What To Do In Iceland
A realm of contrasts – that is how the travel community usually describes Iceland, a 4,000-square mile island-nation located in the North Atlantic.
In the late ninth century, Iceland was a settlement where Viking explorers brought their slaves from the British Isles and Norway. And a considerable portion of the Icelandic culture today can be traced back to these origins.
These last few years, Iceland has become one of the most popular travel destinations in the world with millions of tourists from all over the world, flying in to discover its varied landscapes.
A tiny, lone island in the Northern hemisphere, Iceland may be such, but it has a wide array of natural wonders to visit within its territory. It has a landscape of volcanoes, geysers, glaciers, ice-capped mountains, geothermal lagoons, Nordic villages, and more.
Iceland also has a very fascinating history. This beautiful country of under 350’000 inhabitants is home to some of the most breathtaking glaciers in the continent, to icy waters in which visitors can take a plunge and last but not least, it is where some of the world’s most active and picturesque volcanoes are situated.
So what is there to do in this fantastic place?
Iceland is a place of choice for such a wide range of tastes. For the adventure-seekers, it is where you can find interesting geographical formations that you can explore with an in-depth perspective. For those who love to stay in the city, Iceland’s capital Reykjavík will be your go-to place in Iceland.
Here is detailed take on what the country has to offer.
Drive around The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a route in southwest Iceland that spans approximately 300 kilometers around the island. The Golden Circle is the most popular Icelandic route to drive along providing some of the best spots the country has to offer on its way; it will introduce you to the main features of the Icelandic geography, specifically glaciers, hot springs, and tectonic plates. Driving along this road will bring you to three of the most famous local attractions in the country. These are the Great Geysir, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the Thingvellir National Park!.
Being so popular with visitors, the tourist administrators have made sure that it is now more accessible than ever. Getting around the Golden Circle means getting access to glacial waters where you can plunge right in, walking across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge canyon, visiting parliamentary architectural sites, and more. Among the activities, you can do include rock climbing, rafting, lounging in geothermal pools, fishing, and exploring a 6,500-year-old crater.
While on this road start with a visit to Gullfoss, one of the most picturesque waterfalls in Iceland. This waterfall drops 105 feet down into a steep-sided canyon, sending water splashing around. The spray creates beautiful rainbows over the gorge during the summer and will also offer a pleasant place to rest after a day of hiking.
Gullfoss is one of the most easily accessible falls in the country, offering tourists with a large parking area, and roads leading a viewpoint of the area from a different angle.
Afterward, you can head over to the Great Geysir, a frequently visited hot spring in Haukadalur Valley. The Great Geysir has been erupting and spurting waters for around eight centuries now. After the earthquake that happened in 2000, this geyser erupted more than 120 kilometers skyward. However, there are times that it is dormant and inactive, but if you want to experience this natural phenomenon during your stay, there is a nearby spring called Strokkur that spouts 20 meters of water every 10 minutes.
After admiring this incredible gift of nature, take a dip in the local colored hot pools that provide many wellness benefits. If you want to stay around for a few days, there are also various accommodations you can check in around this area.
Finally go to the Thingvellir National Park where you will find many hiking trails, campgrounds, and even some places from which you can observe tectonic plates drifting over sea level. Depending on the weather you might also be able to go scuba diving in between the tectonic plates.
Thingvellir is located 40 kilometers northeast of the capital, Reykjavik. Aside from being a frequently visited natural landscape, the area has been home to a historical site that once covered the world’s first democratic parliament the Vikings established. This national park has also been declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
Visitors driving their own car will be able to reach the area by taking Highway 1 east from the city until Route 35 and then following this road north toward Gullfoss for around two hours. The Great Geysir and Thingvellir can be reached via Route 37/365.
While on this road don’t hesitate to drive around, you might discover some more incredible secret landscapes.
Hike to the Svartifoss Waterfall
For many, traveling is more than just sightseeing tours, and Iceland is the perfect destination for this type of people. There are a lot of areas in this beautiful country that will challenge your inner strength.
If you are a nature lover, a great place to visit is Svartifoss, a fantastic waterfall in the southern part of the country. Surrounded by an array of Iceland’s most iconic black lava columns, you will appreciate the fact that these lava flows have now been cooling in the frosty air flowing around the area for several centuries, vividly forming crystals that provide a neo-looking backdrop for these amazing waterfalls.
