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Driving along the empty roads which loop around the edge of Iceland can make you feel like you are traversing a distant planet – or perhaps the only person left on earth. From black-sand beaches battered with brooding Atlantic seas, to green moss-covered lava fields – and the occasional geysir shooting forth water high into the sky – the island nation belies description. And, while it might not be the typical place to spend your summer, Iceland is at its most magical from May to June when the sun barely – and sometimes never – sets.
Most people’s journey will begin in Reykjavík, the compact capital city home to just over 100,000 residents (so the story goes, if the norm is six degrees of separation, in Iceland it’s two – or none at all). Battered by the financial crisis of 2008, the city has built itself anew with a strange but welcoming charm: from tiny cramped beer halls and fermented food-filled Michelin-starred restaurants, to the famed glowing waters of the Blue Lagoon on its outskirts (enjoy the warm pools on your way to or from the airport; or simply enjoy the more rustic geothermal pools dotted around the island). Those staying in the city should head for the chicly sparse monochrome interiors of 101hotel, or the traditional Art Deco stylings of Hotel Borg – the city’s oldest hotel.
But Iceland is best enjoyed on the open road: most will travel inland, around the so-called Golden Circle, a looping route which takes in Iceland’s most famous sites. There is the Geysir Geothermal Area, where the 1000-year-old Strokkur (‘The Mighty Geysir’) shoots boiling water 30 metres into the air at ten-minute intervals, the vast Gullfoss waterfall, and the otherworldly landscape of Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site formed on a tectonic plate line where you can stand on two continents at once. (For those who wish to stay the night in the park, the majestic Brutalist Ion Adventure Hotel on its boundaries is particularly impressive.)
Those who venture further afield, though, will be rewarded with Iceland’s most impressive sites – and far less day-tripping tourists. On the southern coast of the island, just off the ‘ring road’ which traces Iceland’s edges, you will find Reynisfjara beach – at once beautiful and eerie, its black sands and dramatic Atlantic vista look straight out of a parallel world. A more colourfully hued landscape can be found just two hours north inland – spend a day hiking across Landmannalaugar, a geothermal valley circled by richly coloured rhyolite mountains, which are at their most vibrant in the summer months (if you drive straight from Reykjavík you will also cross the country’s altogether more moon-like black deserts). Also in southern Iceland you will find mount Maelifell, a rugged volcanic peak which seems to appear on the horizon from thin air.
Though there is much more of Iceland to explore – those who want to experience the country at its best should leave plenty of time to do so, hiring a 4×4 and tracing the less explored roads and lodges, or heading north towards the bucolic Westfjords – end your trip at Kirkjufell, Iceland’s most-photographed peak (a testament to its monumental beauty). Those travelling to Iceland in winter will find Kirkjufell the perfect backdrop to watch the aurora borealis dance across the sky – or in height of summer, the warm orange haze of Iceland’s midnight sun
For a city of such compact size, Reykjavík boasts an impressive art scene: from the bunker-like Reykjavík Art Museum, home to contemporary art by Icelandic artists, to Kling & Bang, an artist-led space on the water.