Top 12 Things to Do in Iceland

Verified Expert

What are the Top 12 activities and experiences to partake in during your holiday in Iceland? What are the most popular tour choices and cultural excursions?

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? Read on to find out the Top 12 Things to Do in 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 period in the pre-holiday organisation.

Thankfully, having tried and tested every adventure and experience available in the country, we here at Guide to Iceland are an authority when it comes to choosing the best means of filling your time in Iceland.

A cosy little puffin

And so, for your pleasure and convenience, we have compiled a list of the Top 12 Things to do in Iceland.

Of course, such a compilation won’t suit everyone but having considered general popularity, Icelandic authenticity, and traveller feedback: we’re sure that you’ll find one, if not all twelve choices, to your liking.

12. Go on a Whale Watching Tour

A humpback whale breaching the water.Credit: Best Value Whale Watching Trip from Reykjavik

There are over twenty species of cetacean that call the Icelandic coastal waters home, ranging from the rather small harbour 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 to see rarer animals, such as Killer Whales and Fin Whales. As with many tours in Iceland, whale watching guests will also spot a variety of seabirds, including Skuas, Arctic Tern, Guillemots and even the colourfully billed Puffin.

Whale watching tours depart from three primary locations: Reykjavík, Akureyri and Husavík, which is considered Iceland’s whale watching capital. This is due to the abundant animal traffic that passes through Husavík’s fjords, a consequence of the fruitful feeding grounds found off Iceland’s northern coasts.

There are over twenty cetacean species that live around Iceland.Credit: Whales & Puffins | Combo Tour from Reykjavik Harbour

Whale watching tours can be undertaken either on larger vessels or smaller power boats.

The bigger boats are perfect for larger tour groups, and with reliable tracking technology, are quite robust at helping you spot a whale.

On the other hand, smaller boats mean smaller groups, thus a more intimate setting. Powerboat operators are also able to get closer to the animals themselves as their motors make far less noise.

11. Go Horseback Riding

Though they are always referred to as 'horses', the Icelandic breed is, in fact, pony sized.

The Icelandic Horse is, arguably, the country’s most famous four-legged resident. Instantly recognisable 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 isa unique horse breed, so much so that it’s forbidden from outside breeding in order to maintain its unique genetics: any animal 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 the Icelandic nature. This is not just the case recently, but has been throughout the centuries, during which time the original Norwegian breed developed into the animal we know today.

The Icelandic horse is an animal known for its intelligence and mild temperament.

Horse riding tours are available to both beginner and experienced riders and are led by knowledgeable and certified horse riding instructors.

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.

10. Have a Night Out in Reykjavík

The typical flashing glimpse of a night out in ReykjavikCredit: Happy Hour | Reykjavik's Cheapest Drinks 

This is certainly a favourite 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 legalised 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 which will see a decent blend of local Icelanders and outside visitors, thus ensuring a night of interesting conversation.

To alleviate stress put on the wallet most establishments offer 'Happy Hour' for, at least, three hours, and will often offer other discounts and incentives to keep you happily drinking. 

The beer garden of Boston, a popular downtown bar,Credit: Happy Hour | Reykjavik's Cheapest Drinks 

Make the most of it! As with most places across the world, the later the night goes on, the more debauched the general atmosphere of downtown will become.

Thankfully, most hotels and guesthouses are within walking distance, meaning only the shortest of stumbles home after the party ends.

9. Visit Lake Mývatn in North Iceland

Námaskarð Pass is a geothermal area in the North of the country.

There’s something of a myth going around that Iceland lacks insects. Whilst that appears true for the most part, a summertime trip to Lake Mývatn, aka. “Fly Lake” quickly admonishes any strong opinion on that matter. 

After all, there are, quite literally, 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.

8. Relax in the Blue Lagoon Spa

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.

If the Blue Lagoon is out of your budget, there are always other spas that offer similar experiences, such as the Secret Lagoon near to the Golden Circle and the Mývatn Nature Baths in the north.

7. See Dettifoss Waterfall in North Iceland

Dettifoss is Europe's most powerful waterfall.

Dettifoss, found in Vatnajökull National Park in the northeast of the country, is Europe’s most powerful waterfall. 

Falling 44 metres 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.

6. Visit the West Fjords

The fishing village of Bolungarvík,

Like Iceland’s far east, the Westfjords is a region less frequented by international guests 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 eclectic and staggeringly gorgeous landscapes of Iceland’s northwest.