To get to this place, visitors can follow a hiking trail to get close to these waterfalls. This trail starts at Skaftafell, a marvelous national park and preserved natural habitat. The walk will take you about 90 minutes from this point up to Svartifoss through fantastic trails that are marked so you will not risk getting lost. Once you reach your destination, get your cameras ready, and stay for a while to immerse yourself completely into the beautiful surroundings.
Check out Hvítserkur, the Icelandic sea stack
Locally known as Iceland’s “sea monster”, Hvítserkur is a distinct rock formation rising proudly from the sea with the spread of the waters around it. You will be able to find this incredible place in the northwestern part of Iceland, along the eastern shoreline of the Vatnsnes peninsula.
Apart from being a promising photography subject, Hvítserkur is also an excellent way for tourists to immerse themselves with the country’s striking to the eyes and very distinct topography.
Once a volcano’s plug, it opened up through the years to leave the rock that you see today, it rises 15 meters or around 50 feet above sea level. Locally, this rock formation also has an unusual story behind it; Legend has it that Hvítserkur was a troll who was never able to retreat from the light and was turned into stone under the sunrise.
As you park your car or after being unloaded by the tourist vehicle in your group tour, you can start by taking a short walk to the viewing platform that overlooks the rock formation or go down the path that will bring you to the black sand beach that also offers incredible views on Hvitserkur.
See icebergs in Jökulsárlón
“Is that a scene from a movie?” This could be the first question to pop out in your mind upon reaching Jökulsárlón, a breathtaking glacial lagoon with ice floes and icebergs floating in it. Located southeast of Iceland, Jökulsárlón is a relatively new tourist destination but has quickly established itself to be one of the most widely visited attractions in Europe.
Visitors will be able to sit and listen to the natural crashing of ice blocks brushing on each other and drifting away toward the sea or take a boat trips around the close to the 250-meter deep lagoon.
Jökulsárlón’s ice calves originate from Breiðamerkurjökull glacier which then offshoots to an ice cap. Activities you can take part include boating, kayaking, scouting for seals, or simply walking across the lakeshore, and taking hundreds of photos.
Visit some of the very unique Icelandic beaches
The most famed beaches in the world are generally found in the tropics, across the Pacific, or sitting in the Caribbean. So what are the beaches like in Iceland?
Iceland has been known to sport a cold climate and thinking about the beach; you can expect for this atmosphere to have sculpted them differently. There are a few things that lovers of the country have noted throughout their visits; the local volcanic sands create an ambiance of colder temperature and an unmatched enchanting atmosphere.
Vestrahorn, a gabbro rock mountain is the place to be to take wonder at the pristine dark-colored sands stretching out of a mountain. It is known to be a dreamy location for photography or for capturing portrait shots with the blessings of this backdrop. In the area around this beach, you can also visit a Viking village that has remnants from a N.A.T.O. radar station, a lighthouse, and a wooden shipwreck. It also offers views of lava dunes covered in dense layers of glass.
If you are not staying around for too long and wish to see the beaches during your visit, you can head over to Álftanes Beach. A 20-minute drive from the Reykjavík city center, this white sand beach stretches along the coastline of the Álftanes peninsula and is surrounded by lava rocks.
If you are looking for some golden sand, you can also take a look at Breidavik Beach, where the waters are adjacent to an idyllic landscape. The area brings back the feeling of contemporary 20th century Iceland and will provide a perfect place to get away from the more crowded areas. This beautiful beach can be recognized by a small white church that is situated just a few steps away from the shoreline.
There are many other beaches to discover around Iceland. Drive around and find your very own secret spot!
Visit the Westfjords
Nature enthusiasts will love the Westfjords, a beautiful stretch of peninsula northwest of the country with mountains and coastlines highlighted by amazing fjords; long, narrow sea or lake drains with steep sides or cliffs, created by a glacier.
Raw is the term used to describe this region, and it is less dense in population compared to other places. The summer season is the best time to head out to the fjords where visitors will get a chance to see some puffins and whales. You should also walk around the area and check out the different lakes, mountains, waterfalls, and fishing villages that still have traces of what life used to be like several centuries back.
The Westfjords are also a great place to eat local dishes, meet people, and discover more about the local culture.
Spend a relaxing day at the Blue Lagoon Spa
Even during your holidays, everyone needs some time off, somewhere to relax and refresh yourself. If you are headed to Iceland, you can be sure that several tourists will be looking for this place. Do not miss out on this unique opportunity!
