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12 Best Cities in Iceland

Written by Anietra Hamper
Mar 18, 2020

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A trip to Iceland is an unforgettable experience. It is one of the most naturally stunning countries to see, with towering waterfalls, thermal pools like the Blue Lagoon, volcanos, sprawling glaciers, mountains, glacial lagoons, tiny fishing villages, Northern Lights, grazing sheep in the countryside, and wild Icelandic horses. The air is fresh, the people are charming, and the surrounding Atlantic ocean provides constant reminders of Iceland's Viking roots.

Whether you choose a base in the capital city of Reykjavik and make day trips north and south, or whether you choose to rent a car and drive the Ring Road or Golden Circle, there are a number of great cities to see and experience during your visit.

Plan your travels with our list of the best cities in Iceland.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Reykjavik

Aurora Borealis above Hallgrimskirkja Church in Reykjavik
Aurora Borealis above Hallgrimskirkja Church in Reykjavik

Your visit to Iceland will likely start and end in Reykjavik, which is the capital city and the hub for so many activities. Reykjavik, on the southwest coast of Iceland, is one of the best places to visit, as it is a charming and walkable city. Though it is the largest city in Iceland, with a population of barely over 200,000 people, it is still relatively small when you think of capital cities.

One of the top things do in Reykjavik is visit the Hallgrimskirkja Church. At 73-meters high, you cannot miss it. Take the elevator to the top and look out the open-air windows of the viewing platform for a panoramic view over the city.

While in Reykjavik, you will also want to walk down to the Old Harbour, where you will find small eateries serving local fare, coffee shops, and the port where fishing vessels and whale watching tours depart.

Stroll the city streets or hop on the public bus that can take you to the Pearlan Museum and the small boutiques that sell local wares like wool sweaters and pottery. When you get tired of exploring, relax for a bit in one of Reykjavik's public thermal pools, or you can depart for a day trip to the Blue Lagoon. Be sure to plan an evening at the beautiful Harpa concert hall.

You can get your fill of nature in the capital city with day trip hikes on Mount Esja, a morning breath of fresh air in the green space of Oskjuhlid, a walk through the lava fields at the Heidmork Nature Reserve, or by relaxing on the golden sands of the Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach.

Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts in Iceland

2. Hafnarfjörður

Old fishing huts in Hafnarfjordur
Old fishing huts in Hafnarfjordur

Hafnarfjörður in southwest Iceland is the hub of Viking culture. The town hosts an annual Viking festival, and it is where enthusiasts of the settlers visit to indulge in the culture since it is one of the oldest towns on the island. There are many unique activities available in Hafnarfjörður, from hidden world tours and horseback riding tours to trips to see traditional Icelandic costumes.

You will notice many lava fields in Hafnarfjörður, as the town was built on 7,000-year-old lava rock, making for an unusual appearance of the landscape surrounding the homes. There are many geothermal attributes to the town, including Kleifarvatn Lake, which is the subject of local folklore and a must-see while you are in the area.

There are lots of hiking opportunities in Hafnarfjörður. The Krýsuvík Cliffs are a great place to see the Atlantic ocean crashing on the rugged coast and for bird-watching. Helgafell Mountain is about two hours from Hafnarfjörður but worth the drive for a day hike if you are in the region, as you will see undisturbed lava fields and formations, as well as centuries-old artifacts from early Icelandic settlers.

Hafnarfjörður celebrates its culture with local art, food, and performances. There are a number of art galleries to visit and a public art sculpture park. You will also find public geothermal pools in the town, which are a must-experience during your stay, especially if you have never been in them.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Hafnarfjörður

3. Akureyri

Akureyri
Akureyri

The northern Icelandic town of Akureyri is a lovely fishing village, with roots that date back to the 9th century when Norse Vikings settled the area. It is fun to walk through Akureyri on Kaupvangsstræti, the main street that curves through town. If you cannot pronounce it, just ask the locals to point you in the direction of Art Street, which it is also called. There are many galleries with local art for sale and small eateries with traditional foods to try.

You will want to visit the Akureyri Art Museum and the Hof Cultural Center, which showcases local visual and performing arts. Another fun place to see is the Friðbjarnarhús, which has old toys and dolls on display from the late 1800s. Some of the other attractions in Akureyri are the Akureyri Church; Gásir Medieval Trading Place; and the Botanical Garden, which is one of the northernmost in the world.

