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Mývatn – Iceland’s Vacation Destination

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Mývatn, a northeastern lake about an hour’s drive from Akureyri, is the preferred summer vacation spot for Icelanders. They come for the mild temperatures, the wealth of nearby activities and some of the country’s most beautiful and tranquil nature.

Huge Vulcano Iceland

Mývatn is the kind of place which requires at least a week to fully explore. We had four days here and it wasn’t nearly enough. The shallow, surprisingly small lake is so picturesque, we could have spent an entire day just relaxing on the porch and taking it in. Mývatn formed during volcanic eruptions around 2600 years ago, and the surface of the lake is dotted with islands of lava, psuedocraters and rock pillars.

There are also plenty of birds. Mývatn is world-renowned for the hundreds of species it attracts, from owls to falcons, and especially ducks. We’re not birdwatchers, but did make time to visit Sigurgeirs Bird Museum, where hundreds of birds native to Iceland have been stuffed and displayed in a nicely-lit and well-organized collection. In the museum, we also learned about Mývatn’s marimo, or “moss balls”: perfectly-round balls of algae that form here and in just a handful of other lakes around the world.

After the museum, we checked out the Dimmuborgir Lavafield, where a network of walking paths snake through giant lava columns and incomprehensible rock formations. Dimmuborgir translates to “Dark Castles”. An ominous name, and it does feel as though you’re trespassing into the territory of evil elves. One lava tube toward the back of the park is called Kirkjan, or the Church. With a stony black pulpit and enough room for a good-sized congregation, this is clearly where Dimmuborgir’s malevolent munchkins practice their dark arts.

Dimmuborgir Lavafield Kirkjan

We had been invited to spend our nights in the excellent Dimmuborgir Guesthouse and Cabins near the lavafield. Quiet, comfortable and with an excellent breakfast buffet that included both sweet geothermal bread and home-smoked salmon, this was the perfect place from which to enjoy the region. Our days at Mývatn were packed full of activity, and every night we returned to our cabin completely exhausted. From our porch, we had a great view of the lake and would spend every evening relaxing with the peaceful sounds of early fall.

It was quiet during our visit, but Mývatn fills up quickly in the summer, so the earlier you book accommodation the better. Another summertime annoyance is provided by millions of small flies that swarm the water’s surface. In fact, Mývatn means “Lake of Midges”. We didn’t encounter any of the pests during our visit in mid-September, so that and the lack of crowds might be worth keeping in mind while planning your own trip.

Locations on our Map: Sigurgeirs Bird Museum | Dimmuborgir Guesthouse

Links: Sigurgeirs Bird MuseumDimmuborgir Guesthouse

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October 23, 2013 at 4:10 pm Comments (6)

Whale Watching in Húsavík

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With schools of herring and abundant plankton, the freezing waters of the Northern Atlantic have always been prime whale territory. In years past, that meant excellent hunting. And though there’s still a little killing going on, today the most common way to shoot whales in Iceland is with a camera.

Humpback Fin

Whale watching tours are offered in Reykjavík and other towns along the coast, but we held off until arriving in Húsavík, which is considered the best spot in Iceland. It was mid-September, a little late in the season, but the whales hadn’t yet migrated south for the winter.

After days of rain and snow, the weather had cleared up completely, and we were in high spirits while boarding an oak boat operated by North Sailing. We crawled into extra-warm sailing suits, and set off for the mouth of the Skjálfandi Bay, where a group of humpback whales had been seen earlier in the day.

Soon we spotted the first water spouts. The humpbacks weren’t far off, but by the time we came near, they had dived for food and wouldn’t resurface for awhile. Much of our three-hour tour was spent in this frustrating game of chase, but we got lucky twice, when whales resurfaced right next to our boat. The first time, I was taken totally off-guard by the massive beast which had suddenly popped up just meters away. She didn’t seem all that concerned about our boat… perhaps because she was nearly as big as it.

The tour lasted for three hours, and we must have seen at least a dozen separate whales. All humpbacks, but it’s also possible to see sperm whales, blue whales and even killer whales during excursions from Húsavík. This is an essential Iceland experience, and relatively inexpensive, considering the length of the tour and the likelihood of success.

