Driving The Ring Road in Three Days

Iceland’s famous Þjóðvegur 1 highway, or the Ring Road, is a 1322 km long road that circles the country. Technically it can be covered from start to finish in less than 24 hours but rushing the road trip would defeat the purpose of experiencing the beautiful nature and eccentric small towns that Iceland has to offer. The optimal way to travel the Ring Road is in approximately seven days with plenty of pit stops, but it’s also entirely possible to have an enjoyable trip in much less than that. For those who have limited time to travel, here’s a guide to a three day trip around Iceland.

Where to Begin?

At the start of the trip, travellers have two options, driving north or south but for the purpose of this article, the northern route is chosen. Heading north takes travellers through the Hvalfjarðargöng tunnel towards Borgarnes which is a popular first quick stop for gathering snacks or having lunch, but for a little less crowded option we recommend Baulan, a small gas station twenty minutes past Borgarnes. Baulan is perfect for a coffee break and a hot dog before getting back on the road. About 40 minutes from Baulan marks the beginning of the drive through Holtavörðuheiði, a long stretch of road that ascends through barren hillsides. During the summer, Holtavörðuheiði poses no difficulty for drivers but during winter the road can get quite icy and it’s worth staying up to date on road conditions when travelling in the winter months. Coming back down from the hills, travellers are greeted by Staðarskáli, a good sized gas station and restaurant that was originally opened in 1960 and then reconstructed in 2008 under the N1 chain of gas stations. Due to its location right between Reykjavík and the North part of Iceland, it has been one of the most popular rest stops on the Ring Road. Although some of the old time charm was replaced by a more modern look by N1, it’s still a classic stop to restock on drinks and road snacks. Before getting to Akureyri, the road crosses Blönduós, a decent sized town named after the Blanda river that rushes through the area. Blönduós has a number of restaurants and gas stations to drop in, but for people who crave an old fashioned burger joint there is the North West restaurant in Víðigerði, some 39 km from Blönduós.

Photo: Golli. A collection of waterfalls in Borgarfjörður

After that the Ring Road heads into Skagafjörður, a large region known for its dramatic history during the Sturlunga Era and for its rich horsebreeding culture. The last proper stop before Akureyri is Varmahlíð in Skagafjörður, a tiny community that still manages a hotel and a swimming pool along with a restaurant and gas station. From Varmahlíð it’s about an hour drive to Akureyri with no other options for pit stops through the sometimes treacherous Öxnadalsheiði. 

Akureyri, Capital of North Iceland

Akureyri, the second biggest town in Iceland, is nestled at the roots of Hlíðarfjall mountain, a popular skiing area during winter time. It has a more “city feel” than the other smaller towns that are scattered around the country, and is an ideal place to stop for the first night of the trip. Akureyri offers numerous hotels, guesthouses and camping areas along with a diverse restaurant scene and a huge swimming pool with a funky waterslide. The climate in Akureyri is often a lot calmer than in Reykjavík and during summer it’s more likely than not to catch beautiful, sunny days there while Reykjavík has more unpredictable weather. There is no shortage of activities available in Akureyri and it is sure to leave an impression on any traveller passing through. In 2022, a new geothermal bath spot opened right outside Akureyri called Skógarböðin, or Forest Lagoon, a beautifully designed, modern take on the natural bath. It’s a great spot to unwind after the long drive and enjoy the surrounding nature. For breakfast in Akureyri there are a few options, but a great little café called Kaffi Ilmur is a great choice. Kaffi Ilmur serves breakfast all day long and has amazing Dutch specialty pancakes that should not be missed.

Photo: Golli. Akureyri is the second largest town in Iceland

Experiencing East-Iceland

Heading out east from Akureyri, the next stop should be Egilsstaðir, a small town with a big personality and a great natural bath called Vök, which is located on top of Urriðavatn lake. Visitors can soak in the hot pools and then take a dip in the lake to cool off. East-Iceland has a lot to offer and it’s the only part of the country where wild reindeer roam free. Because of the short trip and long drives between destinations, it might not be possible to go on many excursions, but travellers should try to squeeze in a reindeer safari to see these adorable animals in their natural habitat. On the South-Eastern edge of Iceland, close to Vatnajökull glacer is Jökulsárlón, a glacier lake that is a must see on the Ring Road trip. The lake runs directly from Vatnajökull and out to the ocean and carries with it beautiful icebergs from the glacier in all different colors of blue. Close by is the Diamond Beach where pieces of the icebergs have broken off and collected on the shore. It’s a stunning display of the ever changing elements of Icelandic nature.

Photo: Berglind. The Glacier Lagoon in East-Iceland

 For the second night on the trip, Höfn í Hornafirði is a great spot, a small coastal town on the  South-East tip, or travellers can duck into Hotel Jökulsárlón, a cozy hotel close to the glacier lake. About 20 minutes before entering Höfn there are the Vestrahorn mountains, a picturesque range of ragged mountains that seem to rise up from the black, sandy beach. 

