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Iceland is an incredible destination, unlike any other. Whether you’re making a once-in-a-lifetime trip or you visit every year, you’ll want to make the most of your time on holiday.
But in this fascinating country of glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, thermal lagoons, and black sand beaches, narrowing down the best things to do in Iceland can feel overwhelming.
That’s where the Cultured Kiwi guide about what to do in Iceland comes in! If you’re stuck for what to do in Iceland, or you don’t know where to head first, read on to find out the best things to do on this magical island for a truly memorable holiday!
From the spectacular natural beauty to exhilarating experiences, we’ve picked out the top attractions that you won’t want to miss!
Things to Do in Iceland – The List
From sightseeing around the old town of Reykjavik to exploring waterfalls and glaciers, hunting for the Northern Lights, or going on a hair-raising snowmobile tour, there’s lots on offer in Iceland! Here are our recommendations for the best things to do in Iceland:
Reykjavik is such a charming city to visit – it feels more like a small, friendly town than a capital city. The old town is colourful, quaint, and fascinating to walk around, and once you’ve had your fill of sightseeing, you can find a cosy little cafe to warm up with a hot drink. If you’re more of a party person, you’ll love the vibrant nightlife on offer, from hip bars to cool clubs – Icelanders love a good night out with friends!
Arts and culture thrive in the Icelandic capital – don’t miss the impressive architecture and serene beauty of the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral. Check it out after dusk if you can, to see it spectacularly lit up against the dark night sky. Another fascinating sight to see in Reykjavik is the Harpa, the city’s main concert hall which was opened in 2011.
It’s an incredible work of architecture and well worth seeing If you can visit it during daylight hours, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of the North Atlantic ocean and of the mountains in the distance. At night, it stands out against the city backdrop as the facade is beautifully lit up.
Visit Thingvellir National Park
What makes so many people fall in love with Iceland is the mind-blowing scenery and the constantly-changing landscape. You can walk just five minutes from grassy fields and come across craggy mountains or terrain that looks more like the surface of Mars. Thingvellir National Park has some of the best and most varied scenery in the country, so you should definitely plan a trip if you can!
The best way to experience the National Park is on foot, so you can really take in the vastness of the place. The walk is fairly easy and takes around a couple of hours. However, if you’re short on time, you can do a self-drive tour and just stop off every now and then to take in the views and snap a few shots. Thingvellir National Park is also the only location in the world where it’s possible to see tectonic plates shifting away from each other above sea level – definitely a sight that will stay with you forever!
You can even go snorkelling or scuba diving between the two tectonic plates if you’re brave enough to take a dip in the cold but clear water! Although the temperature of the water is around 2 degrees C, it’s purer than anywhere else in the world.
Check Out Geysir
Located in the Haukadalur Valley, Geysir is a well-known hot spring which tourists flock to visit. If you’re hoping to see it erupt, though, you’ll have more luck at the nearby Strottur spring. Take a wander around the area to see the remarkable brightly-coloured hot pools, and if you’re feeling energetic, hike up the nearby hills. It only takes about 20 minutes, and when you reach the top, you’ll be greeted by breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.
Marvel at Gullfoss Waterfall
The Gullfoss waterfall is one of the most Insta-worthy sights in the world, and one of the most photographed, so it might look familiar even if you’re never visited! You might be wondering why the Gullfoss waterfall looks so familiar, even though you’ve never been. But that doesn’t mean you should skip this one – nothing compares to seeing this spectacular natural beauty in person!
Gullfoss is well worth the drive and is one of the stops on the legendary Golden Circle – do a self drive tour or book yourself on one of the many tourist tours available. You can park very close to the waterfall or choose to stop further away and hike the last leg of the journey – I recommend this as the views are all the more rewarding as you approach on foot!
Gullfoss also stands out from the other waterfalls on Iceland due to its unique formation – you actually see this waterfall from above, rather than below, and the views are breathtaking!
Go on a Snowmobiling Trip Across a Glacier
If you’re an adrenaline-seeker, the idea of a snowmobiling adventure might grab your interest. How about snowmobiling across a glacier, then? You can book a snowmobiling tour which includes a guided tour around the Golden Circle sights, plus a snowmobiling adventure which departs from Gullfoss waterfall and takes you across the Langjökull glacier.
Langjökull is the second largest of the glaciers on the island, and a perfect spot to hit the snowmobile and travel high-speed across the magical snowy landscape. You’ll get kitted out with protective gear, and a trained guide will lead the way. If combining sightseeing with a bit of daredevil adventuring sounds just your thing, make sure you book in advance so you’re not disappointed!
