From its pocket-sized capital to the vast landscapes of its interior, Iceland overflows with inspiring spots. The only real trouble is narrowing down what you want to do. Head out to sea to scour the grey waters for whales? Scramble over slick rocks to marvel at a waterfall? Or soak up the rays on a volcanic beach? To help make your choice easier, here are our picks for the best things to do in Iceland.
Reykjavík may look like a charming backwater, its cosy wooden houses painted in bright colours, but don’t let its appearance fool you. This is a capital city, after all, and it has nightlife to match.
The rúntur – which translates to “round tour” – is a weekly pub crawl, in which locals head from one spot to the next, drinking at every stop. Booze doesn’t come cheap in Iceland though; head to a vínbúðin to pick up your pre-drinks, an integral part of the night for Icelanders and broke travellers alike.
The long days and light nights of summer make rúntur even more fun in summer, when you can stay in denial about how late it is for a few more hours.
Looming black cliffs, a sinuous stretch of gold sand and one lone, red-roofed church: Breiðavík is the Icelandic coast at its finest. Better still, the bay’s remote location in the West Fjords means that, as often as not, you’ll have this idyllic bay mostly to yourself.
In summer, it’s the perfect place to enjoy the warmer weather with a seaside stroll; in winter, curl up with a thermos of hot chocolate and watch the sunset fill the sky.
Visit Mývatn in the summer, and you may find yourself briefly annoyed as you swat away all the tiny black flies lingering in the air (the name means “midge lake”). But it’s this cloud of insects which attracts the wildlife you’re really here to see: thousands of birds. For even the most casual of twitchers, it’s a memorable sight.
The ducks are the real draw, with all of Iceland’s species coming here to rear their young. Look out for the pop-art plumage of the harlequin duck, the chic all-black scoter, and the striking monochrome Barrow’s goldeneye, the star of the show – this is the only place where it nests in Europe.
Iceland is packed full of iconic waterfalls: dramatic, rugged Gullfoss; Skógafoss, thundering over picture-perfect green cliffs; and Seljalandsfoss, perfectly framed when you walk behind the falls. There are lesser-knowns gems, too, like Gljufrabui, peeking coyly over a moss-covered gorge, and Svartifoss, tumbling over black basalt columns.
For sheer power, though, Dettifoss can’t be matched – in fact, this is the most powerful waterfall in the whole of Europe. You can get here by car, but hiking through the wilds of Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is much more rewarding. On foot, you’ll be able to appreciate the roar of the falls growing ever louder as you approach, until finally upon them, staring into the canyon below – a sight and sound you’ll never forget.
Of the many hot springs in Iceland, Grettislaug might have the best backstory. After swimming 7.5 km through bitterly cold waters, and attracting some ridicule from some local women for the effects on his extremities, outlaw hero Grettir reputedly jumped into this hot pool to warm up again.
Whether the story’s true is beside the point – as you lie in the steaming water, Tindastóll looming to one side and the sea stretching out to the other, the invigorating effect will make you feel as strong as a Viking.
Down at the southern tip of Iceland is the tiny coastal village of Vík, home to a tumble of buildings and a sweeping, black-sand beach – a reminder (if you needed one) of the island’s volcanic heart. It’s also a good base if you fancy spotting some puffins without getting on a boat, or want somewhere welcoming to return to after striking out into the bleak deserts of southeastern Iceland.
A bracing walk west along the coast is Dyrólaey, with its towering basalt columns, a true icon of Iceland – the design of the stunning modern Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík was based on them.
The second-largest glacier in Iceland, Langjökull boasts something its bigger rival (Vatnajökull) doesn’t: tunnels chiselled out of the icecap itself, giving visitors a totally different view of this slowly flowing mass of ice. Visiting the glacier is truly one of the best things to do in Iceland.
The trip give you a remarkable insight into how glaciers function, but it would be worth it just for the visuals – the ice looks perfectly clear in places, cloudy white in others, and in others still startlingly blue, and has to rank among the best things to see in Iceland. Strap on your crampons, head into the ice, and marvel at the power of the glacier.
The vast Vatnajökull – Europe’s biggest glacier – creaks and groans towards the sea, only to break apart into icebergs once it reaches the water. You can see these up close by taking a trip out onto the lagoon at Jökulsárlón, or just by strolling along the black beach, where icebergs are washed up onto the sand like broken glass.
Way up in the north of Iceland is the friendly town of Húsavík, clustered around its harbour in the shadow of towering Húsavíkurfjall. It’s a likeable spot, especially in summer when the mountain is green and the clear waters reflect the colourful wooden houses and sailing ships, but most people come here for one reason: whales.
You can go on a whale-watching trip from Reykjavík too, of course, but only from Húsavík can you see blue whales. They’re not the only cetaceans you might spot, either – with orcas, minke whales, fin whales, sperm whales and humpbacks in these waters, too, you’re almost guaranteed a sighting.
Iceland’s natural scenery is rugged, bleak, otherworldly… but pastoral? The small farming island of Flatey is a peaceful escape, with meadows strewn with delicate flowers and stunning views across to the more dramatic landscape of the West Fjords. Icelanders think of it as a rural idyll, and visitors too can enjoy coming here to stroll through the fields of buttercups, admire the scenery, perhaps take a leisurely boat trip – and not worry about anything else.
Every August, the island of Heimaey is home to a truly heartwarming spectacle. Around this time, the adult puffins fly out to sea and their chicks leave their nests to follow, in search of food. However, many of them become confused and fly into Heimaey town, where the local residents charitably collect the fluffy young birds and release them somewhere safer.
It’s a fun, friendly affair, led by the kids of the town – and if you can look at a happy child tenderly scooping up a lost puffling without cracking a smile, your heart must be stonier than Heimaey’s coastline.
Top image: Vik beach © kovop58/Shutterstock