Iceland, island of fire and ice, has become one of the world's top travel destinations, not only with thrill-seeking adventurers, but also nature lovers looking for something different. Here, you'll discover active volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, glaciers, ice fields, and fjords, for this sparsely populated country, resting at the edge of the Arctic Circle, sits atop one of the world's most volcanically active areas.
Indeed, volcanoes and other seismic activity have regularly reshaped parts of the country. As recently as 1963, a new island, Surtsey, emerged from the sea off the south coast. Icelanders, however, have turned this geological mayhem to their advantage and use geothermal energy to heat their homes and businesses and to enhance their leisure time. As a result, the air is wonderfully clean, and the rugged, unspoiled landscapes remain ripe for exploration and unforgettable adventures.
One way to explore Iceland is on your own with a rental car, from several days to a week, including a trip along the Ring Road that runs in a complete circle around the country. Another way to plot your adventure is with tours that can take you to the best options to see the Northern Lights, ATV trekking over lava fields, and on day trips from Reykjavik to see some of Iceland's most stunning natural beauty, like the Blue Lagoon and waterfalls. Find out more about the best places to visit with our list of the top tourist attractions in Iceland.
1. Whale Watching, Reykjavik
No matter when you plan to travel, whale watching happens year-round, although summer is the most popular time to see these gentle giants. During the warmer months, trips run day and night, including whale watching in the midnight sun. Tour operators say there's an 80-95 percent chance of seeing these magnificent creatures, depending on the time of year. Best of all, surfacing often happens right near the boats, so you may well enjoy a ringside seat for one of nature's most awe-inspiring spectacles.
Other ocean-going tours are also available, such as bird-watching and island visits. Tours are convenient since there are several types available, and they depart from Reykjavik's Old Harbor. Stop for a dinner of fresh cod after you return in one of the many small, rustic restaurants located in the harbor area.
Address: Ægisgardur 5, Reykjavik's Old Harbor
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Reykjavik
2. Blue Lagoon, Grindavík
Just 40 minutes' drive from Reykjavík, this most iconic of geothermal spas is a must-see tourist attraction. Here, you'll find natural bathing in pale blue water in the shadow of a power station. An entire Blue Lagoon industry has grown around this attraction since it first became a hit with locals in 1976. The water from the underground hot springs reaches 37-39 degrees Celsius and is said to be highly beneficial for both health and skin.
If the die-hard Icelanders are anything to go by, don't knock the theory. Aside from bathing in a unique setting, there's a shop selling skincare products, a range of spa treatments, and places to eat and drink. Don't visit Iceland without coming here. Rub on a mask of natural mud in minerals from one of the tubs located on the edges of the lagoon. You can even take a day trip with an ATV trek to the Blue Lagoon from Reykjavik with a coach ride back after your visit.
Address: Norðurljósavegur 9, 240 Grindavík
Official site: www.bluelagoon.com
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Grindavík
3. Spectacular Geysers
An easy 50-minute drive from Reykjavik, Strokkur Geysir (after which all geysers are named) is the most popular fountain geyser in the country and famed throughout the world. This highly active hot spring area lies in the southwest of Iceland beside the Hvítá River and is a favorite stop along what's known as the Golden Circle. Boiling mud pits and around 100 other smaller exploding geysers are waiting to be explored here. Every few minutes, Strokkur shoots water 30 meters into the air.
Visit the Geysir Center for exhibits and informative presentations year-round. A memorable experience is digging up Geysir or "hot spring" bread, rye bread that has been baking underground for 24 hours. Visitors can also help a chef boil eggs in a hot spring to accompany the bread. One popular day tour to the area is the Golden Circle Classic Day Trip from Reykjavik, which has several stops and can ensure you get the iconic geyser photo from your trip.
4. The Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis
The northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are among the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland. Auroras are linked to solar wind, a flow of ions radiating from the sun. These particles become ensnared in the earth's magnetic field and collide with atmospheric molecules, causing bursts of energy, which appear as large circles around the poles. This spectacular natural light show is best admired in remote places and is particularly impressive at times of increased solar activity.
Since the appearance of the Northern Lights is unpredictable, most hotels and lodging operators can provide you with nightly predictions before you go to bed and add you to an overnight call list. They will call your room if the lights appear, as they may only be visible for a short window of time. For one of the most optimal opportunities to experience the Northern Lights you can take a tour like the Northern Lights Night Tour from Reykjavik, which takes you to the remote countryside for the best chance to see this natural wonder.
