The land of fire and ice is hot right now -- so hot that tourists outnumber locals by more than four to one -- and it’s becoming more and more difficult to find the solitude this wild and sparsely populated country once offered in abundance. But away from the capital city and the famous Blue Lagoon, there are still places to escape the crowds. Namely, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a long arm of landmass that juts out from the central west coast of the country about two hours north of Reykjavik.
Though it, too, is becoming more popular, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is still far less visited than the country’s south and southwest areas. It's known as "Iceland in miniature" because it packs many of country's best features into a small place; there's a glacier, rugged coastal cliffs, furry Icelandic horses, and historic turf houses, all within a compact space that can be explored in a day or two. Here’s how to go off Iceland’s beaten bath on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
Planning your time
Dominated by Snaefellsjokull National Park on its west side, the peninsula is just fifty-five miles long so you can easily see it in a day trip, though if you prefer a more leisurely pace, one or two nights is better (and three to four will ensure plenty of time for activities). From Reykjavik, it’s about a two-hour drive to the peninsula on paved, well-marked roads. Though you can opt to go around the Hvalfjörður Tunnel and its 1,000 ISK (about $8 USD) fee, doing so will add another hour to the trip.
Though the peninsula is small, it can be relatively long distances (thirty to forty miles) between gas stations in some parts, so it’s wise to keep the tank at least half full. You’ll also want to pack snacks and water as restaurants are equally scarce. If you’re visiting in winter (November to March), pay close attention to the weather forecast before setting out.
Where to stay
There are a handful of towns on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula though some are just a collection of a dozen colorful houses set against a backdrop of the sea. Stykkishólmur, one of the largest (population: 1,100) was used as a setting in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and is an attraction in its own right. The candy-colored houses are spread over several hills overlooking the harbor (from which you can catch a ferry to the Westfjords). Aside from a swimming pool, small museum, and a futuristic-looking church, the town’s main attraction is the picturesque harbor, which is best viewed from the top of Súgandisey Island. The monolith is accessible via staircase and topped with a lighthouse, providing Instagram-worthy shots of the town and the surrounding islands.
There are several hotels and guesthouses in town. Hofdgata is the oldest bed and breakfast in Stykkishólmur, with a cozy atmosphere, comfortable rooms (including a separate apartment for those who want more privacy), and expansive views of the scenic town. If you’ve got the cash to splash out, head to the luxury Hotel Búðir, which has twenty-eight beautiful rooms, views of the Snaefellsjokull glacier, and a lovely breakfast.
What to see and do
While you could simply spend your time driving and taking in the gorgeous mountains and coastline, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula also has several attractions and activities. In Stykkishólmur, nature-watching tours visit the islands off the coast to see puffins, eider ducks, cormorants, and other birds. From nearby Ólafsvík, whale-watching tours go in search of minke whales, killer whales, blue whales, and humpbacks. Guides lead hikes, ice-climbing adventures, and snowmobile trips onto the Snaefellsjokull glacier, and and several farms offer horseback riding through fields and along the beaches.
In the town of Arnarstapi, stop to check out the massive monument to Bárður Snæfellsás, a hero of Icelandic folklore, and the even-more-impressive columnar basalt sea cliffs; several viewing platforms have been built around the area to take in the stunning view of the cliffs and the waves crashing onto the black sand beach below. In Búðir, snap a photo of the one-room black church and its attached graveyard before departing for a hike through the surrounding lava fields.
At Djúpalónssandur, climb down through a lava field to an expansive black sand beach dotted with two freshwater lagoons and littered with the iron remains from a British trawler; four special “testing” stones that were once used by fishermen to prove their strength can also still be found on the sand. In Hellissandur, you can learn more about how local fishermen lived at the two old turf-topped fisherman’s cottages that make up the Sjomannagardur maritime museum.
One of the more popular attractions is Vatnshellir cave, and the 8,000-year-old lava tube. Visitors are outfitted with helmets and flashlights for the descent down a spiral staircase into the cave.
The most famous spot on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is in Grundarfjörður and it’s one of the few places where you might encounter a crowd: Kirkjufell. A beautiful green, cone-shaped mountain surrounded by beaches and reflected in the water below, it’s the most recognizable spot on the peninsula. There’s a small parking lot and a path that leads to Kirkjufellsfoss, a nearby waterfall and prime photo op; if you’d seen a photo of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, chances are it was a photo of this very waterfall with Kirkjufell mountain towering in the background.