Heading to Iceland presents a number of challenges ranging from what time of the year to visit to what is going to be affordable once there. One thing is for sure however and that it that whatever you choose to do during your visit to the country you won’t be left feeling disappointed. Having recently returned from a visit to Iceland we have compiled a list of 10 of the very best things to do whilst staying in Iceland.
1. Visit the Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik
Designed by Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937 the Hallgrímskirkja church stands as an iconic landmark of Reykjavik and has numerous points of interest worthy of a visit. The most noticeable aspect of the church is of course the tower which is visible from all over the city due to its impressive 74.5m height. If you are willing to pay a small fee you can jump in the elevator and head to the top to experience some impressive views of Reykjavik.
Standing beside the tower are the impressive vertical pillars; designed to imitate the effect created when lava cools forming basalt rock they compliment Iceland’s natural surroundings perfectly. A third point of interest here is in front of the church where a statue of Leifur Eiríksson, the first European to discover America, stands proud. Finally, once inside you will discover an incredible pipe organ, 15m tall, weighing 25 tons and featuring 5275 pipes!
2. Visit the Sun Voyager Viking boat sculpture
The Sun Voyager is sculpture of a Viking boat designed by Jón Gunnar Árnason. It originates to 1986 when the city ran a competition to create a sculpture to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Reykjavik. With the winning design the Sun Voyager was turned from a concept into a reality, unveiled to the city of Reykjavik on its 200th anniversary, 18th August 1990.
Located along the sea wall on Sæbraut the Sun Voyager is constructed of stainless steel and blends beautifully into the natural surroundings. It is of course a tourist trap however so be prepared to get there early in the day or late in the afternoon to get a perfect photo with unimpeded views!
3. See the Northern Lights
Making plans to see the Northern Lights whilst in Iceland is as obvious as knowing that every day you need to eat a meal. You simply cannot come to a country like this and not undertake this excursion. The Northern Lights are however very temperamental and there are countless people who have visited Iceland on several occasions and not been lucky enough to see them. Having the opportunity to see them requires the perfect blend of clear skies, high solar activity and a dark night so plan your trip but go in the knowledge that you may not be fortunate enough to see anything.
If you are able to see them then certainly don’t expect to see them like you do in the typical Northern Lights photos with your naked eyes – the green intensity in photos with a naked eye is incredibly rare. Instead plan to have a proper camera, know the settings you need to use for night photography and prepare to be patient as the intensity comes and goes in waves. If you plan ahead and have the right attitude you’ll experience this incredible natural wonder.
4. Swim in a natural hot spring
Iceland isn’t known as the land of fire and ice for no reason; it’s an incredibly active country of hot geothermal activity coupled with a cold icy climate. The only way to truly appreciate this combination of hot and cold is to take a trip to one of the numerous hot springs that are located around the country.
All of Iceland’s marketing material will guide you to the Blue Lagoon just outside of Reykjavik however don’t be led to believe this is the only or indeed the best option to go for. Iceland is covered in hot spring experiences ranging from commercialised locations such as the Blue Lagoon through to historic options such the historic Secret Lagoon (our personal favourite), right down to simply sitting in a hot stream of water flowing down the side of a mountain! If you know what you want to get out of a hot spring experience Iceland will have the perfect option for you.
5. Visit the Gullfoss Waterfall
The Gullfoss Waterfall is a location that you simply cannot afford to miss on your trip to Iceland. With 2 falls dropping a total of 32m, Gullfoss sit on the White River (Hvítá) and is fed by Iceland’s second largest glacier, Langjökulls. Due to the ice melt in the summer the flow rate of 140 m3/s makes it the largest volume waterfall in Europe – an incredibly impressive sight to behold. Gullfoss is located 75 miles (120 km) east of Reykjavik on the south west side of Iceland so to get here you will need to hire a car or book yourself onto the popular Golden Circle tour.
There’s aren’t too many waterfalls in the world that have taken our breath away but the scale and impressive nature of Gullfoss certainly did. Don’t miss out – make sure this is near the top of your list.
6. Visit the Sólheimajökull Glacier
The Sólheimajökull Glacier is an incredible formation in Iceland that should absolutely make it onto your itinerary during your next visit to Iceland. The glacier is not only visually stunning but offers a lot to tourists who are looking for an incredible experience as you can take several routes to the glacier walking up to its toe or walking around the higher ridges for amazing views. If you’re feeling a little more flush and can afford it you can book yourself onto a trip to walk on the glacier and in places walk inside it through the deep crevasses and past ice bridges.
What makes Sólheimajökull more interesting is that it is an outlet glacier running from the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. Mýrdalsjökull sits on top of a volcano, specifically the ferocious Katla caldera. When this volcano eventually erupts it will have potentially disastrous consequences with mass flooding, pumice and ash. The glacier has retreated about a kilometer in the last decade however so make sure you don’t miss this incredible natural wonder before it disappears for good.
7. Visit Reynisfjara beach
There’s few places in the world that have as dramatic a coastline as Iceland, especially around the south coast. The scenery here is so dramatic in fact that even the guys at Game of Thrones filmed on the black pebble Reynisfjara beach just outside of Vik (used as Eastwatch by the sea). Here you’ll experience a dramatic landscape with sharp jagged cliffs, caves and a black pebble beach.
A stop here also allows you to grab a bite to eat at the town of Vik which is also the source of many words around the world dating back to Viking times including York (Jorvik) in the UK.
8. Experience the geothermal power of Iceland’s geysers at Haukadalur
The entire landscape at Haukadalur is alive with activity where you’ll see bubbling pools of water and mud, steam rising directly out of the ground and a host of active geysers shooting water vapour up to 30m into the air.
So with a country like Iceland that is filled with geothermal activity why visit Haukadalur? Well, this site is home to the famous Geysir! Specifically this is the original geyser that all geysers around the world are named after. So, not only do you get to experience a natural wonder of the world but you also get to see something that has defined every other geyser around the world. This location is definitely not one to be missed.
9. Walk between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates at Thingvellir
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) national park is like many of the locations on our list, comprising of both naturally formed landscapes and a bit of history. The most interesting and of course primary reason to visit this site however is due to it sitting on a tectonic plate boundary. Here you can experience both the North American plate and Eurasian plate which are pulling away from each other leaving numerous fault lines through the landscape that you can both walk and (if brave enough) scuba dive through!
What’s more is that within Þingvellir national park you can also visit the site where Iceland’s first parliament was founded, creating the nation of Iceland. Here, parliamentary proceedings commenced in 930. As a World Heritage site you simply can’t afford not to spend some time here.
10. Experience Christmas in Reykjavik
If you are considering a trip to Iceland then you are going to be torn between 2 options – visit in the summer for nearly 24 hours of sunlight or visit in the winter for nearly 24 hours of darkness. For us one of the primary reasons to visit Iceland was to experience the capital city at Christmas time as all of the write ups spoke of how into Christmas the Icelandic people get. Well, having been there first hand at Christmas I can assure you that Reykjavik does Christmas incredibly well. As you walk through the streets of the city you’ll be hard pushed to find a shop or residential window that doesn’t have a Christmas display present or seemingly endless string of fairy lights! Around every corner you’ll find another surprise from street stalls selling roasted chestnuts and mulled wine to entertainment including ice rinks. What’s not to love?
So that’s it, our run down of 10 of the best things to do when visiting Iceland is complete! Are you considering heading to any of these locations? Do you have other suggestions? Let us know in the comments!