Iceland is a country where natural beauty outdoes itself every time your raise up your head and look forward. It is a very natural thing that you would just want to travel and see these natural wonders when in Iceland but there is something that you should know – Iceland is a lot more than just the natural rugged beauty that is widely known for. From fabulous nightlife to glorious festivals, you will get to experience a beautiful culmination of modernity and tradition in the villages of Iceland.
The story of settlement in Iceland is quite harsh given the difficulty to survive weather conditions, the not-so-fertile land to grow vegetables and other edibles, and the sheer lack of resources because it is an isolated island in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, the harsh initial years of the settlement soon turned into beautiful little towns and villages scattered all across the country with their unique traits and qualities that make them a must-visit place when you visit the country along with all the other destinations which are courtesy of mother nature. This article will cover the top 12 towns and villages that you have to pay at least one visit during your travels in the land of ice and fire and will explore all the things that you can enjoy when there.
A perfect combination of natural and commercial beauty, this small town amid east Iceland is housed by a beautiful fjord of the same name. Seyðisfjörður has a population of about 668 people and is surrounded by some of the most prominent natural wonders of east Iceland. There is nothing but beautiful waterfalls and huge snow-clad mountains around the town in the fjord two of which are Mt. Bjólfur and Strandartindur.
Just like most towns in Iceland, the main pillar on which the economy stands here is the fishing industry however the recent times have made tourism a very viable part of the economy as well. You will find a beautiful harbor here in the town which is quite populated at most times of the day. The ferry that travels to Scandinavia – ferry Norræna – also operates from here.
Apart from the gorgeous small restaurants, breweries, cafés and comfy hotels, you can find a lot of cultural events to attend and places to visit in the town as well. There you will find an art studio and art center for the lovers of fine things, a telecommunication museum, and one of the two cinema halls of the eastern part of the country. Seyðisfjörður has also gotten popular for the beautiful LungA art festival. The festival is held in mid-July and is a platform where young artists are celebrated and recognized for their work which explains the name of the festival – LungA – a combination of the words Lista (art) and ungur (young). There are exhibitions, art workshops, fashion shows, and even concerts. Several top artists from the country take part in the festival making it a great event to attend for all tourists.
Initially, a small settlement, the town of Seyðisfjörður started to grown into an actual functioning town with flourishing business when the fishermen came across the ‘the silver of the sea’ i.e. herring. A trading center was developed in 1848 in the town which only grew further in a huge hub, much larger than its neighboring towns – courtesy of the huge protective fjord round the town. Upon your visit to the town, you will find beautiful multi-colored houses that were built by Norwegian merchants and whalers around the period of the economic rise of the town. Although the whaling business is no more active, the ruins of the industry can still be visited if interested. The town also served as a base for the allied forces during World War 2. At the bottom of the fjords rests the British oil tanker that was bombarded by Germans and was sunk later on to prevent it from being scavenged by the enemies. The ruins are still inside the water and serve as a great tourist attraction for scuba divers.
Another gem in the east part of the country, just like Seyðisfjörður, Borgarfjörður Eystri is also a fishing town that has been flourishing with the help of the tourism industry for quite some time now. While tourism only takes the lead in the summer season, farming and fishing keep the economy of the town afloat all year round. The town only has 130 people so, if you are an extrovert, there is a good chance that you will have 130 more friends when you leave here after the stay of a day or two. Borgarfjörður Eystri and the surrounding areas are a very popular spot for hiking. Stórurð or the giant boulder is the most popular part for hiking in the surrounding along with the nearby mountain ring. There are rhyolite mountains in the south of the fjords while the north of the fjord is covered with basalt mountains. There are several puffins in the area as well during the migration season which makes it a pretty great place for bird watching as well.
Some of the most famous artists and pieces of art of Iceland took birth in this small town. One of Iceland’s greatest painters, Johannes Kjarval, was born in Borgarfjörður Eystri. The town also holds a beautiful exhibition of his work for the visitors. There is a beautiful museum, Kjarvalssafn, in the town where you can see more work from Kjarval and other great pieces of art as well. Fact check – the Bakkagerdi church was also Kjarval’s creation. If you are a lover of music and concerts, the Braedslan music festival could be your jam. The festival is being celebrated since 2005 in an old herring factory in the town. The festival even got the Eyrarros award for outstanding cultural achievement in the countryside in the year 2010. From Monsters and Men to Mugison, Belle & Sebastian, Damien Rice, and Emiliana Torrini, several notable musicians and artists have performed in the festivals making it a heaven for music lovers.
