20 Amazing Things to do in Iceland
Looking for the best things to do in Iceland? You've come to the right place if you're planning to visit this unique and extraordinary island soon. From whale watching to bar hopping with the chance of a glimpse of the Northern Lights, we've rounded up the top 20 activities in Reykjavik and beyond.
The dramatic volcanic landscape and barren vistas of Iceland's countryside provide the backdrop to some of the best road trips in the world, including the Golden Circle route and the complete Ring Road. So if you're planning on driving in Iceland, you'll be in for an adventure you'll never forget. Read on for our tips on how to make the most of your time in this wild and fascinating island.
1. See the Glacial Lakes at Jökulsárlón
Jökulsárlón is a large lake in the Southeast region of Iceland, also close to Vatnajökull National Park. Its spectacular glacial lagoon has become one of the most popular places to visit in Iceland, with many visitors choosing to take an amphibian boat tour to get as close to the iceberg action as possible. Many visitors to the lake remark on its other-worldliness, and it's fair to say that this frozen playground is what many newcomers to the island imagine all of Iceland to look like.
2. Go Whale Watching in Akureyri
The coast of Iceland offers some of the best opportunities for observing marine life in its natural habitat, and for this reason whale watching has long been one of the most popular activities in Iceland. There are several spots that are well known for their whales, mostly along the North coast. Akureri - a small city and fishing port and the second-largest urban area in the country - is one of the best spots for taking a boat trip and marvelling at the bottlenose whales, humpbacks and mink whales that swim freely in the ocean.
A word of warning: locals joke that the weather in Iceland is much like the old Forest Gump quote: "you never know quite what you're going to get". This changeability can have unfortunate consequences for wannabe whale-watchers, and tours are subject to short-notice cancellation if the seas become too rough.
3. Take a bath in Lake Mývatn
The volcanic area of Mývatn is one of the most unspoilt and beautiful places to visit in Iceland, and at the heart of this extensive wetland nature reserve is a shallow lake that's teeming with wildlife. The lake was created by a large lava eruption over 2000 years ago, and is now inhabited by a huge diversity of waterbirds including 13 different species of duck!
While you're in the area, make sure you don't miss Mývatn Nature Baths, where you can experience the joys of geothermal bathing without the same level of hustle and bustle of the better-known Blue Lagoon, in the midst of some truly spectacular scenery.
4. Photograph glaciers at Jökulsárlón in Vatnajökull National Park
Iceland is one of the few places on earth where you can see bona fide glaciers without the extreme travel measures associated with visiting the arctic circle, and you'll want to capture these memories forever. You can see some of Iceland's finest glaciers at Jökulsárlón in Vatnajökull National Park, which is sometimes known as 'Diamond Beach' as the sparkling chunks of ice look like glittering diamonds when they catch the sun.
We recommend you take the best camera equipment you can carry on a visit to Jökulsárlón, as the photo ops are endless.
5. Witness the wildness of Skaftafell
Skaftafell is a protected area within Vatnajökull National Park on the island's Southeast coast. Said to have an almost 'Alpine' landscape, the terrain consists of a diverse blend of wilderness, volcanoes, glaciers mountains and waterfalls, and there are campsites and hiking-trails available for those who love the great outdoors.
Despite its relative remoteness, Skaftafell has its own small airport, and sightseeing flights depart from here allowing you to see the wonders of Iceland from above. The route of each tour depends on the weather, so passengers are advised to expect a 'surprise' journey every time!
6. Take in the views at þingvellir
þingvellir, often anglicised to Thingvellir is one of Iceland's most historic locations, having been home to its earliest national parliament the 'Althing', established in 930. It's also one of the most geographically interesting, as the rugged rift that runs through the centre of the site marks the boundary between the North American and European 'sides' of the island, as a tectonic plate dividing the two continents runs right through the centre of the valley.
Perhaps most importantly, however, this is one of the most stunning examples of Iceland's natural beauty to be found anywhere on the island, and at just 40 km from Reykjavik it's an easy journey whether you're planning on driving in Iceland or taking one of many guided coach tours available in the city. Most of the 'Golden Circle' tours operated by local operators make Thingvellir a must-see stop on their itineraries.