5. Landmannalaugar Nature Reserve
In the south of Iceland, 180 kilometers from Reykjavik, is Landmannalaugar National Park, one of Iceland's most popular tourist destinations. The main features of this mystical landscape are the multihued rhyolite mountains, Hekla volcano, and extensive lava fields. Hiking and horse riding are popular things to do here, and hikes range from a couple of hours to several days. You can visit from June to late September, after which the road is closed. A mountain lodge (Landmannalaugar Hut) with basic facilities accommodates 75 people. Expect raw nature, rugged scenery, and utterly spectacular views.
6. Maelifell Volcano & Myrdalsjökull Glacier Park
South of Landmannalaugar lies Myrdalsjökull Glacier Park, which for safety reasons can only be visited during summer. Large amounts of rain soak the area, particularly in winter, when roads can be severely damaged. Maelifell volcano is the undisputed jewel-in-the-crown of this wild, rugged glacial landscape. The perfect cone shape gives Maelifell the look of a classic volcano, however during the warm season, a lavish green covering of moss gives it a surreal, otherworldly appearance.
The park is full of volcanoes, hot springs, and other remarkable sites. To the west of Myrdalsjökull is a smaller glacier, Eyjafjallajökull (Island Mountain Glacier). A popular and thrilling way to explore is by snowmobile.
7. Skaftafell Ice Cave, Vatnajökull National Park
In the south of the country, Vatnajökull National Park is a land of glaciers and magnificent ice caves, which attract adventurers from across the globe. The vast national park (one of three in Iceland) is divided into four sections and consists of Vatnajökull glacier and its surroundings. You'll find a number of visitor centers; those in Skaftafell Ice Cave and Höfn are open year-round, while Skriðuklaustur and Jökulsárgljúfur are closed in winter.
The best time to visit Skaftafell Ice Cave is during winter after heavy rain has washed the top layer of the glacier away. If seen at the right time, the cave is bathed in spectacular blue light. Group visits to all areas can be arranged off-season. If you are in healthy shape, you might consider doing a glacial trek with an experienced guide. The treks get you on the ice for an unforgettable experience to see glacial cracks and caves and even drink fresh water from small pools on the surface.
Official site: www.vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is
8. Askja Caldera
In the northern region of Vatnajökull National Park, Askja caldera and geothermal pool in the Dyngjufjöll Mountains is not one for the faint-hearted. However, if you'd like to say you've taken a dip in a live volcano, then this is for you.
Askja is an impressive 50 square kilometers in size. The surrounding mountain range was formed during volcanic activity, and Askja was partly created by an eruption of burning ash that collapsed the roof of the central volcano's magma chamber. The water in Viti, the geothermal pool and volcanic crater, is generally around 30 degrees Celsius. A word of warning, the banks can be very slippery, particularly in wet weather.
9. Dettifoss Waterfall
Dettifoss, in the north of Vatnajökull National Park, truly is a breathtaking example of the raw power of nature. Plunging 45 meters and with a width of 100 meters, it's said to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Generally, it's best to approach on the east side of the River Jökulsa, where the road is better. Along easy paths from Dettifoss, Selfoss is a smaller waterfall around one kilometer upstream with a drop of around 10 meters. Below Dettifoss, the Hafragilsfoss waterfall tumbles 27 meters into a steep canyon. It's more advisable to drive than walk to Hafragilsfoss.
10. Kirkjufell Mountain, Grundarfjördur
Around 2.5 hours' drive northwest of Reykjavik is the small town of Grundarfjördur, a charming fishing village centrally located on the north coast of Snaefellsnes peninsula. The town lies in a picturesque fjord, surrounded by mountains, with Mt. Kirkjufell looming as a striking landmark. Dotted about the surroundings, you'll discover small streams and waterfalls. During winter, Kirkjufell is a great place to watch the awe-inspiring Northern Lights. Eyrbyggja Heritage Centre holds exhibitions on Grundarfjördur's seafaring history and is the information center for the whole peninsula.
A Reykjavik modernist icon, this visually striking church is one of Iceland's top attractions, and when you see it, you'll understand why. It's the tallest and most recognizable building in the country. The Black Falls (a basalt rock formation), which is one of Iceland's natural wonders, inspired the architectural design. A climb to the top of the 73-meter-high tower is particularly rewarding. Here, you'll be treated to spectacular views across the city and surrounding landscape.
At the front of the church is a statue of Icelander Leifur Eiriksson ("Leif the Lucky"), the first European to discover America around AD 1,000. It seems he beat Christopher Columbus by around 500 years or so. For a small fee, you can take the elevator to the top and get the best panoramic view of Rejkjavik.
