Where and what is Snæfellsnes? What are the main attractions on Snæfellsnes peninsula? Why is Snæfellsnes peninsula called Iceland in Miniature? Read about this gorgeous location in west Iceland, and find out where all the best stops are inside and outside Snæfellsjökull National Park.
The word Snæfellsnes might seem like a bit of a mouthful for foreigners, but it's less so when it is broken down. It translates to Snow Mount's Peninsula, an apt name for a long peninsula that's got a volcano crowned with a glacier on its tip.
In fact, the words aren't too dissimilar from English - 'Snæ' means snow, 'fells' is also used in old English meaning 'mountain' or 'hill' (examples are the Southern Fells in the UK, and England's tallest mountain, Scafell Pike) and the Icelandic word 'nes' looks like an abbreviation of the longer word 'peninsula' in English.
But a mouthful is appropriate because this rather small piece of land contains bountiful attractions.
So many and varied are the features of Snæfellsnes peninsula that it is often called Iceland in Miniature. It holds both a volcano and a glacier, lava fields, craters, waterfalls, black and white beaches, caves, picturesque mountains, calm fishing hamlets, villages and towns as well as gorgeous views along the coastline with rugged rocks and frozen trolls jutting out from the Atlantic waves.
Simply driving the roads number 54 and 56 will provide you with stunning vistas in every direction, but you'll probably want to make a few stops to go out and explore as well.
Snæfellsnes peninsula can be driven on a day trip from Reykjavík, but it has so many attractions that if you have time to explore it for 2 or 3 days then you won't run out of things to do. Below, the main attractions on the peninsula are listed.
Photo by Martin Brechtl
There are only three National Parks in Iceland, and this one is the middle-sized one. It simply surrounds the Snæfellsjökull glacier/volcano and extends all the way to the seashore, the only National Park in Iceland to do so.
This National Park is 170 square kilometres and within it are numerous beautiful attractions, many pregnant with folklore. The most famous example is a saga depicting the adventurous tales of Bárður Snæfellsás. A number of structures and names in the National Park are dedicated to this half-man, half-troll.
The park's main attraction is Snæfellsjökull itself. This 1446 metre (4744 feet) tall glacier is situated on top of a 700,000-year-old stratovolcano. The glacier is reducing in size, and is currently around 12km2 but was around 15km2 around the year 1900. In the summer of 2012, the summit was ice-free for the first time in recorded history, sparking fears that the glacier will seize to exist in the future.
Many people talk about feeling very strong energy surrounding the volcano, and it's considered to be one of the biggest and strongest energy fields in the world by those in tune with such things. Aliens were even predicted to land on top of the glacier on November 5th, 1993, at 21:03, and hundreds of people gathered to welcome them, in an effort that, of course, turn out to be fruitless.
Photo by Martin Brechtl
Jules Verne used the site as the entrance to the Earth's core in his classic book 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth'. The glacier is also the setting for another famous novel, Kristnihald undir Jökli, or 'Under the Glacier' by Icelandic Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness. It is little wonder as to why they were attracted to the idyllic cone shape of the volcano, that can be admired all the way from Reykjavík on clear days - a distance of 120km (75 miles).
All of these factors have contributed to Snæfellsjökull glacier/volcano becoming one of the most famous attractions in Iceland for the past years.
Kirkjufell is by now an iconic mountain in Iceland. "A mountain shaped like an arrowhead", was the description it was given in Game of Thrones, but long before it was included in this world-known TV series it had been luring photographers and nature enthusiasts to visit it.
The mountain is not high, only 463 metres (1519 feet) and although the hike up it takes about 1.5 hours (one way) it is very demanding and has proved fatal for inexperienced hikers in the past.
From one particular angle, the mountain is triangular shaped, although when looked at from the nearby Grundarfjörður town it is much wider, with more of a trapezium shape.
It's possible to get some amazing views of the mountain on still days when it's reflected in the calm sea surrounding it, perhaps crusted in ice in winter, or with the sunset reflected in the water.
