Iceland is known for its contrasting landscapes that literally cause the earth here to smoke and erupt under your feet. Being located so far north, Iceland is a country that seems to be perpetually covered in snow and ice, but underground it is a different story, and this is actually one of the most volcanic regions in the world, with a huge number of active volcanoes ready to erupt at any moment.
This contrast also means that you will find a huge amount of geothermal activity here which has given rise to famous natural spas such as the Blue Lagoon and other ancient warm water pools. If you like cities, then you can enjoy the engaging capital of Reykjavik which has one of the best hidden dining and nightlife scenes in Europe, but if you are a nature lover then you will be absolutely spoiled for choice on a trip here. As well as volcanoes and geothermal lakes, you can find glittering glaciers, underground caves, and elegant national parks covered with wandering reindeer.
Whatever you are looking for, Iceland is also a land of myths and legends, and you can tour the country learning of trolls, elves, giants, and mythical creatures that all add to the allure of this mysterious yet inviting country.
Here are the best things to do in Iceland:
1. Visit Snæfellsjökull National Park
Snæfellsjökull National Park sits on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and is best known for its signature glacier called Snæfellsjökull.
As well as the mighty glacier you can also enjoy amazing lava tubes and lava fields here and the site also attracts a wide range of local flora and fauna.
Nature lovers can go whale watching and bird watchers will find a plethora of local coastal species.
The park is covered in attractive hiking trails and you can climb up and walk along the glacier depending on the time of year.
Interestingly, it is this glacier that was featured in Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne.
2. Admire the Dynjandi Waterfall
Dynjandi is known for being one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Westfjords part of Iceland and is situated on the Dynjandivogur Bay.
The waterfall gives way to lots of smaller waterways as you ascend to its location before you finally see the main event, the raging waters of Dynjandi.
The area in which the waterfall sits is a protected nature reserve and there is also a camping area here if you want to stay and take in the majesty of the waters for a while longer.
Bear in mind however that the falls literally thunder over the side of a mountain so this is not the quietest area to lay your head.
3. Go hiking at Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
Much of Iceland is made up of far flung locations and craggy scenery, but Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is all of that and more.
The terrain here is spectacular and you will find dominating sea cliffs, thundering waterfalls, and romantic mountain bluffs.
Anyone who enjoys hiking should not miss the chance to go walking in one of the most remote parts of the country where you will have a good chance of seeing cute Arctic foxes as well as seals and the occasional whale.
If possible you need to come here in the summer season from June to August as outside of this period the weather is changeable and the park may be closed.
4. Observe the Tectonic Plates
The Tectonic Plates sit on the Þingvellir Plain which is the point between North America and Europe where the plates are shifting away from each other.
This movement causes cracks and rifts in the landscape and results in rivers, lakes, and ragged gulleys.
There is a path here that you can trace along the fault lines and watch this freak of nature up close.
Signature points to look out for here include the Öxará River which falls off the side of one of the plates leading to an epic series of waterfalls and the Drekkingarhylur Pool.
5. Spend time on Rauðasandur Beach
Rauðasandur Beach is a sight to behold as the sand here is pink and red and backs on to the Látrabjarg Peninsula.
Sunbathing is not really the most popular activity here as the weather in Iceland is not especially conducive to sunning yourself on the sand, but you will be able to go for a seaside walk and enjoy the pounding waves and the turquoise lagoon.
You can go for a stroll along the water’s edge and look out at the resident seals here, or you can take the coastal trail that stretches to the famous Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs which should be a hit with keen bird watchers.
6. Swim in the Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is probably the most famous attraction in Iceland and this is a geothermal spa which is made of heated seawater that is a striking turquoise color.
The waters here had long been said to have healing properties as they contain silica and other minerals and people flock here every year to treat a range of skin conditions and other ailments.
There is a clinic here for those seeking treatments as well as a luxury spa.
7. Visit Viking World
Viking World Museum will make you feel as if you have gone back in time and ended up in the Viking Age.