Finally, this breathtakingly scenic spot will hold particular interest for fans of HBO's Game of Thrones, who may recognise the track that runs through the rift valley as the pass to the 'Impregnable Eyrie'. It's easy to see why producers chose such a striking location for the notoriously melodramatic fantasy series. For more GOT locations you can visit in real life, read our guide on Game of Thrones Filming Locations.
7. Explore the volcano on a beach at Snœfellsjökull
An ancient active volcano that reaches 1,446 meters into the sky, Snœfellsjökull has been named as one of the world's 7 greatest energy centres, and has long been believed to have mysterious powers. Sitting at the centre of the National Park that takes its name, Snœfellsjökull is a place of magnificent views, stretching all the way down to the coast. Many visitors choose to explore the beach on horseback, enjoying the abundant wildlife while taking in the unique sight of the volcano as it rises from the water's edge.
8. Wonder at the waterfalls in Gullfoss
Gullfoss, meaning 'Golden Falls' has consistently ranked among the top things to do in Iceland, thanks to its legendary waterfalls. Set in the canyon of the Hvítá river in southwest Iceland, the falls are real bucket-list stuff, with their multiple sheer drops, optical illusions and vast three-step 'staircases' of cascading water. Another popular stop along the 'Golden Circle' tour, this is not only one of our top recommended places to visit in Iceland, it's one of the most rewarding views anywhere in the world.
9. Feel the gush of the geysers
There are few places on earth where you can get up close to an active geyser, but Iceland is positively bursting with them. Geysir, the first erupting hot spring known to Europeans, gave its name to geysers everywhere, and you can visit it in Haukadalsvegur in Southwest Iceland, an area dotted with geothermal springs. This is an important stop on the Golden Circle route, which includes Thingvellir along with many of the most popular places to visit in Iceland.
Geysir itself, known to locals as the "Old Man" is in semi-retirement these days but his "little brother" Strokkur (The Churn) is a real crowd-pleaser, erupting every 2-3 minutes up to 40 metres into the sky. Visitors to the site are allowed to get close enough to feel the force of the eruptions, and there's nothing quite like standing in the splash zone, awaiting the next geothermal gush.
10. View the city from Hallgrimskirkja
Reykjavik's largest and most iconic church is a wonder of modern architecture, and when you've finished admiring its iceberg-like form from the outside, you can ascent its 72 metres to enjoy the view from inside as well. Take the lift to the top floor for unrivalled views of Reykjavik from above, and you'll gain a new appreciation of the city with its colourful roofs and neatly laid-out streets. Once you've finished admiring the view, you can check out the interior of the church, which has a particularly minimalist and calming atmosphere.
11. See the Northern Lights
Like the weather, the mysterious Aurora Borealis is one of those phenomena that's frustratingly hard to predict in Iceland. But most visitors here are quietly hopeful of a glimpse of the green and eerie glow, especially when visiting in winter - and they've good reason to be optimistic. From September to mid April they start their dance in the sky, as this is the only time there is guaranteed full darkness this far North.
While there are guided tours available that 'chase' the Northern Lights and seek out the darkest viewing spots, there is no guarantee of seeing the lights and it can be every bit as exciting just to see them appear unannounced from behind the roofs of Reykjavik, only to disappear again as suddenly as they arrived.
12. Chase happy hour in Reykjavik
Drinking and dining in Iceland's capital is never going to be a budget experience, as the country's commendable emphasis on providing fair wages, coupled with the high cost of imported food products in particular means bar tabs are a lot higher than what we're used to back home. This doesn't mean you can't find a bargain with a little preparation, however: happy hour is a big deal in Reykjavik, with many of the more central establishments lowering their costs for much more than sixty minutes. Some offer promotions on food at these times, too.
If you want to make the most of the happy hours the city has to offer, we recommend downloading an app such as the Reykjavik Grapevine's Happy Hour App, which will give you a live update on where the booze is cheap(er) at any given time. The earliest happy hours start around midday, while the vast majority are between 5 and 7pm. After this, you can expect to pay at least the equivalent of £8 for any drink. Skol!
