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A day in Reykjanes

Geologically-speaking, this is one of the most fascinating regions in Europe, if not the world. But don’t take our word for it: in 2015, UNESCO recognised it as a Global Geopark. But its extraordinary topography – among the highlights are its rugged cliffs, steaming geothermal valleys and unspoilt lava fields – is also layered with a rich cultural heritage based around people’s relationship with the sea.

Given the location of Keflavík International Airport at the north western tip of the Reykjanes peninsula, this part of Iceland is a great choice for a day’s sightseeing at the beginning or end of a longer holiday. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to leave: our handy guide will help you plan the perfect itinerary for a rewarding and fun day out around Reykjanes.

Practical note

At the time of writing, the situation regarding volcanic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula is a fluid one. In recent months, road closures have been in force in the Grindavik area though the areas featured in this article are currently accessible. Nevertheless, as future changes are to be expected, it’s vital that before you set out you check the current advisories to make sure you can follow your intended itinerary and be safe while you do so.

This linear suggestion begins at Brimketill and ends at Eldborg by Geitahlíð. It involves about two hours of driving, which allows for plenty of stops, and follows a horseshoe shape; as a complete loop of the peninsula isn’t possible at the moment, you will need to cover the same ground twice as you drive to the start point and as you drive to where you’ll stay overnight at the end of the day.

Our suggested itinerary

The day begins on the coast as you take a look at a natural lava pool known as Brimketill. Here, the sea has eroded the rock to form a circular hollow. The shore takes a battering here and so it isn’t safe to swim, but the views out to sea and the sight of the waves pounding the coast are more than reason to take a look.

Five kilometres to the west is the first major stop of the day. Gunnuhver Hot Springs is an astonishingly colourful, geothermally active region in the far south west of the peninsula. Though there are many geothermal areas in Iceland this is the only one where the groundwater consists entirely of seawater. And that’s not the only thing that sets this area apart: Gunnuhver is also the place where you’ll find the country’s largest mud pool. It measures an impressive twenty metres across. Take a walk along the area’s boardwalks to admire the mineral-rich landscape as steam rises from the ground.

From here, drive the short distance to the Reykjanes Lighthouse. The very first lighthouse in the country was built on this site in 1878; the current structure replaced it more than a hundred years ago after the original was damaged by seismic activity. This historic lighthouse perches on a low hill. As a result of that extra elevation, it’s a good idea to stroll up the path to take in the panoramic views over the surrounding coastline and out to sea. You’ll also want to wander down to the clifftop at Valahnúkur as this is one of the best places on the peninsula for birdwatching. Kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, gannets and puffins are all seen here, though some are seasonal visitors who are seen only in the summer. A statue of an extinct bird called the great auk stands prominently on this stretch of coastline and is a timely reminder that we need to take care of our planet and the species that inhabit it, else they’ll be gone for good.

Stampar is another place that is more thought-provoking than it first appears. It gives us astark reminder that volcanic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula is nothing new. About 800 years before the magma started flowing at Mount Fagradalsfjall, a series of eruptions known as the Reykjanes Fires took place. Over the first half of the 13th century, these eruptions led to the formation of a series of craters. The two nearest the road are collectively referred to as Stampar. They accompany a number of older volcanic craters. Between them, the crater groups mark two separate fissures. This mirrors the present-day eruptions which have also taken place along multiple fissures as the magma builds and makes its way to the surface.

Next, hop back into the car for the short drive to our next stop: the Bridge between Continents, also called Leif the Lucky’s Bridge. Iceland sits on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge right at the point where the Eurasian tectonic plate is pulling away from its North American counterpart. That leaves a discernible cleft in the landscape. Here, it appears to resemble a dried-up river bed over which a metal bridge has been constructed. The plates move very slowly, pulling apart at a rate of just two or three centimetres every year, so don’t expect tosee it happen in front of your own eyes. Nevertheless it is pretty cool to say you’ve been able to place a foot in two different continents at the same time.

If you’re really keen on lighthouses you might want to stop off briefly at Garður, a fishing village on the north western tip of the Reykjanes peninsula. There are two lighthouses here within sight of each other. The older one dates from 1897 and its relatively short height was intentional so that it wouldn’t be concealed in fog so often. This spot also gives you clear views out to the ocean. As well as a plethora of seabirds, here’s a chance you might see dolphins and seals, so it’s a good idea to scour the water carefully before going back to the car.