The Scenic South Coast

On the third day, driving from Höfn, begins the home stretch, a beautiful, scenic drive along the southern part of Iceland. This part of the country doesn’t have the many hills and valleys of the western and northern parts and so the drive is smooth and peaceful. The southern route also has some of the most popular nature highlights of Iceland, and as travellers get closer to Reykjavík, there are numerous spots to stop and enjoy the views. Three hours from Höfn is Vík í Mýrdal, another small seaside town that is surrounded by dramatic mountain formations. There are a number of food options in Vík, including a craft brewery pub called Smiðjan Brewery that offers a good selection of local specialty beers. Thirty minutes from Vík is the famed Skógafoss, an iconic waterfall that can be seen right from the highway. Continuing west is another, smaller waterfall, Seljalandsfoss, where visitors have a chance to walk up close and get behind the gushing water. Close by Seljalandsfoss is Seljavallalaug, a beautiful natural bath, hidden from the views of the Ring Road. It’s a bit of a hike to get to the pool but the soak is worth every minute.

Photo: Golli. Seljalandsfoss on the South Coast

Getting back on the road from Seljavallalaug, travellers have the option of taking a small detour to see Gullfoss waterfall and Strokkur geysir. As part of the Golden Cirlce, these spots are a popular attraction for tour groups, but it’s easy and fun to get around there on your own. From the Golden Circle it’s a short one hour drive back to Reykjavík where it all started. A short trip like this around Iceland is only able to give a small preview of all the possible things to see and do around the country, but it is a great way to get familiar with driving on the roads and to hopefully get hyped for a longer return trip in the future.

Discover Iceland’s Scenic South Coast 

Skógafoss waterfall on the South Coast in Iceland

The magnificent South Coast in Iceland makes for a diverse and exciting adventure for sightseers. But what are the best sites en route, and how long does it take to experience? Are there tours that will escort you along the South Coast, or is it better to drive yourself? Read on to learn more about this beautiful region.

There are several routes in Iceland that have become famed for their beauty, most notably the Golden Circle in West Iceland, and the Diamond Circle to the north. 

The South Coast is part of this pantheon, offering an esoteric mix of attractions that are sure to delight even the most seasoned of travellers. 

Why experience the South Coast in Iceland? 

South Coast travellers
Photo: Golli. The South is one of Iceland’s most stunning regions.

The South Coast is among Iceland’s most beloved sightseeing routes. Waterfalls, canyons, glacier lagoons, black sand beaches and desert – all lie in wait for those venturing along this pristine stretch of shoreline.

Thankfully, the South Coast happens to be incredibly accessible, strengthening its popularity amongst foreign guests. Travellers need only follow the Ring Road – or Route 1; the major tarmac road circling the island – east from the capital, Reykjavík. This route will pass by each of one of its major stops.

Frankly, the South Coast has something to offer everyone. Be you a landscape photographer seeking out picturesque vantage points. Or a road warrior looking to cover as much ground in Iceland in the limited time available to you. The South Coast provides. 

What major sites are on Iceland’s South Coast?

Travellers in Iceland's south
Photo: Golli. Behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall

As is the case with so much of Iceland, the South Coast in its entirety is a sight to behold. Driving between sites, you are just as likely to have your breath taken away by the passing visuals as you are at each of its famous attractions. 

With that said, there are places that are more worthy of discussion than others, be it because of their interesting geological makeup, importance to Icelandic culture, or stunning aesthetic.

Let’s learn more about each of the attractions you’ll pass when leaving from Reykjavík.

Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss Waterfalls 

Skógafoss in the mist
Photo: Golli. Skógafoss waterfall.

The famous waterfall alley of South Iceland. The first waterfall visitors will stumble upon is Seljalandsfoss, with Skógafoss being around half an hour’s drive east. Both of their waters originate from the mighty Eyjafjallajökull glacier, famous for its violent eruption in 2010. 

Seljalandsfoss allows guests to walk behind its narrow waterfall, offering truly fabulous photography opportunities for capturing the surrounding landscape through a natural filter of cascading water. This gorgeous natural landmark falls 60 m [200 feet] over an ancient sea cliff, making for unbelievable visuals when seen besides the enclosing meadows and nearby shoreline.

A twisting staircase leads up the side of Skógafoss. This presents visitors with the chance to see this feature from the top and bottom. This waterfall is just as high as Seljalandsfoss, but has a much greater width at 25 m [82 ft.] According to legends, treasures hide behind the waterfall, but we would not recommend venturing too close for fear you may be crushed. 

The hidden falls, Gljúfrabúi 

Gljúfrabúi hidden falls
Photo: Golli. Gljúfrabúi is the among Iceland’s hiddden falls

While Seljalandsfoss is one of the most well-known waterfalls on the South Coast, Gljúfrabúi (Canyon Dweller) is within easy walking distance, nestled away inside a diminutive gorge of its own. 

Gljúfrabúi remains something of an open secret in the area. Quite the feat given the many thousands who visit Seljalandsfoss each day.

The waterfall is 40 m [131 ft] tall, and trickles into the oceanbound stream, Gljúfurá. Those who want a closer look at this feature will have to hopscotch their way over the trickling water to the best vantage point. 

Kvernufoss 

 

Standing at 30 m [98 ft], observing Kvernufoss waterfall feels akin to discovering treasure given that it’s hidden inside a mossy gorge. 

Just like Seljalandsfoss, it is possible to traipse behind Kvernufoss by following its conveniently placed walking path. Given the great plumes of mist that erupt at the base of the falls, anyone hoping to look upon the waterfall from this inside angle should expect to get wet!

