7 unique things to do in Iceland

Iceland is a place of dramatic contrasts: bleak and blasted, yet intensely beautiful, full of grinding ice and fiery eruptions, with a compact capital city that generates a huge amount of quirky, energetic culture. Here is our guide to 7 unique things to do in Iceland.
Relaxing at the Blue Lagoon hot spring in Iceland. Photo: Shutterstock
Relaxing at the Blue Lagoon hot spring in Iceland. Photo: Shutterstock

Iceland is a nation that tops bucket lists for its compact, friendly capital, otherworldly landscapes and unique wildlife. Reykjavík is the world's most northerly capital city, with colorful low-rise buildings and a throbbing nightlife scene. Beyond the city's cultural and culinary attractions lies an empty world of stretching ice sheets and bubbling lava, thundering waterfalls, and Artic shores that are certain draws for adventurous travelers. Here, we bring you 7 unique things to do in Iceland, from soaking in the Blue Lagoon to seeing the spectacular northern lights. 

The best time to visit Iceland

Peak tourist season in Iceland is during the summer months – between June and August – when the temperatures are warmer, the days seem endless, and sports such as hiking and cycling are a delight. Many of the island's roads – impassable during the winter months – open up the country's empty interior. Far from the main tourist track, this backcountry will tempt real adventurers. That said, being in Iceland in winter brings other charms, including a chance to glimpse the northern lights as they flash across the Arctic skies – visible from September to April. Shoulder season can offer the best of both worlds.  

Renting a car

It pays to rent a car in Iceland. Route 1 (or the Ring Road) circles the entire island, and you'll soon become acquainted. There's no public railway system, and though coaches traverse the Ring Road, services can be limited, especially during the winter months. To get anywhere off the beaten track, and to reach different areas of Iceland, a car will be your best bet. Plan carefully to work out what sort of vehicle you'll need: if you plan to drive anywhere beyond the Ring Road, you'll need to hire a four-wheel drive. Unpaved sections of road are common, so drive carefully and cautiously, especially when navigating fjords. There are plenty of car-rental companies to choose from. 

1. Warm your bones in a geothermal swimming pool

Thanks to the country’s lively geology, Iceland has an abundance of naturally heated geothermal water, which is used to create swimming pools. There are more than 120 municipal swimming baths in towns and villages, each with its own character and quirks, as well as naturally occurring hot springs, rivers and mountain pools.

Best for: Pure relaxation

What to see and do: The Blue Lagoon is the most famous of Iceland’s geothermal pools – a dreamy, steamy spa complex that epitomizes the country’s faintly unearthly reputation. Small wooden bridges criss-cross the lagoon’s blue-white waters, a cave-like sauna is carved into the lava, and a thundering waterfall delivers a pounding massage. There are plenty of other fantastic complexes, including Mývatn Nature Baths and Nauthólsvik geothermal beach. You can take in some of Iceland’s most alluring geothermal swimming pools as part of Insight Guides' Iceland: Landscapes and Lagoons trip.

Where to stay: Why not stay on-site at the Blue Lagoon's very own Retreat Hotel. Circled by the steamy waters of the lagoon, this hotel delivers serious luxury, with group hikes and yoga sessions available. If you've chosen the Mývatn Nature Baths, try Dimmuborgir Guesthouse, just a 10-minute drive away. The self-catering cottages come in the form of sweet wooden chalets. 

2. Gaze upwards at the northern lights 

The bewitching aurora borealis, commonly known as the northern lights, flashes, flickers, and pulses across Iceland's winter sky like silent fireworks. This breathtaking, green light show, sometimes tinged with pinks and purples, has been the source of many a high-latitude superstition: the Vikings, for example, believed it was the Valkyries riding across the sky. The scientific explanation is no less astonishing. The lights are actually caused by streams of charged particles – ‘solar wind’ – that flare into space from our sun. When the wind comes into contact with the Earth’s magnetic field, it is drawn towards the poles, where its electrical charge agitates particles of oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere, making them glow.

Seeing the northern lights is one of the most captivating things to do in Iceland in winter. The lights can be seen between September/October and March/April, with midnight being the most likely time to see them. But as with all natural phenomena, there’s no timetable and sightings are not guaranteed. Choose a cold, moonless night, and then look heavenwards and hope.

Best for: Taking the breath away

What to see and do: The further north in Iceland you travel, the more hours of darkness at night – and therefore the greater the chance of glimpsing the northern lights. Insight Guides' The Magic of Eastern Iceland trip takes you to the far-flung Arctic Circle and the Arctic Henge – stunning places to visit even if the northern lights fail to make an appearance.

