What to Do in Iceland
What to Do in Iceland
Our Guide on What to Do in Iceland
One thing is certain, you’ll never have enough time in Iceland unless you decide to move there which means you’ll need to figure out a way to narrow down the long list of things to do.
Of course, as there are some seasonal activities, the time of year you visit can help you make some decisions. The midnight sun of summer is ideal for late-night hikes where you can take in the scenery with no one else around but the sheep, and enjoy tours out on the glacier lagoon where you’ll be able to hear the thundering sounds of icebergs plunging into the water.
In the winter, ice cave tours provide a wonderous look at one of Mother Nature’s true works of art, and you’ll have one of the best chances for gazing up at the northern lights.
No matter what the season, the remarkable amount of geothermal activity is fascinating to explore, with bubbling mud pots, steam rising and geysers erupting across alien-like landscapes.
All that activity results in natural hot pools that can be found everywhere from remote areas with few tourists around to the iconic Blue Lagoon.
While nature lovers and outdoor adventurers are truly spoiled for choice, you’ll find city attractions too. Reykjavik is often mentioned among Europe’s top dining and nightlife scenes. You’ll find everything from trendy coffee houses and hot dog stands to Michelin-star restaurants, along with art galleries, unique shops, and museums.
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Take in a View from Hallgrimskirja Church and Discover Reykjavik’s Gems
One of the best ways to spend your first day in Iceland is to take a walk around the capital city, with the fresh air and movement perfect for beating any jet lag. Begin by heading to the top of the country’s largest church which sits atop Skolavorduhaed Hill. It’s design was based on the columnar basalt of Svartifoss Falls and from here you’ll get the very best view over the colorful downtown rooftops, the sea, and mountains beyond.
Afterwards, walk down toward the city center, enjoying the myriad of colorful street art and perhaps stopping for a coffee enjoyed while people watching. If you’re looking for something unique and quirky, you might visit the so-called Penis Museum. The Icelandic Phallological Museum displays a collection of more than 200 phallic specimens representing nearly every mammal in the country, including everything from trolls and elves to hamsters and whales.
Soak in the Blue Lagoon
While the Blue Lagoon is the most touristy of Iceland’s many hot pools, it’s something that everyone should experience at least once. The warm, milky turquoise waters contain silica and other minerals that have long-been known to provide healing properties to enhance skin health. They’re surrounded by a black volcanic landscape creating a stunning sight that feels even better to soak in. You can enjoy an in-water massage as well as a variety of skin-enhancing treatments like an algae-based face mask or a volcanic rock scrub.
There’s even a bar you can swim out to when you’re in need of a drink like a beer, strawberry champagne, or a smoothie. It’s worth making a reservation at the on-site Lava Restaurant so you can take a break from the water to enjoy world-class cuisine. While this is fine dining, no dressing up is required, simply toss on your Blue Lagoon robe.
Drive the Golden Circle Route
Driving the approximately 140-mile Golden Circle route brings the opportunity to take in many of Iceland’s top attractions, including waterfalls and geysers. At Thingvellir National Park you can even stroll a path in the rift valley between the Eurasian and North American plates, or if you’re up for a big adventure, dive in the remarkably clear waters.
The Haukadalur geothermal area hosts geysers, with Strokkur one of the most active, exploding some 100 feet into the air approximately every 10 minutes. You’ll see steam rising across the landscape along with fumaroles and mud pots too.
Another highlight is Gullfoss Falls, also known as Golden Falls. At the place where the Hvita River disappears into a ravine, it turns a corner and plunges more than 100 feet into a crevice below, producing frequent rainbows in the thick mist. You can get a closer look by following the path down into the canyon and even feel the spray on your skin.
Tour the Glacier Lagoon
Created by glacier melt some 50 years ago, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is one of the true must-visits, often the highlight of a visit to Iceland. During the warmer months of the year, you can take a zodiac boat tour out onto the icy turquoise water to experience the incredible sight and thundering sounds as bergs break off the glacier. They drift through a short river, heading out to the North Atlantic where some are turned back by the waves onto a beach.
The result is glittering chunks of ice that look like crystal works of art spread across the midnight black sands. It can be visited in winter too and while boat tours won’t be running, countless seals can be seen lounging on the floating ice. Many will recognize the lagoon as it’s appeared in numerous films and TV shows, including the cult hilt “Game of Thrones,” “View to Kill,” and “Batman Begins.”
