TRAVEL THE 3 UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES IN ICELAND

Iceland was awarded their third UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Vatnajökull National Park, this year. This now covers roughly 15% of the entire country when you include the other two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the volcanic island of Surtsey in the Westman Islands, and the Þingvellir National Park within the Golden Circle area.

This addition has created a rising desire for avid travellers to want to travel to all three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iceland in one trip. Luckily, Hidden Iceland travels to all three already. We do this either as a collection of day and multi-day trips. Or as part of a private trip itinerary. This post was written to detail what makes each place special. And to show that it is possible to create an itinerary to travel to all 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iceland in one short visit.

 

The Vatnajökull National Park (2019), South East Iceland

“A prime locality for exploring the impacts of climate change on glaciers and the land forms left behind when they retreat. The volcanic zones of the property hold endemic groundwater fauna that has survived the ice age…that may replicate conditions on early Earth and the icy satellites of Jupiter and Saturn.” UNESCO World Heritage Site

Falljökull Glacier | Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon 2 Day Tour | Hidden Iceland | Photo by Amy Robinsson
Falljökull Glacier | Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon 2 Day Tour | Hidden Iceland | Photo by Amy Robinsson

The Vatnajökull National Park is truly unique. To the untrained eye it is mainly dominated by a city sized ice cap, the Vatnajökull ice cap. But it is the relationship that this ice cap, and it’s collection of glaciers, has with the rumbling volcanoes underneath that have given this area such notoriety in Iceland (and now worldwide).

The first thing you see as you drive towards your first UNESCO World Heritage Site is the tallest mountain, and biggest volcano, Öræfajökull in the distance. At its very peak (2,110m) there are a series of glaciers pouring down like slow moving rivers towards the sea. Despite there having been 2 major volcanic eruptions from this volcano since settlement there is still an ice-cap sitting on top spilling down the steep sides in every direction. This duality is why we love Iceland’s nickname so much, ‘the land of fire and ice’. Nothing epitomises this phrase better than in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Vatnajökull National Park.

Believe it or not, Iceland isn’t cold enough for glaciers to readily form at sea-level. For glaciers to form in Iceland you need a high-altitude to maintain a low temperature. And a structure capable of catching snow and protecting it from wind and direct sunlight. A caldera (crater) of a tall volcano fits this description perfectly. Many of the glaciers in Iceland are formed from this marriage. In fact, due to climate change many of the sea-level glaciers that originate from a higher altitudes are melting away at unprecedented rates. This is partially why the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon formed. A place many visitors stare awe-struck at for hours as building-sized blue icebergs float past.

UNESCO World Heritage Tour | Day 1 – 2 of 4

Spend 2 days in and around the UNESCO Vatnajökull National Park area. See many of the amazing south coast sights, hike on a glacier and sleep overnight in an authentic farm guest house.

Hidden Iceland are proud to say that we have been exploring this UNESCO World Heritage Site since day one. We explore the area by hiking on glaciers, discovering ice caves, hunting for the northern lights and watching icebergs float past. This is part of a two day tour that leaves from Reykjavik. We run this tour all year round in one form or another which includes a glacier hike on one of the areas many glaciers, Falljökull. From November to March we swap out this glacier in favour of discovering newly formed ice caves behind the famous Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. We sleep overnight in a local farm Guest House so we can catch a glimpse of the northern lights without the bright street lights of Reykjavik. In summer the same area is a great location to bask in the midnight sun and play with newly born lambs. You can finish this two day tour back in Reykjavik, or combine it with being dropped off at a hotel near the ferry for the Westman Islands.

 

The volcanic island of Surtsey (2008), South Iceland

“Surtsey is a new island formed by volcanic eruptions in 1963-67. It has been legally protected from its birth and provides the world with a pristine natural laboratory.” UNESCO World Heritage Site

Westman Islands | Hidden Iceland | Photo by Norris Niman
Westman Islands | Hidden Iceland | Photo by Norris Niman

UNESCO World Heritage Tour | Day 3 of 4

I would like to apologies because I was not completely honest before. It’s not actually possible to step foot on the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Surtsey. This volcanic island is reserved for commissioned scientists tasked with preserving and studying one of the newest land masses on the planet. After all, it’s not often that you can observe how life interacts and takes hold on a fresh piece of land. Keeping humans away during this fragile time can only be a good thing. In fact, since Surtsey popped out of the ocean back in 1963 it already has vegetation growing on its loose ground, seals sunbathing on its beaches and even a puffin colony using the jagged cliffs during mating season. It would appear that it doesn’t take much time for life to build a new home.

However, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Surtsey, is just one of a collection of 15 or so sub-marine volcanic eruptions making up the Westman Islands. This is the southern most point in Iceland and is home to the world’s largest puffin colony with a reported 1.1m puffins calling the cliff-sides home every summer. Around 4000 people live on the largest island, Heimaey, which hosted another volcanic eruption in 1973 that almost destroyed the entire town. It was the determination of the locals to spray millions of gallons of seawater onto the ensuing lava flow to redirect it out to sea which saved the town. It is from here that you can get a glimpse of Surtsey on a clear day. Hiking to the top of the still warm volcano, Eldfell, gives you views of Surtsey to the south and Eyjafjallajökull to the north. You can also opt for a speedboat tour around the island if you want a slightly more adventurous and closer view of Surtsey.

Take a ferry ride for the day to walk to the top of Eldfell and explore the puffin colony in the south of the island. Summer only.

Hidden Iceland run a day tour from Reykjavik to the adjacent island of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. We utilise the frequent ferry service from the mainland each day. It is possible to hike to the top of the volcano, Eldfell, where you can find hot spots still forcing out hot pockets of air around the multi-coloured volcanic crater. Stop off at the Eldheimar museum to learn more about Surtsey before driving to the south of the island in search of puffins and views of Surtsey and the other islands. You can choose to join our friends at RIB Safari to do a speedboat tour around the island for a different vantage point. Although it is possible to travel to the Westman Islands in the winter months we don’t personally go there due to an increased frequency of strong wind and many of the local establishments being closed during this time. You can choose to return to Reykjavik from here or opt for a hotel in Hveragerði away from the big city lights to enjoy the hot pool and rivers in the area.

 

The Thingvellir National Park (2004) in the Golden Circle

“A rift valley with its high cliffs makes Þingvellir National Park a magnificent natural backdrop for the open air parliamentary assembly (or Alþing) of Iceland, which was held there annually from around 930 AD to 1798.” UNESCO World Heritage Site

Þingvellir National Park | Golden Circle: Platinum Tour | Hidden Iceland | Photo by EJS Creative
Þingvellir National Park | Golden Circle: Platinum Tour | Hidden Iceland | Photo by EJS Creative

The final UNESCO World Heritage Site in Iceland is perhaps the most well known. Þingvellir National Park is one of the main stops in the Golden Circle, and is only 45 minutes drive from Reykjavik. Perfect for short breaks and cruise ship passengers. It was inducted as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its cultural significance as much as its geological. To enter the Þingvellir National Park is to enter a diverging rift zone between two tectonic plates. You can literally see the cracks and fissures in the ground from this splitting effect. It is merely a coincidence that the original settlers of Iceland chose this location to set up the longest surviving democratic parliament in the world. There are no ‘ruins’ to see but the nature walks that can be enjoyed in this area more than make up for it.

UNESCO World Heritage Tour | Day 4 of 4

Combine the Þingvellir National Park with the other Golden Circle sights, a dip in the Secret Lagoon hot pool and lunch at a geothermal greenhouse.

Hidden Iceland run a day tour from Reykjavik but do the traditional ‘circle’ in reverse to avoid the worst of the big bus company routes. We start at the Secret Lagoon hot pool for a dip just as it opens then make our way to the Friðheimar tomato greenhouse for lunch. It’s here we take the time to say hello to the famous Icelandic horse before venturing further into the more popular sights of the Golden Circle. Namely, the regularly erupting geyser, Geysir and the thunderous Golden waterfall, Gullfoss. It’s only at the very end of the day when many of the day-trippers are gone do we approach the Þingvellir National Park. Here we enjoy the views in the low light and walk some of the easier paths at our own pace before returning to Reykjavík.

Icelandic Horse | Hidden Iceland | Photo by Tom Archer
Icelandic Horse | Hidden Iceland | Photo by Tom Archer

All four days can be expertly planned out as part of a private itinerary with additional activities added and hotel preferences considered. Get in touch with us and together we can make your dream journey through the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iceland come true!

Ryan Connolly | Marketing Manager, Guide, Co - Owner | Hidden Iceland
Ryan Connolly | Marketing Manager, Guide, Co – Owner | Hidden Iceland

Hi, I am Ryan Connolly; Co-Founder and Marketing Manager of Hidden Iceland.

I’ve guided in multiple countries around the world and stepped foot on all 7 continents. My passion for the outdoors, science, nature, glaciers and volcanoes has led me to study and write about many aspects of my adopted home, Iceland. I have been interviewed by ForbesConde Nast Traveller and Travel Pulse on various subjects such as over tourism, climate change and sustainable tourism.

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