Magical and mystical Iceland continues to generate buzz among the travel community, and for good reason. An ideal stop-off for Americans en route to Europe — or an alluring destination in its own right — this sparsely populated country combines jaw-dropping natural wonders with a fascinating culture that seems ahead of the curve on many levels. This Nordic island nation, Europe’s westernmost country, boasts superlatives from having had the first democratically voted female president and the largest glacier in Europe (Vatnajökull) to being the only place in the world where you can snorkel between two (North American and Eurasian) tectonic plates.

This dramatic landscape sprinkled with volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and lava fields also happens to be home to a population of (roughly 380,000) friendly, hardy folks who can largely trace their roots back to Norse settlers who arrived in the 9th century. Today, the residents are prolific readers, uniquely creative artists, and (quite often) believers of elves, translated in Icelandic to “hidden people.” An impressive leader in renewable energy, the country boasts 70 percent of its electricity from hydropower plants and 30 percent from geothermal energy.

Travel Logistics

Icelandair offers affordable ways to fly to Keflavik International Airport (KEF) from a bounty of U.S. cities, with new routes popping up all the time (like this seasonal addition from Pittsburgh that launched in mid-May). For those wanting to fly in ultimate comfort, Saga Premium Flex offers exclusive comfort and perks (from airport lounge access to truly delicious, fresh, in-flight meals), not to mention easier ticket changes and full refundability. Thoughtful little touches enhance Saga passengers’ flights, like sustainable amenity kits adorned with art by Icelandic talents and filled with products by Swedish brand Verso.

One’s imagination and sense of adventure get fueled the moment the plane descends into the lunar-like, lava rock landscape, with misty mountains and steely gray waters in the backdrop instantly setting the scene. Many choose to use Reykjavík, the world’s northernmost capital, as a home base for day-trip excursions with knowledgeable tour companies like Reykjavik Excursions. (Visitors can get into town from the airport via taxi or shuttles like Flybus Airport Transfer.) Others wishing for a sense of freedom throughout the stay may rent a car to explore other parts of the island, like the highly trafficked Golden Circle or perhaps the entire 820-mile perimeter Ring Road, at their own pace. 

Alluring Accommodations

In Reykjavik, the industrial-chic Grandi by Center Hotel provides a pleasant home base near the waterfront with a hip lobby and on-site restaurant/bar. In the highly walkable city center, Hotel Holt is a 42-room boutique venue that houses Iceland’s largest privately owned art collection, which can be seen throughout the hotel.

For a luxurious home-away-from-home near the stunning South Coast, Hotel Ranga places guests in a tranquil countryside location blissfully far from all light pollution and next to one of the best salmon rivers in the country. An eight-plus-foot-tall polar bear and warm staff members greet guests in the wood-accented lobby. Northern Lights seekers take advantage of unique amenities here like an aurora wake-up service, an observatory stocked with two high-quality telescopes, and an on-hand local astronomer on clear nights, plus geothermally-heated hot tubs in which to absorb the overhead spectacle. During the peak of summer, the sun doesn’t fully set here, and it can still feel like full daylight past 11 p.m.

blue lagoon iceland
Blue Lagoon

For unique Icelandic pampering, consider booking at least one night at Silica Hotel, not far from the airport and located only a ten-minute walk from the celebrated Blue Lagoon. This dreamy, tranquil retreat has its own private lagoon that allows guests to float around on noodles in the destination’s azure, healing waters that are enriched with bioactive elements like silica, algae, and minerals.

Complemented by a fantastical natural backdrop, breakfast spreads in the Silica’s soothing dining room-lounge prove as fresh and delicious as they are photo-worthy. Dinner at soaring, on-property Lava Restaurant, built into an 800-year-old lava cliff on the west bank of the Blue Lagoon, serves standout dishes from an unforgettable mushroom soup with coconut milk to lamb filet with potatoes, chimichurri, and carrots, plus a fish of the day caught from the nearby harbor in Grindavík.

For an even more elevated experience, check out another Blue Lagoon offering — The Retreat. This 60-suite luxury resort features a subterranean spa, Michelin-starred dining, and a private lagoon sourced from the same healing waters as the Blue Lagoon.

Cultural + Culinary Highlights

Find unexpected joy at Icelandic HorseWorld, a horse breeding farm that’s home to about 100 wild-haired residents with the sweetest disposition and the rare gift of being the world’s only horses with five gaits. And at the bustling Fridheimar Greenhouse, abuzz with lunchtime chatter set among rows of rainbow-hued produce, learn about the eco-friendly ways in which this family-run operation grows tomatoes, sold all over the island, with the help of geothermal heat and the pollination of bees imported from the Netherlands. A delightful, casual dining experience here includes unlimited, can’t-miss tomato soup served with crusty bread, creamy butter, cucumber relish, and fresh basil clipped directly from the table’s centerpiece, skewers of chicken, veggies, and seafood, plus a sweet finale of tomato-flavored ice creams and sorbets. 

In the capital, a palate-pleasing guided walking tour with Reykjavik Food Walk – Local Foodie Adventure in Iceland allows visitors to learn more about Icelandic culture while trying local delicacies. Memorable experiences range from lobster soup savored at an old fish shed by the marina and fermented shark sampled in a jazzy new eatery called Dass, to celebrated Icelandic hot dogs (80 percent lamb), served from a modest kiosk that’s been in operation since 1937. 

Around Iceland seafood lovers will delight in a selection of scallops and salmon to various preparations of salted cod. At the Sunday flea market in Reykjavik, visitors can nibble on dried fish jerky before scouring for treasures like lava jewelry and hand-knitted goods (think beautiful sweaters!) made with Icelandic wool.

At brand-new Reykjavik hot spot Amber and Astra, diners can enjoy meals of salad Lyonnaise, steak tartare, and mussels, with disco and soul beats setting the sultry vibe. The grand finale here features fresh-from-the-oven, made-to-order Madeleine pastries, pavlova, and sorbet. Reykjavik Lebowski Bar draws mega-fans of the cult classic film who enjoy choosing from the menu’s bounty of white Russian variations, while nearby Bókabúð Máls og menningar lures avid readers to this bookstore-cafe-bar that has nightly live music. 

For culinary take-home treats your family and friends will thank you for, be sure to stop into Reykjavik’s Taste of Iceland for locally-made jams, Circolo handmade chocolates, Saltverk products (ordered by Gordon Ramsay for all his restaurants), and all things licorice, a preferred sweet — alongside ice cream — in the palates of most Icelanders. 


On your last evening in Iceland, this time around anyway, you may just find yourself full and awake after a decadent dinner, spent amid an otherworldly landscape and among brand-new friends. As the warm light projects through the gauzy curtains and dances on the wall of your tranquil guest room at 10:18 p.m., your body clock feels confused and your sense of wonder piqued. You quietly thank Iceland for making all your senses feel bright and alive — in only the way that travel can do best.