Iceland offers an overwhelmingly wide array of attractions and activities. Since your time is limited, planning your Icelandic holiday will be much easier if you create a bucket list of things you want to do and see. So, here’s a little help for you! We’ve put together the ultimate list of activities you need to try in Iceland!
Whether you have a weekend or whole weeks to spend in Iceland, you’ll certainly be able to try at least one of the following activities. In fact, you’ll have the opportunity to do them all in just a few days since Iceland is a tiny country and it doesn’t take much time to explore its most characteristic places.
1. Explore the Country
This may seem obvious. It’s probably exactly why you want to visit Iceland: to explore the country! But exactly which places should you visit? We could gush about it for pages, but to simplify it for you, here’s a short list of the must-visit areas.
Tour the Golden Circle
Iceland’s most visited tourist route is located within a few hours’ drive of Reykjavík. It passes by the awe-inspiring natural attractions that Iceland is so famous for, such as giant waterfalls, active geysers, and thrilling geological sites.
Thingvellir National Park is usually the first destination for travelers. It’s been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site for both its historical and geological value. Here, you can walk between the boundaries of the tectonic plates and in the middle of a filming location from Game of Thrones. But more importantly, this site was the location of the world’s first democratic parliament.
Not far from Thingvellir lies the world-renowned Geyser hot spring area where bubbling hot springs, mud pots, and the famous Strokkur geyser await you with guaranteed eruptions. The third most-famous destination on the route is the majestic Gullfoss Waterfall, also known as the golden falls. The cascade drops 32 m (105 ft.) over two stages into an impressive canyon.
From Reykjavík, the Golden Circle can easily be driven in a day, making for an instant adventure even if you have a very tight time frame. You wouldn’t want to skip this tour when in Iceland!
Travel the South Coast
The most dramatic scenery in Iceland can be found on the South Coast, which is why every visitor to the country wants to visit this region. With landscapes taken straight out of fairytales, every square meter of this part of Iceland will amaze you.
Two of Iceland’s most epic waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, are located here, just a 30-minute drive apart. At Seljalandsfoss, you’ll be able to walk behind the cascade while at Skógafoss, you climb the stairs to its top to admire the breathtaking landscape.
Iceland’s most famous volcanic black sand beach, Reynisfjara, is also located on the South Coast. Here, you can see dramatic sea stacks, caves, and basalt columns. There’s a tiny, adorable village nearby called Vík where you can have lunch with the best views imaginable.
Visit the Glacier Lagoons
Further east along the South Coast, you’ll arrive in the world of glaciers and glacier lagoons. The views are fantastic with vast lava fields, black deserts, and rugged mountains alternating along the way.
Iceland is famous for its beautiful glacier lagoons. Jökulsárlón is definitely the most well-known glacier lagoon in the world, having been a filming location for many Hollywood movies. Jökulsárlón isn’t the only glacier lagoon you can visit, though. In fact, there are several other ice lagoons within a few hours’ drive of each other, all of which deserve a visit!
Explore the Remote Fjords
Whether you choose the Westfjords or the Eastfjords, both of these areas offer something unique. The landscape here is hard to describe in words – these places look like whole new countries!
As the fjords are quite remote, not many visitors get to see them and most people will stay in the more frequented areas. If you do decide to visit the fjords, you can expect incredible silence, serenity, and a very authentic experience.
Travel Around the Snaefellsnes and Reykjanes Peninsulas
Both peninsulas are worth exploring and are conveniently located within a day’s drive of Reykjavík. Although visiting Snaefellsnes requires a long drive, it offers valuable experiences and is home to some of the most photographed places in Iceland.
The coastal walk between Arnarstapi and Hellnar villages will surely blow your mind with the waterfalls cascading into the ocean, countless tiny islets lying off the rugged coast, and the glacier-capped Snaefellsjökull volcano towering overhead in the background.
Kirkjufell, another Game of Thrones filming location with its beautiful waterfalls in the foreground, is a typical postcard image that represents all the beauty of Iceland. The colorful, old houses in Stykkisholmur village are completely real and inhabited, even though they look like a scene from a fairytale.
The volcanic Reykjanes Peninsula offers no less beauty with its moonlike landscapes, vast lava fields, tiny seaside hamlets, and a great number of hot springs and geothermal sites. The world-famous Blue Lagoon is also located on the Reykjanes Peninsula where you can bathe in silica-rich geothermal seawater. If you’re looking for great road trips from Reykjavík, both peninsulas should be on your Iceland bucket list!
North Iceland is the most Arctic part of the country. In fact, the Arctic Circle literally crosses through Grimsey, Iceland’s northernmost island. In the north, the weather’s always a bit different. There’s more snow, fewer clouds, and the days are longer in the summer and shorter in the winter than in South Iceland.