Another essential Húsavík experience is offered by the incredible Whale Museum, found at the harbor. This massive former whaling station has turned its focus from slaughtering whales to educating the public about them, and it does a fantastic job. With skeletons from various species, including an enormous sperm whale, movies and hands-on exhibits, this is the kind of place in which you could spend hours.

Location of Húsavík on our Map
North Sailing – Website

We stayed in this hotel in Húsavík

Preparing Whale Watching
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Húsavík Travel Guide
Ice Fishing Húsavík
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Húsavík
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October 21, 2013 at 2:18 pm Comment (1)

Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum

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Until being usurped by tourism, fishing had always been Iceland’s most important industry, and the country’s biggest factory was found in the tiny northern town of Sigluförður. Today the former plant houses a museum dedicated to the bygone days when herring was king.

Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum

The herring boom which gripped Iceland at the dawn of the 20th century was something like a gold rush. Thousands of people and hundreds of ships flocked to Siglufjörður to stake their claim to the “silver of the sea”. Decades passed, businessmen became rich, a grand new factory was opened, and the herring never seemed to stop spawning. Until 1969, that is, when suddenly they didn’t show up at all.

Iceland and the other North Atlantic countries had simply over-fished. Herring congregate in large schools, a technique which might offer protection from aquatic predators, but makes them ridiculously easy for us clever humans to catch. Icelanders got better and better at scooping up ever larger batches of herring. With new equipment and faster ships, they eventually became too good at it. Today, thanks to a long moratorium and strict regulation, the herring have largely recovered, but the “boom days” when fishing accounted for 30% of Iceland’s economy are gone.

Everything written in the preceding paragraphs and the sum total of my “herring knowledge”, I learned during our visit to the Herring Era Museum. The museum does a wonderful job of recreating the spirit of Siglufjörður in the 1940s and 50s, in three buildings integral to the industry. There’s the salting house, where the town’s famous “herring girls” would sleep. The factory, with much of the original equipment still in place. And the boat house, where a number of herring-era vessels can be seen, and one even boarded.

Throughout the museum, there’s information about life in boom-time Siglufjörður, with photographs and old movies shot inside the factory. The curators have done a magnificent job leaving things intact. The herring girls’ personal items can be seen in the salting house, unbelievable industrial machinery in the factory, and nine authentic ships in the boat house.

Each of these three buildings would be worth visiting alone, but together they paint an amazing picture of an industry whose golden age is irrevocably in the past. Definitely worth a detour to the remote little town of Siglufjörður.

Location on our Iceland Map
The Herring Era Museum – Website

Framed Photos Of Wild Icelandic Horses

Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
Siglufjörður’s Herring Era Museum
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October 15, 2013 at 8:52 pm Comment (1)

Þjóðminjasafn Íslands – The National Museum

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Here’s a little known fact: anyone who can correctly pronounce the name of Iceland’s National Museum automatically wins Icelandic citizenship. Absolutely true. The immense Þjóðminjasafn (that’s THYOTH-min-ya-safin, if you feel like practicing) takes visitors on an exhausting chronological tour through Icelandic history. If you want to learn about the country and can only visit a single museum, this is the clear choice.

The National Museum Reykjavik

The museum’s permanent exhibition, spread across two massive floors, is called “Making of a Nation – Heritage and History in Iceland”. With all sorts of artifacts from settlement times, interactive (and surprisingly engaging) videos detailing the historical highlights, religious vestments, recreations of medieval homesteads, and collections of pop memorabilia right up through to the modern day, the Þjóðminjasafn is nothing if not thorough.

Depending on your tolerance for this kind of information-dump, the Þjóðminjasafn can be extremely rewarding. You’ll want to spend a few hours here, taking a break or two in the cozy café. If you take the time to read all the information presented by the museum, you’ll emerge as an Iceland expert to be reckoned with.

