What are the Top 12 activities and experiences you shouldn't miss while on holiday in Iceland? What are the most popular tour choices and cultural excursions? What are the “Must-Sees” and “Must-Do’s” for those with only limited time? Will COVID-19 impact your holiday? Read on to find out the Top 12 Things to Do and how COVID-19 is affecting Iceland.
Considering the sheer variety of experiences available in Iceland, picking and choosing how to spend your time and budget can often be a difficult part of your pre-holiday organization.
Because we work with almost all official travel service providers in Iceland, Guide to Iceland is an authority when it comes to choosing the best means of filling your time in Iceland.
Iceland has excelled in its vaccination program, having provided over 530,000 jabs as of September 2021 to a population of just around 350,000. To the joy of locals and prospective holiday-makers alike, this means that restrictions such as mandatory mask-wearing have finally been lifted, and the tour industry is back in full swing.
In order to maintain this hard-earned freedom, there are a few rules still in place for international travelers. Vaccinated travelers are welcome to visit without quarantining. They will need to present a certificate showing the results of a recent COVID-19 rapid antigen test or PCR test that's been taken no more than 72 hours before leaving on the first part of the journey. Otherwise, they're free to begin their Iceland adventure!
Other visitors must undergo just five days of quarantine, with a negative test result at the beginning and end of this time.
Even those still cautious about the COVID-19 pandemic will find that Iceland's small, sparse population allows for social distancing, and many of our most recommended things to do are conducted out in the open, uninhabited wilderness.
To keep up-to-date with the latest news, check out our page on travel to Iceland during Covid-19.
Over twenty cetacean species call the Icelandic coastal waters home, ranging from the small harbor porpoises to the earth's largest animals, blue whales.
The most common species sightings are minke whales and humpback whales, though there is always the possibility of seeing rarer animals, such as killer whales and fin whales. As with many Iceland tours, whale watching guests will also spot various seabirds, including skuas, Arctic terns, guillemots, and even the colorfully billed puffin.
Whale watching tours depart from three primary locations: Reykjavík, Akureyri, and Husavík. Husavík is considered Iceland’s whale watching capital due to the abundant animal traffic that passes through its fjords. This activity is the result of fruitful feeding grounds found off Iceland’s northern coasts.
You can undertake a whale watching tour on either larger vessels or smaller powerboats.
The bigger boats are perfect for larger tour groups, and with reliable tracking technology, they are quite reliable in helping you spot a whale.
On the other hand, smaller boats mean smaller groups and a more intimate setting. Powerboats can also get closer to the animals themselves as their motors make far less noise.
The Icelandic Horse is arguably the country’s most famous four-legged resident. Instantly recognizable for its diminutive stature, short legs, and muscular build, this isolated breed is famed for its reliability, resistance to the harsh natural elements, and its five gaits.
The Icelandic horse is a unique breed, so much so that it’s forbidden from outside breeding to maintain its unique genetics. Any horse that leaves the country can never return.
By choosing to partake in a horse riding tour, visitors guarantee themselves a tried-and-tested method of experiencing Icelandic nature. Touring by horseback has been common throughout the centuries, during which time the original Norwegian breed developed into the animal we know today.
Knowledgeable and certified horse riding instructors lead horseback riding tours for both beginners and experienced riders.
Most tours will last for approximately 90 minutes (though there are options to extend this) and will offer the chance for a quick trot for those who feel confident on the saddle.
Photo by Nanna Gunnarsdóttir
Going out at night is certainly a favorite pastime amongst the local population, who will jump at the chance to enjoy a few cold ones before the night’s end. Whether this has anything to do with beer only being legalized in 1989, or perhaps the eternal darkness that blankets the country each year, we can’t be sure.
Downtown Reykjavík is awash with bars, coffee houses, restaurants, and social events. The vast majority of them will see a decent blend of local Icelanders and outside visitors, thus ensuring a night of interesting conversation.
To alleviate any stress put on your wallet, most establishments offer 'Happy Hour' for at least three hours. They will often offer other discounts and incentives to keep you happily drinking.
Photo by Nanna Gunnarsdóttir
Please make the most of it! As with most places across the world, the longer the night goes on, the more debauched downtown Reykjavik’s general atmosphere will become.
Thankfully, most hotels and guesthouses are within walking distance, meaning only the shortest of stumbles home after the party ends.
There’s a myth going around that Iceland lacks insects. While that appears true for the most part, a summertime trip to Lake Mývatn, aka “Fly Lake,” will quickly put an end to the debate.
Here you will find clouds of the winged heathens buzzing and whizzing around the lake shoreline, making the use of netted-hats and long sleeves an absolute necessity.
Winter absolves that problem completely, and even in the summer, the flies can do little to detriment the sheer gorgeousness of the lake’s surrounding area.
Visitors here will be able to look upon the Skútustaðagígar pseudo-craters, the geothermally active Námaskarð Pass, and even Dimmuborgir, or “Dark Fortress,” an area of strange yet hauntingly beautiful volcanic rock formations.
The Blue Lagoon holds the privilege of being Iceland’s most famous spa because of its healing silica mud, warm and soothing water, charming surrounding, and billowing steam stacks.
Falling 44 meters from the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, Dettifoss crescendos with a mighty crash into the Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon below, creating one of the most spectacular and dramatic natural sites available to visit in Iceland.
