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Top 12 Best Things To Do and See in Iceland

Top 12 Best Things To Do and See in Iceland

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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?

Find out the best things to do in Iceland. Learn what there is to do in Iceland in this list of the 12 top things to see, places to visit, exciting activities, must-see tourist attractions, and fun things to do. 

For those wondering what to do in Iceland, the real question should be what isn’t there to do in Iceland! The sheer variety of experiences available gives you plenty of options for things to do during your trip. You’ll find that time and budget will be the biggest limitations when planning your trip rather than things you want to do. 

Because we work with almost all official travel service providers, Guide to Iceland is an authority to help you choose the best things to see and do in Iceland. Forget the top 10 things to do in Iceland. Here are the top 12 best things to do!

12. Go On a Whale Watching Tour

A humpback whale breaching the water.

Whale watching is one of the best things to do in Iceland. Over twenty species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises call the Icelandic coastal waters home, ranging from the small harbor porpoises to the earth’s largest animals, blue whales. 

The most common species to see are minke whales and humpback whales, although there’s always the possibility of seeing rarer animals, such as killer whales and fin whales. Like many Iceland tours, whale-watching guests can also spot various exotic seabirds, including skuas, Arctic terns, guillemots, and even the colorfully billed puffin.

Whale-watching tours depart from three primary locations: Reykjavik, Akureyri, and Husavik. Husavik is considered Iceland’s whale-watching capital due to the abundant animal traffic that passes through its fjords. This activity results from fertile feeding grounds found off Iceland’s northern coasts.

There are over twenty cetacean species that live around Iceland.Photo from Flexible 4 Hour Whale Watching & Puffin Watching Tours Combo with Transfer from Reykjavik

You can take a whale watching tour on either a large vessel or a smaller powerboat.

Bigger boats are perfect for larger tour groups. They have reliable tracking technology, so they’re quite reliable for finding whales.

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 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 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 for having five gaits. 

The Icelandic horse is such a unique breed that breeding them with other horses is prohibited to maintain the unique genetics. A horse that leaves the country can never return.

By choosing to partake in an Icelandic horse riding tour, visitors guarantee themselves a tried-and-tested method of experiencing Icelandic nature. Touring by horseback has been a popular way of seeing Iceland for centuries, during which time the original Norwegian breed evolved into the animal we know today. It’s also one of the fun things to do in Iceland for people of all ages!

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

Knowledgeable and certified instructors lead horseback riding tours for both beginners and experienced riders.

Most horse riding tours in Iceland last for approximately one to four hours (though there are options to extend this) and will offer the chance for a quick trot for those who feel confident in the saddle.

10. Have a Night Out in Reykjavik

Night outs in Reykjavik are great fun.Photo by Nanna Gunnarsdóttir 

What is there to do in Iceland at night? Going out at night is undoubtedly a favorite pastime amongst the local population, who will jump at the chance to enjoy a few cold ones before the night’s end. We can’t be sure whether this has anything to do with beer only being legalized in 1989 or perhaps the eternal darkness that blankets the country each year. 

Downtown Reykjavik 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 exciting conversation. There’s a reason why going out at night is one of the popular things to do in Reykjavik!

To alleviate any stress put on your wallet, most establishments have happy hour (a time when drinks are offered at a discount) for at least three hours. They will often offer other discounts and incentives to keep you happily drinking.  

Many of Reykjavik's bars serve cocktails.Photo by Nanna Gunnarsdóttir 

Make the most of it! As with most places worldwide, the longer the night goes on, the more rowdy downtown Reykjavik’s general atmosphere will become.

Thankfully, most hotels and guesthouses are within walking distance, so it’s only a short stumble back to your hotel after the party ends.

9. Visit Lake Myvatn in North Iceland

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

There’s a myth that Iceland lacks insects. While that appears to be true for most of the year, a summertime trip to Lake Myvatn, aka “Fly Lake,” will quickly put an end to the debate.

Here you’ll find clouds of the winged heathens buzzing and whizzing around the lake shoreline. Wearing a netted hat and long sleeves is recommended.

Winter solves that problem completely, and, even in the summer, the flies can do little to detract from the sheer gorgeousness of the lake’s surrounding area.

There are more things to do in North Iceland than just visiting the lake. Visitors will find a variety of activities to do in Iceland during their visit. Check out the Skutustadagigar pseudo-craters, the geothermally active Namaskard 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 honor of being Iceland’s most famous spa because of its healing silica mud, warm and soothing water, charming surroundings, and billowing steam stacks. It’s universally agreed to be one of Iceland’s top things to do. 

Even visitors who only have a limited time in Iceland, such as a long layover, can take a quick Blue Lagoon tour or the shuttle bus to the Blue Lagoon

If the Blue Lagoon is out of your budget, other spas offer similar experiences, such as the Secret Lagoon near the Golden Circle and the Myvatn Nature Baths in North Iceland.

7. See Dettifoss Waterfall in North Iceland

Dettifoss is Europe's most powerful waterfall.

Dettifoss waterfall, found in Vatnajokull National Park in the Northeast of the country, is Europe’s second most powerful waterfall and an Iceland must-see attraction. When making your list of where to go in Iceland, don’t forget this waterfall.

Falling 144 feet (44 meters) from the Jokulsa a Fjollum river, Dettifoss waterfall crescendos with a mighty crash into Jokulsargljufur Canyon below, creating one of the most spectacular and dramatic natural sites in the country.

Dettifoss waterfall is accessible from Route 862 and one of the main stops on a Diamond Circle Tour, the northern counterpart of the famed Golden Circle. Alongside Dettifoss waterfall, visitors to the Diamond Circle will also visit Husavik, Asbyrgi Canyon, and Lake Myvatn. 

