Iceland tourism has increased drastically in the last 10 years, particularly with the cruise industry to the Arctic area including Keflavik and Reykjavik as a main embarkation point in many cruises. Many visitors however are now taking full weeks or even two weeks to explore all that Iceland has to offer by land as well. With its vast terrain of volcanoes, waterfalls, and geysers, Iceland is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. The majority of population centers exist around the circumference of the island which makes this loop. For the more adventurous, there is plenty to see and do in the Central Highlands, particularly during the summer months when the snow has melted and roads become more accessible. Volcano hikes and superjeep tours to remote plateaus keep tourists on their toes, and the many attractions in South Iceland are easily accessible and an easy day tour from Reykjavik.
Generally speaking, most visitors to Iceland will tour areas that are around the coastlines, sometimes even opting to do a full circumference tour, following the Ring Road. Exploring the Ring Road as a visitor can take upwards of one week allowing for ample stayovers in areas of interest. See below some of the main highlights of the Ring Road.
Reykjavik has a lot of attractions inside her city limits, as well as in the immediate vicinity. The Golden Circle Loop and Blue Lagoon are some of the most popular day tours outside of her limits. For those wishing to spend an afternoon seeing the sites in Reykjavik, here are some options. Visitors to the Hallgrimskirkja Church of Iceland will be stunned by its impressive architecture, which is said to mimic that of the many waterfalls in the country. It is the tallest and most recognizable building in the city. Entrances to go up to the tower afford visitors a stunning view of the entire city of Reykjavik. The Saga Museum and National Museum of Iceland trace the roots of viking culture and tell the history of the country. Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall is another point of interest for many. This fascinating modern attraction was completed in 2011 and its window facade mimics the basalt landscape of the country's lava flows. Many noteworthy concerts and performances have taken place here since its opening, and it is a sign of the high value Icelandic people place on the arts. Whale watching tours out of Reykjavik or Keflavik are also possible in summer months. Two other common attractions for visitors to Reykjavik are the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle. These typically take either a half or full day to complete and can be done as a guided tour or a self drive tour.
This is a popular day tour from Reykjavik to take a dip in the milky blue waters of this geothermal wonder. Travel only 40 minutes from Reykjavik towards the Reykanes peninsula and the Keflavik Airport. The Blue Lagoon is sea water believed to have healing powers due to its rich silica and mineral content. The area seems to work well on certain skin conditions, and now a variety of luxury spa treatments are also available. Dine at the Lava restaurant and enjoy an afternoon here.
Golden Circle Loop
The closest main attraction to tour outside of Reykjavik is what is called the Golden Circle Route. While the route can be shortened or elongated depending on how much time you have and how much distance you’re willing to drive, the normal route is about 300 km (about 186 miles) and loops from Reykjavik up into the southern portion of the Central Highlands and back down south through Selfoss and returns to Reykjavik. Icelandic horses can be spotted along he way and the vast tundra of the countryside is sure to create ample opportunity for stunning photography any time of year. The three main points of attraction along the Golden Circle Route are Þingvellir National Park (also written as ‘Thingvellir’), the Haukadalur geothermal area, and Gulfoss Waterfall. The Kerid Crater Lake is also an optional stop for the self-drive visitor, along with other smaller attractions along the way. If you join a guided tour, you may not have the flexibility to stop at some of the smaller sites. Total driving time takes about 3-4 hours, but depending on the length of time at each stop, the route can take you a full day (8-10 hours) to complete.
Þingvellir National Park - This area holds important cultural, historical, and geologic importance and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. This used to be the location for the National Parliament back in 935 AD through the late 18th century. It is also the location along the Great Rift Valley, the spot that marks the create of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the site to many cracks and fissures along the boundary of the splitting North-Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates. As it is only a 45 minute drive outside of Reykjavik, it is one of the most popular tourist sites. Þingvallavatn Lake, Iceland’s largest natural lake (created by a fissure) is located here. Another lake in the Silfra fissue is popular for snorkeling and diving opportunities. It is cold, so travelers typically use a dry suit to brave the frigid waters.
Geysir and Strokkur - The Haukadalur is a geothermal area full of pockets of bubbling water and sulfur just waiting to be released at the surface. The first thing you may notice here is its distinct smell. Geysir (after which the world formed the word ‘geyser’) was the oldest known geyser in history, up until an earthquake caused it to stop its spouting in the early 1900s. Another earthquake in 2000 however caused some shifting and now it will occasionally spout off every couple of days. Strokkur Geyser, on the other hand, erupts a consistent 5-8 minutes apart all day, everyday. Visit this amazing area with your camera in hand and something to cover your nose!
