Things to Do in Iceland
The enigmatic black beach that is Reynisfjara is located just a few minutes outside Vik i Myrdal, halfway between Reykjavik and Höfn. It features amazing cliffs of mesmerizing basalt columns, and it is one of the most heavily photographed and documented sites in Iceland, mostly because it is home to the mysterious Reynisdrangar columns that protrude out of the stormy North Atlantic Ocean. Rumor has it that the stacks originated when three trolls, pulling a three-masted ship to shore, were petrified and turned into needles of rock after being caught by surprise by dawn.
But more than just a piece of Icelandic folklore, the cliffs surrounding Reynisfjara Beach also play an important role during breeding season, as they become host to several bird species, including the much sought-after puffin.
The Blue Lagoon is a unique wonder of Iceland, a result of all that volcanic activity the small island is so famous for. In the middle of the weird and wonderful, flat black lava fields of the Svartsengi National Park, the huge, outdoor lagoon is filled by naturally heated geothermal water which comes from 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) below the surface of the earth. It is full of minerals, silica and algae and is especially good for the skin and relaxation. In fact, part of the Blue Lagoon development is a health clinic specializing in cures for psoriasis. The water is almost startlingly blue in color, and the white of the silica on the black lava rocks around the edges makes an amazing contrast.
As well as soaking and swimming in the pool, the Blue Lagoon offers in-water massage treatments, saunas and steam rooms, and a cafe. On any visit to Iceland a few hours soaking in The Blue Lagoon is essential, and its location between Reykjavik and the airport makes it easy to do.
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.
Located in the Þjórsádalur Valley with a spectacular backdrop of volcanic Hekla in southern Iceland, Hjálparfoss is unique among Iceland’s scores of dramatic waterfalls as it has a double fall shooting over 10-m (31-ft) basalt cliffs into a bubbling plunge pool below. Divided by a rocky lava outcrop, the waters race from the confluence of the rivers Þjórsá and Fossá amid bizarre rock formations, all surrounded by relatively fertile grasslands where Icelandic ponies still roam in summer. The lava-strewn landscape is the result of long-term activity by Hekla, which the island’s most active volcano. A visit to Hjálparfoss is often combined with tours of the volcanic uplands of the Landmannalauger, where hot springs form natural thermal pools that are perfect for bathing – even in the middle of winter.
Iceland is spectacular and so is the Golden Circle Route. The wide open landscapes are like nothing you've ever seen before. Actively volcanic, this inland route is a mass of waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, lava fields, and, of course, those volcanoes. The first stop is Thingvellir National Park, the spectacular site of Iceland's first parliament and the place where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet - and are moving apart. There is a widening fissure in the ground where the planet is literally opening up. Next it's on to Gullfoss waterfall, a huge fall of water. From here you can see a glacier off to one side. And then it's geysers. The sheer power of water and steam erupting from the ground due to the build up of extreme heat is awesome and really makes you realize how alive the ground is beneath our feet.
Gullfoss is a massive waterfall on the river Hvita which originates in the glacial lake Langjokull. Gullfoss means 'golden falls' because the glacial sediment in the water turns the falls golden in the sunlight. The water falls 105 feet (32 meters) in two steps. As you approach, you hear the falls before you see the wild, tumbling water as the river valley is a deep, dramatic crevasse. You can stand at the top or walk down the path to the bottom.
During the first half of the 20th century, the then-owners of the waterfall and surrounding land leased it to foreign investors who were keen to build a hydroelectric plant but their plans fell through. Then it was sold to Iceland but even then there was talk of harnessing the power of the river. Legend has it that local landowner Sigridur Tomasdottir loved the place so much that she threatened to throw herself into the falls in protest, and then walked to Reykjavik barefoot in protest, thus making her point heard.
With an immense 500 cubic meters of water falling each second, Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and one of Iceland’s most extraordinary natural attractions, famously immortalized in the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s 2012 film, Prometheus. Dropping 45 meters and stretching for 100 meters along the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon in the Vatnajökull National Park, it’s hard not to be impressed by the magnitude of the falls, the largest of the three major waterfalls found along the Jokulsa river (including nearby Selfoss and Hafragilsfoss).
Dettifoss Waterfall is among the top sights of the ‘Diamond Circle’ driving route, the 260 km long ring road, which links together the highlights of North Iceland, but the falls can also be reached by hiking the scenic 35km trail from Asbyrgi canyon. As well as looking out over the canyon from the banks, visitors can climb down to the riverbed, where the views are marred by clouds of foam and the bedrock.
More Things to Do in Iceland
Reykjavik is the capital and largest city of Iceland at around 120,000 people, which comprises half the country’s total population. Although it was the site of the country’s first permanent settlement dating from around 870, there was no actual city here until 1786. Since then this friendly city has developed into a lively, creative capital with a focus on fishing, banking and the creative industries, predominantly music, fashion and design.
The laidback, low-rise city is dotted with new high-rise developments dating from the heady days of wealth before the 2008 banking crash. The jewel in the crown is the recently completed architectural showpiece and concert hall, Harpa, located on the waterfront. Smaller ships will dock at the Old Harbor but most will tie up at the Cruise Dock a couple of miles from the center of the city. There is little to see here, but shuttle buses take only about ten minutes into the heart of Reykjavik.
