Iceland’s natural and cultural history is unlike any other. The Great Tours: Iceland allows armchair travelers and trip planners alike to better appreciate its many wonders. Designed by behavioral ecologist Professor Jennifer Verdolin, these 24 visually stunning lectures take you from Iceland’s bustling cities to its remote towns, from the tops of its glaciers to the depths of its geothermal pools.
The Great Tours: Iceland
Jennifer Verdolin is an Associate Professor at the University of Arizona and an animal behavior scientist, author, speaker, and conservationist. She earned a PhD in Ecology and Evolution from Stony Brook University. Her writing and research on animal and human behavior have appeared in The Washington Post, Scientific American, and National Geographic. She is also the author of the popular nonfiction books Wild Connection and Raised by Animals, and she has contributed to multiple podcasts, radio shows, and wildlife documentaries.
01: Exploring Iceland
Begin your adventure into a fascinating world of fire and ice with an introduction to what makes Iceland such an unparalleled place to visit and explore. Discover how Iceland’s people have existed throughout its history and learn how they were inspired to explore the land in many ways, including through beautiful poetry and epic sagas.
02: Volcanic Iceland Rises from the Sea
Iceland was born from volcanoes erupting in the ocean roughly 25 million years ago—and its story continues to be shaped by them. Explore how the various types of volcanoes, active volcanic zones, history of eruptions, and the continued expansion of the mid-Atlantic ridge make Iceland a geologically active region like few others on our planet.
03: Frozen in Time: Iceland’s Glaciers
Beyond capturing the hearts and minds of photographers, geologists, and mountaineers, Iceland’s glaciers are deeply rooted in the country’s culture and history. First, look backward in time to learn how Iceland came to have so much, well, ice. Then, plunge into a world of ice tunnels, ice caves, and other extreme features.
04: Iceland, a Land of Water
The waters hugging Iceland’s coasts play an important role in the country’s culture and economy. Investigate some of the many lakes, rivers, lagoons, waterfalls, hot springs, and geysers to be found. Among them are the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon; Gullfoss, the most visited waterfall in the country; and the thriving business of the Blue Lagoon.
05: How Iceland Was Settled
Travel back in time to the cultural birth of Iceland, which began with the arrival of the first humans. Where did these people come from? What ancient documents help scholars understand early Icelandic settlements, and how do modern tools corroborate these sources? And another thing: What happened to all the Icelandic sheepdogs?
06: How Settlers Modified Iceland
Iceland represents a great example of how, when humans arrive at a new place where none presumably lived before, their footprint is large—and often destructive. Follow along as early Nordic settlers grow grains and cereals, then turn to sheep farming. Also, explore the impact of early settlers on the extinction of the Icelandic walrus.
07: Iceland’s Independence
Survey pivotal moments in Iceland’s journey to becoming an independent country. See how the transformation from paganism to Christianity set the stage for the end of the Iceland Republic for centuries to come, the rise of Reykjavík as an urban center in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Iceland’s official return to sovereignty in 1944.
08: The Plants of Iceland
Don’t be deceived by all that fire and ice. There’s a diversity of plant life to be found in Iceland: trees and woody shrubs, moss and lichen, flowering plants and fungi. In addition to exploring the island’s flora, consider the ever-changing relationship between humans and the environment, as seen in the Icelandic Sagas.
09: Iceland’s Freshwater, Sea, and Land Birds
Iceland’s volcanoes, craters, lakes, marshes, and coastal areas provide habitats for a breathtaking number of birds. Spend some time getting to know birds like razorbills, which live primarily out on the open ocean; the gyrfalcon, which can be found on the highest honor Iceland bestows to individuals; and the beloved and iconic Atlantic puffin.
10: Iceland’s Fish, Sharks, and Crustaceans
Fishing as a livelihood shaped Iceland’s population for centuries. Dive below the surface for a fascinating look at Atlantic cod and the “Cod Wars” they sparked; at Greenland sharks, which reach maturity at around 150 years of age; at Atlantic salmon; at the three-spined stickleback; at crustaceans like the Norway lobster; and much more.
11: Iceland’s Marine and Land Mammals
Enjoy meeting Iceland’s various mammals on land and sea. Rub snouts with Arctic foxes, remnants of the last Ice Age and the island’s top predators. Get a glimpse of harbor seals on the golden beaches of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Travel to Husavik, and other excellent spots, to sight humpback whales, orcas, and white-beaked dolphins.