Gulfoss Waterfall - This tremendous display of power is located at the end of the Hvita River is the location where its waters tumble over a cliff about 60 ft wide, falling with great force about 100ft down into a crevice in the earth below, creating great mist clouds and frequent rainbows. There are no rails along the boardwalk, so this is not a good location for unattended young children. The plunge is strongest in summer. Come and admire the tremendous display of power, and be prepared to get a little wet!
South Iceland Attractions
Seljavallalaug - This hidden pool is one of the oldest outdoor geothermal pools of its kind, originally built in 1923. No entrance fee is required to visit here, but the facilities are primitive with just some shared dressing rooms and no showers. Bring your own towel and take the extra time if you are driving east in South Iceland just before you reach Vik. It takes about a 15-20 walk in beautiful landscape and an easy stream crossing to reach it, and you will oftentimes feel as though you are lost or are going the wrong way, but it is there!
Reynisfara Beach - This black volcanic sand beach is located about 180 km outside of Reykjavik near the town of Vik. Three large basalt columns and heavy currents make this beach and awe-inspiring sight! The photography opportunities here are amazing, particularly at key lighting moments in the day, and many seabirds are found along its shores including puffins, guillemots, and fulmars. Do not swim here, as it is quite cold and very dangerous even for experienced swimmers. Tour the neighboring fishing town of Vik at the same time.
Waterfalls of South Iceland - When traveling along the Ring Road in South Iceland, a number of waterfalls just off the road allow for much needed stops to stretch the legs. A few in South Iceland are listed here in order from west to east along the Route 1. If you are driving to South Iceland, a stop at one of these waterfalls is definitely recommended. Seljalandsfoss: One of the best known waterfalls in Iceland, this one is located right off Route 1 by the road that leads to Porsmork. Visitors here can walk behind the waterfall and into a small cave. Skogafoss: This waterfall has been the setting for many films and is one of the largest waterfalls in the country. Svartifoss: Located in Skaftafell in the Vatnajokull National Park, the hiking route to the falls is a favorite walk by visitors. The falls are surrounded by large black basalt columns giving it a dramatic backdrop. This site was one of the inspirations for the architecture of Hallgrimskirkja Church in Reykjavik.
Pórsmörk (or Thórsmörk) - One of the most popular hiking areas in Iceland, Thórsmörk is a mountain ridge in South Iceland but often refers to the general area from that ridge to the Eyfajallajökull Glacier. The climate is warmer here compared to the rest of South Iceland and creates a greener and more lush landscape. This mountain ridge in Iceland was named after the Norse god, Thor (Þór). This is one of the most popular hiking areas in Iceland and is a destination along the Laugavegur Trail and the ending point to the most popular Landmannalaugar - Thórsmörk trek.
Eyfajallajökull - This stratovolcano and subsequent glacier ice cap is located in South Iceland and is more recently well known for disrupting air travel in Europe with its recent eruption in 2010. It is located near the Myrdalsjökull ice cap, another well known destination in Iceland.
Skógar - This small Icelandic village of just 25 is located just south of the Eyjafjallajökull. The area is well known for its waterfall Skógafoss and it offers a daily folk museum to visitors to explore.Just past Skógar you will find the turnoff to Skogafoss waterfall, and just past that you can find the turnoff to the famous Sólheimasandur airplane wreckage on the black sand beach. This wreckage from the 70s makes for amazing photography and can be hard to find on your own unless you know where to go. You will have to walk 4 km to the beach from the main road to access it.
Skaftafell - This large park is encompassed within the borders of Vatnajökull National Park and is home to some surreal landscapes formed by volcanoes and glaciers. Black sand desert and glacial rivers also dot the landscape and numerous hiking trails with campgrounds are found within her borders such as those around Svartifoss waterfall and the Vatnajökull ice cap.
Vatnajökull National Park - One of three National Parks in Iceland, and the second largest in Iceland. The park encompasses all of the massive Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier outside of the Arctic in Europe at 8100 km squared, and many other surrounding areas totaling 13% of Iceland's total area. Visitors find here the highest peak in Iceland, some amazing ice caves particularly those in Skaftafell glacier. The scenery around the plateau is varied with strong river run offs that create many landscape features in the areas around including Dettifoss and the Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon in the North.
