Black beaches stretch along the Atlantic, geysers spout from geothermal fields and waterfalls glide across escarpments while brooding volcanoes and glittering ice caps score the inland horizon. The beautiful Southwest has many of Iceland’s legendary natural wonders, so it's a relatively crowded and increasingly developed area. The Golden Circle – a tourist route comprising three famous sights: Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss – draws the largest crowds outside of Reykjavík, but visit during off-hours or venture into the wilderness and you’ll find quiet hiking routes and otherworldly scenes.
The further you go, the better it gets. Tourist faves such as the silica-filled Blue Lagoon and the rift valley and ancient parliament at Þingvellir are just beyond the capital. Churning seas lead to the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago offshore. At the region's far reaches lie the powerful Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull volcanoes, busy Skógar and Vík, and the hidden valleys of Þórsmörk and Landmannalaugar.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Southwest Iceland.
One of Iceland’s most famous tourist attractions, Geysir (gay-zeer; literally ‘gusher’) is the original hot-water spout after which all other geysers are named. Earthquakes can stimulate activity, though eruptions are rare. Luckily for visitors, the very reliable geyser, Strokkur, sits alongside. You rarely have to wait more than five to 10 minutes for the hot spring to shoot an impressive 15m to 40m plume.
The world’s oldest parliament, Althingi (pronounced ál-thingk-ee; also called Alþing) was uniquely situated at this monumental site where two tectonic plates meet. In AD 930, Vikings would hold meetings among this awe-inspiring geology, which created a natural amphitheatre. A boardwalk snakes between this enormous crevice on the earth’s surface, below deep canyon walls. The gap between these North American and Eurasian tectonic plates continues to grow by 2cm each year.
Near the dramatic Almannagjá fault and fronted by a boardwalk is the Lögberg (Law Rock), where the Alþingi (Parliament) convened annually. This was where the lögsögumaður (law speaker) recited the existing laws to the assembled parliament (one-third each year). After Iceland’s conversion to Christianity, the site shifted to the very foot of the Almannagjá cliffs, which acted as a natural amplifier, broadcasting the voices of the speakers across the assembled crowds. That site is marked by the Icelandic flag.
Follow the path to where a circle of people is usually waiting in anticipation. They are here to see this magnificent geyser spurt water up to 40m in the air. It reliably erupts every five to 10 minutes (usually 15m to 20m), so make sure you are on the right side of it unless you want to get wet. It sits near the famous Great Geysir, which can blow boiling water some 70m in the air (but has been quiet for the past few years).
The Þingvellir plain is situated on a tectonic-plate boundary where North America and Europe are tearing away from each other at a rate of 1mm to 18mm per year. As a result, the plain is scarred by dramatic fissures, ponds and rivers, including the great rift Almannagjá. An atmospheric path runs through the dramatic crevice and along the fault between the clifftop visitor centre and the Alþingi site.
This 62m-high waterfall topples over a rocky cliff at the western edge of Skógar in dramatic style. Climb the steep staircase alongside for giddy views, or walk to the foot of the falls, shrouded in sheets of mist and rainbows. Legend has it that a settler named Þrasi hid a chest of gold behind Skógafoss. The top of the waterfall is the start of the dramatic Fimmvörðuháls trek, which continues 23km on to Þórsmörk, the land of the gods.
On the western side of Reynisfjall, the high ridge above Vík, Rte 215 leads 5km down to the black-sand beach Reynisfjara. It's backed by an incredible stack of basalt columns that look like a magical church organ, and there are outstanding views west to Dyrhólaey. Surrounding cliffs are pocked with caves formed from twisted basalt, and puffins belly-flop into the crashing sea during summer. Immediately offshore are the towering Reynisdrangur sea stacks. At all times watch for rogue waves: people are regularly swept away.
One of the South Coast’s most recognisable natural formations is the rocky plateau and huge stone sea arch at Dyrhólaey ( deer-lay), which rises dramatically from the surrounding plain 10km west of Vík, at the end of Rte 218. Visit its crashing black-sand beaches and get awesome views from atop the promontory. The islet is a nature reserve that's rich in bird life, including puffins; some or all of it can be closed during nesting season (15 May to 25 June).
The 221m-high volcanic cone Eldfell appeared from nowhere in the early hours of 23 January 1973. Once the fireworks finished, heat from the volcano provided Heimaey with geothermal energy from 1976 to 1985. Today the ground is still hot enough in places to bake bread or char wood. Eldfell is an easy climb from town, up the collapsed northern wall of the crater; stick to the path, as the islanders are trying to save their latest volcano from erosion.