The following is a guest post on East Iceland by Iceland in 8 Days contributor Kayla Sheffield.
Unlike the urban Western region of Iceland, East Iceland thrives on scenic views and local fisheries. The area, better known for its Icelandic name “Austurland,” is home to some of the most beautiful waterfalls and landscapes in all of Iceland. It is studded with everything from hiking trails to massive waterfalls; local fisheries to snow-capped mountains; and quaint towns to vast countryside.
Many head straight for Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital city. But for those wishing to escape to the countryside, East Iceland is the ultimate fix. “Austurland” is full of life – of history and culture, cuisine and customs, wildlife and national parks. It’s an adventure waiting to happen.
History & Culture of East Iceland
Each town in East Iceland has its own individual characteristics. Coastal villages are heavily influenced by their Northern European neighbors. Wildlife is a conglomeration of indigenous and imported breeds. Viking heritage left a lasting imprint with Norse legends. Austurland as a whole is made up of French, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish customs, which have combined with its own long-standing traditions: a true melting pot in the North Atlantic.
Reindeer were not indigenous to Iceland. Importing reindeer began as an experiment in Norway in the 1700’s. They brought test groups of various numbers and released them throughout Iceland, but it was only the last group that was there to stay. Herders bred them in Vopnafjörður, located in East Iceland.
Today, the area is proud of their thriving population, which has climbed to around 5,000 reindeer in all. If you’re heading out on vacation set on seeing reindeer, though, summer might not be the best time for a viewing. The snow dissipates, and the reindeer seek higher elevation where the snow still covers the ground. Check out the Frozen Highlands on a jeep tour during the winter, and meet some of the locals while you’re there.
Icelandic horses played an important part in the country’s life since their importation in the 9th century. They’re even documented in the old Norse mythology and famous Icelandic Sagas. Like the reindeer, Norwegian settlers brought over their own horses to breed in Iceland. These horses, ancestors to the Shetland, Highland, and Connemara ponies, mixed to create today’s tiny breed. Icelandic horses weigh between 330-380 kilograms and come in over 100 coat colors, including chestnut, dun, bay, black, gray, palomino, pinto, and roan.
Today, horses play a huge part in life throughout Iceland. Races showcasing the breed’s unique gaits are held throughout the country from April to June. Their traditional purpose however, was to help Icelanders travel from town to town on horseback. In modern times, road improvements and the invention of motor vehicles eliminated this use, but horses remain an integral part of the culture, and the races are widely attended. Horseback riding, as well, is available all over for recreation.
History of the Architecture
To honor its French heritage, the street signs in Fáskrúðsfjörður are written in French and Icelandic. The town developed as a trading post and fishing village, and was the main docking place for French fisherman arriving off the East of Iceland. In addition to the French street signs, they also built a French consul and chapel, as well as a French hospital that is now a hotel, French-inspired restaurant, and a museum.
The art town Seyðisfjörður is one of the most picturesque in East Iceland. It got its origin from the Danes, who came over as merchants to trade in the fjord during the mid-19th century. The architecture, however, was mostly contributed by the Norwegians, who didn’t arrive until 1870-1900.
It was born from the 19th century method of construction that developed as a result of technological advancements. Sawmills began producing house kits that could be shipped overseas and easily assembled by buyers in Iceland. Those Norwegian houses, business, and public structures that trace back to the 20th century remain standing to this day, making Seyðisfjörður the spot to visit if you’re looking for a touch of Icelandic culture.
For centuries, people have been telling the same myths and legends about Loki, Asgard, Odin, and Valhalla: we even have superhero movies dedicated to retelling them. But what has become mainstream today started as the tales that East Icelanders heard from their parents, who heard them from their parents, and so on.
Of all the myths and legends to come out of Iceland, everyone is familiar with the story of Volvuleidi, the burial mound of the guardian angel who presides over the area. The story is that, as long as her bones remained untouched, her protection would be over the land. She even hid the area with a shroud of fog from pirates who came to loot the land in 1627.
While the legend of Volvuleidi isn’t as well-known as some of the more heroic Norse myths, it is still a great place to visit. It is located near the highway that connects the villages Reyðarfjörður and Eskifjörður and looks like a big pile of stones on the shore of a clear blue river. Stop by and pay respects to the guardian angel – even if the legend doesn’t hold up, the burial sight makes for a scenic view.