Borgarfjörður Eystri is also believed to be the home of the Elf queen. There is a rock outcrop that goes by the name of Alfaborg which means Elfrock or Elfcastle. Locals believe that the queen of elves along with a few of her subordinates lives in this rock castle. They often advise the visitors to go ahead and pay their respects to the queen for good luck and prosperity.
Needless to say, Stykkishólmur is quite a cultural hub and holds many beautiful things that tourists can explore. There is a beautiful museum called the Norwegian House which is the oldest two-story building built in 1828 that represents the way aristocrats and wealthy Icelanders used to live around that time. There is a fantastic Volcano Museum, the oldest weather station in the country, built-in 1845, and several other small gimmicks. The town has also served as the set and shooting location for quite a few Hollywood movies as well.
Since Stykkishólmur was established quite early, it is mentioned in quite a few stories and sagas of Iceland and holds a great historical significance as well. The most notable of these saga stories is the one with Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir – a beautiful female lead who struggled to keep her children safe and well-fed while dealing with the pain of losing four husbands throughout her life. She ultimately becomes a nun and is now buried at Helgafell church. Stykkishólmur is quite close to a lot of natural attraction of Snæfellsnes Peninsula such as the Kirkjufell mountain and the Snæfellsjökull National Park.
Siglufjörður has a very interesting fishing museum that showcases the beautiful history and significance of the fishing industry in the development of the town. This museum is known as the Herring Era Museum and it one of Iceland’s biggest fishing museums. it is divided into three parts and shows everything from fishing as an activity and the process of fishing that Iceland follows. The second house contains various kinds of ships and boats from the 1950s and the third house shows how herring is converted into meals, oils, and other useable products.
Another worth visiting place is the Folk Museum of Siglufjörður. There you will find many interesting things like the residence of Bjarni Þorsteinsson, ‘The Father of Siglufjörður’, locals singing the old folk songs of the country and the area, chanting epic rhymes, old Icelandic nursery rhymes, and a show on the life of the reverend. This museum is the best place to catch a glimpse of the local life of the town and the surrounding areas. Apart from that, there is a great folk festival that the town hosts annually. You will find plenty of music handicrafts, dancing, crafts, concerts, and parties here at this festival. It is held in early July and the focus remains on the music of Iceland.
A small town in the north of the country, Dalvík is filled with many small attractions that can make up into a small one-day field trip for the tourists. With calm energy and serenity, Dalvík serves as a great place to layover and spend the night when you are touring around the country. Not to mention, there are several things that you can see here and several activities that you can try while you are visiting such as the local swimming pool, unique skiing facilities, Hvoll the folk museum, and a golf course. The activities that you can try out our sea angling, whale watching, and horseback riding as well.
Húsavík is the whale watching capital of Europe and not just Iceland, it is mandatory for every animal lover and fish lover to visit this place as there is no better place in the country to catch a sight of the beautiful whales and dolphins that migrates to the island for nesting and feeding. The town has a 100% sighting rate of whales and other fishes which makes it the only one in the country. There are several other things and places that you can visit and do around the town such as the local museums, and several cafés and restaurants.
Heading a little towards the west, we reach the town of Ísafjörður, the largest settlement, and town in the Westfjords of Iceland. Just like Akureyri is considered to be the capital in the north, Ísafjörður is considered to be the capital of this region. The town is located in the low, narrow, sandy peninsula located in the Skutulsfjörður fjords. The population of the settlement is about 2600 people and it is one of the very few large enough settlements in the Westfjords which can be called ‘town’. Ísafjörður is the center for trade, commerce, fishing, and tourism in the areas as well.
Ísafjörður itself was settled in the 9th century but it wasn’t until the 16th century that it started to really shape up into a big beautiful town. It was granted municipal status in the year 1786, shortly after it started becoming the hub for traders and merchants. Ísafjörður also has the oldest standing house in Iceland which was built in 1734. This town is a haven of festivals and people from all over the country visit it to attend these festivals. The line-up includes the Ski Week Festival, the European Championship of Swamp Soccer, music festival Aldrei fór ég suður, and the Act Alone theatre festival.
The town is often quite cold – colder than the generally expected standards across the country, especially in summers. Since the town is located in the middle of the fjords and is bordered by the artic very closely, it barely gets any sunlight in the summers and remains colder than the areas that get a few rays of the sun. However, the birdlife around the town in the Westfjords is quite full of beautiful birdlife. Not only that, but you will also get to see some fabulous wild animals alike the arctic fox when you go hiking on the nearby trails. This town used to be the largest fisheries in the whole country before the fishing ban of the 1980s when the population of the fishes dropped dangerously low.
