South Iceland

Travel Guide Europe Iceland South Iceland

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Introduction

South Iceland is the region of Iceland along the North Atlantic Ocean. South Iceland's charm lies in its many large and impressive waterfalls and glaciers, unique geology and fascinating medieval history.

The area is the setting of some of Iceland's most popular sagas and home to many of their heroes. Njáll's saga, one of the most famous sagas, is largely set in South Iceland with the title character Njáll living at Bergþórshvoll and the hero Gunnar hailing from Hlíðarendi in Fljótshlíð near Hvolsvöllur. These farms still exist today, but don't expect to see medieval ruins. Icelandic building materials were not made to last, and the farms you see today are twentieth century constructions. However, the nature and the scenery remain as impressive!

The region also contains two of the most important seats of power of medieval Iceland: Skálholt was the location of the bishop of Iceland from 1056 until 1106, when north Iceland received a bishop of its own but Skálholt remained the seat of a diocese covering east, south and west Iceland until 1801. Þingvellir was the meeting place of the Alþingi, the joint parliament and court founded in 930. Alþingi lost its legislative functions in 1662 but remained a court held at Þingvellir until 1800. Alþingi was revived in 1845 as advisory and later legislative assembly in Reykjavík. It was also at Þingvellir that, on 17 June 1944, Iceland was declared a republic.

The eastern part of South Iceland is dominated by the glacier Vatnajökull and the water systems linked to it. Big rivers flow from the glacier in all directions and have created large flood planes along the southern coast. The glacier and some of the surrounding areas form Vatnajökull National Park, the biggest national park in Iceland.

Unlike these rest of Iceland's coast, the south is not a fishing area because it has practically no natural harbours. The southern coastline from Þorlákshöfn in the west to Höfn in the east contains an almost unbroken sand beach open directly to the treacherous Atlantic Ocean.

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Cities

  • Hveragerði - located in a geothermal area, less than an hour from Reykjavík by car.
  • Eyrarbakki - beautiful old village on the south coast. Also worth visiting are nearby Stokkseyri and Þorlákshöfn.
  • Selfoss - the largest town in the south.
  • Stokkseyri
  • Hella and Hvolsvöllur - two nearby villages in the agricultural heartland of western South Iceland.
  • Vestmannaeyjar is the name for both a town and an archipelago just south of Iceland. The biggest and main island Heimaey is known for it's 1973 volcanic eruption that destroyed part of the town, and for the Atlantic puffin colonies. Millions of birds spend summer and breed in the island's cliffs. It is possible to visit Heimaey as a day trip from Reykjavik.
  • Vik - a coastal village world famous for its puffins, black sand beaches, impressive basalt columns and strange rock formations in the ocean.
  • Kirkjubæjarklaustur - a village in the sparsely populated Skaftárhreppur, in the eastern part of South Iceland.

