What are the top 10 things to do in Iceland you shouldn’t miss out on? What activities or sightseeing should you prioritise if you only have a 1 week or 2 week trip? With the sheer quantity of hikes, scenery, and cultural experiences Iceland provides, it is a challenge in itself to pick and choose what to do. Rest assured we have travelled Iceland extensively and picked our 10 best experiences in Iceland.
1 Explore Reykjavik
This is an easy one because the vast majority, if not all backpackers that visit Iceland, will fly into Keflavík International Airport and get a bus/drive straight to Reykjavik. The city does not disappoint, and if you are only in Iceland for a couple of days, this will likely be your base whilst you explore the surrounding areas. The city can accommodate most peoples taste, with a vibrant bar and restaurant scene, architectural landmarks, and even weird and wonderful museums such as the Phallological Museum – or to be more crude – the Penis Museum.
You could easily spend two weeks just exploring Reykjavik. It is a very walkable city which makes planning your day very easy. For a typical stay of 2-3 full days we’d suggest a walking tour of the city on the first day. This could either be by yourself or as part of a tour (the free walking tours here are great and you just pay whatever you think it was worth afterwards). Follow this up with a stroll around the Old Harbour, and proceed to the main city streets of Laugavegur, Bankastræti, Austurstræti, Lækjargata, and Skólavörðustígur to truly soak up the culture.
Reward yourself in downtown Reykjavik with a few drinks and food. We’d recommend the Fish Company Restaurant becuase of there Nordic fusion of Icelandic Cuisine. A top tip we learnt from the locals, if you are working to a tight budget it is fundamental you time your evening entertainment with the happy hours the bars and restaurants have. We found our bills cut in half or more if we got our timings right.
For the second day, if you have not had too many drinks the night before, you should definitely rise early to visit Hallgrimskirkja Church. It is in the heart Reykjavik and is easily accessible from most parts of the city. It opens at 9am and is free to visit, so arriving early would allow you to take some great shots and avoid the crowds. For only ISK 1000 you can also take the elevator to the tower, which is highly recommended, as this is the best vantage point of the whole city.
For the rest of the day you can take your pick of museums, galleries, and outdoor sculptures the city offers. In particular, the Sun Voyager is one of the most popular outdoor sculptures, and is nestled adjacent to the harbour. Its a perfect photo opportunity with Mt Esjan in the backdrop.
If you are there for a third day before you move on to your next destination we’d suggest exploring Þúfa Hill located in the Grandi area of Reykjavik, take a ferry over to Viðey Island, or Perlan Museum & Viewpoint.
2 Iceland Blue Lagoon
Iceland’s Blue Lagoon is a must do when visiting the country, but it does have it’s pitfalls. Firstly, the positives; the Blue Lagoon is an absolutely stunning hot spring, which was the result of runoff from the geothermal power plant next door. That may sound strange, but it is perfectly safe, with many health benefits from bathing in the relaxing springs. It is very easy to get to from Reykjavik, with many tours and buses catering to the hotspot. It is a great change of pace to visit if you have been hiking or walking around Reykjavik for days.
Now the downside, what many of the tour operators don’t say is just how busy and congested the Blue Lagoon can get if you go at the wrong time, or don’t plan accordingly. The photo above is the photo you typically see of the blue lagoon; tranquil with very few visitors, but this is only possible during the winter months as soon as the lagoon opens. Visiting the Blue Lagoon at peak times is far from relaxing and can be downright annoying. Don’t let this spoil your fun, plan your trip and maximise your chances of experiencing this amazing tourist destination in peace.
3 Iceland’s Golden Circle
Iceland’s Golden Circle should be on anyone’s bucket list when exploring Iceland. There are bus tours and rental cars all accessible in Reykjavik. We’d recommended the rental car route as it gives you the option to pick and chose what you want to see, and at your own pace. Even in winter the Golden Circle is still manageable, even for the more faint hearted.
There are so many destinations to visit off the Golden Circle that we can’t do it justice in this article, we will be creating a new post dedicated entirely to the Golden Circle to cover more. But as a starting point to peak your interest there are 3 amazing must-dos along the way: Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal area, and Gullfoss Waterfall.
4 Icelandic Unique Cuisine
As you are starting to see there is much more to Iceland than the scenery and the Northern Lights. But most people don’t have a clue what to expect when it comes to Icelandic food. To put it simply, Icelandic cuisine ranges from the simple to the down right wacky. But there is a range to cater for all audiences.
Starting at the lower end of the weird scale is the Reykjavik’s Hot Dog (or pylsur). This can easily be tried on one of your walking tours around Reykjavik. We recommend Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, who have been in business for over 60 years. Another local delicacy, which most people will have heard of by now, is Skyr. A thick and creamy dairy product made from pasteurized skimmed milk and a bacteria culture similar to yogurt. The last think we would recommend trying is Icelandic Rye Bread. This is a staple for Icelandic cuisine and there are a million recipes and topping available.
