The average person probably knows one of three things about Iceland: it’s the home of Bjork, the country went bankrupt in 2008, and in 2010 its unpronounceable volcano disrupted air travel in Europe and North America for several days. For decades, Iceland remained off the radar of most travelers, but in recent years the country has amped up its tourism campaign, showcasing its beauty and culture to prospective visitors who are discovering that this seemingly-remote speck of land in the North Atlantic Ocean is much closer—and much more exciting—than they might have guessed.
Iceland is one of the most diverse countries on Earth, with a small land area that contrasts with just how “big” that diversity makes it feel. An hour’s drive can take you across glaciers, over lava fields and black sand beaches, up mountains and over rivers, through prairies and rolling meadows, over volcanoes and in caves, or even in between two tectonic plates. Located in between Europe and North America, Iceland straddles two worlds, both literally and figuratively. It sits on a rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates—plates that are slowly moving apart, widening Iceland by a few centimeters per year. It’s their movement that makes geysers shoot water 120 feet in the air, hot springs bubble up and create steam that provides electricity for the whole country, volcanoes explode, and islands rise from the sea. It’s their movement that shakes the ground in dozens of small (usually unnoticeable) daily earthquakes and gives Iceland its striking, at times other-worldly, appearance.
Iceland has a foot in two worlds in less tangible ways as well. It’s at once provincial and modern, traditional and progressive. It’s one of the most technologically connected countries in the world yet the phone book is still organized by first name. It was one of the first countries to legalize gay marriage but families still have to choose baby names from a list of “approved” Icelandic names. The “land of fire and ice” is a land of contrasts—both physical and cultural—that make it a delightful, quirky, enchanting surprise just waiting to be discovered. How to discover it? Here are a few ideas for incredible things to do in Iceland:
Stop by the airport Duty Free
Okay, this first one may not be an incredible thing to do, but it is necessary if you plan to drink in Iceland. Once you deplane, make a beeline for the airport Duty Free shop to pick up provisions. Drinks in Icelandic bars and restaurants are on the expensive side at around $8 for a beer and $12 to $20 for a mixed drink, so when planning a night out, most people have a few at home to start. Aside from the Duty Free, alcohol is only available at licensed Vínbúðin stores (which in small towns might have extremely limited hours, such as Thursdays only from 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.) and it’s taxed based on alcohol content. A bottle of Icelandic Reyka vodka, for example, bought at the airport Duty Free will cost about 1/3 of the price at the Vínbúðin. Beer and wine prices are about equal, but if you’re heading to a smaller town it still pays to stock up.
Get wet, and then get wet again
Yes, it’s touristy, and from May to September it will be packed, but the strange, milky blue waters of the Blue Lagoon truly are curative after a few hours cramped in coach. Located closer to the airport than to Reykjavik, it’s a great stop either on your way from (my vote) or back to the airport. In the north of the country, the Myvatn Nature Baths provide a similar, though much less crowded, experience. Once you’ve experienced the touristy hot springs, you’re not done getting wet in Iceland. Icelanders love to soak and swim, and do so at public pools in every city as well as secluded natural hot springs that dot the countryside. No matter where you are in Iceland you’ll have the chance to do the same.
Just. Drive. On and off the Ring Road.
No really, just get a rental car and leave the city. I love the tiny metropolis of Reykjavik but no visit to Iceland would be complete without some time spent out exploring what really makes Iceland unique: the rugged land that has shaped its people, its history, its food, and its culture. Even if you’re visiting in winter and plan to base yourself in Reykjavik, there are several easy day tours you can do without the need for four-wheel drive. If plan to drive a bit farther to other regions of Iceland, you’ll be driving on the Ring Road, the 832-mile road that encircles the island. In many places, it’s the only road, but when the road does diverge into smaller branches, be sure to diverge with it. It’s down some of these smaller roads that you’ll find some of the country’s most spectacular natural wonders.
Explore the Golden Circle
The country’s most famous drive is The Golden Circle, which loops approximately 150 miles from Reykjavik to three of Iceland’s top natural attractions. The first stop is Thingvellir National Park, site of Iceland’s (and the world’s) first Parliament and the place where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. The rift is clearly visible and you can even walk (and snorkel and dive) in between the plates. Yes, you can snorkel in Iceland, even in the winter. You’ll be outfitted in a dry suit to keep you warm and dry in the cold water which comes from nearby glaciers and is some of the clearest on earth thanks to years of filtering through lava rocks. Its clarity has been known to give snorkelers vertigo as they float above the rift, peering hundreds of feet down into the center of the earth. The next stop on the Golden Circle is Geysir, the site of the geyser for which all are named. Geysir no longer erupts but nearby Strokkur does, shooting water in the air at regular intervals. The last stop is the mighty Gullfoss waterfall.
Take a turn on the Reykjavik runtour
In town, there’s no better way to get to know the citizens of Reykjavik than on the runtour, the weekend pub crawl. Runtour means “round tour,” a throwback to the days when bored kids would spend their evenings driving around town in circles. Now they make those circles on foot, bouncing from bar to bar in the compact downtown. To join them, start late (around 10pm) with some pre-drinking at home, hit the clubs around midnight and stay out until the bars close at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. For a tamer intro to drinking in Iceland, the Olgerdin Brewery tour is a great option. The tour takes you behind the scenes of the brewery and of course includes several samples.
