The 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iceland

As of July 5th 2019 Iceland now has 3 World Heritage Sites, with the newest being the Vatnajökull National Park which is dominated by a city sized ice cap. Along with the volcanic island of Surtsey and the Thingvellir National Park in the Golden Circle these protected areas cover a whopping 15% of the entire country.

The Icelandic government understands the importance of maintaining and protecting its pristine environment. After all without such raw beauty the Iceland economy would not be prospering to the same extent it is today. Katrín Jakobsdóttir is intending to make Iceland Carbon Neutral by 2040 and has launched a new Climate Strategy. Protecting and regenerating the natural habitat is just one of the ways in which they will achieve this.

“Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” UNESCO

This months blog post will focus on why these 3 areas of natural and cultural significance have been added to one of the most coveted lists on the planet. I will also suggest the best ways to see each UNESCO World Heritage Site without affecting the environment.

Vatnajökull National Park (2019), South East Iceland

As you approach the edges of the Vatnajökull National Park in the south east of Iceland the first thing you will see is the biggest volcano in the country, Oræfajökull. It also happens to be the tallest mountain too, at 2,119m. Along the edges of this towering peak you will see steep blue glaciers streaming down like slow moving rivers towards the barren sands in Skaftafell that resemble a black desert. The ironic thing about most glaciers in Iceland is that they would not exist without volcanoes. Iceland is simply not cold enough (believe it or not) to create glacier ice at sea level. And it’s also far too windy for the snow that creates glaciers to sit on the tops of mountains for any length of time. Therefore you need a structure that is high in altitude to allow the average temperature to remain low all year round, and you need a bowl like feature to hold in any fresh snow that would otherwise be blown away, or be melted by direct sunlight. How about the caldera (crater) of a tall strato-volcano?

It’s this duality between fire (volcanoes) and ice (glaciers) that make the newest member of the UNESCO World Heritage Site so special.

“A prime locality for exploring the impacts of climate change on glaciers and the land forms left behind when they retreat. The volcanic zones of the property hold endemic groundwater fauna that has survived the ice age…that may replicate conditions on early Earth and the icy satellites of Jupiter and Saturn.” UNESCO

As you continue exploring this unique landscape you can stop off at the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon which showcases the remnants of a melting glacier with building-sized icebergs regularly calving off from the distant glacier. It’s not long before the icebergs break down into smaller pieces and wash up on on the shores of the Black Diamond Beach, their final resting spot from an 800 year journey from snow flake to glacier to iceberg.

For the more adventurous traveller you can join an expert glacier guide to take you hiking on any one of the dozens of glaciers in the area. In summer the ice gains a ‘sun crust’ which makes hiking a little easier. Many people enjoy ice climbing on the warmer days.

The cold winter snap brings out the blue shimmering ice and freezes the fast flowing rivers that spend the summer carving out shapes in the ice. This gives rise to newly formed ice caves. Ice caves that will last only a few months before melting or collapsing before your very eyes.

To enjoy this part of the country I recommend spending a minimum of two days exploring the area. Be wary of any travel companies claiming to get you all the way to this spot and back from Reykjavik in one day. It’s physically possible, but you’ll spend the majority of the day watching the views from the car window. This secluded section of Iceland has far fewer tourists and even fewer light sources so if you are coming in the winter this is a fantastic spot to hunt for the northern lights too.

Surtsey Island (2008), South Iceland

The newly created island of Surtsey completes the set of 15 volcanic islands off the coast of south Iceland. An underwater (sub-marine) eruption began in 1963 and continued to intermittently erupt for 4 years forcing out so much lava and tephra (ash/rock) that a new island was born. From the get go Surtsey was a protected area. After all, it’s not often that scientists can study a brand new land mass. To this day, it is illegal to step foot on this island unless you are a scientist commissioned with studying the island. The few scientists who do get the chance to frequent Surtsey’s shores have reported that there is already vegetation growing on the loose ground, seals have made the beaches around the base their new lounging spot and there have even been reports of a small puffin colony utilising the cliffs of the island. It would seem that life doesn’t need much time to settle in.

