You’ve surely read about Iceland’s glaciers, volcanoes and hot springs, well in the South Iceland region you can live them.
The most convenient way in is to drive the Golden Circle, which has the site of Europe’s oldest parliament, the thunderous Gullfoss waterfall and the geyser that gave all other geysers their name, all on one itinerary.
Or to dig a little deeper, you can haul yourself across a glacier with an ice axe, step onto a beach with pitch black sands, bathe in a geothermal river and visit waterfall after waterfall, and be lost for words each time.
The region is imbued with a sense of spectacle and magic, so it’s no wonder that each canyon, waterfall and volcano has a romantic back-story steeped in mythology and folklore from the Settlement period.
Let’s explore the best things to do in South Iceland:
A National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Þingvellir has real historical and cultural meaning to match its geological importance.
This was the location for the Althing, the oldest parliament in Europe, held since 930 and taking place here until 1798. Chieftains in the eastern part of the Iceland would have to travel for as long as 17 days to reach this place.
Þingvellir also lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the dividing line between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, and driving from Reykjavik you’ll make that transition by descending a sheer cliff from the North America to Eurasia.
Where that rocky boundary has collapsed you’ll find the Almannagjá gorge, for hikes between plates that are separating at two centimetres a year.
The broad Hvítá (White River) plummets 32 metres at this exhilarating double waterfall.
There’s wonderful drama to the falls at Gullfoss, as the splash pool in the crevasse is obscured when you approach on the path, to the point where it looks like the river is emptying into an endless chasm.
Above the two drops of the waterfall (11 metres and 21 metres) is a cascade with three steps, and the volume of water rushing over the falls varies wildly depending on the season.
In summer when it channels rainwater and glacial runoff the discharge is a raging 140 cubic metres a second.
In winter people stop by for photos of the northern lights behind the falls.
The final member of the triumvirate of staggering natural sights on the Golden Circle is the original geyser, Geysir.
This high-powered spring has been hurling boiling water up to 70 metres into the air for more than 10,000 years.
At the moment Geysir is going through one of its quiet phases, but in the 17th century it was so powerful that the whole area would shake when it erupted.
But just because Geysir is mostly inactive at the moment, doesn’t mean you’ll miss out as Strokkur forces water to a height of 15 metres and is one of about 30 geysers and colourful hot pools nearby.
There’s a gift shop and cafe at the park, and admission in 2018 was ISK 600.
4. Reynisfjara Beach
As far as savage Atlantic beaches go, Reynisfjara has it all.
The sand is jet black and thickens into rounded pebbles the closer you get to the strange basalt columns behind that resemble the pipes of a giant organ.
Out to sea are majestic basalt stacks.
According to folklore these are two trolls who tried to drag a three-masted ship to land, becoming massive needles stranded in the water when the sun came up.
Reynisfjara Beach is not to be taken lightly and is known for its sneaker waves, which can literally sneak up the beach and catch people off balance.
So it’s best to go carefully and always face the ocean.
As enchanting as any of the sights on this list, Skógafoss is a 60-metre-high waterfall on the Skóga River, flanked by verdant cliffs.
If you can choose a time to come to Skógafoss, make it a sunny day when the falls’ spray causes a bright rainbow.
Something interesting about these cliffs is that they used to be on the coast, and have shifted inland five kilometre with the tectonic plate.
There’s a legend that the first Viking settler in area, Þrasi Þórólfsson, left a treasure chest in the cave behind the waterfall.
When locals found the chest they could only grasp the ring, which came off and was used as the handle on the church door.
You can use Skógafoss as the first stop on a hike along the Skóga, encountering a string of sublime falls like Brúarfoss and Miðfoss, just a few hundred metres apart.
Open June to August, Skogasafn is an outdoor museum revealing life and work in Iceland in the 20th century.
There are 13 buildings on the site, many with the typical Icelandic turf roofs, and each filled with antique furniture, tools for fishing and farming, traditional costume, cooking implements and handicrafts.
There are also artefacts going back to the Viking age like the original ring from the church door.
You’ll see the historical importance of furs in Iceland, and can sit at a desk in an early-20th-century classroom, which has its own vintage organ.
There’s also an exhibition about the progress of technology and transportation in the 19th and 20th century, including a postal van from the 1910s and an amphibious rescue vehicle.
On the Golden Circle and one of the Tjarnarholar row of craters, Kerið is a lake in volcanic basin that has milky teal-coloured water in vivid contrast to the dark red and black of the crater’s slopes.
For a long time this depression was believed to be a crater caused by a 3,000-year-old explosion, but recent studies have revealed it to be a collapsed magma chamber caused by an eruption 6,000 years ago.