Location on our Iceland Map
Þjóðminjasafn Íslands – Website

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The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
The National Museum Reykjavik
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October 4, 2013 at 8:40 pm Comments (0)

The Settlement Center in Borgarnes

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The town of Borgarnes is a standard stopping point for buses from Reykjavík headed toward the north. Although we had been here many times, we hadn’t seen anything except the bus stop’s bathroom. Turns out, there are better places to spend time in Borgarnes, such as the wonderful Landnámssetur Íslands, the Settlement Center of Iceland.

HELP Iceland

Who could have suspected that the best museum we had yet visited in Iceland would be found in tiny Borgarnes? The Settlement Center completely won us over. The museum’s two floors are dedicated to different exhibitions. On top, you’ll learn about the Settlement Era, while below is a vivid re-telling of Egil’s Saga. You can buy a ticket to one or the other, but it would be foolish not to buy the reduced-price combined ticket. Both exhibitions are well worth your time and money.

Presentation is everything in the Settlement Center. The audio guide is included in the entrance price, and is an essential part of the experience. The narrator describes the displays and explains the story of Iceland’s early days. The exhibits are marvelously done. Artistic, compelling, never boring. There’s a theatrical touch to both the visual displays and the narration, and the 45-minute tour passes in a heartbeat. It came as no surprise to learn that the museum’s founders are former theater people. They certainly know how to put on a show.

As much as we loved the upper floor, we enjoyed the exhibition dedicated to Egil’s Saga even more. Egil Skallagrímmson was a Viking poet/settler/murderer/maniac whose tale is told in one of Iceland’s most riveting sagas (believed to have been scribed by Reykholt’s Snorri Sturluson). One of western literature’s earliest antiheroes, Egil is horrifically ugly, cruel, and prone to outrageous fits of violence. But he’s also a gifted poet, highly intelligent and loyal to his beliefs.

I had read his saga before visiting the museum, and couldn’t wait to see how the action-packed story would be portrayed. With beautiful wood-cut figures and a stirring audio narration, the museum didn’t disappoint. Jürgen hadn’t read the saga, but enjoyed the presentation just as much as me. Again, the founders’ theatrical sensibilities created an experience which can be appreciated by all.

At about $20, the combined ticket price is nothing to sneeze at, but this museum is worth the expense. Even if you’re just passing through Borgarnes on a north-bound bus, try and find the time to visit the Landnámssetur Íslands.

Location on our Iceland Map

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October 1, 2013 at 6:16 pm Comment (1)

Ásmundursafn – The Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum

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Reykjavík’s Ásmundursafn is dedicated to the work of Iceland’s most accomplished sculpture artist, Ásmundur Sveinsson. The museum is worth visiting as much for the architecture of the building, as for the statues both indoors and out in the garden.

Modern Architecture Iceland

Born in 1893, Ásmundur traveled extensively as a young man, with long stints in both Stockholm and Paris. When he returned to Iceland, he immediately took a place among his country’s most influential artists. His works tend toward the abstract, though they’re not so surreal as to be nonsensical. With themes taken from Icelandic folklore and the Sagas, Ásmundur created sculptures designed to be enjoyed by the public, instead of just private collectors.

The Ásmundursafn is found in a building designed in the 1930s by the artist himself, who used it as a studio. All white domes and ample light, it must have provided as nice an atmosphere to work on sculptures as it presently does to admire them.

Since visiting the Ásmundursafn and acquainting ourselves with his work, we’ve discovered more of his pieces scattered around Iceland. With their strange, cubist shapes and sharp angles, they’re hard to overlook.

Location on our Iceland Map

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Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Reykjavik
Sculpture Park Reykjavik
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September 30, 2013 at 4:33 pm Comments (0)

The Snorri Sturluson Museum in Reykholt

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One of Iceland’s most famous historic figures is Snorri Sturluson: a 13th-century author and politician who lived on a farm in Reykholt. Today, the town is home to a museum commemorating his tumultuous life and considerable achievements.

Snorri Statue

Snorri was born in 1179. He was a clever youth, always on the lookout for ways to better his situation. After establishing a relationship with the royal family of Norway, he married a very wealthy woman, whom he would regularly betray, and snatched up property all along the western coast of the island. Soon, he had established himself as one of Iceland’s leading men, and settled down in Reykholt to concentrate on writing. Snorri is best known as the author of some of the most important works in medieval Scandinavian literature, including Egil’s Saga and the Heimkringla, the story of Norway’s kings.