The Cities of East Iceland
The town of Egilsstaðir is situated between the Lagarfljót river and Fardagafoss waterfall, and is known as the heart of the East Fjords. It is nestled in the middle heartland of natural beauty, with plenty of options for any outdoor enthusiast. Visitors can rent bikes, hike, go on horseback riding tours, or rent a car to drive to nearby natural attractions.
Some of the sites that make Egilsstaðir a famous destination include the Highland Farms, the former monastery and estate of Skriðuklaustur, the farm of Sænautasel, and the Atlavík Cove. This is a great city for visitors to stay in because of its close proximity to so many other attractions. There are hotels, camping options, lodges, and cottages that are available for booking. There is also an airport in Egilsstaðir, making it the ideal city to start your East Iceland trip.
If you are traveling from Egilsstaðir to see the Fardagafoss and Gufufoss waterfalls, keep traveling west to the city of Seydisfjordur. This small coastal city offers a quirky art scene, and is home to around 700 people. If you are able to make it to this quaint but vibrant town, be sure to stop by its many hidden gems such as the Tvisongur Sound Sculpture, the rainbow street, The Blue Church and the Austursigling.
Reyðarfjörður is just south of Egilsstaðir right after Road 92 intersects Road 1. It became a major trading post in the early 1900s and has since become one of the largest ports for freight export in Iceland. The town was first settled by Norwegian brothers, but British soldiers occupied the town during World War II. Though Iceland was never at war, there is a War Time Museum that took over an abandoned Freezing Plant. Visitors will find the museum on the trail to a local waterfall and hydrological plant.
Fáskrúðsfjörður is nestled between the Vattarnes and Hafnarres peninsulas on Road 955. It is a seaside village that is known for its French culture. Between 1880 and 1935, the village was known as the preferred seaport for French fisherman. The French influence is still present today in the town’s architecture and street signs.
Late in July, the people of Fáskrúðsfjörður host a French Days festival. If you are interested in learning more about the French history in Fáskrúðsfjörður, you can visit the town’s French Museum. When traveling from the northern Reyðarfjörður, visitors will enjoy a scenic seaside drive. At the mouth of Fáskrúðsfjörður is the island of Skrúður, known as Puffin Cave, where you can see thousands of Puffins diving into the water.
The Icelandic fishing town of Höfn is located just south of Egilsstaðir, on the coast. It is a natural harbor, and is a great place to stay after visiting the East Fjords and before making your way to the Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon, Skaftafell National Park, and Vestrahorn Mountain. Every year in July, Höfn holds an annual Lobster Festival.
Town by the Sea
As an island nation, one of the defining features of East Iceland is its vast coast. Like most land masses located near large bodies of water, it is shaped by its close proximity to such a defining geographical feature. In the central part of East Iceland are the East Fjords. These are dotted with tiny fishing villages surrounded on either side by mountain and sea. Not only that, the cuisine and even its legends have been influenced by the North Atlantic Ocean.
Cuisine from the Ports
In the past, Iceland suffered from a lack of resources – the permanent cloudy skies blocked sunlight, limiting fishing and farming options, and the importation of goods from other countries was hard to come by.
Over the years, however, technological advancements ended this scarcity. Fisheries became an intricate part of Icelandic heritage. Whole towns popped up as seafood became an abundant commodity and trading with other nations flourished. Today, locals serve up true delicacies that people come from far and wide to taste.
While most of us would enjoy a warm piece of buttered bread before our meals, Icelanders eat harðfiskur, or dried stockfish. A deeply-rooted Icelandic tradition, stockfish is cheap and has the storage life of several years, perfect for transporting to market. It is protein-rich, made from haddock, Atlantic wolffish, or cod. The fish is caught, cleaned, and deboned before it is hung up to dry near the ocean, where winds can salt it naturally. Traditionally a 4- to 6-week process, the drying time is now shortened to just 36-48 hours.
The national dish of Iceland is hákarl, fermented shark meat. It comes in two variations: meat from the belly that is chewy and reddish, and meat from the body that is white and soft. Traditionally, fishermen placed the gutted and beheaded shark in a small hole in the sand. Then, they would press the fluids out by stacking stones on top of the sand.