Where to stay: Many of Iceland’s hotels offer a northern lights wake-up call on request. Akureyri, the capital of the north, is a great place to base yourself if you're trying to catch a glimpse of this unforgettable phenomenon. Plump for Hótel Sveinbjarnargerdi or Skjaldarvík Guesthouse, with individually decorated, spacious rooms. 

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), breaching near Húsavík, in Iceland.Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), breaching near Húsavík, in Iceland. Photo: Shutterstock

3. Take in the incredible wildlife

Wildlife-watching opportunities abound in Iceland. You can spot whales in Húsavík, see colorful puffin colonies, or ride a one-of-a-kind Icelandic horse.

Best for: Wildlife lovers

What to see and do: Whale watching is a flourishing industry, and one of the best activities to do in Iceland. Boats run year round, with a 90 percent spotting success rate in summer, when migratory baleen whales swim north to feed, and calmer seas make it easier to see them breaking the surface. Icelandic waters are home to 23 cetacean species. You are most likely to see white-beaked dolphins, harbour porpoises, minke, and humpbacks, or – if you are really lucky – sei, fin, blue, sperm, and killer whales.

Húsavík is acknowledged as Iceland’s whale-watching capital, but there are also departures from other destinations on the north coast: the West Fjords and Reykjavík. Choose an operator who abides by the IceWhale code of conduct.

The best time for birdwatching in Iceland is from late April to early June, when staggering numbers – around 270 species – flock to their breeding sites. Puffins, gannets, gulls, guillemots, and razorbills jostle for space on the guano-spattered ledges of the world’s largest seabird colonies.

Látrabjarg in the West Fjords is the largest bird cliff (and most westerly point) in Europe. Thousands of puffins nest in burrows on the plunging cliffs. There are also at least as many resident guillemots, as well as the largest colony of razorbills in the world. You can see the millions of birds at Látrabjarg on just one of our unique Iceland tours as part of Insight Guides' Western Iceland: Cliffs, Coasts and Waterfalls trip. 

Icelandic horses can go where even a jeep can’t, so horse riding comes highly recommended. Riding among deserted valleys and mountains, you gain real insight into the way Icelanders used to live. Icelandic horses are descended from the sturdy breed brought to the country by the Vikings, and are famous for their unique fifth gait, the smooth tölt. Hey Iceland lists operators that provide horse-riding trips and tours.

Where to stay: In Húsavík, plump for Húsavík Green Hostel; the garden, terrace, and BBQ facilities make this a great place to hang out. Near Látrabjarg, Hotel Latrabjarg is a family-run affair with a restaurant serving up local produce. 

4. Explore Iceland’s glaciers and dramatic landscapes of peaks and crevasses

In spite of its subterranean heat, Iceland has largely been shaped by cold. In the Ice Age, glaciers gouged out the fjords, which cut into the coastline on the north, east and west, and sharpened the country’s mountain ridges into knife edges. Ice covers around 11 percent of the island’s 103,000 sq km (40,000 sq miles). However, since 1900, all of Iceland’s glaciers have been in retreat – land is currently being revealed that has been covered in ice since the 16th century.

Best for: Active travelers and adventurers

What to see and do: You can traverse these frozen torrents at Skaftafell and Snæfellsjókull National Park. In fact, you can go for guided walks on most of Iceland’s glaciers in summer, with the easiest taking around two hours. You need warm clothing and sturdy walking boots. Guides will provide ice axes, crampons, and advice on glacier-walking techniques. Visit Skaftafell National Park as part of Insight Guides' Iceland: The Ring Road in 10 Days trip.

Where to stay: For a hotel with a stupendous view, book into Hotel Skaftafell. Vistas extend over Iceland's highest mountain, Hvannadalshnjukur, and Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in all of Europe. By the edge of  Snæfellsjókull National Park, Kleifar: Ocean View Apartment does what it says on the tin, offering a different sort of view – look out for seals bobbing in the water. The apartment is trendily decked out, with free bikes to explore the local area.  

Dyrhólaey rock, near the black-sand beach at ReynisfjaraDyrhólaey rock, near the black-sand beach at Reynisfjara. Photo: Shutterstock

5. Take in the spectacular scenery of the Golden Circle 

Iceland may be the ultimate nature trip. Drinking water comes from pure glaciers, fish is caught in unpolluted waters, and cattle graze in fields untouched by fertilizer. Most Icelander’s now live in and around the capital, Reykjavík, leaving huge swathes of the volcanically active island quite deserted. Dotted with steaming lava fields, icecaps, glaciers, hot pools, and geysers, the Icelandic landscape has an elemental rawness that is difficult to forget once you've experienced it.

