16 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Iceland
Iceland, island of fire and ice, has become one of the world's top destinations, not only with thrill-seeking adventurers, but also nature lovers looking for something different. Here you'll discover active volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, glaciers, ice fields, and fjords, for this sparsely populated country, resting at the edge of the Arctic Circle, sits atop one of the world's most volcanically active areas.
Indeed, volcanoes and other seismic activity have regularly devastated parts of the country. As recently as 1963, a new island, Surtsey, emerged from the sea off the south coast. Icelanders, however, have turned this geological mayhem to their advantage and use geothermal energy to heat their homes and businesses and to enhance their leisure time. As a result, the air is wonderfully clean, and the rugged, unspoiled landscapes remain ripe for exploration and unforgettable adventures.
1 Whale Watching, Reykjavik
No matter when you plan to travel, whale watching happens year round, although summer is the most popular time to see these gentle giants. During the warmer months, trips run day and night, including whale watching in the midnight sun. Tour operators say there's an 80-95% chance of seeing these magnificent creatures, depending on the time of year. Best of all, surfacing often happens right near the boats, so you may well enjoy a ringside seat for one of nature's most awe-inspiring spectacles. Other ocean-going tours are also available, such as bird watching and island visits.
Address: Ægisgardur 5, Reykjavik's Old Harbor
2 Blue Lagoon, Grindavík
Just 40 minutes' drive from Reykjavík this most iconic of geothermal spas should be at the top of any visitor's must-see list. Here, you'll find natural bathing in pale blue water in the shadow of a power station. An entire Blue Lagoon industry has grown around this attraction since it first became a hit with locals in 1976. The water from the underground hot springs reaches 37-39 degrees Celsius and is said to be highly beneficial for both health and skin. If the die-hard Icelanders are anything to go by, don't knock the theory. Aside from bathing in a unique setting, there's a shop selling skincare products, a range of spa treatments, and places to eat and drink. Don't visit Iceland without coming here.
3 Spectacular Geysers
An easy 50-minute drive from Reykjavik, Strokkur Geysir (after which all geysers are named) is the most popular fountain geyser in the country and famed throughout the world. This highly active hot spring area lies in the southwest of Iceland beside the Hvítá River and is a favorite stop along what's known as the Golden Circle. Boiling mud pits and around 100 other smaller exploding geysers are waiting to be explored here. Every few minutes, Strokkur shoots water 30 meters into the air. Visit the newly opened Geysir Center for exhibits and informative presentations year round. A memorable experience is digging up Geysir or "hot spring" bread, rye bread that has been baking underground for 24 hours. Visitors can also help a chef boil eggs in a hot spring to accompany the bread.
4 The Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis
The northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are among the most popular visitor attractions in Iceland. Auroras are linked to solar wind, a flow of ions radiating from the sun. These particles become ensnared in the earth's magnetic field and collide with atmospheric molecules, causing bursts of energy, which appear as large circles around the poles. This spectacular natural light show is best admired in remote places and is particularly impressive at times of increased solar activity. Of course there's no guarantee of seeing the lights. Atmospheric conditions and the weather have to cooperate, and clear skies are a must. Having said that, if you're lucky, the Northern Lights can be seen in most places throughout Iceland from around late September until the beginning of April.
In the south of Iceland, 180 kilometers from Reykjavik, is Landmannalaugar National Park, one of Iceland's most popular tourist destinations. The main features of this mystical landscape are the multihued rhyolite mountains, Hekla volcano, and extensive lava fields. Hiking and horse riding are popular activities here, and hikes range from a couple of hours to several days. You can visit from June to late September, after which the road is closed. A mountain lodge (Landmannalaugar Hut) with basic facilities accommodates 75 people. Expect raw nature, rugged scenery, and utterly spectacular views.
6 Maelifell Volcano & Myrdalsjökull Glacier Park
South of Landmannalaugar lies Myrdalsjökull Glacier Park, which for safety reasons can only be visited during summer. Large amounts of rain soak the area, particularly in winter when roads can be severely damaged. Maelifell volcano is the undisputed jewel-in-the-crown of this wild, rugged glacial landscape. The perfect cone shape gives Maelifell the look of a classic volcano, however during the warm season, a lavish green covering of moss gives it a surreal, otherworldly appearance. The park is full of volcanoes, hot springs, and other remarkable sites. To the west of Myrdalsjökull is a smaller glacier, Eyjafjallajökull (Island Mountain Glacier). A popular and thrilling way to explore is by snowmobile.
7 Skaftafell Ice Cave, Vatnajökull National Park
In the south of the country, Vatnajökull National Park is a land of glaciers and magnificent ice caves, which attract adventurers from across the globe. The vast National Park (one of three in Iceland) is divided into four sections and consists of Vatnajökull glacier and its surroundings. You'll find a number of visitor centers, those in Skaftafell Ice Cave and Höfn are open year round, while Skriðuklaustur and Jökulsárgljúfur are closed in winter. The best time to visit Skaftafell Ice Cave is during winter after heavy rain has washed the top layer of the glacier away. If seen at the right time, the cave is bathed in spectacular blue light. Group visits to all areas can be arranged off-season.
