Discover raw beauty in the land of ice and fire.
Sitting on a geological fault, Iceland is the tinderbox of Europe - a place where the earth is slowly tearing apart revealing its inner workings. Primeval landscapes dotted with volcanoes and scoured by glaciers periodically belch out boiling steam, hot springs, and lava. Pinned to the extremities of this wild isle are the capital, Reykjavik, a few small towns, and little else in the way of human imposition. In summer, hike or bike through flower-strewn meadows in the shadow of hulking peaks, paddle across fiords or whale watch by the light of the midnight sun. In winter, the icy landscapes and northern lights beckon. If it's wild you want, you’ve found it.
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Top three things to do in Iceland
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this North Atlantic island. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top things to do in Iceland.
Awesome Aurora Borealis
If it's always been your dream to see the Northern Lights, then Iceland is the destination for you. Though seeing the lights simply can't be guaranteed due to the unpredictability of cloud cover, you are mostly likely to see them in February and March or September and October. The nights are long but not endless (as they are in deepest winter) and the temperatures are more likely to be manageable so you can spend longer in the great outdoors admiring the colourful ribbons as they flicker across the heavens.
Relax in the Blue Lagoon
All over the island, hot mineral-rich water seeps to the surface forming steaming pools and lagoons. From springs hidden in dark caves to the famous Blue Lagoon, there are countless hotspots that draw locals and visitors alike. It is advised to tie long hair up out the water as the minerals can be a little harsh and make it feel straw-like and dry. Otherwise, there are few more relaxing experiences to be had. Bask in the warm water, chat with friends and relish the novelty.
The Golden Circle
This cluster of attractions is justly popular, but crowds shouldn’t matter when faced with the awesome Geysir blowhole, the scenic treat of Þingvellir, and the drama of Gullfoss waterfall. The waterfalls of Iceland are perhaps the most spectacular and numerous to be found in one country. From the rainbows dancing in the mist of Skogafoss to the wide spread of rivulets running off a lavafield at Hraunfossar, they are as varied as they are beautiful. Don't forget your camera, whatever you do.
Lesser-known things to do in Iceland
While there are many well-known things to do in Iceland, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Icelandic adventure.
Soak in the GeoSea Spa Baths
This new and purpose-built thermal bathing experience is located in Húsavík. The region’s underground thermal source is actually hot seawater, which is too mineral rich to be used heating houses. Instead, a luxurious complex has arisen. The GeoSpa’s hot seawater baths are known for their therapeutic qualities at an optimal temperature of 38°-39°C, with the waters overflowing back to the sea for a reassuringly clean bathing environment. Soak in the waters and the views, with Skjálfandi Bay and the Arctic Circle in the distance.
Animals and adventures
Iceland is one of the world’s top adventure tourism destinations, and activities can be combined with a love for animals. Undertake an incredible cross-country horse treks on one of Iceland’s unique, Viking-descended horses, or head out to the country’s Western or Northern extremities such as Dalvik Village to embark on a whale or puffin-spotting boat tour. Long-weekenders can even whale-watch out of Reykjavik or visit the capital’s Whales of Iceland Museum.
Trek an epic trail
The Laugavegur Trail is an iconic point-to-point hike that takes around five days to complete. Every day on the trail exceeds the last, with truly phenomenal steaming, volcanic, snow or black ash covered terrain and vistas at every turn. It’s genuinely remote and only possible in summer, with campsites, simple lodgings and food available at most huts. Travel light and prepare to have your mind blown by these staggering landscapes.
Insider tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Iceland. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
Sumptuous foodie strolls
Themed food trails on foot in Reykjavik and Akureyri are thriving enterprises. To experience the cuisine like a local, join a walking tour to seek out idiosyncratically Icelandic foods with in-country experts. Blending history and tradition with artisanal producers and snacks, expect to sample free-roaming Icelandic lamb, homemade ice-cream, seasonal charcuterie and cheeses, the catch of the day and Iceland’s famous in-country hot-dog. In Akureyri, add local pizza and beer tastings, too.
Go wild in the east
The Wilderness Center in East Iceland is the gateway to northern Europe’s biggest wilderness and most extensive highland area. Warranting more than a whistle-stop visit, it’s the perfect base for horse-riding, hiking, escorted day tours or savouring local homemade delicacies. Highland life exhibitions explain the intricacies of this harsh and remote existence, and overnight stays in the unique museum accommodation can be arranged.
Cross the Arctic Circle
Green Grimsey Island is a wonderful place to while away a long summer’s day in the Arctic. The ferry journey alone often provides sightings of humpback and blue whales and dolphins. Step onto the island to explore local monuments, learn locals’ stories and enjoy light refreshments before crossing the Arctic Circle at 66°N latitude. Grimsey is also home to large colonies of puffins, auks and Arctic terns, to the delight of keen birders.
When is the best time to go to Iceland?
During the summer months of June to September, expect patchy sun and temperatures in the mid to high teens. Roads are open, lowlands are green, whales are breaching and birds are plentiful. The sky hardly dims at all throughout these months, which can be a little disorientating. During the winter of December to February, temperatures are unlikely to break double figures either side of zero, and windchill is definitely a factor to consider when packing. Gasping at the beauty of snow-clad scenes, long nights in warm bars and aurora chasing are what defines an Icelandic winter adventure. With preparation, Iceland is a year round destination.
Interesting facts about Iceland
Iceland is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top facts about it?
Dried fish was used for money in the country in 1413.
Of Iceland’s 348,580 inhabitants, the vast majority (338,349) live in the capital city of Reykjavik.
With an area of 103,000 square kilometres, Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe.
Icelandic horses are unique in that they are direct descendants from the Vikings, who settled the country in the 800s.
Iceland is home to the very first parliament grounds in Europe. Located in the Þingvellir National Park, the site dates to the 10th century and today is UNESCO listed.
Þingvellir National Park is also one of only two places on earth where tectonic plates rise above the Earth’s surface. They are moving apart at around 2cm annually.
An eruption of an Icelandic volcano, Laki, has links to the creation of democracy as we know it. Its eruption darkened Europe’s skies for years, causing the crop failures and famine (run out of bread? Let them eat cake…) that led to the French Revolution.
What to read before you go to Iceland
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to India, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland' by Sarah Moss
Novelist Sarah Moss spent a gap-year summer in Iceland and promised to return. When a job at the University of Iceland came up, she uprooted her life and family to seize the opportunity with both hands. This is an adventure shaped by Iceland’s economic crash, a particular volcano’s disruptive eruption and a whole new circle of friends.
'Burial Rites' by Hannah Kent
This multi-shortlisted work is a darkly moving novel inspired by true events. It creates a fictional story around the life and actions of Agnes Magnusdottir, a woman accused of murder and the last woman to be is condemned to death in Iceland. A spell spent with a local rural family while awaiting her execution causes everyone’s preconceptions to shift. A perceptive novel that captures the harsh realities of Icelandic life for generations gone by.
'The Fish Can Sing' by Halldór Laxness
This is one of the best-loved novels from an author who won the Nobel Prize shortly after it was published. In it we meet orphan Alfgrimur, a young boy whose ambitions to become a fisherman are left by the wayside when he meets a beguiling opera singer…or at least that’s what the stranger claims to be. Laxness imbues this gentle coming-of-age tale with his signature blend of irony and humour.
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