If you're noticing a whole lot of glacial waters and mountain-framed lagoons on your Instagram feed these days, you're not alone. Iceland has become a super trendy destination of late.
Some 1.7 million travelers checked it out in 2015—more than twice as many visitors as in 2005. And with a tiny population of around 320,000 (roughly the size of St. Louis, Missouri), the oasis they found was full of pristine, untouched landscapes. According to travel expert Ella Chase, who is currently taking a yearlong trip around the world, these scenic views are what make the island country so captivating.
"The appeal is the ability to connect with nature in an authentic way—Iceland is one of the few remaining places where the essence of the photographs actually matches the in-person experience," she told mindbodygreen.
Linden Schaffer, the founder of wellness travel company Pravassa, added the practicality and safety of an Iceland vacay as factors contributing to the tourism spike: "With cheap airfare, a feeling of uncharted territory, and a very low crime rate, it's appealing to nature lovers, wellness seekers, and families."
We didn't have to look far to find some friends of mbg who have visited the island lately (like I said, everyone's going!). We compiled their top travel tips to bring you the ultimate Iceland bucket list—brimming with notable food, wildlife, views, and Zen escapes.
If you're lucky enough to have a trip in the works, we hope it inspires your itinerary, and if you're still in dreaming mode, may it be that final push you need to book that flight.
1. Navigate the Golden Circle Drive.
Pretty much everyone we reached out to agreed that renting a camper is a great way to see the natural beauty of the entire island. One of the most sought-after driving trails is the Golden Circle—a 300km (186-mile) route that weaves around its southern tip and passes through varied landscapes like Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and Strokkur geyser. If you're looking to cover the whole course in a day, sign on to a tour group to pick up some interesting facts along the way.
2. Relax at Blue Lagoon.
This spot has Bey and Jay's seal of approval, so needless to say it belongs on your list. Located in Iceland's capital city Reykjavik, on the Golden Circle Drive, this man-made pool of geothermal seawater is full of minerals and silica mud that are said to have healing effects on the skin. Check out Blue Lagoon's in-water massages and mud masks, or pick up some of their natural skin care products to take home.
3. Gawk at Langjokull Glacier.
Also along the Golden Circle Drive, Langjokull is the second largest glacier on the island. You can explore glacier by foot or snowmobile across its 50km expanse if you're feeling adventurous. Into the Glacier tours give you another view of the ice form, by placing you in its underbelly to explore the tunnels and caves inside.
4. Try the Icelandic version of hot dogs.
What do Bill Clinton, Charlie Sheen, and Anthony Bordain have in common? They've all visited Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur—a popular stand in Reykjavik serving up Icelandic hotdogs to the masses. (An estimated 70 percent of the country’s residents have eaten there!) Not quite the dogs you'll find at an American baseball game, Iceland's version is made mostly of lamb and topped with fried onions and sweet brown mustard. Not exactly a plant-based powerhouse, but hey, you're on vacation.
5. See if you can stomach the local delicacy.
Its hotdogs may be a universal crowd pleaser, but Iceland is also home to some more controversial cuisine. Namely, fermented shark, or Hákarl. Concocting this local delicacy is a serious time commitment, since the type of shark used is actually poisonous when fresh. The meat must picked, buried under stones and gravel to force the fluid out, and hung to dry for several months before it can be served up in bite-size cubes.
Beware: Food personality Anthony Bourdain called it "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he's ever had, and Andrew Zimmern described its smell as one of "the most horrific things I've ever breathed in my life," so proceed with caution, adventurous eaters.
6. Catch the aurora borealis (if you're lucky).
The aurora borealis, or northern lights, refers to the colorful display that electrically charged particles from the sun make as they enter earth's atmosphere and collide. Though this atmospheric light show showers the northern pole eight months out of the year (from September to mid-April), the air has to be pretty clear for you to be able to see the colorful dance from the surface. Your best bet is heading far beyond the city's skyline sometime between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. local time.
7. Go whale watching.
More than 20 whale species are visible in the ice-cold waters off Iceland's coasts from April through September. You can catch blue whales, humpbacks, and orcas in action aboard one of the tour boats that dock in Reykjavík and small towns on the north end of the island.
8. Check out the man-made beauties, too.
Yes, you could spend your entire Icelandic vacation completely immersed in nature and be totally fine, but some of the island's architecture is worth checking out too. Hallgrimskirkja is a looming church in Reykjavik created in 1937 to emulate the shape lava takes as it cools into basalt rock. Take a quick walk around town and you'll find Perlan, a collection of restaurants and shops nestled inside a massive dome, and the Sun Voyager, a steel sculpture on the sea that is meant to symbolize light and hope.