Northern lights, horseback rides, and the best-ever hot dogs make this country truly special.
For being such a small country, both geographically and in terms of population size, Iceland has an incredible amount of activities that no visitor should miss. Fortunately, the country’s size also lends itself to being fairly navigable in a short amount of time, even with some essential activities requiring getting out into the wild. As you start to plan your trip to Iceland, consider some of the best activities the country has to offer so you can have the ultimate Iceland travel experience.
Catch the Elusive Northern Lights
Many tourists head to Iceland to view the mesmerizing Northern Lights, since they only appear in the northernmost latitudes of the planet. But simply being in Iceland isn’t enough: The elusive aurora is finicky, appearing only under the right conditions. The best opportunity to view them is between September and March, as the Northern Lights require a dark sky to be seen. This also means escaping sources of light pollution, which can similarly drown out the aurora’s particles. Iceland’s volatile weather often means clouds may obscure what would otherwise be a brilliant display. So instead of relying solely on luck, plan your itinerary with multiple nights for pursuing the aurora. Whether hiring a guide, scheduling a tour, or driving yourself out into the darkness, don’t forget to bring a camera to capture that ultimate Icelandic moment.
Bathe in the Blue Lagoon
No Iceland attraction may be more iconic than the dazzling Blue Lagoon, a naturally heated seawater pool and spa between Rekyjavík and Iceland’s international airport at Keflavík. Indeed, many visitors plan their visit to the lagoon around their flights, but few know that the healing powers of the Blue Lagoon are perfect for keeping jet lag at bay, so scheduling it as the first stop is a good idea. Not only is it picturesque—an irresistible photo op—but it’s also a great place to go for a spa treatment, or to socialize over some drinks. Swim up to the “bar” to get a complimentary mud mask (your skin will thank you, especially after a long flight). Note that reservations need to be made in advance, and like all Icelandic pools, it’s required to rinse off before entering the lagoon.
Go Horseback Riding to a Black-Sand Beach
Two of Iceland’s most iconic features, its horses and its volcanic beaches, can be combined into one unforgettable experience that’s essential for experiencing Iceland. These steadfast, rugged creatures have beautiful flowing manes, friendly demeanors, and are just as fun for beginners as they are for experienced riders. It’s especially fun to watch them navigate Iceland’s stunning black-sand beaches. Riding along these impossibly black beaches almost feels like going back in time to the Viking days when Iceland was just being settled. The best place to have this unique experience is Vík, in Southern Iceland.
Hike and Picnic Atop a Glacier
Believe it or not, Europe’s largest glacier isn’t on the mainland but in Iceland. The remarkable Vatnajökull glacier attracts a great number of visitors, who come to witness its beauty in a variety of ways. Experiences range from hiking or dogsledding to simply gazing upon it from afar. Hikers know the satisfaction of the first meal after a long trek, and a picnic atop Vatnajökull can only be enhanced by the otherworldly beauty of this natural marvel.
Snorkel in Silfra’s Clear-as-Glass Water
Have you ever stood on two continents at the same time? In Iceland, not only can you span two plates at once, you can snorkel or dive between them. The crystal-clear waters of Silfra, a fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, make for one of the most unique underwater experiences on the planet. Many companies run day trips out of Reykjavík (dry suits, equipment, and food provided), and a visit can also be paired nicely with a larger tour of the Golden Circle. The snorkeling experience costs between $100 and $150 on a guided tour, but once you take a sip of that unbelievably clear glacial water, you’ll see it’s clearly worth it.
Drive the Ring Road
There may be nowhere better than Iceland for a good old-fashioned road trip. The Ring Road (also known as Route 1) encircles Iceland, which allows its travelers to witness all of Iceland’s greatest sights. From volcanoes and glacial lagoons to quirky roadside stops and countless gas station hot dogs (a good thing in Iceland), it’s impossible not to have a memorable adventure. Iceland takes great care of its roads, and with such a low population, there’s rarely any traffic. A Ring Road journey is also the best way to challenge the popular misconception that Iceland is too expensive to visit. Free camping opportunities are very easy to come by along the Ring Road, so it’s a perfect way for the outdoorsy or travelers on a budget to see the country.
Tour the Golden Circle
A name like “the Golden Circle” promises a lot, and this loop of essential Iceland sites—Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir hot spring area, and Þingvellir National Park—delivers. These are the most popular natural attractions in the country, and it’s tempting to say this distinction is due solely to their convenience to the capital, but each of these stops is truly remarkable and unique. Gullfoss is a powerful cascade that’s stunning from above but must be seen at eye level as well. Geysir is a great introduction to the geothermal power of Iceland; the Strokkur geyser reliably erupts every 10 minutes or so. Þingvellir straddles two separate tectonic plates, which has resulted in the formation of some very interesting geological features, but this national park holds great historical significance for the country as well. An endless number of day tours can be booked out of Reykjavík, and they can be combined with other essential Iceland experiences.
