Iceland: the land of fire and ice where sweltering volcanoes meet unimaginably cold glaciers creating an island of the most strangely divine natural beauty.
With a population barely over 360,000, this small Atlantic island is free from traffic, overcrowding, smog, and built-up cities, leaving nature to reign proudly and create some of the best shows Earth has to offer, including deep canyons, thundering waterfalls, steaming geysers, towering fjords, chilly ice caves, black sand beaches, mesmerizing lagoons, and much, much more.
Despite being a small island, there’s so much to explore in Iceland, and whether you’re taking the small Golden Circle Route or the ginormous Ring Road, you’ll be certain to leave with your jaw on the floor. Here’s just a handful of Iceland’s best bits to get you started.
Bathe in The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon, an expansive sky-blue geothermal pool looking out onto distant mountains, is Iceland’s most iconic landmark, and no trip to this sensational country is complete without bathing in the steaming water.
The pools are part of Retreat Spa, which offers you the chance to enjoy luxurious massages, facials, and even a delicious lunch in between dips.
However, as iconic as The Blue Lagoon is, it can become quite crowded at peak times, and it doesn’t come cheap, especially in comparison to the many natural geothermal pools around the country that are free of charge.
So, if you’re not set on The Blue Lagoon experience, find one of the country’s beautiful natural pools, like Lake Myvatn, Strokkur and Seljavallalaug pool.
Hunt for the northern lights above the arctic circle
The Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the northern lights, is a phenomenon that happens only above the Arctic Circle where strings of green light appear as if from nowhere in the night sky, and dance around playfully above you as you try to fix your eyes on them.
As we all know, nature is unpredictable, and it’s hard to know exactly when or where they might appear, but Iceland is well-known for being an excellent place to spot these dancing lights.
While you may be lucky enough to catch the display without a guide, they know what time the northern lights are likely to surprise you each day, and where they will appear brightest.
Find the best views of Reykjavik at Hallgrimskirkja Church
The Hallgrimskirkja Church is another of Iceland’s most iconic landmarks, not only because it dominates Reykjavik’s skyline at a giant 74.5 meters tall, but also because it’s one of the most architecturally unique churches in the entire world.
Designed by architect Guðjón Samúelsson in the late 1930’s, the modernist church is said to resemble a rocky mountain ascending to its peak, or the basalt columns around Iceland’s Svartifoss Waterfall.
Although this Lutheran church is fascinating from head to toe, the best part of it, admittedly, is the expansive view it offers of the capital city below, and the Snaefellsjokull glacier, which sits just beyond it, when the skies are clear.
Explore Thingvellir National Park
Just a 45-minute drive from Reykjavik on the Golden Circle Route, Thingvellir National Park is the most accessible place to explore the extraordinary and diverse beauty Iceland has to offer.
The park encompasses volcanoes, lava fields, waterfalls, geysers, Iceland’s largest lake, and most importantly, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This ridge spans over 9,000 miles altogether creating fault lines down the Earth’s surface; it is caused by the split of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates over thousands of years.
Marking the top of the ridge, Thingvellir’s rift valley creates breathtaking canyons, valleys, and fissures along the park, including Silfra, a ridge that has become known for its unique diving opportunities.
Watch majestic whales play out at sea
From April to October, Iceland’s coastline is guarded by one the world’s largest yet most majestic creatures — whales. Although some of these gentle giants, like the humpback whale, reach up to 16 meters in length, they are notoriously rare to come across.
However, there’s over 20 species of whale near Iceland’s coast, making it one of the best places in Europe to spot them. Húsavík, in northeast Iceland, is known as Europe’s whale-watching capital as its coast due to its abundance of delicious plankton, although Reykjavik offers excellent opportunities too.
On a tour, you can get up close and personal with the playful animals, as they swim under your boat, flick their tails in the air, and (occasionally) drench you with seawater.
Hike along a glacier and inside ice caves
Although Iceland’s landscape is primarily green, it isn’t called Iceland for nothing; about 11% of the entire country is actually covered by glaciers, otherwise known as ‘ice rivers’.
With almost 270 glaciers spread around the country, it’s hard to leave Iceland without hiking along their peaks, crevices and vast white expanses to get a feel for their true enormity and icy beauty.
At over 3000 square miles, Vatnajökull is by far Iceland’s largest and most spectacular glacier to hike, but Falljökull, Breiðamerkurjökull, and Mýrdalsjökull are equally breathtaking. Ice caves can be found within the glaciers, and the only thing more impressive than hiking along a glacier, is climbing in one of the ice caves underneath it.
Try fresh Icelandic cuisine
As an island nation, Iceland depended on the sea for its survival for hundreds of years, and so it’s not surprising that Icelandic cuisine has been heavily influenced by seafood.
Deliciously fresh cod, haddock, monkfish and salmon can be found in most seafood restaurants, along with traditional dishes like fish stew and Icelandic lobster. Iceland is also known in the foodie world for its to-die-for lamb dishes, and whether you like it braised, slow-cooked, smoked, or grilled, you’ll be certain to find it here.
There are a few marmite-like dishes in Iceland that you’ll either love or hate, like fermented shark and puffin burger, but one must-try delicacy everyone can agree on is pylsa, a hot dog with everything on.
Wander around Snæfellsjökull National Park
Snæfellsjökull National Park, home to the mighty Snæfellsjökull Glacier on Iceland’s westernmost peninsula, is a prime example of nature’s talent. According to Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the glacier is the world’s center due to the amount of energy held in the volcano beneath, and today you can hike along it.
The park also has plenty more hiking trails across its mountains and along its coast, and thanks to the lava created by previous volcanic activity, the park is sprawling with lava fields bursting with beautiful and rare flora. The park also offers opportunities to see extraordinary geological rock formations and rare bird species, as well as black sand beaches and waterfalls.
