What are the top 10 places to visit in East Iceland? How far away are the most popular attractions from Reykjavík, and what is the best time of year to visit? Read on to find out all you need to know about the Top 10 destinations in Iceland’s beautiful eastern region.
The vast majority of those travelling to Iceland for the first time will arrive at Keflavík International Airport, on the Reykjanes Peninsula, in the country’s west. However, there is a small minority of those who are afraid of flying (or otherwise inclined) who will first set their eyes’ upon the island’s eastern shores, arriving by ferry to the small fishing town of Seyðisfjörður.
Unlike the relative hustle and bustle of the west—e.g. the busy downtown streets, the nightlife, Golden Circle tours, Blue Lagoon shuttles, etc.—those living in the east experience a pace of life one would consider a little less hectic. Covering an incredible expanse of 22,721 square kilometres, the region is only home to approximately 16,000 people, with Egilsstaðir being the largest town.
Having only been established in 1947, the young town of Egilsstaðir (population 2,500) is a rare example of urbanisation in the region, boasting an airport, hospital and college, though even by Icelandic standards the town’s development is mild at best, offering little in itself to win over most visitors.
Those seeking to maximise their time in the east will need more, and thankfully, the region has more than enough beauty, adventure and experience to suffice the most hardened of travellers. But first, a little about East Iceland...
Stretching from Bakkafjörður in the north to Álftafjörður in the south, East Iceland is rich in culture, dramatic scenery and fascinating history. Given the east’s distance from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavík, it comes as little surprise that this is the region least frequented by international visitors.
Despite this, East Iceland boasts some of the most unique and compelling sights and activities available in the country and is often cited as one of the best regions to visit by past travellers to Iceland.
East Iceland has all of the features that make Iceland such a distinctive destination; rich with historic fishing villages and sublime nature, the region is eclectically decorated with the flowing waterfalls, volcanic meadows, rugged mountainscapes and creeping glaciers.
The coastlines and the Eastfjords make for a twisted and picturesque drive or hike, framed by an ever-changing landscape on one side, and the rolling blue waves of the North Atlantic on the other.
From its eclectic museums, ancient ruins and mystical heritage, the country’s eastern region has long been considered the stomping ground for ‘Huldufolk’ (the hidden people), elves, ghosts and trolls. Given the cragged mountainscapes, fantastical valleys and mysterious lakes, it’s not difficult to imagine how this country’s earliest settlers might have conceived the east to be steeped in supernatural energy.
Credit: Tristan Ferne
As for the living, breathing, observable creatures, East Iceland is the only region in the country where one can see herds of reindeer roaming the countryside. Reindeer were first imported from Norway in the 18th century in a bid to provide the Icelandic people with fur, meat, clothing and resources for shelter. The Icelanders at that time, however, showed no inclination toward animal husbandry, leaving the reindeer undomesticated and free to live wild across the country.
Today, their population, estimated at 3,000, is condensed to the east and controlled through seasonal hunting. Other animals visitors might spot in the east include Puffins, Mink and the delightful Iceland native, the Arctic Fox.
In order to have more likelihood of spotting these animals in the wild, it's wise to rent an Icelandic summer cabin, situated far away from other houses and in amongst the spectacular nature. You can search for rental cottages in East Iceland here.
Lagarfljót (also known as Lögurinn) is a 53-square kilometre lake found near Egilsstaðir, in East Iceland. Popular amongst guests to the region, the 140 km long Lagarfljót River runs directly through the lake, which measures 2.5 km at its widest. The lake is 112 metres at its deepest point.
Folklore dictates that Lagarfljót is home to a cryptid, serpent-like creature known as Lagarfljótsormurinn, or the Lagarfljót Wyrm. Similar to the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland, Selma in Norway and Champ in New York, this lake monster is thought to live at the depths of the lake, making an appearance every few decades or so, thus signifying ill-fate for the local population. Stories of the monster tell of it destroying local farms, hunting villagers and shooting poison.
The first sightings were in the 14th century, where it is written the monster breached the water, rising so high that a ship with full sails could have passed under it. In the 17th century alone, over fourteen sightings were reported by local travellers.
