As far as you can get (some 650km) from Reykjavík, Iceland’s impressively varied and sparsely populated east (called Austurland) doesn’t announce itself as loudly as other parts of the country, preferring subtle charms over big-ticket attractions. The Eastfjords is the area’s most wondrous destination – the scenery is particularly spectacular around the northern fjord villages, backed by sheer-sided mountains etched with waterfalls. If the weather’s fine, several days spent hiking here may be some of your most memorable in Iceland.
Away from the convoluted coast, the country’s longest lake stretches southwest from Egilsstaðir, its shores lined with perfect diversions. Further inland are the forgotten farms, fells and reindeer-roamed heathlands of the empty east, and Snæfell, one of Iceland’s prime peaks.
Ring Road motorists often simply overnight in Egilsstaðir then speed out of the east. Lunacy! The east's spectacular fjords, scenic hiking trails, fascinating geology and friendly villages are some of Iceland's unsung treasures.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout East Iceland.
Five kilometres past the wee church is the photogenic small-boat harbour and islet of Hafnarhólmi, home to a large puffin colony. A staircase and viewing platforms allow you to get close to these cute, clumsy creatures (and other seabirds). The puffins arrive by mid-April and are gone by early to mid-August, but other species (including kittiwakes, fulmars and common eiders) may linger longer.
This brilliant attraction opened in 2016 and defies easy classification. It's a remote farm that offers museum exhibits, unique accommodation, local food, horse riding and hiking trails, and the opportunity for tailor-made tours, all year-round. It's 12km past Skriðuklaustur on Rte 934, at the end of Norðudalur valley, on the edge of the eastern highlands. The historic exhibits here were designed by the farm's owners (a filmmaker and historian) so are of superb quality – as is the entire farm concept.
The wondrous assemblage at Petra's Stone Collection was a lifelong labour of love for Petra Sveinsdóttir (1922–2012). Inside her house, stones and minerals are piled from floor to ceiling – 70% of them are from the local area. They include beautiful cubes of jasper, polished agate, purple amethyst, glowing creamy ‘ghost stone’, glittering quartz crystals…it’s like opening a treasure chest.
Crossing the bridge across Lagarfljót on Rte 931, you’ll reach the parking area for lovely Hengifoss, Iceland’s second-highest waterfall. The falls plummet 128m into a photogenic brown-and-red-striped boulder-strewn gorge. Getting to Hengifoss requires a return walk of one to two hours (2.5km each way). From the car park, a staircase and path lead up the hillside – Hengifoss is soon visible in the distance. It’s a steep climb in places but flattens out as you enter the canyon.
Skriðuklaustur is the site of both an excavated, late-15th-century monastery and the photogenic home of an Icelandic author feted by the Third Reich. The unusual black-and-white turf-roofed building was built in 1939 by Gunnar Gunnarsson (1889–1975), and now holds a cultural centre dedicated to him. This prolific writer achieved phenomenal popularity in Denmark and Germany – at the height of his fame only Goethe outsold him.
Three collections are clustered together in one bright-red harbour front warehouse, known as ‘Museum House’. Tryggvasafn showcases a collection of striking paintings by prominent modern artist Tryggvi Ólafsson, born in Neskaupstaður in 1940. Upstairs, the Maritime Museum is one man’s collection of artefacts relating to the sea; on the top floor, the Museum of Natural History has a big collection of local stones (including spar from the Helgustaðanáma mine), plus an array of stuffed animals, birds, fish and pinned insects.
Rockhounds will love the display of zeolites at this farm, now a natural monument and nature reserve 5km northwest of Djúpivogur. It's renowned for its zeolite crystals, and the caretaker can open the small museum here on request (it's best to contact him beforehand). The farm has also developed short walking trails around its coast, good for a leg-stretch and birdwatching.
Walk or drive down to the waterfront behind Langabúð and follow the road west to reach this intriguing public artwork: 34 oversized eggs along the jetty, each one representing a local bird. While you're there, check out the old fish factory (Bræðsla) nearby, which hosts contemporary-art exhibitions in summer.
A favourite walk takes explorers from a parking area south of Tækniminjasafn Austurlands about 15 or 20 minutes uphill to the 'sound sculpture' Tvísöngur, a concrete installation created by German artist Lukas Kühne. The piece comprises five interconnected domes of different sizes, and each is designed to resonate at a different harmony.