Iceland. It’s a land of sheep, the northern lights, volcanoes with unpronounceable names (try saying Eyjafjallajökull), majestic waterfalls, craggy mountains, and otherworldly landscapes. To me, it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. How can such a tiny island have such a diverse and beautiful terrain? It changes every few feet — from verdant fields, snowy mountains, and brilliant glaciers to looking like Mars. It never ceases to amaze me. I had high expectations when I first visited. I’d seen movies and pictures in magazines of a land with jagged mountain peaks, volcanoes with desolate lava fields, rolling hills with grazing sheep, and glaciers that stretched for miles.
Iceland lived up to all those expectations. Now, a year doesn’t go by when I don’t visit (see ya again in September!). Sure, the country has seen an explosion in tourism in recent years and it’s gotten a lot more expensive but most of the tourists concentrate in the south near Reykjavik. Once you head out of the capital region, it’s mostly you and nature (I only saw three other tourists in my week in the Westfjords…during peak season)!
So, in honor of the Iceland guide I just published today, here are my favorite things to see and do in Iceland that will convince you to book your ticket (because, thanks to WOW air, flights are dirt cheap):
This hip capital is awash in thriving cafes, high-energy clubs, friendly pubs, and a brightly colored old town with rows of wooden houses clustered together. It’s more like a giant small town than a city. Though it’s super small, it’s worth a few extra days to really get a feel for the art and café culture of the city. And if you’re a night owl, you’ll love the party life (Icelanders know how to drink). I love this city and never find myself bored here. From reading in cafés to wandering the coastline to
enjoying drinks with my friends, Reykjavík sucks me in during ever visit.
Visit the Westfjords
The Westfjords is a large peninsula in northwestern Iceland with tons mountains and a coastline heavily indented by fjords. It’s one of the most raw parts of Iceland and my favorite region. Few people live here and fewer visit, though Icelanders make their way here on summer vacation. It’s an area of tiny towns, fishing villages, mountains, waterfalls, and lakes. In the summer months, puffins and whales call it their home. In the winter, many of the roads are closed by ice and snow for several months. But you’ll find tiny towns, deep fjords, and beautiful hikes all to yourself. It’s not easy to get around but locals will let you hitch rides with them easily because bus service here can basically be non-existent. Be sure to eat at Tjöruhúsið in Ísafjörður for an all you can eat, catch of the day buffet. Delicious!
Hit a relaxing lagoon
Most people soak in the Blue Lagoon. This huge, milky-blue spa is fed by mineral-rich heated seawater from the nearby geothermal plant. Though it’s the most expensive one, you cannot deny that Iceland’s most famous geothermal pool is the country’s top tourist attraction. But there are so many other hot pools in the country. Reykjavik has their local one, in the north there is the Myvatn Nature Baths, and on the way to Vik there’s the famous “secret” (but not so secret) mountain springs. You’ll find plenty of free hot springs all around the island. Use the website Hotpot Iceland to find them.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is the popular tourist route that includes Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir, and Thingvellir National Park. They make an easy day trip from the capital or airport, so people on a short layover always visit this area. You can easily drive the whole ring in a day. Along the way, there are a few farms where you can stop and see Icelandic horses. The main sites are:
- Gullfoss – Fed by Langjökull, Iceland’s second biggest glacier, this is one of the most photographed waterfalls in the country. While not the biggest or most majestic, its V shape is unique and powerful to watch. Iceland’s most famous waterfall tumbles 105 feet into a steep-sided canyon, kicking up a wall of spray. On sunny days, the spray creates shimmering rainbows over the gorge. This is a truly amazing spectacle and a rewarding scene after a nice hike.
- Geysir – A famous hot spring in Haukadalur Valley. Geysir itself seldom erupts anymore, but nearby Strokkur spouts 15-20 meters of water about every 10 minutes. There are also numerous strikingly colored hot pools in the area along the path. If you want to hike up the mountains nearby (takes 20 minutes to get to the top), you’ll be rewarded with picturesque views of farmland.
- Thingvellir – This place is full of hiking trails and stunning camping grounds, but its big draw is that it’s the only place in the world where you can see two major tectonic plates drifting apart above sea level. Walking through the park takes a good 1-2 hours, but the landscape is so gorgeous (and it’s not a difficult walk). You can also go scuba diving between the plates and there are some good guided walks.
How to get there:
Gullfoss is 124km from Reykjavik. From Geysir, follow route 35 (Biskupstungnabraut), the drive is about 30 minutes long. The waterfall can be visited 24/7 free of charge. It is a public free open space.
Watch the Northern Lights
From September to April, the Northern Lights become more visible here. These dancing lights are one of the greatest natural wonders in the world. To witness the aurora borealis in all their glory in Iceland requires patience, luck, and darkness. The country towns in the north are the best place to see the lights, especially during periods of “low” activity. If the lights are really strong, you can sometimes see them in Rekjyavik.
Jökulsárlón (The Jökulsár Lagoon)
Located in the southeast of Iceland, this ice floe is only a couple of decades old and now one of the most popular attractions in the area country. Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier retreated very quickly from 1920 to 1965, leaving this breathtaking lagoon behind, which is up to 190 meters deep. Icebergs float in the lagoon all year. I enjoy just sitting and listening to the ice blocks crash into each other on their way out to sea. You can also take boat trips around the lagoon.
How to get there:
Jökulsárlón is on the edge of the National Highway 1 so very accessible if you stop on the side of the road. It’s free to visit.
Do a Glacial Trek
During the winter months, the glaciers get a bit sturdier, and groups of tourists are led across them. There’s no better way to see the glaciers than to walk on them, releasing your inner Arctic explorer. Vatnajökull is one of the most popular glaciers to hike, though there are others around the country, as well. Some tour companies that offer glacial expeditions are Extreme Iceland, Icelandic Mountain Guides, Trek Iceland.
My love for Iceland became an obsession as I’ve drawn back by the people and the raw natural beauty of the terrain. Don’t let the high prices scare you away from Iceland. There’s plenty of ways to save money while you’re there. Get inspired, take advantage of the cheap flights, head north away from the crowds, and sit in a hot springs while watching the northern lights!
Announcing My In-Depth Budget Guide to Iceland!!
Today, we just published our brand new guide to Iceland! The product of months of work this two hundred page guidebook will help you get off the tourist trail, save money, and see the best of the country. You’ll see the local side of Iceland as I take you off the tourist trail, give you my obsessively curated list of places to stay, eat, and things to see.
Moreover, you’ll get a plethora of ways to save money, suggested itineraries, maps (so many maps), practical information, suggested reading, operators, and so much more. This guide cuts out the fluff you’ll find in mass market guidebooks and gets right to the point giving you the practical stuff you need to have a first class trip on an economy class budget!
Book Your Trip to Iceland: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. I never ever go on a trip without it. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. You should too.
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Want More Information on Iceland?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Iceland for even more planning tips!