Twenty Things To Do In Iceland

Blue Lagoon Spa, Iceland
Blue Lagoon Spa

Iceland is a Nordic country offering some of the world’s most otherworldly landscapes, from dramatic active volcanoes to geothermal lagoons, frozen glaciers, and snow-capped mountains. Wild horses, arctic foxes, and rare birds roam the countryside, while the waters are teeming with dolphins, whales, and seals. Black sand beaches, glowing lava flows, a capital city brimming with world-class food, friendly people, and ancient history are just the beginning of Iceland’s attractions.

Here are twenty things to do in Iceland.

1. Relax at the Blue Lagoon

One of Iceland’s most iconic experiences is bathing in the milky, geothermal Blue Lagoon. Its waters, a blue-white color due to the high amounts of silica, contain minerals for nourishing the body and skin. Just a short drive from the airport or on a half-day trip from Reykjavik, visitors can swim, relax, or opt for a rejuvenating massage or scrub using volcanic ingredients. The lagoon remains open come rain or shine and stays at a warm 98-104 Fahrenheit (that’s 37-40°C) even on snowy winter days.

2. Admire the Natural Beauty of Gullfoss Falls

Gullfoss Falls is a popular stop on Iceland’s Golden Circle route just two hours from Reykjavik. Literally translating as Golden Falls, this spectacular natural wonder can be found within the Hvítá River Canyon in southwest Iceland. The falls are over 100ft high and feature two tiers cascading into deep blue pools visible close-up via several paths and hiking routes. In summer, the falls are often in full flow. In winter, visitors will witness them partially frozen into intricate ice formations, and the surrounding landscape thickly carpeted with snow.

Strokkur Geysir, Iceland
Strokkur Geysir

3. Feel the Heat at an Icelandic Geyser

Also within the Golden Circle are many of Iceland’s unique geothermal wonders: geysers. The Geysir Geothermal Area in Haukadalur is a 3km-wide stretch of land brimming with multiple active geysers. Many regularly explode, releasing trapped and pressurized water or mineral-rich mud from below the ground. The largest, the Great Geyser, rarely explodes, however, most others, such as Strokkur erupt frequently each day. Visitors should stay behind the roped-off areas but otherwise are free to roam around the area, take photos and admire the spectacle.

4. Explore Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

At Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon visitors can take to the waters by boat to experience the result of five hundred years of glacier melt. Impossibly large icebergs dominate the landscape and the sound of them cracking and smashing into the waters below is the soundtrack to your journey. The waters of Jokulsarlon Lagoon feed into the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajökull, and the harsh, beautiful landscape has been used in multiple blockbusters, such as Tomb Raider and Game of Thrones. Boat trips include tour guides who will explain the history and geology of the lagoon and allow plenty of time for taking incredible photos.

Whale Watching Near Husavik, Iceland
Whale watching near Husavik

5. Go Whale Watching

Husavik, in northern Iceland, is frequently cited as the best place in Iceland to spot whales, particularly if you visit between May and September when a plethora of species make the waters their home. Humpbacks, killer whales, sperm whales and sometimes blue whales can be seen offshore, along with dolphins, porpoises, and orcas. A car is needed to reach Husavik, where boat trips can be booked, but if you aren’t renting a vehicle, opt for a tour leaving from Reykjavik instead.

6. See the Northern Lights

Due its location, Iceland remains one of the world’s greatest places to witness the aurora borealis (Northern Lights). Aurora chasing is a popular activity between September and April each year, and the lights are often spotted out in the wild, away from the light pollution of Reykjavik. In winter, almost total darkness provides a far greater chance of catching the Northern Lights, but visitors should allow as much time as possible due to their unpredictability. Guided tours are readily available to track the aurora via weather patterns, while other tours opt to stay or camp in remote lodgings.

Sun Voyager Sculpture, Iceland
Sun Voyager Sculpture

7. Delight in the Treasures of Reykjavik

Despite its small size, Iceland’s capital city is bursting with architectural wonders, rich culture, delectable food, excellent museums, renowned restaurants, and atmospheric bars. Within the city are several geothermal swimming pools and saunas much loved by locals and tourists, saving a trip to the Blue Lagoon if you’re short of time. The city also has its own beach, Nautholsvik, although the waters here are colder than most visitors would like for swimming.