Seek out Waterfalls
There are so many waterfalls to see in Iceland and each of them is incredible in its own way. South Iceland is the main stop for waterfall lovers, although they can be found throughout the country. Gullfoss, part of the Golden Circle, draws the most visitors; Skógafoss is convenient to the Ring Road; and Seljalandsfoss gives visitors the chance to walk behind it (a rare vantage point). Located in the Westfjords, Dynjandi’s lack of popularity is only due to its remoteness, not because it’s less stunning than the others—it’s worth the climb. And up north, Goðafoss is the waterfall to see, among several others.
Explore Downtown Reykjavík
For a deep dive into modern Icelandic life, there’s no place better than the capital city: Reykjavík. Home to nearly half of Iceland’s population, Reykjavík is the political, cultural, and culinary hub of the country, with a full calendar of events that will delight every kind of visitor. The ultimate exploration of downtown Reykjavík would include a stroll along Laugavegur, the city’s main shopping street, a stop at the formidable church Hallgrímskirkja, and, of course, a quick bite at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, the most famous hot doggery in the country. Bargain hunters will enjoy shopping at Kolaportið on weekends; this is the place to buy an authentic lopapeysa sweater for the best price. Don’t let the city’s small size fool you: Murals and art abound, restaurants offer a wide range of cuisine, and the nightlife is extremely active. Whether it’s art, museums, or food that piques your interest, downtown Reykjavík has plenty to offer.
Attend a Music Festival Like Iceland Airwaves or Secret Solstice
Music and Iceland go hand in hand, with successful singers and bands emerging from the country on a regular basis. This rich musical heritage is celebrated with frequent festivals, the most popular of which are Iceland Airwaves in November and Secret Solstice in June. Lineups at these multiday festivals typically feature Icelandic artists, followed in number by acts from other Scandinavian countries. They’re a great way to become more familiar with the Icelandic music scene, which spans a range of genres. A lesser-known festival takes place in Ísafjörður over Easter weekend; it’s called Aldrei Fór Eg Suður, which translates to “I never went South,” a joke about Westfjordian regional pride. Whichever festival you choose, it’s best to book your ticket and accommodations well in advance.
See Rare Wildlife
Iceland isn’t exactly a hotbed of biodiversity, but what it lacks in variety it makes up for in opportunity. The low population density in Iceland means few human-animal conflicts arise, making it easier to spot creatures in their natural habitats. Visitors are always charmed by Atlantic puffins, which can be seen predominantly in the spring and summer months. When they do appear, you can find them all over the country, but the Latrabjarg Cliffs in the Westfjords allow up-close-and-personal encounters with puffins and many other seabirds—it’s also the best place to spy the elusive arctic fox and the white-tailed eagle. Whale-watching tours are also plentiful in Iceland, and they’re a great way to see not only whales and porpoises, but seals, birds, and other sea life, too.
Take a Superjeep to the Sapphire Lake of Askja
With so many incredible natural wonders along the main roads in Iceland, it’s almost impossible to believe that there could be even more amazing sights off-road. On a Superjeep tour to Lake Askja, visitors get a chance to explore the “moonscape” upon which NASA astronauts trained before the Apollo 11 expedition, as well as exploded calderas, glacial rivers, and of course the strikingly blue lake itself. Beyond these natural features, the Highlands are also said to be home to ghosts and trolls, as criminals were banished to this region centuries ago. All in all, it’s an ultimate Icelandic experience, incorporating so many facets of this one-of-a-kind country.
See the Horse Farms and Lava Fields of the SNæfellsnes Peninsula
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is one of those hidden-in-plain-sight destinations. Just north of Reykjavík and west of the Ring Road, this stunning peninsula is sprinkled with waterfalls, golden- and pink-sand beaches, and long expanses of lava fields—a nature lover’s dream—as well as the glacial-capped volcano from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Horseback-riding opportunities abound on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, so many horse farms calling this region home. Even without the time or inclination to ride, friendly horses will happily meet you at fences for nose scratches or selfies. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula serves as a lovely detour from the Ring Road or as a part of an itinerary to the Westfjords.
Tour the Stunning National Parks of Iceland
Iceland is home to three national parks, each as spectacular as the next. Part of the Golden Circle, Þingvellir has important historical significance as well as the famous fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Vatnajökull is the largest of Iceland’s national parks (and the second-largest in Europe); through recent additions to the park, it has grown to 14 percent of Iceland’s landmass. All volcanoes and glaciers, this is where the country’s characterization as a land of fire and ice comes to life. Finally, there is Snæfellsjökull National Park on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula just north of Reykjavík—it serves as a sort of “mini-Iceland,” with a little bit of everything the country has to offer: glaciers, a volcano, and wildlife.