Exploring Viking sites in Iceland: there’s more to Iceland than its natural wonders. We went on the trail of the Vikings as part of our Iceland Ring Road trip with kids – read on to find out about the stories and history we discovered…
It goes without saying that Iceland’s main attractions are scenic ones, and that’s what most visitors to Iceland want to see. Tourists arrive in Iceland dreaming of the Northern Lights, black sand beaches, volcanoes, or iceberg lagoons; all of which are absolutely incredible and must-sees when you visit Iceland.
But Iceland also has a rich history, inextricably tied into our own British history, through the Vikings. Vikings from Norway and other parts of Scandinavia raided and settled in the British Isles, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It’s possible that we have some Viking blood ourselves; given our blond children, the husband’s Scottish and NI heritage, and his patronymic surname which is found all over Scandinavia.
Given this interest in the cultural side of Iceland, we planned in a couple of stops along the way to find out more about Iceland’s history and culture, and the travelling peoples who may have been our ancestors.
This post covers several Vikings sites in Iceland, close to the Ring Road, all of which are linked to the Icelandic Sagas and involve the discovery of the New World. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means – there are plenty more cultural sights than the ones that we managed to get to.
But we’d say that all of these places are worth a stop if you get the chance – the story of these people is pretty incredible!
This post contains compensated links. Please see our disclaimer for more information.
Glaumbaer Turf Farmhouse
We headed to Glaumbaer farmstead from the tiny fishing town of Siglufjorður, in the far north of Iceland. It was a scenic drive along the north coastal road; we wove our way in and out of stunning valleys while sporadically, mist rolled in from across the sea.
We found Glaumbaer in the most beautiful valley yet; luckily the day was perfect and the views along the valley were breathtaking. The valley had been carved by an enormous glacier – the flat tops of the surrounding mountains were a giveaway. We stood just drinking in the views for a while before turning our attention to the brightly coloured farmhouse sitting cheerfully behind us, its turf roof and walls merging with the hillside.
Glaumbaer is one of the most famous and largest traditional farmhouses in Iceland, and forms part of an open air museum. Parts of the main farmhouse date from the 1700s, the site having been restored in 1947, although it’s thought that there has been a farm on this site since the 11th Century, the Viking age.
Building homes from timber was extremely rare in Iceland as there are barely any trees in the country and decent timber had to be imported. So many buildings were instead constructed by building turf walls on top of stone foundations, with timber cladding on the inside. The turf is surprisingly effective at waterproofing and insulating the buildings, if you build the structures with the right angles to stop leaking.
Next to the farmhouse there are two unusual timber framed buildings from the 1800s; the white one has the gift shop inside and the yellow one is the cafe. Make sure you check out the history of the white one – it was moved about all over Iceland. There’s also a timber church next door which was built in 1926.
Inside the farmhouse – Icelandic life
The husband took the boy for a walk while I took our daughter into the farmhouse. The building is deceptively large – it appears much smaller from the outside. Inside, Glaumbaer’s main corridor is dark and unwelcoming. The walls are just turf blocks, arranged in a herringbone pattern.
But turning into one of the guest rooms, we found it brightly painted and much more homely – we didn’t expect the rooms to be so colourful. As we walked down the corridor we could look into the darker, undecorated side rooms which were used as various stores for food and drink, tools and for grinding flour. You can take a good look at the utensils and items in these rooms. Life must have been hard on this farm, especially in the winters.
The last room, right at the back, is split into three sections for the main living quarters. These rooms have more windows and wood panelling covers the walls, making the room much lighter than I expected. Although not as pretty as the blue room, this area is much cosier than the storerooms.
The largest of the three rooms is where most of the inhabitants would have lived – I think the room fitted about 15 people although there were only a few beds. It must have been a bit of a squash! Above their beds, each person had a shelf for their bowl and personal articles. Artefacts are scattered all over the farmhouse for you to look at.
Outside the farmhouse – learning about Guðriður Thorbjarnardóttir
Back outside, slightly dazzled by the sun after the darkness of the farmhouse, we took a quick peek inside the timber church next door. It’s got a very different feel to churches in the UK; this church is brightly painted in blues, golds and reds.
On our way to the church we stopped to look at a statue of a woman in a boat with a young child, and this is where our Viking story starts. This statue is a depiction of Guðriður Thorbjarnardóttir and her son Snorri, both of whom appear in some of Iceland’s Sagas. A woman after my own heart, Guðriður was formidably well-travelled.