Vík í Mýrdal

Vík i Myrdal Church
Photo: Golli. Vík i Myrdal Church in Iceland

Better known simply as Vík, this pleasant coastal village is found 180 km [112 mi] from Reykjavík, making it the perfect place to stop, breathe, and grab a bite to eat during your trip along the South Coast. 

Home to little under 400 people, Vík has become something of an attraction in its own right on account that its isolated position and seafront architecture present a side of Icelandic life rarely seen in the capital. 

To many, Vík is defined by its amazing surrounding scenery. It lies at the base of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which itself covers the once ominous Katla volcano. 

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach 

Reynisfjara black sand beach on the South Coast in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Reynisfjara black sand beach.

By now, much has been discussed about the inherent dangers of Reynisfjara, given the fact that its unpredictable wave patterns have cost lives, and created many incidences of panic among visitors. 

Despite this, Reynisfjara does remind one of the country’s most beautiful shorelines, and is well worthy of appreciation at a distance. 

This is not so much for its glassy black pebbles – a bonafide staple of many beaches in Iceland – but more so because it’s home to Reynisdrangar; impressive basalt sea stacks that loom over the adjacent coastal village of Vík í Mýrdal. 

Dyrhólaey peninsula

Dyrhólaey peninsula
Photo: Golli. The epic landscape of Dyrhólaey peninsula

Closeby to Reynisfjara, Dyrhólaey Peninsula (Door Hill Island) is a true geographical marvel thanks to its breathtaking, arch-shaped rock formation. 

The dramatic hole in the basalt rock is the result of wind and water erosion, reminding its observers of the natural forces that continue to shape Iceland to this day. The site is home to various bird species, including skuas, guillemots, and in summer, the iconic Atlantic Puffin.

This promontory offers panoramic views of the black sand coastline and adjoining ocean, making it a fabulous spot for landscape photographs. 

Katla Ice Caves  

Katla Ice Caves
Photo: Golli. Katla ice caves in South Iceland.

The Katla ice caves are a worthwhile stop for travellers interested to learn more about the underworld beneath Iceland’s glaciers. If ever there was a place to take your camera, this would be it! 

Katla’s ice caves lack the crystal blue ice that has made those beneath Vatnajökull world-famous. Instead, these caverns are better characterised as being white with snowfall, with black volcanic ash mixed in, creating an aesthetic all its own. 

During your caving tour at Katla, your certified guide will provide you with a pair of spiked crampons to help your feet grip the icy surface, as well as a pair of hiking poles for anyone seeking extra support. You will also wear a protective helmet so as to protect you should slips or stumbles occur. 

Solheimajökull Glacier

 

 

Solheimajökull is an outlet glacier originating from the larger Mýrdalsjökull ice cap – the very same that looms over Vík í Mýrdal. It is a popular spot for glacier hiking, an exciting activity which sees visitors walk across great ice plains in spiky crampons, taking in its dramatic moulins and crevasses. 

Solheimajökull is approximately 10 km long and 2 km wide, though it blends in with the Mýrdalsjökull ice in such a way as to appear much larger. Its exterior surface is a mixture of white ice and black volcanic ash, creating scenes reminiscent of a science fiction film. 

The DC Plane Wreck at Solheimasandur

The DC Plane Wreck at Solheimasandur
Photo: Golli. The abandoned wreckage

An artificial monument, of sorts. The metallic husk of a US Navy Douglas R4D-8 aircraft lays on the flattened dunes of Solheimasandur black sand desert. It has ever since it crashed there on November 21st 1973. Its degraded grey metal, twisted and hollow with time, stands separate to the emptiness of the surrounding landscape.

What could have been a catastrophe actually turned out to be an astounding stroke of luck for its crew. Not a single person died in the crash. The accident was caused by the pilot accidentally switching to the wrong fuel tank. What otherwise had been a routine flight as part of the US defence agreement with Iceland quickly devolved into an emergency landing. 

Interestingly enough, the DC plane wreck is not held in such high regard by the Icelanders as it with tourists. It is, actually, tourists who have taken it upon themselves to grant it a special spot among the South Coast’s attractions. Hence its inclusion in this article. 

Be aware that the wreckage cannot be seen from the Ring Road. And there are no clear signs. It is only advised to trek here in the company of those who are certain of its location, and never in the wintertime, given the copious amounts of snow that fall over Solheimasandur. 

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon

 

 

With 100 m walls of rock rising on either side of the Fjaðrá river, the dark, dramatic Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon is a bewitching sight. It is found close to the Ring Road, nearby to the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, and trails 2 km through across the landscape. 

It is believed the canyon is around 9000 years old, only enforcing the idea that better belongs in a fantastical, storybook setting. Its origins lie at Geirlandshraun mountain, which would have seeped vast amounts of glacier water across the landscape at the end of the last Ice Age.

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach 

Jökulsárlón lake
Photo: Golli. Jökulsárlón lagoon

Jökulsárlón lagoon sits at the base of Breiðamerkurjökull outlet glacier, a single tongue that slithers off Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull. 

This glistening, ice-berg filled water body is just one part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, Vatnajökull National Park, and is often considered the last stop people will make on the South Coast. 

Jökulsárlón is one the most photographed spots in the entire country. It is very popular among guests, many who add to the experience with an amphibious or zodiac boat tour. Others are content to stand at the water’s banks, appreciating the incredible ice formations as they float peacefully on their way out to the ocean. 

You can read more in our full article: Visit Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in South East Iceland 

How long does driving the South Coast take? 

South Coast driving
Photo: Golli. Driving on the South Coast

In reality, this depends on how long you wish to spend enjoying this pristine route. Reaching what is considered to be the last stop on the South Coast, Jökulsárlón, will take you five hours when travelling directly along Route 1.  

So, if you are hoping to see everything the South Coast has to offer in a single day, you should expect to be driving for a minimum of twelve hours, taking into consideration that you will stop and appreciate many of its sites along the way. 

Is the South Coast free? 

A Reykjavik Excursions coach
Photo: Golli. There are many coach tours along the South Coast.

As with most things in Iceland, travelling the South Coast is not completely without cost. There is the price of fuel to consider, and any stops you make along the way for food and respite. Some sites may also incur parking fees, so it is most certainly wise to keep cash on hand. 

Naturally, tour operators can also transport you along this route, stopping from one site to the next. Prices vary greatly depending on the type of experience they offer. For example, private tours will require more payment. But they do allow for you and your family to enjoy Iceland’s southern region in a quieter, more personal way. 

For a lighter cost, but less freedom, you can opt for a coach tour. This means travelling with a larger group. In these circumstances, you are tied to the whims of the group-at-large, not to mention the coach driver. And you will have less wiggle room when it comes to scheduling.  

What towns and villages offer a place to eat on the South Coast? 

Friðheimar farm
Photo: Golden Circle — Platinum Tour | Small group. Visitors to Friðheimar farm.

The South Coast is an expensive area, covering 401 km in total. So where exactly you should stop to eat depends on your preference, and whether amenities can be found closeby. Taking that into consideration, let’s start by shining a light on a handful of the eateries on the western side of this southerly coastal route. 

Places to eat on the western side of the South Coast

Prized by travellers as a restaurant and boutique hotel, Varma is located in the geothermal town of Hveragerði. It offers delicious meals like slow-smoked salmon, langoustine soup, and sourdough steak sandwiches. The dining space is situated in an airy, greenhouse-style area. As such, it allows for beautiful views of the rural surroundings. 

Also in Hveragerði is Ölverk Pizza & Brugghús. Unsurprisingly, it specialises in wood-fired pizza and craft beer brewed on-site. Hveragerði is only 45 km east of Reykjavík, making it a great town to eat at the beginning or end of your journey. The same can be said of Selfoss, only fifteen minutes drive away. This lovely town also boasts such places as Kaffi Krús and Tryggvaskáli. The latter placing emphasis on locally-sourced ingredients. 

A delicious meal served on the Golden Circle route
Photo: The Elite Golden Circle with lunch at farm & luxury hot sea baths

Places to eat on eastern side of the South Coast

Further east, closeby to the famed waterfall that shares its name, visitors can stop to eat at Hótel Skógafoss Bistro and Bar. The restaurant offers a variety of breakfast, lunch, and dinner plates, both Icelandic and international dishes. 

In Vík í Mýrdal, there are a good number of places to chow down. How about the iconic Black Beach Restaurant (​Svarta Fjaran), or the great lunch spot, Suður? You could also stray towards American or European dishes at the old-fashioned Halldors Kaffi in a beautiful historic home. 

There are many other restaurants, snack bars, and cafes found further along the South Coast. The Glacier Lagoon Café is located beside Jökulsárlón and offers an array of delicious sandwiches and soups. At the far east of the South Coast in the town of Höfn, travellers can pay a visit to such places as Hali Country Hotel Restaurant, the lobster-mad Pakkhús Restaurant, or the harbour-side Íshúsið Pizzeria

In Summary 

Eyjafjöll - Undir Eyjafjöllum Kýr á beit
Photo: Páll Stefánsson. Cows at Eyjafjöll, South Iceland

What else is there to say? If you’re planning on taking a trip to Iceland for a week or more, the South Coast is highly recommended. 

Regardless of how you experience it, expect to be left in awe of Iceland’s beautiful natural scenery. Its quaint coastal towns. Its memorable activities.  

Make sure to browse our selection of South Coast tours before you go! 

Deep North Episode 60: Boom Town

iceland immigration

If you’re looking for a community in Iceland that has been profoundly changed by tourism, there is hardly a better place to look than Vík, the urban centre of the Mýrdalshreppur municipality. Over the past eight years or so, building after building has sprung up in the town: a two-storey Icewear store opened in 2017, a 72-room hotel in 2018. Since 2015, the municipality’s population has nearly doubled, from 480 to 877. Ten years ago, there may have been one or two places in town for a traveller to sit down for dinner. Now there are enough restaurants for Tripadvisor to compile the top ten.

And along with the tour boom, the community in Vík has grown in recent years as well. Here’s how this South Iceland community is making the best of it. Read the story here.

Boom Town

vík í mýrdal

The drive into Vík í Mýrdal from the west is one of my favourite stretches of the Ring Road. Just past the turnoffs for Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara, the flat plains of the south coast narrow and rise into a brief but beautiful mountain pass, windy in both meanings of the word. Before you know it, the town opens up below: to the left, its iconic, red-roofed church on a hill, watching over a slope of low-lying houses. To the right, a cliff leading out to the sea. Ahead, a plain on which the growing town stretches east. 

