Snaefellsjokull landscape

9 Best Things to Do in Iceland

Snaefellsjokull landscape

Iceland is an incredible country – a land of mystical, majestic landscapes which will quite literally take your breath away. It’s a land of steaming hot springs and snow-capped peaks, of glaciers and volcanoes, thunderous waterfalls, Viking history, and striking contrasts from season to season. For a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland packs an awful lot of adventurous punch. That is why International Expeditions has planned two new Iceland tours, timed to offer either winter adventure or a breathtaking look at nature and wildlife.

From the modern to the historic, with attractions both natural and manmade, the following are our picks for the best things to do in Iceland:

Barrow's Goldeneye

Visit Lake Mývatn


Lake Myvatn is a volcanic lake which combines the best of Iceland’s natural wonders in one region. From desolate volcano cones to bubbling mud pools and thermal caves, this area is a great way to sample the beauty Iceland has to offer in one place.

It’s also a haven for wildlife. The lake and surrounding wetlands create a unique environment that’s home to an exceptionally rich array of fauna. With over 115 bird species (including 13 species of duck) in a 14-square-mile area, Lake Myvatn is considered one of the best sites for birdwatching in the world.

Northern Lights

Catch the Northern Lights

It’s important to note that, when it comes to natural phenomena, there are never any guarantees of a sighting. But Iceland is one of the best countries in the world for those hoping to see the northern lights. Also known as the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights are caused by solar winds interacting with charged particles in the earth’s magnetic field. The result is streaks of red, green, yellow, and/or purple which dance across the nighttime sky.

This incredible spectacle primarily occurs during winter, which in Iceland usually lasts from late September to early April. It’s best to head outside of the city limits, where there is less light pollution. International Expeditions' Iceland Winter Adventure tour includes time in remote locations like Thingvellir National Park, Siglufjordur and Husafell.

Breaching humpback whale

Go Whale Watching

Icelandic waters are home to over 24 different species of whale. As far as whale watching goes, this is one of the best places in the world to spot humpback, minke, blue, fin, sperm, and killer whales, as well as white-beaked dolphins!
 
The first whale-watching tour in Iceland was given in 1991. Since then, the country has fast become one of Europe’s leading whale-watching destinations. As the whale-watching industry becomes more beneficial to Iceland’s ecotourism economy, the hope is that the traditional practice of hunting them will eventually discontinue.

Timed to coincide with the peak of the wildlife season, IE's new Iceland Awakening journey offers opportunities to spot colonies of puffins, scarce northern shoveler, plus boating excursions to search for orca, minke, humpback and blue whales off the waters of Husavik, home to 19 recorded species of whales!

Gullfoss

Go Chasing Waterfalls

Iceland’s waterfalls easily rank among the most magnificent in the world, with each seemingly more spectacular than the last.

There are some like Selfoss, which is formed from glacial melt, and others thought to be formed by the Gods (see: Godafoss). There are those which sit unassumingly alongside the Ring Road, and those which crash dramatically through canyons onto black sand beaches.  

And then there’s Dettifoss, the largest and most powerful waterfall in Europe. At 144 feet high and 328 feet wide, the water from Dettifoss rips through a glacial river and plummets into Iceland’s version of the Grand Canyon. It flows at a pummeling 19,423 cubic feet per second, and onlookers can feel the ground tremble beneath their feet.

Reykjavik

Explore Reykjavik

Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland, and the northernmost capital city in the world. Though it has less than 200,000 inhabitants, the city is full of sights and activities for travelers looking to experience Icelandic culture, history, and nature alike.

Set by the water, Reykjavik is full of colorful buildings, quirky people, and cutting-edge contemporary design. It’s easy to explore the neighborhoods and shopping streets by foot. Start at Hallgrimskirkja Church, which towers over the center of the city and has a viewing platform that offers jaw-dropping 360º views.

You can visit art galleries, museums (don’t miss the Reykjavík Art Museum or the National Gallery), and cool cafes which transform into wild nightclubs. Spend time along the picturesque waterfront (Old Harbour), where you can learn about Iceland’s rich marine life. You’ll find interesting outdoor sculptures and street art all around town.

Thingvellir National Park

Tour the Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is Iceland’s classic sightseeing tour. This circular route loops from Reykjavik into central Iceland and back, covering 186 miles of waterfalls, geysers, and beautiful national parks along the way. The main highlights of this tour include Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall.

Thingvellir National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with cultural, historical, and geological significance. Part of the park is known as the Parliament Plains: Here, in 930 AD, Iceland’s first Parliament was formed. Until 1798, people would gather to give speeches, debate law, and carry out court proceedings.

Located in the Haukadalur Valley, Geysir Geothermal Area is another highlight. It’s home to Strokkur, one of the most reliable geysers in the world. It erupts every eight to ten minutes, sending plumes of steam and jets of incredibly hot water high into the air.

Gulfoss waterfall is less than 10 minutes from Geysir, and is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland. It plunges into an ancient valley from a height of 105 feet, and visiting it is one of the most popular things to do in Iceland. The river it flows into is called Hvita, which is one of the best places for whitewater rafting in southwest Iceland.

Explore by "Super Jeep"

Search for Elves


Elves are no joke in Iceland, where many people still believe in the existence of the huldufólk (hidden people) who play a large role in Icelandic folklore. They first appeared in poems from the Viking era, with more elaborate stories and tales popping up throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

With IE, you head out with locals by Super Jeep! Your local driver/guide amazes you with stories of the incredible geothermal activity in the Krafla area, the unmatched skills of the Icelandic volcanologists, and even stories of the trolls and elves that keep a close eye on you along your journey. Careful not to disturb their homes or unfortunate events will follow at the hands of these vengeful and mischievous creatures!

These stories have ripened with age, and today the most prominent belief is that building or otherwise disturbing the homes and churches of elves can lead to misfortune. As a result, building and road construction in Iceland sometimes attract environmental protests if the construction will disturb the elves believed to be living in its path. After a couple of these protests erupted, the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration actually created a five-page “standard reply” for press inquiries about elves!

Snorkeling in Iceland

Snorkel/Scuba Dive Between Tectonic Plates


Along with lakes, waterfalls, and other natural formations, Thingvellir National Park is the place where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are visibly splitting, leaving cracks in the ground as they drift apart.

The deepest of these cracks is called the Silfra fissure. This is the only place in the world where you can snorkel or dive directly between two tectonic plates. To one side of you is the North American continent. To the other is Europe. This is also some of the clearest (and most drinkable) water in the world, with underwater visibility that sometimes reaches over 320 feet.

Iceland's Blue Lagoon

Soak in the Blue Lagoon


One of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions, the Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa set in a sprawling, 800-year-old lava field. The lagoon holds nine million liters of geothermal seawater sourced directly from the Svartsengí geothermal field. Steam rises up from the surreal blue water and black lava boulders. The mineral-rich waters are widely believed to help people suffering from skin diseases and other ailments.
 
The Blue Lagoon was named as one of National Geographic's “25 Wonders of the World" in 2012, and it’s the ultimate hot spot for bathing in Iceland. Swimming is a popular pastime here, and public bathing has become deeply rooted in the local culture.


Megan Jerrard is an Australian Journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.