Iceland was awarded their third UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Vatnajökull National Park, in 2019. The first UNESCO World Heritage Site was Þingvellir National Park within the Golden Circle area. The second UNESCO World Heritage Site is on the volcanic island of Surtsey on the Westman Islands. Together the three locations cover around 15% of the entire country. This blog post is here to show you how to see them all!
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 small group, 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 below description assumes you want to do the entire trip in 4 days. It can of course last longer.
The Vatnajökull National Park (2019), South East Iceland
“A prime locality for exploring the impacts of climate change on glaciers […]. The volcanic zones […] hold […] 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
The Vatnajökull National Park is a true hidden gem. To the untrained eye it is dominated by a city sized ice cap, the Vatnajökull ice cap. But it is the relationship that this ice cap has with the rumbling volcanoes underneath that make this unique.
The first thing you see as you drive towards this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the tallest mountain, in Iceland. It is also the biggest volcano, Öræfajökull, standing at 2,110m. There are a series of glaciers pouring down from the peak in every direction.
Believe it or not, Iceland isn’t cold enough for glaciers to readily form at sea-level. In fact, for glaciers to form in Iceland you need a constant low temperature. In this temperate climate this can only be achieve at high-altitude. These high-altitudes are mostly achieved on the tops of volcanoes. Ironic really.
These mighty structures are also capable of catching snow effectively. That means protecting fresh snow from wind and direct sunlight. The caldera (crater) on top of the volcano is perfect for this (as long as there are no eruptions for a while). Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon sits at the base of this volcano. It temporarily holds the remnants a glacier that flowed from the volcano i.e. icebergs.
UNESCO World Heritage Tour | Day 1 and 2
Spend 2 days in and around the UNESCO Vatnajökull National Park area.
Hidden Iceland explore this 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 summer, the tour includes a glacier hike on one of the areas many glaciers, Falljökull. From November to March we swap out this glacier for an ice cave. At night, we sleep in a local farm Guest House to increase our chances of spotting the northern lights. In summer, the same area is a great location to bask in the midnight sun. If you time it right you might even see some newly born lambs.
We normally finish this two day tour back in Reykjavik. But, we can also 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
Ok, so a slight lie at the top of this page. It’s not actually possible to step foot on the second UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sadly, Surtsey Island is reserved for scientists only. They are tasked with preserving and studying one of the newest land masses on the planet. You can get close, but not on.
After all, it’s not often that you can observe how life takes hold on a fresh piece of land. Keeping humans away is a good thing in our mind. Because of this, Surtsey already has vegetation growing on its loose ground. You can see seals sunbathing on its beaches. And even a puffin colony uses the jagged cliffs during mating season. It would appear that it doesn’t take much time for life to build a new home.
UNESCO World Heritage Tour | Day 3
Thankfully, Surtsey, is just one of a collection of 15 islands close to each other. Together they make up the Westman Islands. So although you can’t step on Surtsey, you can get pretty close. These islands hold 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 of Heimaey. This nearby island hosted another volcanic eruption in 1973 that almost destroyed the entire 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 jump on a speedboat tour around the island for an exhilarating addition to the day.
Hidden Iceland run a day tour from Reykjavik to the Westman Islands. On this action packed day we check out the Eldheimar museum to learn more about the eruptions. We also hike to the top of the Eldfell volcano. Afterwards, we head to the southern side of the island in search of the ever cute puffins. From here we get another great view of Surtsey and the other islands.
At the end of the day, you can choose to return to Reykjavik. Or, find a hotel on the mainland close to the next UNESCO World Heritage Site. We can highly recommend Hotel Frost & Fire with its natural hot pools.
Þingvellir 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
The final UNESCO World Heritage Site in Iceland is perhaps the most well known, Þingvellir National Park. This is one of the main stops in the Golden Circle and is located only 45 minutes from Reykjavik. This is a perfect day out for short breaks and cruise ship passengers.
It was added as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its cultural significance as much as geological. To enter the Þingvellir National Park is to step between two tectonic plates. You can literally see the cracks 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
Aim to combine the Þingvellir National Park with our favorite Golden Circle additions. A dip in the Secret Lagoon hot pool and lunch at a geothermal greenhouse. Hidden Iceland run a day tour from Reykjavik. You would start at the Secret Lagoon hot pool for a dip just as it opens. Then make your way to the Friðheimar tomato greenhouse for lunch. It’s here we take the time to say hello to the famous Icelandic horses. Afterwards, you will spend the rest of the day at the more popular sights of the Golden Circle.
In the afternoon you visit the regularly erupting geyser at Geysir. Then 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 afternoon and walk some of the easier paths at our own pace before returning to Reykjavík.
A great end to a wonderful 4 days exploring.
All four days can be expertly planned out as part of a private itinerary. Add in activities and hotel preferences to customise the experience. Alternatively, get in touch with us to map out our scheduled tours. Together we can make your dream journey through the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iceland come true!
Keep on exploring!