Iceland, the land of fire and ice, is a country to be reckoned with. Isolated between Europe and North America in the far-flung Atlantic, it’s a country in the midst of its own making: volcanoes and glaciers shape the countryside while waterfalls charge off moss-laden cliffs and hot springs bubble forth from below. Lunar-like lava fields, sweeping black sand beaches, verdant green valleys, unbelievable birds eye views – there’s seemingly no end to Iceland’s natural wonder.
This elemental drama is perfectly offset by the laid-back locals. Icelanders seem unaffected by their country’s fame, and you get the feeling that if visitors stopped arriving tomorrow, they wouldn’t bat an eye. Descendant from Vikings who arrived here over 1000 years ago, they’re a lovely, sarcastic bunch, keen to share the beauty of their country with visitors. If you’re looking for a perfect Iceland itinerary (but not sure where to start), don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here are 31 of the absolute best things to do in Iceland:
Yes, it’s a tourist trap, but oh my, what a lovely place to be trapped. It wouldn’t be a trip to Iceland without visiting Blue Lagoon. This famed hot spring’s milky blue waters will convert even the biggest of skeptics. The pools are carved into a bed of black lava, filled with hot water from a nearby geothermal plant. You’ll leave with skin as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Pre-booking Blue Lagoon tickets is essential.
Iceland white-water rafting is a great way to get your adrenaline pumping and enjoy the scenery at the same time. Iceland’s most accessible river is Hvítá, the same glacial river that boasts the mighty Gullfoss waterfall (don’t worry, that’s not part of the course). For something more extreme there’s the river Jökulsá Austari, a turbulent ride through deep volcanic canyons in North Iceland.
Landmannalaugar is one of the best things to do in the Icelandic Highlands, drawing visitors in with its picture-perfect range of colorful rhyolite mountains. Tinged with shades of pink, yellow, red, and blue, it’s hard to tear your eyes away as you hike through the lava fields and steaming geothermal valleys. The area is only accessible with a 4×4 or by taking the Highland Bus, but worth the effort it takes to get here.
About 11% of Iceland is covered in glaciers, frozen remnants from the last ice age. It goes without saying that experiencing a glacier activity or two while in the country is a must. Langjökull is the go-to glacier near Reykjavik, but Vatnajökull in the south east is the largest in Europe. The easiest way is to book yourself onto a glacier hike, but there are also ice-climbing tours and snowmobile rides as well.
Fimmvörðuháls is a mountain pass between Skógafoss waterfall and Thórsmörk, a fairytale reserve nestled between three glaciers in South Iceland. The pass leads between two of those glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, before dropping down into valleys of shifting black sands, silvery glacial rivers, birchwood forest and wildflower-covered hills. We recommend spending a night or two in Thórsmörk via the Volcano Trails, and if a tough 8-hour hike isn’t your thing, there’s also a bus.
Just when you’ve had enough of hot springs, along comes the realization that you can soak in hot water at the bottom of a volcanic crater. Askja is an out-of-this-world volcanic caldera, located deep in the northern highlands. One crater has filled with a milky blue water, and the temperature is perfect for a cheeky dip. Tackle the rough mountain roads in a 4×4 or let an expert do the driving.
Known as the clowns of the ocean, the Atlantic puffin has become a symbol of Iceland. After a winter at sea, these funny birds with their bright orange beaks converge on the cliffs around Iceland to breed. For those keen to see them, the Westman Islands boasts the largest colony, but Látrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords and Borgarfjörður Eystri in the east are also great spots to get up close and personal.
This will make your friends back home jealous – Iceland is one of the only places in the world where you’re able to dive between two tectonic plates. Directly located over where the North American and Eurasian plates meet, the Silfra Fissure in Thingvellir National Park provides divers and snorkelers a chance to explore between continents.