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Sights and Activities

Thingvellir National Park, or Þingvellir in Icelandic, is one of the four national parks in Iceland and is located about 50 kilometres from the capital Reykjavik, reachable by good tarred roads. Because of its cultural and natural importance it is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Since 930 it has been of importance to almost all historical events in Iceland and also its geological history is a major draw for most visitors. Fault lines are easily visible in this interesting and beautiful national park. The site became Iceland's parliament around 930 AD after the owner of the land was found guilty of killing one of his slaves.
Upcountry Árnessýsla - A rural area in the north-western corner of South Iceland. Home to some of the most famous tourist destinations in Iceland including Gullfoss and Geysir.
Landmannalaugar - One of the great jewels of Iceland, located in the Southern Highlands is Landmannalaugar. The area's incredible natural beauty and extreme contrasts have been attracting visitors for centuries. It's a mountainous area rich in minerals, which results in strong colors, and it's impressive volcanic geology brings you to massive, old lava fields and natural hot springs. There's a mountain hut operated by Ferðafélag Íslands, and a simple, rocky camp ground is there as well. There is a simple mountain shop/café where snacks and coffee can be bought, as well as fishing license to the nearby lakes, where you can catch mountain trout. There is also one horse rental operated by Hraunhestar, ranging from 2 to 10 hours in length through the spectacular valleys and many marked hiking trails, one leading all the way south to Þórsmörk.
Þórsmörk - A natural pearl situated in a valley, tucked in between two glaciers. There are many hiking opportunities in the area, with its large network of marked trails. There is a lovely camp ground and several mountain cabins and little bungalows. Road access is by four-wheel-drive routes (F-roads) only.
The Vestmannaeyjar Islands are one of the world's newest volcanic areas and one of the islands, Surtsey, has only existed since 1963! The islands can be reached by a short flight or rough boat trip from mainland Iceland.
Seljalandsfoss - one of South Iceland's many falls, falling off a 60 m high cliff. It's biggest attraction is the pathway leading to behind the falls. Access to the falls is free and open year round. There are no services at the falls, besides a picnic table and a public bathroom.
Skógar - a small village home to the mighty and beautiful Skógafoss waterfall and one of Iceland's most famous museums, Skogar Folk Museum.
Skógafoss is 60 m tall and 25 m wide and comes from the river of Skógá. The falls have been protected since 1987. Access to the falls is open all year round and there is no admission. A trail leads to the top of the falls (via metal stairs to the right of the waterfall) and up the Skógá river valley. This trail eventually ascends all the way to the Fimmvörðuháls pass between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers before descending to Þórsmörk; the complete hike from Skógar to Þórsmörk generally takes two days. Day hikers can follow this trail as far as they like along the Skógá river, they will be rewarded with views of more than a dozen waterfalls.
Skogar Folk Museum houses a large collection of antique and historical artifacts. The museum is stretched over a large area, with 13 houses standing on the museum grounds. The museum is open June to August from 09:00 to 18:30, May and September from 10:00 to 17:00 and the rest of the year from 11:00 to 16:00. Entrance is 1,000 kr for adults, 600 kr for students, seniors and children aged 12-15. Free for children under 12 if accompanied by an adult. There are several services in town, including restaurants and accommodation.
Fimmvörðuháls – a popular hiking trail, from Skógar to Þórsmörk, between Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull. Eyjafjallajökull famously erupted in 2010 sending an ash cloud across Europe, but shortly before that eruption Fimmvörðuháls itself erupted, causing the trail to be closed for a while. It is now completely safe again, and has the added attraction of seeing brand new landscapes.
Laugavegur trail – another popular hiking trail from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk, 55 km long, takes around 4 days, with huts and campsites on the way where you can stay overnight (Brennisteinsalda —Hrafntinnusker — Álftavatn or Hvanngil — Emstrur (Botnar) — Þórsmörk (Langidalur)). Caution: Could be dangerous during bad weather conditions: several people got lost or even died on the route. Each summer the trail is host to a cross-country marathon called the Laugavegur Ultra Marathon is held on the route. Don't confuse it with the shopping street of the same name in Reykjavík. It is possible is to do hike Laugavegurinn and Fimmvörðuháls together, as they both lead to Þórsmörk.
River rafting is possible in both Hvítá and Markarfljót, close to Selfoss and Hvolsvöllur respectively.
Glacier tours – traveling with specially equipped trucks onto Vatnajökull offers incredible views of the white desert that is Europe's largest glacier.

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Events and Festivals

Thorrablot

Icelanders celebrate the old month of Thorri with a festival known as Thorrablot. This is a winter feast which celebrates the hardship which the ancestors has to endure. The feast can be held at any time during the month of Thorri starting the first Friday after January 13th. Traditional food is eaten which mainly consists of putrefied shark, jellied rams head, testicles and eyeballs along with many other delicacies. Much of the food is preserved from the previous year.

First day of summer

On a Thursday that comes up after April 18th, Icelanders mark the first day of summer with a national holiday and the greeting 'Gleðilegt Sumar' (Happy Summer). It is believed that if there is a frost and the weather is wintry on this day, then the summer will be very good.

Verslunarmannahelgi

This is Iceland's shop keeper's holiday is always the first weekend of August. It is a national holiday and music festivals are held all over Iceland. The biggest is on the Vestmannaeyjar Islands. The festival here is over the whole weekend and is the Icelandic equivalent of Glastonbury.

Independence Day

Known locally as National Day, this is a major festival for all Icelanders, held on 17 June to mark the country’s emergence as an independent republic. Street parties and entertainers, parades, fireworks, sideshows, traditional music, and dance draw residents onto the streets and into the bars and restaurants until the sun rises the next morning.

Seafarers Day

June sees the Sjomannadagur Festival in Reykjavik, as well as in many other smaller towns if the weather allows. Vintage ships line the Old Harbour for the annual event, with local fishermen competing in rowing, swimming, and other events. Parades, music, fun things to do, and seafood are the orders of the day.

Jonsmessa

The longest day of the year is a mystical time, celebrated in June with Jonsmessa, the Midsummer Night festival which dates back to Icelandic Viking times. On this night, seals are believed to take human form, cows gain the power of speech, and elves seduce travellers at crossroads with gifts and other favours. Rolling naked on the dew-covered grassy mountain slopes is considered a healthy pursuit and bonfires compete with the glow of the midnight sun.

