The Hottest Travel Destination of the Year: Iceland! (Slideshow)

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Iceland is the place to go in 2016; here are 10 reasons why it ranks so high
Aurora Borealis

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Let’s just get this out of the way: You can see the Northern Lights in Iceland, and they’re even more breathtaking than you imagine. Also known as Aurora Borealis, this surreal, other-worldly phenomenon is the result of electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with gaseous particles in the Earth, which produces displays of bright, colorful, dancing lights across the sky. The lights are best seen in the colder months when there’s the least amount of sunlight, so the safest bet is to book a trip between late September and late March. As for the best time of night, aim for 11 p.m. or midnight. Of course, you’ll also want to escape the city lights as much as possible for optimal viewing.

For more info on seeing the Aurora Borealis, check out our no-nonsense guide to stalking the Northern Lights.

Aurora Borealis

Aurora Borealis

Shutterstock

Let’s just get this out of the way: You can see the Northern Lights in Iceland, and they’re even more breathtaking than you imagine. Also known as Aurora Borealis, this surreal, other-worldly phenomenon is the result of electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with gaseous particles in the Earth, which produces displays of bright, colorful, dancing lights across the sky. The lights are best seen in the colder months when there’s the least amount of sunlight, so the safest bet is to book a trip between late September and late March. As for the best time of night, aim for 11 p.m. or midnight. Of course, you’ll also want to escape the city lights as much as possible for optimal viewing.

For more info on seeing the Aurora Borealis, check out our no-nonsense guide to stalking the Northern Lights.

Beaches (Including Black Sand!)

Beaches (Including Black Sand!)

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Don’t let the country’s frigid name fool you, Iceland has some ridiculously good beaches — it is an island, after all. The temperatures can get quite cold throughout most of the year, but in the peak of summer, it’s not unusual to see temperature highs land in the low 70s or even low 80s. A two-hour drive from the capital, Reykjavik, is the southern town of Vik and its breathtaking beaches. Reynisfjara Beach has black sand and pebbles, and the nearby basalt caves are more than worthy of a visit. On the flip side, Budir Beach on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in the west is one of the rare light-colored beaches in Iceland. The tip of this peninsula is also home to the Snæfellsjökull volcano, one of the main symbols of the country. Looking for the warmest beach? Nautholsvik (near Reykjavik) is a thermal beach heated by hot water flowing into the bay, and the temperatures reach about 61 degrees on the shore during summer, and 66 degrees in the lagoon. There are even warmer places to swim in Iceland, but we’ll get to that later.

Surprised to hear about the surf and sand in Iceland? Here are seven other countries you didn’t know have amazing beaches.

Food

There’s so much good food in Iceland that we could write an entire article on the topic (oh wait, we have: herehere, and here). But in a nutshell, don’t miss the seafood (like cod, trout, salmon, skate, salt-fish, redfish, sushi, and even shark), the Hverabrauð or “hot springs bread” (which is actually baked underground near a hot springs), the free-range lamb, and the hot dogs. No, seriously, hot dogs are very popular in Iceland — and if you don’t believe us (or even if you do), stop by Bæjarins Beztu for a bite. Be sure to also visit the famous Blue Lagoon LAVA Restaurant, Sveinn Kjartansson’s AALTO BistroKopar (the view alone makes the trip worth it), and the Icelandic home cooking at Matur & Drykkur.

Glaciers

Glaciers

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About 11 percent of Iceland is covered in either glaciers (called jökull) or icecaps, and they need to be seen to be believed. The largest, Vatnajökull, spans 5,157 square miles, and rises to an elevation of 2,100 meters (6,690 feet) above sea level. Visitors can opt to take a number of ice-walk and/or ice-climbing excursions around the country, or even explore some of the magical ice caves that form at the edge of the glaciers.

The glaciers here are so picturesque that they’ve been featured in Game of ThronesBatman Begins, and numerous James Bond films.

The Norwegian island of Svalbard actually brews beer with water from glacial ice. Click here for more info.