Receive nature’s embrace at the Blue Lagoon Spa, another must-visit in Iceland because of its warm, soothing water infused with a healing Silica mud. The invigorating steam emerges directly from nature, and many experts say that spending a few hours at the Blue Lagoon Spa is sure to relieve the tourist of the jet lag and make your stay in Iceland an unforgettable memory.
A lot of businesses have invested in the Blue Lagoon Spa, opening it up to the worldwide market and making it a bucket list candidate. Blue Lagoon Spa is about a 20-minute drive from Keflavík Airport and a 50-minute ride from the center of Reykjavík. You will find a lot of tours and hotel packages offering a visit there with the possibility of pushing the experiences even further with for example a mask bar, which combines the benefits of silica and algae from the lagoon for skin care, some steam rooms, saunas, in-water bars, and in-water massages. You will not have to worry about what you are going to eat since the area also has a few restaurants that you can visit.
Look around before you decide to drive across the island to head to the Blue Lagoon as there are also different options in other areas including the Secret Lagoon and the Mývatn Nature Baths up in the north of the island.
Experience the world famous Icelandic Northern lights
The Aurora Borealis, also called the Northern Lights are a cosmic light show in the sky that happens in the winter and are seen exclusively at the highest and darkest points of the Earth, such as in Iceland.
This stunning showcase of the aurora can be seen from different locations in Iceland. It is a frequently visited destination, but with many tours and places to experience these views, you do not need to worry about the crowd.
Look around and find your favorite location to watch them from, several companies offer tours in which you will have the chance to experience the dazzling aura of these lights characterized by ribbon-like waves of gold, green, and purple colors flowing through the sky.
Once, the Inuit tribes thought the Northern Lights to be the souls of the dead. Meanwhile, Scandinavian folk tales have described this presentation of lights as spirits of an unmarried woman. Various stories surround these lights everywhere around the world. For the Japanese, children born under the movement of the lights’ rays will have a good fate throughout their lives.
Be sure to capture these moments with your cameras as they also offer an excellent background for photography.
Spend the afternoon with puffins
Puffins are a bird species that nest on rock crevices or soil burrows and are identifiable by their bright-colored beaks. They feed by diving into the water and breed in huge colonies on coastal topographies and islands offshore.
In Iceland, puffins are almost everywhere, and they count for approximately 60 percent of the entire population of the species in the Atlantic. Whether you are traveling alone, in a group or even with some young children, any trip to Iceland should include a visit to the islands on which these puffins reside. The ideal months to see these puffins active are during the summer season, between May and August.
A few minutes boat ride from the mainland, you will find the islands of Akurey and Lundey, which house a very high number of puffin colonies in which you will witness them attending to their offspring and nesting.
Discovering this exceptional species of bird will be a heart-warming first-hand experience of nature’s biodiversity. You will also get to see some more local wildlife, which includes cormorants, ducks, guillemots, and seagulls.
Experience activities in the Icelandic ice
Make sure not to leave the island without trying a line up of activities in the icy Icelandic environment!
The country has around 4,500 square miles of glaciers, and through the centuries, they have been used as sprawling tourist spots for its visitors. A primary form of attraction is ice climbing on the glaciers. The venues are open to the general public all year-round. The ice climbing experience is the icy take on the usual rock climbing, and tour guides offer an unforgettable first-hand experience with nature.
Another unique adventure that you can try while in Iceland is ice-caving and witness the local breathtaking ice cave formations.
Ride a helicopter and see Iceland from the skies
Take a luxurious trip on a helicopter and experience the magnificent landscapes of Iceland from the sky. Many visitors make this unbelievable experience part of their visit to Iceland to make sure they get to see as many incredible local landscapes at once. These helicopter tours are available all year-round provided that the weather conditions allow them. Amongst the tours that are offered to tourists are high-altitude views of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, geothermal tours, crater tours, fire and ice tours, and waterfalls and valleys tours.
There are many sights that you will be able to see from a helicopter ride that would not be possible when traveling on foot. Some tours even stop over the Eyjafjallajökull volcano and reveal sights of hot lava bubbling beneath the surface.
Explore the city life
The largest airport in Iceland, Keflavík International Airport, is distant from the nature trips and must-see destinations. But, the 50-kilometer drive to the city center of Reykjavík will offer you your first majestic views of the city and its beautiful surroundings.
Many tourists recommend Reykjavik as the must-visit place for nightlife, especially if you are a first-timer. In there, most of the bars and clubs are lined up in one avenue with every type of venues from higher-end clubs to secret basements bars.