Address: Hallgrímstorg 1 101, Reykjavik
Official site: http://en.hallgrimskirkja.is
12. Gullfoss Waterfall
Magnificent Gullfoss Waterfall lies around a 90-minute drive west of Reykjavik. The river Hvítá plummets into a canyon, which forms three step terraces, creating a powerful torrent. Gullfoss encompasses two cascades; the upper one drops 11 meters, while the lower one cascades about 21 meters. Torrents of water flow over Gullfoss at an average rate of 109 cubic meters per second, although heavy floods have recorded an astonishing rate of nearly twenty times that. A word of warning: there are no rails or barriers, just a spine-tingling spectacle to enjoy amid surroundings as nature intended.
13. Hiking at Mount Esja
A 30-minute easterly drive from Reykjavik brings you to Mount Esja in Kjalarnes. The mountain is 914 meters high and very popular with hikers. Even for the inexperienced climber it's a relatively easy hike. There are terrific views of Reykjavik and the surrounding landscape and ocean. You can take several routes to the summit depending on energy levels and how much time you have. You can get to the main starting point at Mount Esja by a 10-minute bus ride on public transportation that leaves out of the Hlemmur main station towards Artun. Check bus schedules and times before your visit.
Official site: http://mountesja.org
In the north of the country, Akureyri lies amid mountains on the longest fjord in Iceland about 40 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. With a population of around 18,000, it's more of a town than a city, however everything's relative in this sparsely-populated land. Summer days occasionally reach 25 degrees Celsius, and although winters bring heavy snowfall and cold weather, calm and still weather generally prevails.
Despite the town's isolation, cultural life and entertainment flourish here, and a wide range of shops offer brand-name products. The skiing area is the best in the country. Points of interest include the Akureyri Museum and impressive Aviation Museum at Akureyri Airport.
15. Lake Myvatn & Nature Reserve
A little over an hour's easterly drive from Akureyri is Myvatn, a lake district famous for its wealth of bird life, rich fauna, and large shallow body of water. It's estimated that the area was formed around 2,500 years ago by a gigantic lava eruption. Today, the surroundings are volcanically active, with an eruption occurring as recently as the mid-1980s. Bubbling clay pits, sulphuric fumes, and lava formations all form part of this unique landscape, which is still in flux.
The name Myvatn literally means "Midge-water," a reference to the prolific midges here, especially during summer, so be sure to pack some insect repellent. The area is also a bird-watcher's paradise.
16. The Pearl Observatory (Perlan)
Originally the site of the city's gigantic thermal water tanks, "Perlan," as it's known locally, is one of Reykjavik's landmark buildings. It occupies an enviable location on Öskjuhlíð hill, where there are in excess of 176,000 trees. The hill is particularly pleasant, with bicycle trails and footpaths zigzagging up and down. The observatory affords stunning views over the city.
Also on-site is a revolving restaurant, as well as gourmet and souvenir shops. In addition, Perlan regularly hosts concerts and exhibitions in the Winter Garden. The observation deck is a real treat. The new planetarium is spectacular with a virtual trip of Iceland featuring the country's natural elements.
Address: Varmahlíð 1, 105 Reykjavík
Official site: www.perlan.is
17. ATV Treks
ATV trekking | Photo Copyright: Anietra Hamper
A popular things to do and one of the most adventurous ways to experience Iceland is on the back of an ATV, trekking across rugged lava fields, riding up dormant volcanos, and passing pastures with roaming wild Icelandic ponies. These are views of Iceland that you will never forget and one of the best ways to get up close to the country's most scenic natural environment. Tours like the two-Hour ATV Quad Tour from Reykjavik lets you experience ATV off-road adventure without a huge time commitment. Many tours depart from Reykjavik but they are available in most regions of the country.
18. Glacial Lagoon
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
While Iceland is full of natural wonders, one of the most spectacular is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. You will ride in a boat through large chunks of ice that have separated from the glacier. The floating ice in the lagoon ranges from the size of small pebbles to the size of cars, but since you are floating in the lagoon with them, they are close enough to touch. Witness the blue hue of glacial cave formations and birds flying above in this natural environment.
The South Coast and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Day Tour from Reykjavik is a popular tour for visitors who want to set up a home base for their visit in Reykjavik and do a day trip to this top attraction. The tour also includes visits to two beautiful waterfalls and spectacular views of mountains and glacial rivers along the south coast.