Höfn , also known as Höfn í Hornafirði, is a town in East Iceland, right on the south-eastern corner of the country. Höfn sits by the lagoon (or fjord) Hornafjörður which is also the name of the large municipality of which the town is the centre and covers the entire area of the county Austur-Skaftafellssýsla. This guide covers both the town itself and the surrounding municipality, excluding the westernmost part which forms one of the main gateways to Vatnajökull National Park. For tourism purposes, the area calls itself the Vatnajökull Region, and there is much truth in this: Nowhere else is quite as dominated by Europe's largest glacier, nowhere else have people learned to live in such close quarters with the huge sheet of ice.
In spite of substantial territory, the population of the Hornafjörður area is only around 2400. Höfn is by far the largest settlement with around 2000 inhabitants. The rest of the population is spread along the very narrow patch of arable land between Vatnajökull and the Atlantic Ocean. Höfn's economical activities mainly revolve around fisheries, and the town is especially known for lobster which can be found in abundant quantities in the fishing areas surrounding the southeastern coast.
Despite its name which indicates a fjord, Hornafjörður itself is a very large lagoon with a blend of fresh and glacial water. The 40 square km lagoon is formed by interactions of the Atlantic Ocean and the Vatnajökull glacier, which by its constant movement produces clay and sand, carried by the glacier rivers and ending up as sediment in the lagoon. The lagoon is shallow, but nevertheless navigable by large ships and the town of Höfn (the name means harbour) is located at the first natural harbour on the south coast after Þorlákshöfn hundreds of kilometers to the west.
The area is dominated by large mountains and wide rivers, as well as the ever-present Vatnajökull glacier. All of this has combined to make the area one of the most remote in Iceland until the last few decades of the 20th century when roads were significantly improved.
Höfn and the Hornafjörður area, being on the Eastern coast of Iceland, are on the leeward side of prevailing winds. While it might be windy, less precipitation falls in this area making it part of the closest thing to being a low desert in Iceland (the high desert being the area East of Mývatn).
The Ring Road is the main road (and in places, the only road) through the entire Hornafjörður area, but Höfn is a few kilometers of the Ring Road is connected to it by road nr. 99. Höfn is a little over 450 km from Reykjavík and between 200 and 250 km from Egilsstaðir, depending on which route is taken.
A bus from BSÍ bus terminal in Reykjavík leaves at 8:30am and gets in around 5pm, having stopped at many points of interest in southern Iceland. In the summer there is also a bus from Egilsstaðir, leaving at 1:30pm and getting to Höfn at 5pm. The bus stop in Höfn is the N1 gas station just off the main road leading into town.
Eagle Air flies between Reykjavík and Höfn most days. Note that the airport is some distance outside the Höfn itself, so you'll have to figure out a way to get into town.
If you have a car, it's easy enough to get around and quite difficult to get lost. Without a car, matters are more complicated. The only means of public transportation is a single taxi which can be ordered by calling +354 865 4353. Organised tours with some of the many tour companies based in Höfn may be the easiest way to get around the area, and the safest way to explore the glaicers.
Höfn can hardly be praised for architectural beauty, but a walk around the harbour can be nice and there is a bird reserve south of the harbour with good walkways. Most of the sights in the area are in fact in the nature outside Höfn itself. Nevertheless, the town has a few museums that can be of interest:
The area surrounding Höfn has some of the most stunning nature in Iceland. The lowland area a narrow band of floodplains between the sea and the glaicer-topped mountains, where large glacial rivers are still relatively untamed. These floodplains are of a sort called sandur - the word is Icelandic for sand but has been adopted as the international scientific name for the sandy floodplains of glacial rivers found almost exclusively in Iceland and Svalbard. The largest such sandur is Skeiðarársandur, which wasn't bridged until the 1970s.
The mountains themselves are among the highest in Iceland. Öræfajökull is a sub-glacier of Vatnajökull which contains Iceland's tallest mountain, Hvannadalshnjúkur. In the valleys between the mountains, Vatnajökull has a number of icefalls which are accessible by gravel tracks and for the independent traveller with a good car it's a good idea to search out some of the less popular ones to visit for a private date with nature. Some of the icefalls end in glacial lagoons. The most famous is Jökulsárlón which is literally next to the ring road, 100 km west of Höfn. It's an incredible place where large icebergs break off from the glacier and find their way to the sea.
Finally, although the vast majority of the population in the area is found in Höfn, Þórbergur Þórðarson (one of Iceland's most famous writers) originally came from the farm Hali. Today a museum in his honour, Þórbergssetur, is located by Hali which is about 75 km west of Höfn.
Höfn offers limited activities, although the new swimming pool (Víkurbraut 9, open 6:45AM-9PM Mo-F; 10AM-7PM Sa-Su) is impressive for a town of this size.
Many great hiking locations are in the area, most mountains other than the very highest can be safely hiked in good weather. Northeast of Höfn is Lónsöræfi, a wilderness which is one of Iceland's great hiking areas perfect for day-long hikes. Lónsöræfi is a part of Vatnajökull National Park, but not easily accessible from any other part of the park.
Most activities in the area are related to Vatnajökull and its many icefalls. Information about licensed guides can be obtained by the local tourist information by calling +354 470 8084. Tour companies include:
The arts and crafts scene is very active in Höfn and some good souvenir shopping is possible if you keep your eyes open. A few artists have workshops and galleries in Mikligarður, an old building by the harbour. For day-to-day needs, head to the Miðbær mini-mall in the centre of town by Hafnarbraut.
Eat and drink
Höfn is one of the most important harbours for lobster fishing in Iceland and many of the town's eating options include lobster dishes as the local speciality. The only supermarket is Nettó, in the Miðbær mini-mall in the centre of town, which is also the location of the local alchohol store.
Many farms in the area offer accomodation, and there are a few rural hotels. Accommodation is usually indicated by signs by the road with a picture of a bed.
Höfn and the Hornafjörður area are right on the southeastern corner of Iceland. The area has traditionally been one of the most isolated in Iceland, and despite improved road connections distances remain great. To the north is the rest of East Iceland, starting with Höfn's nearest neighbour Djúpivogur (100 km by the Ring Road) and continuing to the East Fjords and Egilsstaðir. To the west is the south coast, the closest town to the west is Kirkjubæjarklaustur (200 km from Höfn by the Ring Road). The very adventurous (and well prepared) can cross Vatnajökull, into either East Iceland or the Interior but this is understandably a dangerous route.