On October 1st, Iceland re-opened its borders to all. As tourism revs back up, traveling writer Katie Lockhart rounds up her favorite towns in Iceland apart from Reykjavík.
There’s a lot to love about Reykjavík. From its eccentric cafe scene with major hygge vibes to its boutique shops full of dainty handmade ceramics, this capital city has earned its tourist boom over the last decade. But as more travelers flock to “The Land of Fire and Ice,” it’s clear there are charming towns chock full of intrigue in every corner of the country. From artsy cinemas to indoor lava flows and lots of fish, these communities offer a different type of Icelandic beauty.
5.5-hour drive from Reykjavík
The largest town on the lesser-traveled roads of the Westfjords, Ísafjörður, has prospered from its fishing trade for centuries. Home to less than 3,000 people, on warm summer days, you’ll see fearless locals skiing on top of the frigid water, and when winter rolls around, you’ll find them swishing down the nearby slopes. The region’s only brewery, Dokkan Brugghús, is a watering hole for Icelanders and visitors piling off the cruise ships coasting into this idyllic fjord. This coastal community has one of the country’s largest collections of timber homes, with Tjöruhúsið being one of them. Here, tired travelers can indulge in an all-you-can-eat fish feast fit for Viking royalty. Just be sure to make a reservation; it’s the most popular restaurant in town. Right next door is the Westfjord History Museum packed with local tidbits and the tourism center for all your Westfjord nature questions. Don’t leave town without trying the seafood soup at Húsið, one of the best in the country, and a bowl you’ll be dreaming about long after you’ve unpacked your suitcase.
5-hour drive from Reykjavík, 1-hour drive from Akureyri
Iceland’s northernmost mainland town was the North Atlantic’s herring fishing capital in its bygone era. Split between three buildings within walking distance of each other, the Herring Era Museum is a profoundly impressive and immersive look into the town’s history and the vital role of fishing. After walking through all the exhibits on seafood, Fiskbúð Fjallabyggðar is the place to quell your appetite for steamy hot fish and chips at an affordable price. Situated right on the marina water, the cozy four-star Sigló Hótel was featured in the Icelandic show Trapped, drawing international fans to this town of 1,200 people. A short drive from the northern “capital” of Akureyri, Siglufjörður is also easily reachable along Iceland’s Arctic Coast Way. On your way through town, stop at Frida Chocolate if you’re lucky enough to catch it while it’s open. Here they churn out beautifully handmade, artisanal chocolates and creamy hot chocolate, ideal for when the snow starts to fall on this Arctic town.
8-hour drive from Reykjavík, 30-minute drive from Egilsstaðir
For a town that’s dredged in total darkness during the long winter months, there’s a lot of light in Seyðisfjörður. Its large artist community means a progressive acceptance here evident in the LGBTQ+ flags that fly high in the center of town. The country’s largest landslide hit Seyðisfjörður on December 18, 2020, destroying 13 buildings. But in the town’s small center, you’d never know the recent tragedy. The Instagram-famous rainbow road leading to the church is surrounded by colorful, historic timber buildings on either side. Housed in these buildings are small boutiques like Gullabuid with the entire building painted in a black and white swirl pattern, selling local Icelandic products and Við Lónið guesthouse, a charming multi-level abode for travelers. There’s a gallery painted with trolls selling handmade wools and a house painted like a Pac-Man game brought to life. This artsy town is also home to the Eastfjords only movie theatre, Herðubíó, showing blockbusters and Icelandic films.
2.5-hour drive from Reykjavík
A popular spot along the Ring Road, Vík’s black sand beach lies at the foot of one of the country’s largest volcanoes, Katla. Buy a ticket to the Icelandic Lava Show to learn about the volcano, decades overdue for an eruption, and feel the heat of real flowing lava, the only place in the world where you can see it indoors. Afterward, try the Red Hot Lava soup from The Soup Company next door, where steaming red borscht is served inside a charcoal-baked bread bowl. A leisurely horse ride on the black sand beaches here and the puffins returning in summer draw millions to this seaside town. Stay at the Scandinavian chic new Hótel Vík or its neighbor Hótel Kría. In the morning, walk to Skool Beans for some of the country’s best artisanal coffee concoctions served inside a converted yellow school bus with a three-legged cat mascot. Should Katla erupt during your visit, drive as fast as you can to the famous timber church on the hill and await instruction.