The Blue Lagoon, Jökulsárlón, Gulfoss, The Golden Circle, and Eyjafjallajökull. You may struggle a bit to pronounce these names, but if you have conducted even a brief investigative scan related to Icelandic attractions and tourism, you’ve undoubtedly seen them. The above encompasses a couple of Iceland’s most celebrated attractions, many of which have become virtual household names since the island experienced an unprecedented boom in international tourism during the early 2010s. There is an array of strategic and economic benefits associated with Iceland’s mounting presence as an international “it” spot, but of course tourism brings its fair share of irritations as well, both for locals and travelers.
Consider the Blue Lagoon, inarguably one of Iceland’s most iconic sites – it is a beautiful, ethereal locale, well-known for its unearthly, opalescent waters, healthful properties, and serene atmosphere. All agree that it is a place well worth visiting, but you’ll also come across many an online blog warning travelers to strategically plan their bathing expedition in order to avoid a veritable swarm of tourists.
Fortunately, for the traveler interested in going off the beaten path and avoiding the teeming crowds, Iceland is a very unique nation with an abundance of distinctive points of interest tucked away in places few would think to look. If you’re arranging an Icelandic adventure for yourself and would like to experience aspects of the island that are perhaps a bit more obscure – but no less fascinating – consider stopping by these hidden gems:
Elves, or Huldufólk as they are described in Icelandic and Faroese folklore, still play a prominent role in the cultural life of the island. And these aren’t Santa’s elves, either – these creatures are known to instigate mudslides and flooding when disgruntled. In fact, in 2013, the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration ended up re-routing a development project that would snake through the municipality of Garðabær in an effort to appease the supernatural beings dwelling beneath the rocks of the lava field. Of course, this decision was also influenced by other environmental and cultural factors that gave tremendous value to Garðabær’s bucolic landscape – foreign journalists sometimes exaggerated the elf consideration. However, the risk of the Huldufólk becoming aggravated by a road that could be considered destructive and superfluous was indeed a concern.
Belief in elves is not necessarily universal in Iceland, of course – some regard it as mere superstition. However, the huldufólk nevertheless remain emblematic and important to the island’s folklore and cultural identity. So it should come as no surprise that there is actually a school dedicated to edifying its students about these “hidden people.” In Reyjkavík, the Álfaskólinn, or Elf School, enjoys a unique curriculum thoroughly dedicated to the study of Iceland’s thirteen types of elves.
Fairies, trolls, dwarves, and gnomes are also members of Iceland’s folkloric repertoire, and Álfaskólinn offers some coursework related to these creatures as well. For travelers, the Elf School provides five-hour classes that include on-site tours of hidden huldufólk habitats. After you have been sufficiently educated in the affairs of the huldufólk, you will be awarded a diploma and enjoy pancakes and coffee with Álfaskólinn’s headmaster.
This is undoubtedly one of the most unique – and fun – repositories of cultural knowledge in the world. Visit Elfmuseum to learn more about this hidden gem and the hidden folk!
We’ve all heard of Ireland’s Stonehenge – it is perhaps the best-known prehistoric monument in Europe, a living relic of the Celtic world’s Neolithic ancestry. What you might not know is that the Nordic world has a Henge of its own, and it is located in Iceland.
The Arctic Henge may look like a monumental remnant of the pagan era, but it is actually a recent stone construction project. In fact, it is so recent that the structure is not actually completed yet! With its development commencing in 1996, Arctic Henge began as a project honoring Iceland’s Nordic roots as well as celebrating the neo-pagan cultures and communities that have proliferated in certain areas on the island.
While the structure is actually a product of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Henge was heavily influenced ancient Norse literature. Inspired by the first and best-known poem of the Norse Poetic Edda, Völuspá, Arctic Henge will be encircled by seventy-two small blocks emblazoned with the names of the dwarves representing the seasons in Völuspá’s world. There will also be four gates surrounding the formation, which will correspond to the four seasons of our world. The final Henge is anticipated to be an impressive fifty-two meters in diameter.
To get to the Arctic Henge, you must head north to one of Iceland’s most remote villages: Raufarhöfn. This town is located on the northeastern tip of the Melrakkaslétta peninsula, making it one of the northernmost sites on the island. Fortunately, the village enjoys a variety of accommodation options for visitors and even boasts some spacious camping grounds.
Presently, the central columns of the Arctic Henge are completed, while the remainder of the structure is under development. You could be one of the few who can say you saw a pagan Henge before it was finished! Perhaps the Arctic Henge will be as mysterious to viewers hundreds of years in the future as Stonehenge is to visitors today.
Piece of the Berlin Wall
From 1961 to 1989, the Berlin Wall split the former Democratic Republic of Germany into East Germany and West Berlin. Its demolition commenced on June 13, 1990, and by 1992, the divisive barrier was torn down.
Segments of the Berlin Wall have been gifted and distributed as historical memorabilia throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In 2015, a piece of global history was gifted to Iceland as well. The Neu West Berlin Art Gallery in Berlin presented a piece of the Wall to the City of Reykjavík on October 3, commemorating the 25th anniversary of German reunification. This was no small portion either – the segment of the Wall in question weighs approximately four tonnes (nearly 2,000 pounds).
At the time of the Wall piece’s presentation, ambassadors from the United States, Russia, and Germany were all present in Reykjavík. It was quite an occasion – not to mention that the formal gifting was located at Höfði House, the famous site of the 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Höfði House overlooks Reykjavík’s Old Harbour, on Borgartún. When in Reykjavík, make sure you head to the northern part of the city to observe this evocative relic of international history.
