With towering tundras of fast-flowing falls, giant gleaming glaciers and hidden hot springs, it’s no wonder Iceland has a nickname of the ‘Land of Fire and Ice’. And to think that barely even covers what can be found on the ground, let alone the mystical Northern Lights that swirl through the night skies or the majestic marine mammals that inhabit the surrounding waters.
We’re sure this Viking-made country is on your must-see list, but since there’s so much to see when you’re there, we’ve scoured high and low for the top tips, the must-dos and the need-to-see sights. However, if you really want the most out of your trip, consider a small guided tour with one of our expert local leaders.
Experience Iceland on a small group tour
1. Roam around Reykjavik
It may be hard to say and even harder to spell, but this Icelandic capital city is worth the trek to get here. As this is likely your home base during your Iceland venture, you should take some time to wander its many attractions. One of the most recognisable sights is the iconic Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral towering over the rooftops and roads. Climb to the top to see the city’s mountainous backdrop or, simply marvel this impressive building from the outside.
If the call of the Vikings has led you to Iceland, we’d recommend a few sights that honour the country’s settlers. See the impressive Sólfar (Sun Voyager) Viking boat statue standing tall over the harbour, or stop by the National Museum for a glimpse at the nation’s journey from the 9th century to modern times.
Speaking of modern times, this eclectic city is home to artists, music makers and creators alike – all culminating in a fascinating cultural scene. Other notable stops include:
2. Glide over glaciers
With a name like ‘Iceland’, you’d probably expect some impressive feats of frozen water, and boy does this northern land deliver. Come upon frozen landscapes fit for a fairytale ice queen and prepare to be wowed by the otherworldy make-up of floating glaciers and chilled-out water.
Glacier hiking is a popular pastime in these parts. Or, see icy spectacles like the Jokularson Glacier Lagoon from another angle by boarding a boat or paddling over in a kayak. Explore the ice caves and hike atop the glacier at the Solheimajokull Glacier, or gaze out across the vast Vatnajökull Ice Cap, one of Europe’s largest ice caps.
3. Visit an Icelandic beach
What you may not expect from Iceland is that a beach visit is well worth the trip to the coast. Unlike most beaches found throughout the world, Icelandic shores can consist of unique black sand that greets frosty-looking arctic waters framed by unique stone structures. When venturing south, stop by Reynisfjara beach, found by the charming village of Vik. While here, see the basalt columns known as Reynisdrangar, an incredible natural stone formation.
Other worthy beaches include the Djúpalónssandur beach found west on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and the Diamond Beach on the southeast coast, aptly named for the diamond-like iceberg fragments that wash ashore.
4. Hop through the Golden Circle
If you’re hoping to see some of Iceland’s marquee attractions all in one go, you’re in luck because they’ve made it as simple as a circular drive. Well, not quite a perfect circle, but still. Named the Golden Circle for its ovular route, this journey takes you from Reykjavik to the major sites of Thingvellir National Park, Strokkur Geyser, Gullfoss Waterfall and, if you’re in the know – the (not-so) Secret Lagoon.
Thingvellir National Park was the location of Iceland’s first parliament. While little remains of this history, some old foundations can be seen if you know where to look. Within the national park is also the site of two neighbouring tectonic plates: the North American and Eurasian plates, slowly splitting apart. Here is also where the Silfra dive site is located – but more on snorkelling and scuba diving later.
The other two attractions of the Golden Circle are the sites of the Gullfoss Waterfall and Strokkur Geyser. The Gullfoss is Iceland’s largest waterfall, with two drops that equate to a total height of 32 meters (105 ft). In winter, the site may become partially frozen and, arguably, even more stunning to behold. The Strokkur Geyser is an active geyser in the Geysir Geothermal Area that erupts every five to ten minutes with an impressive jet that can sometimes get up to 40 meters (131 ft) high.
Our Golden Circle tours
5. Wander the waterfalls
If you’re not someone who gets to see many grand water features in your everyday life, then you’re in for a treat. Iceland waterfalls are some of the most powerful and magical in the entire European continent. What’s also amazing is that many of them have a unique story to them, giving life to these thunderous natural occurrences. Because there are quite a few to see, we’ve listed some of the most iconic and noteworthy.
- Skogafoss: a favourite among travellers and locals alike due to its staggering beauty and folklore. If you’re even going to go out of your way to see a waterfall, it should probably be this one. Those in luck may even catch a rainbow rising from the waters.
- Seljalandsfoss: if you’ve looked up Iceland, you’ve likely seen a picture of this waterfall, as it’s among the favourites of visitors. The Seljalandsfoss also has a bit of a splash zone with a path around the back of the falls that allows you to see out from behind the falling water – meaning you’ll likely get a little wet.
- Selfoss: a waterfall in the northern region that looks like a series of falls due to its length. An impressive natural wonder that’s worth a mention in your itinerary.
- Svartifoss: not often does a waterfall inspire architecture, but that’s exactly what the Svartifoss did for prominent Reykyvik designs such as the Hallgrimskirkja Church. The 20 meter (65 ft) tall falls tumble off a series of grey basalt columns into a pool of eroded rocks. The columns are so pristinely shaped that it’s hard to believe they’re not man-made.
- Godafoss: named ‘Waterfall of Gods’ for its poignant history in relation to the turn to Christianity. The story goes that in the year 1000, the lawspeaker threw his statues of the Norse Gods into the falls, an act that signified his decision to make Christianity the official national religion.
- Gullfoss: found on the Golden Circle route and named the ‘Golden Falls, ’ this waterfall also has political significance as a local woman threatened to throw herself into the falls if a construction project were to begin on the site.
