Whether you like to admire the beauty of nature, or you prefer to get to know about the history and culture of different nations, visit Iceland. This unique Nordic country combines the wonders of nature, such as hot springs, geysers, volcanoes, and lava fields, with the magnificent monuments of the Viking epoch.
Though most of the Icelandic population lives in the capital Reykjavik, they are always ready to travel anywhere within their land to experience its unique landscape and beauty. They’ll also readily give travelers useful advice about where to go, things to do, and what to see in Iceland.
Here is our list of the best things to do in Iceland:
1. Snæfellsjökull Volcano & Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Plan a trip to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, where you will see an entire diversity of landscapes. Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000-year-old stratovolcano in western Iceland with glaciers on top, is the centerpiece, a twin-peaked monster surrounded by lava fields with a great view of the coastline from the summit. The area is part of the Snæfellsjökull National Park (Þjóðgarðurinn Snæfellsjökull), formed in 2001.
Reaching the Snæfellsnes Peninsula can be a bit lengthy if coming straight from Reykjavik, but it’s well worth the trip. A bus ride from the capital takes about 4.5 hours, but you’ll shave off a big chunk of that if you rent a car yourself, making it a 3-hour drive. A fun fact for book lovers – Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth has Snæfellsjökull where the protagonists locate the passage’s entrance which leads towards Earth’s center.
2. Iceland’s Southern Region & Beaches
South Coast beaches of Iceland are truly unique. Though the coastline is rocky—think glaciers and erosion—it’s the glacial flooding here that made the southern part of Iceland flat and covered the beach with black sand. To admire its beauty at full, head to the village Vík í Mýrdal, where nearby you can visit two basalt pillars off the coast (called Reynisdrangar), believed to be trolls who were stuck in the light of the sun. From there, you can also walk to the huge sea-arch of Dyrhólaey and get magnificent views of the area from its top.
If you travel farther to the east, you will have a great view of Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon, and Breiðamerkursandur, known as Diamond Beach. There are a lot of icebergs in the lagoon floating slowly towards the ocean. The colors are really beautiful here: blue and white, black and green, provided by the surf and ice, black sand and the Northern Lights.
3. Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa
One of the most visited sites in Iceland is the geothermal spa known as the Blue Lagoon. The water here is milky blue as it contains a lot of minerals, particularly silicon dioxide. With water temperatures averaging 37–39°C (99–102°F), visitors come from far and wide to bathe and swim. Silica masks are quite popular among visitors, too.
Nature is incredible here, and it is a must-see Iceland for everyone who enjoys the wildlife – the landscapes of the volcanic Reykjanes Peninsula are haunting and stark. Gray moss and a veil of steam cover the lava fields, and the place is perfect for an awesome start or end of a traveling holiday; it is located ten minutes away from Keflavik International Airport, and it takes only thirty minutes to get there from Reykjavik.
4. Whale Watching Boat Tours
The country’s waters are definitely among the top things to see in Iceland, and whale-watching is a commonly combined activity. More than twenty species of porpoises, dolphins, and whales live around the island. Take a boat tour from Reykjavik or Akureyri to the Westfjords where you will be able to watch whales from the shore. Or, head to the town of Húsavík, considered to be a whale-watching center of Europe.
5. The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
This wild place is one of the least populated, and it is home to thousands of seabirds living on the high cliffs and the Arctic fox inhabiting its overgrown fields. The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve area, reachable by ferries, is closely associated with the Sagas, and it is still so abandoned that it inspires modern authors to create and recreate their best masterpieces.
6. The Eastfjords
Austurland, or the Eastern Region, is the easternmost area of Iceland. If you are looking for peace and tranquility, many of the best things to do in Iceland can be found here. It is full of dramatic mountain passes, cliff edges, and seascapes, and you can reward yourself with an incredible view of the picturesque central glacier in the Vatnajökull National park.
