Where to Go in Iceland
Where to Go in Iceland
Our Guide on Where to Go in Iceland
The world has awakened to the fantastical beauty of Iceland with its countless waterfalls, dramatic mountains and volcanoes, black sand beaches, glaciers, hot springs, and geothermal features, an awakening that began in part due to the country being spotlighted in numerous films and TV shows. That includes HBO’s hit “Game of Thrones,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
It’s a must destination for nature lovers and outdoor adventurers of all types, though you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t fall in love at first sight.
Visitors can enjoy everything from an epic drive on the Ring Road that circles the island to climbing volcanic craters, walking across a glacier, whale watching, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting.
Waterfall-hopping has become a popular pursuit with the sheer number of remarkable cascades that includes Iceland’s own version of Niagara Falls in Thingvellir National Park.
Anywhere you walk among the remote landscapes, you’ll want to keep an eye out for the elves. Popular in Icelandic folklore, they may be invisible, but their miniature homes can often be spotted which make for some great photo-ops.
No matter what you do, after a day of play, a geothermally heated pool is never far away. The Blue Lagoon is legendary, but there are many more remote, less touristy places for a soak surrounded by surreal landscapes.
While it’s all about the remarkable natural wonders and the outdoors, there is plenty to find in the cities and towns if you want to learn more about the country and its traditions. The National Museum of Iceland is a must-visit, telling the story of the nation that dates back to the first Norse settlers.
Icelanders definitely have a sense of humor, some of which can be experienced in the Icelandic Phallological Museum, often referred to as the world’s most bizarre institution.
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The capital city offers plenty and is a great place to start off your explorations. While it was once more like a small, sleepy town, over the past decade it’s changed significantly. There are no soaring skyscrapers in its core, but it’s become a bustling city with a laid-back vibe, complete with trendy cafes, colorful street art, museums, shops and restaurants.
Icelandic cuisine may not be well-known, yet you’ll find plenty of tasty options with Reykjavik hosting not only world-class eateries but the world’s most famous hot dog stand. The city also offers lively nightlife with funky bars and hopping clubs. Its most iconic landmark is Hallgrimskirkja Church which sits atop Skolavorduhaed Hill. It’s the largest in Iceland and can be seen from many vantage points as well as providing a panoramic view from the top. It’s a great way to get a perspective of the city’s layout. Afterwards, walk straight down the hill to delve into the country’s cultural, social, and artistic heart.
Iceland’s southernmost village, Vik is about 100 miles from Reykjavik right along the Ring Road. It faces the Atlantic and is framed by a famous long, black volcanic sand beach called Reynisfjara which Islands Magazine named one of the world’s most beautiful non-tropical beaches.
Here you’ll see many fantastical rock formations that jut straight out of the sea, including the renowned Trolls of Vik. Legend tells that it was formed when trolls tried to drag three ships ashore. While the incredible panorama that surrounds the village is the highlight, Vik is often recognized by its beautiful red and white church that sits atop the hill backed by precipitous mountain, the first thing you’ll see when approaching. There’s a myriad of bird life for birdwatchers here and also some breathtaking glaciers. Just north is the nearly 4,900-foot-high Myrdalsjokull Glaicer, Iceland’s fourth largest ice cap covering some 232 square miles.
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
The Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is a must-visit no matter what time of year you’re in Iceland. A large glacial lagoon, it was created by glacier melt and continues to grow quickly with the melting of the polar ice cap. Icebergs are continuously breaking off and drift through a short river into the sea. Waves turn some of them back onto the black sand beach where they can be seen scattered about like gems.
During the warmer months, generally May through September, zodiac boat tours can bring you closer to the ice where you’ll be able to listen to the thunder roar as bergs break off. From October through April, it’s worth visiting too as there are countless seals that can be seen hanging out on the ice. They stay protected here in the lagoon with killer whales waiting in the North Atlantic to catch an easy meal.
This western peninsula is just a couple hours’ drive from Reykjavik, known as ‘Iceland in miniature,’ as it provides a little bit of everything Iceland has to offer in one enchanting 56-mile-long land. Some of the most stunning natural wonders can be found existing side by side, a wild landscape with unique elements that include basalt columns and black sand beaches, stunning waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, and natural hot pools.
