Up until around 20 years ago, Iceland was off the map for most globe trekkers. By 2019, the second-largest European island has become one of the top-rated bucket list travel destinations for millions of people. With so many things to do in Iceland and a beautiful Icelandic backdrop, it’s hard to know where to begin! Iceland has a fascinating landscape that is unlike anything else in the world. From lush greenery to majestic waterfalls, from volcanoes to geysers, from natural hot springs to glaciers, Iceland is an outdoor lover’s paradise. Modern houses with grass roofs, sheep darting around the fields, crisp air, plentiful organic food, and clear glacier water from the tap all contribute to making you feel like you are on another planet.
Due to its low population, most of Iceland appears almost deserted. Before the pandemic, annual visitors outnumbered its inhabitants by three times to one. With a 75% decrease in the number of visitors due to the pandemic, I decided to take my dream trip to Iceland without the crowds. The outdoorsy nature of my planned activities and the need to rent a car to get to my destinations made this wonderful road trip both safe and enjoyable.
Finding Things to Do in Iceland
The best time to visit this Nordic gem depends on what you’re after. The peak season is between June and August. Summertime offers the mildest weather, the most daylight, and the greatest number of activities available. Recently, the winter months have also become popular with the opportunity to explore ice caves, hunt for northern lights, and enjoy various snow activities.
The average length of stay in Iceland is around seven days. Shorter trips are also possible but won’t give you enough time to really explore beyond Reykjavik and the west coast. Within nine to ten days, you can cover all of Iceland via its famous ring road without feeling rushed. Below is a selection of my favourite things to do in Iceland.
1. Explore City Life
Reykjavik — the capital and largest city of Iceland is home to 2/3 of the entire population of the island. The city is so small that its center can be easily explored by foot. It is dotted with vintage Norden houses with bright tin roofs, ultra-modern glass towers, hilly streets with impressive statues, colorful street art, and relics of its Viking and medieval past. Reykjavik’s gorgeous waterfront faces stunning coastal landscapes across the bay, adding to its charm.
The most famous landmark of the city is Hallgrímskirkja. This church’s piercing tower acts as an observation deck, giving a panoramic view of the city.
2. Immerse Yourself in Hot Springs
Iceland is well known for its hot springs and geothermal pools. Some will cost you (for example, the Blue Lagoon) but others are completely free. Finding a hot spring is one of those can’t-miss things to do in Iceland.
The Blue Lagoon is by far the most famous and popular hot spring in the country. The pale blue, milky waters are full of rich minerals and elements such as silica and algae and have a pleasantly warm temperature against the cold air. Although the lagoon is a byproduct of a geothermal plant, it is still a beautiful place to visit. For the most enjoyable experience, be sure to make your reservation well in advance and ask for the earliest time available to avoid the crowds.
If you prefer a more organic and rawer version (not to mention free), I recommend Reykjadalur Valley and Seljavallalaug. Both places require some hiking but the landscape along the way is so picturesque that you’ll arrive before you know it.
The Reykjadalur Steam Valley is a river full of hot springs and mud pits. You can “adjust” the temperature of the water to your liking by moving closer to the hot or cold water source. There are wooden platforms where you can change into your swimwear. The farther end of the platform tends to be warmer and less crowded.
The Seljavallalaung is one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland. You will find it in a narrow valley, built into the side of the mountain. It sports truly breathtaking surroundings. The hot water that flows into it is completely natural and the mountainside acts as the fourth wall of the pool. The hottest water is by the side of the pool opposite the changing rooms.
3. Check Out How High Geysers Are Blowing
The most active geyser in Iceland is Stokkur. Its eruptions usually measure 15-20 meters (49-66 feet) high and typically go off every six to ten minutes. The opportunity to get so close to this geyser was one of the highlights of my trip.
4. Cruise the Turquoise Ice Lagoon
The Jokursalon glacier lagoon is a lake filled with melted glacier water. The lagoon owes its fame to the blue, white, and turquoise icebergs that break off the edge of the glacier and settle in its waters. At the water’s edge, they are several dozen meters high but they slowly melt into the lagoon before drifting out to the sea. For those who would like to get closer to the icebergs, I highly recommend booking a glacier tour boat. These small zodiac boats can get very close to the glacier. During the excursion, you will ride past the huge icebergs populated by colonies of seals and seabirds.
