The One Piece Of Advice For Your Icelandic Vacation You Won’t Want To Follow But Really Should
Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, has undergone a remarkable transformation over the 10 years. At astonishing speeds, it has evolved from an industrial fishing hub in a backwater island nation, to international tourist destination favored by see-and-be-seen-on-Snapchat Millennials.
Icelandic tourism’s explosive growth — from 200,000 arrivals in 1990 to ten times that in 2017 — has endowed the tiny country with a new national industry. Now Wow! and Iceland Air are offering flights for as little as $55 each way, making a round trip comparable to the cost of taking a family of four to Olive Garden. A la Hawaii or the Florida Keys, Iceland and Rekjavic are truly be poised to break into the mainstream.
But when the plane fulls of tourists arrive, they will all be doing it wrong. In 2016, the Icelandic Tourism Board estimates that foreign tourists spent $5.6 billion, accounting for 30% of the nation’s economic activity. Tragically, 97% of that was spent in the most boring parts of the country. And by that I mean the Golden Circle (the easy-access natural wonders that cluster around the airport), and in the most deceptive tourist trap of all — Reykjavic itself.
For starters, Rekyjavic was never built to be a tourist hotspot. In fact all of Iceland is an unlikely candidate for international ardor. Its rise into the world’s vacation photo Facebook feeds can be traced to it’s spectacular, and not-so-distant, collapse. In late 2008, the Icelandic economy was in freefall. The country’s three largest banks went bust. Faced with debts of EURO 150,000 for each Icelander, the tiny North Atlantic nation took a different course than any other country during the financial crisis. Instead of bailing out its banks, it let them default.
Today the world’s oldest democracy is essentially a self-governing, low-cost airline.
The economic pain came fast. So too did the search for a new industry to support the 350,000 Icelanders who, before gorging themselves on subprime loans, had been scraping out an existence on a largely barren but stunningly picturesque island at the edge of the Arctic Circle. They decided to put their harsh, empty landscape to work for them and embrace tourism. The cornerstone of the effort was remaking the national carrier, Iceland Air, into a low-cost, transatlantic airline with a side business in eminently Instagram-able day trips during your layover (or as Iceland Air markets it: “stopover”).
The plan worked almost astonishingly well. Iceland Air is now the country’s largest employer; and tourism, its biggest and fastest growing industry. If before the financial crisis, Iceland was, as a Michael Lewis article described it, “no longer a country” so much as a hedge fund with a population of 350,000. Today the world’s oldest democracy is essentially a self-governing, low-cost airline.
This pivot to tourism worked because Iceland really is spectacularly and uniquely beautiful. It has a landmass about the size of West Virginia, and a population the half that of El Paso, Texas. The center is a mostly inaccessible mix of volcanos and glaciers surrounded by a necklace of verdant pastures, dramatic fjords and the occasional lava flow. Every summer as the snowcaps and glaciers melt back, the water makes its way to the ocean by way of thousands of stunning waterfalls.
All of this is worth seeing. It’s worth renting a comically small vehicle (good luck on the Ring Road!) to go and gawk at. What’s not worth the cost, however, is Reykjavic.
Don’t use it as a base for excursions. Don’t visit it for just a few days. Just skip it. Rent a car at Keflavick airport. Take country’s only stretch of divided highway East towards the capital — you can stop at the Blue Lagoon if you must — but when you see the exit for Reykjavik, keep driving.
I know it sounds crazy. Who would go to a country and not visit its capital and only city of note? You should — that’s who. I can tell you as someone who has made this mistake (repeatedly!). Any hour you spend in the Icelandic capital is an hour of your trip better spent almost anywhere else on the island.
I want to make it clear that I have nothing against Reykjavik. It’s a perfectly lovely small town of 120,000. Well above average loveliness for its size, in fact! But compared to any of the older European capitals, it’s comes up almost comically short. And the whimsical charm of its overpriced coffee shops don’t hold a candle to the natural scenery just a few hours outside its borders.
It’s not that Icelanders aren’t trying to make Reykjavík nice. It’s just that there aren’t very many of them and they haven’t been a rich country very long. There aren’t enough people to develop a deep and rich musical or dance tradition. The food is mostly famous for being the terrible last resort of subsistence fishermen (fermented shark anyone?).
For nearly all of its history, Iceland was the poor, distant fringe of human settlement, cosmopolitan only in comparison to Greenland. There was never any money to build the big palaces or churches or museums that draw tourists. Icelanders are tremendously proud of their literary tradition. Though it should be telling that the Sagas are famously focused on leaving the Island in search somewhere, anywhere, less inhospitable. Fewer than 500,000 people in the world can read Icelandic, so the lyrical writings of long-dead Vikings are a bit hard to appreciate.
If Reykjavik, population 120,000, were a small town situated on the coast of Massachusetts, it would be well-worth a weekend visit. But the buildings are newer and less charming, the signature dish isn’t lobster rolls, its hot dogs, and the aesthetic of the architecture isn’t Federal red brick, but — I kid you not — corrugated metal. You got on a plane in a different country and flew thousands of miles to get to Iceland. Whatever city you departed from almost certainly has more to offer by way of urban excitement than Reykjavik.
Plus, once you get there, you’re only a day’s drive from some of the most dramatic and varied scenery in the world. You should get in a car and go see it.
The standard Iceland itinerary is set up base in Reykjavic (bad idea: see above) and then get on a bus to see the “Golden Circle” sites, which — shockingly — is an even worse idea. The Golden Circle is the route the Icelandic authorities hope you take, since keeping you in Reykjavik is the only good way to monetize free scenery.
Going to Iceland and only seeing the Golden Circle is like visiting the Empire State Building and never leaving the lobby.
But the important thing to remember about the Golden Circle is that it’s not composed of the best or most awe-inspiring sites in Iceland, as the name tries to imply, but rather the ones most proximate to the capital. Going to Iceland and only seeing the Golden Circle is like visiting the Empire State Building and never leaving the lobby. Geysir is, well, a geyser, except it is surrounded by throngs of tourists waiting to take a selfie with the next eruption. In Pingviller national park, you can walk in a narrow canyon where the north American and European continental plates meet. It is an interesting site, but Icelanders make a big deal about the park because the it’s is one of the few places in the country with trees. You’ve likely seen trees before, and what makes Iceland’s scenery so dramatic and vast is the absence of trees. Spending time in the one spot in Iceland that could be reasonably mistaken for Minnesota presumably isn’t what you came here for. Skogafoss is really spectacular and by far the best of the three. But if you’re in a pinch for time, you can safely skip them all if you want to get to the really good stuff faster.
So where is the good stuff, then? The short answer is everywhere more than a day’s drive outside Reykjavik. Icelanders naturally tended to cluster in the most inhabitable (read: least dramatic) part of the country. So every mile you get further from the south west of the island, the more breathtaking and less crowded the scenery gets. Once you’re about a day outside the capital, the tour buses on the Ring Road stop all together. So if you’re going to Iceland next summer, rent a car and get the hell out of town. You’ll thank me when you get back.