Gullfoss & Geysir
Iceland's most visited tourist attractions are both in south central Iceland, a region renowned for its natural phenomena and historical sites. Gullfoss is a much photographed two-tiered waterfall, and when the sun is shining (which isn't often), you're likely to see a rainbow through the ample spray that forms. The site was once slated for sale to international bidders for hydroelectric development, but has since been purchased by the government and set aside as a national monument. Nearby is Haukadalur, once one of southern Iceland's great seats of learning.Just west of Gullfoss is Geysir, an area that contains the country's best examples of spouting hot springs. The outstanding attraction is the 'Great Geysir,' which first began erupting in the 14th century and ceased in the early 20th century after thousands of tourists tried to set it off by pouring in loads of rocks and dirt. When water levels inside the geysir were artificially lowered, it resumed activity. However, earthquakes in June 2000 now mean the geysir erupts to no specific timetable. Fortunately, the Great Geysir has a stand-in - the nearby Strokkur. This spring faithfully spouts and sprays up to 20m (65.5ft) every three minutes, but photographers will have to be quick as the eruptions last only a couple of seconds. Around the site are a number of other colourful hot springs, steaming vents, warm streams, psychedelic algae and mineral deposits.
Mývatn, in northeast Iceland, is considered one of the natural wonders of the world. Although most of the interesting sights are volcanic or geothermal topographical features, the reserve's centrepiece is a lovely blue lake teeming with birdlife. What's more, thanks to its location in the rain shadow of an enormous icecap, the reserve experiences some of the finest weather in Iceland. Travellers can relax and settle in, spend a week camping, or set out on excursions to the Kverkfjöll ice caves; Námaskaro; or the Hverfell crater.
Iceland's capital is unlike any other European city. Not only is Reykjavík ('Smoky Bay') the world's northernmost capital, it's also one of the newest, having established itself only in the late 19th century. Despite its name, it is now known as the 'smokeless city' thanks to its incessant winds and reliance on geothermal heat. Reykjavík boasts all the trappings of a modern European city as well as an interesting old town, white-washed wooden buildings, and rows of brightly painted concrete houses. Nearly everything of interest is within walking distance of the old settlement.The Old Town, the city's hub, is a rustic area of grassy parks, lakes, markets and museums. Anyone remotely interested in Norse and Icelandic culture should head for the National Museum, which houses exhibits of religious and folk relics, and tools dating from the period of Settlement. The most renowned is a church door, carved around 1200, which depicts a Norse battle scene, while residing in the basement are nautical and agricultural tools and models of early fishing boats and ingenious farm implements. Immediately behind the museum is the Árni Magnússon Institute, a must-see for Saga buffs. The building contains a famous collection of works, including the Landnámabók and Njáls Saga, which were returned from Denmark to independent Iceland.Modern Reykjavík sprawls eastward from the Old Town, and features several worthwhile attractions such as Hallgrímskirkja, an imposing church designed to resemble a mountain of lava. Although the word 'tacky' may spring to mind, it's easily the city's most memorable structure. Begun in the late 1940s and completed in 1974, the church is named after Iceland's best-known poet, Hallgrímur Pétursson. You can wander its stark, light-filled interior, then take a lift to the top of a 75m-high (246ft) tower which offers superb views of the city. On the lawn is a statue of Leif Eriksson, triumphantly identified as the 'Son of Iceland, Discoverer of Vinland' (believed to be Newfoundland or Labrador).Another place with an outwardly tacky appearance is the Volcano Show. Again, don't be put off by the design; this theatre offers invaluable insights into the volcanic spectre under (or over) which Icelanders live. Here you can see dramatic film of some of the country's greatest volcanic eruptions, including one award-winning film of the birth of Surtsey, which belched and spewed its way - Exorcist-like - out of the sea in 1963. Other sights include a pleasant botanic garden, a popular recreational park and a number of museums dedicated to the works of Iceland's leading artists.Budget accommodation, cheap eats and bargain shopping are found in or just east of the Old Town. For entertainment, there's cinema (films are screened in their original language with Icelandic subtitles), cultural performances (theatre, opera, symphony, and dance) and light shows (sagas, Settlement and Viking extravaganzas). Runtur is a bit of a Reykjavík institution, which involves trawling through the city's hip bars, live music venues and discos to make sure no-one's missing the best action.
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