Iceland is the ultimate travel destination these days, and its not hard to see why. With black sand, blue icebergs, towering waterfalls, icy glaciers, warm hot springs, unending fields of lava rock, and more, Iceland has so much to offer it can seem daunting to try to choose what to do. Luckily, with so many different options there is something for everyone, from the risk-taking adventurer to those seeking peaceful serenity. Here are what I consider the top Icelandic activities everyone should experience at least once. I hope this inspires you!
Snorkel between Continents
Snorkeling (or diving) in Silfra fissure in Þingvellir National Park is one of the most amazing experiences, not just in Iceland, but in the world. First, as far as I am aware, it is an entirely unique experience. Nowhere else in the world can you literally swim between two continents. Second, it is breathtakingly beautiful. The Silfra fissure is notorious for its crystal clear water offering amazing visibility of the underwater landscape. Glacial melt water from Langjökull glacier, located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Lake Þingvellir, travels for over 30 years through lava fields before flowing into Silfra River. This filtering process makes the Silfra water as clear as water can be. Snorkelers experience a visibility of over 100 meters (328 feet), and the water is so pure you can drink it. The fissure is the result of the American and Eurasian continental plates drifting apart.
There are many options for snorkeling and diving tours in Silfra. I used DIVE.IS and highly recommend them. Your guide will walk with you to the platform and give you a briefing before gearing up. Since the water is cold, the snorkeling tour is conducted in dry suits. These suits will keep you dry and the thermal undergarments provided will keep you warm and comfortable. Your guide will take photos with an underwater camera during your tour that you can purchase afterwards for around $25 (those are our photos are above). The colors in the water are amazing; this truly is a once in a lifetime experience that I highly recommend!
Check out the DIVE.IS website for more information!
Hike on a Glacier
While Iceland is certainly not the only place in the world where you can walk on a glacier, if you’re there, why not take the opportunity? Iceland is home to Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, which is 8,100 square kilometers (3,100 square miles), and the ice cap is around 400 meters (1,300 feet) thick on average and 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) at its thickest point. Also, these glaciers are rapidly receding due to climate change. While these large glaciers will likely still be around in your lifetime, they may disappear in the next 100 to 150 years if the current warming trends are not reversed.
If you’re looking to explore a glacier, you should definitely hire a guide, as they can be quite dangerous. I chose Icelandic Mountain Guides for my glacier adventure, and I had a great time with them. They have many different tours to fit your needs and timeframe. Get more information on their website here.
Take a Boat Tour through an Iceberg-filled Lagoon
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is one of the most jaw-dropping locations in Iceland. You cannot help but stare in wonder at the massive and stunning icebergs as they float on the serene water. While the ice in the lagoon is thousands of years old, the lagoon itself was only formed recently, the result of a warming climate. The lagoon is up to 250 meters (820 feet) deep making it the deepest lake in Iceland. Huge blocks of ice constantly break off the glacier and large icebergs float into the lagoon and then make their way out to sea. The ice actually appears in three colors: white, blue, and black. The white color appears because of the snow cover and air bubbles on top of the ice which reflect all wavelengths of light. When these air bubbles are underwater they become compressed and much more dense, allowing more light and longer wavelengths to be absorbed, meaning that only the shorter wavelengths are reflected back, revealing the blue color. When an iceberg becomes top heavy in the water it flips and we get to see the beautiful blue hues. Any black stripes you may see in the ice is ash from recent volcanic eruptions. A local company runs boat tours of the lagoon daily during the summer. More information can be found on their website.
Seek out Wildlife
Wildlife is abundant in Iceland, and one only has to stop and look around to see it. Sheep and horses are the largest mammals most often seen when driving through Iceland. Several bird species, such as the Arctic Tern, Harlequin Duck, European Golden Plover, and Barnacle Geese can also easily be spotted by the roadside. If you want to spot some of the more famous or elusive creatures in Iceland, like the Atlantic Puffin or the Arctic Fox, you may have to look a bit harder.
The Atlantic Puffin can only be seen on land during nesting season. Puffins begin to arrive in Iceland in April, and are generally gone by the end of August. Millions of puffins call Iceland home during these months, making it the ideal place to catch a glimpse of these striking birds. Every season Iceland hosts about sixty percent of the world’s Atlantic Puffin population. As puffins are sea birds, they tend to be out fishing most of the day, making the best time to see them during the early morning and late evening. There are several locations for puffin viewing in Iceland. I have visited three: Dyrhólaey on the south coast near Vík, Bakkagerði on the east coast, and Látrabjarg in the Westfjords. Látrabjarg is by far the largest. Indeed, it is the largest sea bird cliff in Europe, and also happens to be the westernmost point in Europe (if you exclude the Azores islands, which apparently people often do). These cliffs are great for puffin-viewing, and while there you may also catch a glimpse of the Arctic Fox. Dyrhólaey is another great spot for viewing puffins. I actually prefer this spot because in addition to puffins it offers beautiful views of Reynisfjara black sand beach. Bakkagerði is by far the smallest of the three, and is really just a little hill set out a bit into the ocean, but the set-up allows visitors to get quite close to many of the nests (there is, however, fencing preventing you from getting too close). Other sea birds often seen on these nesting cliffs include the Razorbill, Northern Gannet, and Common Guillemot.
