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GEMS OF ICELAND & THE UNSUNG HEROES

Mary Kujawski
hidden gems of iceland

Stop whatever it is that you’re doing.

Go on, I said stop!

And now, close your eyes.

I want you to picture The Land of Fire and Ice.

I want you to picture Iceland.

You know…that beautiful country you’ve had your eye on for years, the one you’re saving up your pennies for? That bucket list trip that you hope to make happen?

(You’re SO going to make it happen! I just know it!)

Do you have it? That picture of Iceland?

Good.

Now: open your eyes and tell me:

What did you picture?

I’m no betting woman, but if I were, I would bet that you pictured massive, towering, thunderous Skógafoss.  Maybe with someone in a yellow raincoat standing in front of it, arms raised, because Instagram.

Or that you pictured iconic Kirkjufell, the mountain that adorns the cover of nearly every Iceland guidebook in circulation like it’s Icelandic mandate or something.

And if not these two things, then surely you pictured the ethereal milky-blue waters of the Blue Lagoon, steam rising from its surface. Maybe a person or two smiling wide and proudly donning mud masks.

How’d I do?

Be honest.

I totally nailed it, didn’t I?

Here’s the thing: Iceland is such a stunning country, and people think of those things when they think of Iceland because they are, well, magnificent! Not to mention constantly replaying on one gigantic, Icelandic, social media loop.

I know that when I visited Iceland for the first time, I couldn’t wait to see all these popular spots…the “must-sees” of Iceland that were no doubt going to knock my very expensive, perfectly moisture-wicking wool socks right the heck off!

And to be fair, they totally did!

But you know what surprised me?

What surprised me was that it was the lesser known spots, the places with fewer people and far less fanfare, that I loved the most!

Huh. Who woulda thunk?!

But it’s true.

And for that reason, I want to write about the unsung treasures and hidden gems of Iceland that I encountered during my travels there. The gems, hidden or in some cases right in front of me, that get so easily lost amongst the noise and adoration of the head cheerleaders and quarterback MVPs of Iceland’s landscape.

Those places are well-loved and sought after for good reason, but keep your mind and heart open to all of Iceland, not just the places being a bit, shall we say, cocky, and showing off.

You never know what you might find!

You might just fall in love with the unexpected!

Charming Reykjavík

Reykjavík city in iceland
I positively adore you, Reykjavík!

I know what you’re thinking!

Mary, how is Reykjavík one of the hidden gems of Iceland?!

It’s the country’s capital! With the biggest population on the whole island!

Hello!

Nothing hidden about this place, lady!

I know, I know.

But I can’t tell you the number of travelers I’ve encountered who have a preconceived notion that Reykjavík is just some small, nondescript city to be skipped over in the name of exploring the countryside.

Please, and I implore you: don’t do this!

Reykjavík deserves your attention! It is one of the most charming cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting, and you will walk away utterly besotted!

Walk the harbor. Feed the ducks at Tjörnin pond. Admire the architecture of Harpa. Eat a pylsa at the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand. Take in all the quirky street art, of which there is plenty. Visit a museum.

I promise you: this is the gem-i-est of gems, people!

You won’t be sorry you took your time to discover its gifts!

Rauðamelsölkelda Mineral Spring

waterfall in iceland
Can I get you anything? Charming waterfall in an idyllic landscape setting, perhaps?

Sometimes the best gems of Iceland are just a little off the beaten path. Not shouting at you or demanding your attention. They are just comfortable in their own skin and don’t have anything to prove.

That’s Rauðamelsölkelda.

One comes up on Rauðamelsölkelda pretty quickly upon arriving on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, but it’s not out in the open, beckoning you.

It’s actually a drive down and a short walk away from the Gerðuberg basalt columns, which are easy to see and enjoy, even from the road.

But don’t you think for a second that the columns are all there is for you to see here, for find your way to Rauðamelsölkelda and you will have found pure solitude.

When we visited, there wasn’t a soul in sight. This was actually disconcerting for us! We worried we weren’t going the right way since we had no one’s footsteps in which to follow.

But that’s the beauty, friends.

Follow the path, whose end destination is unknown.

In our case, this mineral spring quickly became a highlight of our travels.

It was here that we fell in love with the taste of Icelandic water, enjoyed straight from the stream!