Elsewhere, you can wander around Reykjavik’s quaint shopping streets, home to local boutiques selling authentic Icelandic souvenirs. Also keep a lookout for locally made clothes, such as hand-knitted Nordic jumpers, although high-end winter clothing brands are also available. Pass by the Icelandic Parliament building in Austurvollur Square and visit the country’s oldest church, Domkirkjan, before diving into the local food scene on one of the many street food tours. Museums like the Reykjavik Art Gallery and Kjarval Museum can also be combined with a sculpture tour of the many artworks dotted around the city’s streets, including the famous Viking-esque Sun Voyager sculpture overlooking the sea.

8. Admire Hallgrimskirkja Architecture

A standout attraction in Reykjavik worthy of its own explanation, Hallgrimskirkja is the capital’s most recognizable church. The largest in Iceland, it can be seen from every part of the city. This unusual white church is designed in Expressionist style and towers almost 250ft above the streets below. Its geometric design was inspired by the basalt columns at Svartifoss, in southern Iceland. At the top, visitors can walk around an observation platform with panoramic views over the entire city, while inside it remains a working church for residents. Standing at the front entrance is a statue of Leif Ericsson, the celebrated Icelandic explorer who discovered North America almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, Iceland
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

9. Walk Around Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Another of Iceland’s spectacular natural waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss is situated on the country’s south coast and is one of the most visited by tourists, thanks to it being very close to the Ring Road. The waters of the falls come directly from the Seljalands River, which originates in the infamous Eyjafjallajökull Glacier Volcano that erupted in 2010. Visitors can walk all the way around the waterfall, which is surrounded by rich green landscapes underneath its 60ft drop. There are no tickets or fees for Seljalandsfoss besides parking, so you can simply arrive and set off on foot. The falls are open year-round despite icy conditions in winter.

10. Seek Out Rainbows at Skogafoss Waterfall

Although Gullfoss may be the most visited and Seljalandsfoss the most accessible of Iceland’s waterfalls, Skogafoss is the most famous. 80ft wide and crashing almost 200ft into a deep, clear pool below, Skogafoss is set within dramatic, otherworldly landscapes. These include the Skoga River, a popular spot with local fishermen, who you may see during your visit. Although Skogafoss flows throughout the year, summer is an ideal time to visit when visitors can walk right up to the roaring falls, although this will get you extremely wet. For an alternative view, there is a viewing platform above the falls, reached via a staircase which offers the best perspective of the falls, countryside and almost daily rainbows which are formed by the spray.

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
Thingvellir National Park

11. Cross Continents at Thingvellir

Spelled Þingvellir in Icelandic, the expansive moss-covered landscapes, trickling ravines, and strange rock formations reminiscent of Middle Earth are impressive, but they aren’t what draw visitors from afar. Thingvellir is one of Iceland’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, due to its unique geological location on Iceland’s mid-Atlantic Rift, which divides the North American tectonic plate from the Eurasian Plate. Visitors to Thingvellir can plant a foot on each side to literally straddle two halves of the world. Also the location of many historical events, from Viking parliament meetings to the Icelandic Civil War, Þingvellir holds both a natural and spiritual significance for the Icelandic people and is an unmissable attraction.

12. Spot Wildlife in the Westfjords

The dramatic region of the West Fjords doesn’t often feature on tours, due to its distance from more popular Icelandic attractions. The region, which requires a car to get around, is bursting with mighty waterfalls, windswept beaches – including one with pink sand – and a plethora of local wildlife, not to mention the skyscraping fjords themselves. Hornstrandir Nature Reserve protects many of Iceland’s species, from playful arctic foxes to lazy seals basking in the coastal sun, avoiding the prowling orcas, and splashing dolphins offshore. On land and in the sky, more than thirty types of seabirds can be spotted including thousands of puffins, gannets, and fulmars.

Icelandic food, Iceland
Icelandic food

13. Try Icelandic Cuisine

Although many believe Icelandic food won’t compare to other cuisines, due to the harsh environment and climate which makes it difficult to grow ingredients, Icelandic food is some of the freshest and healthiest in the world. The food represents the island’s landscapes, where geothermal energy is used for farming both animals and plants. Seafood is abundant and freshly caught, meaning fish stew, soups, and whole fish are on most menus. Meat such as beef and lamb are also popular, as many animals graze in the countryside, while rye bread is a regular accompaniment, much like with their Nordic neighbors.