Outdoor activities in Akureyri are popular, with local excursions to hiking areas, bird-watching, fishing, rafting, and horseback riding. In the winter, you can take a snowcat tour into the mountains, head out for a day of skiing on Eyjafjördur Fjord, or plan an evening tour to see the aurora borealis.

If you want to base yourself in Akureyri and explore off the beaten path, you can hop on the Arctic Coast Way, which follows 900 kilometers along northern Iceland, taking you to some of the most remote places on the island. The Arctic Coast Way takes you through 21 fishing villages to the most northern point in Iceland, close to the Arctic Circle.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Akureyri

4. Seyðisfjörður

The town of Seydisfjordur reflected in Fjardara Lake
The town of Seydisfjordur reflected in Fjardara Lake

The small town of Seyðisfjörður is on a fjord on the eastern side of Iceland. It is one of the best places to visit if you want to see puffin colonies that inhabit the remote regions of Iceland. There is rich Icelandic culture and stunning natural beauty in Seyðisfjörður, as it is surrounded by mountains and shoreline.

The first things you will notice in this remote town with a population of 700 people are the quaint timber homes built in the early 19th century; the tranquil lagoon; and the comfort of Mt. Strandartindur and Mt. Bjolfur, which border both sides of the valley. Seyðisfjörður is a picturesque Norwegian fishing village that was established in the late 1800s.

The Church, also called The Blue Church, in Seyðisfjörður is one of the main landmarks in town, and it is unique because it was moved from a farm in the late 1800s to Vestdalseyri then moved again and rebuilt after damage from a major storm and a fire. It was moved once more to its current home in Seyðisfjörður in 1920 with renovations restoring it to its original form, including the pipe organ inside.

The outdoor activities in Seyðisfjörður are plentiful, from biking and kayaking to fishing. The town has a small golf course, ski area, and many hiking trails. You can take day excursions on the water for bird-watching and wildlife viewing for whales and seals.

Seyðisfjörður is a great location to visit if viewing the Northern Lights is on your must-do list. Its remote location is prime during the late summer and winter when long, dark, clear nights present prime viewing opportunities on the fjord. There are a number of outfitters in town that can plan aurora borealis excursions.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Seyðisfjörður

5. Kópavogur

Summer in Kopavogur
Summer in Kopavogur

The town of Kópavogur has the second largest population after Reykjavik and is also located in the southwest region. Its name translates to "seal pup bay," which is an indication of some of the experiences you might have in the town, as seals frequent the shoreline.

Kópavogur has stunning architecture, most notably the Kópavogur Church and the Gerdarsafn Kópavogur Art Museum. The landscape around Kópavogur has hills, so there are a number of hiking trails to experience, as well as flatter trails in the Kópavogsdalur Valley. There are a number of public parks, thermal pools, and bird-watching opportunities for more than 30 species that pass through the area.

While many of the cities in Iceland have small shops and boutiques, Kópavogur has two shopping malls. The town is not far from Reykjavik, so it is easy to combine a visit to both cities while you are in the area.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Kópavogur

6. Egilsstadir

Hengifoss waterfall near Egilsstadir
Hengifoss waterfall near Egilsstadir

The town of Egilsstadir, on the east end of Iceland, is easily accessed from the Ring Road, and it has a small regional airport, so flights are easy to take here from Reykjavik. The town is surrounded by beautiful landscapes, from mountains and waterfalls to glaciers and farmland.

There are some stunning hikes to take. You can find casual trails throughout Egilsstadir or join up with a local hiking club for advanced hiking in the mountains. This is a nice region to explore Icelandic culture, with visits to the East Iceland Heritage Museum, the farmstead of Sænautasel, and the former monastery of Skriðuklaustur.

One of the fun cultural features in Egilsstadir is the Icelandic poetry written on some of the walls and windows around town. This is a more modern custom, but it commemorates the work of local poets and the town's history. Take a walk around town to discover the creative tributes of scrolling poetry.

The outdoors in the region are ripe with sightseeing adventures, from walking through the vibrant green Laugarvalladalur Valley to seeing the large boulders and landscape at Stórurð. Many of the outdoor locations require a small amount of hiking to access, so plan accordingly for footwear, time, and water.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Egilsstadir

7. Ísafjörður

Puffins on the cliffs of Latrabjarg
Puffins on the cliffs of Latrabjarg

The far northwest town of Ísafjörður is the largest municipality in the Westfjords peninsula. It is accessible by car, and there are flights to Ísafjörður from Reykjavik if you do not want to navigate the roads, which can be dicey in the winter months. The town has roots in the fishing industry, and it is still an important part of the economy in the area.