Marvel at the black sand on Djúpalón Beach
Sat beneath the green carpeted cliffs of Snæfellsjökull National Park, Djúpalón Beach offers a rare chance to see a coastline lined with a sinister-looking black sand.
The sand was formed in this color due to nearby volcanic activity which resulted in the erosion of lava, volcanic rocks and minerals thousands of years ago.
However, it’s not just the unusual sand that creates such a surreal landscape at Djúpalón Beach, it’s the strange rock formations and sea stacks, which are said to resemble a troll and an elf’s church. There’s also a beautiful rock arch, two brackish pools (which the beach was named after) and the rusty remains of an English shipwreck from 1948.
Ride on the back of an Icelandic horse
Short, sturdy and stocky, the Icelandic horse is built to withstand extreme weather and harsh, icy and rocky terrain. This breed of horse, unique to Iceland, not only possesses an extraordinary beauty that would make any other horse jealous, it is also one of the world’s most nimble and agile horses, and a chance to ride one should not go amiss.
There are horse-riding tours available throughout Iceland, offering you the chance to enjoy the country’s incredible scenery at a glacial pace.
However, we believe the best area to take a horse-riding tour is in the north of Iceland, as you can combine your journey on these soulful creatures with a tour of one of the area’s famous landscapes, including Lake Myvatn and Ásbyrgi Canyon.
Watch icebergs float by at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is a beautiful body of water that opens out from a waterway closely connected to Iceland’s southern coast.
The lagoon is met by Vatnajökull National Park, known for its tall mountain peaks and the giant Jökulsárlón Glacier, which filters into the lagoon, giving it its name.
As the glacier teeters daringly over the lagoon, it shifts and expands, and large blocks of ice are carved from it, plummeting into the otherwise still surface, creating a maze of monstrous yet magnificent icebergs that buffer the horizon.
Icebergs have a life of their own, moving and flipping as they please, and there is nothing more captivating and enthralling than to watch them do just that.
Check out Iceland’s famous waterfalls
As much of Iceland is solid ice, which is constantly shifting and melting in the summer months, it’s no surprise the country is sprinkled with jaw-dropping waterfalls.
Svartifoss Waterfall is one of the most popular in the country; its water cascades smoothly off a dramatic cliff’s edge 20 meters from the ground, and dark grey basalt columns seemingly cascade alongside it. Meanwhile, the Gullfoss Waterfall on the Golden Circle Route, is both, tall, wide, and extremely powerful.
You can witness its majesty from above if you hike along the nearby trail, or watch in awe from below, but be prepared — you’re bound to get wet! If you dare to venture a little further, Dynjandi Waterfall on Iceland’s spectacular northwestern peninsula, is a unique spectacle to behold.
This wide waterfall ripples 100 meters down a staircase-like rockface, across a plane, and then down two more cliffs until it plunges to its final descent.
Spot puffins in Borgarfjordur Eystri
Borgarfjordur Eystri is a dramatically scenic fjord on Iceland’s east coast where a striking turquoise inlet meets grassy plains which then reach towards the sky as mountains rise from them.
Borgarfjordur Eystri is a quiet and secluded place to visit, home to around only 100 people — oh, and thousands of Atlantic puffins. Although puffins nest all around Iceland, there’s so many in Borgarfjordur Eystri that it is affectionately known as the country’s puffin capital.
During the summer months, you can watch these rarely seen prehistoric-looking birds with their characteristic red spearhead-shaped beaks in their natural habitat as they nest, hatch their young, and prepare them for the winter ahead.
The Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon is perhaps one of Iceland’s most scenic yet lesser-known landscapes.
Characterized by its unique dark grey cliffs which are carpeted in a strikingly contrasting green moss, the canyon drops steeply, rippling 100 meters into the ravine below along with a number of trickling waterfalls.
You can hike along the canyon’s ridges to admire the whimsical scenes below, and take some prize-worthy pictures, or you can walk through the valley itself and the shallow ravine within it to get a true sense of the canyon’s enormity and grandeur.
Drive along the Golden Circle Route
Ideally, when visiting Iceland, you’d have an unlimited amount of time to explore every inch of its incredible landscape, and experience every kind of strange and wonderful natural phenomena that happens here, but if that isn’t the case, a tour of the Golden Circle is the next best thing.
This route, starting and ending in Reykjavik, allows you to see an extraordinary amount of Iceland’s ‘best bits’ without having to travel too far.
The 140-mile route can even be done in one day if you’re particularly short on time, but along the way you’ll get to see the famous Thingvellir National Park, the extraordinary meeting point of two tectonic plates, the ancient Icelandic Parliament, and the Strokkur Geyser.
Drive around Iceland’s ultimate route: the ‘Ring Road’
If the Golden Circle doesn’t quite satisfy your adventurous soul, and you have time to go far and wide to find all of the many treasures Iceland has to offer, then the Ring Road is the route for you.
The route is formed by one singular road that stretches over 820 miles around the country’s coast, forming a loop. The Ring Road encompasses all of Iceland’s most important cities, towns, and even settlements, passing tremendous mountains, roaring rivers, rocky cliffs, narrow fjords, and much, much more.
A drive along this route is undoubtedly worth it for the incredible views alone, but from Reykjavik to Vík, Höfn, Myvatn and beyond, this road will also give you the best possible opportunity to explore this indescribable dreamland.
About the Author: Emily Draper
Originally from the UK, Emily Draper has lived in Chile, with an Amazonian tribe in Peru, in a Wisconsin trailer park, and on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Considering herself, and the rest of us, as global citizens, Emily’s mission as a writer and journalist is to expand global consciousness of the fundamental importance of travel, culture, and diversity.