The area is abundant in wildlife: innumerable marine creatures swim in the waters, dozens of bird species make nests on the cliffs, and reindeer roam free throughout. The only car ferry which connects Iceland with Europe docks once a week in the town of Seyðisfjörður.
7. Take the Golden Circle Tour
The Golden Circle Tour is just about the most popular sightseeing route to take for visitors to Iceland. Whether you go yourself or book one of the many paid and guided sightseeing tours, the Golden Circle is a can’t-miss opportunity.
What is the Golden Circle Tour?
The Golden Circle Tour starts from Reykjavik and circles around towards Iceland’s center, hitting three of the country’s most popular sights: the Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir, and the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) national park. The full loop starting in the capital, hitting all three sites, and returning to the capital is approximately 300 km (190 mi) and takes about 5 hours—but you can easily take your time and make it a full-day trip.
The Þingvellir (Thingvellir) national park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site with many old stone ruins, lava fields, and crystal transparent streams. It is where the the Alþing (Althing), Iceland’s parliament, met from the 10th to 18th centuries. The North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian tectonic plate meet at Þingvellir, which is why the park has a massive rift valley.
Geysir is a geyser in Iceland which has been shown to have been active for around 10 millennia. Steam and hot water can erupt up to 70 m (230 ft) in the air. Geysir is also where the English word geyser comes from. It is one of many geysers found in the Haukadalur valley, and nearby is the tourist-favorite Strokkur, which erupts approximately every 10 minutes.
Gullfoss, meaning “golden falls” in the Icelandic language, is a picturesque waterfall located in southwest Iceland in the Hvítá river canyon. It contains two tiers of water powered down into the valley formed by the late Ice Age.
8. Folk Culture Tours to Meet the Supernatural
Up to 90% of Icelanders believe in supernatural beings, depending on which study you consider. (A survey among college students shows that only 5% believe in the existence of the supernatural.) Either way, Icelanders’ spiritual connection with their folklore history is quite strong.
Many folk culture tours will lead you to the roots of the country’s folklore, and you will hear a lot of stories about petrified trolls, elves, and the heroes of the Sagas. All the Golden Circle tours contain a large chunk of the Sagas background. If you visit Borgarnes, you will see the complete exhibition of Egil’s Saga at The Settlement Center. (To prepare, check out our guide on the various deities of travel!)
9. Photography in Ásbyrgi Canyon
Ásbyrgi is a glacial canyon and natural wonder located in northeast Iceland. According to local beliefs, this horseshoe-shaped canyon was formed when Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, put a hoof to the ground here; Ásbyrgi has been nicknamed Sleipnir’s footprint because of this. The valley is green and picturesque allowing for great photos, and it is greatly valued by tourists as one of the top free things to do in Iceland. You can also view the magnificent nature from the cliffs and the top of the central plateau.
10. The Skaftafell Nature Reserve
Consumed now into the larger Vatnajökull National Park, Skaftafell is a nature reserve with a landscape similar to that of the Alps. Thought to show the great battle between fire and ice, here you can see green forests and beautiful streams, as well as black lava fields. Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap in Iceland and second-largest in Europe, has formed the tongues and lagoons, as well as black basalt columns where the Svartifoss waterfall flows down.
11. Game of Thrones Places in Iceland
HBO’s Games of Thrones serial, though over, remains closely connected with Iceland. Countless scenes were shot here, owing to its magnificent landscapes, glaciers, volcanoes, mountain ranges, and lagoons. There are several tours available to allow exploring the stunning Iceland sights connected to the Game of Thrones show, but here are a few:
- Hengilssvæðið (Hengill mountain)
- Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon
- Gjáin (Þjórsárdalur Valley)
- Mýrdalsjökull glacier
- Þjórsárdalur Valley
12. The Mývatn Lake Area
Mývatn is a lake in northern Iceland situated in an active volcanic area. Located about an hour’s drive from the town of Akureyri, the Mývatn region features lakes formed due to volcano eruptions more than two millennia ago. Dimmuborgir, or dark castles, is a nearby field of lava with weirdly shaped volcanic rock structures. The famous Grjótagjá is a lava cave with a thermal spring within, and tourists love to go there to bathe in the 50°C (122°F) water, definitely among the most popular places to go in Iceland. The second most powerful waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss, is located not far from Mývatn.
