Welcome to our comprehensive guide to West Iceland: an enchanting region known for its distinctive landscapes, intriguing history, vibrant culture, and the remarkable Snæfellsnes Peninsula, often referred to as “Iceland in miniature” due to its diverse natural features. Our guide will equip you with everything you need to know to embark on an unforgettable 8-day journey through this stunning part of the world in 2024.
West Iceland is a testament to the diverse beauty Iceland has to offer, boasting everything from tranquil fjords and towering mountains to quaint fishing villages and ancient lava fields. This region, often overlooked by travelers in favor of the more famous Golden Circle or South Coast, is teeming with hidden gems just waiting to be discovered.
In this guide, we will take a deep dive into everything West Iceland has to offer: its transportation links, major towns and cities, top attractions, cultural experiences, food and drink options, accommodations, and travel tips. By the end, you will have a detailed roadmap to help you make the most out of your 8-day trip to West Iceland in 2024. Whether you’re an avid hiker, a history buff, a food lover, or someone simply looking to immerse themselves in the unique charm of Iceland, this guide has something for everyone. So, let’s begin our journey through West Iceland – a region where history, culture, and natural beauty coalesce into an experience unlike any other.
- Getting To West Iceland
- Major Towns and Cities in West Iceland
- Top Things To Do in West Iceland
- Cultural Experiences in West Iceland
- Food and Drink Options in West Iceland
- Where To Stay in West Iceland
- Travel Tips For West Iceland
- Frequently Asked Questions About West Iceland
- Final Notes on Traveling To West Iceland
Getting To West Iceland
The journey to West Iceland is a gateway to the region’s breathtaking beauty, opening up views of vast landscapes, rolling hills, and stunning fjords. The flexibility in the routes and the variety in the modes of transport make the journey as enjoyable as the destination itself. Let’s delve into the various ways you can reach West Iceland from the capital city of Reykjavik.
How to Get to West Iceland from Reykjavik
Reykjavik to West Iceland is a drive of approximately 2-3 hours, depending on your specific destination in the region. If you are driving yourself, simply take Route 1 (the Ring Road) north from Reykjavik and then turn onto Route 54, which will lead you towards the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a significant highlight of West Iceland. The drive is scenic and there are plenty of spots along the way for picturesque photo opportunities.
If you prefer not to drive, there are several bus services running from the BSI bus terminal in Reykjavik to various destinations in West Iceland. Buses are comfortable, and most have Wi-Fi onboard. However, bus schedules can be infrequent, so planning ahead is essential.
Traveling To West Iceland By Car, Bus, or Tour
- By Car: Renting a car gives you the freedom to explore West Iceland at your own pace. You can make impromptu stops at the numerous scenic spots scattered along the way. Most car rentals in Iceland offer a variety of vehicles suitable for different seasons and terrains.
- By Bus: If you prefer public transport, the bus service operated by Strætó bs provides regular trips from Reykjavik to various parts of West Iceland.
- By Tour: Numerous companies operate tours to West Iceland from Reykjavik. These range from day trips to multi-day tours, which often include accommodation, meals, and a guide. Tours can be a convenient option if you prefer a planned itinerary and enjoy learning about the region from a knowledgeable guide. Here are some options from Viator.
Major Towns and Cities in West Iceland
West Iceland is a picturesque region featuring a mix of charming towns and cities, each boasting its unique character, cultural significance, and stunning landscapes. These locations serve as perfect stops or bases for your exploration, offering you a slice of Icelandic life, hospitality, and local traditions. Let’s take a look at some of the major towns and cities that you must include in your itinerary.
- Borgarnes: This scenic town is home to a few essential cultural institutions like the Settlement Centre, which provides a deep insight into Icelandic history. Its location near Borgarfjörður makes it a perfect base for exploring the region’s hot springs and waterfalls.
- Stykkishólmur: Known as the gateway to the numerous islands of Breiðafjörður Bay, Stykkishólmur is a charming town with beautifully preserved old houses. It’s also famous for its sustainable living practices.
- Grundarfjörður: This small town is known for the photogenic Kirkjufell mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall. It’s also an excellent spot for bird watching, particularly puffins.
- Akranes: A coastal town that offers beautiful sea views, an impressive lighthouse, and two remarkable beaches, Langisandur and Kirkjusandur. The local museum area, Akranes Museum Centre, gives an insight into the town’s history and culture.
- Reykholt: Reykholt holds significant historical importance as it was the home of Snorri Sturluson, a renowned medieval scholar. Visitors can explore Snorralaug, a hot pool dating back to the 12th century, and Snorrastofa, a research institute dedicated to Snorri.