Another beautiful settlement in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Grundarfjörður is located on the north coast of the peninsula. It houses about 800 people and is known for its substantial ship traffic and tourist traffic that it gets. Grundarfjörður has a very interesting public library, a historical center, a photography exhibition – Bæringsstofa, and a gorgeous resident’s café. The photography exhibition houses a great collection of photographs by late photographer Bærings Cecilsson, who also happens to be an honorary citizen of the town.
Grundarfjörður is known for the sheer number of outdoor activities that it offers along with the comfortable accommodation, hotels, and restaurants that it has. You can get horse rides, hiking, kayaking, camping, and golfing. People also visit the town when visiting the nearby Kirkjufell Mountain which is literally a stone’s throw away from the town. The mountain stands tall parallel to the town on the edge of the peninsula – alone in the vicinity. It is the most-photographed mountain in the country and all for good reasons too. It has unlimited good angles to be photographed from and not only that – it looks wonderful in all kinds and types of lighting. Not to mention, the changing scenery that the seasons bring. You will have a full, fun time when visiting Grundarfjörður.
Popularly known as the Westman Islands, Vestmannaeyjar is a group of 15 islands and about 30 rock stacks a little off the south coast of Iceland. Out of the 15 islands, only one is inhibited by people – Heimaey – which is the biggest of the 15 islands. The town on the island is known by the name of Vestmannaeyjar. The town has over 4300 people. Ferry Herjólfur from Landeyjarhöfn port comes to the island and is the only form of public transport to get here from the mainland. Another ferry comes from Þorlákshöfn but it takes about 3 hours to get to the town as it circles the whole group around and then reaches Heimaey.
Vestmannaeyjar has a rich cultural and artistic side to it. There are several museums in the town and events that take place every year in the town. You can visit the Einarsstofa museum, the Folk Museum, Eldheimar – the volcano museum, and the Sea Life Trust beluga sanctuary. Einarsstofa museum has a library where various exhibitions are held. The volcano museum is dedicated to the largest natural disaster that Iceland ever saw – the eruption of 1973 in Eldfell mountain. It is a good place for history buffs. If you are a fan of events and festivals, then you can look forward to Þjóðhátið music festival, Sjómannadagurinn or Sailor’s Day, The Puffin Run, and Goslokahátíð – a day that celebrates the end of the 1973 volcano eruption.
The largest settlement in the fjord of Önundarfjörður, a part of Westfjords, Flateyri is going to be your cup of tea if you are the one for that small-town charm. While history paints a slightly scary picture of the town, the reality of the present seems to disagree with it. Flateyri has that small-town vibe that we all love. The sea that surrounds the town is full of beautiful fishes and is plenty bountiful, there are beautiful hiking trails, white sand beaches, and beautiful small houses. The people here are known for their free-spirit, sense of community, openness, and diversity.
You will find several museums in almost every town in the country but nothing like the ones which they have in Flateyri. The No-Nonsense Museum of the town is an exhibition of pens, model ships, matchbooks, police hats, sugar cubes, and many more “no non-sense thing”. Another quirky museum here is “The Old Bookstore” which is a village museum showing the history of the place. You will also find a funky Doll Museum which has a collection of enormous collection of dolls and doll costumes from all over the world.
This is a charming little village in the Westfjords, Patreksfjörður is home to about 650 inhabitants. The town was set up by a reverend after Iceland converted to Christianity and made it the major religion of the country. St. Patrick set up the town and that is why it is named after him – Patreksfjörður i.e., the fjord of St Patrick. There are several guest houses, bungalows, hotels and a campsite in the town that you can stay at while you visit the nearby attractions like Dynjandi waterfall, Látrabjarg cliffs, and Rauðasandur. Apart from that, there are restaurants, cafés and swimming pools in the town that can be a part of your field around the town.
Located in the municipality of Skaftárhreppur, Kirkjubæjarklaustur is a small village of 120 people and serves as one of the very few places where you can buy fuel, snacks, and such when traveling the ring road. This town is surrounded by a lot of myths and folklore, many of which are dark and scary as well. For example, a legend says that two nuns were executed and buried at the Sister’s rock for sinful behavior which included making a deal with the devil and selling their souls, removing communal bread from church property, irreverence towards the pope, and carnal sins with men. While the accusation was never proven to be true or otherwise, the punishment was still executed. There are several other myths and legends to explore while you are in the town and you will have a lot of fun while talking to the locals. There are several natural attractions near the town as well including Laki Craters in Vatnajökull National Park, the Landmannalaugar hiking trails in Fjallabak Nature Reserve, and Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon.