Ready to explore Iceland’s hidden gems? It’s time to venture off the beaten path and see a different side to the land of ice and fire.
Iceland. I mean OMFG if ever there was a country-by-country beauty pageant, it would be a strong contender. A very, very strong contender.
We’ve all seen the pictures, read the hype, gone green with envy at the endless landscapes unfurling in front of our eyes in Game of Thrones.
In the past twenty years, the world has woken up to the fact that this island, packed with stunning waterfalls, gorgeous beaches, pesky but majestic volcanoes (yeah Eyjafjallajökull, I’m looking at you) and the Northern Lights is actually somewhere that needs to go straight to the top of our travel bucket lists.
That’s naturally been followed by an influx of tourists all stampeding to the same popular spots. The numbers speak for themselves – in the year 2000 (Busted style), Iceland received a respectable 300,000 visitors annually.
Last year, that figure surpassed 2,000,000. Not bad for a country with a population of just over 300,000 itself.
The question is, with so many tourists converging on the island, is it still possible to discover a side of Iceland that’s off the beaten path? The answer is yes… if you know where to look.
My most recent trip to the country focused on just that. My aim was to see a different side of the island, a side of the island that is treasured by locals but often missed by tourists.
Get some comfortable hiking boots on guys, it’s time to discover some of southern Iceland’s hidden gems.
Hidden Gems in Iceland
Go To a Black Sand Beach (That isn’t Vik!)
Iceland might not be the first place you think of when you’re scouting for amazing beach locations but it is packed with some real gems.
Now, beaches like Reynisfjara (Vik) and Diamond Beach are well and truly on the tourist beach track but I’ll let you in on a little secret. Being an island, Iceland has no shortage of incredible beaches to choose from.
I was totally blown away by the striking colours and sheer scale of the black sand beach at Landeyjahöfn.
It’s a bit of an adventure to get there (read: piling over sand dunes and through large pools of water in a superjeep – my kind of adventure) but when you do, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have the whole place to yourself.
We spotted flocks of birds returning from their summer migration, along with a couple of seals too.
I mean, look at it. Who could resist?
Hiking and Caving in Þórsmörk (Thorsmork)
Iceland has no shortage of beautiful landscapes: black sand beaches, smoking volcanoes, Iceland ice caves, glacial hikes – you name it, it has it. In other words, there are few places better to get on your outdoor gear and go and explore.
Tucked away between not one, but three glaciers, Thorsmork (otherwise known as the Valley of Thor) is a great spot for hiking. Go with a guide or a local who can take you to some of the cool caves and canyons dotted around the valley’s perimeter.
There’s nothing like squeezing your way through a gap, fjording an underground stream to find yourself in a slot valley to make you feel like you are really discovering Iceland’s hidden gems.
After filling up on a true Icelandic hiker’s lunch (yummy hot dogs with lots of onion, mustard and relish), we drove to the second spot in Thorsmork where we hopped, jumped, balanced and climbed our way up to a secret Iceland waterfall.
OK, I guess I have to be honest and say that I stopped just short of the waterfall because I’m notoriously clumsy and the last section required some serious balancing skills, but Jon made it. But it meant I got a little more time to take some cool shots like the one above…
Bathe Like a Local at An Outdoor Swimming Pool
Now, we’ve all seen the Blue Lagoon – that crazy blue coloured lagoon a short hop away from Reykjavik airport.
Places like the Sky Lagoon and The Blue Lagoon are cool to visit and one of the top spots to see near Reykjavik, but if you want to get off the beaten track and do what the locals do, you need to go to one of the local swimming pools.
Icelandic people take their bathing very seriously – so you will find a pool complex, complete with a series of heated bathing pools and a sauna, in every community on the island.
This is the place where locals go to gossip, warm up in the winter or enjoy the long sunlight hours in the summer.
I stripped down to my swimmers and spent a couple of hours alternating between pools and tubs in Hella and it was lovely. Sure, the local pools might not look as striking as the Blue Lagoon but I can testify to the fact that you come out feeling like a million bucks.
Attend a Viking Feast at the Saga Center
There’s something about all the hiking, the fresh air and the raw beauty of the landscapes in Iceland that can’t help but bring out some of the inner Viking in you.
I do not believe in doing things half-heartedly – what else was there to do but head to a Viking Feast at the Saga Center and go into full Norse mode?
Yes, that’s Jon and I dressed as Vikings above. You best believe I ate my dinner looking like that too.
The dinner was delicious, Frederik from Hotel Ranga gave a speech in his Viking garb and an all-male Icelandic choir sang to us wearing a collection of sweaters that gave me serious clothing envy.
Learn About (And Taste) Local Beers at Ölvisholt Microbrewery
Iceland is a little quirky in so many ways – I mean, they’re pretty far away from most other places, their language is insane (and cool) and they are incredibly progressive. But I’m going to tell you something that will actually blow your mind.
Beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989.
What? I was toddling around as a four year old and giving people lots of sass before a country in the developed world was legally allowed to drink beer?
Technically, Iceland had been all good on the beer front until 1915 when they prohibited all alcohol. Spirits and wine got the go ahead pretty quickly again (1922 and 1935 because no country can live on water alone) but beer, nope.
Prohibited until 1 March 1989 (which is now fondly celebrated under the simple moniker of Beer Day).