If you’re planning to visit this part of the country, be sure to check out other things to do in Husavik and things to do in Akureyri, both of which are in North Iceland.

6. Places to See in Iceland: The Westfjords

The fishing village of Bolungarvík,

International guests tend to visit the Westfjords less often than the South, Southwest, and North, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fantastic place to see. It makes it an even more attractive destination if you want to be away from crowds.

West Iceland attractions have 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 have something for everybody.

The Westfjords boasts the northernmost glacier in Iceland, Drangajokull glacier, the picturesque Arnarfjordur bay, the domineering Bolafjall mountain, and the puffin-rich island of Flatey. All of these and more make up the diverse and staggeringly beautiful landscapes of Northwest Iceland.

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

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, and the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum.

5. The Best of Iceland - Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon    

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon with the Northern Lights above.

In a country of awe-inspiring natural attractions, it’s hard to pick out just one that outshines all others. Still, any discussion of the most spectacular places to see in Iceland will inevitably include Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

This glacier-filled lake should top your list of what to see in Iceland. Glittering icebergs groan and crunch against one another as they make their way from Breidamerkurjokull 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 seals that live in the area dip and dive around the heaving chunks of ice in what may be one of the most beautiful places in Iceland.

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is increasing in size each year due to the ever-increasing effects of climate change on the Icelandic glaciers. Some think that an entirely new fjord will have overtaken the lagoon in a century. While this might sound unlikely, Iceland’s glaciers are already melting at an astonishing pace.

Diamond Beach is only 5 minutes from the lagoon.

Just a five-minute walk from the lagoon itself, visitors will discover Diamond Beach. Icebergs frequently wash ashore on this aptly named stretch of coast. The glittering icebergs contrast with the jet-black sand, resulting in one of Iceland’s most visually stunning natural landscapes.

4. Add a Dip in a Natural Hot Pool to Your Iceland To-Do List!

Relaxing in the hot river at Reykjadalur.Photo from Hot Spring Hike of Reykjadalur Valley

What can you do in Iceland that’s free (or almost free)? Check out the thermal pools!

Geologically speaking, Iceland is a young country, meaning much of the landscape is still active. Guests here have popularized the pursuit of churning mud pools, steaming volcanic vents, and erupting hot springs, such as Strokkur, during a Golden Circle sightseeing tour. These natural wonders are worth adding to your list of what to visit in Iceland.

Thankfully, not all of this activity is quite so dramatic. One of the incredible byproducts 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’re also an excellent place to kick back and have a friendly chat with fellow bathers. You could even view the northern lights from the hot spring when conditions are right.

3. Tour the Golden Circle and Go Snowmobiling or Snorkeling

Snowmobiling is an action-packed means of breaking up a day of sightseeing.Photo from Snowmobile Adventure | Golden Circle and Langjokull Snowmobiling

The Golden Circle is Iceland’s most popular sightseeing route and one of travelers top things to do in Iceland. It comprises three major attractions: Thingvellir National Park, Haukadalur Geothermal Valley, and the majestic Gullfoss waterfall. These are some of the best things to see in Iceland. 

You can drive the Golden Circle in a few hours. Many visitors choose to begin the drive in the morning and then participate in activities during the rest of the day. Others opt to spread out the drive over a few days, making time for snorkeling tours and snowmobile tours for extra excitement.

Thingvellir National Park is important to Icelanders for many reasons, one of which is its natural beauty. It’s also where medieval Icelanders formed the world’s first democratically elected parliament in 930 AD. 

In Thingvellir National Park, you’ll see the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates emerging from the earth. It’s a great natural site!

It’s also home to Silfra Fissure, one of the top 10 snorkeling spots in the world.

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 65 feet (20 meters) in the air every five minutes or so and is surrounded by numerous steaming fumaroles and bubbling mud pools.

Six miles (10 kilometers) to the north, visitors will find the third and final stop on the Golden Circle, the Gullfoss waterfall. This 105-foot (32-meter) high feature demonstrates the power of Iceland’s water system as it cascades over two rocky tiers and into a dramatic valley below.

Many guests who visit Gullfoss waterfall choose to partake in a snowmobile tour on Iceland’s second-largest glacier, Langjokull. It’s one thing to see a glacier, but this adventure activity takes it to another level. 

2. Must See Iceland: Witness the Northern Lights

The Aurora will always fabulous patterns across the sky.

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 in the earth’s northernmost areas. 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. To see them, conditions must be nearly perfect: limited-or-no cloud cover, flaring activity in the magnetosphere, and no light pollution.

When they do appear, there’s no knowing exactly when, where, or how long the lights will dance. But that’s part of what makes them a must-see in Iceland. Thankfully, there are handy steps you can take to maximize your chances of seeing them.

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 take a guided northern lights tour. 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.

A guide can also help show you how to photograph the northern lights.

If a tour isn’t something you’re interested in, choose a location away from light pollution. More remote rural areas will have better visibility than in the city. Then be patient! While you can’t control the weather and if the lights will appear, you can do your best to be ready if the conditions are right. 

1. Go Glacier Hiking and Ice Caving      

The dazzling interior of an Icelandic ice cave.

As its name suggests, Iceland is a land defined by frozen landscapes. While some criticize Iceland as not being quite frozen enough to warrant the name, it is a country of floating icebergs, sweeping glaciers, and dazzling blue ice caves. 

That being said, most visitors are surprised to find the country temperate and mild, at least during the warm days of the summer. It’s during the winter, however, that Iceland truly lives up to its name. It’s an environment perpetually trapped between darkness and glittering white snow. There are many cool things to do in Iceland - literally and figuratively! 

The ultimate icy experience is entering one of the country’s 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 best frozen attractions, its glaciers, are accessible to explorers throughout the year via glacier hikes. 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? Did it help you choose what to do in Iceland? 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.