The strict protection levels stop you from walking on this UNESCO protected area but it doesn’t mean you can’t see it from the neighbouring islands, or by zodiac boat.

“Surtsey is a new island formed by volcanic eruptions in 1963-67. It has been legally protected from its birth and provides the world with a pristine natural laboratory.” UNESCO

The Westman Islands, home to the largest puffin colony in the world have multiple ferry departures per day and sports their very own active volcano that is still warm from the 1973 eruption that would have destroyed the inhabitants homes if it wasn’t for the heroic effort of the locals to douse the lava with sea water forcing most of the flow out to sea. It is quite the moment once you’ve hiked to the top of the volcano when you get your first glimpse of Surtsey in the distance. Using one newly formed volcano as a vantage point to see another is a surreal feeling indeed.

I recommend only travelling to these islands in the summer. The Westman Islands boast the strongest winds in Europe during the winter months and many of the local restaurants and attractions are closed until summer too. In the summer the winds dissipate and islands can enjoy some of the warmest days in the country. You can also join local zodiac speed boat tours, eat local produce at GOTT restaurant and of course walk along the sea cliffs to get a sneak peek at the millions of puffins that call the Westman Islands their home for a few short months during mating season.

Thingvellir National Park (2004), Golden Circle Area

The Thingvellir National Park was inducted in 2004 as much for its cultural heritage as its natural beauty. It is the home of the longest surviving democratic parliament in the world. The parliament convened in the National Park until the end of the 18th century before being relocated to Reykjavik. It acted as a law house, parliament and major trading ground for all of Iceland. It is also where the decision was made to convert to Christianity peacefully in 1000 AD, though many Icelanders practiced a dual faith in private for many years after.

It is quite the coincidence that the Icelandic people chose Thingvellir as the place to unify the people of Iceland under one parliament in the exact spot that Iceland also emerged from the sea. Iceland is a unique landmass. It is a volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean that should be deep under the water. After all, when tectonic plates pull away from each other (diverge) new oceans and seas form. But due to a remarkable geological phenomena this rift zone is situated directly on top of a mantle plume (some would say, Super Volcano). This gives Iceland enough volcanic activity to create new land to keep it above water as the plates split apart. In fact, Iceland has an average of one volcanic eruption every 4 years, which is more than enough to keep Iceland growing from the inside out. Iceland accounts for 1/3 of all lava flow in the world.

“A rift valley with its high cliffs makes Þingvellir National Park a magnificent natural backdrop for the open air parliamentary assembly (or Alþing) of Iceland, which was held there annually from around 930 AD to 1798.” UNESCO

The obvious way to enjoy this area would be to combine it with the rest of the Golden Circle. This is true. However, bare in mind that this is the most popular place in the country. Perhaps check out the Secret Lagoon hot spring in the morning, dine in a tomato green house and visit the other spots of the area so that by the time you get to the Thingvellir National Park the sun will be low in the sky and the worst of the tourists will be elsewhere. Stick to the paths though as the moss and other vegetation are susceptible to degradation. You can spend the early evening exploring some of the more hidden cracks and fractures that come with splitting tectonic plates.

Do all 3 in one trip

It would seem that multiple visits to Iceland is needed to experience all three UNESCO World Heritage Sites but it’s physically possible to do all three in just one 4 or 5 day excursion to Iceland. I recommend allocating 2 days to get to the Vatnajökull National Park and enjoy the area. On the way back towards Reykjavik you can do a day trip over to the Westman Islands to get close to Surtsey. You should return to the mainland the same day and sleep in a local hotel there so you can get up early to miss the crowds of the Golden Circle. The the final day can be dedicated to exploring the Golden Circle. Finally, you will get back to Reykjavik with enough time to try out some of the weird and wonderful dishes in the city. You can do this all on your own, but as always I recommend going with a local guide on an organised trip to get to those hidden spots and get a true understanding of what you are witnessing.

Ryan Connolly is Co-Founder of Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland specialises in private trips, taking you to some of the hidden gems of Iceland with a passionate and experienced guide.

If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.


This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept

%d bloggers like this: