The golden age of tourism in Iceland is far from over. If you’re planning a trip, let’s talk about the things you should see and do.
Iceland is about 103,000 square kilometers (or 40,000 square miles). To give you some perspective, that’s roughly the same size as Ireland, and 4 times smaller than California. So while relatively compact, Iceland is densely packed with natural wonders… and that’s where the trouble starts…!
First time travelers usually feel overwhelmed, since there are so many incredible attractions and activities—both a blessing and a curse, right? Let’s see if we can help you decide. The following are some of the most popular “must-see’s,” which travelers say live up to all the hype.
1. The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon might just be Iceland’s most famous attraction. Luxurious, picturesque, and relaxing, this geothermal spa is something you don’t want to miss.
Set in an impressive volcanic lava field, the mineral-rich milky blue waters average 37–39 °C (99–102 °F) year round. Many say this is the perfect temperature for easing aches and pains, and since the water is full of minerals like silica and sulfur, it’s also rumored to have healing properties for skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
The Blue Lagoon is also home to a swim-up bar, a restaurant, and more. For a price, you can enjoy even more luxury in a world-class subterranean spa, with a lava spring, steam cave, massages and other treatments that make use of the Blue Lagoon’s minerals.
While it is quite touristy and relatively expensive compared to other geothermal bathing options in Iceland, most who visit the Blue Lagoon say it’s well worth it. The water really is unique, and it’s easily the most recognizable place in Iceland. It’s also quite close to the Keflavík International Airport, so it can be convenient to check it out on your way into or out of the country.
This popular tour is a wonderful option, as it combines a trip to the Blue Lagoon (w/ admission) with the Golden Circle! Speaking of which, the next four are sites that you can see on the famed Golden Circle, which is a MUST for any visitor to Iceland…
2. Thingvellir National Park
Just 45 minutes from Reykjavík, Þingvellir (sometimes written as Thingvellir) is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site on Iceland’s mainland. What’s so special about this place? Well, it’s the original site of the world’s longest ongoing parliament—Iceland’s national parliament was founded here in 930, and sessions continued to be held in Þingvellir for more than seven centuries! It was also the epicenter of Icelandic culture- a meeting place for people from all over the island.
Þingvellir is located in a rift valley – the meeting place of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The faults and fissures within the park display the awesome geological rifting of our planet’s crust.
Some fissures are filled with water, like the world-famous Silfra fissure, where you can have a true once-in-a-lifetime experience by snorkeling or diving in the crystal clear water: Silfra offers some of the best underwater visibility in the entire world! It’s no wonder Silfra finds its way to the top of many tourists’ lists.
You’ll also find great hiking trails and camping grounds in Thingvellir, and between its historic, cultural, and geologic importance, you won’t be disappointed.
3. Geysir Geothermal Area
Does the name look familiar? Geysir is actually the one all geysers are named after! These days, the actual Geysir geyser erupts rarely, but the area is still a hotbed of geothermal activity.
The Strokkur geyser shoots steaming water 30 meters up into the air every 8 minutes- plenty of chances for that great photo op! This is definitely one of Iceland’s most spectacular attractions.
4. Gullfoss Waterfall
This is probably Iceland’s most famous waterfall. The staircase-like spectacle in the Hvítá river is truly beautiful, and it’s unique because you view the falls from above instead of from below.
Gullfoss translates to “golden waterfall,” and if you’re lucky enough to visit on a sunny day you’ll see why! The sunlight gleams off of the spray from the powerful falls, creating a gorgeous golden haze. Amazing! This waterfall is where the Golden Circle gets its name.
5. Kerid Crater
Kerid is a volcanic crater lake in Iceland’s western volcanic zone and is close to the other attractions on the Golden Circle. The crater is a real celebration of color, as the striking aquamarine water that fills the crater stands out against the deep red crater walls. In all, it’s about 55 meters deep and is said to have resulted from the collapse of a cone volcano after its magma was depleted.
If you visit in the winter or early spring, the partially frozen lake is even more beautiful.
6. Vatnajökull National Park
This is a huge national park in southern Iceland. It covers about 14,100 square kilometers or 5,444 square miles. You could spend an entire trip just exploring this one park! It’s namesake, the Vatnajökull glacier, is massive: it covers more than 8% of Iceland and is 400-600 meters thick on average. That’s a lot of ice!
Vatnajökull National Park is home to wildly diverse and surreal landscapes. The highlands to the north of the glacier are shaped by volcanic forces, earthquakes, and geothermal activity. Mt. Snaefell, in the east, is the highest stand-alone mountain in Iceland (not enclosed in a glacier).
The south-western part of the park is home to unique geological features (like hyaloclastite ridges, crater rows, and chasms) and vast areas of wilderness. Since it’s all highlands, it’s only accessible by normal vehicles during the summer and early autumn. It’s also home to four volcanoes and their fissure swarms. Two glacial rivers—Skaftá and Tungaá—snake their way through this area.
The slender, elegant Svartifoss waterfall stands out against the unique black basalt columns behind. A somewhat steep hike leads up to it, and in autumn the colorful foliage makes it all the more impressive.
Skaftafell, within the Vatnajökull National Park, is a great place to hike and to immerse yourself in Icelandic nature. Skaftafell enjoys a mild climate (well, mild in terms of Icelandic weather…) and highly diverse landscapes. You’ll see jagged mountains, black sand beaches, bird cliffs, glacial streams, birch forests, and more.
It’s an awesome place to observe the very Icelandic interplay between fire and ice: dramatic lava fields and black deserts just minutes away from glacial tongues and lagoons- wow!
Hiking in Skaftafell is affordable, and there are are hikes for every ability level, making Skaftafell a very popular choice. You can also choose to combine a hike with ice climbing. Exciting glacier hikes are a great way to explore unique glacial features up close, like crevasses, moulins, ice sculptures, and more.
Perhaps the most breathtaking thing you’ll experience in Skaftafell is the feeling you have once you enter into a natural blue ice cave– it’s astonishing. The rippling, wave-like ice tunnels display a dizzying array of shades, including blues, greens, whites, and blacks. Make sure you bring your camera!
Experienced adventurers might consider climbing Hvannadalshnjúkur, the very highest peak in Iceland! It offers a breathtaking panoramic view once you’ve reached the summit.
Jökulsárlón, also within the Vatnajökull National Park, is the most famous of the glacier lagoons and is the largest and deepest of its kind in Iceland. Jökulsarlon lies at the edge of Vatnajökull National Park, right at the head of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which is an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull. The lagoon covers about 18 square kilometers, (almost 7 square miles) and is a major tourist draw.
Both milky white and bright blue icebergs drift about in the lagoon, eventually washing ashore on Diamond Beach after being tumbled and polished in the surf.
When the wind is calm, the surface of the lagoon can be absolutely mirror-like…imagine taking in a double view of the Northern Lights!
If you’re short on time, there’s a tour that takes you from Reykjavík to Jökulsárlón and back again in just one day! But most people choose to spend a bit longer (2-3 days) and see all the popular South Coast attractions.
Whether you catch a glimpse from land or decide to explore the lagoon and its floating ghost-like floating icebergs up close by boat, you’ll certainly remember this place.
Also called “Iceland in Miniature,” the Snaefellsnes peninsula packs a lot of punch. Taking its name from the Snaefellsjokull glacier (which towers over the national park of the same name) this place is utterly magical. It allows you to experience all the best features of Iceland in a compact area.
You’ll see mighty basalt columns, mineral springs, black, white, and pink sand beaches. You’ll marvel at once of Iceland’s most photogenic mountains, Kirkjufell. Don’t miss the stunning seaside rock formations at Arnarstapi, a historic fishing port, and enjoy charming, quaint towns and villages.
Iceland has no shortage of impressive waterfalls, but this one tops many people’s list as the most beautiful. This slim waterfall tumbles over a lava cliff, and one of the most exciting things about it is that you can actually walk behind the falls for a different perspective!
Seljalandsfoss is gorgeous in any weather, but be prepared- you’ll most likely get wet from the spray.
Both the Seljalandsfoss waterfall and Skógafoss waterfalll—next up on our list—are along the highly popular South Coast, which many people say has the most stunning landscapes in all of Iceland. We won’t argue there! By touring the South Coast, you get to visit a wide variety of landscapes: canyons, a volcano, waterfalls, glaciers, a lava field, black sand beaches, plus the easternmost attraction, (and number 8 on our list) Jökulsárlón.
This South Coast waterfall drops 60 meters and is about 25 meters wide— a sight to behold!
Most people admire the falls from below, but you can also climb up a steep path of about 500 stairs and look down from above- which is quite an experience. Feeling the power of the rushing water from above is totally worth the climb, and the panoramic view is an added bonus!
Skógafoss is often included in tours visiting the other impressive South Coast attractions.
Be sure to dress appropriately, as you may end up wet and cold if you don’t. If you want to enjoy the waterfall without the crowds, try to arrive early in the morning or in the late afternoon.
Langjökull—the “long glacier”—is Iceland’s second-largest ice cap, and it’s a world of adventure in the highlands. Snowmobile tours atop the ice will get your blood pumping as you speed past lava-formed mountainous peaks.
Check out a newly-discovered natural ice cave, or the world-famous “Into the Glacier” experience, which is a man-made ice tunnel allowing you to venture deep within the thick ice. You’ll observe the interior of this massive glacier, admire white and blue ice, and learn from knowledgeable guides about how glaciers form and change.
The last stop on our list of top sights in Iceland is none other than our capital, the largest city and most popular stopping-place for international tourists. Reykjavík is the only locality in Iceland with a population over 100,000, and it’s the cultural core of our country.
Some main sights include the parliament building, Harpa, a large concert hall, and Hallgrímskirkja—the famed church whose unique design is said to be an homage to the Icelandic landscape.
Check out Laugavegur, a charming historic street, for its multitude of shops. Immerse yourself in Icelandic art and history in one of Reykjavík’s many museums- several of which are quite quirky, like the Phallological museum!
Reykjavík is also famous for nightlife, and with over 100 bars and clubs in the small city, you’ve got plenty of choices. We go out rather late, and can get rowdy- but don’t let that scare you off. It’s all in good fun! Join a bar crawl tour if you’d like a crash course in “Icelandic Partying 101.”
There are plenty of awesome tour choices in and around town, like:
-A Reykjavík Food Tour that lets you try the REAL skyr, grass-fed lamb, and other seasonal tastes! Your knowledgable local guide will share a sincere passion for our Icelandic gastronomy.
-A 3-hour whale-watching tour that departs from downtown Reykjavík: check out Minke, Humpback, and Killer Whales, white-beaked dolphins, and Harbour Porpoises!
-A downtown cycling tour, which lets you peddle through quaint streets, past lots of Reykjavík attractions, and feel the sea breeze on your face as you cycle through the Old Harbour.
Most people fall in love with Reykjavík’s friendly vibe, human-scale built environment, and artsy edge.
Check out these top attractions in 2019
In this post, we’ve covered 13 of the most popular sites that are still 100% worth seeing in 2019, so add them to your list and get ready to be impressed. If you love to go off the beaten path, be sure to check out our guide to 12 Hidden Treasures, and then head on over to Iceland Advice, where you can search for your perfect tour based on what you love to do!