Things to Do in Iceland
Among Iceland’s most famous peaks, the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce Eyjafjallajökull volcano made headlines when it erupted in 2010, spewing an enormous cloud of volcanic ash that grounded air traffic all across Europe. The imposing, ice-capped volcano has three main peaks, the tallest of which reaches 5,417 feet (1,651 meters).
To understand why Iceland's Blue Lagoon is so popular, just imagine bathing in steaming milky-blue waters, sipping a cocktail at a swim-up bar, and looking out over an otherworldly landscape of jagged peaks and black lava fields. This geothermal pool, the most visited of Iceland's many such oases, boasts mineral-rich waters, a luxurious spa, and a magnificent setting, all just minutes from Reykjavik.
A place of stark, wild beauty, this black-sand beach on Iceland's south coast is one of the country's most photogenic locations. Here, roaring Atlantic waves batter the Reynisdrangar sea stacks, the black pebble shoreline, and the pyramid-like cliff of basalt columns known as Garðar, where you can spot puffins and guillemots.
Often said to be one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland, Godafoss (which translates to “Waterfall of the Gods”) cascades into the Skjálfandafljót River that tears through Bárdardalur lava field. It lies along the “Ring Road” and leads to the Sprengisandur highland plateau, nestled between Hofsjökull and Vatnajökull glaciers.
Located at the confluence of the Þjórsá and Fossá rivers, Hjálparfoss waterfall cascades over a 31-foot (10-meter) basalt cliff. The lava-strewn landscape that surrounds the waterfall is courtesy of the nearby Hekla volcano, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. During the warmer months, spot Icelandic horses grazing in the surrounding grasslands.
Marvel at the sheer natural force on display at Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and one of Iceland’s most extraordinary attractions. Dropping some 132,000 gallons (500 cubic meters) of water per second 148 feet (45 meters) down the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, Dettifoss is a must-see for visitors to North Iceland.
Iceland’s natural hot springs, fed by volcanic activity and dotted all around the country, are world renowned. The most famous is the Blue Lagoon, but it’s almost always crammed with day-trippers from nearby Reykjavik. Myvatn Nature Baths, on the other hand, remain a pocket of tranquility, hidden away in the less-visited north.
Deildartunguhver Thermal Spring provides 48 gallons per second (180 liters per second) of 212-degree Fahrenheit (100 degree Celsius) water, making it the most powerful hot spring in Europe. Thanks to its power and temperature, the water from the hot spring is used for central heating in Borgarnes and Akranes. The pipeline that facilitates this stretches for 40 miles (64 kilometers), yet the water is still about 176 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius) by the time it reaches Akranes.
Steam from the thermal spring can be seen from the road, and it’s a quick and easy detour for travelers driving along the Ring Road. Keep an eye out for deer fern, a type of fern that grows nowhere else in Iceland.
Peaking at more than 4,891 feet (124 meters), Hekla volcano towers over the southern coast of Iceland. With more than 20 eruptions since the year 874—the most recent of which took place in 2000—the volcano, which is also known as the Gateway to Hell, is one of the most active in the country.
Thingvellir National Park is a remarkable volcanic landscape of gorges, waterfalls, lakes, and more, and is a favorite stop on Iceland’s Golden Circle Tour. Plus, the park offers endless recreation opportunities, from hiking and camping to snorkeling, diving, and fishing.
More Things to Do in Iceland
Gullfoss (Golden Falls) is a massive waterfall on the river Hvita in western Iceland. The falls are considered one of Iceland's most treasured natural wonders, with a name inspired by the phenomenon when glacial sediment in the water turns the falls golden in the sunlight.
There’s a lot to see in Iceland, and the grand Golden Circle (Gullni Hringurinn) is your ticket to easily hitting multiple popular sights, especially if you only have one day to venture outside Reykjavik. Departing from the city, Golden Circle tours showcase a number of Iceland’s main attractions and natural wonders—think geysers, waterfalls, lava fields, volcanic craters, and Icelandic horses. There are few other places in Europe where you can see so much topographical variety on one short trip.
As Iceland’s largest volcano, Katla is 4,960 feet (1,511 meters) high. Katla is one of the most active and powerful volcanoes in Iceland, having erupted 20 times since the year 1100; its last eruption added three miles (four kilometers) to Iceland’s coastline. In spite of its activity, Katla is mostly covered by ice.
A slim cascade of water slicing through the air and pooling in the Seljalands River below, Seljalandsfoss is one of Iceland’s most photogenic waterfalls. Because the falls’ chute of water is so narrow, visitors can also step behind Seljalandsfoss for a unique vantage point.
Stretching 82 feet (25 meters) across the Skógá River, into which its teeming waters plunge 197 feet (60 meters) from a rocky cliff, Skógafoss clocks in as one of Iceland’s biggest waterfalls. Its clouds of spray regularly create vivid rainbows—often double rainbows—across the waters. The waterfall is also an important site for local folklore.
The third-largest geothermal power station in the world, Hellisheidi is a state-of-the-art facility run on sustainable methods. This site is of interest to travelers because along with Iceland's other geothermal station at Nesjavellir, Hellisheidi provides 30 percent of the island's total electricity and hot water. Often visited on adventurous mountain biking or jeep tours through southern Iceland, the station creates electricity through the constant geothermal activity that takes place way below the ground, caused by the shifting of the tectonic plates between North America and Europe.