- Húsafell: A perfect base for exploring the Langjökull Glacier, Húsafell is a hub for outdoor adventures. In addition to glacier tours, the area offers hiking trails, golfing, and the Húsafell thermal pools.
These towns and cities are not just stopping points but destinations in their own right, each offering unique experiences, activities, and sights that make a visit to West Iceland truly unforgettable.
Top Things To Do in West Iceland
West Iceland, the land of sagas, is a treasure trove of nature’s wonders and historical significance. Here, you’ll find everything from majestic mountains and glaciers to charming towns, waterfalls, and hot springs. Let’s explore some of the top things you can do and places you can visit while exploring this magical region.
Visit Snæfellsjökull National Park
Snæfellsjökull National Park, located on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, is a highlight of any visit to West Iceland. The park is home to the iconic Snæfellsjökull glacier, a stratovolcano that was the setting for Jules Verne’s classic novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Here, you can hike glacier trails, explore lava tubes like Vatnshellir Cave, or enjoy bird-watching at cliffs teeming with birdlife.
Visiting during the summer months offers the most favorable weather for outdoor activities. The park is accessible by car, with Route 54 being the main road leading you through the area.
Explore the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes
The Settlement Centre in Borgarnes provides an in-depth look at Iceland’s early history. Two main exhibitions, the Settlement Exhibition and the Egil Saga Exhibition, give you insight into the life of the first settlers and the saga of Egil Skallagrímsson, a renowned Viking poet and warrior.
The Settlement Centre is open year-round, though hours may vary by season. It is a short drive from Reykjavik, making it an easy day trip.
Visit Hraunfossar and Barnafoss Waterfalls
The unique and beautiful waterfalls of Hraunfossar and Barnafoss are a must-see in West Iceland. Hraunfossar, or “Lava Falls,” is a series of waterfalls that pour out of the Hallmundarhraun lava field into the Hvítá River. Nearby is Barnafoss, “Children’s Falls,” with its own tragic folklore.
The best time to visit is during the summer months when the trails are more accessible, but the waterfalls are also stunning during winter when surrounded by snow and ice. These attractions are accessible via Route 518.
Walk around Stykkishólmur
The town of Stykkishólmur is a vibrant place with well-preserved old houses, a picturesque harbor, and several museums. Take a stroll around the town, visit the Volcano Museum, and don’t miss out on the panoramic views from the top of the Stykkishólmskirkja Church.
Stykkishólmur is accessible year-round, but if you want to enjoy its outdoor activities to the fullest, consider visiting in the summer. The town is approximately a 2-hour drive from Reykjavik.
Take a Dip in Krauma Geothermal Baths
For a relaxing experience, visit the Krauma Geothermal Baths located near Deildartunguhver, Europe’s most powerful hot spring. The baths feature hot tubs, a cold tub (to boost circulation), and relaxation spaces with a fireplace.
Krauma is open year-round, and bathing in the geothermal waters can be particularly appealing in the colder months. To get there, take Route 50 from Borgarnes.
From stunning natural beauty to rich cultural and historical experiences, West Iceland is a place where every adventurer finds their heart’s delight. Whether you’re a nature lover, history buff, or culture enthusiast, the region’s diverse attractions will leave you with lasting memories.
Cultural Experiences in West Iceland
West Iceland is a region deeply rooted in history and folklore, offering a wealth of cultural experiences. From ancient sagas and old Viking settlements to the numerous museums and festivals that celebrate this rich history, there’s no shortage of ways to immerse yourself in Icelandic culture.
The Settlement Centre in Borgarnes is one of the standout cultural attractions in West Iceland. It provides a fascinating exploration of Iceland’s early history, with exhibitions that paint a picture of life during the country’s settlement period and the lives of famous Vikings.
If you’re interested in Iceland’s seafaring history, a visit to the Maritime Museum in Ólafsvík is a must. It tells the story of Iceland’s relationship with the sea and the impact it has had on the country’s development.
The region’s cultural experience extends beyond history, though. Art lovers will enjoy visiting the Húsafell Center, which features the works of renowned Icelandic painter Páll Guðmundsson, as well as rotating exhibits from other local artists. Literature enthusiasts can follow in the footsteps of Halldór Laxness, Nobel laureate for Literature, by visiting his former home at Gljúfrasteinn, now converted into a museum.
West Iceland also hosts several festivals throughout the year. The winter months bring the Snorri Festival in Reykholt, which celebrates Snorri Sturluson, a 13th-century poet and politician. The summer isn’t left out either, with the Viking Festival in Borgarnes providing a reenactment of Viking times with battles, a market, and traditional Viking food.