Best for: Iceland's most unmissable sights

What to see and do: The rich farming land of southwest Iceland is one of the most visited regions; if you're deciding what to do in Iceland, this is the place to start. Some of Iceland’s most famous attractions are within striking distance of Reykjavík, grouped together under the label of ‘the Golden Circle’. Natural wonders in the region include the dramatic waterfall Gullfoss, the Unesco-listed natural amphitheatre and birthplace of the nation that housed the Viking’s parliament Þingvellir, and the spouting hot springs at Geysir. Take in these and many more sights on Insight Guides' Iceland: The Ring Road in 8 Days trip.

Where to stay: As you'd expect from the trodden tourist trail, the accommodation along the Golden Circle is a step above the rest. Trendy guesthouses – such as Litli Geysir Hotel and Brekkugerdi Guesthouse – are safe bets, while there are also some truly characterful options. Úthlíd Cottages provides beds in cute little wooden chalets, while rooms in Klettar Tower Iceland are in an old grass-storage tower – once used to feed livestock. The bedrooms are drop-dead cool, while the sitting room at the tower's top has staggering panoramic views. 

6. Stroll along a black-sand beach

On Iceland’s south coast near Vík, the North Atlantic swell hits the land, its waves crashing dramatically on a long beach of black sand: Reynisfjara. This is probably Iceland’s most famous beach, with its jet-black pebbles and basalt columns. The beach was created by a lava flow that, reaching the ocean, cooled as it touched the water.  

As you struggle to stay upright in the wind, marvel at the fact that no land stands between you and the Antarctic. Keep well away from the water – freak waves have killed several people over the years.

Best for: A shoreline walk 

What to see and do: Out to sea are three distinctive stone steeples, known as Reynisdrangar. Legend has it that they are trolls who were turned to stone as they pulled their three-masted ship ashore. Far more monstrous are the aggressive Arctic terns – Vík contains one of Iceland’s largest breeding colonies. Visit Vík’s black-sand beaches as part of Insight Guides' Iceland: A Game of Thrones Road trip.

Where to stay: For that home-from-home feel, stay at Prestshús 2 Guesthouse, walking distance from Reynisfjara's black-sand beach. 

Heimaey, of the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), Iceland.Heimaey, of the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), Iceland. Photo: Shutterstock

7. Experience active volcanoes

Steaming, sulphurous, lava-spewing landscape is all around you. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, running clear across the island from southwest to northeast, is marked by a belt of volcanic craters, hot springs, steam springs, solfataras (areas of high-temperature activity), and earthquakes.

There are more than 100 volcanoes in Iceland, 35 of which have been active over the past 10,000 years – recent history in geological terms! In the past few centuries, Iceland has experienced an eruption every five years on average. Most are minor, short-lived and cause little damage. Others can cause a little more trouble. Despite an apparently flippant attitude towards volcanoes, Icelanders do not forget the threat they live with.    

Best for: Otherworldly landscapes to savor

What to see and do: The friendly island of Heimaey is well worth a visit for its volcanic interest. The town’s precarious position on top of a volcano was brought into sharp focus on 23 January 1973, when a mile-long fissure cracked open without warning, and a wall of molten lava poured towards the town. By great good fortune, the entire fishing fleet was docked that night: the island was evacuated, with not a single life lost. Over the next five months, 33 million tonnes of lava spewed from the fissure, burying one-third of the town under lava and ash, devastating the island. The eruption was over by July, and residents started returning to their altered home: the island was 2.2 sq km (0.84 sq miles) larger, and boasted a new mountain, Eldfell.

Alternatively, hike up to the Mó∂i and Magni craters. Named after the sons of Thor, the craters were formed in the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption that paralysed Europe’s air traffic for six days. The subglacial eruption covered everything for miles around in thick grey ash and resulted in the largest air-traffic shutdown since World War II. 

Where to stay: In Heimaey, Guesthouse Árný is just the ticket, with a friendly and helpful owner. 

There's a wealth of things to do in Iceland. It really is a one-of-a-kind destination, whatever experience you're looking for. Wide-open spaces will give you a true sense of adventure. Well, what are you waiting for? Start planning your Icelandic trip with Insight Guides today.  

Updated 5 August, 2020