The most popular spot to photograph it from is by the side of the road where it has its iconic triangular shape, and where a small waterfall named Kirkjufellsfoss trickles down the opposite hillside. This waterfall is the perfect foreground with Kirkjufell casually filling in the backdrop.
This location, as well as all other locations on Snæfellsnes peninsula, is popular all year round, when it's covered with snow and has dancing auroras overhead, or when it's covered in green and bathed in the Midnight Sun in the summertime.
Arnarstapi is a tiny settlement next to the pyramid-shaped mountain Stapafell. Arnarstapi used to be an important trading post with a much larger population. Now it only has very few houses, an information centre and a small pier for small boats - as well as a sculpture of Bárður Snæfellsás by artist Ragnar Kjartansson.
Arnarstapi has beautiful seaside views and interesting rocks in the sea surf, and is surrounded by a large lava field. A colony of Arctic Tern resides in the small hamlet, and a walk along the seashore is recommended to enjoy the lava formations and the rich birdlife.
The most famous rock formation in the area is Gatklettur, or Hole Rock. The name is obvious as there is a giant hole through the rock, which looks stunning on pictures when the waves crash through it, and even more breathtaking in person as you can gaze out to sea whilst listening to the stillness surrounding you.
The seaside and the cliffs between Arnarstapi and the nearby hamlet Hellnar were made a Natural Reserve in 1979, and are now a part of Snæfellsjökull National Park. The walk from Arnarstapi to Hellnar is approximately 30 minutes one way and comes highly recommended.
Hellnar is a small hamlet on the southern coast of Snæfellsnes, known for its beautiful seaside with impressive cliffs and views towards Snæfellsjökull glacier. Above you can watch the Icelandic band For a Minor Reflection play live music by the surf at Hellnar's pebble beach.
Close by is a small café, Fjöruhúsið, that's the perfect location to enjoy the vista over a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, or a beer with some homemade cake or soup on sunny days. The café is only open during summertime.
Reynisfjara on Iceland's south coast may well be the most famous black beach in Iceland, but Djúpalónssandur rivals it both in beauty and danger. This gorgeous beach contains both black sand and perfectly round black pebbles. The name means Deep Lagoon's Sand, as nearby you'll see the gorgeous Deep Lagoon, or Djúpalón. Despite the name, the lagoon is merely 5 metres deep.
You will also come across the ruins of a British trawler, The Epine GY7, which was wrecked east of Dritvík cove on the 13th of March 1948. 14 men died, and 5 were saved by the Icelandic search and rescue teams from neighbouring towns. The iron ruins remain as a memoir of the lives lost here, so the ruins should not be taken away.
Like at Reynisfjara the surf is life-threateningly dangerous for visitors, with sneaker waves appearing out of nowhere and grabbing anyone with them that doesn't stay a safe distance away.
Lóndrangar is two impressive pinnacles, or rocks, by the seashore of Snæfellsjökull National Park. The taller rock is 75 metres (246 feet) and the smaller one is 61 meters tall (200 feet).
It's possible to walk all the way up to these towering rocks, and read the story about one of them, which is said to be a troll man. His troll wife is found slightly further along the coastline. Both of these pinnacles have been climbed; the taller one was first successfully climbed in 1735, but the smaller one wasn't successfully climbed until 1938. However, we wouldn't recommend climbing these rocks as it's very dangerous and requires a lot of skill.
Birdlife is rich in the area, and, as well as anywhere on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, the view towards Snæfellsjökull glacier is stunning.
Photo by Mickael Tournier
Stykkishólmur is the largest town on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. This is a fishing town, and a number of boat trips operate from Stykkishólmur to the wide Breiðafjörður fjord - including the ferry Baldur that crosses Breiðafjörður to reach the Westfjords. On the way, the ferry stops at the tranquil Flatey island, a favourite spot amongst many locals that is considered a hidden gem.
Stykkishólmur is another location that has found fame through film, although it was used to depict Nuuk in Greenland in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. All the shots in the above clip are from Stykkishólmur - but the icebergs are fake.
Since Stykkishólmur is by far the largest town in the area, it is your best bet to find grocery shops, bakeries, restaurants, tours and accommodation, so if you're spending a few days exploring Snæfellsnes you might want to stock up on food here.
