Top 8 Things to Do in East Iceland
From spectacular hikes and coastal drives to waterfalls, volcanoes and wildlife, East Iceland is becoming a magnet to travellers in search of a quieter, less visited side of the country. We recommend eight of the best things to do in this beautiful and diverse region, easily accessible from the town of Egilsstadir.
1. Drive the East Fjords
East Iceland is great touring country. Most ‘Ring Roaders’ simply stop to refuel and stock up on supplies in Egilsstadir before driving on. Big mistake! They’re missing out on one of Iceland’s hidden gems. Raking the easternmost coast of Iceland, pristine fjords cut deep into brooding basalt mountains, and hugging these dramatic inlets is a road made in self-drive heaven. The scenery will have you pulling over and scrambling for your camera every few miles – whether it’s to capture a panoramic seascape of black-sand beaches and plummeting sea cliffs or to frame a waterfall dousing layer upon layer of ancient lava. From Neskaupstadur to Djupivogur, the road through Iceland’s East Fjords joins the dots between several fishing villages. Most have excellent hotels, allowing you time to spend a few days touring the coast and sampling its wide range of attractions, from boat trips and birdwatching to maritime history and superb seafood.
2. Find a waterfall all to yourself
It’s easy to get all gushy about waterfalls in Iceland – the country is overflowing with charismatic cascades. East Iceland’s waterfalls might never steal the thunder of Dettifoss or Gullfoss, but it still boasts mighty Hengifoss – Iceland’s second highest falls at 128m. The hike to the base of this giant horsetail plume skirts a smaller waterfall called Litlanesfoss, frothing through chiselled cliffs of columnar basalt. Two waterfalls for the price of one can’t be bad, but it’s the seclusion of East Iceland’s waterfalls that makes them really special. Very often, you can get one all to yourself. Hike or horse ride to Flogufoss in the Breiddalur valley, for example, and you might well be the only person gazing at this extraordinary cataract which seems to gush from a rock fortress straight out of Mordor.
3. Become a rock fan!
This is really two highlights in one. Music fans can rock on at summer festivals like Eistnaflug in Neskaupstadur and Braedslan in Borgarfjordur Eystri, while those who prefer their rock in good old-fashioned crystalline form are in for an equal treat. The fact is, while much of Iceland is half-baked and still steaming, the East has had time to mature, resulting in some pretty amazing geology. At Petra’s Stone Collection in Stodvarfjordur you can peruse a veritable treasure chest of quartz, agate, amethyst, jasper and other dazzling minerals lovingly gleaned from the area over 80 years by Petra Sveinsdottir. The geology museum in Breiddalsvík is also an eye-opener, while an old quarry near Eskifjorður known as Helgustadanama is world famous for Iceland spar – a particularly pure form of calcite remarkable for its light polarisation properties. A 220kg chunk hogs the limelight in London’s Natural History Museum, but you can still see crystals twinkling in the walls of the quarry.
4. Plan a mini adventure…
The East may well be one of the quietest corners of Iceland, but that doesn’t mean it’s dull or there’s nothing to do. Far from it. Activities include horse riding in Breiddalur, sea kayaking in Seydisfjordur and superjeep safaris into the interior. Keen anglers will find some of Europe’s most pristine trout and salmon rivers, while cyclists can pedal the coast or tackle more challenging mountain trails. Boat trips operate from several locations in the East Fjords, putting you in touch with puffins or a chance encounter with a humpback whale. If you try just one activity in East Iceland, though, make sure you get footloose and fancy-free…
5. Take a hike!
If Europe is unified by one thing, it’s that Europeans love a good hike. The continent is riddled with classic trails like the Kungsleden and GR20, while wild places – from the Cairngorms to Carpathians – are ripe for hiking. East Iceland is no exception. In fact, Borgarfjordur Eystri (the northernmost village in the East Fjords) is fast becoming the base in Iceland for experiencing some of the country’s finest hikes. Trails follow the wild and invigorating coastline or delve into mysterious mountains rich in folklore. Elsewhere in East Iceland, Skálanes provides gentle hiking in a wildlife-rich area at the mouth of Seydisfjordur, while Mt Snaefell – Iceland’s highest free-standing mountain at 1,833m – offers a summit challenge.
6. See puffins, reindeers and elves
Iceland’s seabird citadels are legendary. There are few sights in nature more riveting than fulmars and kittiwakes festooning sea cliffs in a confetti of avian aerobatics. But East Iceland gets you twitching in lots of other ways. Swans, geese, eiders and divers all vie for attention, but the region’s puffed-up pin-up is undoubtedly the puffin. The small island of Hafnarholmi near Borgarfjordur Eystri promises intimate encounters between mid-April and mid-August. While you’re there, keep an eye out for the little folk (the queen of Iceland’s elves is said to reign at Alfaborg, a rocky mound on the outskirts of the village). East Iceland is also the only place in the country where you might spot wild reindeer.
7. Get off the beaten track
Just when you thought you were already exploring a remote and untrodden corner of Iceland, along comes a local in a superjeep. For the uninitiated, imagine a 4×4 on protein shakes. With experienced drivers at the wheel, these pumped-up vehicles can take you deep into the interior, travelling south from Egilsstadir before climbing into the Highlands near Mt Snaefell. From there, it’s one long thrill ride, slaloming through eerie lava flows and weaving across volcano-studded plains of pumice and ash before reaching the cerulean cliffs of the Vatnajokull ice cap. This is East Iceland’s very special ‘back door’ into the country’s fabulously forbidding heart of fire and ice. Discover more about East Iceland’s wonderful scenery in our East Iceland in pictures post.
8. Savour the East
By all means have a nibble of Hakarl (fermented shark), washed down by Brennivín (Iceland’s signature schnapps), but while you’re in East Iceland you can’t fail to notice that the lamb is delicious (reared organically on herb-speckled mountains), or that the cod is so fresh it melts like butter in your mouth. There are also several gourmet secrets in East Iceland. Seyðisfjörður has the country’s finest sushi restaurant (Nord Austur), while Hotel Hildibrand in Neskaupstadur is renowned for giving local game and seafood dishes a gastronomic twist. Keen foodies should also track down Vallanes, an organic farm near Egilsstaðir which grows some 200 varieties of salads, grains and vegetables. Pop in for breakfast – it’ll set you up perfectly for the hike to nearby Hengifoss. Discover more about where to have the best food on our East Iceland for foodies guide.