Reykjavík is a lovely city and we encourage you to spend some time exploring it but at the same time, there’s more to Iceland than just the city. Amidst untamed nature and impressive mountains lie several charming small towns, just waiting to be discovered. The most popular route in Iceland is the Ring Road, route no 1, which takes you all the way around the country along the coastline. Despite its considerable reach, there are still a number of charming small towns in Iceland that will give you a sense of what life is really like on this volcanic, subarctic island.
Stykkishólmur is a small town on the north side of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Founded mostly by affluent Danish merchants, Stykkishólmur has a lovely town centre filled with pretty buildings from that era, the oldest of which is the Norwegian house, so called because all the wood to build it was imported from Norway. It now houses the town museum.
It’s not just the buildings in the centre that will have you filling up the SD card on your camera as the town also boasts a stunning view of the islands of Breiðafjörður fjord. The wide fjord is filled with several little islands, the largest of which, Flatey, once had a population of around 200 people! Nowadays, very few people live there all year round but it’s still a popular place to spend the summer.
Windy days are a great opportunity to explore the many wonderful museums of Stykkishólmur. There’s the town’s museum, in the oldest house in Stykkishólmur but the town also has museums dedicated to two opposite elements, water and fire. The Library of Water is an installation art project by Roni Horn dedicated to water from the glaciers of Iceland. The Stykkishólmur volcano museum, on the other hand, concerns the volcanoes of Iceland and the geology of the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
Stykkishólmur is a great base for exploring the magnificent Snæfellsnes peninsula. Often considered to hold a certain mystical aura, the Snæfellsnes peninsula has inspired artists from all over the world and even makes a cameo in Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, as one of the entrances to the centre of the earth. A sort of microcosm of Icelandic nature, the Snæfellsnes peninsula has hot springs, black sand beaches, rivers, canyons and, of course, the Snæfellsjökull glacier.
If you’re going north, chances are you’ll be staying in Akureyri, known as the capital of the north, but be sure not to miss Húsavík, about an hour to the east. Húsavík is a charming fishing village and popular with animal-loving travellers as it is the best place in Iceland to go whale watching! The reason is that it’s a relatively short boat ride from Húsavík out to the open sea where some of the largest mammals on earth reside. You even have a chance of catching a glimpse of a blue whale, the largest animal on earth!
Besides the boat rides, Húsavík has many charms. The museums are great and the area around the harbour is lively and filled with restaurants and cafés. The Húsavík museum is known for its interesting curation, which is based on aesthetics, not a linear timeline. You can also visit the Whale museum and a museum dedicated to the enterprising spirit of human exploration!
Surrounding Húsavík is some of the most magnificent nature in Iceland. It’s a short ride to Mývatn with its geothermal areas, bewitching stretches of lava fields and amazing birdlife. In the other direction is the northernmost part of the Vatnajökull glacier national park, where a glacial river has carved deep canyons into the young land, resulting in natural wonders such as the Dettifoss waterfall and Ásbyrgi canyon.
For all the virtues of the Ring road, it completely skips the Westfjords, the craggly bit at the top left corner of Iceland. This oft-forgotten part of Iceland more than makes up for its lack of population with stunning landscapes, consisting mostly of narrow fjords and verdant valleys separated by steep, flat-topped mountains. If you came to Iceland to experience untouched nature and magnificent landscapes in solitude, the Westfjords are the place for you.
Ísafjörður, with its population of around 2000 is the largest town in the area. Driving there from Reykjavík takes a while so if you’re short on time, catching a flight from the Reykjavík airport is the easiest way to go, but if you have the time, the route you take is just about as scenic as they get.
We’ve covered some of the main attractions of Ísafjörður before (if you’re here during Easter, don’t miss the Aldrei Fór Ég Suður music festival!) but to be honest, the best thing about Ísafjörður is exploring the beautiful Westfjords. Just a short drive away from Ísafjörður is Bolungarvík, home to the Ósvör museum, dedicated to the lives of 19th-century Icelandic fishermen, and the location where Icelandic cult film Nói Albínói was shot. Another nearby village is Súðavík, home to the Arctic Fox Centre, despite its population of just over 200 people.
Visiting the museums and small towns surrounding Ísafjörður is highly recommended, especially on days when the weather is less than optimal but nothing beats exploring the magnificent nature of the Westfjords. Go hiking or sailing, go on a horseback riding tour or just take a drive to some of the magnificent natural wonders, but whatever you do, spend some time, taking in the divine natural beauty.
The Ring Road wasn’t completed until 1974 and before that time, the easiest way to get around Iceland was to sail from one port to another. One of the most important harbours in Iceland was in Seyðisfjörður, a small town in the east of Iceland, about as far away from Reykjavík as you can get, but also the most convenient port for ships coming from Copenhagen and Europe landed.With better roads and the rising popularity of airplanes, Seyðisfjörður’s national importance has waned, although the ferry from Scandinavia does still stop at Seyðisfjörður. The charm of the town hasn’t diminished however, it’s a charming old town with a rich history. It has recently been reborn as a centre for art, design and other creative arts. The
With better roads and the rising popularity of airplanes, Seyðisfjörður’s national importance has waned, although the ferry from Scandinavia does still stop at Seyðisfjörður. The charm of the town hasn’t diminished however, it’s a charming old town with a rich history. It has recently been reborn as a centre for art, design and other creative arts. The LungA art festival takes place there every year, with workshops and seminars attracting young people from all over the country as well as the rest of the world. In the past few years, a LungA school has even been run in the area, teaching art and design in a creative and engaging way. If you’re more interested in the history of the area, you can spend a fun afternoon exploring the industrialisation history of the area at the Technical Museum of east Iceland.
Seyðisfjörður is just a short drive away from Egilsstaðir, the economic centre of the area. All around are magnificent natural wonders as well as historical curiosities. Hike up to magnificent waterfalls, visit the Icelandic Wilderness Centre, take a walk in Iceland’s only proper forest, Hallormsstaðaskógur and visit the former home of author Gunnar Gunnarsson, now a museum.