The word has gotten out, and many of us have already felt the magnetic pull. Iceland teems with visitors these days, and a good number of the Nordic island nation's residents graciously claim they like it this way. The country consists of an unforgiving landscape void of trees, whipped by wind and dotted with gushing geysers and bubbling hot springs.
The rugged terrain seems charmed by something otherworldly, as crisp rainbows arch over waterfalls, and green and purple lights dance across a never-ending night sky. The people – hearty, ruddy-faced and kind – consistently rank as some of the happiest in the world. Upon visiting, it's immediately easy to understand why.
1. Free Icelandair stopovers
Natural resources in Iceland include fish, hydropower and geothermal energy — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
Thanks to Icelandair's wonderful stopover program, Europe-bound travelers can visit the country for up to seven days at no extra cost – perhaps while en route to other sensational Scandinavian nations like Norway. Icelandair boasts friendly service and perks that include seasonal menu items and fascinating entertainment programming that gives great insight into Icelandic culture.
2. Breath of fresh air
Ancient Greek explorers, Irish monks and Norse Vikings all happened upon this breathtaking land — Photo courtesy of Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson
When it feels like scary things are happening in our country and around the world, one might seek hopeful inspiration from Iceland's peace-loving, gender equality-supporting and eco-conscious ways.
Each year the nation's Gay Pride Festival draws a crowd of 80,000, only 2% of the population is unemployed, the country has no army, they are pioneers in the use of geothermal energy for space heating and, in 1980, the island nation appointed the world’s first democratically-elected female head of state.
With some of the globe's lowest crime and highest life expectancy rates (thanks to a healthy diet and elevated standards of healthcare), the country also has a long history of being named one of the most joyful countries on the annual "World Happiness Report."
This seems an especially impressive feat for a land that experiences only a few hours of daylight in wintertime. Alda of Holt Hotel comments, "Of course you feel [the darkness], but you get used to it. It doesn't stop you from doing everything you want to do."
3. Free walking tours (+ budget-friendly tips)
Eiríkur leads CityWalk tours that prove informative, funny and fun — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
Sure, Iceland can be a pricey destination where the kronur quickly add up, but thankfully there are plenty of ways to save during your explorations. For example, join free (tip-based) walking tours of Reykjavik, run by a few well-informed and witty history students, on an adventure that may just become one of your Icelandic highlights.
These two-hour excursions focus on the country's past, present and future, while sprinkling in quirky cultural customs and humorous insider tidbits along the way.
Other budget-friendly tips? Hot dogs from street vendors prove surprisingly delicious, Bónus stores are prime for stocking up on affordable groceries (look for the pink pig logo) and Icelandic faucets deliver some of the most refreshing glacial water you'll ever taste (so that staying hydrated doesn't cost a dime).
4. Natural beauty
Walking around inside the ice caves of the Langjokull Glacier is an otherworldly experience — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
Here, superlatives abound; Iceland is home to three national parks plus Europe's most voluminous glacier, largest bird cliff and most powerful waterfall (Dettifoss). As the least populated country in Europe, nearly 80% of the country is uninhabited, its terrain consisting of plateaux, mountain peaks and fertile lowlands.
Although the arctic fox is its only native animal, the country's residents include 4,000,000 puffins, 460,000 sheep and 35,000 whales, not to mention 80,000 of those resilient long-haired horses that withstand the angry winds that pummel wide-open plains.
There's no denying, however, that Iceland's landscape is changing; up north, they've started seeing polar bears for the first time, likely due to nearby melting icebergs. So while you still can, experience some of the globe's most exquisite natural sites up close and personal.
Rent a car to cruise the Ring Road that circles the island or to explore the must-hit attractions that dot the popular Golden Circle. "Game of Thrones" enthusiasts will want to trek up north (six to seven hours from Reykjavik) to find familiar sites from their beloved series.
Or, better yet, put someone else behind the wheel and let companies like Extreme Iceland take you to the sensational Snaefellsnes Peninsula or up to the Langjokull Glacier (in a monster truck). Here you get to witness 2,500 years of Mother Nature's ice-sculpting expertise as you wander the glacier's interior via mystical ice caves. (If you're lucky, your guide may provide a private concert inside an acoustically brilliant ice chapel.)
5. Radiant Reykjavik
Reykjavik is a highly walkable town featuring cultural and culinary gems plus a lot of soul — Photo courtesy of Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson
Designated a UNESCO City of Literature, Reykjavik (literally "Smoky Bay") is a buzzing capital city plopped on the country's southwest coast. The Flybus shuttle is an easy way to reach the city from Keflavík International Airport, located about 45 minutes from downtown. More than half the population lives in the capital region, making it a vibrant culinary and cultural hub where you'll find a bounty of trendy yet cozy cafes, restaurants and pubs.
Step inside the Alþingishús (Parliament House), take in a performance at the exquisite Harpa concert hall, ascend to the tip-top of Hallgrimskirkja Church for a bird's-eye view, and get educated at the National Museum of Iceland, The Settlement Exhibition or Árbær Open Air Museum.
For convenient lodging just a few minutes' stroll from the main walking street, cozy into the Hotel Holt, a small boutique venue with Old-World charm that's been family-run since a husband-wife team of passionate art collectors opened it in 1965.
The venue now features the largest privately owned art collection in Iceland, mounting works by masters like Kjarval, Jón Stefánsson and Ásmundur Sveinsson. Before settling into your welcoming room or suite, enjoy delicious fare at the highly lauded Gallery Restaurant or sip a cocktail in the art-fueled lounge.