13. Visit a geothermal bakery
You may be detecting a theme here: Iceland is big on its geothermal activity, and as well as geysers, hot pool and springs, this natural energy can be used to heat everything from homes to your next meal. At Fontana Wellness, an outdoor spa on the edge of the beautiful lake Fontana, visitors get the rare opportunity to sample fresh bread that has been cooked underground by the heat of the island's active volcanic terrain. The sweet and moist bread tastes delicious with a slab of local butter, and is a great pre or post swim treat.
14. Chill out and warm up at Fontana Wellness
The spa at Fontana Wellness is also a treat for the senses, and it comes highly recommended for those who enjoy a soak. Braver visitors are welcome to jump in the cold lake before taking the sauna, steam room and nearby hot springs, but for those who prefer an antidote to the cold climate, you can't beat the inviting waters of the warmest pools, whose temperatures can exceed 40 degrees. Tip for visitors: bring a towel to avoid the hire charges.
15. Visit an Icelandic horse farm
Iceland has a rare and robust species of horse that its inhabitants are very proud of: the Icelandic horse is not only a beautiful and hardy animal, it also has a wider range of walks than the average nag, adding two extra gaits to the usual walk, trot and gallop. Laxnes Farm is an ideal place to see these impressive beasts and a few more of their four-legged friends, and at just 15 km away from Reykjavik it's within easy driving distance of the city. If you do visit, whatever you do, don't call an Icelandic horse a pony - we're told this doesn't go down well...
16. Catch a concert at Harpa
Harpa is Reykjavik's main concert hall and whether you come here for a show or just to admire its striking modern architecture, it's a must-see for visitors to the city. A popular attraction at Harpa for English-speaking visitors is How to become Icelandic in 60 minutes - a stand-up comedy show about the country's unique quirks. At night, the building's glacier-like faceted exterior is lit up with artful floodlighting that makes for terrifically romantic views.
17. Stroll to the Sun Voyager
A wonderful spot to contemplate the beauty of the Icelandic landscape just a short stroll away from the city centre and close to Harpa is the Sun Voyager; a viking-style, steel boat structure by sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason. The sculpture looks out towards the sea and mountains, and it's worth taking the time to make the peaceful walk along the seafront before stopping to admire this evocative work.
18. Drive the Ring Road
We've got plenty more tips for driving in Iceland in our dedicated article, but if you're hiring a car and are up for the drive of your life, the Ring Road is one way to see every corner of Iceland from the comfort of four wheels. Iceland is a bigger country than many visitors appreciate, and the 800-mile route that encircles the island is an amazing way to appreciate its diversity and vastness. The trip can be done in 7 days, with a wealth of scenic stop-offs en route.
19. Bathe in the Blue Lagoon
No guide to the top things to do in Iceland would be complete without a mention of the Blue Lagoon, and we have nothing but love for the warm and wonderful waters of this unique geothermal bath. Whether you choose to go in the glare of the Northern sun or after dark in the cold winter, you'll be amazed by the heat of the mineral-rich pool, as you slather yourself in nutrient rich face masks, sipping a drink of your choice. The lagoon is due for expansion in 2017, and will soon be bigger than ever - but disruption to bathers in the meantime has been kept to a bare minimum.
Top tip for visiting the Blue Lagoon: schedule in your session for your journey to or from Keflavik Airport, which at 20 minutes drive away is closer to the lagoon than Reykjavik. If you're not hiring a car there are plentiful airport transfers available to take you and your luggage safely to the Lagoon, where you can check your bags and enjoy a relaxing soak before picking up the bus for the short drive to your onward flight.
20. Fly on to the Big Apple
A happy side effect of Iceland's mid-Atlantic position is its proximity to the new world, and for decades, European travellers have used this Northern route as a gateway to the USA (and vice-versa). It's still possible to benefit from some of the lowest transatlantic airfares possible with a layover in Reykjavik, and while some travellers simply change planes and continue their journeys, others stay longer in Iceland, taking advantage of the "stopover" option offered by Icelandair, Wow Air and other carriers.
These deals generally include the cost of accommodation in Reykjavik included with the airfare, and offer a great opportunity to see the greatest hits of Iceland with a city break in New York, Boston or many other US destinations waiting at the end. This makes for a unique holiday with urban and natural attractions in equal measure. The only problem is that by the time you've seen Iceland, you won't want to leave!