Most recently, the above video was recorded in 2012 that allegedly shows the Lagarfljót Wyrm swimming on the surface of the lake. The footage was shot by a local from Hrafnkelsstaðir farm in Fljótsdalur valley, and soon made international headlines, as well as racking up over 5 million views on YouTube. Visitors can choose to go hunting the monster themselves by taking a sightseeing boat tour on the lake.
Víti Crater Lake can be found in the Askja caldera, a 50 square kilometre square depression that formed at the end of the last glacial age, when a chamber beneath the Dyngjufjöll mountains collapsed, thus causing a large, circular gap on the landscape.
Ever since, Askja Caldera has continued to fill with water, forming a 700 feet (220m) deep lake named Öskjuvatn, the second deepest inland lake found in Iceland. Save Summer, this high-altitude lake is normally covered with a thick layer of ice. In 2012, however, scientists discovered the lake to be largely ice-free, causing concern that geothermal activity in the area may be heating up, and thus, indicating an upcoming eruption.
Víti however is much smaller, and continually warm. To reach Víti, visitors must hike for up to an hour across the black sand dunes of Askja. When it finally appears, guests are stunned by the gorgeous, aquamarine colour of the water itself, as well as the stunning views from the crater edge.
Víti is perfectly suitable for swimming in the summer months, making for a unique and authentically Icelandic bathing spot; it is, after all, a crater from a volcanic explosion. For those who would like to pay Víti a visit, a 4WD car is necessary as it's located in the highlands with only gravel roads leading to it. There are also tours available to Víti in Askja from both Lake Mývatn and Akureyri.
Ljósbjörg Petra María was born on 24th December 1922 in a small village called Stöðvarfjörður, in East Iceland. Though her childhood was strewn with challenges—as was the case with almost all Icelanders at that time—over the years, Petra nurtured a fascination with the natural world that would come to define her adult life, and bring about one of the most beautiful, yet strangest attractions in the whole country.
Given that “Petra” means ‘Stone’ in Greek, one might say it was destiny that Petra would dedicate her life to collecting, studying and surrounding herself with all variety of rocks and minerals. Taking long walks at the beach, Petra’s devotion to seeking out the most exquisite geological samples quickly meant that there was no longer room in her house to store them.
In the 1950s, Petra began to decorate her garden with the stones, quickly attracting the attention of passing travellers who readily asked if they could take a look. Thus, Petra’s private home began to take on a new life as a natural history museum.
Many of those who have visited Petra’s rock collection has been overcome with emotion upon seeing the rocks for the first time. One such story, in the 1970s, tells of a wheelchair-bound Vietnam war veteran who refused to leave the garden until finally, and kindly, persuaded to do so by Petra. Upon leaving, he claimed that the garden helped him to realise there was a special waiting for him after this life, and thus, living with his condition should be tolerable.
Another man visiting the garden refused to enter with his shoes on, claiming the garden was a “holy place”. Others have burst into tears, citing the power and healing energy radiating from the rock garden. The collection’s guestbook is positively filled with stories such as this.
Petra’s home now operates Café Sunnó, open annually from 1 June to 1 September (10:00-17:00 every day), offering tea, coffee, sandwiches and cookies. Petra passed away on the 10th January 2012, though her memory lives on in this incredible property and the thousands that visit it each year.
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Credit: Severin.stalder.
Measuring out at 128m, Hengifoss is Iceland’s third-highest waterfall, most famous for the black and red basalt rock wall that sits behind the falling water. The distinctive red colour on the rock wall comes from clay, that has formed between the basaltic strata. These layers are called "Paleosols" in soil science and have no chemical relationship to the modern vegetation.
The car park to Hengifoss can be located at the beginning of a 2.5-kilometre hike, so make sure to bring with you a pair of sturdy walking boots and some warm clothing, depending on what time of year you’ll be travelling. The hike is uphill and takes roughly an hour or so, so make sure to leave enough time if Hengifoss is a must-see attraction on your Iceland bucket-list!
