For someone who lives in sunny Perth, Australia, it’s been a long held dream of mine to spend a white Christmas somewhere in the northern hemisphere. Well, my dream finally came true last year, when I had the opportunity to spend Christmas and the New Year in the Nordic countries – including Iceland.
Prior to my visit, I pictured Iceland to be a very cold country with frozen landscapes, snow-covered peaks, black sand beaches and sky scraping geysers. But this magical island country in the North Atlantic Ocean has a lot more to offer than what I initially imagined.
With a population of 320,000 people, Iceland is one of the least-populated countries in the world. No big surprise really, given its harsh cold climate. The capital city, Reykjavik (also known as Bay of Smokes and the most northerly capital city in the world) has a population of 122,000. To give you an idea of just how least-populated the country is, over 50 cities in the United States enjoy a greater population compared to Iceland, including New Orleans and Tulsa.
A little bit of Iceland history
The settlement of Iceland can be traced back to AD 874. According to Landnámabók, also known as The Book of Settlements, the chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson became the first permanent Norse settler on the island. Up until then, other people had been known to visit and remain over winter, but their stays were not permanent. As centuries followed, Norsemen settled Iceland, bringing with them thralls of Gaelic origin.
From 1262 to 1918, Iceland was part of the Norwegian and later the Danish monarchies. Then, in 1944, Iceland broke its ties with Denmark to officially become independent. It’s now 73 years since Iceland became a free and independent republic, with National Day celebrated every year on June 17.
The Icelandic population relied largely on fishing and agriculture, and it remained that way until the 20th century. Up until that point in its history, Iceland was one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Progression through industrialisation of the fisheries, together with aid from the Marshall Plan, was a major turning point for Iceland. It brought prosperity in the years following World War II and by the 1990s, Iceland had transitioned into one of the world’s wealthiest and most developed nations.
The Land of Fire and Ice
Iceland is often referred to as the Land of Fire and Ice because it is a nation of contrasting landscapes. With many interesting places to explore, especially in the western parts of the country, the country is home to a large number of volcanoes, both active and extinct, as well as lava fields, hot springs and geysers. Iceland actually has more hot springs than any other country on earth.
Iceland is one of the smaller nations in Europe, but for overseas visitors it is becoming an increasingly popular destination. With 2.3 million visitors expected in 2017, tourism is a fast growing industry, thanks in part to the country’s incredibly beautiful landscape. Iceland just so happens to be home to many of the continent’s most impressive waterfalls.
Iceland’s must see waterfalls
A spectacular sight, this multi-tiered waterfall is one of the popular attractions on the Golden Circle route. Also known as Golder Waterfall, it is located in the canyon of the Hvita River in the southwest of Iceland. This waterfall is the largest in Europe and is part of an eponymous nature reserve to ensure it is protected for all to enjoy its natural beauty.
This waterfall was once located on the southern Icelandic coast, but this former sea cliff is now five kilometres from the shore, serving as a dramatic boundary between Iceland’s highlands and its coastal lowlands. One of the biggest waterfalls in the country, with a height of 25 metres, Skogafoss is most famous for its rainbow, visible on sunny days – a phenomenon attributed to the amount of spray the fall produces, and nothing short of a photographer’s dream.
Although not as popular with visitors as Gullfoss or Skogafoss, Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Discharging 193 cubic metres per second, this waterfall is also Europe’s biggest waterfall in terms of the amount of water discharged. After it made an appearance in the 2012 science fiction movie Prometheus, many people refer to Dettifoss as the Prometheus waterfall.
Located between Selfoss and Skogafoss, close to the main ring road, this impressive 65 metre waterfall is well worth a visit. Not least because weather permitting, visitors have the opportunity to walk behind the cascading falls. Due to ice and slip hazard in winter, it is advisable not to walk behind the cascading falls.
Also known as the Waterfall of the Gods, Godafoss is located in the Myvatn district of northern-central Iceland. You’ll find this waterfall at the start of Sprengisandur Highland road – it is here that the water of the River Skjalfandafljot falls 12 metres from a width of 30 metres.