14. Go Horse Riding

Whether a seasoned rider or someone who has never been on a horse before, riding or just admiring Icelandic horses is a quintessential experience when visiting the country. Icelandic horses are particularly rare, as they can only be found in Iceland and are relied on by locals for work and day-to-day life. They also possess a unique gait style called a tolt and are genetically stunning, with warm copper or cream-colored fur and huge, soft blonde manes. More experienced riders can opt to ride in a herd, galloping at speed through the countryside. But beginners can opt for a gentle canter along a black sand beach or in the hills on a tour.

Ice cave at Skaftafell, Iceland
Ice cave at Skaftafell

15. Discover Ice Caves

During winter and early spring, enormous ice caves form on the edge of glaciers, making these the ideal season for exploring them before they melt away in the warmer months. At Skaftafell Glacier is one of Iceland’s most popular caves, with a 22ft high entrance which runs deep into the glacier. Bright blue ice runs the length of the cave’s ceiling, which drips with crystalline stalactites. Many caves are formed in Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier, but a guided tour is needed for all of them, as they are too dangerous to explore independently.

16. Hike an Active Volcano at Hekla

When visiting Iceland, hiking an active volcano is top of many thrill seekers’ bucket lists. Fortunately, such adventures are possible with guided tours, such as at Hekla, which last erupted in 2000. Suitable for more experienced hikers, the 1500m volcano offers uninterrupted views from the summit and remains quiet. Other accessible volcanoes include the dormant Þríhnúkagígur, where visitors can explore inside a magma chamber; and Fagradallsfjall which erupted in 2021, drawing thousands of tourists, locals, and photographers to its ever-expanding lava flow.

Diamond Beach, Iceland
Diamond Beach

17. Find ‘Diamonds’ and Black Sand at the Beach

Although you won’t find real jewels on Iceland’s beaches, you’ll find something close at the stunning black sand Breiðamerkursandur, or Diamond Beach. Gale force winds rage against the frozen waters of the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, where huge chunks of iceberg wash up onshore. Crystal clear and sparkling in the sunlight against the black sand, they look just like diamonds scattered on the beach, making this a haven for photographers. Wildlife enthusiasts should also make time to stop and see the seals and orcas in the lagoon.

18. Roam the Central Highlands

Iceland’s Central Highlands lie at high altitudes and are home to some of the country’s highest mountains and glaciers. The tallest is Hvannadalshnúkur, measuring more than 2,000m high and lying beneath Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier. This can only be reached on certain tours, but other glaciers, such as Bárðarbunga and Langjökull can be visited from the highland paths of Kjölur and Kaldidalur. A car is essential for reaching the highlands, from where visitors must remain on designated trails winding through the hills and mountains. Tours are therefore highly recommended.

Hikers on Vatnajokull Glacier, Iceland
Hikers on Vatnajokull Glacier

19. Hike Iceland’s Largest Ice Cap

As mentioned, Vatnajokull is the largest ice cap in Iceland and Europe, at over 8,000 square kilometers wide and over a kilometer thick, with dozens more outlet glaciers around its edge. Although these outlets are easily seen from the Ring Road, Vatnajokull itself should be explored via an organized tour, which offer trekking on the glacier itself using crampons or visiting the subterranean ice caves. Located in the national park of the same name, a visit here can be combined with other hiking, cycling, driving, and wildlife-watching routes.

20. Delve into Studlagil Canyon

Hidden away in eastern Iceland, Studlagil Canyon may be insta-famous, but many visitors still don’t make it here. The canyon is home to the country’s largest concentration of basalt columns, which run alongside a stunning emerald-green glacial river. The thousands of columns look like shards of rock reaching into the sky, and at the far end is Studlafoss, the waterfall which is connected to the river. The best time to visit is during summer when you can spot nesting seabirds and explore the entire area. However, there are few road signs so planning a route in advance is recommended.

(Editors Note: Ian Packham also contributed to this blog post).

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