You read that correctly. In Iceland, it’s possible to explore the inside of a volcano. Þríhnúkagígur (Thrihnukagigur) is a dormant volcano whose magma chamber mysteriously drained back into the earth’s mantle, as if someone pulled the plug. A lift descends 120 meters into the gigantic chamber (the Statue of Liberty would fit inside with room to spare), giving visitors a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore and learn about volcanoes.
Despite a humble population of around 200,000, it turns out that Reykjavik, the northernmost capital in the world, actually boasts an exhilarating nightlife. Tourists and locals alike jostle for space in the downtown area’s bars, lounges, cafes and clubs, with loads of varied options jammed into one pleasantly walkable area. It’s loud, fun, and totally crazy; there must be something in the air up here.
Landmannalaugar also happens to be the starting point (or end) of the famous Laugavegur Trail. Consistently ranked as one of the best long-distance hiking trails in the world, this 5-day hike takes in the mind-bending and dramatic volcanic highlands between Landmannalaugar and Thórsmörk. You’ll be constantly floored by the scenery and it’s no surprise that the route gets busy. Pre-booking your spot in the mountain huts is essential.
There’s no better way to thwart Iceland’s wind and chilly temperatures than by enjoying one of its natural hot springs. The volcanic energy bubbling away underneath Iceland brings with it an abundance of hot water, diverted to homes, swimming pools, and spas such as the Blue Lagoon. However, in other places it’s left to collect in natural pools by itself, perfect for a soak and travelers trying to save a buck or two.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is an expansive body of water in southeast Iceland, filled with drifting icebergs that have broken off the nearby glacier. Lagoon boat tours are popular, but walking along the lake’s shores to admire the icebergs is just as nice. Currents eventually pull them out to sea, only to wash them back onto the coast of black sand, forming a beautiful and natural sculpture gallery.
Icelanders love their swimming pools. There are more pools per capita than anywhere else, filled with the geothermal water found throughout the country. The pools also feature hot tubs, a place for locals to kick back and discuss the country’s latest gossip. But before you dish your own goss, etiquette demands you strip off in the changeroom and give yourself a good scrubbing in the shower – don’t be shy now! For unique spots, we like Hreppslaug Swimming Pool where water from hot springs is led directly into the hot tubs and pool.
Why is this one of the best things to do in Iceland? Because eating these questionable dishes is a great way to bond with locals. Iceland’s harsh climate forced the early settlers to cure, pickle and ferment anything they could in order to survive. Your best chance to try some will be in January around Thorrablot festival: a midwinter festival honoring the Pagan Gods.
Another of Iceland’s special winter-only activities is to visit Vatnajökull: one of the natural ice caves that form underneath the glaciers. During the summer it’s too dangerous to get inside, but come winter these caves freeze over and stabilize just enough to host visitors. It’s a special feeling delving into one to hear the deep cracking and drips of a glacier above you.
The Golden Circle is the busiest little corner of the country, thanks largely to its accessibility as a day tour from Reykjavik. But busy doesn’t equal boring. The route is made up of some inspiring sights: Thingvellir National Park, where Iceland’s parliament was born; the erupting Geysir, from which all others are named; and Gullfoss, an incredibly mighty waterfall tumbling down from the highlands.
Skaftafell is a popular hiking destination in southeast Iceland, nestled between two giant arms of the Vatnajökull glacier. Part of the expansive Vatnajökull National Park, you’ll find plenty of trails that explore a surprisingly verdant area of wild heath, creeping glacier tongues, black sands and rushing rivers. A popular trail heads to Svartifoss, a picture-perfect waterfall cascading in front of a wall of black basalt columns.
Come summertime, over 13 different types of whales can be found frolicking through Iceland’s fjords and around its coast. Húsavík in Iceland’s north has become the capital of all things whale-watching, with particularly bountiful waters drawing in over half the species of Icelandic whales. Sailing tours leave from the harbor, giving visitors a chance to see blue whales, humpbacks, minke and even orcas.