12: Iceland’s Non-Native Plants and Animals
Just like other places, Iceland is susceptible to the presence of non-native—and often invasive—species of plants and animals that now call the country home. Consider animals like the American mink, first brought to Iceland for fur farming, and plans such as Nootka lupine, a perennial herb that grows in seemingly inhospitable lava fields.
13: Culinary Adventures in Iceland
The Icelandic people’s relationship to food is tightly linked to their relationship with the land and sea. Iceland’s unique food culture includes the sour, cheese-like milk known as “skyr”; the ubiquity of rye bread in Icelandic cuisine; and, of course, the infamous fermented shark that’s considered a national dish.
14: Noir and Beyond: Iceland’s Literature
Whatever your flavor of literature (folkloric sagas, crime novels, poetry, literary fiction), Iceland has something for every type of reader. Discover how a combination of historical pride and rich storytelling skills make Icelandic literature, both past and present, so revered around the world.
15: The Art and Music of Iceland
Start understanding Iceland’s contemporary art and music by looking into its history of stone and wood carvings and oral poetry. Then, explore the prevalence of animals and landscapes in paintings, the country’s vibrant street art and mural scene, the ways Icelandic folk music blends poetry and melody, and more.
16: Iceland’s National Parks and Reserves
Sculpted by fire and ice, Iceland’s parks and reserved are breathtaking to behold. Sites you’ll explore in this survey include Iceland’s three national parks and its nature reserves—both of which offer explorers unparalleled looks at lava fields, sea cliffs, black sand beaches, and other geological marvels.
17: Restoring and Reforesting Iceland
Before it was settled, around 65% of Iceland had vegetation. Now, only 0.5% of the country is forested. So, what happened to the forests? Get a closer look at the dangers of steep-slope erosion, as well as some of the natural difficulties currently challenging Iceland’s century-long effort to reforest the country.
18: Long-Term Sustainability in Iceland
Given its deep connection to nature, Iceland has often been at the forefront of conservation and sustainability—despite its early destructive history. Consider vital efforts of soil conservation and carbon neutrality, the powerful use of storytelling as a conservation tool, and ongoing debates over Iceland’s whaling culture.
19: The Capital and Beyond in Southwest Iceland
Stroll through the streets of Reykjavík, which started out as a small fishing village and later transformed into the hub of Iceland and home to most of its citizens. You’ll visit a museum with a biological collection like no other, an overlooked nature preserve in the southern peninsula, and the most photographed church in the world.
20: Iceland’s Majestic Fjords
Mighty glaciers have carved the landscape of western and eastern Iceland into beautiful, scarred fjords. First, visit Westfjords, where you’ll find the oldest site in Iceland and one of the largest bird cliffs in Europe. Then, continue to Eastfjords: home to an artsy community in the heart of reindeer country and 286 square miles of forest.
21: Spectacular Sights of Northern Iceland
Venture on to Iceland’s north-central region for a look at some of the many can’t-miss sights. Among these are three spots for great seal viewing, a canyon that’s one of the 10 most dangerous spots in the country, the spectacular Goðafoss waterfall, and a magical yuletide wonderland that’s perfect for Christmastime visits.
22: Eastern and Southern Iceland’s Striking Sites
Continue your whirlwind tour of Iceland with stops along the eastern and southeastern parts of the island. This stage of your journey includes a fascinating art installation of egg sculptures, the largest ice cap in Europe, a dangerous beach with unpredictable waves, and the only waterfall where you’re virtually guaranteed to see a rainbow.
23: Overlooked Treasures of Iceland
Whether you’re on a mountain bike or hiking by foot, there are many spots in Iceland that offer visitors more remote, rugged experiences. Visit the Highlands, the focal point for wilderness tourism in Iceland; a nature reserve that serves as a reminder of the difficulty of Arctic living; the endpoint of the country’s Northern Rift Zone; and more.
24: The Future of Iceland
Iceland currently has a reputation as one of the coolest places on the planet to visit—and the growth in tourism has created some opportunities and challenges that you’ll consider here. While we can’t know what the future holds, if we look at Iceland’s past, we can say that Iceland has always been resilient, adaptable, innovative, and remarkable.