Iceland is bursting at the seams with rugged volcanic landscapes, bucolic vegetative fields, and idyllic aquatic bodies dotted with crystalline icebergs. The fun part is that virtually every few yards of the island is liable to have some sort of hidden natural marvel under volcanic rocks or behind waterfalls.
One such concealed site is Grjótagjá, a cave near Lake Mývatn that holds a pleasant surprise in store for those who deign to venture within. Inside the mystical cavern is a warm cave pool that you can actually swim in! Though many of Iceland’s hot springs manifest themselves in the open air, this shimmering body of water is geothermally heated within the Grjótagjá cave. The pool often serves as a toasty refuge for travelers battling through Iceland’s frozen winters. That being said, do take a moment to check in with local guides regarding the safety of in-cave swimming. While the pools are often pleasantly warm these days, they were not always so. A few decades ago, the temperature of these waters elevated to unsafe levels due to nearby volcanic activity. Thus visitors would be wise to make sure there are no unusual aberrations in heat before diving in.
It is well-known that Iceland’s distinctive landscape has served as the setting for various scenes in HBO’s globally renowned fantasy series, Game of Thrones. The cave pools in Grjótagjá boast that honour as well; in season three, Jon Snow and Ygritte enjoy a romantic scene among the mist of the hot springs in this location. You can watch the episode entitled “Kissed by Fire,” and enjoy Grjótagjá’s fantasy television debut before you see it in person!
Here is another fun fact: once upon a time, Grjótagjá housed famous 18th century outlaw Jón Markússon. Apparently this notorious character made his home near the area and bathed in these very waters. Grjótagjá qualifies as a hidden gem in part because the locals prefer to keep this little earthly treasure somewhat of a secret. You may glimpse it on television, but you are unlikely to see a bathing visit to Grjótagjá advertised on tours.
Skrímslasetrið: The Icelandic Sea Monster Museum
It should come as no surprise that islands tend to produce perfect cultural climates for unusual sea-based lore. From Scotland’s Loch Ness monster, affectionately nicknamed “Nessie,” to the North American Ogopogo and the titan Norse cephalopod, the Kraken, monstrous and often grotesque aquatic creatures have emerged from the minds of those who dwell by the seas for centuries. Iceland has its fair share of bizarre nautical folklore as well, and the Westfjords seem to be particularly rife with gargantuan sea beasts.
In the small town of Bildudalur, nestled between a tremendous fjord and an imposing mountain range, you can find a fascinating museum dedicated to Iceland’s sea monsters. Skrímslasetrið, or the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, is a must-see for anyone interested in Iceland’s distinctive folkloric culture, or for anyone who has a fascination with cryptozoology.
According to Skrímslasetrið, there are four general breeds of monsters indigenous to Icelandic waters. They include the fjörulalli (which literally translates into “Shore Laddie”), the humanoid hafmaður (“Sea Man”), the crustacean-like skeljaskrímsli (“Shell Monster”), and the vaguely equine faxaskrímsli (“Sea Horse”). Apparently, all four of these types dwell in Arnarjördur, just off the shoes of Bildudalur, and are sighted fairly regularly by sailors and seamen.
This museum utilizes an array of mediums in its exhibitions, including video displays and interactive multimedia platforms. Visual and ethnographic media plays a particularly important role in the way information is transmitted to visitors here, as much of Iceland’s sea-based folklore has been transmitted orally and is better heard than read. However, Skrímslasetrið also provides maps and literature with which visiting explorers can investigate the history and evolution of the island’s monsters. Still, the eyewitness accounts are arguably the most compelling, and definitely contribute to Skrímslasetrið’s eerie aura of nautical mystery.
Take a look at the Westfjords’ YouTube channel and you will stumble across a tantalizing glimpse into Skrímslasetrið’s collections and atmosphere. Enjoy this video and take a look for yourself.
The Stone Carvings of Páll Guðmundsson
Iceland’s distinctive, sometimes-volatile but always-beautiful landscape is undoubtedly part of the island’s global allure. Its slightly extra-terrestrial-looking topography has inspired native Icelandic musicians, artists, writers, and even fashion designers, and there is no question that the island’s terrain is inextricably interwoven with its human culture.
The Stone Carvings of Páll Guðmundsson provide perhaps one of the most apt examples of the marriage between art and nature often seen in Iceland. Guðmundsson is an artist and rock-carver who has been chiseling neo-pagan imagery out of the rocks in his hometown of Húsafell for years. He is something of a lone genius. Currently, Guðmundsson has two major installations on display not far from his home. The first, entitled “Ghost Fold,” was inspired by a regional tale of a local priest who put eighteen troubled spirits to rest at the very site. Fittingly, the haunting exhibition details eighteen stone ghost faces sinking into the earth. The second installation, located in the valley of Bæjargil, displays numerous stony façades in alternating sizes, and takes inspiration from early, distinctively Nordic artistic traditions in Iceland.
Guðmundsson is an instrumentalist as well, and is perhaps best-known for developing a working xylophone made entirely out of stone. This unique instrument produces gentle sounds in perfect pitch purely through its own vibrations – no strings are needed. The stone instrument, called the steinharpa in Icelandic, was used in collaboration with Sigur Rós, one of Iceland’s most internationally famous contemporary musical outfits. The stone xylophone is not available for public view, but you can both see and hear the piece online. Head to YouTube and enter the artist’s name to hear him play. He has his own website, but its content is entirely in Icelandic. There is some more incentive to brush up on your language skills before heading north!