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Sitting pretty at 66 degrees latitude, Iceland is known for having some of the most unpredictable and dramatic weather in the world. Iceland is a bucket list travel destination for many, and it’s easy to see why.
Defined by its dramatic landscapes and unique history, The Land of Fire and Ice is overflowing with natural beauty that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, and every year it grows in popularity as a tourist destination.
Since it hugs the Arctic Circle, Iceland experiences the midnight sun during the summer, when the sun doesn’t fully set, and you can enjoy ample hours of daylight to explore. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t think there are enough hours in the day, then you should book your Iceland vacation between mid-May and mid-August.
On the flip side, during the winter months like December and January, Iceland pulls a UNO reverse card, and the daylight hours may cap out at around four or five hours a day. Don’t worry. What you lack in daylight, you make up for in seasonal activities like viewing the northern lights.
Each season offers a different experience, and no matter what season you visit the Land of Fire and Ice, you’ll have an incredible time and most likely be planning to visit during the opposite season so you can see both.
This Iceland travel guide will give you a better idea of what you can look forward to and help you plan your trip.
- Best Things to Do in Iceland
- 1. Seljalandsfoss
- 2. Golden Circle
- 3. Ring Road
- 4. Blue Lagoon
- 5. Reynisfjara Beach
- 6. Diamond Beach
- 7. Westfjords
- 8. Snæfellsnes Peninsula
- 9. Diamond Circle
- Where to stay in Iceland
- How to Get Around in Iceland
- Travel Tips for Visiting Iceland
- Visit during the off-season
- Layer up!
- Be flexible
- Try the local cuisine
- Pay attention to the signs
- Money and language
Best Things to Do in Iceland
Seljalandsfoss is a popular tourist attraction and is a great place to see the amazing scenery of Iceland. The waterfall is located on the Seljalandsfoss River, which flows from the Vatnajokull glacier to the Atlantic Ocean.
2. Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a scenic drive that takes you to some of the most popular attractions in Iceland, and it’s one of the most popular sightseeing attractions for those following the Ring Road or basing themselves out of Reykjavik.
Along the drive, you can visit the Geyser geothermal area, Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir National Park. There are plenty of companies that offer daily tours of the Golden Circle, making it a great option for folks who don’t want to drive.
If you go the self-drive route, then you may want to stop off at a few of the detours along the Golden Circle, like the Friedheimar Tomato and Horse Farm, the Kerid Crater, or the Secret Lagoon, the oldest swimming pool in Iceland (1891).
After a busy day of sightseeing, there’s nothing like soaking in a natural hot spring. The Golden Circle can be completed in a day, and since it’s easily accessible from Reykjavik, it’s easily one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland.
3. Ring Road
Ring Road, or Route 1, is 825 miles long (1,328km) and circles the entire country. If you want to see all eight regions (or most of them), then this is the ultimate road trip for you!
While it may not seem like a long distance, keep in mind that the speed limit is 55 miles per hour (90kmph), and trust me, you do not want a speeding ticket. This scenic drive takes you through moss-covered lava fields, hundreds of waterfalls, mountains, beaches…you name it.
And, of course, you’ll pass through all of the charming towns and villages in Iceland where you can get a hotel and rest your head at night. Technically, you could drive the entire Ring Road in 24 hours.
You should give yourself at least seven or eight days so you have the time to stop off along the way and see the sights.
I did the Ring Road in eight days, and it felt like I was on an episode of Supermarket Sweep, so I think the sweet spot here is actually nine or ten days.
Then again, if you’re driving the road in the summer, you’ve got plenty of daylight! I drove Ring Road in October, which gave me about nine hours of daylight each day, and I still didn’t feel like I had enough time!
4. Blue Lagoon
Perhaps one of the most photographed attractions in Iceland, a visit to the Blue Lagoon is a must. Surrounded by mesmerizing lava fields, the famous Blue Lagoon allows you to soak in geothermally heated waters, not just geothermal waters.
These natural hot springs have healing powers! The beautiful Caribbean blue water is rich in silica and algae, which does wonders for the skin (but not the hair, so throw your hair in a ponytail before getting in). The Blue Lagoon offers several different spa packages, a restaurant, and even two hotels if you want to spend a night or two soaking up these milky-blue waters.
Be sure to carve out some time after your dip to walk around the spa. There are a few walking paths outside the Blue Lagoon to stroll around and enjoy the ice-blue waters and hot springs with moss-covered lava fields surrounding you. Grab a coffee from the restaurant and spend some extra time wandering around these hot springs, it’s definitely a hidden gem among gems.
