Best Things to do in Iceland

Best Things to do in Iceland

Iceland is a country unlike any other, brimming with adventure. There are volcanoes and glaciers, hot springs and waterfalls, vast fjords, and tiny towns, all of them backed by some out-of-this-world scenery. Every year, visitors to this little island nation outnumber the locals six-to-one, but it’s still easy to find your own slice of Icelandic paradise. 

From bucket-list-worthy natural spectacles to hiking across the epic landscapes, here are the best things to do in Iceland. And for those planning a trip, don’t forget about a car rental in Iceland. 

1. Marvel at the Northern Lights

One of the best things to do in Iceland is to catch a glimpse of the northern lights. Iceland is one of the best countries to visit when it comes to admiring the aurora borealis, which dances across the night skies from late August until toward the end of April when the longer days mean that it’s no longer visible. It’s one of the earth’s most stunning natural spectacles, a truly magical experience, and without a doubt one of the coolest things to do in Iceland. 

For your best chance at seeing the lights, winter provides the longest stretches of darkness, increasing the amount of time you could see them. However, December to February is also Iceland’s stormiest time. On either side in Spring and Autumn, things are often calmer, although the night skies don’t last for as long as in the winter. 

Whatever you choose, make sure you book a rental car in Iceland for your best chance at chasing the northern lights. You can also check the forecast at this website run by the Icelandic Met Office. 

people watching the northern lights in Iceland

2. Go Whale Watching

The country is also home to a range of unique wildlife – and going whale watching in the fjords is another of the best things to do in Iceland. Every summer, the longer days shine their light on the shallow fjords around the country, creating the perfect feeding grounds for these gentle giants of the ocean, who arrive to enjoy some easy meals and splash around in the water. 

There are several options for whale-watching tours around the country. There are some that leave from Reykjavik, as well as in West Iceland at the ports of Stykkishólmur and Grundarfjörður along the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. But by far the most popular spot for whale watching in Iceland is at Húsavík, which has been dubbed the whale watching capital of Iceland. With a rental car in Iceland, this is an easy detour off the ring road near Akureyri. Tours leave from the port and strike out through Skjálfandi Bay, where there’s a vast number of whales to be seen.

Boat in the ocean finding whale

3. Hike The Laugavegur Trail

Iceland is an adventurer’s playground, and hiking is one of the best ways to experience the country. But there’s one hiking trail that sits far above all others: the Laugavegur Trail. Tracing through the volcanic highlands from Thórsmörk to Landmannalaugar, this 5-day trek offers a glimpse into the volcanic power of the country. You’ll pass hot springs, bubbling geothermal mud pots, spectral lava fields, and brooding glaciers.

This is a serious undertaking and should only be attempted during the warmer months. Those feeling even more adventurous can begin from Selfoss Waterfall in South Iceland, first tackling the Fimmvörðurháls Mountain Pass from the south into Thórsmörk. There are mountain huts along the way for sleeping, and once you’ve arrived in Landmannalaugar, a fantastic hot spring to ease your aching muscles. 

For hiking trails that are less challenging yet equally spectacular, with a car rental in Iceland, there are several great options. Skaftafell in the south of Vatnajökull National Park is filled with different trails, as is the region surrounding Mývatn Lake in North Iceland. 

4. Soak in a Hot Spring

That same volcanic energy is the reason for Iceland having so many natural hot springs. Rushing forth from beneath the earth, steaming geothermal water bubbles up to the surface in countless areas across Iceland. Some of the water is boiling hot, while others sit at the perfect temperature for bathing, conveniently collecting in natural pools and being diverted by industrious locals into the town swimming pools. 

There are several distinct types of hot springs in Iceland. There are high-end spas, such as the famous Blue Lagoon, which charges admission for entrance into the hot spring facilities. Then, there are more natural places to find the hot water, for example rushing through a river or collecting in a natural pool on the shores of a fjord. Finally, the swimming pools around the country, all of which enjoy heated water from sources underground. 

Enjoying a soak in a hot spring or swimming pool is without a doubt one of the best things to do in Iceland. Our favorites? The ones are hidden within nature, surrounded by beautiful landscapes and with not another soul in sight. 

Woman in a hot spring in iceland

5. Enjoy a Horseback Riding Tour

While the country has whales, seals, and arctic foxes, by far the most popular animal in Iceland has to be its horses. It’s famed for being shorter than a regular horse, although calling them a pony to an owner at your own peril. They’re also incredibly sturdy animals, resistant to the harsh Icelandic conditions, and are famous for having five gaits, whereas most horses only have four. 

Riding by horseback through Iceland is a big part of the culture, with the first settlers on the island using them to travel around to different farms and meet to discuss matters of governance, religion, and country-wide laws. By partaking in a horseback ride in Iceland, you will be directly connecting with the culture, and seeing the incredible landscapes as well.