Eat some Icelandic hot dogs—and other delicacies
Which brings me to my next must-do: eating an Icelandic hot dog. Come 5 a.m. on Saturday, the most popular spot for the post-bar crowd is Bæjarins beztu pylsur, a hot dog stand down near the harbor. Hot dogs may well be the official national food of Iceland, available in every city (and at every gas station) around the island. And these are no ordinary hot dogs. Topped with raw and fried onions, a brown mustard and some remoulade, they’re made of lamb and pork and incredibly addictive—whether you’re sober or not. Other, slightly more traditional, Icelandic fare includes local delicacies like puffin (often served smoked with a berry sauce), skyr (a very low fat, high protein yogurt eaten alone or often used in dips and desserts), whale (controversial, but actually pretty tasty, with a texture like beef), hákarl (fermented shark), and—my favorite—plokkfiskur, a dish made from boiled and mashed cod and potatoes. To sample a variety of foods in smaller portions, head to Tapas Barrinn. For a quick and casual meal, try Icelandic Fish and Chips, which serves a variety of baked fish with an assortment of flavored skyr dips.
Go riding on the cutest horses in the world
You may have seen photos of the Icelandic horse and assumed it was actually a pony. It’s not. Though they are short, squat, and impossibly adorable, these horses are super strong and very smart. They develop long shaggy fur during the cold winters and are known for being very curious and docile. They also have a unique fifth gait called the tolt that is superfast and smooth, like riding in an easy chair. Even if you don’t book a horseback riding excursion (there are farms just a minutes outside the city), be sure to pull over when you see a few grazing in a nearby field. Chances are they’ll wander over in search of new friends.
Learn about early Icelanders at the Settlement Museum
One of the best museums in Reykjavik, the Settlement Museum, is built around an old (circa 871) Viking long house that was uncovered in 2001. Inside the museum you’ll find interactive exhibits that detail the settlement and early years of life of Iceland.
Wander the Reykjavik Harbor
For a study in juxtaposition, head to the Reykjavik harbor where you’ll see whaling ships (with their big red H’s painted on top) side-by-side with tourist whale watching ships. If you’re looking to take a whale watching trip out of the city, this is where you’ll meet the boat. The harbor also has some top notch seafood restaurants nearby, like Seabaron, where you choose a kabob (lobster, fish, whale) that’s cooked to order and can be served alongside a hearty bread-bowl full of lobster soup.
See the view from Hallgrímskirkja
Built in 1938, the “big white church” is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Iceland (find your hotel relative to it and you’ll never be lost). Most tourists visit for the view from the top, which is takes in the brightly colored houses of Reykjavik, the grey bay, and snowcapped Mount Esja in the distance. The viewing platform is accessed via an elevator for a small fee (about $6).
Shop for a lopapeysa at the Kolaportið
Reykjavik’s weekend Kolaportið flea market is like any other—amidst a lot of trash, you’ll find some true treasures. Among them are the lopapeysas, traditional hand knit sweaters sold here for a fraction of the cost as those in the souvenir shops.
See the Northern Lights or the Midnight Sun
Iceland’s skies fascinate year round, as the midnight sun dominates the horizon well past 12 a.m. in June and July and the Northern Lights twinkle overhead from September to March. The latter is less predictable; I’ve visited during March and left without a sighting and have visited during the first week of September and been treated to an unusually bright and spectacular display. If you’re hoping to catch the show, pay attention to the Aurora forecast and be ready to head to a rural area if conditions are right.
Go whale watching—and then stay a while—in Husavik
You can go whale watching from the harbor in Reykjavik, but in summer the best place to spot whales is farther north, in Husavik. Once a whaling town, it’s now considered the whale watching capital of the world thanks to the thousands of whales that visit each summer. Most visitors blow through Husavik—they come for the whales and then continue on their way—but the town makes a great base for more exploration in the north. Kaldbaks-kot offers small, no-frills cottages with gorgeous views of the fjord, within easy driving distance of several of the north’s best attractions, including Lake Myvatn, the Myvatn Nature Baths, and Godafoss waterfall.
Pick a region and go
Many of the visitors who venture out of Reykjavik choose to drive the whole Ring Road. With minimal stops, you could it in 24 hours. But trust me, you’re going to want to stop. A lot. If circling the island seems too ambitious, just focus on one or two regions. The Snaefellsness Peninsula is easily covered in a day or two and provides a great intro to the diversity of Iceland’s landscapes; it’s often called “Iceland in miniature” for this reason. To really get off the beaten path, head to the Westfjords. The region is one of the least densely populated in Iceland but is known for its beautiful mountains and fjords. Another lesser-visited spot, the East Fjords offer a look at the early Norwegian settlements of Iceland.
Iceland is closer—and warmer—than you think. On average, its winters are warmer than New York, and the flight from NYC is just about five hours. Flights from Seattle and Denver, the other U.S. gateways, aren’t much longer and if you go in the off-season, you can often score flights for less than $600 round-trip.