The true midnight sun is only visible from the north and the chances of catching the Northern Lights are also somewhat higher than in the south. The best ski slopes, whale-filled bays, impressive geothermal areas, giant waterfalls, the northern counterpart of the Blue Lagoon, and Iceland’s one and only beer spa are located here, among the many other unique attractions. It takes at least three days from Reykavík to visit the area, but this trip offers great rewards, so don’t skip it!
2. Bathe in a Hot Spring
Who doesn’t like to relax in a hot bath? In Iceland, you can take a pleasant dip in a geothermal pool that is literally in the middle of nowhere! There are countless great pools in Iceland, some of which are hidden in secret places and hardly accessible while others are world famous thanks to their perfect locations. Whichever you visit, there’s no doubt that you’ll love it!
The Blue Lagoon
Iceland’s most epic bathing site is the famous Blue Lagoon, located between the international airport and the capital city. This site has an exciting history since before becoming a world-class luxury spa, for many years, it was an abandoned site that people believed to be poisonous.
Well, not only is it harmless, but the water in the Blue Lagoon has been proven to heal some skin conditions, offers great benefits for the skin, and is simply beautiful. You can read everything you need to know about the Blue Lagoon here.
The Secret Lagoon
Despite its name, this site is no secret but is still worth a visit! The Secret Lagoon is one of Iceland’s oldest geothermal pools, filled with comfortably hot water, and surrounded by an active geothermal area. The rounded pool is made of stones and has an age-old building next to it where people used to change in the old days, creating a rustic atmosphere for bathers. There’s also a modern building with showers and changing facilities next to the pool. The Secret Lagoon is located close to the Golden Circle route, offering you the opportunity to enjoy the perfect ending for your Golden Circle day tour.
Another great stop on the Golden Circle route is Fontana Spa, located directly on the shore of Laugarvatn Lake. The site has three warm water pools, a Finnish sauna with a beautiful view over the lake, and three unique steam baths that were built right over a hot spring. You can literally listen to the water bubbling under your feet while enjoying the natural steam!
One treasure from North Iceland is the newly-build GeoSea baths, perched on a western-facing cliffside that overlooks the North Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Circle to the north. Bathers will have the unique opportunity to watch for whales as they bathe since these mammals are abundant in the bay below! Although it’s quite far from Reykjavík, you can’t really find any bath that’s more impressive or authentic.
Myvatn Nature Baths
Myvatn is the Blue Lagoon of North Iceland. It has the same milky-blue water as the famous Blue Lagoon, but is in a more remote location, has fewer visitors, and costs less than half the price. Black lava fields and volcanoes surround the place, one of which erupted just three decades ago. If you are looking for alternatives to the Blue Lagoon, the Myvatn Nature Bath is your best shot!
3. Encounter Wildlife
Iceland is a very special habitat for wildlife. It’s located close to the Arctic Circle but is still relatively mild, offering an ideal home for a wide array of wild animals. Most of them are migrating species and so can only be spotted in the summer, but some species remain on the island for the whole year. These animals are mostly unique to Iceland and the Nordic countries!
The Arctic Fox
Did you know that the Arctic fox is the only native terrestrial mammal in Iceland? They’ve been living here undisturbed for thousands of years! You can find them all over the country, but they’re especially abundant in remote places with no humans around. If you visit Thórsmörk or the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, you’ll be more likely to spot one of these cuties. Many of them are very friendly and curious, approaching humans and playing near them.
While reindeer aren’t native to Iceland, they obviously love being here now. Many herds wander the slopes of East Iceland and can be easily spotted while hiking or just driving along the fjords. Sometimes they’ll venture down the slopes, coming all the way down to graze leisurely on the side of the road.
Seals are very common in Iceland and even appear in the bays of Reykjavík. The best place to meet them, however, is Jölulsálón Glacier Lagoon. Here, you can take amazing pictures of them while they’re lazily resting on the icebergs.
The water around Iceland is a favorite for whales. These feeding grounds are privy to unique features, such as the mixture of warm and cold currents and the fissures that allow the heat to filter up through the ocean floor. This water is very easy to survive in and is relatively shallow. To top all that off, in the summer, the long periods of daylight allow both the zooplankton and krill to flourish, offering a lot of food for the whales to feast on.
Some of the whales around Iceland are migratory, but quite a few stay around the country through the winter, too. Incredibly, you’ll have about a 95–99% chance of spotting a whale on a whale watching tour in Iceland during the summer!
Puffin watching is one of the most popular summer activities for tourists visiting Iceland. These adorable, funny birds flock to Iceland in the summer, with 8–10 million inhabiting Iceland at a time. In fact, more than 60% of the Atlantic puffins in the world and are happy to call Iceland home.