The waterfall can be found in the municipality of Fljótsdalshreppur on the Hengifossá river, right next to Lagarfljót Lake.
Photo by Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir
In The Folklore of Jón Árnason, it is written that elves once inhabited the gorge around Hengifoss, known as Hengifossárgil. The story is set on New Year’s Day and follows two men as they travel through the gorge.
From an unseen location, the two men heard the Icelandic hymn "Heiður sé Guði himnum á" (“Honour To God in Heaven”), as if it was being sung from the rocks themselves. At the end of the hymn, the two men heard a mysterious bell chime and quickly went on their way so as to not disturb the region’s hidden folk.
A short distance away from Hengifoss is another waterfall, the 35 m high Litlanesfoss (otherwise referred to as Stuðlabergsfoss). This waterfall is particularly notable for the hexagonal, basalt columns that surround the falls. Nature enthusiasts can easily see both of these beautiful waterfalls during their hike along the Hengifossá river.
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Credit: Elísabet Guðmundsdóttir
Just as with Snæfellsjökull in Iceland’s west, the pyramid-shaped mountain Búlandstindur is considered to be one the country’s energy sources, inspiring mystics, poets and artists for centuries. The mountain’s distinctive shape comes from the visible layers of basaltic strata, formed and sculpted over 8 million years to create one of the country’s most dramatic features.
Búlandstindur is also known as Goðaborð, or “God’s Rock”, alluding to an event that took place at the mountain shortly after the Christianisation of Iceland in 1000 AD. It is said that together some of Iceland's chiefs climbed the mountain’s steep slopes, throwing their pagan idols from it in a demonstration of servitude to their new deity.
Those looking to hike Búlandstindur are in luck; there are a number of walking trails of varying difficulty that all lead to the top of the mountain. The views from the peak are truly out of this world, spanning over the fjords of Berufjörður, Hamarsfjörður, and Álftafjörður. Búlandstindur peaks at 1069 m.
Wikimedia. Creative Commons. Credit: Ira Goldstein.
Visitors will have great views of Búlandstindur from the nearby village of Djúpivogur, well worth a stopover in its own right. Djúpivogur has a fascinating history, having been founded as a Danish trading post in the 19th century, and as the port of call for the escaped slave, Hans Jonatan, one of the first people of colour to live in Iceland.
Today, the village has approximately 500 inhabitants and, arguably, is best known for "Eggin í Gleðivík" ("The Eggs of Merry Bay"), an art exhibition of 34 large-eggs designed by Icelandic photographer Sigurður Guðmundsson, found only 900 m from the town.
There’s an old joke in Iceland:
How do you find your way out of an Icelandic forest?
Just stand up!
Culturally, the joke makes sense because Iceland has long been deforested, in part due to the country’s settlement period, when timber was used for everything, from boat making to housebuilding to heating. It is thought that Iceland was devoid of forest cover within a century of the arrival of the first settlers.
The subsequent soil erosion that has occurred over time has only worsened the problem. This is one of the reasons why visitors are far more accustomed to seeing bare, volcanic fields rather than dense woodland.
Hallormsstaðaskógur National Forest is Iceland’s largest forest, located nearby the town of Egilsstaðir and lake Lagarfljót. In 1905 when the Birchwood forest was granted government protection, and thus, was Iceland’s first “official” forested area. Today, over 85 different species of tree can be found covering 550 hectares.
Hallormsstaðaskógur is the saving grace of Iceland’s birdlife, providing food, shelter and nesting for a wealth of species. Whilst the summer sees the arrival of redwings, Eurasian woodcocks, snipes and meadow pipits, yearlong residents include ravens, common redpolls, wren and goldcrests, amongst others.
Credit: Ulrich Latzenhofer
Laugarvellir is a remote geothermal pool, waterfall and valley found in the northeast region of the Central Highlands of Iceland. Perfectly temperate for a nice long soak, the pool's heat measures out at between 39-41 degrees Celsius, though it is always recommended that you first check the temperature with a fingertip before jumping in.