Here you will find a replica of a Viking ship from the 9th century called the Icelander which had the claim to fame of sailing across the Atlantic in 2000. You can explore the ship and wander underneath the hull as well as learn more about Viking history through a range of static and rotating exhibitions.
There is a section on fascinating Norse mythology as well as a Settlement Zoo and a Viking playground.
8. Hike along Asbyrgi Canyon
Sitting in the northeast of the country is the Asbyrgi Canyon which is in the shape of a horseshoe.
The canyon is 3.5 kilometers long and 1 kilometer wide and there is a cliff in the middle of it from which you will be able to take in the vistas over both sides.
In the bottom of the canyon you can walk through pine, birch, and fir forests and legend has it that the canyon is also the home of the ‘Hidden People’ who have lived in this mountainous area for centuries.
9. Enjoy the black sand of Djúpalón Beach
Djúpalón Beach in Snæfellsjökull National Park is famed for its dramatic black sands and creative rock formations, some of which are said to look like trolls and elfin churches.
There are also pretty rock arches and limpid pools dotting the sands and you may even find evidence of the Eding, a ship that was wrecked off the beach in 1948. This is one of the better beaches to visit in the area as for all its legends and myths it is also easy to access and has an asphalt road that leads straight to it through the park.
10. See the Northern Lights
Iceland is said to be one of the top spots in the world if you want to see the Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis.
To that end, if you are very lucky you may even be able to see them from the capital city of Reykjavik, although if you are staying in the city then it is best to travel to Seltjarnarnes where there is a much higher chance of success away from the light pollution.
11. Check out the animals on Puffin Island
Half a mile away from the capital city Reykjavik are the islands of Akurey and Lundey which are known for their gorgeous and cuddly puffin colonies.
Of the two Akurey is more famous as it has the larger puffin population and you can also see a plethora of other wildlife here including cormorants, ducks, seagulls, and guillemots.
The island is uninhabited but you can take a boat across from the mainland and watch the puffins nesting and tending to their young.
12. Photograph Hallgrimskirkja Church
Located in the capital city of Reykjavik is the Hallgrimskirkja Church which incidentally is the largest of its kind in Iceland.
You can take an elevator to the top of the hill on which the church sits and check out its amazing design.
The church is actually modeled on the Svartifoss Waterfall in the south of the country and you may also notice that it has a statue of Leif Ericsson outside who was famous for discovering North America in 1000 AD, some 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
13. Travel along the Golden Circle Route
If you don’t have a lot of time in Iceland but want to see as many of the top sights as quickly as possible then consider a tour along the Golden Circle Route.
Along the way you will find attractions such as the famous Thingvellir National Park, the Tectonic Plates, the spot on which the Icelandic Parliament used to sit in ancient times, and the Strokkur Geyser.
The route then moves on to the Gullfoss Waterfall and the Kerid Crater Lake.
14. Bathe in Lake Myvatn Geothermal Area
Around 90 kilometers away from Akureyri lies Lake Myvatn which has the claim to fame of being the fourth largest lake in Iceland.
The lake is said to have been formed as the result of a large volcanic eruption over 200 years ago and this area is still known for being prone to volcanic activity with a range of other volcanoes dotted around the landscape.
Legends abound at the lake and the area that surrounds it is covered with lava formations that are called Dark Cities and are said to be the spot where Satan fell to the ground having been banished from heaven.
He was then cast out from the region by elves who then reclaimed the Dark Cities as their own homes.
There are several spots here where the natural heat under the earth has warmed up some of the pools and you can bathe in the hot waters.
15. Hike in Skaftafell Park
Skaftafell Park spans an amazing 4,800 square kilometers and has some of the most unique landscapes on earth.
Much of the area is covered in thick bird wood forests as well as black volcanic sands and icy raging rivers.
There is also a famous ice cap here and you can hike all around the park following a series of trails that take you to sections such as the Black Fall where you will find a waterfall that tumbles over black basalt cliffs.
You will also find a blue lagoon which is studded with icebergs and you can take to the waters in a boat and get up close to these spectacular blocks of ice.