Where the glacier lagoon empties into the ocean, you will find Diamond Beach. This beach is famous for its numerous blocks of crystal-clear ice deposited on black sand. Being able to feel, sit, or even lie on the crystal-like glaciers was an amazing experience and certainly one of the best things to do in Iceland.
5. See the Rainbow Above the Waterfall
Iceland is a land of waterfalls. You will be able to find them in practically every part of the island. Its distinctive shape, enormous power, and the rainbow that often appear above are some of the reasons why Gullfoss is one of the most visited waterfalls in Iceland.
The unique feature of Seljalandfoss is that you can walk behind it. Prepare for a sensory overload: the mist of the water on your skin, the sight of the sun setting through the falling water, and the crash of the river as it falls to the rocks below.
Just 500 meters away from Seljalandfoss, you will find another stunning hidden gem of Iceland — Gljúfrabúi. Its entrance is a narrow crevice that opens up to reveal a waterfall pummeling a small pool right at your feet. With rock cliffs surrounding the pool, this is one of the most intimate waterfalls of Iceland. Prepare to get wet since you will be walking through a small stream and mist will be everywhere.
Skógafoss is an impressive example of nature’s power. You can walk right up to it if you’re willing to get drenched. Standing next to it and feeling its sheer force felt overwhelming. Due to the amount of mist produced by the spectacle, rainbows (or double rainbows) appear on sunny days.
The black waterfall, Svartifoss, is considered one of the most unique waterfalls in the world. Its walls are lined with dark basalt pillars whose columns were created by cooling lava.
Many consider Dettifoss as the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Mist from the falls is visible from several miles away. Surprisingly, it can’t be heard until you get close. There is a good observation deck that overlooks this monument, but I personally preferred the view from below.
6. Find Out How Volcanoes Work
One of the top things to do in Iceland is to see an active volcano. Unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky enough to experience it. The giant Fagradalsfjall volcano’s eruption started in March but had fallen dormant by the time I arrived. Magnificent crater and freshly-made lava formations are still spectacular to see on their own. The view from the volcano’s top is also well worth the hike.
7. Explore the Plane Wreck
One of the stranger Icelandic attractions is the US Navy plane wreck. This plane has been lying on an empty beach since 1973. The wreck is not fenced or guarded at all. Anyone can approach it and climb inside. If you’ve ever dreamt about being in a retro sci-fi movie, this place is definitely for you.
8. Hike to the Canyon
Studlagill Canyon is one of Iceland’s largest collections of basalt columns. The color of the river that bisects the canyon will be different depending on the time of the year. Sometimes it has an azure color and is very transparent. Other times it turns brown and muddy. Although not easy to get to, I highly recommend it to those who like to go off the beaten path. Prepare to hike for about five km through relatively untouched terrain, steep paths, and slippery rocks and stones. In my opinion, words can’t describe the beauty of this place.
9. Visit One of the Most Famous Black Sand Beaches
Black sand, volcanic cliffs, majestic rock formations protruding from the water, sneaker waves, geometric columns, and grottos — you will find it all in one place on Reynisfjara Beach. As with many natural wonders in Iceland, volcanic activity crafted this dramatic beauty. This was by far one of the most unique and wild beaches I have ever seen and is one of the best things to do in Iceland.
10. Discover Geothermal Areas
Hverir is a geothermal area with bubbling mud springs, sulfuric steam spewing from vents, and colorful pools. To enjoy this “alien” landscape, you will have to endure the stench of rotten egg fumes. Those who’ve been to Yellowstone might not be impressed, but in my opinion, it’s still a fantastic Icelandic natural wonder.
11. Enjoy a Scenic Drive
Whether you stay on the main ring road that goes around the island or venture to smaller routes, Iceland is the place for scenic drives. Its diverse and colorful natural miracles help you focus on the journey, not the destination.
P.S. Don’t be surprised to see sheep crossing highways and walking freely everywhere. They’ve been known to take over roads and aren’t afraid of cars. But they are shy in front of cameras! 😊
P.P.S. Rent a four-wheel-drive if you plan to get off the ring road to explore. Many “highways” are unpaved gravel roads.
by Anna Lech