Discover A Serene Fjord in Southwest Iceland
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Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord) is a deep fjord in West Iceland. This arm of the sea is best known for its scenic hiking route to Glymur, the second-highest waterfall in Iceland.
Famous for hulking mountains, lush vegetation, and thundering waterfalls, Hvalfjörður is the place to go for remarkable scenery. Even better, the fjord is located just a short drive from Reykjavik.
Once driving detour around Hvalfjörður was the only way to get from Reykjavik to the north. This changed after a tunnel was built under the ocean in 1998.
The fjord, which used to be very busy, now feels remote and peaceful.
Nature of Hvalfjörður
Hvalfjörður Fjord is an amazing destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Formed by an ice-age glacier, it’s full of gorgeous vistas. Black sand beaches, flowing rivers, and roaring waterfalls will make you forget all about home.
Impressive mountains surround the fjord. On the southern side, the dramatic Mt. Esja reaches up to the sky. At the innermost part, the beautiful Mt. Hvalfell towers above the Botnsdalur Valley. And the eye-catching Mt. Akrafjall greets travelers at the outermost edge.
Interestingly, the fjord's soil is unexpectedly fertile for Iceland — so expect to see leafy trees and moss-covered rocks when you hike. Forests of birch and conifers grace the area.
Glymur Waterfall is the main highlight of Hvalfjörður. Standing at a height of 198 m (650 ft), Glymur is the second-tallest waterfall in Europe.
Some internet sites still call Glymur the highest cascade in Iceland, this is no longer true. For quite some time, Glymur was the highest waterfall in the country until a new, higher waterfall was found in Vatnajökull Glacier in 2007. The newly discovered waterfall is called Morsárfoss and has a drop of 240 m (787 ft).
While Morsárfoss is higher, Glymur is more famous. The cascade is one of the most awe-inspiring sites in Iceland. Expect to see an awesome torrent of water plunging down over high cliffs.
Glymur is fed by the Botnsá River, which originates from Iceland's glorious glaciers. The river flows out of Hvalvatn (Whale Lake) before cascading down into the falls.
Glymur is only accessible by foot. The epic 3-4 hour hike begins in the mountains at the head of the fjord. Trek through the rugged terrain to reach this natural wonder. Your reward is an experience that lasts a lifetime!
Wildlife in the Fjord
In the past, countless whales could be found in the bay. Today, however, it’s highly unlikely to spot any sea giants in the still waters of the fjord.
While whales are not common visitors in the fjord, more often than not seals can be seen resting on its sandy shores. Keep your eyes peeled for these charming animals!
If you’re a bird lover, don’t forget to bring your binoculars! The fjord is rich in birdlife. If you’re lucky, you might even spot some White-Tailed Eagles.
Icelandic sheep and their babies also inhabit this area. These friendly animals roam the pastures freely during the summer months. Be prepared to capture rare wildlife moments!
History of Hvalfjörður
Behind the Name
Hvalfjörður translates to “Whale Fjord” in Icelandic. However, the origin of the name is not known for sure. Some say that the name comes after the number of whales once seen here.
There is also an old folktale that explains the origin of the name. The story goes that there was an evil, red-headed whale who terrorized Iceland's West Coast until it was finally trapped.
Hvalfjörður Fjord and World War II
During World War II, Hvalfjörður was one of the most important naval bases in the North Atlantic. British and American navies used the base and provided a safe port for supply ships traveling between North America and Europe.
Visit the remains of the abandoned military base at the Hvítanes Peninsula. The area will make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a forgotten land.
Until the late 1990s, those traveling from Reykjavik to the town of Borgarnes had to make a long detour of 62 km (39 mi) around the fjord. This was solved when the tunnel under the bay was opened to the public in 1998.
The tunnel called Hvalfjarðargöng (Whale Bay Tunnel) is among the world’s longest underwater road tunnels. At about 5,762 m (18,930 ft) long it cuts the travel time by about an hour. While now travel by tunnel is way much faster, some people miss the views while driving.
As you drive around Hvalfjörður, you can feel nostalgia in the air, especially at Botnsskáli, which used to be a popular rest stop from Reykjavik. Find Botnsskáli next to Botnsdalur, at the tip of the fjord.
How to get to Hvalfjörður
Public buses from Reykjavik bypass the fjord by taking the tunnel. This means that to reach Hvalfjörður Fjord you’ll need a car.
From Reykjavik, take Route 1 (the Ring Road) north until you reach the sign to turn onto Route 47. Follow Route 47 around the fjord. It takes about half an hour to reach the start of Route 47 from Reykjavik.