Icelandic horses and sheep are dotted throughout, while the most photographed mountain, Krkjufell, provides a breathtaking sight. The town of Grundarfjordur is near its base and is also a popular departure point for whale watching tours. One of the most beautiful churches in Iceland, Pingeyrarkirkja, can be found here as well, providing another magnificent photo-op. There’s even a small, hidden geothermal pool that’s open for free to the public. Guorunarlaug, named after a great heroine in the Icelandic Sagas.
The Golden Circle
Iceland’s famous tourist route, the Golden Circle offers fantastical wonders around nearly every turn. That includes Gullfoss, or ‘Golden Falls,’ the country’s own version of Niagara Falls which sits along the upper part of River Hvita. It plunges down in two steps into a mile-long canyon below. There are a number of trails that will lead you to gorgeous views, one where you’ll be standing above and another that gets you up close and personal with the cascades.
Nearby, the Geysir Hot Spring Area features erupting geysers, bubbling mud pits, and other geothermal features. The most impressive geyser is Strokkur which skyrockets 100 feet into the air about every 10 minutes. The area was named for Geysir, which is less active today although it lent its name to all the others around the world. At the Silfra rift in Lake Þingvallavatn, you can even dive or snorkel in between two continents.
Akureryi is often referred to as the ‘Capital of the North.’ It’s Iceland’s second city in cultural terms and provides a great place for exploring the region with many attractions that can be found within a relatively short drive. That includes many impressive waterfalls like Godafoss, just a 30-minute drive away.
The ‘Waterfall of the Gods’ is horseshoe-shaped with turquoise waters that are nearly 100 feet wide and spill for some 40 feet, crashing into the river Skjálfandafljót below. A little over an hour from Akureryi is Aldeyjarfoss, framed by antural basaltic columns in the uppermost region of the Bardardalur Valley.
Dettifoss is worth the two-hour drive as the most powerful waterfall in Europe, with more than 132,000 gallons of water that roar into the rugged canyon. Just south of Akureyri is Kjarnaskógur Forest which offers a number of scenic walking trails, while the town itself offers museums, galleries, shops, bars, and eateries.
Another good option in Northern Iceland is the pretty fishing village of Husavík. Often referred to as the ‘Whale Watching Capital’ of the country, the icy waters off the coast here are s a veritable feeding ground for a wide range of marine life in the summer, especially large marine mammals.
It was also featured in 2020’s “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in which humpback whales suddenly breach out of the bay right behind the stars. In addition to humpbacks, it’s possible to see orca whales, blue whales, and minke whales on a boat tour. There is also a whale museum here which displays nearly a dozen whale skeletons, including one of a massive blue whale.
The Lake Myvatn Geothermal Area
One of the top attractions in Northern Iceland, the Lake Myvatn Geothermal Area is centered around a shallow eutrophic lake created by a large volcanic eruption that occurred more than 2,300 years ago. It’s renowned for its birdlife, particularly the wide array of duck species. In the summer there are more different duck species gathered here than any other place on Earth.
The lake’s surrounds are filled with volcanic features, including mud pools, mud pots, fumaroles, moss-grown lava fields, and a volcanic crater that can be climbed. Hverfell is massive but it’s easy to climb with the rim reached within 15 or 20 minutes. By walking on the rim around the crater, one can take in a panoramic vista of the landscape below from a variety of perspectives. Lake Myvatn Nature Baths nearby provide a more tranquil, less touristy alternative to the Blue Lagoon, a great way to soothe sore muscles after hiking.
Vatnajökull National Park
Vatnajökull National Park is home to countless natural wonders as the largest national park in Europe covering 14 percent of Iceland. There are thundering falls, glaciers, volcanoes, and craters with a network of trails for hiking that lead deep into the wilderness.
In the winter, when the frigid temperatures have hardened the ice, one can even explore an ice cave that looks like a true work of art. It’s located on a frozen lagoon of the Svínafellsjökull Glacier and is best explored on a guided tour. A 22-foot entrance serves as the access point providing a magical vision where brilliant blue frozen ceilings are studded with stalagmites and stalactites that hang over the icy paths. The densely packed glacial ice gets its blue glow due to the lack of air bubbles that typically spread colors of the spectrum when sunlight filters down from above.
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