They arrive in Iceland in late April and stick around until late August. You can spot puffins all around the country, but the largest colony lives in the Westman Islands, some 20 km (12.4 mi.) off the coast of South Iceland. These cute birds have even invaded the souvenir stores of Reykjavík! Watch out, you’ll probably end up wearing a puffin t-shirt before you leave Iceland!
4. Walk On a Glacier
Iceland is the land of ice, so you should visit one of its glaciers, of course! But before venturing off onto the ice, make sure to book a guided tour. Joining a glacier walk, an extended glacier hike, or even an ice climbing tour will be an absolutely memorable experience that is suitable for anyone, without any previous experience needed. You can even go for a snowmobile ride if you’d prefer to explore the glacier at a higher speed or step into the glacier to explore a unique natural wonder: a sparkling blue ice cave.
Vatnajökull, a UNESCO site, is Iceland’s largest and the most famous glacier. It has numerous outlet glaciers, ice caves, and impressive glacier lagoons. These dominate the landscape for hundreds of kilometers along the South Coast of the island. The best glacier hiking tours are operated on Vatnajökull, leaving from Skaftafell Nature Reserve.
Langjökull is the second-largest glacier in Iceland, located only 1.5 hours from Reykjavík by car and within reach of the Golden Circle. It’s the ultimate snowmobiling location, offering amazing fields of snow to adventurers all year round. Glaciers are the soul of Iceland and we don’t know how long they’ll last in this changing climate. So, if you’re in Iceland, visiting a glacier should be at the top of your bucket list!
Myrdalsjökull is a smaller glacier that has the great advantage of being easily accessible from the South Coast. While Vatnajökull is about five hours from Reykjavík, Myrdalsjökull can be reached in just 2.5 hours. So, you can visit the South Coast, extend your adventure with a glacier hike tour, and still get back to Reykjavík at a reasonable time, all in the same day.
There are plenty of additional glaciers in Iceland that offer thrilling adventures. You can learn more about Iceland’s glaciers and which are the best to visit here.
5. Visit a Volcano
Iceland is the land of contrasts. Along with ice, fire also forms part of its soul. The whole island is a giant volcano with powerful forces hiding beneath its surface. These forces provide Iceland with inexhaustible renewable energy. All hot water and heating for the homes comes from under the ground, warming up greenhouses and swimming pools, too.
Iceland has several world-famous volcanoes, some of which have allegedly changed the history of mankind. Eyjafjallajökull is among the most famous volcanoes today, even though its eruption was minor when compared to some of the eruptions from Icelandic history.
Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, disrupting the air traffic in Europe and causing funny moments on the news when the newscasters couldn’t pronounce its name. The volcano is visible from the South Coast and there’s even a hiking trail called “Fimmvörduháls” that leads up to the freshly-formed craters.
Katla is one of the most frequently erupting volcanoes in Iceland. It’s been silent for decades but could start rumbling again anytime soon. Katla is hiding under Myrdalsjökull Glacier, so visiting the glacier means you’ve also visited the volcano!
Not far from Eyjafjallajökull and Katla is another infamous volcano: Hekla. It’s also been silent for many years, but its beautiful cone towers over the landscape beautifully. Hekla was quite famous in the Middle Ages since it was known as the “gateway to Hell.” That seems quite reasonable when you consider the fact that over the last 1000 years, Hekla has been responsible for producing the largest amount of lava of all volcanoes in the world, a total of around 8 km3 (1.9 cu mi.).
The novel Journey to the Center of the Earth is responsible for the international fame of Snæfellsjökull Volcano. Published in 1864 by Jules Verne, this timeless work claims that this volcano is the entry point to the center of the Earth, also serving as a passage of the other side of the globe.
While the volcano has been silent for thousands of years, the landscape around it looks as if it had just erupted recently. Along with the other attractions on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, this volcano deserves a spot on your Iceland bucket list!
There are many more volcanoes in Iceland to keep an eye out for. You can find out more about them and learn how to visit them here.
6. Witness the Northern Lights
The aurora borealis can be seen dancing across the dark Icelandic sky for more than seven months each year. This gorgeous natural phenomenon attracts a great number of international visitors every year. It should be no surprise that witnessing the surreal Northern Lights in person is at the top of many Icelandic bucket lists.
The best time to see the Northern Lights is from late August to early April. If you want to see the aurora, keep in mind that there are certain months when the Northern Lights are completely invisible in Iceland. This happens in summer, when the dark skies cease to exist and the island is completely bright all day and all night. This is the period of the Midnight Sun, also known as the white nights, which are a special sight on their own.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the Northern Lights, including when and where to see them, how they’re formed, and what you can do to maximize your chances of seeing them.
Iceland is a wonderland. We could go on and on listing all the places you should see and the things we’d recommend you try, but you have a limited amount of time so we had to cut the list short. If you’re curious about what else is out there, visit our blog and learn more about Iceland from locals.