Get up Close to Icebergs at Diamond Beach
There’s nowhere in the world quite like Diamond Beach and the nearby Jökulsárlón Glacier, located on the south coast of Iceland. While it’s quite a distance from Reykjavik (the drive takes around 6 hours), visiting Diamond Beach is one thing you cannot miss if you come to Iceland.
Whether you’re visiting for the first time or the 10th, Diamond Beach is guaranteed to take your breath away. Huge chunks of ice work their way slowly down from the surrounding glaciers into the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, and then on down to the sea. Then, the waves throw the icebergs up onto the beach. It’s like a scene from a fairy tale or fantasy movie … you really do have to see it to take in all its glory!
You can choose to watch the spectacle from the shore or take a boat trip out on the sea amongst the icebergs. Keep your eyes peeled, as seals also frequent this spot! If you can, try to get here as the sun sets. Wrap up warm and watch as the stars come out – and even you might even see the Northern Lights if you’re lucky! This truly magical sight will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Walk Behind a Waterfall
Iceland is home to many incredible waterfalls, but there’s nowhere else quite like Seljalandsfoss. Not only can you admire the view from afar as the waterfall cascades down over a cliff to a pool 60m below, but you can even walk behind the waterfall and experience it from a different perspective! You’ll remember this moment for the rest of your life!
See Skogafoss Waterfall from Above and Below
Another spectacular natural phenomenon to visit, it’s hard not to be moved by the sheer beauty of Skogafoss. You’ll feel tiny as you stand and marvel at the foot of this waterfall – it looks so much better in person than in the photos! You can hire a car and visit Skogafoss by yourself or book onto a guided tour, so you don’t need to worry about driving. Try to visit early in the day to avoid most of the crowds, and allow enough time to climb the (steep!) stairs to the top of the cliff and take in the panoramic view.
Visit a Volcano
Although the name is a tongue-twister that only Icelanders can pronounce, Eyjafjallajökull is one of the most famous volcanoes in the world. This volcano erupted most recently in 2010, causing planes to be grounded all over Europe.
Visiting this ice-capped stratovolcano is one thing you should definitely do when visiting Iceland. Standing 1651 metres tall and with ice caps that spread out over 100 square kilometres, the views are amazing. It’s one of the best places to experience the volcanic energy that lies dormant beneath the whole island.
There are many ways to experience Eyjafjallajökull: You can book onto a guided hiking tour (don’t head out alone – it’s too dangerous), go snowmobiling or on a super jeep tour, or even choose to see the volcano and surrounding countryside from above on a helicopter ride!
Dare Yourself to Visit a Ghost House
There are around 3,000 abandoned houses and buildings dotted all over Iceland, so you’ll be sure to come across at least one or two as you drive from location to location. If you’re looking for something a bit quirky to do in Iceland, you could take a closer look at some of these creepy but cool houses.
Many are still fully furnished and look like someone just popped out for a loaf of bread (and never came back!). You can get some awesome shots of these isolated, abandoned houses from the outside, but as many are run down and dilapidated, take extreme care if you decide to go inside any.
Walk Along Iceland’s Secluded Beaches
Beaches are always beautiful places to visit, and although you won’t fit in any sunbathing on a trip to Iceland, it’s well worth taking a stroll along some of the stunning beaches on the island. Although you won’t be tempted to take a dip in the freezing waters off of the Icelandic beaches, the unique black sands and the crazy rock formations are a hit among both tourists and locals.
Some of the best beaches to visit are Seleyri, around 70km from Reykjavik in the town of Borganes, and Raudasandur in the Westfjords. If the idea of surfing in Iceland appeals and you’re brave enough to enter the chilled waters, head to Sandvík, especially between October and March.
Take in the Northern Lights
Another once in a lifetime experience, you simply can’t go to Iceland without seeing the Northern Lights. (Or at least trying, as the weather doesn’t always cooperate!). If you’re hoping to see those beautiful dancing lights in the sky, here are our tips! The best months for spotting the Aurora are between September and April. Head out when the sky is at its darkest, and try to avoid a full moon, as it can outshine the Northern Lights.
You can go for the self drive option or just book on a trip – whichever you prefer. Ideally, you want to be somewhere with minimal light pollution, and no cloud cover – although we know you can’t control the weather! Just keep an eye on the cloud cover forecast and the aurora forecast. Don’t give up if you don’t see it on your first attempt – you’ll have another chance the next night! The more days you spend in Iceland, the higher your chances of spotting the Northern Lights before you travel home.
The Aurora Borealis is elusive, and whether you’ll see it depends on how much solar activity there is from day to day. But that’s all part of the challenge and the reward when you do finally see the Northern Lights for the first time! The Westfjords are among the top locations for aurora-hunting Iceland, as there are almost 22 hours of darkness during the winter months, and very little light pollution.