6. Experience the Nightlife in Reykjavik

The capital of Iceland might be small, but it more than makes up for it with its range of things to see and do. This cosmopolitan little city also boasts a lively nightlife, with a considerable number of bars, cafés, and clubs thronged with locals on the weekend. Reykjavik is a city that knows how to party – perhaps it has something to do with the long and dark winters. 

You likely know by now that Iceland is a black hole for your hard-earned money, but luckily, most bars will have happy hour deals during the evening. Whether it’s half-price beers or two-for-one cocktails, this is the best time to buy drinks in Reykjavik.

As the night goes on, things of course get busier. Locals are known for not leaving their pre-parties when going out until around midnight or even later – so if you’re looking to dance the night away, make sure you pace yourself. Things wrap up in the wee hours of the morning. 

Experience the Nightlife in Reykjavik

7. Go Glacier Hiking

Another of the best things to do in Iceland is to go on a glacier hike. There are several large glaciers across the country, the most famous being Eyjafjallajökull, the ice cap from which came the 2011 eruption that caused flights to shut down across Europe and North America. Perhaps on equal footing is the glacier Vatnajökull in the southeast corner of Iceland, one of Europe’s largest ice caps and an impressive place to venture onto the glacier with a tour. 

Hiking tours are one of the best ways to experience Iceland’s glaciers, trekking across the ice cap with guides leading the way. There are also snowmobiling tours, ice-climbing, and in the winter, tours into the Iceland ice caves, one of the most fantastic experiences for offseason travelers. 

To reach the glaciers in the south and east, your best bet is a car rental in Iceland. Giving you the freedom to travel around the country as you wish is just one of the reasons why renting a car in Iceland is a great idea.

Woman Glacier Hiking in Iceland 

8. Admire the Waterfalls Around the Country

The presence of these glaciers means that there’s a huge amount of meltwater that surges through the rivers that cut through the countryside toward the ocean. And thanks to the mountainous landscapes as well, there are a great many waterfalls to admire as well. Tumbling down huge cliffs, roaring through glacial valleys, and careening off the highland shelf, the variety and a sheer number of waterfalls in Iceland make this a dream destination.

There’s the thundering Gullfoss at the end of the Golden Circle, one of the most famous sights in the country. In the south, Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss are striking and pretty, while Goðafoss and Dettifoss in North Iceland roar with the power of strong glacial rivers. For many, admiring the waterfalls in Iceland is one of the main activities you’ll do on a ring road trip around the country. 

9. Witness the Volcanic Power of Iceland

Situated over a hot spot in the Earth’s mantle, Iceland is one of the most volcanically charged countries in the world. The landscapes are molded by eruptions, with lava fields spilling into the ocean, canyons carved out by glacial floods, and craters caused by explosive and violent volcanoes. 

Getting up close and personal with this raw energy is another of the best things to do in Iceland. There are lava fields aplenty, and brooding volcano peaks across the Highlands as well as giant craters that you can hike across. You can see real-life lava at the Icelandic Lava Show in Vik, delve into lava tubes hollowed out by previous eruptions, and even descend into a dormant volcano – the only place in the world where such activity is available. 

10. Dive Between the Tectonic Plates

One of the most unique experiences you can have in Iceland is to dive between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. At Thingvellir National Park, you can see the rift for yourself and even take a stroll through the middle of the plates as they emerge from the earth. This is a highlight of the area, and it doubles as another attraction in Thingvellir Lake: the Silfra Fissure. 

This is the site where you can dive between the two tectonic plates, delving into the deep, spooky water. An eerie clear-blue color, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for divers. If you’re not keen on diving, there are also snorkeling tours available as well. 

To make the most of any trip to the country, you’ll need a car to get out and explore. Our car rental in Iceland has a range of great vehicles, suited to whatever type of traveler you are. 

11. Explore the Black Sand Beaches

The South Coast of Iceland is very popular among tourists, and it's one region you should consider exploring. Iceland's coastal erosion and glaciers have left most of its coastline jagged up, with fjords defining the East, West, and North. However, due to the constant glacial flooding on the South Coast, the rocks have eroded into black sand.

If you decide to go there, be sure to explore the most famous black sand beach in the country called “Reynisfjara.” Like many other amazing places in Iceland, Reynisfjara’s beauty lies in its stark and out-of-this-world landscapes. Exploring black sand beaches might be one of the best things to do in Iceland, but note that it’s forbidden to swim there.  

The water is dangerously cold and has strong currents. Reynisfjara beach is especially risky as the sneaker waves can unexpectedly surge ashore. Stay 67-100 ft. (20-30 m) from the surf and obey the safety advice provided at these attractions.

Black sand Beach in Iceland

12. Experience the Tranquility of the Eastfjords

If you're looking for an off-the-beaten-path adventure, then the Eastfjords are your best bet. The area is sparsely populated and is the country’s farthest point from the capital. The Eastfjords also have few tourists, which provides the peace and tranquility many seek on their trip here. Those who visit often return, claiming it was their favorite part of the island. 