16. Have a drink at Olgerdin Brewery
Olgerdin Brewery is famous for being the oldest brewery in all of Iceland having first opened its doors in 1913. The brewery produces a range of alcoholic drinks as well as requisite Icelandic beer and you can take a tour which will fill you in on how beer has been made here through the ages.
There is also a chance to sample some of the products of the Olgerdin Brewery such as the schnapps and the beers and you can even try a honey wine that would have been the tipple of choice during the Viking Era.
17. Explore Thingvellir National Park
If you want to get out into the wilderness within easy reach of Reykjavik then consider Thingvellir National Park which is just 45 minutes away.
This is the spot where you will find the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the Tectonic Plates but it also offers a wealth of other attractions such as the Silfra Diving Spot which is said to be one of the best diving experiences in the world as it is directly above the rift between the plates of North America and Europe.
18. Visit Husey
Husey in the east of Iceland sits sandwiched between two mighty glacial rivers and is encircled by the majestic Eastern Mountains.
It is well known for its flora and fauna and you will find 175 different kinds of plants here as well as 30 species of birds.
Depending on the season you will also find graceful reindeer roaming around and you can find seals relaxing on some of the river banks that straddle the area.
19. Dive into the Seljavallalaug Pool
The Seljavallalaug Pool dates from 1923 which makes it one of the oldest swimming pools in the country.
The pool is part of a hillside at the base of a mountain and it is filled with water that pours down the side of the rock face.
As such, you can enjoy the warm geothermal waters here as well as admire the spectacular surrounding scenery at the same time.
20. Drive to Helka Volcano
Helka Volcano has the rather unfortunate claim to fame of being one of the most active volcanoes in the world and it rises to 1,500 meters.
The volcano first erupted in 1104 and has done so on and off every since, leading to it being described as the location of the Gates of Hell.
If it looks familiar to you, this may be because it has been used over the years as a film location, and it was most recently referenced in the film Prometheus where it was meant to represent an alien planet.
21. Go whale watching
You may think that you need to be far away from civilization to see whales but actually you can go on a whale watching tour from Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland.
There are trips that depart from the central harbor several times a day throughout the winter months and there are an amazing 23 different kinds of whales in the waters around Iceland including humpback and minke whales.
On a whale watching trip you can also expect to see puffins, dolphins, and a wide variety of sea birds.
22. Ride a skidoo at Langjokull Glacier
Nestled high in the mountains, the Langjokull Glacier is one of the best places to come if you want to spend time in one of the most scenic spots in Iceland while also engaging in a fun over ground activity in the form of riding a skidoo.
Once on the skidoo you will power over the slippery surface of the glacier and take in the crisp air and the jet blue skies for which Iceland is famous.
23. Marvel at Gullfoss Waterfall
Gullfoss Waterfall is perhaps the most famous waterfall in Iceland and lies on the Hvita River.
The name actually means ‘Golden Falls’ as the sediment in the water glints gold in the sunlight making the whole cataract appear to be shimmering.
The falls rise 32 meters in the air and you can either watch them from a path that takes you to the base or stay at the summit.
24. Descend into the Leidarendi Lava Caves
The Leidarendi Lava Caves are famous for their colorful lava interiors and the stalactites and rippling rock formations that you will find when you descend into them.
The caves are the result of lava deposits that have solidified over the years and their name in Icelandic translates to ‘The End of the Journey’. The caves are easy to visit as part of a day trip from neighboring Reykjavik and you can crawl through the underground chambers using a torch to show you the way.
25. Climb Mount Esja
Close to Reykjavik is Mount Esja that rises 914 meters into the sky.
The mountain is made of volcanic sediment and basalt and is famous for its multi-hued rhyolite rock.
It dominates the skyline of Reykjavik, although it also offers its own amazing views over the city if you climb to the summit.
In order to do that you will find a range of routes up the mountain and there are both gentle trails for novice hikers as well as steeper paths to the summit for experienced climbers.