- Detifoss: as the second most powerful waterfall in Europe, the Detifoss (translation ‘Tumbling Falls’) is understandably an impressive visual. These falls are less known for beauty and more for its thundering force and discoloured white-grey water.
- Kvernufoos: a close companion to the better-known Skogafoss, but with its moss and stone-framed gorge, it’s definitely one to add to the list. It’s also usually a little quieter than its popular neighbour.
6. Hike glaciers, volcanoes and mountains
No matter if you’re a trekker, a hiker or just someone who enjoys a leisurely stroll, the natural wonders of Iceland provide ample places to explore at your own speed. What’s even more impressive is that these aren’t your average treks. No, here in Iceland, you can hike glaciers and volcanoes alongside beautiful mountains and valleys.
Some of the most notable hikes are the Vatnajokull or Fimmvörðuháls Glacier hikes, the Mount Esja climb and the Thórsmörk (Valley of Thor) Nature Reserve trek. If you’re looking for a volcano to climb, the Litli-Hrútur – a freshly made volcanic landscape in Iceland’s southwest, is a must-see.
7. Soak up the minerals.
So, we’ve covered the ice part of ‘The Land of Ice and Fire’, but what about the fire? Well, that comes in the form of decadent hot springs and geothermal pools that are dotted throughout the country. The now world-famous Blue Lagoon is just one of the many locations to benefit from Iceland’s hot-spot activity, and while it’s certainly a beautiful location, there are plenty of other places to warm up after a long day of glacier hiking. Some of this hot spring water even has properties that make it beneficial for your body, with minerals that can ease certain skin conditions and even sore joints.
Before you swim in some of the more off-the-beaten-track springs, be sure to check for warnings, as some of Iceland’s naturally formed hot springs aren’t suitable for swimming.
8. Encounter an animal
Not to be outdone by the scenery are the non-human inhabitants of Iceland. From enormous whales and pointy-toothed sharks to orange-beaked puffins and fluffy horses, the wildlife of Iceland deserves a shout-out of their own. Many of the animals you’ll see on land are not native to the island, with the first settlers bringing over sheep, horses, cattle and dogs alongside other notable species such as reindeer.
Learn more about the creatures of this icy land at the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum or while operating on a horseback ride – courtesy of the traditional Icelandic horses.
What was native to the land were the arctic foxes, along with many species of birds, such as the adorable puffin, which can be found here each year from around April. You can look for these birds by land or sea, sometimes even aboard a whale-watching tour. With our expert guides on our carbon-neutral sailing boat tours, you may just be able to tick off a minke and humpback whale sighting, as well as plenty of other marine life who call the Arctic waters their home.
9. Glimpse the Northern Lights
Depending on the time of year, you may be in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience: seeing the Northern Lights. The Aurora Borealis is most often seen from September to late March, especially around the equinoxes on the 21st and 22nd of March and September.
Clear and dark conditions are the best for aurora-spotting, although they can never be completely guaranteed. Head away from the lights of the big cities and towns for the best chance to view the mesmerising movements and shifting colours of the solar particles entering and ionising in our atmosphere.
Our resident guides are well-equipped and well-prepared to give you the best chance of seeing the show. They can also give you a history of the ancient folklore surrounding the lights, which is as interesting as the display itself! Iceland also has a daily forecast during this time of year for when you’re most likely to glimpse the shimmering spectacle, so keep an eye out.
Nothern Lights tours
10. Scuba dive or snorkel
If you’ve ever wanted to swim between tectonic plates (because doesn’t everyone), Iceland has you covered. Known as the Silfa Fissure, this freshwater dive spot is somewhat famous in the diving community. First, for its incredible 70-meter visibility and second, it’s likely the only place in the world where you swim between continents. You’ll need a dry suit to keep your temperature up as the water sits at a toasty 2°C (36°F) year-round.
There are other places around Iceland for snorkelling, such as the Kleifarvatn geothermal lake, where underwater hot springs and sulphide deposits bring life to the otherwise quiet water.
11. Explore an ice cave or two
The Icelandic ice caves are yet another seasonal sight to see. Used throughout the centuries for shelter, nowadays, Iceland’s caves are popular visitor attractions. There are about four types of caves found in Iceland: glacier, lava, ice, as well as man-made, and some even include swimming spots.
During winter in Iceland, glaciers can form holes and make glacier ice caves. None is perhaps as famous as the Crystal Cave in the Kverkfjöll caves within the Vatnajökull glacier. Close by is another favourite, the Katla volcanic cave. Caves can be dangerous and even hard to find. You should always wear a helmet and other safety gear. For that reason, it’s recommended to seek out ice caves with the help of a guide or on a tour.
12. Taste the delicacies of Iceland
Eating in Iceland may seem at first to be a little different than other destinations; however, there’s plenty to sample during your time here. Famous spots include the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand in the Reykjavik main square or the Hlemmur Mathöll and Grandi Mathöll food halls, which serve everything from traditional local delicacies to internationally-beloved favourites like tacos, pizzas, sushi and more.
There’s a smorgasbord of high-quality restaurants serving the country’s specialties, including Icelandic salmon, lobster tails, trout, liver sausage, and the nation’s drinks, such as schnapps and craft beers. You can also find local makers when exploring the country, including on the Reykjanes Peninsula, where native ingredients are sustainably used to create herbal teas, jams and more.
We’ve combined some of the most popular attractions alongside some lesser-known spots on our Iceland tours. Experience the magic of Northern Light hunting, whale watching, waterfall chasing and much more on our small group adventures through this magical country.