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.

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Comments (16)

  1. Sue says:

    It’s amazing that the island of Surtsey is already showing signs of developing life. That there are reports of puffins already settling on the island, after just 11 years, shows how quickly life can colonise new land. I just hope that people respect the site as an important scientific experiment and that the boats don’t get too close.

    • Absolutely. There’s even a story that a particular scientist heard the call of nature while there and left an unsanctioned treat within the ash covered island. A year later a tomato plant had sprouted from the same spot. Life always finds a way.

  2. Vernon says:

    Three amazing sites. Doing all three in one trip would be the travel experience of a lifetime.

  3. Bob Brown says:

    I know that some people have reservations about UNESCO Heritage sites as there seem to be so many – at the last count a mere 1092. However, not only do these three Icelandic sites more than justify their inclusion in the list, their status should help to ensure that their beauty is preserved too.

    As you were about to ask, Italy, not surprisingly is number one in the charts with a staggering sum of 52 sites. Well, the Romans gave them quite a start.

    • I had no idea Italy was number 1. Well deserved too some might say. I suspect those sites focus more on cultural and human made heritages, whereas Iceland is more natural phenomena. Saying that, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Pompeii eruption site was in that group of 52.

  4. Jo says:

    Oh wow, 15% of Iceland constitutes World Heritage Sites? That’s impressive! Good tip on going hiking with a glacier expert guide and on a slightly warmer day to make it a tad easier, too. I wonder how many people go to Vatnajökull National Park each year for just that purpose? I think if I ever visit Iceland I’d want to attempt each of these three in a week because it would seem like such a shame to not be able to appreciate them all.

    • The local glacier guiding companies in that area will take hundreds of guests each day to different spots so I imagine it’s quite a big percentage of the travellers in the country.
      The best time to come is now so don’t wait too long. More and more glaciers in Iceland are melting away. Even in the last 3 years a number of previously easy to get to glaciers have lost their access so if you want to hike on a glacier without travelling to far up a mountain then now is the time.

  5. Dave says:

    Walking on a glacier has been on my bucket-list for some time now. In fact, it was probably on my list long before anyone invented the term bucket list. Once I was on the front of a glacier in the Pyrenees but it was a beautiful Spring day and I just didn’t have footwear up to the job! And that list just keeps on getting longer and longer.

    • My view is that you only have a few years left in Iceland to get onto a glacier so perhaps hiking on a glacier should be moved to the top of the list.
      You did the right thing not stepping on the ice without the proper equipment. Our company provide crampons, ice axe, helmet, harness and a qualified guide. It’s frightening to see people attempting it themselves in trainers.

  6. Brian says:

    Very interesting to read the citation of why the UNESCO award was given. What a place too. You are certainly getting value for your money when you are getting time-travel heading back to what conditions were like on early Earth. Then on top of that you are getting inter planetary travel thrown in too with the terrain echoing that on Jupiter.

    But I would be fascinated to know how the UNESCO awarding process works. I’d love to sit in on some of their meetings to learn more about their criteria.

    • Absolutely. It certainly feels like you are entering pre-historic wilderness when you step onto a moving glacier in the middle of the national park.
      I would be interested in learning about the criteria also. I suspect it’ll be quite stringent to be added as a World Heritage Site as I know there are two UNESCO Geoparks that don’t hold the World Heritage Listing in Iceland also (Reykjanes Geopark and Katla Geopark).

  7. Beth says:

    Iceland was on my list of places that I had to visit in 2019 but I’m fast running out of annual leave days for this year.

    But after reading this post a visit taking in all 3 of these awesome UNESCO sites is now on my list for next year.

    • Wonderful. Iceland is the perfect place for people with limited annual leave. Squeezing in all three in one short trip is a rare opportunity. Personally you should try to give yourself at least 6 days in total to achieve all of the above and experience Reykjavik too.

  8. Ivor Hunter says:

    Iceland seems to be moving faster on conservation measures than many a country. Those words from UNESCO about heritage being our legacy from the past and the fact that it is irreplaceable carry a lot of weight in Iceland. Quite literally their heritage could melt away. It is brave of them to work so hard to become carbon neutral so soon. Sadly, they will need many more countries to make similar commitments if their unique environment is to survive.

    • Absolutely. Physically seeing a glacier disappear in front of our eyes is chilling, pardon the pun. If a small nation like Iceland can make such drastic changes and allocate even more of its land to conservation over the next 12 years hopefully other countries will take notice and follow suit.

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