With hundreds of unique trails, active volcanoes, glacial plains and massive, ever-shifting glaciers, there’s enough in Iceland to last you a lifetime. Most of us don’t have a lifetime to explore Iceland, though, so here are our top picks for the best things to do in Iceland while you’re there.
Far and away the most popular thing to do in Iceland is go hiking. There are tons of awesome peaks to wander on and brilliant sights to see.
When it comes to hiking in Iceland, many people are under the impression that you can camp anywhere in Iceland. In fact, most of the land in the country is private, but in uncultivated public land, anyone can pitch their tent for one night for free. Check out more info here.
The Laugavegur Trek
In the above image, hikers are seen climbing a peak in Landmannalaugar, which is part of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve in the Iceland Highlands.
In the far recesses of this image, you can see Alftavatn emerging from the landscape like a dream. This is just one of the many breathtaking views you’ll see on the Laugavegur Trek.
Laugavegur Trek: What You Need to Know
Laugavegur in Icelandic means “Hot Spring Route,” a name that is very revealing as to the kind of hiking you’ll expect along this trek.
The total distance of the Laugavegur Trek is just over 34 miles. Hiking for about 7 hours a day, you can expect to complete this journey in 5 to 7 days.
The Fimmvorduhals Trek
Another favorite trek of Icelandic visitors is the Fimmvorduhals Trek. In fact, sometimes the Fimmvorduhals and Laugavegur treks are combined into one epic 6-day hike.
With the Fimmvorduhals trek, you’ll begin from atop the Skogafoss waterfall, pictured above. And trust us, there’s much more to see!
From Skogafoss, you’ll continue to trek upwards, eventually reaching the snow-capped mountains where you can stay in a small mountain cabin for the night.
Fimmvorduhals Trek: What You Need to Know
The Fimmvorduhals Trek is about 16 miles and contains a lot of up and down hiking. You won’t necessarily need to bring backpacking equipment because there are cabins along the road.
Remember, many people combine the Fimmvorduhals Trek with the Laugavegur Trek, a move we highly recommend.
The Hornstrandir Trek
Many who’ve traveled to the West Coast of Ireland will speak marvels about the cliffs of Moher. While these cliffs are unquestionably stunning, the Hornbjarg Cliffs of Iceland are contenders in terms of sheer natural beauty.
The most undeveloped part of Iceland is in Northwest Iceland, where there are virtually no developments, services, or barely signs of human life. To really experience the wild in Europe is difficult, developed as the continent is. The Hornstrandir Trek exposes you to a true feeling of aloneness amidst nature’s grandeur.
Hornstrandir Trek: What You Need to Know
The Hornstrandir Trek is about a six-day-long hike with no real facilities. It is challenging merely because you are out in the middle of nowhere faced with the elements. Bringing a buddy is highly recommended in the case of injury.
Nearly 11 percent of Iceland’s land area is covered by glaciers. Taking a hike to one with a guide may be the highlight of your vacation.
Breidamerkurjokull is a massive glacial tongue (that is, the streak left behind a moving glacier and the glacier itself). It is an incredibly popular destination for tourists, as its views are stunning.
Besides the glacier (from which you should keep a safe distance due to the possibility of falling ice), you can check out Diamond Beach, a long stretch of black sand where broken-off pieces of the glacier get stuck on their way from the Jokulsarlon glacier lake to the ocean.
Guided Tour Inside a Glacier
In addition to seeing beautiful glaciers from afar, Iceland affords travelers the option of taking guided tours into the glaciers.
Touring the inside of a glacier is only suitable in the cold months, from around October to February, and not all glaciers are safe enough to explore.
At Langjokull, you can explore the inside of a glacier on foot, while other glaciers, such as Solheimajokull, offer the option of scaling the ice with icepicks.
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park offers plenty of excellent hikes, including this otherworldly walk on a stone pathway. Probably the most significant aspect of Thingvellir National Park for tourists is, however, the possibility to swim between the continental divide.
In the above picture, you’ll see brave intrepid explorers snorkeling through the continental divide. This is the only place on Earth where you can swim between the continents of North America and Europe.
Although the water is devastatingly cold (even with a wetsuit), if you can brave the dip you’ll see a once-in-a-lifetime vision the likes of which you can’t experience anywhere on Earth.