Driving through the high mountains and dramatic cliff edges, you'll see breathtaking seascapes and jaw-dropping views of the Vatnajokull National Park and its gigantic central glacier. Despite the lack of developments, the east has several settlements like Seydisfjordur, Egilsstadir, and Djupivogur, where you can find food, gas, and exceptional accommodation. 

These small villages and towns are right in the middle of awe-inspiring natural surroundings. While driving through the Eastfjords, be on the lookout for the local wildlife, especially reindeer. These were introduced to Iceland from Norway in the 18th century, but only those in the Eastfjords managed to survive. The most likely place to spot them is at the fjord near Seydisfjordur or on a super jeep wild reindeer tour.

13. Tour the Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is the most popular sightseeing route in Iceland. It is 186 miles (300 km) long and takes you to some of the most heavenly places in the country: the Gullfoss waterfall, Thingvellir National Park, and the Geysir Geothermal Area. You can rent a car and drive the Golden Circle in hours. Most people prefer traveling in the morning to participate in activities throughout the day. Others choose to spread the drive over a few days to make time for snowmobile and snorkeling tours for extra fun. 

Thingvellir National Park is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Iceland, making it one of the island's most treasured possessions. The park is also where the world’s first democratically elected parliament was formed by medievjal Icelanders in 930 AD. When you explore the Thingvellir National Park, you’ll see the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates emerging from the earth. It’s a truly fantastic site! The park is also home to Silfra Fissure, one of the best places in the world to snorkel. 

Haukadalur is where you’ll see the Geysir and Strokkur hot springs, the latter of which erupts close to 65 ft. (20 m) in the air every 5-6 minutes. About six miles (10km) north, you’ll find the Gullfoss waterfall, your final stop on the Golden Circle. This 100 ft. (32m) high spectacle displays the full force of Iceland’s water system as it cascades past two rocky tiers and into a crystal clear valley below. Most visitors to the Gullfoss waterfall often take part in a snowmobile tour on Langjökull, the second-largest glacier in Iceland. Viewing a glacier is a great adventure, but touring it on a snowmobile is a heaven-on-earth experience you don’t want to miss.

If you want to self-drive the Golden Circle we recommend reading our Ultimate Guide to Iceland’s Golden Circle.

14. Go Seal-Watching at the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

The Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is the crown jewel of Iceland’s most eye-catching natural attractions. It’s almost impossible to think of one that outshines it. This glacier-filled lake is a must-see if you’re looking for the best things to see in Iceland. The glittering icebergs crunch and groan against each other from Breidamerkurjokull glacier to the Atlantic Ocean.

While some tourists choose to sit by the shoreline and watch the seals play around the heaving chunks of ice, others prefer to take part in a zodiac boat tour. The size of the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon increases every year due to the effects of climate change. Scientists even think that a new fjord will overtake the lagoon in little less than a century. While this sounds absurd, glaciers in Iceland are melting at an unprecedented speed. 

A six-minute walk from the lagoon will take you to Diamond Beach. Icebergs often break from a glacial tongue and wash ashore. The blue ice then merges with the jet-black sand to form a visually appealing landscape, which will leave you awe-struck. Add the mesmerizing hues of the midnight sun or the beautiful colors of the northern lights, and you have yourself the perfect fantasy novel cover.

seal in water in iceland

15. Photograph the Asbyrgi Canyon

If you head to Northeast Iceland, you’ll see an intricately formed natural feature that early settlers thought was formed by divine power. They believed that the horseshoe canyon of Asbyrgi was a result of the hoofs of Odin’s eight-legged horse touching the ground. This is a must-see if you are intrigued by Norse mythology.

The plateau that rises from the middle and the cliffs around the canyon allow for some of Iceland's most stunning photographs and views. There is also unimaginable beauty within the canyon, where you'll find it filled with larch, fir, pine, willow, and birch. Indeed, the place has a wealth of vegetation that it’s impossible to believe Asbyrgi Canyon is actually in Iceland. It’s no wonder most myths about elves or “the hidden people,” as most Icelanders call them, all originate here.

16. Reykjavik Food Tour

By far the best way to experience a new country is through its local food. The traditional Icelandic food is something that you should not dive into without the help from a local.

The Reykjavik Food Walk hosted by Wake Up Reykjavik is a wonderful way to learn about our lovely city of Reykjavik, our Icelandic culture, and, most importantly, our delicious food scene, all while having fun with a local guide! In the tour, you will visit everything from "must-visit restaurants" to small family-run businesses and they will even show you our secret local hangouts!

The Reykjavik Food Walk is the highest-rated food/drink activity in all of Iceland on TripAdvisor and that is no surprise!

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