One of the theories is that the Icelandic government was worried that if they legalised beer the nation would be drunk all the time… The reality is likely much more practical – the country didn’t have much foreign currency and they had to make tough decisions about what they imported.
Fast forward nearly 30 years and the beer industry is flourishing in the country, mainly thanks to enterprising microbreweries producing ranges of exciting, complex beers.
Ölvisholt Microbrewery is one such place. An old farm that was converted into a microbrewery in 2007, it really pushed Iceland’s beer drinkers – challenging their taste buds and helping them to appreciate a different kind of beer to the standard lagers that had dominated the market since beer was legalised again.
At first, the taste of their hoppy, darker beers had some of the locals a bit doubtful (word on the street was that they caught a few guests pouring it away at the opening party because, as they explained to the flummoxed brewers “this is the strangest beer I’ve ever tasted”) but now the country can’t get enough of it.
And nor could I (glug, glug glug, giggle).
Anyway. Interesting as this all is, it’s a lot more interesting to go and visit.
Co-owner and resident badass Berglind Snæland walked us through a beer tasting (spoiler alert: they all got the thumbs up from me) and showed us around the brewery while explaining the beer-making process.
If you want to arrange a tour, you will need to book in advance – it’s one of Iceland’s hidden gems and chances are you’ll have it to yourself.
Hop online and book one of the open sessions or call to arrange a private tour. But the tap room is open every day #justsaying – plus if they have the time, they will squeeze in an impromptu tour if you drop in.
Delve into the Country’s Geology at the LAVA Center
Iceland has a lot of volcanoes. You can barely throw a stick without coming across another impressive looking volcano peeking over the horizon.
The relatively new LAVA Center brings the country’s weird and wonderful geology to life through a series of interactive exhibitions and displays.
Discovering Icelandic geology at the Lava Center
It’s easy to look at stats, numbers and figures, but seeing ceiling high scaled models of the magma chamber on which the island perches on really brings the message home.
This is a country ruled by mother nature – and what she says goes.
You can take your time walking through the exhibitions – but make sure you don’t miss the short film screening. It’s less than ten minutes long but really gives you a glimpse into the power, devastation and sheer fury of a large-scale volcanic eruption.
Friðheimar: A Geothermal-Powered Tomato Farm
Visiting a tomato farm in a country that really doesn’t have a lot of daylight hours for at least half of the year seems a bit weird right? But I’m betting that you’ve never been to a tomato farm quite like Friðheimar.
Tomatoes tower, winding their way to the ceiling, under a series of grow lights and heated artificially. Before you frown about it not being eco-friendly (like I did), it’s all run through clean and green geothermal power.
Otherwise, settle in for a bloody mary made with freshly-squeezed tomato juice. I still dream about that drink. For real.
Book ahead to have a meal in the farm’s well-reputed restaurant (tables are hard to come by but it’s always worth calling and checking).
Visit Gluggafoss Waterfall
Venture just the tiniest bit away from the crowds and it’s easy to bag yourself a secret spot staring at an impressive waterfall with zero crowds.
Gluggafoss Waterfall (one of the waterfalls in the inter-linked series of waterfalls that are collectively known as Merkjárfoss) is one such place.
The waterfall dips above and beneath the surface of the rock in a series of “Gluggar” or windows – hence the name. Certainly one of the most unusual waterfalls I spotted during my time in Iceland.
Go Hiking in Hekla
It’s no surprise that volcanoes have traditionally been surrounded by a lot of folklore. I mean, can you imagine seeing a volcano erupting for the first time without knowing what on earth it actually was and why it was happening?
Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why volcano Hekla was not-so-affectionately nicknamed “the gateway to hell”.
This stratovolcano is the most active in Iceland. If conditions are safe (i.e. they’re not worried about that gateway to hell opening up and spewing lots of lava all over you), you can hike to the top of the volcano.
If that all sounds a little too much like living on the edge (and believe me, it does for me), then one alternative is to head to the area near Hekla.
Stretch your legs with a spot of hiking and bed down in the ridiculously thick layers of moss that carpets the landscape in a vibrant but soft layer of fuzzy ochre.
It sounds weird right? Wait until you try it.
Take a Super Jeep Tour with Midgard Adventures
You basically have two options when it comes to discovering Iceland’s hidden gems – try and do it all solo or book onto a tour.
I’m all for flying solo at The Discoveries Of, but there are times when it totally makes sense to book onto a tour with a local guide. To be honest, I definitely think that this is one of them.
Run by three locals, the guides at Midgard are passionate about showing the hidden Iceland that so many people miss as they whizz around the ring road. Plus, they have superjeeps.
What are superjeeps? I hear you asking? Take a look at the picture above.
Not only do these bad boys look completely pimp,
Need to fjord a fast-flowing stream to get to
Basically, you’re taking a completely custom-built tour with a local know-it-all (in a good way) in a pimp ride. All the yes.
Urridafoss Waterfall (Urriðafoss Waterfall)
Urridafoss is one of Iceland’s lesser-known waterfalls but is one of the most spectacular. It took a bit of digging to find out and visit this waterfall, but it was worth it.
I’ll level with you, it might not be the tallest waterfall in Iceland, but what it lacks in height, it makes up for with sheer power… in fact, it’s the most voluminous waterfall in the country!
Located on the Þjórsá River (which at 230 km long clocks in as Iceland’s most voluminous river), it’s easy to access from a nearby car park.
Iceland Off the Beaten Path: Map
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