The city captivates the locals and international tourists as the hours move toward midnight and onwards. While most parts of the country are preparing for sleep, Reykjavik’s nightlife is just awakening. Going around town at these hours or taking a pub stroll is a must for tourists to try. Most venues are open until 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and until 1 a.m. on Sundays. Some of the bars to visit include Bastard, Petersen Svitan, Spanski, and Bar Ananas.
You may also hop on a museum tour to learn more about local culture, customs, and history. Various museums in Iceland can introduce you to the country’s heritage, the origins of the Sagas, the Icelandic language, and how they fought for their independence.
Furthermore, the city is also where you will be able to experience the modern everyday Icelandic life and culture. Some nations are famous for night markets, and in Iceland, shopping districts offer a glimpse of the local produce as well.
In the center of the town, you will also be able to head over to the main shopping streets of Laugavegur, Bankastræti, Austurstræti, Lækjargata, and Skólavörðustígur and visit the local shops. For some more fun tours with a snap of history and pop culture, you can visit Odin’s Street, Thor’s Street, Loki’s Path, Freya’s Street.
Meet the local population
The personality of the Icelandic people is quite fascinating. They are known to be amicable and welcoming people, and much of these traits can be associated with the Vikings that once inhabited the place.
Another way to understand the Icelandic culture is to attend one of the many festivals held during the year across the country. It is where you will be able to see people gather to celebrate.
For example, annually during late May, the Reykjavik Arts Festival showcases operas, dances, theater performances and more at local venues that include the National Gallery and the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre.
By the first weekend of June, the locals pay tribute to the waters in the Festival of the Sea, where spectacular parades, seafood fairs, and rescue demonstrations from local fishers happen.
Also happening around the middle of June is the Viking Festival where modern-day Vikings from different parts of the world gather in the town of Hafnarfjordur near the capital for some staged battles, costume showcase, and more.
If you visit Iceland during the winter holidays, the locals also celebrate Christmas, and New Year, however, they give it their own twist. For instance, Icelandic Christmas converges traditional folklore and religion and begins earlier than Christmas Eve. Christmas time in Iceland is also very remarkable because it coincides with the period of the year in which the days become longer. Should you wish to have the first-hand experience with the traditional local winter holidays, you can attend the Mass of St. Thorlac, an essential gathering among the locals on the 23rd of December.
Last but not least, New Year’s Eve is also just as glorious as anywhere else in the world with firework show in the sky, the ringing of the harbor bells, and parties all over the country.
Watch a local sporting event
Iceland is quiet and less into the spotlight when it comes to sports. However, football, basketball, tennis, golf, volleyball, and more sports have always been part of the locals’ way of life.
If you are in the city and thinking of a local sports experience to take part in, head over to a live sporting event, some places like the Akranesvöllur stadium, the Egilshöll multi-purpose sports facility, Keflavíkurvöllur stadium, and Laugardalsvöllur, Iceland’s national football stadium regularly hold games that sports enthusiasts from anywhere in the world will enjoy.
Eat some Icelandic food
Icelandic cuisine is also worth trying during your holidays. An old saying goes, “Half of the country is the sea,” and visitors can vividly see this in the array of gastronomic pleasures that it offers. Seafood and lamb are at the centerpiece of the table, and they are a must-try when heading to this country. There are various ways to discover local food, whether it is in casual or fine dining restaurants around the island.
Try an introduction to Icelandic food menu at the Sjávarbarinn restaurant (a local term which means “The Sea Bar”) or eat some Þorramatur, a traditional local dish with ingredients that include smoked lamb meat, lamb liver sausage, lamb blood pudding, fermented shark’s meat, and lamb’s head served with flatbread and rye bread. You can also have a taste at the local selection of shrimps, scallops, and blue mussels.
For the dessert, be sure to try some Skyr, a sumptuous yogurt-like blend made out of skimmed milk. The ingredients include fruity flavors, sugar, and cream, blended to give it the taste and the texture. Plus, it is also a healthy option because it is high in protein and low in fat. For the pastries, Iceland also has its own versions of pancakes and twisted doughnuts.
Do not miss out on this opportunity because the seafood choice in Iceland is also one of the most affordable in the world!
Iceland brings forward a natural spectacle that will never run out of surprises. It is an excellent destination for both adventure-seeking and recreational travelers. Iceland is a must-have on your bucket list, and we hope this guide will help you plan your next trip to this incredible country.
Have you ever been to Iceland? Are you planning a trip? Do you have any extra travel trips for fellow readers? Tell us in the comment section below!