If you hope to catch a glimpse of the Arctic Fox, your search will be more difficult. The Arctic Fox is an elusive creature indeed. It is actually the only land mammal native to Iceland, and it is very skittish. It hunts mostly at night, and is well protected by its coat which provides camouflage to match its surroundings. The iconic picture of the Arctic Fox is a small puffy white animal, but the fox is only this color during the winter. During the summer months it sheds its thick white fur to reveal a coat with a blueish brown hue, perfect for blending in to the surrounding fields. I’ve been lucky enough to spot an Arctic Fox on both of my trips to Iceland. The first time I spotted one was driving very late at night on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and a fox was bounding along the side of the road (off the road quite a bit, but still visible when driving by). The second viewing was at Látrabjarg birds cliffs. This is the ideal place to see an Arctic Fox. Again, the hour was quite late, but this fox was not so timid. In fact, it wandered around for about an hour with several humans nearby snapping photos. The fox was clearly hunting the birds on the cliffs, which is what makes this an ideal spot to see the fox. Látrabjarg is also located in the Westfjords, the most untouched part of Iceland and consequently home to the largest number of Arctic Foxes.
Relax in Natural Hot Springs
Due to Iceland’s geothermal activity, natural hot springs are fairly easy to come by, and you should definitely try to leave some time for the relaxing experience. We actually missed out on this natural experience during our first trip to Iceland, but we planned our second trip so that we stopped at a natural hot spring every day during our journey. And when I say natural hot spring, I mean free, made by nature, in the middle of nowhere. No changing rooms or facilities, just a nature-made pool waiting to give you warmth and serenity. Relaxing in these pools out in nature was the highlight of our second trip.
Here is a fantastic map revealing the locations of hot springs, pools, and gas stations!
Experience a Variety of Geothermal Activity: Geysirs and Boiling Mud Pits
Geysir is the name of the original geyser, from which we derive the English term. The Geysir geothermal area is home to several geysers, most of them now inactive, but one, Strokkur, shoots a large column of water up to 30 meters (100 feet) into the air every five to fifteen minutes in a thrilling display of nature’s powerful force. Wandering around this area and experiencing the power of the geyser yourself is a awe-inspiring experience.
Far from Geysir, across the vast central Highlands, in Northern Iceland the Hverir geothermal area provides a very different experience. Hverir, also know as Námafjall, is a must-see if you make it to this part of Iceland. The barren landscape and eerie steam rising from the ground gives you the feeling that you may have been transported to another planet. So many of Iceland’s landscapes are otherworldly, but Hverir presents its own unique experience. Peering through steam while wandering around this desert-like expanse listening to the sound of boiling mud adds to the mystery of this landscape. Stay on the designated walkways to ensure you don’t slip off into a volcanic abyss. Key sights include boiling mud pits, steaming fumaroles, and colorful sulfur crystals. The smell of sulfur also lingers in the steam hovering over the area.
Just a five to ten minute drive from Hverir are two other amazing locations: Leirhnjúkur lava fields and Krafla volcano. Both will add to your otherworldly experience.
Search for the Perfect Waterfall
Waterfalls are abundant in Iceland. You merely have to look around and you are likely to find one. They come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny trickling streams to thundering rivers. Each one is unique and splendid in its own way. Choosing a favorite will be difficult, but not for lack of options.
Seljalandsfoss allows visitors to experience the falls behind the scenes. You can walk behind this waterfall and experience it from all sides. Just be sure to bring your rain gear and sturdy shoes because you will get wet! Seljalandsfoss is 65 meters (210 feet) high and it is breathtakingly beautiful. It is a must when visiting the south coast, you will not regret it!
Kirkjufellsfoss offers great views of its namesake mountain, Kirkjufell. And for those Ben Stiller fans, the area will be instantly recognizable as the backdrop for his impressive skateboard ride in the Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Skógafoss’s serene majesty and contrasting black sand and rolling green hills are a photographer’s dream. Skógafoss is 60 meters (200 feet) high and 25 meters (80 feet) wide and you can walk right up to it. There are also staircases leading up to the top of the hill so you can view it from above.
Goðafoss is a beautiful waterfall in northern Iceland. The waterfall is the symbolic site of Christianity’s beginnings in Iceland. It lives up to its name, providing visitors with a heavenly vista.
Gullfoss’s beauty is only eclipsed by its sheer volume. Standing next to this waterfall will allow you to feel the sheer power of the earth. Gullfoss (Golden Falls) is created by the river Hvítá, and plunges over 30 meters (100 feet) into the depths below.
Revel in the Beauty of the Colorful Beaches
Beaches in Iceland? You might wonder why there is any talk of beaches in a country that lies so close to the Arctic Circle, and average temperatures in the summer are only 10-15 degrees Celsius (in the 50s Fahrenheit), but don’t let those facts fool you. While you won’t be lying around getting a tan, beaches in Iceland are incredible. The sheer variety of colors alone is impressive. Iceland is most famous for its black sand beaches, and those are not to be missed, but there are other hues to look out for as well, including yellow and red.
I hope this inspires you to make the most of your trip to Iceland. Which of these would you most like to see? Let me know in the comments below!
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