Once you’ve soaked in these geothermal baths, you’ll want to soak in them all! Another popular tourist destination for soaking is the Sky Lagoon, located near Reykjavik in Kópavogur, and if you’re headed to northern Iceland, be sure to check out the Mývatn Nature Baths in Mývatn. These naturally heated hot springs offer silica-rich water, stunning scenery, and a chance to soak it all in literally.
5. Reynisfjara Beach
Located on the South Coast of Iceland, Reynisfjara Beach is one of the most iconic sights in Iceland. The famous black sand beach is located in the town of Vik, about 112 miles from Reykjavik, so even if you’re basing yourself out of the capital, you can make it to this beach for a day trip.
The large basalt columns just off the shoreline are one of the most recognizable features of this beach, and the legend behind them is fascinating. According to the local folklore, these columns are believed to be trolls that have been turned to stone!
While you’re searching for the perfect photo, keep in mind that this beach is equal parts beautiful and dangerous. Reynisfjara is known to have what’s known as “sneaker waves,” which can appear out of nowhere and strike with force, dragging everything they touch back out to sea.
Although fatalities aren’t common, they do occur, most recently in November 2022. Pay attention to the signs when you get to the beach, keep a safe distance from the water (100 feet is recommended), and never turn your back to the sea.
6. Diamond Beach
Known for the many icebergs that wash onto the volcanic black sand beach, Diamond Beach is a spectacular natural attraction that will seem like you’re on another planet when you see it in person.
The icebergs fill the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, creating an endless sea of diamonds peppering the beach. This is also a favorite hangout for seals, so you may get lucky and get to see some of the local wildlife while you’re visiting.
It’s also one of the best places in Iceland to see orcas from the shore, so keep your eyes out to the horizon, and you may catch a glimpse of a dangerous dolphin or two. If you’re a photographer looking for the perfect shot, you’ll want to set your alarm and get there early. The sunrises here are spectacular.
Located just on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park in southeastern Iceland, it’s about a five-hour drive from Reykjavik, so if this beach is on your bucket list, we’d suggest finding a place to stay in one of the nearby towns like Vik or Hofn, so you’re not looking at a 10+ hour day in the car.
Because they are so far from some of the major tourist attractions in Iceland, the Westfjords often get overlooked, but for those that do travel here, you’ll be met with some of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring scenery in the entire country. If you’re looking to get away from some of the more tourist-populated areas, the Westfjords are the place to be.
Remember that the towns are much further apart, and the driving distances between the sights are much longer since you’ll be driving around the fjords. Here, you can explore majestic waterfalls like Dynjandi and marvel at the 328-foot cascade, or head over to Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, one of the best places to see the arctic fox in Iceland.
Since it’s in such a remote location (and about 200 miles from Reykjavik), it does take some effort to explore, and that’s part of its appeal. This is one area in Iceland that’s only accessible during the summer months, from roughly May to October.
This is one area of Iceland that sees a lot of snowy weather, and since fewer people live here, the roads are not always as well maintained as you’d find in areas like the Capital Region or even the South Coast.
8. Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Located between Reykjavik and the Westfjords, this region of western Iceland is accessible year-round, and since it’s only a two-hour drive from the Capital Region, it’s perfect for both those who stay in Reykjavik or take on the Ring Road.
In a country that’s known for its dramatic landscapes, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is one area of Iceland that truly doesn’t disappoint.
You’ve got it all here: the Snæfellsjökull Volcano, glaciers, black-pebble beaches, lava fields, historic fishing villages… You’ll quickly fill up your Icelandic Bingo card here.
This is also where you’ll find the famous Kirkjufell mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, two of the most photographed places in Iceland. Keep in mind that this area may not be accessible during the winter months, so make sure you check Iceland’s road conditions before you make your way over.
9. Diamond Circle
While the Golden Circle is one of the most popular scenic routes, the Diamond Circle in Northern Iceland boasts some of Iceland’s heaviest hitters.
There are five key attractions along the Diamond Circle, including Goðafoss, Lake Mývatn, the Ásbyrgi Canyon, Húsavík, and Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe.
The 250km road is overflowing with natural wonders, and since Húsavík is known as the whale-watching capital of Iceland, it appeals to folks with all interests.
Akureyri, the Capital of the North, is a perfect town to call home for a few days while exploring this region of Iceland. From Akureyri, you can take a guided tour of some of the major attractions nearby, including some of the sights on the Diamond Circle.
