visas for stays of less than 90 days.
Glacier Lodge Eqi, Greenland: Perched at the base of the Eqip Sermia glacier, Glacier Lodge Eqi can only be reached by a spectacular two to five-hour boat ride from Ilulissat (with time spent floating near the glacier). The 15 rustic huts each have a spacious private balcony where guests can savor unparalleled views of glacial calving, when ice breaks from a glacier and crashes into the sea. Trails lead to a close-up view of the glacier and the Lodge offers longer guided hiking trips to the inland ice where camp is set only 2 km from the ice. The Lodge’s Café Victor sells food, drinks, and sweets, a necessity given that the rest of humanity is a considerable boat ride away.
ION Luxury Adventure Hotel, Iceland: The ION Luxury Adventure Hotel offers an escape from the bustle of Reykjavik while remaining in a great location for exploring the Golden Circle and southwest Iceland. The sleek rooms have comfortable fair-trade linens, bath products containing healing Icelandic herbs, and views of mountainous lava fields. During the day guests can fly fish for brown trout in Lake Thingvallavatn, hike or horseback ride to hot springs, or raft the Hvítá River. At night the Silfra Restaurant serves New Nordic cuisine such as poached ocean perch with capelin roe and kale, and the Ion Spa offers a variety of treatments or a simple soak in the heated outdoor wading pool.
Hotel Hellnar, Iceland: Located on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Hotel Hellnar is a ten minute drive from the majesty of Snaefellsjökull National Park. Committed to sustainability, the hotel was the first in the country to be certified by Earth Check and has twice been honored with the Icelandic Tourist Board’s Environmental Award. The rooms are simple but comfortable, directing the attention to the stunning views of the mountains and coast. The friendly staff can help guests navigate hiking trails found just outside the property and tours of the Snaefellsjokull Glacier and Flatey Island depart nearby.
Hali Country Hotel, Iceland: Hali Country Hotel is a taste of the pastoral Icelandic countryside. Sandwiched in a small sliver of land between Vatnajökoll National Park and the east coast of Iceland, Hali Country Hotel is the closest to the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon where ice flows and seals play. The hotel is a working farm and the hearty food served in its restaurant likely had a very short trip from farm to table. Outside of the summertime, the dark spacious skies around the farm serve as a great backdrop for watching the dance of the Northern Lights.