Heck, it might have been this very place where we fell in love with Iceland itself.

Mount Helgafell

stunning view in iceland
View from atop Mount Helgafell. I’ve had worse!

Iceland is chock full of enormous mountain vistas and towering cliffs and you know what?

(Spoiler ahead.)

Mount Helgafell is not that!

In fact, you may come upon Mount Helgafell and see that it appears to be just your run-of-the-mill, decent-sized but fairly average-looking hill.

And you wouldn’t be wrong, per say.

Except.

Except that Mount Helgafell is a special hill where wishes come true!

Here it is believed that if you hike to the top without looking back, and do so without uttering a word, the 3 wishes you make at the top will come true!

We did this hike on a beautiful morning in early May, and it was, in a word?

Meditative.

The “rules” for the wish-making required us to stay quiet and contemplative.

It felt like a reflective solitary journey, even though I was in company.

And making wishes, to me, was essentially another way of thinking about my intentions and hopes for the future.

So, Mount Helgafell?

It was like having a “check-in” with my soul.

This is every bit worth your time when you are on the peninsula!

Come here and find peace.

Djúpalónssandur Black Sand Beach

djúpalónssandur beach iceland
Who doesn’t adore a moody and somewhat sinister-looking black sand beach?!

You may have already heard of Iceland’s black sand beaches, and one in particular.

Reynisfjara, anyone?!

Yes, you’ve probably heard of Reynisfjara because frankly, when it comes to black sand beaches in Iceland, Reynisfjara gets all the glory!

And to be fair, Reynisfjara is supremely cool! With its rugged landscape, staggering basalt columns, and formations rising from the sea, it’s a looker! Add in its notoriety, given its extremely dangerous waves and the fact that people have even died there, and it’s a place people simply can’t stay away from!

But I’m here to tell you that Iceland has other black sand beaches, friend!

Take Djupalonssandur.

You will still get the rugged, foreboding landscape here to satisfy your darkest pleasures, and the path down to its sands is a winding maze of super cool geological formations that will make your camera viewfinder sing!

She’s a beauty, that Djúpalónssandur!

Be sure to give her your due diligence!

Paradísarlaut (Paradise Hollow)

gems of iceland
Does it get lovelier than this? I’m thinking no!

You need not look further than its own name to know that visiting Paradísarlaut means you’ll be visiting a small slice of, well…paradise!

But this gem of Iceland is not a rushing river, thrashing about and turning up huge oxygenated plumes of water the color of ice blue.

That’s Barnafoss.

And this isn’t some enormous cascading waterfall from which you can walk behind.

That’s Seljalandsfoss.

No, this gem of Iceland is a quiet retreat, a respite from all that very exciting hoopla.

Here, if the weather is decent, you might come across some picnickers.

The picnickers will likely be Icelandic.

Here you might come across some families.

The families will likely be Icelandic.

Yes, this is just one of those places where you feel you get the local flavor…the place where born and bred Icelanders go to get away from it all and relax in nature.

So come.

Get away from it all.

Inhale. Exhale.

Just breathe.

Gljúfrabúi Waterfall

hidden gems of iceland
Otherwordly!

Gljúfrabúi is most certainly one of the gems of Iceland! It’s a “hidden” waterfall just down the walking path from Seljalandsfoss, the much bigger “showstopper” between the two.

As such, some people visit Seljalandsfoss and have no clue that this delightful gem is but a mere stone’s throw away!

I must rectify this grave oversight for people, and shall shout it from the rooftops for all to hear:

Do. Not. Forget. To. Visit. Gljúfrabúi!

Gljúfrabúi waterfall is one of those special spots that makes you feel like you’re Indiana Jones in pursuit of an ancient relic or one of the Goonies searching for One-Eyed Willy’s treasure.

For a minute, as you make your way through the rocky crevice opening and traverse slippery rock to view it, you might as well be five years old again in your backyard, pretending to be a great explorer in an unknown land!

Only you aren’t pretending this time! You’re actually exploring!

All the waterfalls in Iceland are beautiful in their own way, but this one?

This one might be my favorite.

Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon

secret gems of iceland
You can’t come to Iceland and not visit a glacier lagoon. It’s against the rules!

Okay, okay.

It might be a slight exaggeration to imply that this glacier lagoon is some poor hapless chap getting kicked around the schoolyard by the bullies.