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Getting There

By Plane

Mainland South Iceland is not served by any flights, domestic or international. On the western side, it's within reach of Reykjavík, which has a domestic airport that connects with some of the towns in different parts of the country. The eastern half of South Iceland can be reached by flying from Reykjavík to Höfn (a town in the southeast) with Eagle Air. This is close to Vatnajökull National Park, Jökulsárlón and other popular destinations.

Vestmannaeyjar has a domestic airport with flights from Reykjavík with Eagle Air.

By Car

Taking the Ring road east from Reykjavík will very quickly lead you into South Iceland. This is how by far most locals will choose to travel and as with the rest of Iceland, having a car of your own will give you a lot more options for exploring the region than relying on public transport. When entering from Reykjavík, you also have the alternative of taking the road through Þingvellir to enter South Iceland. Drive up on the ring road through Mosfellsbær (a town on the outskirts of Reykjavík), as if you were heading for West Iceland, and following the signs indicating Þingvellir (road nr. 36).

If you're entering the country by ferry and bringing your own car, you will drive off the ferry in Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland. Once you get to the ring road, head southwards and you should be able to reach South Iceland in a few hours. It may be best, though, to stop somewhere around Höfn in the southeast before heading further, as the distances are big.

By Bus

Scheduled buses run along most of South Iceland operated by Sterna. Reykjavík Excursions also has some scheduled services and a number of guided tours.

The Reykjavík area bus system (Strætó) reaches all the way to Selfoss. Take bus nr. 51 from Mjódd, which goes over Hellisheiði to the town of Hveragerði and then terminates in Selfoss.

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Getting Around

By Car

The south is well served by the ring road, which goes through the region from west to east serving most of the population centres on the way. The western part of the south is one of few regions in Iceland where populated areas are found far inland, and this area has a good road system as well. Further east the interior turns into highlands and glaciers, and should only be reached by 4x4s.

By Bus

As in the rest of Iceland, public transport can be quite difficult to navigate and cannot take you everywhere. However the bus system is slightly more developed in the south and there is a bus that travels daily along the entire southern section of the ring road. There are also buses that travel between the upcountry towns in the western part of the south. Most of these are operated by Sterna [3] or Reykjavík Excursions, but it may also be worth it to ask around locally as there may be different seasonal options.

By Boat

A ferry called Herjólfur, operated by Eimskip, runs between the mainland and Vestmannaeyjar. A new harbour has been created in Landeyjar, shortening sailing times significantly, but as it frequently fills with sand the old harbour at Þorlákshöfn is also in use. Add to this the fact that high waves often occur on the route and you get very irregular travel times, so it's best to check the status of the ferry before showing up at the pier. If you're traveling by car, it can also be brought to the islands with the ferry.

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Eat

The western part of South Iceland is in many ways Iceland's agricultural heartland, and hosts many traditional Icelandic farms with sheep, cattle, horses, and other animals. It's one of the main dairy producing regions of the country, producing most of the milk consumed in the capital region. Further east, aquaculture and fresh-water fishing plays an important role. Arctic char from Kirkjubæjarklaustur is known in Iceland as a delicacy. Also worth mentioning is the farm Þorvaldseyri, the only place where wheat is grown in Iceland. You can buy it straight from the farmer.

Awareness of the value of local produce is increasing, and farmers markets are becoming ever more common in South Iceland. You should also ask in restaurants whether they have some local specialties, chances are that they do.

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Drink

There isn't much in the way of nightlife in South Iceland outside the main towns. Of the towns it should be no surprise that Selfoss, being the largest town in the region, has the most active nightlife.

South Iceland is home to one of Iceland's smaller breweries, called Ölvisholt Brugghús. It's located in a rural area about 10km outside Selfoss and their three main beers are called Skjálfti, Freyja and Móri.

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Safety

The major concern for safety in South Iceland are the roads. The roads leading inland from Selfoss are very narrow and drivers should take special precaution. The national road from Reykjavík to Hveragerði, a mountain pass called Hellisheiði, can be particularly dangerous in winter, as blinding snow storms, icy roads and strong wind is common.

As the southern coast is open directly to the Atlantic Ocean, it's important to be very careful when on the beach. Appearances can be deceiving, and tides can be strong. Tourists have been killed when suddenly swept out to sea.

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This is version 4. Last edited at 14:57 on Nov 1, 19 by Utrecht. 5 articles link to this page.

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