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Borgarnes, Hafnarfjall and Borgarfjörður

Borgarfjörður in West Iceland – A Gem Hidden in Plain Sight?

Borgarfjörður in West Iceland is relatively close to Reykjavík, around 1.5 to 2 hours drive, depending on where in the area you are headed. However, it is much less talked about than say the Golden Circle, Snæfellsnes, the South Coast or Akureyri and Lake Mývatn in the North. Certain places in Iceland have become much more popular than others and, in most cases, not because they are more beautiful or spectacular, sometimes mainly because they appeared in famous TV series or a music video, like Mt. Kirkjufell and the canyon Fjaðrárgljúfur. 

In Borgarfjörður, the most famous attractions include Hraunfossar waterfalls, Deildartunguhver hot springs and Langjökull glacier. The Silver Circle route includes the first two of these along with Húsafell, Krauma Spa and Reykholt village. The biggest (and you might say only) town in Borgarfjörður is Borgarnes, and then villages are e.g. Bifröst, Hvanneyri, Reykholt and Varmaland.

Borgarnes

A picturesque town on a peninsula in the fjord, Borgarnes is largely overlooked by Icelanders and foreign tourists alike, best known as a pit stop to fill up the car or grab a bite or coffee. But there is more to it, the town itself is beautiful, especially on a nice and sunny day, so it can be well worth it to take a stroll there, sit on a bench on a hill overlooking the fjord, visiting the swimming pool surrounded by nature (and some houses) and The Settlement Museum for a bit of history. Let’s take a look at a few places in Borgarnes that could be worth visiting for you.

Borgarfjörður from Borgarnes
Looking over Borgarfjörður from Borgarnes on an evening in June with a white cat meditating in the foreground.

Soffía’s Toy Museum

Soffía’s Toy Museum contains the toy collection of Ósk Elín Jóhannesdóttir in addition to donated toys. On a beautiful late summer day back in 2018, I was in Borgarnes and had a nice meal at Englendingavík restaurant. The weather was as pleasant as it gets in summertime, 18 degrees with a slight tingling ocean breeze from the fjord. We were a small group and after the meal, we somehow stumbled into Soffía’s Toy Museum in a small house next to the restaurant. Immediately as I stepped in, the calm summer breeze and comfortable warmth vanished from my mind and was replaced by an ice cold shiver down my spine as I noticed dolls staring at me from every corner of this small house.

Fast forward to 2024 and I’m still getting nightmares about the doll in the photo below, following me everywhere I go. So if you are into horror films and stories (…or just old toys), Soffía’s Toy Museum in Borgarnes should be just the right place for you. 

Doll in Borgarnes - Soffia's Toy Museum
One of the dolls at Soffia’s Toy Museum in Borgarnes. The photo was accidentally shot with some weird filter on the camera, which just makes it look more creepy. But maybe it wasn’t an accident, maybe it was planned … by the dolls.

The Swimming Pool

The swimming pool is a small one (25 x 12.5 m) with three hot tubs, sauna and a steam bath and three slopes for kids. Its surroundings are picturesque, the fjord with its green islands and a small escarpment by the football field parallel to the pool. 

The Settlement Center

The Settlement Center has two Saga exhibitions, The Settlement Exhibition and the Egils Saga Exhibition. 550 years before Columbus, Nordic men sailed across the Atlantic and discovered a large untouched island and claimed the land as their own. The exhibitions are intended to recreate the drama of the sagas and the birth of the nation. It is not a traditional museum, more like an installation with multi-media and theatrical techniques.

Glanni and Paradísarlaut

Just off the lava field by Bifröst in Borgarfjörður (Grábrókarhraun), you can find the waterfall Glanni, believed to be a home of elves and trolls. It is hidden from the highway but the path down to it is accessible by foot from the parking lot via a well marked trail. 

Paradísarlaut or Paradise Hollow is a tranquil oasis in the mossy lava field Grábrókarhraun. In the middle of the pond, you will find a tiny pond, the perfect place for a picnic. 

Paradísarlaut in Borgarfjörður
Paradísarlaut (e. Paradise Hollow)

Hafnarfjall

Hafnarfjall is a vicious looking mountain on the other side of the bridge to Borgarnes, all dark with sharp edges and known for magnifying bad weather below it. In the worst cases of weather below Hafnarfjall, cars have been blown off the road. It is part of an ancient central volcano that was active four million years ago. It is 844 meters high with eroded sides, mostly consisting of basalt. There is a small forest of birch trees at the foot of the mountain, where it is possible to hike up, but the route is challenging and can be dangerous. 

Borgarnes, Hafnarfjall and Borgarfjörður
Hafnarfjall in the background on the other side of the fjord

Baula

Baula is a conical liparite mountain, visible from far away in Borgarfjörður and surrounding area. It is 934 meters high and three million years old, consisting of liparit stone. It is possible to hike up the mountain from Bjarnardalur, but the sides are steep and there are big and loose stones on the way. The hike is not recommended for people with limited experience of hiking.