Other Must-See Attractions
Besides hikes, there are plenty of destinations out in the wilderness of Iceland that are must-sees for world travelers.
Featured in shots for both Star Wars and Game of Thrones, Reynisfjara Beach is immediately recognizable for its beetling cliffs, craggy rock faces, and jet black sand.
At Reynisfjara Beach, you can check out the black sand and the incredible rock formations bordering it, formed by basalt and called “troll’s toes.” There is some folklore of the Icelandic people describing the rock formations out at sea.
Legend has it that some old silly trolls went out to the sea too late at night trying to catch boats and bring them to shore. When it became dawn, they turned to stone right in the water where they stood.
Located at the southern coast of Iceland, the incomparable Reynisfjara Beach was voted by National Geographic in 1991 as one of the top 10 best non-tropical beaches to visit, and they’re not wrong.
The beach is extremely close to the fishing village of Vik I Myrdal. To get there, there are plenty of walking tours that can take you to Reynisfjara Beach, but it’s also easily driveable.
One thing to be aware of with Reynisfjara Beach, though, is that it has a reputation of being somewhat dangerous. Three people have died in recent history when they were knocked down by the strong waves on the beach and pulled out to sea by the undertow. If you’re going to Reynisfjara, bring a buddy and be careful!
The site of a 1973 US Navy Plane (DC-3) crash has become an unlikely tourism destination for many travelers journeying to Iceland.
Abandoned by the crew who grounded in this Mars-like wasteland, the dilapidated remains of the US Navy Plane now offers an excellent photo op and stunning, far-reaching 360-degree views of the lone and level plains stretching far and away on every side.
From the view inside the abandoned plane, you have a great look at the glacial outwash plain that makes up Solheimasandur. A glacial outwash plain exists because when a volcanic eruption occurs beneath a nearby glacier, water from the glacier speeds along this flat plain and heads straight to the sea.
Furthermore, exploring the ruins of the plane offers a spooky glimpse into the past. Combined with the dark black sand stretching out on every side, it’s easy to imagine you’re in some version of the Greek underworld.
The black plain seems to be just like the land of Hades and Persephone, of shades and specters and the whispers of the dead.
One thing to note about Solheimasandur is that a glacial flood is an extremely dangerous event. As such, authorities regularly check whether the volcano Katla is showing signs of eruption or not. If it is, it may not be possible to visit the crashed plane.
The City of Reykjavik
Although most people consider only the natural sights in Iceland, which of course are must-sees, a lot can be said of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik.
The famous Hallgrimskirkja Church is shown in this image, towering above the modest dwellings surrounding it.
In the wintertime, the Northern Lights are visible from Reykjavik. Consider going on an Aurora Borealis tour from a boat in downtown Reykjavik, or walking the streets of Reykjavik with the Northern Lights shining above.
The Northern Lights
A guide of the best things to do in Iceland would be utterly incomplete without some mention of when and how to see the Northern Lights.
As you can see, the Northern Lights simply don’t compare to anything else on this Earth, and factor in as a major reason many tourists visit Iceland in the wintertime.
Luckily, Iceland is very far north meaning its Winters are long. Between September and March, when the nights are longest, you have the best chance of seeing Aurora Borealis.
In terms of when to look for the Northern Lights, sightings are usually between 11pm and 2am.
Best Things to Do in Iceland: Things to Consider
We’ve covered a lot of ground here, but let’s look at some of the best things to consider when planning a trip to Iceland.
- Hiking, either on a day trip or a multi-day trip
- Seeing the inside and outside of Iceland’s Glaciers
- Visiting one of the black sand beaches, particularly Reynisfarja
- Visiting the glacial outwash plain and the 1973 plane crash there
- Checking out Reykjavik
- Seeing the Northern Lights
So, What’s There to Do in Iceland?
Iceland is and always will feel wild: dangerous black-sand beaches, active volcanoes, and otherworldly landscapes straight out of Star Wars – literally.
No matter what time of year you visit Iceland, you’re sure to experience things that you’ll take with you the rest of your life. So grab your jacket and some hiking boots, and we’ll meet you at Reykjavik Airport!