Little could Snorri know that a Norwegian king would also bring about his doom. King Haakon IV had designs on Iceland, and had tasked Snorri with convincing the island’s top chieftains to accept Norwegian rule. It was a job Snorri wasn’t enthusiastic about, and continuously put off. Snubbing medieval Viking kings is rarely a good move and, in 1241, a death squad sent by Haakon paid a visit to Reykholt.

The Snorri Museum, found underneath the town church, does a great job of illuminating the man’s life and accomplishments. The museum is small but thorough, with staff on-hand to answer questions. Next door is an organization called the Snorrastufa, a cultural and medieval research center which publishes books and hosts scholars. And the church which sits atop the museum is also worth a look, absurdly grand for tiny Reykholt. Turns out that Norway values Snorri as an integral part of their own history, and put up millions of krona to help build the church.

Outside the museum complex, we found the Snorralaug, Snorri’s personal hot tub. It was connected to his home by a tunnel, and hooked up to nearby hot springs by a perfectly-crafted stone aqueduct which has survived the centuries intact.

On pulling into Reykholt some hours earlier, Jürgen and I both had the same “uh-oh” reaction. The town looked too small to justify even a single day. But there’s a surprising amount to see here. Fascinating history and the gorgeous landscape of the Hvitá Valley make a winning combination.

Location on our Google Map

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September 29, 2013 at 1:26 pm Comments (6)

The Víkin Maritime Museum

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Located appropriately enough on Reykjavík’s harbor, the Víkin Maritime Museum provides a comprehensive overview of the history of Iceland’s fishing industry. It’s a massive place which is more interesting than a fishing museum really has any right to be, and could easily eat up hours of your time.

Maratim Maritime Museum Iceland

Fishing has always played an integral role in the economy of Iceland. It powered the country’s growth throughout the 20th century, still accounts for 40% of exports, and employs a huge chunk of the workforce. Fishing is, at least partly, the reason Iceland is dragging its feet to join the EU, and it very nearly caused the little country to provoke Britain into a naval war. Fishing has created and destroyed entire Icelandic communities, sometimes within a single decade.

Considering the industry’s importance to Iceland, we weren’t shocked to discover that Reykjavík went all out for its maritime museum. With models, photos, dioramas, videos, and loads of information, the exhibits in the Víkin paint a comprehensive picture of fishing in Iceland. Visitors are taken through the early days, when fishermen were truly chancing death every time they set out into the choppy waters of the North Atlantic, up into the relative comfort of the present day.

Fascinating stuff, and then you turn a corner in the museum, and find yourself in an exhibition dedicated to Iceland’s first nursing home for fishermen. Complete with model beds and rooms which recreate the actual living conditions of retired fishermen. There was even a model bedpan.

Bizarre, but this provides a sense of how thorough the Víkin Museum is. Something we didn’t have a chance to see was the Óðinn, a coast guard vessel which sits just outside the museum and can be visited for an extra charge. Looks like the kind of thing kids would love.

Location on our Iceland Map
Reykjavik Maritime Museum – Website

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These well-wishers are not seeing off a Nazi boat… this swastika was the logo of the fishing company Eimskip well before Hitler appropriated it.
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September 27, 2013 at 7:09 pm Comments (0)

The Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum

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Upon arriving in the village of Árbær, I was amused by the men and women dressed in historical attire, toiling at tasks around the farm. But after an hour, I no longer registered their presence. And as the day progressed, I found myself worrying about the impending harvest back home. Would old Betsy survive another winter? Say, that’s a fetching wench. I wonder whither she brings that bucket of mead, and what her dowry may be. And then my cellphone rang, snapping me back into reality.

Tender Icelandic People

Found atop a hill overlooking Reykjavík, Árbær was once a real farm. But today it’s been converted into the Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum, which aims to recreate an authentic historical setting. We joined a free tour of the grounds, led by a woman dressed as a comely maiden of days past. She told us about the history of the farm, while showing us into the minuscule house where over a dozen family members lived. We saw the the stable, the kitchen, the bedrooms, the toys the children would play with, and the tools their parents would use to knit.