Dettifoss is accessible by Route 862 and makes just up one part of the Diamond Circle, the northern counterpart of the more famed Golden Circle sightseeing route. Alongside Dettifoss, visitors to the Diamond Circle will also visit such attractions as Húsavík, Ásbyrgi Canyon, and Lake Mývatn.
Like Iceland’s far east, international guests frequent the Westfjords less than the south, southwest, and north.
Known for a rich history steeped in folklore, mysticism, and magic, the Westfjords is as beautiful as it is culturally fascinating. From the towering bird cliffs of Hornstrandir to the tumbling Dynjandi waterfalls, the Westfjords has something for everybody.
The Westfjords boasts the northernmost glacier in Iceland, Drangajökull, the picturesque bay Arnarfjörður, the domineering mountain Bolafjall and even the puffin-heavy island of Flatey. All of these and more make up the diverse and staggeringly gorgeous landscapes of Iceland’s northwest.
Those looking to examine the region’s history and culture, visit the Arctic Fox Center, the Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery, the Westfjords Heritage Museum, or the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum.
In a country made up of countless awe-inspiring natural attractions, it might seem hard to pick out just one that outmatches the others, and yet Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon takes the crown every time.
After all, it is a still lake decorated with glittering icebergs, groaning and crunching against one another as they make their way from Breiðamerkurjökull glacier to the Atlantic Ocean.
While some visitors choose to partake in a Zodiac boat tour, others are content to sit on the shoreline and watch as the playful seal colony dips and dives around the heaving chunks of ice.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is increasing in size each year due to the ever-growing effect of climate change on the Icelandic glaciers.
Some think that in a century, an entirely new fjord will have overtaken the lagoon. While this might sound unlikely, Iceland's glaciers are already melting at an astonishing pace.
Only five minutes walk from the lagoon itself, visitors will discover Diamond Beach. This aptly named stretch of coastline is where icebergs wash ashore on the jet-black sand, creating one of the most visually appealing scenes in Iceland.
Photo from Hot Spring Hike of Reykjadalur Valley
Geologically speaking, Iceland is a young country, meaning much of the landscape is still geothermally active. Guests here have popularized the pursuit of churning mud pools, steaming volcanic vents, and erupting hot strings, such as Strokkur, on the Golden Circle sightseeing tour.
Thankfully, not all of this activity is quite so dramatic. One of the incredible by-products of living in a geothermally active country is the abundance of natural hot pools dotting the landscape.
Hot spring tours make for fantastic getaways and are the number one way to counter jet lag or a hangover. They are also an excellent place to kick back and have a friendly chat with fellow bathers. If you’re lucky, it can also serve as a fantastic point from which to view the Northern Lights.
Driving the Golden Circle can be achieved in a few hours. Many visitors choose to begin the drive in the morning and then move on to other activities for the rest of the day. However, others spread the route out over a whole day, even adding a snorkeling or snowmobiling tour for extra excitement.
Þingvellir National Park is important to Icelanders for many reasons, one of which is its aesthetic beauty. It’s also where Medieval Icelanders formed the world’s first democratically elected parliament in 930 AD.
At Þingvellir, you’ll be able to see the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates emerging from the earth.
It’s also home to Silfra Fissure, one of the top 10 snorkeling spots worldwide.
Haukadalur is home to the hot springs, Geysir and Strokkur, the latter of which erupts to over twenty meters high every five minutes or so, as well as numerous steaming fumaroles and bubbling mud pools.
Ten kilometers to the north, visitors will find the third and final stop of the Golden Circle, Gullfoss waterfall. This 32-meter high feature demonstrates Iceland’s water systems' power as it cascades over two rocky tiers and into a dramatic valley below.
One of Iceland’s biggest draws is the Northern Lights, otherwise known as the aurora borealis. This natural light display occurs only in the winter and only at the earth’s highest elevations. This incredible phenomenon, dancing in ribbon-like waves of purple, green, and gold, must be experienced at least once in a lifetime.
The Northern Lights are infamously elusive, having left thousands of visitors disappointed with their intermittent absences. Conditions must be perfect, with limited-to-no cloud cover, flaring activity in the magnetosphere, and no light pollution.
When they show up, there is no knowing exactly when, where, or how long the Lights will dance. Thankfully, there are handy steps you can take in advance to help better maximize your chances.
The best way is to join a tour with a Northern Lights guide. Such guides know the best and darkest vantage points. They can also provide a wealth of scientific information to add even more color to the experience.
The guides can also help when it comes to photographing this spectacular cosmic show.
As its name suggests, Iceland is a land that has come to be defined by its frozen landscapes. While some criticize Iceland as not being quite frozen enough to warrant the name, this is, in fact, a country of floating icebergs, sweeping glacier tongues, and dazzling blue glacier ice caves.
With that being said, most visitors are surprised to find the country temperate and mild, at least during the warm days of the summer. It is during the winter, however, that Iceland truly lives up to its name. It is an environment perpetually trapped between darkness and glittering white snow.
The ultimate icy experience is entering one of the country’s gorgeous blue ice caves. These are, however, only accessible in the winter months.
Thankfully, Iceland’s greatest frozen attraction, the glaciers, are accessible to explorers throughout the year. This availability is good news for those visitors looking to see these mighty giants up close and even better for those willing to slip on a pair of crampons and take to hiking the ice cap itself.
Did you enjoy our choices for the Top 12 Things to do in Iceland? What did you manage to experience from our list, and is there any particular activity you feel we left out? Feel free to leave your thoughts and queries in the Facebook comments box below.
This article has been edited by the Guide to Iceland team to reflect the latest information.