This city is a nice place to visit in the north for outdoor activities like hiking, skiing, kayaking, and bird-watching. This is one of the best locations for seeing puffins that are often spotted on the cliffs of Látrabjarg. Other outdoor must-dos in Ísafjörður are the Drangajökull glacier and the majestic waterfalls at Dynjandi.

Ísafjörður has many cultural and music festivals, so it is a nice way to spend time with the locals embracing Icelandic heritage. You can visit the folk museum in town to see the oldest house in Iceland that was built in 1734 and preserved along with examples of other early settlement homes.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Ísafjörður

8. Hofn

Ice cave in Skaftafell glacier, Vatnajokull National Park
Ice cave in Skaftafell glacier, Vatnajokull National Park

The charming fishing village of Hofn on Iceland's southeast coast is a tranquil town with glacial lagoons surrounding it. Hofn is close to the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest in Europe. Just off the coast from Hofn are smaller islands that add to the seaside backdrop of this quiet and picturesque area.

Besides the scenery, there are small museums like the Maritime Museum, hiking trails, a golf course, thermal pools, camping, and kayaking opportunities. Hofn is also the place to set out on more aggressive Icelandic adventures like glacial treks in Vatnajökull National Park. There are various ice adventures offered by local guides, from jeep treks to snowmobiling.

There is a small regional airport in Hofn and there are generally daily flights from Reykjavik. It is nice to stroll through the old harbor at sunset, when the light reflects off the water and illuminates the colorful fishing boats that dock for the night.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Hofn

9. Vestmannaeyjar

Heimaey Island, Vestmannaeyjar
Heimaey Island, Vestmannaeyjar

The island of Vestmannaeyjar is part of a 15-island archipelago off the southern coast of Iceland's mainland. It takes a bit more effort to get here but it's worth the time, especially if your interest is exploring off the beaten path in some of the country's more remote areas.

Vestmannaeyjar is most known for the 1973 eruption of the Eldfell volcano, which destroyed much of the region.

You will want to see the sod-covered houses and surrounding landscape of Herjólfur, which is considered to be the first settlement in the Westman Islands. You can see the crater left by the famous Eldfell volcanic eruption and walk on the cliffs of Ofanleitishamar.

You can get to Vestmannaeyjar by airplane or a ferry from the mainland. Since it is a very small island and town with limited accommodations and attractions it is best to just make your visit to Vestmannaeyjar a day trek while you are in Reykjavik or on your way to other cities.

10. Vík í Mýrdal

Vík í Myrdal
Vík í Myrdal

The tiny village of Vík í Mýrdal , or Vik, is located on the southernmost tip of Iceland and is a beautiful place to visit. The coastal village has some fascinating sites to explore, like ice caves. You can take an ice cave tour, which is recommended to ensure safety while traversing the glacier to get to them.

Some of Iceland's most magnificent waterfalls are easily accessed from Vik, namely Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Svartifoss, and Gljúfrabúi. You can also watch for puffin colonies. The resident birds are rarely seen and are only present for approximately three months out of the year but they are found near Vik when they come to nest.

11. Hvammstangi

Kolugljufur waterfall
Kolugljufur waterfall

The northwest village of Hvammstangi is a nice place to visit and a larger municipality comparatively to some of the other places in Iceland. It is easy to find outdoor activities, like horseback riding in the countryside and visiting the Kolugljufur waterfall. If you enjoy seeing wildlife, you will want to book a seal watching tour out of Hvammstangi and visit the Icelandic Seal Center in the village.

Hvammstangi was once an important trading center to Iceland, and today it is most known for the seal colonies that inhabit the coastline. This is a nice village for finding authentic, locally made crafts and knitwear in some of the small shops.

12. Geysir

The Great Geysir, Iceland
The Great Geysir, Iceland

Geysir in Iceland is both an area and one of the most famous natural elements in the country. The Great Geysir in southwest Iceland has been active for more than 10,000 years. The erupting water is unpredictable, but it can blow up to 70 meters into the air, making for a phenomenal sight.

The land originally belonged to a farmer and has been transferred over the decades to eventually belong to the country. Geysir is located along the Golden Circle and is often included in day tours of the region, which is one of the best ways to see it since you can include stops to other sites as well.

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imageExploring Iceland: As you research the top things to see and do in Iceland you will want to also look into the best times to go to Iceland and check into resorts in the country that offer comfortable lodging. Iceland is an easy country to visit on your way to Europe, as many flights make a stopover in Reykjavik.

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