Kerið has a depth of 55 metres, and this includes its pool of water, which sits level with the subterranean water table and is not caused by rainfall.
The Þjórsá, Iceland’s longest river at 230 kilometres, also has the second largest volume.
At Urriðafoss, on the edge of the Þjórsárhraun lava field, the river roars over a six metre drop.
What’s dumbfounding about these falls is that salmon somehow manage to travel upriver.
It’s been claimed that these fish have unusually long tailbones to be able to propel themselves up Urriðafoss.
That Þjórsárhraun lava field close by is the result of the largest flow of lava on the planet since the Ice Age.
9. Vík í Mýrdal
The southernmost of village in Iceland, Vík has a slightly precarious location between the North Atlantic and the active Katla glacier-volcano.
Katla last erupted in 1918 and another eruption is due any time, which might have serious consequences for the village.
The location is positively idyllic, in the gorgeous Mýrdal valley, which is watered by glacial rivers flowing down from Katla and another dominant glacier, Mýrdalsjökull.
When summer comes you can go fishing for trout in the Heiðarvatn lake, cross the terrain in an amphibious vehicle and go for hikes through the lush pastures.
A campsite here has a kitchen with a fireplace inside a natural cave.
The greenery of the valley against the dark pillars of the Reynisdrangar sea stacks are a photographer’s dream.
Cut by the run-off from a glacial lake at the end of the last Ice Age, some 9,000 years ago, Fjaðrárgljúfur is an awesome canyon 100 metres deep up almost two kilometres long.
The gorge is narrow and twisting and has precipitous walls.
The stone underfoot is two million -year-old palagonite, caused by the interaction of water with volcanic glass.
Rough-and-ready hikers can choose to journey up the canyon floor, sometimes wading through the water and walking to the foot of waterfall.
On the other hand you can stay above, on the rim of the canyon, peering down into the abyss every now and again.
Rightly billed as one of the world’s best hiking trails, the 55-kilometre Laugavegur starts at the Landmannalaugar hot springs, and two to four days later will bring you to the Thórsmörk natural reserve.
The reason this trail is so treasured is the variety of natural features on the route.
There are deserts of black scree, hot springs, densely wooded valleys, volcanic peaks and views to glaciers.
The window to make this journey is open June to August, and there are huts and campsites to stay overnight.
And even if you feel like you couldn’t be further from civilisation there are scheduled daily buses serving both ends of the trail from Reykjavik.
This peninsula or promontory, depending on your definition, rises 120 metres above the lashing waves, and resting on top is a lone lighthouse built like castle.
A stone’s throw from Vík í Mýrdal, Dyrhólaey is a birdwatcher’s idea of heaven, as in summer puffins nest in the cracks in the cliff face.
There are restrictions to protect the nesting site in this season, so it pays to do some research before setting off.
Natural arches have been worn from Dyrhólaey’s dark lava.
Gazing east you can see the ominous Reynisdrangar stacks, while to the west is the haunting dark seascape where Selfoss joins the ocean.
Not far north of Vík í Mýrdal and attached to the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap, Sólheimajökull is a glacial tongue perforated with crevasses, sinkholes and ridges, in an environment that is in a constant state of flux.
The only way to tackle the glacier is with an ice axe and crampons on a guided trek, with an expert who will be able to keep you safe and tell you more about its make-up and history.
In places you’ll see stratified cross-sections of ice, hundreds of years old and in mesmerising blue tones.
At the top you’ll be able to see as far as Eyjafjallajökull, which made international headlines when it erupted in 2010.
14. Reykjadalur Valley
Half an hour out of Reykjavík is another lush valley full of bubbling mud pools and steaming fumaroles.
As it happens, Reykjadalur means “Steam Valley”, and from the car park you have to set off on a three-kilometre walking trail to get there.
True to form in Iceland the valley is wonderfully diverse, with a set of cascades, neon shocks of sulphur, wildflowers and enigmatic plumes of steam wafting around.
The trail is a popular route for treks on the beautiful Icelandic horses.
Eventually you’ll arrive at a stretch of river traced by wooden boardwalks where you can bathe safely.
The is fed by hot springs at the top of the valley, so the water temperature rises the higher you go.
15. Fimmvörðuháls Hiking Trail
The “Five Cairns Pass” in English, this trail runs from Skógar near the coast to Thórsmörk, passing through the Fimmvörðuháls pass between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers.
The route is 22 kilometres long and makes a vertical ascent of just over 1,000 metres on the way.
The trail had to be closed after the volcano beneath Eyjafjallajökull erupted, but was soon reopened, only with very different scenery to what had come before.
If you fancy a week-long volcanic adventure you can combine the Fimmvörðuháls Hiking Trail with Laugavegur, which we spoke about earlier.