Located a couple of hours north of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, lies the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Often referred to as ‘Iceland in Miniature’, this makes a great side trip for those travelers unable to take a week and drive the full Ring Road around the island.
A drive around the peninsula can be done in a long day trip from Reykjavik, which is made even more possible by the long hours of daylight during late spring and summer. For most people, a slower two-day itinerary offers a more casual pace when exploring all this diverse land has to offer.
On a two day itinerary, the small town of Borgarnes is a great place to stop for the night after leaving Reykjavik and before heading north to the Snaefellsnes. Borgarnes is an easy 70-kilometer drive from Reykjavik and takes roughly an hour. The main sight in Borgarnes is the excellent Settlement Museum, which chronicles the peopling of Iceland, as well as delving into the Icelandic Sagas, the folklore held so dearly by the Icelandic people.
Just north of Borganes is another site of historical importance to Icelanders, the farm at Borg á Mýrum. One of the country’s first settlers, Skallagrímur Kveldúlfsson, established his farm here in the mid-900s AD. The site now contains a small church and a sculpture memorializing the loss of Kveldúlfsson’s two grandsons to the harsh conditions of the new land.
A little more than an hour’s drive to the north side of the peninsula is the town of Stykkishólmur, a picturesque fishing village that is the largest town on the peninsula at under 1,200 inhabitants. It’s a good place to stock up on supplies and find lodging before exploring the peninsula if one chooses the multi-day route. Stykkishólmur’s natural harbor is capped by Súgandisey, a large basalt island capped by a lighthouse that affords views over the town to the south and the bay of Breiðafjörður and the Westfjords to the north.
A couple of kilometers south of Stykkishólmur is the holy mountain of Helgafell. The 240-meter mountain is reported to be the site where one of the heroines of the Icelandic Sagas last lived and is buried, and legend says that three wishes will be granted to anyone who climbs the mountain without speaking or looking back, and faces east while making the wishes. The hike to the top is an easy 15-minute climb.
Probably the peninsula’s top sight, other than its scenic beauty, is the nearby Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum. This small museum contains a collection of stuffed wildlife, fishing implements, and other paraphernalia highlighting the struggle the people have in living in such an inhospitable climate much of the year. The highlight of the museum is learning the story of authentically Icelandic food, Hákarl, which translates to fermented shark.
As the meat of the Greenland shark is poisonous when consumed fresh, the meat is allowed to ferment in the ground for a couple of months before being hung in a barn on the site, then processed and consumed. Hákarl has become fairly well-known after being featured on a number of television shows know for extreme eating, and it’s strong odor and unique taste make it difficult for foreigners to enjoy. That said, trying it makes for a great story, and the Bjarnhofn offers visitors the opportunity to see the meat hanging in the barn as well as try a small sample of it with rye bread.
Heading eastward from Stykkishólmur, the peninsula becomes both more beautiful and more rugged. There are a number of small towns along the way, all under 500 inhabitants, including Grundarfjörður, Ólafsvík, Hellnar, and Arnarstapi. There are also a few sights. Near the town of Grundarfjörður is another prominent mountain, the conical Kirkjufell. With a scenic waterfall nearby, it is one of the peninsula’s most popular photographic stops.
The far eastern end of the peninsula is capped by rugged lava fields from Snæfellsjökull, the landscape-dominating volcano that was featured in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. There are many tour operators that offer 4WD excursions to the top of the mountains and well as the more inaccessible parts of Snæfellsjökull National Park.
The drive along the southern part of the peninsula is also scenic but offers less in the way of sights to visit. One exception to that is the church at Hellnar and the Monument to Bardur, the patron saint of the glacier, who was said to have the gift of being able to communicate with the hidden people, another one of Iceland’s many legends. The cliffs near Hellnar and Arnarstapi are also good spots for birding.
From Arnarstapi, it is an easy hour and a half drive back to Borgarnes, and another hour after that back to Reykjavik. The main roads around the Snaefellsnes, State Routes 54 and 574 are both sealed and in good condition, however many of the side roads are unpaved and can be difficult in bad weather. Like the rest of the island, the North Atlantic jet stream causes many rainy & snowy days, but the peninsula can still be enjoyed on those days, albeit slower and more carefully.
There are tours of the Snaefellsnes that can be booked from Reykjavik, but renting a car and tackling this magical part of the country is both easy and preferred.