If you’re looking for a community in Iceland that has been profoundly changed by tourism, there is hardly a better place to look than Vík, the urban centre of the Mýrdalshreppur municipality. Over the past eight years or so, building after building has sprung up in the town: a two-storey Icewear store opened in 2017, a 72-room hotel in 2018. Since 2015, the municipality’s population has nearly doubled, from 480 to 877. Ten years ago, there may have been one or two places in town for a traveller to sit down for dinner. Now there are enough restaurants for Tripadvisor to compile the top ten. 

vík í mýrdal

As elsewhere across Iceland, the booming tourism industry in and around Vík needs workers, and most of those who have come to the town in recent years are immigrants. While across Iceland, some 18% of the population are foreign citizens, in Mýrdalshreppur that figure is 60%, making it the only Icelandic municipality in which immigrants constitute a majority. It’s a reality in which both the opportunities and the challenges brought by immigration and multiculturalism in Iceland are magnified. I’m here to learn more about both.

icewear vík
tourism in vík
tourism in vík

The Mayor’s office

In Einar Freyr Elínarson’s office, a big screen hangs on the wall, featuring a photograph of goats frolicking in a field. “It’s taken on my farm,” he explains. “I’m the sixth generation of my family to live there. I’m a country boy, as deeply rooted in Mýrdalshreppur as I could be.” For years, the family farm has also had a guesthouse and a restaurant, and before becoming mayor last year, Einar was involved in the family business. “I have a background in tourism, and like everyone who works in tourism here, I’m used to working with foreigners. Since I was ten, there have almost always been some foreign people living with us at home, so I sort of grew up in that environment.”

Einar Freyr Elínarson

“In the youngest division of the preschool, most of the children are from families of foreign origin. Most of them don’t speak Icelandic. If we don’t address this, it could lead to certain social problems in 10-15 years. We have an opportunity to prevent that.”

Since Einar’s childhood, however, the tourism industry in Mýrdalshreppur has changed dramatically, expanding from a seasonal industry to a year-round one. “Back in 2010, people were hiring staff for two or three months over the summer, but there was nothing to do over the winter. Around 2017, that started changing very quickly. There started to be a lot of traffic over the winter, which meant tourism companies could hire staff year-round. I also think that’s why we’re leading in tourism in this area: we have such quality staff.” 

tourism in vík

When the pandemic brought tourism to a near-complete halt, it really sunk in for Einar that many of the foreigners who had come to Mýrdalshreppur for work were not just here temporarily. “I was on the local council at the time. When companies closed and had to lay off their staff, we thought the municipality’s tax income would collapse. What we hadn’t realised is that there were a lot of people who had lived here long enough that they had earned the right to unemployment benefits. The municipality got local tax income through those benefits, and its income didn’t drop quite so much. That’s when I realised: OK, people are starting to settle here. They’re not leaving.” 

I head to the Icewear wool shop to meet one such settler, who came to the town years ago and never left. 

vík black sand beach

Icewear

The Icewear store in Vík is more than a store, it’s an institution. A sea of coats, socks, knitted hats and sweaters, stuffed toys and souvenirs fill its vast, two-storey floor plan. Even on this weekday morning in early November, tourists are wandering the aisles, picking up a puffin-emblazoned scarf or a hiking shoe for closer inspection. “Summers are crazier, but the winters are catching up,” Tomasz Chochołowicz, the store’s energetic manager, and the chairman of the town’s English-language Council, tells me.

icewear in vík Tomasz Chochołowicz

“At first I thought local politics were beyond my reach, that they were more for Icelanders.”

Tomasz moved to Iceland in December of 2015. “I came straight to Vík. It was different than it is now. A year or two earlier, the hotels were closing down over the winter. I was unemployed for a month, I had debts. It was tough. Then I met a woman who lived here and she helped me find a room. I stayed with a guy who was working at Icewear. He told me to leave my CV here. I got a position because I already had housing; it was such a hard thing to get. Then I lost it one week later.”

Tomasz eventually settled in, and shortly afterwards, his girlfriend (now wife) joined him in Vík. Eight years later, he has climbed the Icewear ladder to become the store’s manager. He has a house and a three-year-old son. “There are challenges. But if you compare it to life in other places, it’s just crazy good.” He admits, however, that for residents arriving now, it’s more difficult to enter the real estate market. “We have many young people working here, between 20 to 35 years old. Very often they stay for three, four years. It’s a challenge for us to try to keep them here. To give them a carrot, so to say.”

Víkurskáli

One person looking for such a carrot is Irene, a cashier I meet when I pop into Víkurskáli gas station. Irene came to Vík two years ago, relocating from an Athens she describes as “overpopulated.” I ask her how the town is treating her. “I love it here, but it’s not for everyone,” she answers. While settling in wasn’t hard for Irene, “it’s after that it gets harder. Then it’s in Óðinn’s hands, or Þór’s,” she quips.

“I love it here, but it’s not for everyone.”

