The Ultimate Guide to Planning Holidays in Iceland
Iceland is renowned across the world for its diverse landscape and a great variety of amazing things to see and do. One of the greatest things about visiting Iceland is its utter uniqueness which has captured the imaginations of the country’s visitors for decades.
In this article, we have cherry-picked the very best things to do in each of Iceland’s main regions, so you can map out your very own Arctic Adventure today!
The south of Iceland is home to some of the world’s most picturesque glaciers for you to explore, climb and hike across. We offer tours to match every tourist’s adventure level.
Some the country’s most popular and best-known glaciers are found along the coast; Mýrdalsjökull glacier, Eyjafjallajökull glacier, and Europe’s largest glacier: Vatnajökull. The south coast also offers a great opportunity for you to encounter black sand beaches, vast lava fields, majestic waterfalls and more. To see what kinds of adventure tours you can embark upon and to find out more about the region, see our page about the scenic south coast of Iceland here. Below are some the more popular South Iceland destinations and tours for you to choose from:
Vatnajökull, which translates to Water Glacier and was previously known as Klofajökull, is the largest ice cap in Iceland which, amazingly covers, 8% of the country’s landmass. Underneath this great ice formation lie some of the most active volcanoes in Iceland, including Grímsvötn and Bárðarbunga.
Grímsvötn is the most active of Iceland’s volcanoes, estimated to have erupted up to one hundred times since the settlements of Iceland were first established. The eruption which took place in 2011 was a relatively small one, and did not cause any serious disruption to the locals within the vicinity. Grímsvötn’s 8,100 km² area gives visitors some fantastic hiking and ice cave excursion opportunities, all of which can be accessed as single day adventures or as part of multi-day tours around this fantastic natural wonder. View our Vatnajökull page for more information.
Iceland’s South Shore Adventure
Photo by Sanna Nordahl
For those looking to take in all the other sights of the south coast in a day, a single day south shore adventure tour is ideal. You’ll get to see Sólheimajökull glacier, Reynisfjara black sand beach, Skógafoss Waterfall, Seljalandsfoss and the beautiful village of Vík in Mýrdalur.
The tour picks you up at your location at 8am (7am during high winter – November to January) and enables you to see the mesmerising waterfall of Skógar, get in behind the magical Seljalandsfoss, walk the black sandy beaches of Reynisfjara and come face to face with a glacier – all in 10 action-packed hours. See our South Shore Adventure page for more.
Iceland’s South Coast
The South Coast of Iceland is littered with some of the country’s best features, neatly concealed and easily navigable from the nation’s capital city, Reykjavík. Here, you’ll get to experience other-worldly black sand beaches, vast lava fields, majestic waterfalls, picturesque glaciers and much more.
Here are some of the South Coast’s most popular attractions:
The Reykjanes Peninsula
The south-western tip of Iceland is where you’ll find the Reykjanes peninsula, which has an active volcanic system beneath its surface. The area is sparsely populated, except for the town of Reykjanesbær, the largest one on the peninsula. Every other area here – including Sandgerði, Grindavík, Hafnir, Vogar and Gardur – relies heavily on the fishing trade. Tourism is hugely popular in this area and with good reason. Reykjanes’ huge lava fields and wide-open spaces lend themselves superbly to high-octane adventure sports such as ATV/quad biking and mountain biking. Visitors will also be spoilt for choice with walking trails to suit every hiking enthusiast’s level.
The Blue Lagoon – Natural Geothermal Spa
The magnificent Blue Lagoon spa is situated in a black-lava field where water cascades from a futuristic-looking Svartsengi geothermal plant; with its silver towers, roiling clouds of steam and people daubed in white silica mud, so to say it’s like something from an ‘80s style science fiction film is actually no exaggeration. This ‘out of this world’ experience is open from 8am to midnight, June to mid-August and is definitely worth experiencing just as darkness descends. The water is at its warmest near the vents as it emerges, and the surface is considerably warmer than the bottom. Those who decide to skip this destination are missing out on something special.
Pre-booking trips to the Blue Lagoon is advised as it is a hugely popular tourist attraction which will often book out at peak times.
Reykjavik, Iceland’s Capital City
Photo by Mitchel Jones
The world’s most northerly capital combines colorful artistic buildings, world-class design, wild nightlife and fun, creative people to create an excellent base from where to explore the rest of this beautiful country.
We’ve covered this intriguing city a number of times previously in our blog and on our information pages where you can find out pretty much everything you need to know about this capital from here: Reykjavik, Iceland’s Capital City, and in our blog posts sections on the area. Below we’ve picked out a small section of its highlights for you to enjoy.