Where to stay in Iceland
Whether you’re staying in Reykjavik or doing a full-country tour, there are plenty of hotels, cabins, and apartments in Iceland. These lodging options all are wonderful, highly-rated spots to rest your head at the end of a long day:
- Kirkjufell Guesthouse and Apartments (Grundarfjordur)
- Lighthouse-Inn (Gardur)
- Legendary Hotel Hella (Hella)
- Golden Circle Domes (Selfoss)
- Blabjorg Resort (Borgarfjordur Eystri)
- Fosshotel Lind (Reykjavik)
- Ice Apartments (Reykjavik)
- Hótel Dyrhólaey (Vik)
- Hotel Jazz (Keflavik)
- Hotel Natur (Akureyri)
How to Get Around in Iceland
So you’ve made it to Iceland, now what? Most travelers opt for renting a car and taking self-drive tours around the country. Iceland’s landscape makes getting around both tricky and easy.
It’s tricky because the distance can be deceiving, but many of Iceland’s most popular attractions are 3+ hour drives from each other, and if you’re battling daylight, that can become a race against time.
The easy part of getting around Iceland is that there’s only one road, the Ring Road, so your chances of getting lost are slim. There are several rental car companies in Iceland that operate directly out of Keflavik airport, making it super simple to grab some wheels and hit the road.
If you’re basing yourself out of Reykjavik, then you have the option to take one of the many tours to see the sights. These tours can range from day trips to southern Iceland or multi-day excursions to further explore northern Iceland or even the east fjords.
These tours are great options for anyone who doesn’t want to rent a car, and then you have the added perk of being able to sit back and enjoy the scenery and not have to worry about keeping your eyes on the road!
While we’re on the subject, let’s remember that Iceland’s weather can change at a moment’s notice. If you’re visiting Iceland in the winter, you should have winter weather driving experience and check the conditions often.
It’s not uncommon for the roads to close down during inclement weather, and as someone who has seen not one but two cars spin off the road during a snowstorm in Iceland, it’s very important to stay off the roads when conditions are bad.
Travel Tips for Visiting Iceland
Once you’ve snagged your cheap flight to Iceland, planned your itinerary, and booked your hotels, it’s time to start packing and getting all the final details mapped out.
Iceland is divided into eight regions: the Capital Region, Southern Peninsula, West Iceland, Westfjords, Northwest Iceland, Northeast Iceland, East Iceland, and South Iceland.
Most of Iceland’s population resides in the capital region of Reykjavik, but that doesn’t mean that Icelandic culture is limited to this area.
Each region offers outstanding scenery, charming towns and villages to explore, and more. Depending on how much time you have and the time of year you visit, you could see all eight regions by driving the famous Ring Road, which will take you around the entire country.
If you’re short on time or would rather not rent a car, basing yourself out of Reykjavik is the best option and one of the most popular. Staying in Reykjavik gives you the best of both worlds: you’ll be in the country’s capital with plenty of museums, restaurants, and hotels to choose from while still being able to take tours and travel out of the city daily.
The drawback here is that you’re limited to how far you can travel to some of the attractions since you’d have to drive back to Reykjavik at the end of the day, and some of these attractions are a four-hour drive one-way.
I’ve done both and honestly recommend both options. It comes down to the time of year you visit. Here are some of the best travel tips for visiting Iceland from someone who has visited this country twice:
Visit during the off-season
February, March, August, September, and October are some of the best months to visit Iceland if you’re looking to escape the crowds and save some money along the way.
You’ll have the best of both worlds with both daylight and darkness. The best time to go whale watching in Iceland is from mid-April to mid-September, which is also the best time to drive the famous Ring Road.
These months give you the best range to see Iceland changing through the seasons. Since Iceland is an expensive country, you could save money by visiting during the off-season, when plane tickets are typically cheaper.
Again, Iceland’s weather is as unpredictable as a toddler’s emotions. Be ready for anything and everything! Layers are key here, and topping everything off with a windproof and waterproof layer will help you out. Waterproof shoes are a must.
If you’re going in winter, you’ll want to bring heavy-duty gloves, a hat, and a scarf. Even if the temperature doesn’t phase you, the winds sure will. Iceland’s winds come with an unexpected force that will try to sweep you off your feet, and anything exposed to the wind will quickly become an issue.
Most travelers to Iceland experience the beautiful countryside, and Iceland’s endless hiking trails and ice cave tours are just dreamy, but step in one deep puddle without waterproof shoes, and it’ll put a damper on your trip.
Regardless of what time of year you visit, bring some good hiking boots with proper soles, and you’ll be fine. In the winter, you may want to invest in yaktrax or crampons from REI if you plan outdoor adventures, but many tours, like the Katla Ice Cave Tour, will provide them.
If you’re the type of person, who likes to have every minute of your vacation planned out, printed, and laminated…Iceland will test you.
I like to say that Iceland will show you what she wants to show you. Iceland’s weather means you might have a tour canceled, or a road will be closed, and you have to stay in place for a night…
And, of course, natural phenomena like the Northern Lights are never a guarantee. If you can, try to plan a free day or two into your trip so that if a tour gets canceled, you can reschedule it. Don’t let a canceled tour keep you from exploring, though!