The sharks fermented that way for 6-12 weeks before being dug up to dry for several more months. Today, the shark meat is pressed in large plastic containers and served diced in cubes. For any first-timers out there, you’re advised to pinch your nose before taking the first bite: the dish smells strongly of ammonia.
Plokkfiskur is fish stew made by mixing together white fish, potatoes, onions, flour, milk, and seasoning. In some recipes, it can be modified to include chives, curry, béarnaise sauce, or cheese. It’s a very simple dish, but its popularity lies in its simplicity: it’s served in the cafeteria to kids for their school lunches and in some of the fanciest restaurants in Iceland. There’s no one right way to make it; like any good stew, it’s made based on what ingredients are in the fridge at the time.
There’s a tale in Iceland of the Lagarfljót Worm, an Icelandic lake monster that’s said to live in Lagarfljót, a lake by the town of Egilsstaðir in East Iceland. The first sighting of the great beast was first documented in the 1300s by the Icelandic Annals, some of Iceland’s earliest texts. The sightings continued into the 16th and 17th centuries when cartographer Abraham Ortelius engraved a map of Iceland that bore the inscription In hoc lacu est anguis insolitæ magnitudinis, meaning In this lake appears a large serpent.
The folklore known today comes from Jón Árnason, an Icelandic writer who recorded a frightening story from a schoolgirl in the 1860’s. According to the girl, the giant serpent evolved from a lingworm, better known as a heath-dragon. When her mother gave her a gold ring as a gift, she placed it under a lingworm, as her mother told her that doing so would increase the value of the ring.
Like an East Icelandic Gremlin, the lingworm grew and grew until the little girl was forced to throw it out into the wild, where it terrorized the countryside, killing people and spitting deadly poison. It is said that the villagers had to tie its head and tail to the bottom of Lagarfljót, where it has remained to this day – the most recent sighting was in 2012 by a 67-year-old farmer.
Serpent or not, the lake Lagarfljót is a sight to see. When visiting the town of Egilsstaðir, visitors can drive 15 minutes southeast to the lake. A road circles its perimeter, allowing visitors to take a scenic drive around the lake, taking in the serene beauty and attempting to spot the Lagarfljót serpent.
The banks of the lake are decorated with the Hallormsstaðaskógur, Iceland’s largest forest. Atlavík Cove is a popular camping location between the forest and lake. The lake gets its murky milk color from the Vatnajökull glacier that flows to the glacial river in Fljótsdalur valley and runs into the Lagarfljót lake.
Natural Attractions of East Iceland
Less than ten minutes west of Egilsstaðir, visitors can access the Fardagafoss waterfall by parking in a gravel lot and hiking approximately 900 meters to its top. The fall bends and tucks its way through the mountainside, hiding a second waterfall within its gorge. On the ascent to the top, you can see the rushing waters bursting between the rocks and falling to the hidden valley below. Just underneath the fall, visitors will find the remains of a cave that collapsed years ago.
Continuing west along Road 93 will bring you to Gufufoss, a waterfall near the village of Seyðisfjörður. Gufufoss means “steam waterfall,” named after the mist it creates as it falls into the river Fjarðará. The hiking trail to Gufufoss is easier than the neighboring Fardagafoss. The trail leads to the bottom of the fall, welcoming hikers to soft white water. The top of the falls is a wide horseshoe shaped rock, surrounded by flat vegetation.
Klifbrekkufossar forms a staircase of small waterfalls flowing into each other. The falls are stacked and staggered 90 meters high, and can be seen from Road 953. It is important for visitors to plan ahead for this waterfall because it can only be accessed during the summer months, due to winter road closures. The sloped waterfalls of Klifbrekkufossar present one of the most spectacular waterfall views in East Iceland.
Hengifoss is located in the southern region of East Iceland, and is one of the largest waterfalls in the country. Known as the Hanging Falls, it stretches 128 meters tall. Red horizontal stripes span across the fall’s basalt columns, created by red clay pressed between the basalt layers.
The hike to Hengifoss is more difficult than some of the other waterfalls. But, is worth the hike if you are up for the challenge. Several viewpoints are available along the hike, offering plenty of opportunities to take in one of the most iconic views in Iceland.