When I ask Irene about the challenges of living in this small, South Iceland community, she lists off many issues that small communities across Iceland share: the health clinic, which also serves as the community’s pharmacy, is only open from 9:00 AM-1:30 PM on weekdays. There’s a lack of housing, and most new buildings are “built for the tourists, not for the people who live here. They’re trying to build more housing, but it’s too slow.” Many of the issues, she recognises, are not necessarily reflections on the municipality, but the government. “The big heads seem to forget there’s a strong community of people here behind the touristic town that really try to stay long term. But we don’t have a hospital, post office, or school big enough to accommodate a town of nearly 1,000 people.” Irene wants to stay in Vík, but she doesn’t know how long she can under the current conditions. “There are not a lot of career opportunities for people who would like to work on their career path.”

The English-language Council

Over the past few years, as Mýrdalshreppur’s transformation was taking place, the issues facing foreign residents were not immediately apparent to the local council. That changed in the lead-up to the 2022 municipal elections. “When we were preparing the candidate lists for the election, Tomasz came to the meeting,” Einar tells me. “He took the stage and explained that a very large group of people within the community felt that they didn’t have a real opportunity to make an impact. So we had a very honest discussion about that and the idea of forming an English-language Council emerged.” 

Einar Freyr Elínarson

“It’s because of the work of these new residents that the municipality is in a good financial position.”

There was one specific development in 2022 that helped Vík’s foreign residents be heard. An amendment to Iceland’s election legislation meant that foreign residents could now vote in municipal elections after having lived in Iceland for three years (previously it had been five). In Mýrdalshreppur, this meant that suddenly, 42% of all eligible voters were immigrants. “The number of foreign residents on the electoral register quadrupled,” Einar reflects. “It was a whole different game. Suddenly this group could make demands of the municipality for services that were important to them. Building a new gym became a campaign issue, something that no one was thinking about eight years ago. The biggest demographic among foreign residents is 20-40 years old, this is a service that is really important to them.” 

polish immigration iceland

Once he became mayor, Einar quickly saw that to gain residents’ trust, he needed to make sure his involvement in the council was hands-on. “I decided that I would attend all the English-language Council’s meetings. I go to every single one and I give them a report on what’s happening in the municipal council. And it’s been really good for me as well to get their perspective on things. The issues we discuss in the municipal council affect all residents, including foreign residents.”

Doctors, drones, and dialogue

As Tomasz reviews the issues the council has discussed over its inaugural year, I can see they range widely: bringing more doctors to Vík, regulating drone flying within the town, preparing welcome brochures for new residents, and making Icelandic language education more accessible. Local residents often work long hours and finding the time and motivation for Icelandic classes can be a challenge – especially when their jobs mostly involve serving foreign tourists in English. “If you want to have true access to Icelandic society, learning Icelandic is key,” Tomasz says. “I had the idea that the municipality could hire a teacher who could be available at different times to accommodate shift workers. The problem is how to frame it since no one has done it before. But it’s also exciting, because why not? Let’s see where it takes us.”

In its role as an advisory body, the council has made proposals that are followed up on by the municipal council. Although the English-language Council technically does not have any executive power, Tomasz argues that soft power can be even more effective. “If we ask something of the municipal council, we cannot be ignored. We definitely have influence. I think this soft power is better when you’re trying to convince people of something, you create connections. If you push too hard, you create more divisions in the community.” 

Housing

When I ask Einar about the biggest issue facing Vík, his answer is clear. “Housing. Whatever housing goes on sale, employers buy up immediately, because they want to grow their companies. And in order to grow their companies, they need to hire people, so they buy housing so they can rent it to their staff.” In contrast to the capital area, most workers who have settled in Vík live in housing provided by their employer, Einar explains. “And the municipality is no exception there. We’ve had to buy a lot of apartments in the last few years just to be able to hire people for the office and the schools. And we’re in the same position as the companies: we can’t continue to house someone if they stop working for the municipality.” It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s not ideal for any of the parties involved, Einar explains. “It’s a bad situation for the worker, who is completely dependent on their employer for housing – they’re stuck working for the same person. And the companies would also rather invest their money back into the business or pay out dividends.” By building more rental housing, Einar hopes Mýrdalshreppur can change this system. New rental apartments have come on the market recently and the municipality just signed a contract to build 200 more units over the next ten years.

vík í mýrdal
vík í mýrdal
vík í mýrdal

More secure housing independent of employment contracts will also help reduce resident turnover, Einar suggests, which could in turn help diversify the economy. “A lot of the new residents in this area are highly educated. They could easily do something totally different from working in tourism if they weren’t at risk of losing their housing.” Another important factor is ensuring good services. “Foreign residents are lacking a big part of their support network here. If they have kids, they need to know there will be space for them in the preschool, because Grandma and Grandpa aren’t around to watch the kids if something comes up.”

housing construction in vík

The preschool

When I enter the preschool, it’s naptime. I tiptoe through the hallways in search of its director, Nichole Leigh Mosty, hopeful that she, at least, is still awake. Originally from the United States, Nichole has been living in Iceland for over 20 years. Much of that time has been spent working in the fields of diversity and inclusion, in both Reykjavík and Ísafjörður (the Westfjords) and directing organisations such as the Multicultural Information Centre and W.O.M.E.N. in Iceland (the Women of Multicultural Ethnicity Network). Nichole took on the position of Vík’s preschool director last June. The immigrant community here differs from the others she’s gotten to know.

preschool in vík

“The other day, the Prime Minister said that if anyone could have perfect equality, it’s Iceland. So why don’t we?”