Arnarfjörður is the second widest fjord in Iceland, and is found in the Westfjords.

For those looking to examine the history and culture of the region, take a visit to the Arctic Fox Centre, the Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery, the Westfjords Heritage Museum or the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum.

5. Enjoy Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon with the Northern Lights above.

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.

It is, after all, a still lake decorated with a silent procession of glittering icebergs, groaning and crunching against one another as they make their way from Breiðamerkurjökull glacier to the Atlantic Ocean.

Whilst 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.

In a century, it is thought that the spot of the lagoon will instead be overcome with an entirely new fjord. Whilst this might sound unlikely, Iceland's glaciers are already melting at an astonishing pace.

Diamond Beach is only 5 minutes from the lagoon.

Only five minutes walk from the lagoon itself, visitors will discover Diamond Beach. This aptly named stretch of coastline is where icebergs wash ashore the jet-black sand, thus making one of the most visually appealing scenes found in Iceland. 

4. Have a Dip in a Natural Hot Pool

Relaxing in the hot river at Reykjadalur.Credit: The 5 Best Hot Springs in Iceland. 

Iceland is a young country, geologically speaking, meaning much of the landscape is still geothermally active. Guests here have popularised 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. In fact, one of the incredible by-products of living in a geothermally active country is the abundance of natural hot pools found dotted in 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.

3. Do the Golden Circle with Snowmobiling or Snorkelling

Snowmobiling is an action-packed means of breaking up a day of sightseeing.Credit: Snowmobiling in Iceland | An Essential Guide

The Golden Circle is Iceland’s most popular sightseeing route, comprised of three major attractions: Þingvellir National Park, Haukadalur Geothermal Valley and the majestic Gullfoss Waterfall

Driving the Golden Circle can be achieved in a few hours, many visitors choose to undertake the drive in morning and move on to other things for the rest of the day. However, others spread the route out over a whole day, even adding a snorkelling or snowmobiling tour for added excitement.

Þingvellir National Park is important to Icelanders for a number of reasons, least of which is its aesthetic beauty. It’s also where the world’s first democratically elected parliament was formed in 930 AD. 

At Þingvellir you’ll be able to see the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, standing exposed from the earth. It’s also home to Silfra Fissure, one of the top 10 snorkelling spots worldwide.

Þingvellir National Park is Iceland's only UNESCO world heritage site.

Haukadalur is home to the hot springs, Geysir and Strokkur, the latter of which erupts to over twenty metres high every five minutes or so, as well as numerous steaming fumaroles and bubbling mud pools.

Ten kilometres to the north, visitors will find the third and final stop of the Golden Circle, Gullfoss waterfall. This 32-metre high feature demonstrates the power of Iceland’s water systems as it cascades over two rocky tiers into a dramatic valley below.

From Gullfoss, many guests choose to partake in a snowmobile tour on Iceland’s second largest glacier, Langjökull.

2. Witness the Northern Lights 

The Aurora will always fabulous patterns across the sky.

One of Iceland’s biggest draws are the Northern Lights, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis, a natural light display that occurs only in the winter and only at the earth’s highest elevations. Dancing in ribbon-like waves of purple, green and gold, this incredible phenomenon 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; limited to no cloud cover, flaring activity in the magnetosphere, no light pollution.

When they do show up, there is no knowing exactly when, where or for how long the Lights will be dancing for. But, there are handy steps you can take in advance in order to help better maximise your chances.

The Northern Lights most commonly appear in green, though they will often also show up in red, purple and gold.

The best way is to partake in a tour with a Northern Lights guide. Not only are such guides experienced when it comes to knowing the best and darkest vantage points, they are also able to provide a wealth of scientific information to add even more colour to the experience.

The guides will also be able to help when it comes to photographing this spectacular cosmic show.

1. Go Glacier Hiking and Ice Caving

The dazzling interior of an Icelandic ice cave.

As its name suggests, Iceland is a land that has come to be defined by its frozen landscapes. Whilst many decry 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 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 trapped perpetually between darkness and glittering white snow.

The ultimate icy experience is of course entering one of the countries gorgeous blue ice caves. These are however only accessible in the winter months.

Due to the effects of global warming, Iceland's glaciers are at greater risk than ever before.

Thankfully, Iceland’s greatest frozen attraction, the glaciers, are accessible to explore throughout the year. This 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. 

Get access to special deals & events