These cultural experiences in West Iceland are not only unique but they are also meaningful. They offer a deeper understanding of Iceland’s past and how it has shaped the present. Whether you’re exploring ancient saga sites, visiting museums, or partaking in local festivals, you’ll be drawn into the stories, traditions, and way of life that make this region so special. Through these cultural immersions, you’re not just observing, but actively connecting with the spirit of Iceland.
Food and Drink Options in West Iceland
As you journey through the captivating landscapes of West Iceland, you’ll be pleased to find a rich culinary scene that is both diverse and deeply rooted in Icelandic traditions. The region offers a variety of eateries, from cozy cafes serving Icelandic pastries for breakfast to fine dining establishments dishing out locally sourced seafood for dinner. Here are some top recommendations for food and drink in West Iceland:
Best Breakfast in West Iceland
- Hraunsnef Country Hotel: Start your day off right with a hearty breakfast featuring local Icelandic ingredients. The breakfast buffet offers a wide selection, including fresh baked bread, cheeses, and cold cuts.
- The Settlement Center Restaurant: In addition to its historical exhibits, this venue offers a delicious breakfast menu. Try their traditional Icelandic porridge for a warm start to your day.
- Egilsbakka Guesthouse: If you’re staying at this guesthouse, don’t miss the opportunity to have their homely breakfast, known for freshly baked bread and homemade jams.
Best Lunch in West Iceland
- Bjargarsteinn House Restaurant: Situated in Grundarfjörður, this restaurant provides stunning views of the Kirkjufell mountain. They serve delicious seafood dishes, and their lunch menu is a delight.
- Hótel Búðir: This hotel restaurant offers a lunch menu with a variety of options, including traditional Icelandic dishes and international fare.
- Stykkid Pizzeria: If you’re craving a quick and tasty lunch, this pizzeria in Borgarnes serves some of the best pizzas around.
Best Dinner in West Iceland
- Hotel Glymur Restaurant: With its panoramic views of Whale fjord, this restaurant is a fantastic dinner option. The lamb and the fish dishes come highly recommended.
- Restaurant Dalakot Búðardalur: A homely restaurant located in a small village, serving Icelandic dishes with ingredients sourced from local farmers and fishermen.
- Snjofugl: This stylish bistro in Stykkishólmur focuses on modern Icelandic cuisine with an innovative twist. Their seafood dishes are must-try.
Best Dessert in West Iceland
- Kaffi Kyrrð: Known for their mouth-watering cakes and pastries, this is a must-visit for dessert lovers. Try their traditional Icelandic skyr dessert.
- Braud.Husid Cafe in Borgarnes: Known for their delicious homemade ice cream. A perfect treat after a day of exploring.
- Narfeyrarstofa: This restaurant in Stykkishólmur is known for its delicious dessert menu. The rhubarb cake is a local favorite.
Where To Stay in West Iceland
The West region of Iceland is a treasure trove of natural beauty, offering visitors diverse landscapes, picturesque towns, and an array of unique experiences. The region has a wide variety of accommodations to suit every type of traveler, whether you’re on a budget or looking for a luxury retreat. You’ll find cozy guesthouses, comfortable hotels, traditional farm stays, and even campsites for those seeking a closer connection to the great outdoors. Here are some of the best options:
Budget Accommodations in West Iceland
- Hotel Edda Laugar in Saelingsdalur: A seasonal hotel offering basic but comfortable accommodations. It is situated in a stunning location, providing easy access to nearby attractions.
- Borgarnes Hostel: Located in Borgarnes, this hostel is a great option for budget travelers. It’s clean, comfortable, and offers both private rooms and dormitory-style accommodation.
- Akranes Hostel: This budget-friendly accommodation is located in Akranes, a short drive from Reykjavik. It’s a great base for exploring both the capital and the West region.
Mid-Range Accommodations in West Iceland
- Hotel Stykkisholmur: This modern and stylish hotel in the charming town of Stykkisholmur offers comfortable rooms and excellent service.
- Hotel Egilsen: Set in a restored historic house, this boutique hotel in Stykkishólmur offers cozy, well-appointed rooms and a friendly atmosphere.
- Hotel Hafnarfjall: Located near Borgarnes, this hotel offers stunning mountain views and comfortable, rustic-style rooms.
Luxury Accommodations in West Iceland
- Hotel Budir: This luxury hotel is set in one of Iceland’s most beautiful locations, offering stunning views of the surrounding landscapes. The rooms are tastefully decorated, and the hotel restaurant is renowned for its exquisite cuisine.
- Hotel Glymur: Offering villas and suites with private hot tubs, Hotel Glymur is a perfect pick for a luxury stay. The location offers panoramic views of the Whale fjord.
- Magma Hotel: Situated near Kirkjufell mountain, Magma Hotel offers luxurious rooms and suites in a serene setting. With a private geothermal hot tub in every room, you can soak while enjoying the stunning surroundings.