Jokulsarlon - This large glacial lagoon is located at the mouth of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and was formed when the glacier receded from the ocean. The lake is about seven square miles and is the deepest lake in Iceland. This picturesque iceberg covered lake has been the backdrop for many movies in recent years and is a main highlight for many tourists, accessible on a long day tour from Reykjavik. Visit the tongue of the glacier or take a boat tour on the lake.
Diamond Circle Route
This is a popular tourist route in Northern Iceland that starts at Húsavík and loops around past Dettifoss, Lake Myvatn back to Húsavík and includes multiple intriguing stops. Some of the most popular stops are Jökulsargljufur Canyon National Park, Krafla volcano, Ásbyrgi canyon, Namafjall geysers and multiple small museums.
This city lies at the southern most point of the Eyjafjörður fjord and is the second largest city in Iceland after Reykjavik. It is the hub of activity in the north with an active year-round festivals calendar and attractions here include the Botanical Gardens in summer and multiple museums and art galleries. The Eyjafjörður fjord is one of the best places for birdwatching in all of Iceland and attracts bird enthusiasts. The Northern Lights are frequently seen here from September to April, and cross-country and downhill skiing are very popular in its surrounding areas offering adventurers plenty of snow in winter.
The most powerful waterfall in all of Iceland, Dettifoss sits along the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river which is sourced by runoff from the Vatnajökull glacier. About 193 cubic meters of water plunge over its cliff per second and drop about 44 m to the bottom. It is located along the Diamond Circle Route.
Ásbyrgi Canyon -
Húsavík - This small fishing town of about 2,100 inhabitants is located along the coast of Skajalfandi bay It is said to be the first settlement of the Norse people from back in 870 AD. The fjor here is also home to a number of whale species, making the town somewhat of a focal point for whale watching tours in the North. One of the towns main attractions is its old wooden church, built in 1907.
This horseshoe-like canyon sits at the northern edge of Vatnajökull National Park. It is 3.5 km long by 1 km wide and offers hikers stunning views from almost any vantage point. The towering cliffs here were likely formed by flooding after the last ice age, though many local folktales about their formation provide more mystical explanations.
Lake Myvatn –
Iceland's 4th largest lake is located 60 km east of Akureyri in an active geothermal area near Krafla Volcano which last erupted in 1984. The lake's wetlands attract many species of birds and the most of the area including its immediate surroundings are protected lands. Some unique geothermal wonders can be found in the area, including the lava formations of Dimmuborgir, the Lake Myvatn natural baths which are created by cracks in the lava fields. Tours to Krafla are quite easy from here, and Dettifoss is not far away. Namaskard Pass is a geothermal area is also found along the northern side of the lake. The martian-like landscape here includes mud volcano attractions and the Godafoss waterfall.
This remote beauty is not often a stop included on Iceland tours for those who are short on time or just wanting to 'see the main sights'. Avid hikers, outdoor enthusiasts, and birders are likely to be drawn to East Iceland and likely to conclude it is the hidden highlight of the country. The deep and narrow fjords and wooded mountain plateaus create an absolutely stunning backdrop for hiking and adventures. Tiny fishing villages and small coastal towns with a European flavor make exploring this area unique from the rest of the country. Kayaking the fjords to observe waterfalls or hiking one of the many trails are great ways to explore this still remote landscape.
- This is the main commerical center along the Ring Road in East Iceland and offers the highest level of services including eating options and accommodations. The city is not necessarily charming in and of itself as one of the newest settlements in East Iceland, but a few charming museums offer a taste for the history of the area. The East iceland Heritage Museum and Slaughter House Culture Center are found here.
As a town previously accessible only by sea, this area is a main hub of activity for kayakers. Horse tours and cave visits are also available, including hikes to see the impressive Rauðubjörg cliffs. The town also houses the Museum of Natural History as well as three fascinating museums housed in the Safnahúsið building (Tryggvi Artist Collection, Natural History, and the maritime Hinriksson Museum).
For the Birding enthusiast, a fair amount of time in East Iceland is a must-do. Most migrant birds arrive to this side of the country. The Fljótsdalshéraðs Coast is the location for the world's largest breeding colony of Arctic Skua and also houses the common looms, swan, geese, and waders. In a few areas puffins can be spotted and even touch (such as in Papey). In the wilderness areas near Snæfell one can spot pink-footed geese and occasional visiting birds from Europe can be spotted near Djúpivogur.
While these magnificent creatures once thrived in the wild all over the country, only about 3000 of them now survive in Southeast and East Iceland from around Vopnafjordur in the north to the Glacier Lagoon in the south. Stay in Fosshotel Vatnajökull for a chance to spot them around the grounds!