You’ll also have a good chance of spotting the Northern Lights in northeast Iceland, where the skies tend to be clearer. However, you can see the Northern Lights from anywhere in Iceland, even in Reykjavik and the other main cities and towns.
Go For a Dip in a Lagoon
Taking a dip in a thermal lagoon is one of the most well-known, iconic things you can do in Iceland! While it might sound a bit like a tourist gimmick, it’s still good fun and relaxing to do. Take advantage of the opportunity, as there aren’t many other places where you can swim in a warm lagoon amongst such fantastic scenery. And after all that hiking through the Icelandic nature, a good soak in a hot lagoon is sure to soothe any aches and pains!
You can choose to go to the well-known Blue Lagoon, but I’ll let you in on a secret: There are much more affordable hot springs dotted around the island, such as the Myvatn Nature Baths. Landmannalaugar is a hot natural pool in the Southern Highlands which is free to use and surrounded by stunning mountains and lava fields – check to see if there are any free thermal pools on your route!
Discover the Rare Beauty of the Westfjords
The Westfjords is a little known destination in Iceland, which means it’s delightfully absent of tourists and visitors. You can explore this secluded natural world of lakes, mountains, waterfalls, and fjords, often without seeing another human being!
For the sheer natural beauty and the tranquillity of the region, nothing else compares. If you need to destress and escape from the rat race for a while, this is one of the best places you can head to. Visit in the summer, and you might even catch glimpses of whales and puffins amongst other local wildlife!
Take a Ferry to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
Hornstrandir is the most remote point of the Westfjords, and it was abandoned early on in the 20th century due to the difficulty of getting to and living in this faraway location. To get to this secluded area, you can jump on the ferry from the Strandir district.
In the meantime, nature has taken over and now it is a beautiful, wild nature reserve where you might just see an Arctic fox. The foxes here have not developed a fear of humans so you can get in very close range. The cliffs in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve are also a sight to be seen, as they are home to thousands upon thousands of seabirds which make their nests here.
Go Whale Watching in Husavik
On the north shore of Iceland, you’ll find a small town called Húsavík which has been named the whale watching capital of Europe! In the waters here, more than 20 different types of porpoises, dolphins, and whales can be found, so it’s the perfect place to head to for whale-watching enthusiasts.
You can opt for a boat tour, or if you prefer to stay on dry land, it’s possible to spot whales and other creatures right from the shore. You’ll be likely to see humpback whales, white-beaked dolphins, and harbour porpoises, and if you have a keen eye and you’re in luck, you might just spot fin whales, blue whales, orcas, and other species, too! Don’t miss the local puffin populations who nest here in the summer.
Snaefellsness Glacier and Volcano
Snaefellsness Peninsula has been dubbed an Iceland in miniature due to the wildly varying landscapes of the region. In fact, it’s one of only 3 National Parks in the country. The real highlight of the Peninsula is most definitely the Snaefellsness Glacier!
This stunning twin-peaked glacier overlooks the nearby volcano, and the surrounding lava fields make you feel like you’re on the surface of the moon. With coastline bordering you on three sides, this is a truly magnificent place to visit, and the whole experience is unforgettable!
Close enough to Reykjavik to make this an easy day trip, why not set off on a self drive tour through the unique countryside to see this spectacular corner of the country for yourself?
Walk on the Black Beaches of Iceland’s South Coast
The South Coast of Iceland strikes a remarkable difference to the rest of the country: Instead of jagged cliffs and mountains, you’ll find long, flat beaches of black sand formed by frequent glacial flooding. It’s a truly unique sight to see and an exciting place to take a stroll.
Reynisfara is one of the best beaches to visit, with two towering basalt pillars overlooking the shoreline. You won’t regret visiting this incredible spot for the views alone. Make sure you take care and stay safe, as the waves can come creeping in very quickly. The sea is dangerously cold and not to be messed with, so stay a safe distance away and you’ll be able to enjoy the surroundings in comfort.
The Wrap Up
Tempted to start searching for the best flights to Iceland right now? We wouldn’t blame you! This magical island full of wonders and marvels is a fascinating, memorable place to visit. You’ll be packing in once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and with our recommendations for the top things to do in Iceland, you won’t miss any of the best spots to visit!
Drop us a comment and let us know which place you’d most like to see in Iceland. Are there any other beautiful spots or fun activities that we missed off? Let us know! We love hearing from you guys. Now go book your next holiday to Iceland – you won’t regret it, trust me!
New Zealand travel photographer based in London, UK. He was taking photos from a very young age in the backcountry of New Zealand before moving abroad. Since doing so he has taken workshops and tried to help get as many people into this art as possible. Featured in NZ Herald, Stuff.co.nz and many photography publications it’s safe to say he loves his photography!