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Iceland is becoming an increasingly popular destination as one of the most beautiful countries on the planet. If you’re fortunate enough to visit, make the most of what’s sure to be an unforgettable experience by including these “best things to see and do” here on your itinerary.
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Skaftafell Ice Cave, Vatnajökull National Park
In this land of ice, you’ll also find a multitude of beautiful ice caves, which are temporary structures that appear at the edge of glaciers. Inside, they are absolutely stunning. This particular ice cave that looks like a work of art can be found on the frozen lagoon of the Svínafellsjökull glacier in Skaftafell. The cave can be accessed through a 22-foot entrance on the shoreline. In the end, it tapers to a narrow squeeze no more than four feet high. It’s only safe to enter in the winter when cold temperatures have hardened the ice. If you’d like to explore it, a number of glacier tour guides offer the chance to get close to its brilliant blue frozen ceilings that are studded with stalactites that hang over icy paths and stalagmites.
The Blue Lagoon is a unique Icelandic experience as a natural spa with milky aquamarine waters surrounded by black lava rocks. No matter what time of year, it feels amazing to soak in the naturally warm waters – though it may be particularly wonderful on a chilly, rainy day, swimming out to the bar in the middle to sip strawberry champagne or a healthy green smoothie. For the ultimate in relaxation, enjoy an in-water massage or a variety of skin-enhancing treatments like a volcanic rock scrub or an algae face mask. When you want to take a break, you’ll find a number of eateries, including the elegant Lava restaurant and a poolside café.
Gullfoss is often referred to as Iceland’s own version of Niagara Falls. One of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland, the spectacular falls are easy to reach, right along the famous Golden Circle tourist route in the upper part of the River Hvita. There are several trails, including one that will get you up close and personal with the waterfall, and another that allows you to stand above it, gazing at its mesmerizing beauty. It cascades down in two steps, one 36 feet high, and the other 72 feet in height, plunging into the over one-mile long canyon below. If you don’t have a car, there are many tour buses that will take you there, and you’ll also find a gift shop and café on site.
The Geysir Hot Spring Area is another popular stop along the Golden Circle, dotted with boiling mud pits and erupting geysers, including the liveliest, Strokkur, which explodes 100 feet into the air every five to 10 minutes. The area’s namesake, Geysir, is less active, rarely erupting these days, but it did lend its name to others across the globe.
Take a walk up the hill that overlooks the area for an especially breathtaking view, or for an even more unique experience, you can help a chef bake “hot springs bread” by boiling eggs in one of the springs and digging up the bread that’s been baking underground for 24 hours. You’ll also find a number of eateries in the region that use the hot springs to bake dishes like carrot cake.
Take a Tour in the Glacier Lagoon
A popular day trip from Reykjavik, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is one of the country’s most amazing destinations. Many people feel it’s the highlight of their trip to Iceland. This large glacial lagoon that was created by glacier melt a half-century ago can be explored via a boat tour. The icebergs are constantly breaking off the glacier, drifting through the short river and into the sea. The thundering sound they make as they crash to the water must be experienced to believe. If the lagoon looks familiar, that may be because you’ve seen in films like “Tomb Raider,” “Batman Begins,” and “View to Kill” as well as the popular HBO series, “Game of Thrones.” Your tour guide will not only provide an exciting experience you’ll not soon forget but a rather fascinating and educational one too.
Jogulsarlon Black Sand Beach
The Jogularsarlon black sand beach can be found just across the road from the lagoon, though many people seem to miss it. Take the sandy road on the west side of the bridge, rather than the east side, to avoid the crowds and walk across it nearly all to yourself. Here, the waves turn many of the chunks of ice that fall from the glacier onto the velvety black sands, where they lie scattered across like gems.
Iceland is considered the whale watching capital of Europe, and the magnificent creatures can be seen from many various locations throughout the country, including Reykjavik. Don’t miss out on the opportunity by taking a whale watching tour from the capital city, or in the northern region from Husavik through Arctic Adventures. Minke and humpbacks are frequently spotted along with dolphins and porpoises. Killer whales, sperm whales, fin whales and even blue whales are also sometimes seen. The best times of the year for sightings tend to be in late spring and summer, though you don’t always have to be out on the water to see them. Sometimes, while just gazing out to the sea from the shore, you’ll see a tail fin or a whale’s back breaking the surface.
Iceland is also one of the best places on the planet to experience the aurora borealis, or northern lights, if you visit anytime between mid-September and late April. You might even be able to see them right from downtown Reykjavik, though the best place to spot them while you’re in the city is by the seaside at Seltjarnarnes, where you’ll be away from the street lights.
While they can be viewed from anywhere throughout the country, by hiking or camping in the highlands you’ll be far away from light pollution – and within the tranquil silence of the remote area, it makes for an especially unforgettable experience. There are also many Airbnbs ideal for seeing the Northern Lights.
Visit Hallgrimskirkja Church
While in Reykjavik, you also don’t want to miss visiting Iceland’s largest church, Hallgrimskirja. Located on top of Skolavorduhaed Hill, this picturesque church that was inspired by the beautiful columnar basalt of Svartifoss water in South Iceland offers a panoramic view of downtown – the best vista of the city you’ll find. In front of the church is a statue of Leif Ericsson, an early explorer who discovered North America in the year 1000, centuries before Christopher Columbus.
Skogafoss is one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls and one of its largest, dropping nearly 60 feet with a more than 80-foot width. As the high volume of water flows, it produces a thundering sound as well as a rainbow-yielding mist that makes it a photographer’s dream on a sunny day. Legend has it that buried treasure lies in one of the caves behind the magnificent falls. In the river below, there is a large salmon and char population, making it a popular summer fishing spot. The path that leads to the top of the falls continues following the river upstream, where even more spectacular falls await.