After all, this lagoon is literal neighbors and bosom buddies with Jökulsárlón lagoon, meaning that for most tourists, if they’re visiting one, they’re likely going to visit the other.

Still, I feel Jökulsárlón, with its adjacent Diamond Beach, tends to get more playtime on the airwaves, when Fjallsárlón is totally worthy of the same adoration.

It’s like he’s always playing second fiddle, just waiting for his big break.

Well, I’m here to give it to him!

Make sure you don’t overlook Fjallsárlón in pursuit of loftier lagoons. This one is absolutely beautiful, and will have you staring out into the infinite abyss of the glacier that feeds it in total awe, wondering how you got so lucky as to be right where you’re standing, right in that moment.

Truly one of the gems of Iceland. Simply spectacular.

Dverghamrar

hidden gems of iceland
Surely this is a camera still from like, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ or something?!

Is this picture not out of a dream?!

The columns!

The path!

The spectacular Foss á Síðu waterfall flowing from atop a sheer cliff in the distance!

And yet, I’ll bet if you didn’t know to be looking for it, there’s a high likelihood you would just whiz right past this South Iceland spot in that fully-insured rental car of yours!

This was a stop that our dear Icelandic travel agent put into our self-drive itinerary, and boy am I glad he did.

There’s something about this place that just feels…magical.

In fact, these basalt column formations are believed to be home to both elves and dwarves.

No matter your beliefs, there’s no mistaking the feeling in the air here:

this place is special.

Systrafoss Waterfall

gems of iceland
Happy to have the place to explore on our own.

Herein lies one of the gems of Iceland that would have likely been overlooked had it not been for my genius Nordic Green Travel agent who wanted to share with us some of the lesser-visited gems of Iceland.

Coming upon this “sister” waterfall, essentially two falls side by side, was such a treat.

Among its virtues?

We were the only ones there!

Compare this to the busy parking lots of Skógafoss, full of Happy Campers vans, and it was always a welcome break in the busyness and crowds to arrive to a scene like this and bask in the serenity of it.

More of this, please!

The Stuff Off the Side of the Road

Don’t mind me. Just soaking up the INSANE views as we drive along.

There has never been a more official-sounding category in the history of categories than “The stuff off the side of the road.”

Right?!

But let me tell you, the stuff off the side of the road?

That stuff is SO the STUFF!

So, while you may have an itinerary absolutely packed with points of interest you want to “hit” while you are in Iceland, don’t forget that so many gems of Iceland can be seen by simply driving along and just…looking out the window!

It sounds so simple, and that’s because it is!

Iceland is truly one of those countries that just makes your brain explode, every minute on the minute, from its sheer gorgeousness.

Cliffs! Columns! Volcanoes! Glaciers! Waterfalls! Lava Fields!

Iceland packs a hefty punch!

So, keep this in mind when you visit Iceland, and open yourself up to the things you are going to come across that aren’t labeled in your itinerary as “Stop #9 on Day #5”.

Allow yourself to be charmed! Allow some whimsy and spontaneity to take over! Make ‘Þetta Reddast’ your traveling motto!

Just be sure to park in a proper place (see: NOT the side or middle of the road) to enjoy Iceland’s beauty.

Safety first, friends!

Keep Your Mind (and Doors) Open

gems of iceland
What lies beyond the door? Only one way to find out!

One of the most surprising things I took away from my visit to Iceland was that I enjoyed the small, unsung treasures and hidden gems of Iceland just as much if not more than the “bigwigs”…the thundering waterfalls, erupting volcanoes, and massive glaciers that give Iceland it’s apt nickname, The Land of Fire and Ice.

The best advice I can give is to allow yourself to be delighted by the places in Iceland that are just a little less shiny and just a little less traveled, as they ended up being the hallmarks of my trip, and I think they could end up becoming yours too!

Because those places?

I’ve found they hold the most magic.

Looking for sage advice and recommendations from a trusted source for your travels in Iceland? Look no further than Nordic Green Travel! Nordic Green Travel is an environmentally-minded local agency run by two native Icelanders who will steer you in the right direction, every single time. Choose from one of their offered self-drive tours or have them create a custom itinerary for you. Contact them today!

About the author

Mary Kujawski