Mountains and Volcanoes

Mountains and Volcanoes

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Iceland is an incredibly mountainous country, and many of its rock formations are actually volcanoes! But if hiking up or looking at a volcano or mountain doesn’t get you excited (even though Thórsmörk is begging to be scaled and the colorful mountains of Landmannalaugar are so vivid you won’t believe your eyes), don’t worry, there’s more. Iceland is one of the only places in the world where visitors can descend (via foot and elevator) 400 feet into a dormant volcano — which, despite being underground, shockingly contains every color in the spectrum. The enormous craters formed by former volcanoes are also quite a sight — especially since they are often filled with bright blue water that pierces the otherwise dark-hued landscape. Additionally, many rivers flow through Iceland’s glacial ice and beds of volcanic ash, forming bodies of water than look unlike any river you’ve seen before. Seriously, the landscape here is so unusual that we had trouble finding different ways to articulate how different these sights truly are.

The Harpa

Reykjavik has been designated a UNESCO City of Literature, and there are an abundance of museums, festivals, and events at any time of year. The Harpa Conference Hall and Concert Center is Reykjavik’s gem, and it has been defining the city’s skyline since opening in 2011. Created out of geometric glass shapes, the structure reflects the sun like a shining, colored jewel. You can enjoy major performances here in their massive red-hued concert hall (like the Icelandic Opera or Iceland Symphony Orchestra), as well as see current art exhibitions.

The Lagoons

The Lagoons

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Although the beaches are nice, the water can be quite chilly at times. If there’s too much of a nip for a dip, head to the steamy Blue Lagoon geothermal spa instead. The water sits between 98 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, yet you’ll have a view of nearby snow-covered lava formations around you, as well as the swim-up bar. Not only is the water warm, blue, and beautiful, but it also contains sulfur and silica, which are both known for their natural, age-defying healing powers. Admission prices start at €40 ($45), with numerous packages and add-ons available. Alternately, you can choose the Secret Lagoon near Flúðir, which is the oldest geothermal swimming pool in the country. Admission here costs the equivalent of about $23.

The Nightlife

The Nightlife

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Things may be quiet in the more remote and rural sections of Iceland, but Reykjavik is rockin’! With over 50 bars on the main street, Laugavegur, there’s no shortage of places to go, and there are rarely lines of any kind. On the weekends, Icelanders often keep partying until the clubs close, which sometimes doesn’t happen until 5 or 6 a.m.

Water, Water Everywhere

Water, Water Everywhere

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As if the beaches, lagoons, and glaciers aren’t enough water-related attractions, there are also waterfalls and geysers. For the former, there’s the popular 66-foot-tall Svartifoss in Vatnajökull National Park, the 105-foot-high double waterfall at Gullfoss on the Hvítá (“White”) River, the 197-foot-tall Seljalandsfoss (which visitors can walk behind via a small cave), and even Hraunfossar, which is a series of streams that gurgle out of cracks in a craggy lava field — leftover from when a volcano erupted below a glacier. As for geysers, there also numerous options of varying heights. The most famous are Geysir, the namesake for all geysers in the world (which unfortunately rarely erupts nowadays), and Strokkur (east of Reykjavik), which soars 50 to 100 high once every eight minutes or so. Visitors are always amazed at how high and powerful the water eruptions are, and also how close you are allowed to get to the water.

Snorkel and scuba enthusiasts will be delighted in Iceland too; the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and South American and African continental plates meet at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge — meaning divers can explore two continents in one session!

Wildlife

Wildlife

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The nightlife isn’t the only wildlife in Iceland. Puffins actually outnumber residents at a ratio of more than 30:1 (10 million puffins vs. 330,000 people), with a number of other exotic bird species to boot. Additionally, Icelandic horses are known for their extra gait (they can pace, in addition to the usual walking, trotting, and galloping), and adorable arctic foxes can be found in the remote Westfjords (a large peninsula in the northwest) — which is only accessible via boat or very long hike. The cliffs at Látrabjarg in this area also contain the largest nesting cliff in the northern Atlantic, but that’s for the birds (literally).

Animal-lovers should stop reading at this point. Puffins (especially puffin heart, a delicacy) are actually eaten in Iceland — something for which Gordon Ramsey caught heat back in 2008.