Iceland in winter is a special place to be, but one attraction trumps all others: the northern lights. Coldly shimmering, weaving and dancing over Iceland from September to April, seeing the aurora borealis is one of the best experiences you’ll have in your lifetime. Either check the forecast yourself or book on one of the many northern light tours that leave from Reykjavik.
In a bid to lure tourists off the ring road, in 2019 Iceland unveiled a brand-new driving route: the Arctic Coast Way. Traversing over 900km of northern coastline, this is elemental Iceland at its best. From soaring mountains and craggy cliffs to sweeping black sand beaches and giant sundials, it’s perfect for those looking to get off the beaten path.
Reynisfjara black sand beach on the south coast is the perfect place to come to grips with Iceland’s powerful energy. This spot makes you feel insignificant, with birds wheeling around cliffs, winds ripping at your clothes, and powerful waves snarling at the shore. At one end rises cliffs of basalt columns, but make sure to always keep an eye on the water – waves have been known to sweep unsuspecting visitors out to sea.
40km off Iceland’s north coast is Grimsey island, the only part of the country that crosses into the Arctic Circle. The small population of around 60 people are a hardy bunch, made up of courageous fishermen and their families. Come summer, birds outnumber humans about 10,000 to one, their constant cries under 24 hours of sunlight a stark reminder that you’re far from home. Catch the Dalvík ferry.
As you travel around Iceland, you’ll notice a whole lot of horses. Often mistaken for ponies (don’t let an Icelander hear you call them that), this unique breed of horses is friendly, inquisitive, and perfectly suited for the harsh Icelandic climate. They’ve been here since the early settlers arrived, so riding tours are a great way to connect with the country’s history and culture.
Producers of the wildly popular TV series Game of Thrones were big fans of Iceland as a shooting location. Touring these spots has become a popular activity for mega-fans of the show. The most famous locations are Kirkjufell on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula (the arrowhead mountain north of the wall), and Grjótagjá, the hot spring inside a cave where Jon Snow and Ygritte shared their secret tryst.
When the thought of soaking in another hot spring makes you sigh, make your way instead to Bjórböðin Beer Spa in Árskógssandur, North Iceland. Here you can bathe in a soothing mixture of beer, water, hops, and yeast that is great for your skin and general health. There are even a few handy draft taps on either side of the baths, filled with frothy and very drinkable Icelandic beer.
Every November Iceland Airwaves takes over Reykjavik for one of the most eclectic music festivals in the world. Bars, restaurants, and public spaces across the city convert themselves into live music venues, hosting the hundreds of artists that play every night. There’s a focus on upcoming artists; expect to discover your new favourite band, and then expect to replace them with another an hour later.
It’s no secret that Icelanders love a good party. The first weekend in August is a big holiday weekend in Iceland, but it’s the Westman Islands where things really kick off. This little volcanic archipelago hosts the biggest party in the country, with thousands of Icelanders making their way to the island Heimaey to camp out, watch some live bands, and party in a spectacular natural amphitheater.
The center of Iceland, known as the Highlands, is a barren and windswept plateau, uninhabitable and unforgiving. But for travelers, there’s no better place to get off the grid. Only accessible during summer and with a 4×4, this is Iceland at its most extreme. Rough tracks connect the popular stops, traversing lava fields and across rushing glacial rivers to get to them. A trip here takes some serious planning.
Finally, one of the best aspects of a summer trip to Iceland is the nearly endless daylight. The longest day of the year falls around June 20 when the sun just grazes the horizon before curling back into the sky. Everyone still goes to bed at regular time, leaving the country tantalizingly empty. It’s really the perfect time to escape for some isolated time in Iceland’s landscapes.
There’s no better way to explore Iceland than by road trip – so jump in the car, turn up the tunes, and hit Ring Road. This is the main highway that circles the country, connecting major towns and traversing Iceland’s majestic landscapes. Is Iceland expensive? You bet. Hopping in a car and hitting the road is a great way for travelers to see the country on any budget.