Head over to Keflavík – the town  not the airport – where you can take advantage of its cafés for a coffee and lunch before taking your pick of its interesting museums. With only a day at your disposal, you won’t have time to do all of them justice, so figure out which one you’re likely to be most keen on. This town is so close to the airport that you can most probably slot in a return visit before you depart – or on arrival next time you’re in Iceland.

Depending on your interests, you could immerse yourself in music at the Icelandic Museum of Rock and Roll, where you can channel the energy of home-grown talent such as Björk and Sigur Rós. Alternatively, if history is more your thing, then call in to the Viking World Museum to see Íslendingur (Icelander). It’s a seaworthy replica of a Viking longship called Gokstad. Though Gokstad was Norwegian, archaeologists think it would have been the same type of vessel that was used in Iceland around a thousand years ago. Just up the road there’s also a reconstructed turf house, Stekkjarkot, to admire. Another good choice if you’re interested in the past is Duushús. This cultural centre is formed of a collection of buildings in which exhibits cover topics such as social and maritime history.

From Keflavik, it’s about a 40 minute drive to reach Kleifarvatn, but this is the Reykjanes peninsula’s largest lake so won’t want to miss it. At its deepest, the water extends about 100 metres downwards, though following seismic activity a couple of decades ago the level of the lake has dropped a bit. This crater lake is also unusual in that it is fed by underground water rather than streams or rivers. The setting is delightful, with craggy rock formations creating a natural frame around the blue water. Birdlife is abundant here, so be prepared to hang around for a bit if you’re keen to spot some of the many species that are found here. Among the most common are greylag geese, golden plovers, whimbrels and common snipe.

An even more breathtaking landscape can be found just a few kilometres down the road. Seltún is a geothermal area that is characterised by mud pots, steaming fumaroles and hot water springs. At Fúlipollur (its name translates as “foul smelling place” which is very apt), the stench of sulphur hangs in the air, but if your nose can bear the smell of rotten eggs this really is a treat for the eyes. The earth is brightly coloured, stained by mineral deposits which splatter the ground around the vents and hollows. The contrast between the browns and yellows of the rock, the grey mud and the green grass of the hills overlooking the site is especially photogenic.

Nearby is another striking lake.  Graenesvatn is, in many respects, even more dazzling than Kleifarvatn on account of its vivid green colour. If you hit the jackpot with a sunny day, it’s simply breathtaking. Follow the road south to Eldborg by Geitahlíð where you’ll come across a miniature volcano that is only 50 metres high with a crater that’s just 30 metres deep. Despite its proximity to the Krýsuvík volcanic system, it’s actually not connected. Instead it’s the southernmost point of the Brennisteinsfjöll volcanic system.

When the latest volcanic activity ceases and the roads are deemed safe again, you’ll be able to loop north from Grindavik and maybe stop off for a relaxing soak at the Blue Lagoon to round off your day. But in the meantime, you’ll need to backtrack and rejoin the main road that runs along the northern edge of the peninsula. Turn right for Reykjavik or left for the airport. What a day it’s been!

Tips for spending a day in Reykjanes

Keep a close eye on the weather forecast, particularly the expected wind speeds. This part of Iceland can be very blowy, so keep a firm hand on the car door when you make your stops. Some of the places we’ve mentioned can feel very exposed, particularly those right by the ocean. Always take care when you are on cliff tops and on the beaches, never turn your back on the waves.
Begin the day early to maximise the daylight hours. The long days of summer make this the ideal time for a day in the outdoors on the Reykjavik peninsula; in midwinter, you might need to stretch the recommendations we’ve given you across two days. Regardless of the season, Keflavik makes a handy stop when you need to grab a bite to eat or top up your caffeine levels.
While the current phase of volcanic activity is taking place, keep abreast of updates on lava flows, road closures and gas emissions. Websites such as, RUV’s news updates in English and the latest posts about the eruption from Visit Reykjanes are all useful sources of information. Make sure that what you are reading is up to date and seek local advice if you’re unsure. Remember most of the peninsula is unaffected by the current tectonic activity and remains safe to visit.