And we saw people actually knitting. One of the coolest things about this museum is its large staff, who are there not only to help visitors, but to contribute to the historical ambiance. Passing by a house, you might see a bearded fellow on the porch working on a half-made sock. You’ll see girls tending the sheep, and others just hanging out having a chat.

Árbæjarsafn is a neat place, and does a wonderful job of conveying a sense of the past. For obvious reasons, it’s a little outside of the city center, but not hard to reach by bus, and completely worth the effort.

Location on our Iceland Map
Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum – Website

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September 15, 2013 at 5:06 pm Comments (0)

The Western Westfjords

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The Latrabjarg Cliffs are about five hours from Ísafjörður by car, but the drive takes most people a lot longer thanks to the abundance of entertaining stops along the way. We needed all day to amble along Route 60, stopping off in five villages before ending at the beach of Breiðavík.

Flateyri Mountain River

Most of the drive between Ísafjörður and the nearby fishing village of Flateyri is through a long tunnel. Trapped between a towering mountain and the Önundarfjörður Fjord, the tiny town is most famous for the tragic 1995 avalanche which destroyed many of its houses and killed twenty people, a good-sized percentage of the entire population. A documentary titled 66°23 North West describes the horror of that event (here’s the trailer).

Old Store Þingeyri

Our next stop was in the slightly larger town of Þingeyri. This was once the site of a Viking assembly (a “Þing”) and we had heard that there were Viking-era ruins behind the town’s church. We spent time looking for them among some grassy mounds, before realizing that the grassy mounds were the ruins. Kind of disappointing, but our spirits were restored by an excellent lunch of squash soup and homemade bread at Simbahöllin, a lovely cafe in the town’s former timber grocery store. And now it was time to get back on the road.

Hrafnseyri Church

Our route left the fjords and cut inland on a curvy gravel road, which ascended ever higher, producing increasingly dramatic views of the coast. Stopping the car every five minutes for another picture, our progress was slow, but eventually we made it to Hrafnseyri, a simple farm famous around Iceland as the birthplace of Jón Sigurðsson, one of the fathers of the country’s independence.

Today the farm has been converted into a museum celebrating the great man’s life. It sounded interesting, but we had limited time and were forced to make a choice. Either the Jón Sigurðsson Museum or the Sea Monsters Museum in nearby Bildudalur. Sorry Jón, but the Kraken wins.

Seamonster Museum

We made the wrong choice. The Sea Monsters Museum wasn’t nearly as fun as we had expected. It was just a single room, with trinkets, small sculptures and video interviews of locals who’ve claimed to have spotted monsters like the terrifying Shore Laddie in the Arnarfjörður Fjord. The museum is well-designed and creepily atmospheric, but we were done in minutes. Just not worth the cost of entrance.

Patreksfjörður

Our last stop of the day was Patreksfjörður which, with 700 inhabitants, is the second-biggest town in the Westfjords. As far as I’m concerned, an Icelandic town qualifies as “large” if it has a Vínbúðin liquor store. Maddeningly, Patreksfjörður’s Vínbúðin was closed by the time we arrived, so we contented ourselves with a dip in the town’s wonderful outdoor pool. With a view over the fjord and the sun getting low in the sky, it was a great way to wind down after a very long day of driving. Almost as nice as whiskey would have been…

Locations: Flateyri | Þingeyri | Hrafnseyri | Bildudalur | Patreksfjörður

We booked a car from SADcars for this road trip

Pictures of the drive from Flateyri to Þingeyri
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Þingeyri Þing
Old Houses Þingeyri
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Simbahöllin Cake
Hrafnseyri, Sea Monster Museum, Patreksfjörður
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Road To Patreksfjörður
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September 7, 2013 at 11:59 am Comments (6)

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Mvatn - Iceland's Vacation Destination Mývatn, a northeastern lake about an hour's drive from Akureyri, is the preferred summer vacation spot for Icelanders. They come for the mild temperatures, the wealth of nearby activities and some of the country's most beautiful and tranquil nature.
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