“In Reykjavík, there is a lot of diversity among immigrants. There are university-educated people who are working in their field; there are people like me, ‘two-decaders´ who have settled in, and not necessarily around a particular industry; there are people who receive refugee status who settle there because that’s where the services are. In Ísafjörður, there are immigrants who have been there for a long, long time. Here, it’s a whole different reality: there are a lot of people who are newbies, fresh to the country.” While the length of time most immigrants stay in Vík may have lengthened since 2015, Nichole still sees a lot of turnover. “And maybe that’s OK. Maybe we need to also think about short-term inclusion. Not necessarily just integration, but inclusion: how do we include people who come for a little while? Because there’s a lot of wealth in having young people here with new ideas,” she observes.

The fact that most of Vík’s new residents work in the tourism industry presents specific challenges when it comes to integration. “I have families here who work very hard in the summer and then take their vacation in the winter. So I’ll lose children out of the preschool for six, seven weeks. That might be great for the family, but it’s a huge gap in language development.” The preschool recently elected a new parent’s council, where two out of the three members are of foreign origin. “I’m really happy they came to me and asked if they could be involved. I want it to be a learning opportunity for them about how things work in the local community, but also for us, to learn what they’re thinking. Like, for example, why they still go to the doctor in Poland.”

Nichole Leigh Mosty

“I’m here because I believe something really special can happen in Vík if we all look at the community we have, look at the community we want, and work together to make it.”

As for the English-language Council, Nichole sees it as a good first step towards greater integration and inclusion in Mýrdalshreppur. “People are proud of the fact that it’s here. People are proud to be a part of it. And that’s a really important first step. But as for the next steps: how do we get the community more involved in the council? And how do we bring what happens in the council back out to the community?” Nichole stresses the importance of the council being involved in shaping policy within the municipality, particularly a policy on integration, which is still lacking.

When I ask Nichole what motivates her to continue to fight for inclusion, her optimism is apparent. “After the Women’s Strike the other day, the Prime Minister said that if anyone could have perfect equality, it’s Iceland. So why don’t we? There are so many possibilities to get it right.” Nichole points out that the changes in Vík benefit long-time locals just as much as Iceland’s newcomers. “The town is booming. Everywhere you walk, they’re building something.” The preschool is no exception: it will soon be housed in a new building, the first phase of which is set to be completed by December. “Growth is happening. The question is, what do you do to include these new people in the community that they are basically funding and keeping alive?”

The running track

As I step out of the preschool, I wander to the running track at the edge of town. Two women are strolling around it, one pushing a baby carriage. During the pandemic, this municipality had one of the highest birth rates in Iceland. I think about how Einar framed his hopes for the future of Mýrdalshreppur. “I want the municipality to invest because it’s in a good position to invest right now. Many of the new residents are paying full taxes but they are young people without families, which means they are using very few services. As people settle here and have children, they go to school, the operations become more costly. The opportunity to build for the future is now.”

vík í mýrdal

I wonder what others in Iceland can learn from the developments in Vík: both its challenges and the enthusiasm and vision of its community leaders. I hope they won’t wait until immigrants become the lion’s share of voters to ask these questions. If they do, they’ll lose valuable time. As I return home to Reykjavík, Nichole’s last words to me echo in my head. “People should watch what happens in Vík.” I know I will.

Vík Mayor Wants to Build Harbour for Sand Mine

Vík í Mýrdal

Iceland’s Minister of the Environment and Energy opposes plans to transport sand from a planned sand mine in South Iceland by truck along the Ring Road. Residents have expressed opposition to the plans, which would see large trucks driving at 7- to 8- minute intervals along the Ring Road in South Iceland 24 hours per day. The mayor of Vík, just 15 km west of the mine’s planned location, has proposed building a harbour in the town from which the sand could be exported.

Road transport “is not going to work” says Environment Minister

“Everyone knows that there is a lot of strain on infrastructure as it is, and putting heavy transport on top of that is something that I don’t think there will ever be agreement on,” Environment Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson stated. “Whichever way you look at it, adding to these roads and through these settlements is not going to work.”

Negative impact on traffic, positive on the climate

In 2020, German company EP Power Minerals purchased a large property in South Iceland, around 15 km [9.3 mi] east of the town of Vík í Mýrdal. The property mostly consists of sand plains and the company plans to establish a sand mine on it. The sand would be exported to Europe and possibly North America, where it will be used as an additive in cement.

A recently-published environmental report on the proposed mine judged the project’s impact on traffic and roads to be “considerably negative.” Its climate impact, however, was evaluated as “considerably positive,” as the material produced would replace cement clinker and reduce carbon emissions due to concrete production by 800 million kg of CO2 equivalents annually.

Only coastal town without a harbour

Einar Freyr Elínarson, Mayor of Mýrdalshreppur municipality (in which Vík is located), has proposed building a harbour in Vík from which the mined materials could be exported.

“Route 1 passes through several urban areas on the way to Þorlákshöfn [the planned export harbour]. So we in the municipality propose looking into the possibility of shipping all of this out from here on the coast, and building a harbour,” Einar told Vísir.