Born in Iceland, Guðriður married one of the sons of Eirik the Red, the famous voyager, while she was living in Greenland. Unfortunately her husband soon died but she married again, and travelled with him to Vinland (Newfoundland), where they found the settlement her first husband’s brother, Leifur Eiriksson, had built at L’Anse aux Meadows. Her son, Snorri, was the first European born in the New World. Guðriður and her husband also journeyed further south, to a place they called “Hop” which is thought to be Long Island, the site of present day New York. They didn’t stay long due to conflict with the native population and returned to Iceland where Snorri became the first farmer at Glaumbaer in about 1010AD. After their return Guðriður converted to Christianity and made a pilgrimage to Rome on foot, and back again. Amazing!
Once we’d looked at the church we hopped back in the car and joined the Ring Road – we wanted to take a look at Eirik the Red’s Viking farmhouse.
Know before you go: Glaumbaer Farmhouse
Glaumbaer is near the town of Varmahlid, not far from the Ring Road. Once you reach Varmahlid the farmhouse is easy to find. There’s parking on site. Glaumbaer is open every day from mid-May to September – it is open throughout the rest of the year but do check opening times on the website as they vary quite a bit and sometimes it opens only on request.
It’s free to walk around Glaumbaer and you can look inside the store rooms and the church next door. If you want to look inside the farmhouse it will cost 1700 ISK (kids go free). You can buy your tickets on site, in the main building.
You’ll find a cafe here if you’re hungry – it’s inside the yellow timbered building. Toilet facilities are also available.
Eiriksstaðir Viking Longhouse
The history of Eiriksstaðir Viking Longhouse
Eiriksstaðir Viking Longhouse was our next stop. It’s about three hours away from Glaumbaer so we stopped off for lunch by a waterfall first. The story of the people who lived here ties in nicely with the story of Guðriður.
Eiriksstaðir is the site where the famous Viking traveller, Eirik the Red, once lived. A Norwegian by birth, Eirik eventually left Iceland for Greenland in about 982AD after killing one too many neighbours in quarrels. He founded the first settlement in Greenland with his family, and they were later joined by many other Icelanders, including Guðriður Thorbjarnardóttir.
One of Eirik’s sons, Leifur, also became a famous voyager. He travelled to Norway where he was converted to Christianity by the king, who instructed him to take Christianity back to Greenland. On the way back to Greenland, Leifur was swept off course and became the first person to set foot on the New World. He built a settlement in Newfoundland, which he called Vinland – this settlement was later visited by Guðriður and her family.
While Leifur was successful in converting many of the Greenlanders to Christianity, Eirik remained dedicated to his Nordic gods; Odin, Thor, Frey, and the rest. Eirik eventually died in about 1003AD from a plague brought over by new settlers.
Visiting Eiriksstaðir today
Back in Iceland, the ruins of Eiriksstaðir were first discovered in the late 19th Century, but were fully excavated in 2000. Today there’s a reconstruction of a Viking longhouse close to where the real ruins were discovered. The longhouse was built using traditional tools, methods and materials – even down to using driftwood, as the Vikings would have done.
The longhouse is covered in turf with only a wooden door and the top of a chimney visible. There aren’t any windows so the inside is gloomy and the only natural light comes from the chimney. We were greeted by a friendly woman dressed in traditional clothes who invited us to sit around the fire in the middle of the room.
The interior of the longhouse is panelled in wood but the floor is dirt. There’s a central fire under the chimney in the main room and a sort of porch as the entrance, and a storeroom at the far end. Above the entrance porch there’s a small cubbyhole which is where the kids would have slept. Bunks line either side of the main room, and these would have been shared. The bunks were small and short and so the people slept sitting up. The other thing of interest in the longhouse is an enormous loom which shows you how clothes would have been woven. It wasn’t a luxurious way to live by any means but it was probably quite cosy when full of people – I can imagine worse places. As long as everyone got on… living in such close proximity to people you didn’t like wouldn’t have been much fun.
We had a good chat with our host, who was great with the kids. She showed them a box of Viking era toys which were mostly jaw bones. Our kids were not impressed – I don’t think they had any interest in being Viking kids! Our host was happy to answer all of our questions – she was very knowledgeable and made the visit much more interesting. She explained that slaves would have slept on the floor by the bunks – it wasn’t unheard of for slaves to kill their masters but it was a very rare occurrence. There wasn’t anywhere for them to go if they did. We also got to try on Viking helmets (no horns!) and take a look at various artefacts.
After we’d talked for a while we went back outside where there’s a statue of Leifur Eiriksson (there’s a huge statue of him outside Hallsgrimkirkja in Reykjavik) and we walked up the hill to the site of the original building. There isn’t a huge amount left to see here – just some foundations. As we were looking around the rain started to roll in so we beat a retreat back to the car and on to our AirBnB for the night.