Food in Reykjavik:
Reykjavik has a great many fantastic eateries and drinking spots with local food tasting, so you get the best of both worlds. Not only will you get to visit Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall and the Geysir Geothermal area, but also taste some exquisite traditional cuisine at Turf House and the Farm to Fork experience at Efstidalur II Farm. This is a must do for any adventure loving foodie craving a tasty meal with a side order of sightseeing.
The Nightlife in Reykjavik:
If seeing what Reykjavik is like by night is what you’re after, then a whistle-stop tour of all the city’s best bars and nightclubs on our Reykjavík pub crawl should be high on your ’to do’ list. Our friendly local guide will whisk you from one lively bar to another and give you a chance to share the night with likeminded people out to get the full Reykjavík nightlife experience. The tour officially ends at Reykjavik’s best nightclub, but only truly ends when you decide to call it a night, or morning for that matter!
Adventure Tours Departing From Reykjavik
Reykjavik is the ideal base location to experience multiple tours and multi day tours all over Iceland. Most of our tours offer pickups from hotels at selected times, or you can choose to meet us at the location (this is generally only recommended for experienced adventurers though). You can view our extensive list of single day and multi-day tours leaving from Reykjavik.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is Iceland’s most popular tourist destination and takes in the area’s three most popular attractions, all of which are within 100km of Reykjavik: Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss. The Golden Circle offers the opportunity to witness the meeting-point of the continental plates and site of the ancient Icelandic parliament (Þingvellir), a roaring waterfall (Gullfoss) and a spouting hot spring (Geysir) all in one tour! The hot springs erupt every 5-10 minutes, sending boiling water up to 20 meters into the air – a sight to behold!
Famed for its scale and beauty, the water at Gullfoss waterfall plummets down 32 meters, in two stages, into a rugged canyon where its walls reach up to 70 meters in height. On a sunny day, a shimmering rainbow can be seen over the falls. It was heroically saved from utilization by a one-woman environmental army in the early 1900s. Once you have been there we’re sure you’ll be just as thankful to her as the rest of us are.
The ancient Icelandic parliament, Þingvellir – which directly translates to ‘the fields of parliament’ – is where most of the major political events in Iceland’s history occurred. This is where the Icelandic people abandoned Asatru, the Old Norse pagan belief system, in lieu of Christianity in 1,000 AD, due to the impending threat of an invasion from the Norwegians. Almost 1,000 years later, in 1944 AD, it was where Icelanders regained their independence from the Danes and accepted their very first President. It doesn’t get much more historic than that!
We offer a wide range of Golden Circle excursions, often combinable with other sights that this magical part of the world has to offer, on single or multi-day trips. Interested? Why wouldn’t you be! You can find out more on our Golden Circle Tours page here.
The Highlands of Iceland
The Highlands of Iceland cover approximately 40% of this scenic country and are over 500m above sea level. A large part of this area is situated on an active volcanic belt, meaning hot springs, volcanoes and large vast fields are in abundance. They’re best accessed during the warmer months, as many of these roads are closed off during the winter, so be sure to check when these tours operate before booking flights and accommodation if visiting here is on your list of things to see.
Situated 600m above sea level and part of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, is where you will find Landmannalaugar, which is home to an amazing array of multi-coloured mountains, soothing hot springs, lava fields and crystal clear blue lakes. The area is well known for its hiking opportunities and is the starting point for the famous Laugavegur Trail. We offer single and multi-day tours by Super Jeeps by day and by night for those who do their sightseeing in ultimate style and comfort. For those wanting to experience it the old-fashioned way, by foot, we offer a range single and multi-day hiking tours (from 2 to 8 days) and cater for every adventure and fitness level. See our highlands of Iceland page for more adventure tour ideas.
Northern Iceland! Can you think of a colder sounding destination? Believe it or not, this area regularly records some of the (slightly) warmer temperatures this country experiences and has a huge array of scenery to explore, from the soft and gentle to the wildly spectacular. Steeped in history and rich in wildlife, this area has some amazing volcanic landscapes, weird and wonderful museums, a wealth of antique farms, fjords and saga sites for you to explore. It’s not a wonder that the region was recently given the accolade of a top European destination by Lonely Planet and is a regular destination for film and TV crews to shoot epic and dramatic scenes!
This undisputed gem of the northeast boasts the most strikingly beautiful landscape in the region, if not the country. Lake Mývatn and its surrounding areas are starkly scenic with spluttering mudpots, odd lava formations, steaming fumaroles and volcanic craters, all set around a bird-filled lake.