Vík is the only coastal town in Iceland that doesn’t have a harbour, but the south coast’s strong waves post challenges in such construction projects. The nearby Landeyjarhöfn harbour, from which the Westman Islands ferry departs, fills with sand that must be pumped out regularly.

Einar says he has proposed the idea to EP Power Minerals representatives who have not expressed direct opposition to the idea. The harbour would not be built using public funds, Einar says, calling it an “exciting opportunity” for the municipality, as well as the local tourism and fishing industries.

Smiðjan Brewery First to Sell Directly to Customers

icelandic beer

Smiðjan Brewery in Vík was the first to sell alcohol directly to customers when it officially got its license on Wednesday, July 13.

In a statement to Morgunblaðið, Sveinn Sigurðsson, one of the founders of Smiðjan, stated that it was important for the brewery to finally be able to sell directly. A majority of the customers that visit the brewery are foreign tourists and beer enthusiasts, and now they will be able to take beer home with them more easily.

At the moment, Smiðjan just has a restaurant and bar, but they are planning to significantly increase their production to meet the rising demand of direct sales.

Smiðjan has been offering brewery tours but expressed frustration that up until now, they were not allowed to sell alcohol directly to their customers after these tours. Smiðjan has also been frustrated that getting their product onto Vínbúðin shelves also takes several weeks, meaning that customers are not getting the freshest product possible.

Iceland has, up until now, had a state monopoly on alcohol. All alcohol must be purchased at Vínbúðin, the state alcohol distributor, except for some light beer which is available in grocery stores. Alþingi recently relaxed these restrictions, leading to a boom in online alcohol sales by private retailers.

 

 

Birds of a Different Feather Seen Flocking Together

Geese and swans were observed flying together in V-formation over Vík í Mýrdal in South Iceland on Thursday, RÚV reports. While it’s unusual to see two different species flocking together, according to a local ornithologist it is not unheard of.

Birna Viðarsdóttir posted the picture to a Facebook group dedicated to Icelandic bird life and it quickly garnered a great deal of attention, as well as a fair amount of skepticism – particularly since the photo was taken on April 1, April Fools’ Day. “A number of people have asked whether it’s been photoshopped,” she told RÚV, “but it wasn’t.”

Ornithologist Arnór Þórir Sigfússon says that it’s uncommon to see different kinds of birds flying together in V-formation, but it has been known to happen. Although swans and geese both migrate to Iceland from Great Britain around this time of year, Arnór Þór thinks it’s unlikely that this particular group of birds did so together the whole way, mostly because geese and swans fly at different speeds. He said he thought it more likely that the swans in Birna’s picture had joined a group of geese, rather than vice versa.

Arnór Þór also noted that different types of geese, such as graylags and pink-footed geese, are known to fly in formation together sometimes, but this is harder for an observer on the ground to see.

Yellow and Orange Weather Alerts Around Iceland

winter tires reykjavík

The Icelandic Met Office has issued a series of serious weather warnings for much of the country on Friday.

An orange alert has been issued for Northeast Iceland, the East Fjords, and Eastern coastal areas, where blizzard conditions are expected to begin in the early morning and continue as late as 7:00 pm. Hurricane-strength winds and moderate to heavy snowfall is expected. Slippery, snow-covered roads and limited visibility make travel inadvisable from Varmahlíð to Akureyri, Akureyri to Egilsstaðir, and Egilsstaðir to Djúpivógur.

Yellow warnings are in effect for Reykjavík and the surrounding capital area, as well as Northwest Iceland, the Southeast, and the Central Highlands. Considerable snowfall and hurricane-strength winds of up to 28 m/s are expected between Vík and Djúpivogur between noon and midnight and as such, travel is, during this time, inadvisable in the region.

There is also considerable danger of avalanches (3 on a scale of 5) in the Westfjords and mountainous areas around Reykjavík.

You can keep up to date on the most recent weather alerts by checking the Icelandic Met’s English-language page, here. Safetravel.is is another very good source of travel and weather advisories in Icelandic, English, French, German, and Chinese.

Road Between Vík and Hvolsvöllur Closed Due to Storm

Ring Road South Iceland
The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration have closed the road between Hvolsvöllur and Vík due to a storm. The road will be closed until weather conditions allow a re-opening. It’s also planned to close the roads in Skeiðarársandur and Öræfasveit district at 20:00 tonight.

An orange warning has been put in place in South Iceland. Winds speeds are expected to rise up to violent storm level, that is up to 28-30 m/s, between 15:00 and 16:00 east of Hvolsvöllur and Seljalandsfoss. Similar wind speeds will be reached farther East by 18:00 on the main road between Lómagnúpur and Jökulsárlón. The warning is valid until tomorrow morning.

The most severe wind in the country was measured at 32,6 metres per second in Stórhöfði, Vestmannaeyjar. That wind speed is considered a violent storm, and right below hurricane level winds, according to the Beaufort scale which measures wind speed.
An orange weather alert is in force in South Iceland, South-East Iceland as well as the Highlands. A yellow weather warning alert has been released for North-East Iceland, as well as parts of East Iceland. The alerts will last until tomorrow morning. For further information about the weather alerts – head to https://en.vedur.is/alerts
For further information contact the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration at http://www.road.is or call 1777.