There’s always a local museum where you can learn about Iceland’s history. The Perlan Museum in Reykjavik is an incredible, family-friendly museum that goes into great detail about the many stunning natural wonders in Iceland as well as the wildlife, people, and more. There’s even a man-made ice cave you can walk through!
On the other side of town, you can check out an equally informative yet potentially less family-friendly museum, the Icelandic Phallogical Museum. This small museum (remember, size doesn’t matter) is the only genuine penis museum in the world, and what started as an inside joke between a man and his co-workers has grown into the world’s largest penis collection.
The museum boasts a member from every Icelandic mammal and well over 100 foreign species, plus a gift shop and a restaurant full of phallic treats and drinks.
Try the local cuisine
Iceland’s cuisine is centered around the main three: fish, lamb, or Icelandic skyr, a type of yogurt. Like other countries, the dishes are determined by what’s available, and since Iceland is in such a remote area, they’ve relied on their catches from the ocean and the sheep that thrive here. The palette is pure, refined, and simple while still blowing your tastebuds away.
Step outside your culinary comfort zone and try some of the delicious Nordic cuisines, and you might find your new favorite dish. A Reykjavik food tour will put you at the front door to some of the most talented chefs in the country, learning about the history of how many of these iconic dishes came to be. For the truly adventurous, try the fermented shark.
You might be surprised to learn that hot dogs are a staple here. Iceland loves its hotdogs, and you will too! You can find them at just about any convenience store you pull into, but Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur in Reykjavik is the most famous (and delicious).
They’ve been in business for over 60 years, serving up their famous hot dogs made from a special blend of pork, lamb, and beef. Go ahead and order two, and thank us later.
Another staple of the Icelandic diet is rye bread or rúgbrauð. Icelanders use this little edible plate for everything: top it with cream cheese and salmon, mix it into ice cream, or smear it with fresh butter. The rye bread here isn’t just rye bread. The cooking process is unlike anything else.
Iceland’s geothermal geysers make the perfect underground oven for baking bread! Made in Laugavautn, the dough is buried 30 centimeters in the ground next to a geyser that cooks the bread. It takes about a day to cook, and when it’s ready, you’ve got the softest, spongiest rye bread you’ve ever tasted.
Oh, and the water in Iceland is the purest in the world, so skip the bottled water. Iceland’s water comes from the glaciers and springs, and you can drink it straight from the tap. Save money by bringing your reusable bottle and filling it up wherever you are rather than purchasing bottled water.
Pay attention to the signs
Iceland’s famous black sand beaches are one of the country’s most iconic landmarks, but they can also be some of the most dangerous places in Iceland. This is especially true if you’re visiting Reynisfjara, one of the most popular black sand beaches in Iceland.
This southern Iceland beach is home to sneaker waves, which can strike without notice and drag you out to the frigid sea, with no help in sight. Stay 100 meters from the water, and never turn your back to the sea and you’ll be just fine, but it is a reminder that Mother Nature is always in control.
If you’re interested in hiking to the world-famous Fagradalsfjall volcano, remember to never walk on the “old lava.” Even though the eruptions from 2021 and 2022 may look like they’ve cooled, it can take a very long time before those lava beds are safe to walk on…and trust us, you do not want to find out the hard way that there’s still firey red lava just beneath the surface.
Iceland’s incredible unique landscape is what attracts most tourists. With that being said, please remember that Iceland’s fragile vegetation and short growth period can take years to recover from, so please treat it with the respect it deserves!
Stay on the designated paths, don’t step on the moss beds, and pack out what you pack in so that future generations can continue to explore these stunning natural wonders just like you.
Money and language
The Krona is the official currency of Iceland, but you’ll be relieved to know that almost everywhere you go, you can use your phone or credit card to pay.
While this may not be the case if you find yourself in a tiny village in a remote part of eastern Iceland, 99% of restaurants, gas stations, and hotels all accept credit cards, making it much easier to travel abroad.
Be sure to download a currency conversion app so you don’t have any surprise price tags. Iceland is one of the most expensive countries, after all! Also, while Icelandic is the official language, most natives speak English, and you shouldn’t have any problems speaking English.
- About the Author
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Jacks is a New Orleans native passionate about exploring the Arctic region. She’s a frequent writer and contributor to Only in Your State. A mediocre ukulele player, photographer, and artist, she thrives on spontaneous solo adventures and encourages everyone to follow the deal, not the destination. When she’s not traveling, she’s feeding the neighborhood crows, squirrels, and bluejays that have befriended her, much to the dismay of her cat, Tugger.