Climbed for the first time by two naturalists in 1750, Hekla had been the topic of many speculations ever since the year 874; but what Europeans believed was one of the two gateways to hell turned out to be Iceland’s most active volcano. Hiking Hekla is one of the most popular things to do in Iceland, thanks to magnificent views of the Fjallbak Mountains and Vatnajökull glacier.
Hekla has the shape of an overturned boat. Its tip is covered in craters and its flanks are blanketed by thick layers of lava flow and ash from previous eruptions. In fact, Hekla has produced one of the largest volumes of lava in the world over the last millennium, at around 8 cubic kilometers. Hekla is 1491-meters high and is the most active part of a much larger volcanic drift. Because of its age, size and frequent eruptions, Hekla has covered a rather large portion of Iceland in powdered dust which, nowadays, is used to date eruptions of other volcanoes.
With its slim cascade of water slicing through the air and pooling into the Seljalandsá River below, Seljalandsfoss is one of Iceland’s most undeniably photogenic waterfalls, located just off Iceland’s main Ring Road, between the Skógafoss and Selfoss waterfalls.
Plunging from a height of around 60 meters, Seljalandsfoss might not be Iceland’s widest or mightiest waterfall, but it’s certainly one of its most famous, forming a dramatic arch of water that dominates the picturesque Thórsmörk valley. Surrounded by wild flowers in the summer months and floodlit after nightfall, a visit to Seljalandsfoss provides ample opportunities for snap-happy tourists, but its most distinctive feature is its narrow chute of water, which allows a breathtaking vantage point from behind the falls. Uniquely, a footpath runs all the way around the waterfall, allowing visitors to get within meters of the rushing water, standing amidst the spray at the foot of the Eyjafjöll Mountains.
Stretching 25 meters across the Skógá River and plummeting from heights of 60 meters, Skógafoss clocks in as one of Iceland’s biggest waterfalls and with its clouds of spray regularly casting rainbows across the waters, it’s also one of the picturesque. One of around 20 waterfalls dotted along the river, Skógafoss marks the start of Iceland’s famous Laugavegurinn long distance hiking trail, which runs for 90 km from Skógar all the way to Landmannalaugar. Alternatively, day-trippers can take in expansive views of Skógar’s glaciers, black ash beaches and thundering waterfalls by climbing the stairway to the top of the falls.
Skógafoss is also a popular subject of local folklore, which tells that the region’s first Viking settler, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a chest of treasure in a cave behind the mighty falls. Allegedly, a local boy found the chest years later and while attempting to haul it out, pulled the ring from the front of the chest.
Iceland has no shortage of active volcanoes, but the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce Eyjafjallajokull Volcano is among the most famous, making headlines around the world when it erupted on April 14, 2010, covering much of Europe’s airspace in a cloud of volcanic ash and grounding air traffic across 20 countries for several days.
While a few intrepid climbers have scaled the 1,666-meter Eyjafjallajokull in recent years, the still-active mount is best enjoyed with a visit to the nearby Eyjafjallajokull visitor center, which opened its doors exactly one year after the latest eruption. Devoted to recounting the history of the volcano and the lives of those who live in its shadow, the center’s fascinating exhibition includes film footage of the latest eruption and spectacular photos of Eyjafjallajokull’s 2.5-km-wide caldera.
Reykjavík's most attention-seeking building is the immense concrete church Hallgrímskirkja, or Hallgrimur's Church, star of a thousand postcards and visible from 12 miles (20 kilometers) away. For an unmissable view of the city, make sure you take an elevator trip up the 250 ft (75 m) high tower. In contrast to the high drama outside, the church's interior is puritanically plain. The most startling feature is the vast 5,275-pipe organ, which has a strangely weapon-like appearance. Between mid-June and mid-August you can hear this mighty beast in action three times per week at lunchtime/evening concerts.
The church's radical design caused huge controversy, and its architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, never lived to see its completion - it took a painstaking 34 years (1940-74) to build. Those sweeping columns on either side of the tower represent volcanic basalt - a favorite motif of Icelandic nationalists.
Covering an area of 12,000 square-kilometers and encompassing the former National Parks of Jökulsárgljúfur and Skaftafell, Vatnajokull National Park has been collecting superlatives since it was established in 2008. The park is now Western Europe’s largest national park (covering almost 13% of the country), dominated by the Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s largest glacier, and containing Iceland's highest mountain, Öraefajökull, and deepest lake, Jökulsárlón.
An unyielding landscape of land and fire, Vatnajökull presents some of Iceland’s most diverse and dramatic scenery including glacial plateaus, active volcanoes, towering ice caps, beaches of black ash and bubbling geothermal terrain. The southern territory of Skaftafell is the gateway to the most accessible area of the glacier and one of the most popular regions of the park, with the Skaftafell Visitor Center providing a detailed introduction to the park’s many geological wonders.
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 show Games 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.
- Things to do in Reykjavik
- Things to do in Akureyri
- Things to do in Djupivogur
- Things to do in Vik
- Things to do in Skaftafell
- Things to do in Isafjordur
- Things to do in Reykjahlíð
- Things to do in Hofn
- Things to do in Scotland
- Things to do in Northern Ireland
- Things to do in East Iceland
- Things to do in South Iceland
- Things to do in The Scottish Highlands