In recent years, this route has been promoted by regional tourist bureaus as the Diamond Circle, a playful attempt to one-up the famous Golden Circle of sights close to Reykjavik. These campaigns have not had much traction in the U.S., but let me be the first to tell you, the oneupsmanship is well warranted.
Iceland is most heavily touristed between the months of June and August, but even in peak periods, far more travelers concentrate their time in the country’s southwest than its northeast. That’s because Keflavik International Airport, just outside of Reykjavik, is the only global gateway to the country. From the U.S. east coast, it’s just a five to six hour flight; the most faraway-feeling place you can go in such a short amount of time.
That easy access is par t of why, in 2019, the average number of nights spent by American tourists in Iceland was only 5.6. Trips of 10 days or more spent circumnavigating the island’s famous Ring Road were far surpassed by long-weekend jaunts to party under the midnight sun and tick the bucket list.
On such short stays, it’s easy to understand why visitors would stick close to the capital. There are plenty of organized bus tours and easy self-drive day trips to keep folks clinging close to Reykjavik’s bustling bar scene and the heavily promoted Golden Circle attractions. In just three intense days based in a single downtown hotel room, its possible (and, in fact, worthwhile) to take in the punctual eruptions of the famous Geysir, the arrowhead cascades of the Gullfoss waterfall, the crust-busting clash of the Nor th American and Eurasian tectonic plates in Thingvellir National Park, the black sand beaches and basalt columns rising from the Atlantic in Vik, and, if you push yourself, magical mossy Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon.
This will even leave you with time to amble about central Reykjavik on foot. Make sure to visit the waterfront concert hall, Harpa, a shimmering marvel of modern architecture, and enjoy the lively café scene, highlighted by the gay-owned bi-level Babalú, on a crafty boutique-filled block with a fine view of the city’s most famous landmark, the Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran church with a spire embraced by sweeping stone wings that resemble a giant pipe organ.
On your way to catch your flight home, by all means stop for a soothing soak in the Smurf-colored shallows of the world-famous Blue Lagoon , Iceland’s most popular tourist site. Despite being a man-made attraction in this natural wonderland, it’s conveniently located near the airport.
With all that said, let me share the most beneficial lesson for time pressed American travelers that I learned in Iceland: If you can give yourself even five days on the ground, you can cover all of the above (i.e. everything your basic friends have boasted about) and the far less trafficked, far more fantastical northeastern route that was not just the highlight of my trip last summer, but a highlight of nearly four decades of travel.
Immediately upon arriving to Keflavik from the U.S., take a domestic flight to Egilisstadir (Under $225 roundtrip), where you can rent a car at the airport, take the mind-blowing Diamond Circle road trip, and be back to Reykjavik in as little as 48 hours.
When you return to the capital, if you’d like to learn more about that corkscrew squirrel willy I mentioned in the very first paragraph of this essay, make your way to the carefully curated not to be missed collection of over 200 preserved penises on display at the Icelandic Phallological Museum, a veritable spew lagoon. Every mammal found on the island is represented, along with an ample sampling from the surrounding seas (walrus wangs, seal scepters, and 16 different whale weiners), some global exotica (Gotta have an elephant!), an impressive human specimen (the subject of a documentary film, The Final Member) and, in a classic Icelandic move, alleged elf penises (a wall placard explains that they’re invisible).
You never know exactly what you’ll learn through traveling, but from the silly to the sublime, the lessons are out there. Its high time we get back out there as well.