6. Creative inspiration
Every November, Iceland Airwaves fills Kex Hostel with even more live music than usual — Photo courtesy of Benjamin Hardman/Kex Hostel
For an isolated culture in the North Atlantic, creativity proves crucial. Iceland highly values education and its citizens take great interest in the arts. Since the country was settled in the 9th century, writing and music have played an integral role; today Icelandic authors publish more books per capita than any other country in the world.
In the 80s, traditional Icelandic creativity began to ripple though the global fields of fashion, design, art, film and haute cuisine, while artists like Bjork and more recently Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men have put the country on the modern-day music map.
Each November, a now globally renowned grassroots festival, called Iceland Airwaves, takes over dozens of venues big and small throughout Reykjavik. With the aim of showcasing new music from Iceland and abroad, the event has become famous for discovering some of the hottest new talents on the cusp of stardom.
Despite the event's growth, fest-goers claim that Airwaves feels egalitarian, meaning you might find yourself standing next to a musician in the bar line or receiving an invitation to share a drink after the show.
Other sweet-sounding events include Secret Solstice (think main stage sets, glacier raves, midnight sun boat bashes and secret lagoon gatherings) and Aldrei fór ég suður, which was started by musician Mugison and his dad in 2004 and takes place during Easter in Ísafjörður.
7. Northern Lights brilliance
Hunting for the Northern Lights can lead to huge payoffs — Photo courtesy of Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson
Between September and April, Mother Natures puts on a magnificent overhead spectacle that draws aurora hunters from near and far. Although the Northern Lights – collisions between electrically-charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere – are active all year-long, we can only glimpse the magic-tinged phenomena in complete darkness, when the skies are clear.
Getting out of town and away from city lights is your best bet for viewing success; consider tagging along with smaller tour companies like Superjeep, which allows passengers to get off the main roads and farther away from traces of light pollution. If all the stars happen to align, you're in for a spectacular treat.
If stuck in Reykjavik, head to slightly removed spots like the Grotta Lighthouse.
8. Friendly, flourishing folks
Many Iceland natives like Halli of Superjeep tours loved living abroad, but are thrilled to be back in their beloved homeland — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
Icelanders are largely descended from Nordic and Celtic settlers, and they still share a strong bond with Scandinavia. They value family and traditional gatherings and by nature tend to be creative and self-reliant. (They really love their soccer and handball, too!)
The country consists of hearty people who've learned to exist under extreme conditions and to make use of the natural resources in their midst. Halli, an amiable and gregarious guide who works for Superjeep tours, calls his people "tough and resilient...If you're tough, it's respected. Whining isn't allowed." He references the country's impressive bounce-back from the 2008 recession as a perfect example and adds, "The country didn't give up."
People here tend to be welcoming, witty and equipped with highly impressive English-speaking skills. The saying seems valid:"if you've been to Iceland once, you always have friends in Iceland."
9. Fresh, fabulous fare
Icelandic mainstays still include lamb, potatoes and plenty of fresh fish — Photo courtesy of Gunnar Svanberg
Although the basic Icelandic diet hasn't changed much since Viking days (think succulent mountain lamb, skyr, potatoes and ocean-fresh seafood), the recent tourism boom has nudged innovative chefs beyond the country's traditional hunting-farming-gathering ways. The abundance of greenhouses and an increased interest in artisanal, global foods have expanded the country’s palate, too.
At Reykjavik's Kopar, an inviting spot with exposed brick walls and harbor views, settle in next to bundled tourists and rosy-cheeked locals – perhaps celebrating en masse with bubbly in hand. Here you'll enjoy creative twists on traditional Icelandic recipes; begin with the sourdough bread and brown cheese butter (artistically served on a slab of brick), and be wowed by gems like the cured goose, lamb spring rolls and lightly-salted cod.
Other culinary stand-outs in Reykjavik include Apotek Kitchen + Bar, newly relocated Dill Restaurant and, located on the top floor of architectural masterpiece Harpa, the fine dining establishment Kolabrautin. Housed in one of central Reykjavík’s oldest buildings, The Fish Market Restaurant invites guests to relish some of the country's freshest local ingredients showcased in delectable fish, meat and sweet dishes.
10. Adrenaline-boosting & heart rate-lowering activities
Take a dip in the Blue Lagoon or dozens of other (less touristy) hot springs scattered around the country — Photo courtesy of Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson
Whether you're looking to get pampered or invigorated during your stay (or perhaps a combo of the two), Iceland has activities for every age and style of traveler. While the fantastic Blue Lagoon is one of the most trafficked attractions for finding ultimate relaxation in a surreal setting, the country boasts some 170 geothermal pools waiting to help guests unwind (many of them about 1/10th of the admission price).
In winter months, daredevils can brave extreme temps to try their hand at ice climbing, surfing, skiing and scuba diving in between the tectonic plates. Other popular options in warmer seasons range from horseback riding and hiking to rafting down rushing waters.
As Extreme Iceland's Oliver, a part-time tour guide and part-time documentary filmmaker, jokes, some of the whitewater rafting routes can help you determine whether "you're a man or mouse."
Explore Iceland's southern coast on a fun-filled Superjeep tour — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
While driving back from a memorable day on the southern coast, Icelandic indie rock band Kaleo playing on the car radio, it's hard to imagine many places you'd rather be.
It's only 4 something and the sun is setting, its golden rays casting a pink glow on a towering glacier to the right, as the vast Atlantic Ocean gleams to your left. "OK, Iceland," you think, smiling to yourself, "I finally get what the hype's all about."