To experience the best of Iceland’s natural attractions, be sure to visit the Golden Circle route, venture into the Highlands, or drop by the country’s national parks – Snaefellsjokul, Vatnajokull and Thingvellir – UNESCO World Heritage Centre and home to the world’s first parliament. A boat trip to Videy Island – where unspoiled nature and culture combine – is also highly recommended.
Let’s talk about the Icelandic Folklore
Iceland is not only rich when it comes to natural wonders, it also has an overwhelming wealth of cultural heritage, which is mainly evident in its family sagas and folktales relating to sorcerers, ghosts and mythical creatures like dragons, elves and trolls. If you want to be enlightened more about these creatures and tales, you should visit Lambi and Hafnarfjorour, where elves are said to dwell. A visit to the Icelandic Wonders Museum is also worthwhile – here you can take a class at the Icelandic Elf School! Fun fact: according to a survey back in 1998, most Icelanders believe in the existence of elves.
The Yule lads and snowy Reykjavik wonders during Christmas
Winter is said to be a magical season in Iceland, when the mountains and plains are covered in fresh snow, the lakes and waterfalls freeze over and the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights puts on a heavenly show, lighting up the skies in Reykjavik and various parts of the country.
During the Christmas season, entire cities, towns and villages are illuminated with twinkling nights and the thirteen Yule Lads (also known as Jólasveinar) – Iceland’s version of Santa Claus – wander around to spread mischief and Christmas cheer. For well-behaved children they will leave a gift, but naughty children receive a potato! In return, children leave treats for the Yule Lads such as crispy flatbread or other snacks. You can even visit the Yule Lads in their caves near Akureyri.
Although many roads are closed during the Christmas season, there are still plenty of activities available, particularly winter sports like skiing, ice skating and bobsledding. The largest ski resort in Iceland is Blafjoll, which is just several minutes away from the capital city, Reykjavik.
If you’re planning to enjoy an Icelandic Christmas (by the way ‘Gleileg jol gott og fars!’ is ‘Merry Christmas’ in the local tongue!) don’t be surprised, either, if Christmas seems unusually long. It is one of the Iceland customs to have 26 days of Christmas and not just one, but 13 Santa Clauses!
Horse tours and other exciting outdoor adventures during Christmas
Riding an Icelandic horse is a rare and amazing experience, and horseback riding provides a unique opportunity to explore Iceland’s beautiful natural landscapes. Icelandic horses, although small, are known for being hardy and easy to ride. There are many horse tours available in Reykjavik and other places in Iceland.
Apart from horseback riding, there are many other exciting outdoor activities for you to try when you visit Iceland during Christmas. You could play a round of golf under the midnight sun, cycle around Reykjavik or hike in the mountains and fjords. For water sport enthusiasts there’s rafting, swimming, sea kayaking and sport fishing. Wildlife encounters should definitely be one of your ‘must do’ activities though. Go bird-watching in Latrabjarg and catch a glimpse of the minke, blue, humpback and killer whales off the coast of Husavik.
Music and entertainment
Icelanders love their music and Iceland is home to an interesting music scene. Music is everywhere, from folk songs streaming from small villages and local pubs, to classical music resounding from concert halls and theaters, and rock music pulsating in the various night clubs. You should know that, Iceland even has its own metal scene, while jazz fans will love hanging around during the Reykjavik Jazz Festival.
Don’t forget to visit the Harpa Concert Hall, easily one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world. Home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, even if you don’t get to take in a performance, the Harpa Concert Hall should be high up on your itinerary of places to visit in Reykjavik.
Winter is a magical time of year to visit Iceland. The winter months aren’t as cold and harsh as you might probably imagine them to be, it’s generally less crowded and the winter weather delivers some stunningly beautiful landscapes that will take your breath away. Speaking of breath-taking, it’s also one of the best times to experience the incredible Northern Lights.
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