Hunt for the Northern Lights
Thanks to the country’s location near the Arctic Circle, this is one of the world’s best places to see the aurora borealis. The lights can be witnessed anytime from September through early April on a cold, clear night with aurora activity, but the long, dark nights make winter the best time of year to catch them. You’ll want to get as far from light pollution as you can, although that’s fairly easy here, and sometimes the lights even make an appearance down by the Reykjavik waterfront.
The best spot in the city is at its northwesternmost point near Grotta lighthouse. Seeing them from a remote hot springs pool is absolutely unforgettable, or you might join a tour like a 4X4 excursion to search for the very best spot for a sighting. They regularly run between September and April, whenever the lights are expected. If they don’t make an appearance, you’ll usually get another opportunity.
Go Whale Watching
Iceland is Europe’s whale watching capital and tours are offered from multiple locations throughout the country, although Husavik in the north is known as the very best departure point. There are opportunities from Reykjavik and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula too where winter trips are even available. While that might not sound pleasant, outfitters provide thermal suits so that you’ll stay comfortable taking advantage of the frequent orca whale sightings. The orcas follow the herring in the waters that surround Snaefellsnes.
The most common whale species seen from Husavik are minke, humpback, and blue whales. Harbour porpoises are frequently spotted year-round in Icelandic waters. A boat tour isn’t always necessary either, you might occasionally see the back of a whale breaking the surface of the water or a tail fin right from shore. Watch for white-beaked dolphins and white-tailed eagles that soar overhead too.
Go Waterfall Hopping
Waterfall lovers can discover more than 200 waterfalls in Iceland, and countless others that are yet to be named. Skogafoss is one of the most famous and one of the largest, spilling nearly 60 feet and more than 80 feet wide. With such a high volume of water, the cascades produce a roaring sound and frequently a rainbow-yielding mist. A path leads to the top of the falls, following the river upstream where you can gaze upon even more magnificent falls.
Nearby, Seljalandsfoss is another favorite. One of the most photographed in Iceland, one can even walk behind the veil of water that plummets nearly 200 feet into a pool below. Deep inside Vatnajökull National Park, Dettifoss is said to be the most powerful in all of Europe, with over 132,000 gallons of water flowing from Vatnajökull glacier and plunging 150 feet into a canyon below.
Ride an Icelandic Horse
If you like horses, you won’t want to miss the chance to ride an Icelandic horse. The beautiful and unique breed of smaller horses arrived with Iceland’s first settlers in the 9th-century. Archeological digs in Europe have revealed that they’re descended from an ancient breed that is extinct outside of this country, yet they’ve managed to stay preserved here in isolation.
They’re known for their intelligence, strength, smaller size, and unusual extra gaits, including the ‘tolt’ which is like a cross between a trot and a canter. The result is a more comfortable, smoother ride for explore the Icelandic landscapes in one of the most memorable ways. It’s something that can be enjoyed year-round in many places throughout the country including horse riding centers in the south that are easy to reach from Reykjavik, provided the weather doesn’t become too severe.
Discover Remote and Secluded Hot Springs
While the Blue Lagoon is worth visiting as mentioned, there are many other hot pools and springs that can be found throughout Iceland, including some in remote, secluded locations. That can make for an especially memorable soak away from the tourist crowds surrounded by extraordinary scenery.
The Lake Myvatn Nature Baths are one great choice although more tourists are beginning to discover them. If you’re looking for something more off-the-beaten-path, Hveravellier sits virtually in the middle of nowhere in the central highlands surrounded by an oasis with steaming fumaroles. Part of a warm river, with the water constantly following, it stays remarkably clean and clear. Hellulaug is in the West Fjords and serves as the perfect spot to soak after hiking, while Laugarvalladalur in the eastern highlands north of Vatnajokull Glacier can only be reached by 4X4. Here a geothermal stream flows into a small waterfall and then spills into the warm pool below.
Head Into an Ice Cave or Take a Lava Tube Tour
Going underground is another must in Iceland with winter bringing the chance to tour an ice cave. The ‘crystal caves’ are located in Icelandic glaciers and by joining a tour the guide will bring you inside these gorgeous works of natural art. The frozen ceilings glow a brilliant blue color and are studded with stalagmites and stalactites. You’ll crawl through long, frozen chambers beneath a cathedral of spectacular translucent blue waves and enjoy some fantastic photo-ops.
If you aren’t here in the winter when it’s safe to go inside the ice caves, consider a lava tube tour. You’ll travel through winding lava tunnels that were left behind by raging volcanoes, deep underground. The passageways formed when the surface lava hardened, while liquid lava was bubbling and flowing in the tubes below. There are multiple tubes that can be toured, including Leidarendi, which is nearly a half-mile-long and easily reached on a day trip from Reykjavik just southeast of Hafnafjordur.
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