You can also reach the fjord from Thingvellir National Park. Take Route 36 south of Thingvellir until you reach the roundabout and turn right onto Route 1. From there, it’s the same as driving from Reykjavik.
Hvalfjörður is about 30 km (19 mi) long and 5 km (3 mi) wide. The trip around the fjord takes about an hour.
Want to avoid the hassle of planning a trip? Visit Hvalfjörður on our Glymur Waterfall Hike Day Tour from Reykjavik or on our 6 Days Around Iceland - Walking & Sightseeing Tour.
The Best Time to Visit Hvalfjörður
If you’re planning a hike to Glymur Waterfall, the best time to visit Hvalfjörður is from May to September. During these months, the trail is in good condition. Just don’t forget to bring a pair of sturdy hiking shoes!
As for the winter, the fjord feels even more secluded and remote. Want to see the magical Northern Lights? Located far away from major cities, the fjord is a great spot to spy the lights.
Iceland’s weather is quite temperamental. You may experience four seasons in one day! We advise always to check weather and road conditions and adjust your travel plans accordingly.
Things to Do in Hvalfjörður
From scenic hiking trails to entertaining museums and the Northern Lights, Hvalfjörður has something to offer everyone. Here are the best things to do and see in this untamed corner of Iceland.
Hiking in Hvalfjordur Fjord
The hiking trail to the famous Glymur Waterfall starts at the innermost end of the fjord. The route sets off from Glymur Parking Lot. It will take about four hours to reach the cascade on the rugged trails. The route is somewhat steep, so prepare for a little exercise.
Along the way, you'll need to climb through a small cave and cross two rivers (note that a log is placed to bridge one river only in the summer months). Therefore, we advise bringing waterproof shoes. The trail is marked but we advise to photograph the map in the parking lot in case you lose your way.
If you don't feel confident hiking to the falls alone, opt for our guided Glymur Waterfall Hike Day Tour.
Visit the War & Peace Museum
A visit to this museum will take you back in time. During World War II, British and American navy ships were stationed in the fjord. The museum exhibits photos and artifacts from that time. Take a break and enjoy the cozy indoor cafe. Find the museum on the northern side of Hvalfjörður.
Swim in Hlaðir Pool
At Hlaðir, close to the War and Peace Museum, you'll find a cozy outdoor pool with two hot tubs and scenic views. A steam bath is in the basement. After a day of traveling, this place is a perfect spot to blow off steam.
Don't Miss Hallgrím’s Church
Built in 1957, the adorable white church is dedicated to the memory of Iceland's greatest poet, Hallgrimur Petursson. Named after him, the Hallgrimskirkja is Reykjavik's most famous church. The church is located close to the War and Peace Museum.
Discover Secret Hvalfjörður Waterfalls
If you've already visited Glymur, head to Brynjudalsfoss Waterfall, an off-the-beaten-track cascade. You’ll feel like you're the first one to discover this blissful torrent of water. Enjoy nature in peace. The waterfall is located on the southeastern part of the fjord (GPS coordinates: 64.3581031, -21.4006029).
Along the way, you’ll find many other waterfalls like Fossárrétt. Most of them are located just by the road and are incredibly serene.
See the Northern Lights
In winter, Hvalfjörður is a great destination to hunt the aurora. It takes just 30 minutes to reach the fjord from Iceland's capital city but it's far enough from the city lights. If the skies are clear, keep your eyes up, the surreal glow might appear at any moment. Insider tip: for the best spots head to open spaces.
Where to Stay in Hvalfjörður
- Hotel Glymur, located on the northern side of Hvalfjörður, near Saurbær, offers cozy rooms and hot tubs with fjord views.
- Hotel Laxarbakki, located close to the town Akranes, offers fully furnished apartments. There is a lovely terrace with views over Laxá River.
- Kidafell, located on the southern side of Hvalfjörður, is a peaceful guesthouse that features cozy rooms and breakfast during the summer season.
- Solvellir Holiday Home, located on the southern side of the fjord, is another guesthouse that offers apartments with a private bathroom. The owners boast that it's a great place to spot the Northern Lights.
- Panorama Glass Lodge is an expensive but fantastic place to stay. It's a unique tiny glass cabin that allows you to sleep under the stars. We advise booking ahead.
At Hlaðir, close to the War and Peace Museum, find a large campground for tents, tent campers, travel trailers, and caravans. The campsite offers restroom facilities, electrical outlets, two barrel grills, and a playground for kids. There is also a thermal swimming pool.