Svartifoss is located in the Skaftafell National Park, also in the southern region of East Iceland. This park is unique in that there is a balcony of hexagonal basalt columns hanging just underneath the top of the falls. These hexagonal columns are said to have influence in some of Iceland’s most notable architecture.
The Svartifoss waterfall, can be accessed by a trail from the park’s visitor center. On the ascent to Svartifoss, visitors will come across two other waterfalls – Hundafoss and Magnúsarfoss.
Skaftafell National Park
The Skaftafell National Park is home to Iceland’s highest mountain peak, Hvannadalshnjúku, and many other natural treasures. Visitors can opt to explore the Morsárdalur valley and climb mountain peaks Kristínartindar and Hvannadalshnjúku. The park also has several waterfalls, including Svartifoss, Hundafoss and Magnúsarfoss. Perhaps the main staple of the national park is the Skaftafellsjökull glacier.
There are many hiking trails available with ranging difficulty levels. The easiest and shortest hike is Skaftafellsjökull, which leads to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier. This hike is 5.5 km round-trip and is estimated to take approximately two hours.
The most challenging hike is Kristínartindar, which is 17.9 km round-trip and is estimated to take 6 to 8 hours to complete. The Kristínartindar begins at the visitor center and travels first past Magnúsarfoss, then Hundafoss, and finally to Svartifoss. It is also typically closed in the springtime due to hazardous thawing conditions.
If you enjoy camping, Skaftafell has a campground open all year round, with a maximum occupancy of 400 tents. The campground amenities include showers, a laundry facility, electricity, and internet access.
Hallormsstaðaskógur National Forest
The Hallormsstaðaskógur forest is located approximately 25 kilometers east of Egilsstaðir. Boasting over 60 foreign tree species, the forest was used as an experiment in 1903 to introduce new species to the natural Birchwood forest. The forest also hosts the Hengifoss and Litlanesfoss waterfalls, which can be accessed by trail off Road 931.
A natural rock arch intersects the Klifá River in the forest. This is the birthplace of the legend of the Klifá stone arch and the bull. Legend has it that a bull was killed by a butcher. However, before the butcher could take his blood, the bull stood up, ran to the river and escaped through the stone arch. If you are lucky enough, maybe you will see the running bull on your visit.
Other Natural Attractions
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
The Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is a large glacial lake, located between the Vatnajökull National Park and the Atlantic Ocean. It can be accessed by Road 1, and sits just west of Skaftafell. The lake formed as a result of glacial melting, and has grown over 10 square kilometers in the last 40 years. With the warming climate, icebergs continue to fall off the glacier tongue, and melting into the lagoon.
Visitors travel across the world to see the phenomenon and breathtaking views of the glacial backdrop. The lagoon is featured in many films, including Batman Begins, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, A View to a Kill, and Die Another Day. Fans of the Amazing Race will also remember the lagoon from season six.
For those interested in getting an up close and personal experience with the lagoon, boat tours are available through Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Boat Tours and Cafe, located at the mouth of the lagoon. Whether you take a boat tour or not, expect to see lots of floating icebergs in this lagoon.
Located east of Höfn, Vestrahorn is famous for its lustrous views. The mountain provides a stunning backdrop for photographers. Vestrahorn has a dramatic landscape, that offers breathtaking views across 360 degrees.
On one side of the mountain, viewers can hike paths and enjoy flowery meadows, doused in color. When the sky is clear, visitors can spot the Vatnajökull glacier. On the other side, the mountain is mirrored with the sea. It is made up of gabbro and granophyre rocks, and the horned peaks of the mountain give Vestrahorn its name.
Incredible East Iceland
Looking for a trip to view some of the most picturesque natural offerings on earth? If so, a trip to the quiet countrysides of East Iceland is the ideal getaway.
We suggest starting in Egilsstaðir, the region’s largest town. From here, visitors can wind their way down the coast to find natural attractions you can’t find anywhere. This includes the Klifbrekkufossar Waterfall and Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon.
Make stops along the way in cities like Seydisfjordur. Here, you can visit the Blue Church. You can also discover your inner creativity with the city’s quirky art scene. If you want those breathtaking views East Iceland is famous for, be sure to make your way to the Vestrahorn Mountain. Here, you can photograph one of Iceland’s most iconic views.
Are you ready to start your next adventure? East Iceland and its incredible natural beauty will be waiting for you.