If you are the more adventurous type there is only one meal you should try before leaving Iceland; Fermented Shark. This is fermented with vinegar and other more natural ingredients, which give it the pungent smell and taste you will surely not forget in a hurry. If this wasn’t enough, it is always paired with a shot of black death; a clear unsweetened schnapps, because why not.
5 Horseback Riding with Icelandic Horses
Horseback riding is one of the best ways soak up the scenerio and feel a little closer to nature. If you chose your tour wisely you will also be given the opportunity to tölt your horse, which is a special gait known to Icelandic horses. This was particularly enjoyable for us because if you have ventured out of Reykjavik much, you will soon realise that you will be either driving in the car or sitting on a bus for several hours a day getting to each destination. Typically the horseriding tours last for 2 hours approximately and you can be free in the mountainside. Who you chose for your tour will largely depend on where you are staying at the time, but for a good starting point we’d recommend Guide to Iceland’s selection of tours.
6 Skógafoss Waterfall
Skógafoss waterfall was our favourite waterfall we visited in Iceland! If you only have time to see one waterfall during your stay, this should be it. Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland, with a drop of 62 meters and a width of 25 meters. What makes it so enjoyable is the the number of vantage points you have to view it; you can walk right up the the bottom of the falls (but be prepared to get soaked), take the route into the cave behind the falls, or even climb all 527 steps to the observation platform above Skógafoss. You may even get the chance to see the double rainbows which frequent the waterfall more often than you think.
Skógafoss can be access from the Golden Circle, it is very hard to miss from a distance. Due to its proximity to Reykjavik this should be on anyone’s bucket list.
7 Black Sand Beach
Moving further afield from Reykjavik now, is Reynisfjara Beach, or Black Sand Beach as it is more famously known as. This beach on the South Coast of Iceland is a beautiful black sand coast and a popular filming location for Game of Thrones, Star Wars and more. It is a very surreal place, and dramatically spectacular. It is certainly not what you would expect, and you’d be wise not to dismiss this location too quickly. In addition to the rare black sand you have the unusual Reynisdrangar Basalt Columns along the cliff edge of the beach, which are huge naturally occurring structures, that look as though they are sprouting out of the ocean.
8 Explore Thingvellir National Park (Þingvellir)
Another destination off the Golden Circle is Thingvellir National Park. This is the ultimate hiking experience and we’d recommend spending at least a full day exploring the landscapes and scenery. This is one of the few places in the world where you can also walk between two tectonic plates, and even scuba dive between them if you are even more adventurous. Anything we say in the post won’t do the scenery in Thingvellir National Park justice. We’d just recommend allowing a full day to go out and explore the landscape, there really isn’t anywhere else in the world quite like it.
9 Visit the Secret Lagoon
While the Secret Lagoon is no longer secret, it does offer a far more peaceful experience than the Blue Lagoon. This is because it is a little further away from Reykjavik in the small village of Fludir. Unlike the Blue Lagoon, the Secret Lagoon is a natural hot spring, heated by several geothermal spots and a little Geysir which erupts every 5 minutes. It’s the perfect getaway spot, not too far from the Golden Circle area, to relax after days of walking in the natural scenery.
10 Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
The last destination in our list, is also the furthest away from Reykjavik, which may prove challenging to visit if you only have a short stay. Located in the south east of Iceland, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is a stunningly beautiful attraction and one of Iceland’s crown jewels. As the name suggested the glacier lagoon is filled with icebergs and offers breath-taking photo opportunities. There is a café open all year round for visitors, and the option of boat tours operating from early May throughout September. Personally, we feel it is much more enjoyable to walk around the lagoon rather than a boat tour as you get a much better appreciation of the scale and can experience it at your own leisure. Instead of a boat tour, we’d recommend ice caving instead if you are there in winter, as this adds a whole new dimension and understanding.
All in all Iceland is a must see destination. There is so much to see in addition to the Northern Lights. Check out our Iceland Photography Prints for mementos and lasting memories of your trip. Alternatively, we offer personalised printing services if you want photos you’ve taken printed and framed.
If you have experienced all of our Top 10 things to do in Iceland, you may enjoy exploring the additional things to do in Iceland below.
- Scuba diving between the tectonic plates in Thingvellir National Park
- If you are visiting Iceland between April to October you could go whale watching.
- Iceland is perfectly located to see the Northern Lights, but a cloudless day is critical.
- Ice cave tours are the perfect activity if you are visiting Iceland between October to March.
- Iceland has a plethora of waterfalls. In addition to Skogafoss, Gullfoss Waterfall is another fantastic sight to visit.
- Explore Icelands eastern Fjords.
- Hike Landmannalaugar
- Drive the Arctic Coast Way