Iceland has majestic natural wonders like ice capped volcanoes and black sand beaches all combining to create a beautiful landscape. The severe weather conditions and land topography has led to a consistently small population size compared to other countries. The estimated total population of this island nation is only about 350,000 inhabitants. Iceland also has the lowest population density in Europe at 8 people per square mile (3 people per square kilometer).
Naturally, the cities are smaller than other countries but are no less interesting. The best cities to visit in Iceland will highlight the rich Icelandic culture and introduce you to friendly locals. The dynamic cities, small towns, and charming villages all have something unique to offer while contrasting the rugged landscape.
What is the Best City to Stay in Iceland?
As you plan your trip a common question is, what is the best city to stay in Iceland? When visiting Iceland you should stay in Reykjavík because it is not only the capital city but also the largest city. It has roughly 200,000 citizens living there, which is two thirds of the Icelandic population. Therefore, starting your trip to Iceland in Reykjavík is a wonderful opportunity to explore what this exciting city has to offer.
Reykjavík is a lively capital full of vivid colors and unique charm. The robust appreciation of art is seen in the vivid display of commissioned graffiti and art installations found throughout Reykjavík. In fact Hlíðargöngin, the underpass of Miklabraut Road, is available for noncommissioned graffiti artists to legally share their work. Reykjavík also has five museums to visit and several art galleries. The most known and established art gallery is i8 Gallery founded in 1995 and highlights work for many respected artists.
The heart of the city has a great view of the Atlantic Ocean and sweeping Icelandic landscape. Within city limits you can even visit the stunning “Hiking Haven” (Heiðmörk) nature reserve. It functions as an oasis complete with many walking trails, lava formations, and robust vegetation. You can also go bird watching at Reykjavík Botanical gardens or in nearby areas like Viðey Island. You can even admire the twirling Northern Lights during high season.
In Reykjavík, the nightlife is lively in all seasons with bars open during the midnight sun and dark winter nights. Laugavegur is the most popular street to find entertainment because it has many interesting bars and pubs. There is also a dynamic music culture with yearly festivals such as the Icelandic Airwaves.
Best cities in Iceland – Try the Food
Every corner has a cozy coffee shop, restaurant, microbrewery and more. Before you leave Reykjavík eat at local restaurants to taste genuine Icelandic delicacies and snacks like fish jerky. Icelandic cuisine is known for using fresh and high quality ingredients such as fresh caught Atlantic Cod and hearty lamb stews. Restaurants have also incorporated in their menus many vegan and vegetarian friendly food options.
The potentially controversial cultural foods are reflective of the harsh environment and utilizing what resources were available. For example, traditional Icelandic dishes can also include fermented shark, sheep’s head, whale, ram’s testicles and even Atlantic Puffins. Fermented shark is the national dish and in between bites you drink strong liquor called Black Death. When you have satisfied your appetite you are in the perfect location to drive to your next destination. Reykjavík is a convenient location to be picked up for excursions like to the Golden Circle.
Why Are There So Many Churches?
As you drive through cities and towns in Iceland you will begin to wonder, why are there so many churches? Iceland has approximately 400 churches and they were built to avoid unnecessary travel during severe weather conditions. They were also used as a status symbol to signify wealth. The denominations are mostly Lutheran and Christian. Hallgrimskirkja Church is located in Reykjavík and is the largest church in Iceland. The beautiful architecture looks like tall basalt columns formed after a volcanic eruption
Guðjón Samúelsson was the architect and he also designed the stunning Akureyrarkirkja Church. This church is located in Akureyri, the second largest city in Iceland.
Important Cities in Iceland
There are many important cities in Iceland to visit on your road trips around the country like Akureyri, Vík, and Grundarfjörður. Your first stop after Reykjavík should be to Akureyri known as the “Capital of North Iceland.” Akureyri has a sheltered natural harbor and great weather to sustain agriculture. Hafnarstraet road is the heart of this city and has many restaurants and interesting shops. The Botanical Garden showcases the diverse Icelandic floral and plant life. They also have museums, music festivals, and concerts. Akureyri is a premier location for skiing and picture perfect moments. This city is also nearby Gásir, a notable archeological site. Gásir housed the medieval trading post where the selling of falcons occurred. Now every July there is an exciting Medieval Market re-enactment.
As you continue to travel on the ring road into the South Coast, Vík is a lovely village in Iceland with many features to explore. Reynisfjara is a midnight black sand beach waiting for you to walk along the shore and marvel at the natural beauty. Vík has a famous red roofed church called Víkurkirkja and it is the most photographed landmark. You can also easily see the arch of Dyrholaey and the impressive Myrdalsjokull Glacier. So get your camera ready.
If you fly into Iceland with Keflavík International Airport you will land in Reykjanes peninsula. There are five wonderful villages but Grindavík is a quaint fishing village that has the world renowned Blue Lagoon Spa. It is one of the most iconic excursions and will relax you from your long journey. The town has additional amenities like fishing lakes, swimming pools and more. There are also many museums, art galleries, and tasty foods.
When you travel to Snæfellsnes Peninsula visit Grundarfjörður village to go whale watching. You will see many varieties of whales such as Minke whales, Humpbacks, and Orca whales. This village also has the stunning Kirkjufell Mountain, known for its symmetry and arrowhead shape. It is also featured in the Game of Thrones HBO series.
Next, if you would love to sightsee the popular Atlantic Puffins you can travel to the Westman Islands. This location has the largest colony of puffins globally. You can also visit Heimaey the only inhabited Westman Island. The best time to see the puffins are from end of April through early September.
Iceland has plenty of memorable cities and small villages. They all provide insight into the Icelandic culture and highlight the picturesque landscape.