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 best picks for things to do in Iceland.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Iceland, your essential guide for visiting Iceland.
1. Join the rúntur in Reykjavík
Reykjavík on Iceland's coast 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 the summer months make rúntur even more fun in summer when you can stay in denial about how late it is for a few more hours.
Start planning your trip to Reykjavik now, by checking accommodations here.
2. Hit the beach at Breiðavík
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.
3. Go birdwatching at Lake Mývatn
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 that 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.
4. Marvel at Europe’s most powerful waterfall
One of the most memorable things to do in Iceland is to visit one of its many iconic waterfalls. For example the dramatic, rugged Gullfoss; Skógafoss, thundering over picture-perfect green cliffs; or Seljalandsfoss, perfectly framed when you walk behind the falls. There are lesser-known 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 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.
5. Soak in Grettislaug
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. Stay until nightfall for the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights from the hot spring.
6. Wander the volcanic sands at Vík
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.
One of the most awe-striking things to do in Iceland is a bracing walk west along the south coast of Dyrólaey which features towering basalt columns. This natural beauty inspired the design of the stunning modern Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík.
7. Head into the glacier at Langjökull
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.
The trip gives 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 do in Iceland. Strap on your crampons, head into the ice, and marvel at the power of the glacier.
8. Dodge icebergs in Jökulsárlón
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.
9. Watch whales off the coast at Húsavík
Way up in north Iceland is the friendly town of Húsavík, clustered around its harbour in the shadow of towering Húsavíkurfjall. It’s a likable 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.
10. Stroll the flower meadows of Flatey
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 and enjoying many things to do- such as stroll through the fields of buttercups, admire the scenery, perhaps take a leisurely boat trip – and not worry about anything else.
Ready to start planning your trip to Iceland? Check out our guide for the best places to stay.
11. Save the pufflings in Heimaey
If wondering what to do in 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 sea 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.
Planning to travel to Iceland in the summer? Check out our list of the best Icelandic places to visit in the summertime.
12. Relaxing in the Blue Lagoon - one of the best things to do in Iceland for wellness
One of the most relaxing things to do in Iceland is to spend a day at the Blue Lagoon located in the Southwest. Considered one of the 25 wonders of the world, the area is known for its geothermal pools, hot springs, caves, and spas.
In particular, the Blue Lagoon is famous for its silvery-grey slit- a silica mud that is known to cleanse and tighten skin, as well as treat many skin conditions.
Start planning your trip to the Blue Lagoon now by checking out accommodations here.
13. Spot the Reindeers in Eastfjords
The Eastfjords, known for its beautiful cliffsides and sunny weather, is one of the only places where herds of wild reindeer can be spotted. There are many things to do in this section of the Icelandic coastline: from taking a drive through the Ring Road, taking a hike through Hvalnes Nature Reserve, or taking a stroll through Seydisfjordur.
14. Drive through the Golden Circle
You can enjoy many great Icelandic landmarks in one day by taking a road trip down the historical Golden Circle. Starting in Reykjavik, this 140 mile (230 kilometers) circular driving path offers awe-inspiring views sprinkled with many things to do and visit - from geothermal geysers and waterfalls to Thingvellir National Park.
Explore the area with a guided coach tour, create a self-guided tour by renting a car, or stay the night along the Golden Circle to spend more time exploring this iconic area. Let us help with the details! Our tailor-made travel service offers fully customisable trips to the Golden Circle planned by a local expert.
15. Try diving and snorkelling in Silfra
Silfra offers the truly surreal experience of swimming between tectonic plates. The geological fissure marks the separation between the Eurasian and North American continental plates and is known for its crystal clear glacial waters. The use of a dry suit makes accessing this one-of-kind diving spot possible without freezing. The tectonic plates of Silfra offer one of the most unique things to do in Iceland.
16. Hiking in Hornstrandir
Once you’ve seen the remote snow-covered hills and cliffs of the Snæfjallaströnd coastline, you’ll have an idea of what lies immediately north. A claw-shaped peninsula of land bordered by the Jökulfirðir fjords to the south and the Greenland Sea to the north, and attached to the rest of the West Fjords by a narrow neck of land just 6km wide. Hornstrandir represents Iceland’s very last corner of inhospitable terrain.
Thanks to Hornstrandir’s exposed location on the edge of the Greenland Sea, the weather is especially unpredictable, and hiking here needs plenty of careful planning. Deep snow often lies on the ground until July and snow showers are not uncommon even in July and August.
17. Visit National Parks
Iceland's national parks allow you to enjoy Iceland's mesmerising nature to the full. You can hike 25km over the mountains between Þórsmörk and Skógar, right past the steaming site of the 2010 volcanic eruption at Eyjafjallajökull.
The land northeast of Reykjavík is scarred by one of the world’s great geological boundaries, the rift valley of Thingvellir (Þingvellir) marks where the North American and Eurasian continental plates are physically tearing apart. Although this rift stretches right across Iceland, nowhere else is it so expansively evident.
Skaftafell’s blend of highland plateau, summer meadows and ice-blue glaciers are best explored by hiking, biking or climbing.
Ready for a trip to Iceland? For inspiration, use the Iceland itineraries from the Rough Guide to Iceland and our local travel experts.
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Top image: Vik beach © kovop58/Shutterstock