The Highlands of Iceland: A Brief Overview

The Highlands of Iceland: A Brief Overview

The Highlands of Iceland: A Brief Overview

The Highlands of Iceland: A Brief Overview

A brief history of the region

The highlands of Iceland, known as "Hálendið" in Icelandic, are a vast and uninhabited region located in the interior of the country. The formation of the highlands began millions of years ago during volcanic activity, as numerous eruptions and lava flows contributed to the gradual buildup of the central Icelandic plateau. For much of its history, the highlands remained inaccessible and largely untouched by human presence due to their challenging terrain and harsh climate. It wasn't until the 19th century that the first recorded expeditions ventured into the region. These early explorers documented the awe-inspiring landscapes, geothermal areas, and the immense Vatnajökull glacier, which covers a significant portion of the highlands. In the early 20th century, the Icelandic government initiated projects to improve transportation infrastructure, opening up the highlands to increased human activity. Roads and bridges were constructed, making it easier for people to explore and exploit the area's natural resources.

During World War II, the highlands gained strategic importance as a base for British and later American military installations. Airfields and supply routes were established, connecting the highlands to the rest of the country and facilitating the transportation of troops and supplies. In the latter half of the 20th century, as Iceland's economy developed, the highlands witnessed an increase in tourism and recreational activities. Hikers, mountaineers, and nature enthusiasts began to appreciate the pristine beauty of the region.

What the region is known for

The highlands of Iceland are renowned for their raw and untamed natural beauty. You will find dramatic landscapes such as vast lava fields, rugged mountains, glacial valleys, and volcanic craters that create a surreal and otherworldly atmosphere. Home to several expansive glaciers such as Vatnajökull, Europe's largest ice cap, the highlands are marked by glacial rivers that flow through the terrain, carving deep canyons and creating stunning waterfalls such as Dettifoss and Gullfoss. The region is also characterized by geothermal areas with bubbling hot springs, colorful mud pots, and steaming fumaroles. Due to its northern latitude, the highlands experience the phenomena of the midnight sun during the summer months, with continuous daylight. Additionally, during the winter, the region offers excellent opportunities for witnessing the enchanting Northern Lights. The highlands offer a sense of untouched wilderness, with vast expanses of uninhabited and sparsely populated areas. This remoteness appeals to adventurers and those seeking solitude in nature.


Icelandic culture is a dynamic blend of ancient traditions and contemporary influences shaped by the country's history, natural environment, and the resilience of its people. Icelanders place a strong emphasis on social cohesion and community support, evidenced by the tradition of cooperative living, known as "þorrablót,". This involves gathering to celebrate traditional Icelandic food, drink, and music during the mid-winter season. This sense of togetherness extends to national support systems, egalitarian values, and and empathetic, community-based mentality. Exploring the country's folklore can add a touch of enchantment to the Icelandic experience. Icelandic folklore is rich in tales of mythical creatures, including elves, trolls, and hidden people. These stories continue to be part of the cultural fabric, and many Icelanders maintain a belief in the existence of these supernatural beings.

Unsurprisingly, Iceland's breathtaking landscapes have also deeply influenced its culture. The country's volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, and vast open spaces have inspired a sense of awe and reverence. Icelanders have a strong connection to their natural surroundings and prioritize environmental sustainability and conservation efforts. Hiking, trekking, fishing, horseback riding, and winter sports like skiing and snowboarding are popular activities. In addition, the arts-particularly literature and music-hold a significant place in Icelandic society. Reykjavik, the capital city, is renowned for its thriving music scene, with numerous venues hosting live performances and music festivals throughout the year. Icelandic literature, including the sagas and works of celebrated authors, is treasured, and bookstores are plentiful.


While known as potentially the most difficult language to learn, the Icelandic language is also a source of pride and cultural identity for Icelanders. It plays a significant role in preserving the country's literary heritage, folklore, and unique cultural expressions. The language itself is one of the oldest in Europe, and through passionate preservation efforts has remained largely unchanged since Viking times. To maintain linguistic purity, Icelanders will create entirely new words for modern items, using ancient Icelandic vocabulary. For example, the modern word, “television” is translated as sjónvarp; which combines the ancient words for vision (sjón) and throw (varp). Similarly, Icelandic names also follow strict etiquette and tradition. There are at most 5,000 options for first names, with 'new' names needing approval from the Naming Committee. Last names change by generation and typically add suffixes for 'son' or 'daughter' to their parent's first name. This commitment offers a fascinating window into the linguistic history and traditions of Iceland.

Gastronomy through the region

Icelandic cuisine stands out for several reasons, making it special and distinct. The first is widespread use of fresh and pure Ingredients. Iceland's pristine environment provides an abundance of high-quality ingredients. The country's cold waters offer a rich variety of seafood, known for its exceptional taste and freshness. Icelandic lamb, raised on the wild and herb-filled pastures, is celebrated for its unique flavor. Locally sourced produce, such as root vegetables, berries, and herbs, benefit from the country's clean air and untouched landscapes. Similarly, Icelandic cuisine reflects the close relationship between the land and its people. The traditional methods of food preparation, such as smoking, drying, and fermenting, were born out of necessity due to Iceland's challenging climate and limited resources. This connection to nature and reliance on local ingredients gives Icelandic cuisine its distinctive character.

Icelandic cuisine shares commonalities with the broader Nordic culinary tradition. The focus on simple, honest flavors, using seasonal and local ingredients, is characteristic of the Nordic food philosophy. Shared influences from neighboring countries like Norway and Denmark contribute to the culinary tapestry of Iceland. Iceland's unique location as a hotspot for geothermal energy also plays a role in its cuisine.

Top Foods to Try

  • Lamb Dishes: Icelandic lamb is renowned for its quality and flavor. It is often prepared in various ways, such as slow-roasted, grilled, or in hearty stews.

  • Seafood: Due to its proximity to the ocean, Iceland offers an abundance of seafood. Popular choices include fresh fish like cod, haddock, and salmon, which can be prepared in a variety of ways, from pan-frying to smoking.

  • Fish Stews: Traditional Icelandic fish stews, known as "plokkfiskur" or "fiskisúpa," are popular comfort dishes. These hearty soups combine white fish with potatoes, onions, and cream or milk, seasoned with herbs.

  • Skyr: Skyr is a traditional Icelandic dairy product similar to yogurt but with a thicker and creamier consistency. It is often eaten as a dessert or enjoyed with berries and honey.

  • Rye Bread: Icelandic rye bread, known as "rúgbrauð," is a dense and dark bread made with rye flour and often baked in the geothermal heat of the ground. It is typically served with butter or as an accompaniment to traditional dishes.

  • Traditional Sweets: Look out for traditional Icelandic sweets like "kleina" (a twisted pastry), "lummur" (thin pancakes), and "síróp" (a syrupy, caramel-like topping).