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
A beautiful ravine, with a small waterfall inside. To reach the waterfall it is necessary to climb through the river and up some smaller waterfalls (a rope is provided). You will get wet and cold, so only attempt this if you are wearing warm and waterproof clothes, and have dry clothes to change into as soon as you come back. It's not recommended to try to go canyoning all the way during winter.
It's also not necessary to go canyoning the whole way to the waterfall, simply go as far as you feel comfortable with and come back. The hike up to the canyon from the parking lot is beautiful, and you'll have stunning views over Faxaflói Bay towards Reykjavík as well.
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
Vatnshellir is an 8000-year-old lava cave that you can access on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. It is only accessible with a guide, at certain times of the day (on the hour between 10 and 18). To enter it you descend down a spiral staircase, 35 metres (115 feet) into the ground. You will then follow the flow of the ancient lava for about 200 metres (656 feet) and admire the colourful lava.
The cave has only been open to the public since the summer of 2011.
This is not a demanding walk, although the surface is a little uneven and sometimes sharp, so make sure you wear good hiking shoes and warm clothing. A helmet and a torch is provided in the tour, which takes around 45 minutes.
It's possible to go whale watching from both Ólafsvík and Grundarfjörður, two small towns that are not that far from each other on Snæfellsnes northern coastline. Ólafsvík is the slightly larger town as it has just over 1000 inhabitants, but Grundarfjörður has around 870 inhabitants.
Both towns offer campsites, hotels, guesthouses, a couple of cafés or restaurants, gas stations, swimming pools, grocery stores, horse rentals and even 9-hole golf courses.
The beautiful waterfall Bæjarfoss is by the town of Ólafsvík, and the mountain Kirkjufell can be seen from the town of Grundarfjörður.
Photo by Pascal Mauerhofer
Seals can often be spotted along the white beaches of Ytri Tunga, with a spectacular backdrop of Snæfellsjökull glacier in the distance. In recent years this location has become increasingly popular to stop at, both because the seals are great models for avid photographers but also because the beach itself presents great beauty, in case no seals are to be seen.
The best time for seal spotting is in June and July.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Bromr
A beautiful waterfall that cascades down the mountainside on the southern coast of Snæfellsnes peninsula. When driving the southern coast of the peninsula you will see the watery mist from the waterfall for a long time before the waterfall itself appears. This is not one of Iceland's most famous waterfalls, but one worth a visit nonetheless, as the walk to it is both easy and picturesque.
Búðir is a small hamlet consisting of a boutique hotel and a black church. The iconic black church and gorgeous surroundings draw in travellers, although there aren't many buildings in the area.
Búðir church was first erected in 1703, but it, unfortunately, rotted down. It was rebuilt in 1848 in the form you can see today, although in a different location. In 1984 it was moved in one piece from its former location by the old graveyard to its current location. Búðir church is a listed building owned by the National Museum of Iceland.
It's not a bad place to stop for lunch, some coffee or a drink if you want to have a short stroll in the area, and is also an excellent location to get married!
This warm countryside swimming pool is known for having fresh and natural mineral water. The water is murky due to its richness of green algae, that gives the pool a green colour. This should in no way be off-putting as the mineral-filled pool is considered to be very healthy and soothing for the body, much like the water of the Blue Lagoon in the southern part of Iceland.
The water is a lovely 37°-39° Celsius, or 98.6°-102° Fahrenheit.
The pool is only open during summertime, from June to mid-August from 11:00-20:30.
The westernmost point of Snæfellsnes is called Öndverðarnes. The dramatic black cliffs in the area are called Svörtuloft (Black Ceiling). The cliffs were formed when hot lava was thrown from Snæfellsjökull volcano out to sea, and then the forceful waves of the Atlantic sea broke off the outer rocks, leaving the vertical cliffs behind.
These cliffs are only called Svörtuloft from the sea, but on land, they are called Nesbjarg (Peninsula Cliff) and Saxhólsbjarg (Knife Hill Cliff).