Jökulsárgljúfur National Park & Dettifoss Waterfall
The area is filled with oddities and rarities including the world’s northernmost golf course, Akureyri Golf Club, where players can play 24 hours a day during the summer months, thanks to the midnight sun. In the summer of 1997, four men played 306 holes of golf here in 24 hours, the longest daytime round of golf recorded in history. Akureyri itself is regarded as ‘the capital of the north’ and has everything to offer for the more social-minded person, including shopping, bars, cafés, a range of good restaurants, art exhibitions and all sorts of exciting cultural events.
In 2017, the world’s first beer spa opened in the village of Dalvik; a peculiar place where people can cleanse their skin by lying in a tub filled with beer, water, hops and yeast.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is the westernmost part of the peninsula and within the area includes the mystical Snæfellsjökull glacier, as well as other mythical sites such as Djúpalónssandur. But perhaps the most intriguing magical aspect to this part of Iceland is the legend of the half man, half troll; Bárður Snæfellsás – the Protector of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Much has been written about this mythological figure and there is even a stone sculpture in Arnarstapi as a reminder to visitors about its history.
Legend has it that Bárður was the first settler of this area during the 9th Century and gave the peninsula its name, Snjófellsnes, even though both of the words “snær” and “snjór” mean snow in Icelandic. He defended the island many times and after his departure, the people of the area regarded him as a protective spirit that overlooks the entire peninsula for many decades. There are several caves in the area named Sönghellir (‘song hill’) after Bárður and his men realized the caves answered them back while singing and talking aloud, hence the name Sönghellir. There are fantastic acoustics inside the caves which makes great fun for visitors when singing a merry song. Many markings still exist within the cave due to its sandstone interior and many inscriptions date back to more than 500 years ago.
If you want to walk in the footsteps of Bárður and see the markings of historic Icelandic figures, you can take your pick from our variety of tours around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
The Westfjords (or ‘West Fjords’) are another Icelandic area to visit if you wish to experience and explore the remote, untouched parts of this island. The scenery around these parts is regarded as some of the best in the land as you can drive or hike up the narrow gravely paths to a number of mountains during the seasons with better weather. From the top of these mountains, you’ll witness breath-taking views which will make the trek worth every step and more.
The Westfjord area has the largest amount of geothermal pools located in any one region of Iceland. So many, in fact, that the guidebooks can’t keep up! Be sure to ask the locals for some off the beaten track geothermal hidden gems.
Flateyri and Súðavík
Photo by Theo Crazzolara
Flateyri and Súðavík are both small but amazingly beautiful villages in the Westfjords. Avalanches have been known to hit here in the past – some of the biggest natural disasters in recent decades were recorded here, so much so that barriers are above both towns to ward off any future avalanches and potential disasters.
In recent years, Flateyri has become the destination of choice for Icelandic hipsters and many now own summer houses in the town but don’t let that put you off. The area is still as traditional and wholesomely Icelandic as you could wish for. Less than 200 people live there, making the town the perfect ‘get away from it all’ spot.
If you wish to experience a bit of old-fashioned Icelandic fishing, then you can get out on the waters with local fishermen and try your luck at catching your dinner. Iceland has a rich history with the sea and one that is cherished by locals and tourists alike to this day, so to get a chance to witness it first-hand with some of the local fishermen is an adventure that shouldn’t be ignored.
Þingeyri is a tiny fishing village, and by tiny we mean tiny, even by Icelandic standards! Here you can go sailing on a good old-fashioned Viking longboat and experience what it would be like to live as a Viking for a day.
The Icelandic Sea Monster Museum | Bildudalur
Any trip to the Westfjords wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Sea Monster Museum. Considering Iceland has a history steeped in seafaring tradition, it is hardly surprising to hear that there are countless tales of woe at sea experienced by Icelandic seamen, many of which came at the hands of mythical sea monsters such as the mighty Jörmungandr, the World Serpent. This museum does a great job of bringing those terrific stories to life.
So now that you’ve had a whistle-stop digital tour of Iceland, it’s time to take your next big step and experience the real thing! Why not choose your next great Icelandic adventure with us?
Our three-day itinerary is perfect for those who are visiting Iceland in the summer, and who would like a good balance between hiking and sightseeing. It is great for those who want to go to both Landmannalaugar and visit the South Coast.
A list of things you need to have when traveling in Iceland. The must-have essentials for Iceland travel a list from a local traveler.
Some might surprise you, some might not but never the less, you are going to need all of these!
What are the pros and cons to traveling to Iceland during summer? What is there to see, to know and to do? Inga takes on the Icelandic summer in an excellent way.