13. City Tours Around Reykjavik
Reykjavik is renowned for its architecture, museums, festivals, and cuisine, and it makes sense, as it was historically the first place on the island to be inhabited. A walking tour may be the best option for you if you think about what to see in Iceland first or if you want to enjoy the amazing street art and murals, historic places like Tjornin, or the Sun Voyager sculpture. Famous churches and museums are reachable in only two-and-a-half hours by foot.
You may also opt for a bus sightseeing tour if you have more time to spend in the capital. With it, you can travel around the place spending as much time as you like at every destination, hopping on and off where and when you please.
14. Icelandic Food and Drink Tours
Iceland is a northern country, barren and volcanic in parts, without a great diversity of edible plants and animals. However, its cuisine is quite interesting and unique. So, if you are a foodie and party-goer, indulge the Icelandic bars, pubs, and restaurants in Reykjavik on a special food and drink tour, ranking among the top activities in Iceland.
You will be able to taste kjötsupa, a traditional lamb meat soup, hrútspungaror, a ram’s testicles, hangikjöt, smoked lamb, klenät, fried pastries, skyr, the famous Icelandic yogurt, or the notoriously pungent hákarl, a fermented Greenland shark, if you are daring enough. Wash it all down with some Brennivín, Iceland’s signature schnapps-like beverage.
15. Culture Tours Across the Country
The cultural background of Iceland is quite diverse, as every village in the country has its own story to tell and a contribution to the folklore of the nation. If you don’t know what to do in Iceland, a cultural tour would be well worth your time and money.
Siglufjörður is an old fishing village famous for the Herring Era Museum, the largest maritime museum in Iceland and the only one in Iceland to receive the prestigious European Museum Award. Eskifjörður is seemingly unchanged since 1890, and you can there visit a large rare stone collection. Hveragerði is the core of food culture and horticulture.
Also, check out the Goðafoss Waterfall, called the “Waterfall of the Gods,” which is a symbol of Iceland abandoning the old Norse pagan gods in favor of Christianity. As the story goes, Thorgeir Thorkelsson, a lawspeaker in Iceland’s parliament in 1000 CE, finally favored Christianity following a full day of meditation. Legend has it that he threw the idols of the old pagan gods into Goðafoss, thus ending Iceland’s paganism and ushering in Christianity.
16. Catch the Northern Lights in Iceland
Because Iceland is so far north in latitude, it offers a great chance to catch the natural light display of the aurora borealis, or the northern lights. To have a chance at viewing the polar lights, visit Iceland sometime from late August to early April; the best times for the aurora borealis will be from the end of September to the middle of March.
17. Visit the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
Iceland is a land of waterfalls, among other natural beauties, and the Seljalandsfoss waterfall is one of the best. With a 60 m (197 ft) drop and a cave behind which visitors can walk through, it’s one of the most popular places to visit in Iceland. Seljalandsfoss is located at the very south of Iceland.
18. Keep Exploring Iceland!
If you ask native Icelanders what they recommend, what the most stunning things in their land are, they’ll be unable to give you an exact answer, or at least a unanimous one. Everything in Iceland is unique, magnificent, and fascinating.
So, use these tips above on where to go in Iceland to plan your trip in the most efficient way possible. Just keep in mind that it is impossible to see the whole country if you have but a spare weekend; Iceland deserves way more time, and it deserves for you to venture outside its capital city Reykjavik. Once you are introduced with the country and the various things to do in Iceland, you are sure to fall in love and return over and over again.
Well, that’s our article on Icelandic activities! Do you have any questions, comments, or suggestions on the best things to see in Iceland? Let’s chat below in the comments, and thanks for reading!