Wild, windswept and caked with icecaps from south to Arctic north, Iceland is a land of steaming volcanos and enchanting fishing towns, rugged canyons and colossal fjords, bubbling hot springs and buzzing vodka bars. Here, we take a look at 15 of the top spots that every traveler to this Scandinavian island should have on the menu (along with the uber-fresh fish of course!).
Lets explore the best places to visit in Iceland:
1. The Blue Lagoon
Bubbling and steaming between the rocky promontories of the Reykjanes Peninsula some 40 kilometers from the island’s capital at Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon hails in as one of Iceland’s most visited tourist attractions. Despite its volcanic nature, the site is actually very young; formed from the leftover plugholes of a geothermal power plant in the 1970s. Still, the location amidst the ridges around Grindavik is truly enchanting, while the waters come packed with minerals – the reason for the shimmering, whitish hue of the lagoon and the driving force behind the spot’s famed healing powers. Visitors to the lagoon can also enjoy in-water massages, guided tours of the curious geothermal area and luxury lounge facilities besides.
2. Gullfoss Waterfall
Visitors will find the majestic Gullfoss Waterfall roaring over the escarpments and bluffs of south-western Iceland. It’s famed as one of the most dramatic cataracts in the world, and cascades over a series of stepped rocks and terraces before plunging over the 32-meter high crevice that gives the fall its distinct appearance of disappearing into the Icelandic subterrane. The falls themselves can often be found arched over by rainbows or shrouded in plumes of mist, while by summer, the surrounding hills and ridges come dressed in a verdant covering of grass that makes a fine backdrop for hiking around the banks of the Hvita River.
The small and sleepy fishing town of Grundarfjordur makes its home on the ice-caked edge of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where some of West Iceland’s most curious coastal formations edge their way up to the waters of the Greenland Sea. And while hiking and cliff trekking abounds in the surrounding national park and Grundarfjordur itself is known for its earthy summer folk festivals courtesy of the local Viking Foundation, the town is unquestionably most famed as the jump off point for seeing (and photographing for most) the striking profile of Mount Kirkjufell, which lurches like a rocky shark fin amidst the waterfalls and coves of Snaefellsnes.
4. Myrdalsjokull Glacier Park
Caked in ice all year round, the soaring ridges of the mighty Katla caldera play host to Iceland’s wild and arctic Myrdalsjokull Glacier Park. This snow-packed field encompasses hundreds of square kilometers and represents the fourth-largest of its kind in the country. It’s known for its otherworldly appearance, as verdant peaks poke their way out above the ice-carved valleys, metamorphic creations crowd above the crevasses and quick sand pools lurk on the edges of Solheimajokul – one of the most striking offshoots of the Myrdalsjokull Glacier. Guided hiking is uber-popular here, with spots like the Fimmvorduhals pass and the ridges of Eyjafjallajokull both offering daring getaways.
A deep-cut valley set in the very midst of south-western Iceland’s famous Fjallabak Nature Reserve, the Landmannalaugar is a hidden gem of a destination that comes complete with everything from bubbling volcanic hot springs to ochre-coloured mountain ridges. Hiking trails surround the entire region, while a campsite right in the middle of the Landmannalaugar and a separate mountain hut offer outdoorsy types the base point they need for hitting the famous Laugavegur trail. The piece de resistance of the area has to be the Brennisteinsalda peak though; a medley of obsidian lava sheets and iron-coloured, sulphur-spotted ridges which is viewable from the trail.
At once sophisticated and quirky, hedonistic and happening, Reykjavik packs one hefty punch for the northernmost capital city on the planet. Its charming downtown of painted timber homes is watched over by the soaring and unforgettable needle-like spire of the Hallgrimskirkja – now a veritable icon of the Icelandic city – while oodles of hearty Scandinavian vodka bars and taverns coalesce between the streets. Nearby, the beautiful Tjornin pool adds an aquatic edge to the town, while the Alpingi parliament building oozes 19th-century charm and the centre pulses with the likes of the National Gallery of Iceland, the Hafnarhus and the fascinating ancient ruins of the 871±2. In short, this one’s not to be missed!
7. Vatnajokull National Park
Crowned by the seemingly endless ice fields of its eponymous glacier (the largest on the continent outside of the Arctic Circle), the Vatnajokull National Park makes its home over more than 13,000 square kilometers of south-east and central Iceland. The area is famed for the great variation in landscapes, rolling from the flower-packed meadows and roaring waterfalls (don’t miss the famous Dettifoss Fall!) that run through the Skaftafell lowlands (where there are also camping sites aplenty by summer) to the windswept, crevasse-cut glacial fields on the mountaintops. The wetlands here play host to roaming reindeer, while mighty Hvannadalshnukur (the country’s highest point) stands high and the rugged interior of the Eldgja canyon showcases some truly wondrous volcanic geology – there’s loads to see!