8 Askja Caldera
In the northern region of Vatnajökull National Park, Askja caldera and geothermal pool in the Dyngjufjöll Mountains is not one for the faint-hearted. However, if you'd like to say you've taken a dip in a live volcano, then this is for you. Askja is an impressive 50 square kilometers in size. The surrounding mountain range was formed during volcanic activity, and Askja was partly created by an eruption of burning ash that collapsed the roof of the central volcano's magma chamber. The water in Viti, the geothermal pool and volcanic crater, is generally around 30 degrees Celsius. A word of warning, the banks can be very slippery, particularly in wet weather.
9 Dettifoss Waterfall
Dettifoss, in the north of Vatnajökull National Park, truly is a breathtaking example of the raw power of nature. Plunging 45 meters and with a width of 100 meters, it's said to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. Generally, it's best to approach on the east side of the River Jökulsa where the road is better. Along easy paths from Dettifoss, Selfoss is a smaller waterfall around one kilometer upstream with a drop of around ten meters. Below Dettifoss, the Hafragilsfoss waterfall tumbles 27 meters into a steep canyon. It's more advisable to drive than walk to Hafragilsfoss.
10 Kirkjufell Mountain, Grundarfjördur
Around two and a half hours' drive northwest of Reykjavik is the small town of Grundarfjördur, a charming fishing village centrally located on the north coast of Snaefellsnes peninsula. The town lies in a picturesque fjord, surrounded by mountains, with Mt. Kirkjufell looming as a striking landmark. Dotted about the surroundings, you'll discover small streams and waterfalls. During winter, Kirkjufell is a great place to watch the awe-inspiring Northern Lights. Eyrbyggja Heritage Centre holds exhibitions on Grundarfjördur's seafaring history and is the information center for the whole peninsula.
A Reykjavik modernist icon, this visually striking church is one of Iceland's top attractions, and when you see it, you'll understand why. It's the tallest and most recognizable building in the country. The Black Falls (a basalt rock formation), which is one of Iceland's natural wonders, inspired the architectural design. A climb to the top of the 73-meter-high tower is particularly rewarding. There, you'll be treated to spectacular views across the city and surrounding landscape. At the front of the church is a statue of Icelander Leifur Eiriksson ("Leif the Lucky"), the first European to discover America around AD 1,000. It seems he beat Christopher Columbus by around 500 years or so.
Address: Skolavordustigur, Reykjavik
12 Gullfoss Waterfall
Magnificent Gullfoss Waterfall lies around one and a half hour's drive west of Reykjavik. The river Hvítá plummets into a canyon, which forms three step terraces, creating a powerful torrent. Gullfoss encompasses two cascades, the upper one drops 11 meters, while the lower one cascades about 21 meters. Torrents of water flow over Gullfoss at an average rate of 109 cubic meters per second, although heavy floods have recorded an astonishing rate of nearly twenty times that. A word of warning: there are no rails or barriers, just a spine-tingling spectacle to enjoy amidst surroundings as nature intended.
13 Mount Esja
A 30-minute easterly drive from Reykjavik brings you to Mount Esja in Kjalarnes. The mountain is 914 meters high and very popular with hikers. Even for the inexperienced climber it's a relatively easy hike. There are terrific views of Reykjavik and the surrounding landscape and ocean. You can take several routes to the summit depending on energy levels and how much time you have. From Reykjavik, take the number 15 from Hlemmur station to Haholt in Mosfellsbaer, then change to bus 57, which takes you right to Esja. Be sure to sign the guest book at the top.
In the north of the country, Akureyri lies amid mountains on the longest fjord in Iceland about 40 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. With a population of around 18,000, it's more of a town than a city, however everything's relative in this sparsely-populated land. Summer days occasionally reach 25 degrees Celsius, and although winters bring heavy snowfall and cold weather, calm and still weather generally prevails. Despite the town's isolation, cultural life and entertainment flourish here, and a wide range of shops offer brand-name products. The skiing area is the best in the country. Points of interest include the Akureyri Museum and impressive Aviation Museum at Akureyri Airport.
15 Lake Myvatn & Nature Reserve
A little over an hour's easterly drive from Akureyri is Myvatn, a lake district famous for its wealth of bird life, rich fauna, and large shallow body of water. It's estimated that the area was formed around 2,500 years ago by a gigantic lava eruption. Today, the surroundings are volcanically active with an eruption occurring as recently as the mid-1980s. Bubbling clay pits, sulphuric fumes, and lava formations all form part of this unique landscape, which is still in flux. The name Myvatn literally means 'Midge-water,' a reference to the prolific midges here, especially during summer, so be sure to pack some insect repellent. The area is also a bird-watcher's paradise.
16 The Pearl Observatory (Perlan)
Originally the site of the city's gigantic thermal water tanks, "Perlan," as it's known locally, is one of Reykjavik's landmark buildings. It occupies an enviable location on Öskjuhlíð hill where there are in excess of 176,000 trees. The hill is particularly pleasant, with bicycle trails and footpaths zigzagging up and down. The observatory affords stunning views over the city. Also on site is a revolving restaurant as well as gourmet and souvenir shops. In addition, Perlan regularly hosts concerts and exhibitions in the Winter Garden. The observation deck is a real treat.
Address: Öskjuhlíð Hill, Reykjavík