Mt. Baula in Borgarfjörður in the distance at 4 AM on a June morning
Mt. Baula in Borgarfjörður in the distance at 4 AM on a June morning

Where to Eat?

The food options I’ve tried in Borgarfjörður have been a positive surprise for the most part, ranging from countryside atmosphere at Hraunsnef Country Hotel to one of the best desserts I have tried in my life at Calor Restaurant (Hótel Varmaland) and a simple but tasty meal at Bara Borgarnes. More on the highlights below.

Hraunsnef Country Hotel

Hraunsnef Country Hotel is located by route 1 in Borgarfjörður at a farm where you can sit by the window, look at the animals outside and enjoy your meal in a calm countryside atmosphere, very different from e.g. the vastly popular roadside stops Hyrnan and Olís by the bridge into Borgarnes, where you will normally find hustle and bustle of travelers coming and going, eating hot dogs and ice cream in a rush. Adding to the calm vibe at Hraunsnef is the old Icelandic music, you might hear songs like Ég vil fara upp í sveit (e. I want to go to the countryside) with Ellý Vilhjálms from 1963 and Hvítu mávar (e. White seagulls) with Helena Eyjólfsdóttir from 1959. The vibe I got was a bit like being back sitting by the kitchen table of my grandparents on the farm as a child. Both songs are foreign originally but these lyrics are in Icelandic, and in a way they resemble the old Icelandic farmer society. In some Icelandic films, such as Hrútar (e. Rams), you can see this vibe from scenes in the kitchen, with a Thermos coffee flask on the table, the only available radio station on the radio (Rás 1) and pastries such as kleinur (twisted doughnuts) and Icelandic Happy Marriage Cake on the table.

Hótel Varmaland (Calor Restaurant)

Hótel Varmaland is in a very green area with geothermal heat at Varmaland, benefiting the greenhouse next to it. Part of the building used to be a homemaking school back in the day but the restaurant is on the fourth floor in a new part of the building, with views over the lush surroundings on all sides. I had an appetizer and a dessert there and the dessert was one of the best I have ever got, a rhubarb compote from Agnes with ice cream, combining sweet and sour in a perfect way and refreshing and crunchy as well. What more could you ask for in a dessert? The appetizer (endive salad) was not bad, but completely forgotten once I had the first bite of the dessert.

Bara Borgarnes

The name means Just Borgarnes and I’m not sure exactly how that originated but people tend to dismiss Borgarnes as just a place you drive through on your way to some other place, such as Snæfellsnes or Akureyri, highlighted by the fact that the roadside gas stations are by far the most visited “attractions” in town.

They have a simple menu (one A4 page) with fish & chips, grilled lamb or chicken, grilled lamb chops, burgers, chicken salad and one vegetarian option (marinated and grilled cabbage). 

The service was exemplary and the food delicious with a good portion of grilled lamb and salad, or everything as it should be. Therefore, I found the poster on the wall from musician and multidisciplinary artist Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson, better known as Prins Póló (1977-2022) to fit right in there, with the annotation Hér er allt eins og það á að vera (e. Here, everything is as it should be). Bara Borgarnes started only in 2021 but I recommend this short video about their story, where they say it was originally meant to be a local pub but evolved into a small restaurant as well.

BARA Borgarnes - Everything as it should be
Bara Borgarnes with the poster stating: “Here, everything is as it should be”

Englendingavík

Englendingavík is a restaurant and a guesthouse in an old wooden house, located by a bay with the same name. They use fresh Icelandic ingredients and emphasize seafood while also offering various lamb and vegetarian dishes and desserts. From the restaurant, you have an ocean view that also includes small islands and a rich birdlife. 

Grab a Bite From the Gas Stations or Grocery Stores

If you are driving from Reykjavík, you will see gas stations on both sides of the road when you arrive into Borgarnes after crossing the Borgarfjörður bridge. Before these, on the left side, you can find a Bónus grocery store, Grillhúsið fast food place and a bakery (Kristjáns bakarí). Hyrnan is on the left slightly further and has a good range of seats and more variety than before, e.g. you will now find Ísey Skyr Bar in there with skyr bowls, boosts and juices. There is also a small sandwich place there called Djúsí, so the variety is pretty good for a gas station. Since the beginning, they also have classic roadside gas station options like hot dogs and soft ice cream. For a quick pit stop, Hyrnan or Olís on the other side of the road are the best options, but if you have a bit more time, try other options.

Summing Up

As mentioned above, the best known attractions in Borgarfjörður include Hraunfossar waterfalls, Deildartunguhver hot spring and Krauma geothermal baths. I deliberately decided to focus on other spots here that are less known and that I believe to be underestimated. Borgarfjörður as a whole is a green and beautiful area with a lot to offer and an ideal place to add to your itinerary in Iceland.

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