Borgarnes may just look like a small dash of whitewashed timber in its position sandwiched between the coastal plains, the rising peaks of the Hafnarfjall massif and the waters of the Borgarfjordur a little north out of Reykjavik. But this humble fishing town on the edge of the sea actually has mythic roots, in the pages of the Egils Saga, and later the spot became the commercial trading centre for all of west Iceland. That means travelers can expect an array of shopping opportunities and the likes of the Settlement Centre Museum, which chronicles the earliest days of Borgarnes, all alongside the more obvious draws of the surroundings: coastal hiking; whale spotting; those indelible hot springs!
9. Asbyrgi Canyon
Carving its way out of the rocky inland of north-east Iceland, the chiselled gorges and ridges of Asbyrgi rarely fail to draw a gasp. In all, the sheer-sided edges of the canyon run for more than three kilometers and come in at a whopping 100 meters in height at some points. Hiking trails can be found piercing deep into the river-carved, glacial valley, weaving past tussock meadows, willow and birch groves and the ancient features of Ice Age cliffs. The spot is also shrouded in Norse legend; thought to have been created by the footfall of Odin’s mythic horse, Sleipnir.
Off-the-beaten-track and often overlooked for the southern region’s bigger pulls – the Gullfoss Waterfall and the Golden Circle – Skalholt can be found sat on the rolling fields just on the edge of the Hvita River. Believe it or not, this small, snow-dusted centre in the wilds was actually one of the most powerful and important spots in the country from the 11th century onwards, and came to be hailed as the epicentre of Icelandic Catholicism. Today, the town is crowned by the oversized Skalholt Cathedral, which was virtually entirely rebuilt in the 1900s, complete with elegant Danish stained-glass pieces.
The self-proclaimed capital of North Iceland can come as a real surprise. Despite its humble 18,000 people, this fishing port and seaside gem of a city on the edges of the Eyjafjordur makes some serious waves. Its centre is packed to the brim with interesting independent cafes and teahouses, while the Hafnarstraeti shopping street offers up countless boutiques and craft stores. Meanwhile, the twin spires of Akureyri Church mimic the snow-mantled summits that shroud the town on all sides, and the local craze for mayo-doused, chip-packed hamburger buns has now become a legend in its own right. Yes sir, Akureyri really is worth the visit!
12. The Westfjords
Jagged and jutting like fingers of rock and stone into the icy rollers of the Greenland Sea, the various tendrils of the Westfjords peninsula are surely amongst the most startling and worthy natural wonders in all of Iceland. A walker’s paradise, they come complete with spots like the Hornstrandir reserve, with its Arctic foxes and seal pods, and the Latrabjarg (Europe’s westernmost point if you don’t count the Azores). Then there is gloriously-set Isafjordur, found clinging to a spit of sand on the edge of the ocean and boasting a history going all the way back to the 9th century! Sea kayaking, cliff walking and hitting the shimmering sands of Raudasandur are also all favourites.
13. Lake Myvatn
Situated just east out of the so-called northern capital of Akureyri, Lake Myvatn offers up a truly otherworldly landscape that ranges from craggy craters to curious volcanic plug holes to bubbling mud pools and oodles more. It’s thought the lake popped into existence following a volcanic eruption more than two millennia ago, and today it’s much-loved by bird watchers, hikers and adventure seekers alike. Top attractions in the area include the Namaskard mud pools, the black lava monoliths of Dimmuborgir, hike-able Vindbelgjarfjall at just over 500 meters above sea level and the sulphuric Myvatn Nature Baths (great if you don’t want the crowds of the Blue Lagoon!).
14. Thingvellir National Park
A symphony of volcanic ridges and continental cracks, carved canyons and the flowing cataracts of the mighty Oxara River, the Thingvellir National Park is arguably the most beautiful natural enclave in all of Iceland. Not only is it easily accessible from Reykjavik, but also comes complete with totemic sites like the Silfra fissure and the Peningagja pool, a rift lake that glimmers with coins dating back more than 100 years. Thingvellir is also a hiker’s dream-come-true, boasting rugged cliff walks and mountain climbs, while history and culture buffs will love uncovering the remains of the country’s first Viking age parliament – established here in 930.
Boasting a truly dramatic location on the small islets and finger-like peninsulas that linger in the Atlantic waters off the Hornafjordur, little Hofn is a prime example of a southern Icelandic fishing town. As one of the favoured gateways to the wilds of East Iceland and the Vatnajokull National Park, the spot is a great choice for travelers eager to delve into some of the country’s top bucket-list natural sights, while a folk museum, the Ice Land Glacier Exhibition and arguably the best lobster eateries in all of Europe make lingering here for a day or two a fantastic way to get a feel for the rustic, salt-washed vibe of the seafaring locals.