Fascinating hot springs, active volcanoes, awe-inspiring glaciers and ice fields, gushing geysers, cascading waterfalls, dazzling Northern Lights and its wonderfully gracious people give you every reason to make Iceland the number one on your bucket list.
Located between Europe and North America, the sparsely populated island nation of Iceland is fast becoming a magnet for world tourists, attracting adventurers, thrill-seekers, nature lovers, and foodies alike.
With 10% of the island covered by glaciers, a surprisingly mild climate, numerous hot springs and volcanoes, Iceland is truly a land of fire and ice. With a population of around 330,000 people, it is the most thinly populated country in Europe, with two-thirds of the population concentrated in and around its largest city and capital Reykjavik.
Because of its proximity to the Arctic Circle, there is dramatic seasonal disparity in the daylight hours. Summer is the best time to witness the mesmerizing midnight sun when the sun hardly sets and the brief nights are never fully dark.
Daylight hours are considerably short during the winter months with the shortest day being around December 21 (the winter solstice) when the sun rises as late as 11:30 am and sets as early as 3:30 pm. Further north, the day gets even shorter.
Because of volcanoes and other seismic activity, a new island emerged from the sea off Iceland’s south coast in 1963, which the locals have made the most of, harnessing the island’s geothermal energy for heating purposes. The exceptionally crisp and clean air, the rugged terrain and unspoiled landscapes make for memorable adventures and explorations.
We have listed below some of the best spots, activities, and attractions in this beautiful Nordic destination, which would be nothing less than blasphemy to miss out on.
Blue Lagoon, Grindavík
A 40-minute drive from Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is located in a lava field in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula. You can take a dip in the mineral enriched water of the spa reputed for its healing properties – especially good for people suffering from skin diseases, including psoriasis.
A nearby geothermal power plant, Svartsengi, feeds the man-made lagoon with water which is replenished every two days to maintain hygiene, which Icelanders are pretty strict about. Bathers are required to shower before venturing into the spa.
Landmannalaugar National Park is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland. It is located in the south of the country, about 180 km from Reykjavik. This enchanting landscape is known for its multi-colored rhyolite mountains, expanses of lava fields, not to forget the Hekla volcano.
Hiking and horse riding are popular activities in Landmannalaugar – the best way to soak in the raw natural beauty and the spectacular sights of this beautiful Iceland spot.
Here are some of the hiking options you can choose from:
- 1- hour hike up Mt. Bláhnjúkur – Blue Peak
- 2-hour hike through the Laugahraun lava field to Mt. Brennisteinsalda – Sulphur Wave
- 4-hour hike to Ljótipollur Crater Lake – Ugly Puddle
- 3-4 day Hellismannaleið route at the base of the Hekla volcano
- 3-4 day Sprengisandur route through a volcanic desert
Another favorite with tourists, the Gullfoss Waterfall is located in the Olfusa River canyon, some 90 minutes west of Reykjavik by road. The Olfusa River flows down into a curved three-step canyon and then free-falls in two stages to form two breathtaking cascades. The upper waterfall plunges 39 feet to the second stage from where it cascades 69 feet down into a 32-meter deep crevice.
Vatnajökull National Park
Named after the Vatnajökull Glacier around which it is centered, the Vatnajökull National Park is a protected wilderness area in south Iceland.
Known for its colossal glaciers and magnificent ice caves, the Park is a popular tourist attraction, particularly to adventurers from across the globe. Add to that snowy peaks, active geothermal areas, rushing rivers and cascading waterfalls and you have a wilderness area like no other in the whole wide world.
The vast park can be divided into four must-see areas – the amazing Skaftafell ice caves, Jökulsárlón – a glacial lagoon with spectacular icebergs, and the magnificent Svartifoss and Dettifosis waterfalls.
Located in the north of Vatnajökull National Park, the Dettifoss Waterfall is, arguably, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The 100-meter wide Jökulsá á Fjöllum River, which is fed by the sediment-rich water from the nearby Vatnajökull glacier, becomes the Dettifoss Waterfall as it plummets from a height of 45 meters creating a deafening roar of crashing spray. It is definitely a must-see recommendation.
The Svartifoss waterfall in the Vatnajökull National Park – one of the park’s most popular attractions – is surrounded by dark lava columns which gave the fall its name Svartifoss or Black Falls.
The Hallgrímskirkja church and the National Theatre in Reykjavík, are based on inspiration derived from the hexagonal basalt columns at the base of the Waterfall.
Skaftafell Ice Caves
A wilderness area in the Vatnajökull National Park, Skaftafell’s huge glaciers includes Skaftafellsjökull and Svínafellsjökull. Trails from the area lead to Kristínartindar Mountain and to the Svartifoss waterfall.
Towards the east of Skaftafell lie the Morsárdalur Valley and the Öræfajökull Volcano known for its ice-capped peak, Hvannadalshnúkur. The Bæjarstaðarskógur woodlands lie to the west of Skaftafell.
The Skaftafell Ice Caves are a treat not to be missed out on. Winter is the best time to visit the caves when heavy rains have washed away the top layer of the glacier. If you are lucky enough to be there at the right time, you will find the caves bathed in natural ghostly blue light.
Bordering the Vatnajökull National Park is the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, its calm blue waters dotted with icebergs that break away from the surrounding Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, part of the larger Vatnajökull Glacier.
As the lagoon flows into the Atlantic through a short waterway, it leaves behind chunks of ice on a black sand beach. Teeming with fish, the lagoon attracts hundreds of seals in winter.
Named after the seventeenth-century Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson, the Hallgrímskirkja is a modernist cathedral consecrated in 1986 – 41 years after the start of construction in 1945.
Standing at an imposing height of 74.5 meters, it is one of the tallest structures in Iceland. A climb to the top of the tower will reward you with spectacular 360° views of the city and beyond.
This impressive towering church is located in the heart of Reykjavik and is the city’s most recognizable landmark, visible from almost everywhere in the city.
Located in the north of Vatnajökull National Park, Askja is a large 50-square-kilometer caldera comprising a complex of nested calderas in the surrounding Dyngjufjöll Mountains.
This massive caldera was created when the crater of the central volcano collapsed during an eruption. It is a popular tourist attraction offering two mountain huts and a campsite at Dreki.
However, the place can only be visited from late June until early October when the roads are open. The road remains closed rest of the year because of extreme weather conditions.
Kirkjufell Mountain, Grundarfjörður
On the north coast of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, about two and a half hours’ drive from Reykjavik, lies the picture-perfect fishing village of Grundarfjördu in a scenic fjord. The village is surrounded by mountains, with the towering Mt. Kirkjufell providing an impressive backdrop.
Rushing streams and cascading waterfalls abound in the areas surrounding Grundarfjördu. If you happen to visit the place in winter, you’ll be treated to one of the best spectacles of nature that will leave you spellbound – yes, it’s the dazzling Northern Lights we’re talking about – the aurora borealis.
The Eyrbyggja Heritage Centre is the best place to learn about the maritime history of Grundarfjördur.
The Pearl Observatory (Perlan)
The Pearl Observatory or Perlan, as it locally known, is one of Reykjavik’s iconic buildings located on Öskjuhlíð Hill. The site is home to over 176,000 trees, with bicycle trails and footpaths zigzagging the gentle slopes of the hill.
Perlan boasts a revolving restaurant as well as gourmet and souvenir shops. It is also a great vantage point affording stunning views of Reykjavik and its surroundings. Concerts and exhibitions in the Winter Garden feature regularly.