The power station's multimedia energy exhibition showcases ways of harvesting green energy and highlights geothermal sources around the world. Surrounding the power station are raw Icelandic landscapes, hot springs and rivers warm enough to swim in, as well as more than 60 miles (100 km) of hiking trails.
Dimmuborgir (“the dark castles” in Icelandic) is a surreal, unusually shaped lava field composed of volcanic caves and rock formations resembling an ancient collapsed citadel. It is frequently cited as being one of the most striking naturally-formed landscapes in a country filled with exceptional scenes– that’s saying something. It is consequently one of Iceland’s most visited attractions.
Although Dimmuborgir recently gained worldwide popularity after being featured in the acclaimed TV showGames of Thrones, it has long been part of Icelandic folklore. Indeed, Dimmuborgir is said to be the home of homicidal troll Grýla, her husband Leppalúði and their mischievous sons the Yule Lads; the story of this psychopathic family has been told to Icelandic children for centuries now as a means to get them to behave.
Moreover, Icelandic folklore says that Dimmuborgir connects earth with the infernal regions, and is rumored to be the very place where Satan landed when he was cast from the heavens. But contrary to popular beliefs, the Dimmuborgir area was not born out of divine intervention; science has a more plausible explanation. It was formed about 2,300 years ago during a volcano eruption caused by the Þrengslaborgir crater row. Lava started flowing in the area, forming a massive lava pool in the process and bringing water from nearby marshes to a boil. The vapor resulting from this chemical reaction created lava pillars that measured up to a few meters in diameter. But eventually the reservoir’s top crust collapsed under the lava’s weight, miraculously leaving the hollow pillars that we see today completely intact.
Perched on the cusp of Europe’s largest glacier and separated from the Atlantic Ocean by just a narrow isthmus, the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon is the largest, deepest, and arguably most magnificent of Iceland’s many glacial lakes. Here, icebergs bob in glittering water framed by jagged peaks, rugged lava fields, and black-sand beaches.
The world's original geyser, the Great Geysir (Great Geyser) is the source of the English word after which all other geysers are named. Geysir literally means "gusher" in Icelandic, and this natural phenomenon in the Haukadalur geothermal region has been active for more than 10,000 years; records of hot springs activity in the region date back to 1294.
Established in 2008 by combining Iceland’s former Jokulsargljufur and Skaftafell National Parks, Vatnajokull National Park is one of Europe’s largest national parks. It presents incredibly diverse and dramatic scenery including glacial plateaus, active volcanoes, towering ice caps, black-sand beaches, and terrain that is bubbling with geothermal activity. The park is dominated by the Vatnajokull glacier, Europe’s third-largest glacier, and contains Iceland’s highest mountain (Oraefajokull) and deepest lake (Jokulsarlon).
Covering more than 270 square miles (700 square kilometers) and reaching a thickness of as much as 2,460 feet (750 meters) in places, this vast glacier is Iceland’s fourth largest. It sits atop the active Katla Volcano, which has erupted many times over the centuries, spewing meltwater, rock fragments, and ash into the air.
Iceland’s second-highest waterfall has a drop of 198 m (650 ft) and is located in the Botnsdalur Valley near Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord) northeast of Reykjavik. Fed by the deep lake of Hvalvatn, the crystal-clear waters of the Botnsá River flow xx and its spindly cascade flings itself over sheer rock to form a deep, narrow canyon covered in mosses and best seen from the southeast side of the river. There is parking space at the end of the road (leave it at junction 47) and a challenging dirt track leads to a dramatic viewing point in the canyon over rough ground and via a spectacular rock arch. Round-trip hikes to the waterfall at Glymur take around three hours and are often combined with visits to Þingvellir National Park to see the source of Iceland’s geothermal activity as the Eurasian and American tectonic plates grind together as they slowly pull apart.
For many years it was believed that Glymur was the highest waterfall in Iceland but the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 caused ice melt and subsequently revealed a higher – but very inaccessible – fall coming off the Vatnajökull glacier, which has a drop of over 200 m (656 ft).
From the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries, the town of Skálholt served as one of two episcopal bishoprics in Iceland. As a center for Christianity, it became one of the wealthiest and most influential settlements in the country. In 1550, the last Catholic bishop was beheaded (along with his two sons), marking the end of the Reformation in the area. The town remained a Lutheran center until the seat was moved to Reykjavik in 1797.
Modern-day visitors will find a large Protestant cathedral in Skálholt, built between 1956 and 1963 to replace one destroyed by an earthquake in the 1700s. An underground vault below the church houses what are believed to be the sarcophagus remains of Pall Jonsson, one of the town’s most powerful bishops, which were discovered during an excavation in 1954.
Formed by a massive volcanic eruption more than two millennia ago—and surrounded by surreal lava formations, mud pots, volcanic craters, and steaming fumaroles—Lake Mývatn remains geothermally active. The lake’s name comes from the swarming midges that fuel the local bird population.
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- Things to do in Skaftafell
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- Things to do in East Iceland
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