The geothermal pool is situated at an altitude of 600m inside the central highlands; its relatively high location is the reason for the lush blanket of vegetation that surrounds the pool, ensuring it's one of the more authentic and naturally exquisite stops of your tour.
Despite the region's surprising fertility, the soil has been difficult to cultivate throughout history. One can still find two abandoned buildings in the valley, relics of an old farmstead that proved so difficult to operate, the original owners took their lives.
Credit: Ulrich Latzenhofer
Enjoying yourself at Laugarvellir is still hard to access, which is a blessing in disguise as it can not handle much travel. For those few lucky ones that are willing to put in the effort a 4x4 vehicle is necessary to tackle the gravel roads. From Egilsstaðir, travel seven kilometres south down the Ring Road (Rd. 1), before taking a turn east down Road 931.
Follow 931 all the way across the bridge, then take Road 933 for a short distance before turning onto Road 910. This road will take you all the way to the Hálslón Dam, from where Laugarvellir is roughly seven kilometres further. Those remaining 7 kilometres need to be traversed on foot, so bring good hiking boots, warm clothing and snacks with you. The area is only accessible during summertime.
Credit: Jason Walsh
Sitting dispersed within and around glittering green glacial ponds, enormous natural rock sculptures decorate the scene, culminating in, arguably, the country's most idyllic hiking paradise. With its unearthly terrain and unique ambience, Stórurð is blessed with numerous hiking trails to keep visitors from getting lost and confused—when Stórurð covers with snow or thick mist, losing one's way is a lot easier than one might think.
Credit: Sigurdur Jonsson.
Dyrfjöll mountain peaks at an incredible 1136m, sitting precipitously between the Héraðssandur coastlines and Borgarfjörður Eystri. The mountain takes its name from a large and overt notch at its peak, similar in appearance to Lapporten mountain in Sweden.
Nearby to Stórurð, one can find the coastal village of Borgarfjörður Eystri, renowned across the country for its fantastic natural beauty, incredible hiking trails, large puffin colony and annual music festival, Bræðslan. The village is placed by one of the region's central features, Álfaborg ("Elf Rock"), where, according to Icelandic mythology, the Queen of Elves lives. The village has an approximate, permanent population of 100 people.
Vatnajökull National Park covers 14% of Iceland (13,900 square kilometres), making it a difficult stop to miss whilst travelling through the country’s eastern or southeastern region. The park was formed in 2008, merging the smaller Skaftafell and Jökulsárgljúfur National Parks with Vatnajökull glacier, thus creating one expansive area of protected wilderness.
Over three times the size of Luxembourg, the 8,100 square kilometre glacier, Vatnajökull, is the largest icecap found outside of the earth’s poles. Beneath the ice is a world of cragged valleys, subterranean lakes and crevasses and even mountain peaks, including Iceland’s highest mountain, Hvannadalshnúkur.
From the ice cap itself protrude over thirty outlet glaciers, many of which are observable from the Road 1, otherwise referred to as the Ring Road. One of these observable outlets is Breiðamerkurjökull, famous for its breaking point at Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. Another is Skaftafellsjökull, where visitors can stay at a nearby campsite and enjoy fantastic views of the surrounding area.
The mountain of Vestrahorn (454 m/1450 ft high) is considered to be between 8-10 million years old, having first been settled by Irish monks who were later enslaved by the Norse. It is one of Iceland's few Gabbro mountains, meaning its origins lie in the hot magma, trapped beneath the earth, that slowly cools over time to form into a holocrystalline mass.
Vestrahorn can be found 12 km (7.4 mi) east of Höfn along a dark and majestic coastline. Both nature and photography enthusiasts will find Vestrahorn a place of dream-like surrealism; from its rugged, sharp peaks to the surrounding blue ocean, the mountain's dramatic imagery will stick in your mind long after you leave.
The rolling tundra of Vestrahorn makes for an excellent foreground in photography, especially considering how the landscape changes from season to season. For those looking to explore this area, be aware that the beach is known for "sneaker waves"—waves that suddenly, and unpredictably, flow far higher up the tide than normal. This is a particular danger given the strong underlying currents and cold temperature.
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