Travel Tips For West Iceland
Whether you’re navigating the spectacular Snæfellsnes Peninsula or exploring the diverse landscapes of the Westfjords, your adventure in West Iceland is bound to be unforgettable. This part of the country presents unique opportunities and challenges, and being aware of seasonal considerations, safety, and local customs can help ensure a seamless trip.
- Spring: The thawing season breathes life into the West. The roads are clearer, and daylight starts to increase significantly, making it an ideal time for outdoor activities. However, check the weather and road conditions frequently as they can still be unpredictable.
- Summer: With almost 24 hours of daylight, summer is the peak tourist season. The weather is relatively warmer, and all roads, including those to remote areas, are generally accessible. Be sure to book accommodations and tours in advance.
- Fall: The onset of autumn paints West Iceland in brilliant hues, and the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights increases. The weather can be erratic, and some highland roads start to close, so planning and flexibility are key.
- Winter: Short days, snowy landscapes, and the chance to experience the Northern Lights make winter a magical time to visit. But the weather conditions can be harsh, and many roads can be impassable, so be prepared for potential changes to your itinerary.
Quick Safety Tips
When it comes to safety, it’s crucial to remember that Iceland’s stunning landscapes can be as challenging as they are beautiful. Always check the weather forecast and road conditions before setting off on your journey. Keep to marked trails when hiking and maintain a safe distance from cliffs, particularly in windy conditions.
If you’re driving, ensure your vehicle is suitable for the road conditions, and never stop your car on the road – always use designated parking areas. Finally, always inform someone about your travel plans, especially if you’re venturing into remote areas.
Regional Quirks or Customs to Know
West Iceland, like the rest of the country, takes immense pride in its Viking heritage. Don’t be surprised to find locals passionately recounting sagas and folklore, which are intertwined with the region’s history.
It’s also not uncommon to find Elf houses or Elf rocks in the area, as Icelandic tradition holds that many elves (known as the Huldufólk, or “hidden people”) inhabit the country’s landscapes. It is a sign of disrespect to tamper with these structures or rocks, as they’re believed to bring bad luck. Finally, when visiting hot springs or public pools, be prepared to follow Icelandic etiquette, which includes showering without a swimsuit before entering the water.
Frequently Asked Questions About West Iceland
How long does it take to drive around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula?
Driving around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula without stops would take approximately 2-3 hours. However, with its diverse landscapes, enchanting villages, and historical sites, you’ll want to dedicate a full day (or even two) to explore the area fully.
Is it possible to visit the Westfjords in winter?
Yes, it is possible to visit the Westfjords in winter, but it’s crucial to note that the weather and road conditions can be challenging, and some areas might be inaccessible due to snow. Regular updates on road conditions can be found on the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration website.
Can you see the Northern Lights in West Iceland?
Yes, West Iceland provides a fantastic setting for viewing the Northern Lights, particularly between September and March. However, the sighting is subject to weather conditions and solar activity. Areas with minimal light pollution, like the remote Westfjords or the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, can provide excellent viewing opportunities.
What kind of wildlife can I see in West Iceland?
West Iceland is abundant with wildlife. The region is particularly famous for birdwatching, with a multitude of species, including puffins, found along its cliffs and coastlines. In the fjords, seals are often seen lounging on rocks, and it’s even possible to spot whales in the surrounding waters, particularly in summer.
Are there any geothermal pools in West Iceland?
Yes, West Iceland has several geothermal pools, providing perfect spots for relaxation after a day of exploring. Notably, the Lýsuhóls and Guðlaug pools offer beautiful views of the surrounding landscapes. Remember to follow the local etiquette when visiting these pools, including showering before entering.
Final Notes on Traveling To West Iceland
In wrapping up our comprehensive guide to West Iceland, we hope that we’ve captured the sense of wonder, tranquility, and adventure that awaits you in this extraordinary region. The untouched natural beauty, cultural richness, and warm hospitality of West Iceland are only but a glimpse of what makes this destination so special.
From the dramatic landscapes of Snæfellsnes Peninsula and the Westfjords to the charm of historical towns and the unique Icelandic culinary experiences, there’s something for every traveler. Whether you’re a seasoned explorer or someone seeking solace in nature, the diverse offerings of West Iceland are bound to leave a lasting impression.
While we’ve covered much, the true essence of West Iceland is something that goes beyond words. It’s found in the whisper of the winds, the quiet of the fjords, the dance of the Northern Lights, and the heart of its people. So, we encourage you to embark on this journey, to step off the beaten track, and to immerse yourself in the enchanting world that is West Iceland. Safe travels!