Lake Myvatn, near Akureyri in North Iceland, is the country’s fourth-largest natural lake. It was established as a conservation area in 1974, internationally renowned for its birdlife and a wide variety of duck species – during the summer there are more different species of ducks gathered on and around the lake than anywhere else on earth. It’s also known for its bizarre yet inspiring volcanic features that surround it. It’s certainly well-worth spending a few days here to explore this extremely diverse landscape in order to fully appreciate all that it has to offer.
Seljalandsfoss, located between Skógafoss and Selfoss on your way to the glacier lagoon, is one of Iceland’s most photographed falls, plummeting nearly 200 feet into a pool below. Visitors can even walk around the pool to the back of the falls for an especially unique perspective few get to ever experience. If you’re very lucky, you can even watch the northern lights from inside the waterfall.
Glymur is the highest waterfall in Iceland. It cascades for more than 643 feet down the deep gorge of Botnsdalur Valley. It’s an especially graceful waterfall that’s best viewed from the top, where you’ll also enjoy incredible views of the valley and Hvalfjörður fjord. Getting there requires a four-hour trip up and back, including climbing among rough rock formations, but for those who are up for the challenge, it’s certainly worth the reward. Standing atop the falls, you may feel as if you’re on top of the world.
The Westman archipelago is a true hidden gem as one of the country’s best-kept secrets, located off the southwest coast. Formed following a series of underwater eruptions, it’s made up of 15 islands and about 30 islets. Heimaey is the only inhabited island, and well worth at least a two-day stay with its charming village, little colored houses and craggy landscapes. It’s also home to thousands of puffins, and a number of caves and a volcano. By climbing to the top of Eldfell volcano, you’ll have an amazing view over the islands and the surrounding sea – on a clear day, you can see the mainland and the glistening icecap of Myrdalsjokull glacier. Golf enthusiasts can even play a round on one of the most extraordinary 18-hole courses on the planet.
Diving or Snorkeling at Lake Þingvallavatn
While diving and snorkeling are probably the last things that come to mind when thinking about Iceland, they’re actually popular activities at the Silfra rift in Lake Þingvallavatn. The waters boast as good visibility as you’ll find underwater anywhere on earth, with up to around 400 feet of visibility. The nearly-century-year-old glacier meltwater is so clean you can drink it. Iceland boasts the world’s only undersea smoking ‘chimney’ shallow enough for recreational divers to visit, a number of good wrecks, and all of those fjords – in fact, there’s as much to discover underwater as there is on land.
Although there is no marine life to speak of, this is the only place in the world where you can swim between two tectonic plates, and floating between them is a surreal, not-to-be-missed experience. While the water is chilly, outfitters provide appropriate gear to keep you comfortable – and, afterward, you’ll get a mug of hot chocolate to warm up with.
Iceland is a fabulous place to go horseback riding, home to the Icelandic horse, a unique breed of smaller horses that arrived with the first settlers from Norway some 1,100 years ago. Archeological digs in Europe discovered that the beautiful creatures are descended from an ancient breed of horses that is now extinct outside of Iceland but has been preserved here in isolation. They’ve become famous for their small size, strength, intelligence and unusual extra gaits, like the “tolt,” sort of a cross between a canter and a trot. They offer an especially smooth, comfortable ride that makes exploring the countryside on them the ultimate experience.
Other Hot Springs
While just about everyone puts the Blue Lagoon atop their must-do list in Iceland, there are numerous other hot springs and pools throughout the country. Located near the shoreline close Flókalundur, Hellulaug is one of the most famous hot springs in the West Fjords and an ideal place to soak after hiking or sightseeing. The Borehole (or Borholan) in Kerlingarfjoll is also a popular destination with a pool created around a well that was originally meant to heat houses in the area. It’s ideal for those who want to enjoy natural hot springs in the rugged wilderness.
Barnafoss, or Children’s Falls, is a waterfall located in the northwest region of the island, though it’s more of a series of rapids, running into a narrow, rocky chute. It takes its name from two children who disappeared many years ago from a nearby farm. There was once a rock arch that served as a bridge over the waterfall, and the children were thought to have fallen off into the river, never to be seen again. Their grieving mother destroyed the arch, according to legend, putting a curse on the falls so that no one would ever be able to cross the river and live to tell the tale.
Icelandic Phallological Museum
The Phallus museum is one of Reykjavik’s (and the entire world’s) most unique tourist attractions. Colloquially known as the Penis Museum, it features a collection of over 200 phallic specimens that represent almost every mammal in the country – including trolls and elves, though, as Icelandic folklore portrays such creatures as being invisible, of course, they cannot be seen. The museum located on the capital city’s busiest shopping street has all sorts of shelves and glass cases that are filled with penises, including everything from a tiny hamster penis to a whale’s, all preserved in formaldehyde.
This fabulous hotel is a must-stay for at least one night during any trip to Iceland. It’s perfectly located between Reykjavik and the incredible wonders of the Golden Circle, nestled in the mountains that are dotted with hot springs, set along the “hot river” Varma. Each room includes a balcony that overlooks the river and the gorgeous landscape. It also features two large hot tubs that are right on the river, ideal for soaking and even gazing at the northern lights. Its restaurant, Varma, is yet another highlight, renowned for its culinary delights like filet of lamb and delicious desserts, including hot springs cooked carrot cake.