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
Írskrabrunnur means "Irish Well" and that's exactly what it is, an ancient Irish well that most likely dates back to the settlement of Iceland. This is a protected archaeological site with an interesting history for anyone interested in Iceland's history. Nearby you can find an Irish Shelter, Írskrabyrgi, and Gufuskálavör is only a few hundred metres away.
At Gufuskálavör you will find an old fishing station dating back to the 14th or 15th century, with ruins of farms and fisherman huts.
Above are most of the main attractions on Snæfellsnes peninsula, but there are still a handful left of locations to explore. These include the crater Eldborg, a perfectly round shaped crater that's 50 metres deep and 200 metres in diameter. Close by are the Gerðuberg Cliffs, one of the longest rows of basalt cliffs in Iceland, and Rauðamelsölkelda, where you can drink natural mineral water straight from the ground.
A number of beautiful views are found whilst driving along the peninsula, such as the stunning views from Kolgrafarfjörður, or when crossing the peninsula on Route 56. Expect purple lupine fields, seaside views, or snow-covered lava. You'll also likely be greeted by some friendly horses and see some picturesque ruins.
Various caves can be found in the lava, such as the noted Sönghellir Cave on the track F570, (this track is only passable in summer, and on 4WD cars).
As a bonus, Flatey Island is accessible from Stykkishólmur, although it isn't really a part of Snæfellsnes peninsula.
For those wanting to explore the depth of Snæfellsnes peninsula on longer than a day tour, there aren't endless accommodations to choose from, but still there are a few different options within different budgets.
Camping sites can be found along the peninsula in the summertime, but there are also cottages, hostels and boutique hotels to choose from.
The most Icelandic way to spend the night in the countryside is without a doubt staying in a summer cabin or a cottage. Although these cottages are called summer cabins in Iceland, they are also the perfect place to stay during winter, and often the most affordable option for a large family or small groups of friends.
Many of them are ideally situated and vary from being cosy and comfortable to luxurious. It's not uncommon for Icelandic summer cabins to have a hot tub, the perfect place to admire the Northern Lights in wintertime.
There are also small luxury cottages to be found in Hellnar called Kjarvalströð, that are stylishly decorated and with gorgeous views.
In the town of Rif you'll find the fun and charming Freezer Hostel. Not only is it a hostel, but also a theatre and a music venue, focusing on bringing live arts by the locals for the locals (and the travellers). Look up their schedule and see if you can't catch an Icelandic band playing live, or even a theatre production in English perhaps based on local folklore or history.
Former productions have for example included a one-man play about Bárður Snæfellsás, a play about the alien invasion in 1993, and of course a local production of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, that saw local kids from across the peninsula taking part in the production.
Local and international bands and solo artists have also performed here, so there's always something interesting going on and this hostel is well worth a visit even if you decide to stay elsewhere!
In the tiny hamlet of Hellnar, there is the 3-star countryside Fosshotel Hellnar. This is a charming, but very modern countryside hotel, in an ideal location.
The hotel has 39 rooms, restaurant and a bar, breakfast is included and of course, there is free Wifi on-site, so you can upload all those travel pictures and be the envy of your family and friends back home.
Hotel Búðir is a boutique hotel right next to the iconic black church, that's so popular for weddings. No wonder then that Hotel Búðir specialises in arranging for destination weddings and can accommodate all the guests and provide the dinner.
You don't have to be getting married to stay here though, but it's the ultimate romantic getaway if you want to spoil yourself with a little countryside luxury.
In Stykkishólmur, you have a variety of accommodation to choose from. There is a campsite in town, as well as a few hostels, homestays, rental apartments and hotels.
Fosshotel Stykkishólmur is probably the largest hotel in town, a 3-star hotel with 79 rooms. If you're looking for a smaller and more authentic Icelandic hotel stay, then Hotel Egilsen is a charming hotel right in the city centre, by the harbour. Fransiskus Hotel is the newest hotel in town, situated within an old Catholic monastery. It still houses a chapel, where you might encounter sisters of St Mary's praying.
If you're on a budget, then the centrally located Harbour Hostel is probably your best bet, or the town's campsite, that can be found on your right-hand side as you drive into the town.