Know before you go: Eiriksstaðir Viking Longhouse
Eiriksstaðir is open from 9am to 6pm every day from 1st June to 31st August. If you’re part of a group then they may open on request at other times.
You can buy your tickets at the ticket office when you arrive – there’s a fee for adults but kids go free.
Viking World, near Reykjavik
Back in 1994 a man called Gunnar Eggertsson began building a replica Viking ship. He based his ship on the well preserved remains of a Viking ship which had been excavated in Norway. This ship was dated to 890AD or thereabouts – so this sort of ship would have been used by Vikings. It took Eggertsson two years to build, almost single-handedly.
In about 1998 Eggertsson decided that he wanted to recreate the voyage of Leifur Eiriksson to the New World for the millennium, and that he’d use his ship, Íslendingur (Icelander), to do it. On Iceland’s Independence Day, 17th June 2000, with a crew of nine, Íslendingur left Reykjavik bound for America.
Íslendingur called in at several ports in Greenland, Canada and the USA during her voyage. Special celebrations were held at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland when she arrived on 28th July – L’Anse aux Meadows being the site where Leifur Eiriksson built his Viking settlement and where Guðriður gave birth to Snorri. Íslendingur sailed as far as New York, where she arrived on 5th October.
Her voyage was an enormous success and showed how sophisticated the Vikings were in their seafaring skills. As well as visiting North America the Vikings also journeyed east, through the Mediterranean to Istanbul and the Black Sea – and even as far as the Caspian Sea. We may think of them as plundering hooligans – poor Anglo-Saxon England bore the brunt of their attacks – but in reality they were more tradespeople and voyagers than violent thugs.
What to see at Viking World
Now the Íslendingur is displayed at Viking World, a museum near to Keflavik airport, outside of Reykjavik. This museum is a must for anyone interested in Vikings. Encased in its modern glass cube, the Íslendingur dominates the building, as it should.
We were able to climb onto the Íslendingur itself, touch and look at everything. The kids loved doing this – as anything that’s hand-on is a winner for them – and to be honest, we adults did too. I can’t believe that one man basically built this ship by himself – it’s hugely impressive.
Elsewhere in the museum there are exhibits about the settlement of Iceland and the voyages of Leifur Eiriksson. We were particularly interested in a recreation of Leifur’s settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows which we’d been hearing so much about. The museum also goes into more detail about the skirmishes with the native Americans, or the Skraelings, as the Vikings called them.
Upstairs my daughter and I walked through an exhibit on the Norse Gods. Beautifully illustrated stories are shown in cut-out displays and you can rent an audioguide which tells the stories as you walk around. This was a bit too much for the 4 year old Cub but older children and adults will find the stories and depictions interesting.
For small kids there’s a great play area which kept our kids occupied for some time while the husband and I looked around the stories of Iceland’s occupation and the voyage of the Íslendingur. And outside in the summer months there’s an area with a small Viking farm, complete with the animals that the Vikings would have lived with. Currently a children’s playground is being built, but this wasn’t open for our visit.
Overall we found that Viking World was an informative stop, and well worth a couple of hours of your time in Iceland. It really tied together the stories and lives of the brave travellers that we’d heard stories of on our Iceland Ring Road trip.
Know before you go: Viking World, Reykjavik
Viking World is open every day from 7am to 6pm (except New Year’s Day) making it a great alternative to the Blue Lagoon if you arrive into Iceland early without anything to do.
There’s an onsite cafe which serves breakfast from 7am to 10.30am – a welcome stop for early travellers, no doubt! We ate lunch here and while expensive, the portions were generous and the food very good.
Tickets cost 1500 ISK per adult (children under 14 go free). If you book online you can get 10% discount.
Map of Viking sites in Iceland
Where to stay and how to book accommodation
Once you leave Reykjavik and its surrounds, then accommodation becomes more thinly spread and you’ll find you have to book far in advance.
We recommend using booking.com to reserve your accommodation – you can always cancel with little to no cost at a later date so its flexibility makes it one of the better services to use.
We also use AirBnB to find family friendly homes to stay in. If you’ve never used AirBnB before you can get £25 credit when you sign up using this link.
We hired a car to drive to these Viking sites. You can check prices for car rental in Iceland here.
More things to see and do in Iceland
We visited these Viking sites as part of a 2 week road trip around Iceland’s ring road.
You can check out more of our posts about this incredible country here: