Iceland may be one of the most expensive countries I’ve ever visited but it’s also one of the most beautiful. Honestly, if you do get the chance… go. I promise it’s worth it.
From artsy capital Reykjavik to the geysers, glaciers, waterfalls and lagoons of the rural areas, Iceland is as eclectic as it is beautiful.
My friend and I spent just five days in Iceland so, as always, there’s loads more to see but here’s a quick run-down of our highlights:
Northernmost capital in the world, Reykjavik, is a modern metropolis full of museums, art and cultural sites, as well as great restaurants, quirky cafes and trendy bars.
The city features traditional brightly-coloured wooden houses typical of Scandinavia but is also home to stunning modern buildings including the glass-covered Harpa concert hall and conference centre.
The city’s famous Hallgrímskirkja church is visible throughout much of the city and was our beacon to follow in getting back to our hostel on the outskirts of town.
Reykjavik has two harbours; the Old Harbour and New Harbour. We spent more time in the Old Harbour as instead of huge cruise ships, it’s home to smaller ships, fishing boats and sight-seeing vessels.
Whale watching and puffin tours are two of the main tourist draws at the old harbour.
Puffin tours take you on small boats out to a “puffin island” where you can see thousands of the little fellows (they’re hard to capture without an amazing zoom lense).
The South Coast
Iceland’s South Coast is unmissable with waterfalls, glaciers and black beaches adding to the country’s unique beauty.
If you have your own car, it would be fantastic to see the sights at your own pace. But if you’re on a budget and/or time limit like we were, there are tonnes of bus companies operating tours to the major sites. We booked our day trip through Sterna Travel.
The tours all hit the major sites but each company will stop at a few smaller places of interest if time allows.
Many believe that Skógafoss is Iceland’s most beautiful waterfall. It’s not only breathtaking to look at but stand close to the water and you will feel the mist wash over you. Totally worth getting freshly-straightened hair wet!
The clifftops of Dyrhólaey provide stunning views along the coast, including ashened black shorelines below.
The basalt columns and black pebbled sand make nearby Reynisfjara beach in Vik a must-see. And yes, you can climb on the columns!
Iceland is not known as The Land of Ice and Fire without reason. The stunning Sólheimajökull glacier was doused in volcanic ash back in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull erupted. The result of a fiery volcano mixing with an icy glacier makes for a unique, slightly bizarre sight.
Another of Iceland’s better known waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss is a site that will blow you away. Forget jumping photos with the falls in the background; you can actually walk right behind the waterfall here!
And at the risk of sounding completely corny… Walking behind a waterfall flanked by a full rainbow, feeling the spray on your face and hearing the thundering force as the falls pound the water below is a truly magical experience.
Don’t miss the “secret waterfall” Gljúfurárfoss just a few hundred metres away. Partially hidden by a large canyon, you can only reach this waterfall by balancing over natural stepping stones along the edge of the canyon walls. Be prepared to get a bit wet in there but it’s a site you shouldn’t miss.
The Golden Circle
Again, there are loads of companies offering tours of the Golden Circle route. Yes, it’s touristy but sometimes things are touristy for a reason and you really shouldn’t skip this.
We chose a half-day tour through BusTravel, which allowed us to see the whole route but at times did feel a little rushed. If you want more than just a “photo-stop” at some of the smaller places then go for a longer tour or self-drive.
The tour started at the volcanic crater Kerið. A steep, rocky path takes you down to the water of this natural masterpiece. If the steep descent is a little much, the views are still spectacular from above.
One of the most popular sites on the Golden Circle route, and in Iceland overall, is Gullfoss, which translates to “Golden Falls”. The falls stretch the width of the Hvítá river in a staircase-like formation, then plunge into a deep crevice. The sheer noise of these falls is incredible.
The geyser geothermal area of Haukadalur is where the famous Strokkur geyser erupts every few minutes. As the water starts to bubble, crowds wait expectantly, cameras poised… then as the eruption goes off, there’s a frenzy of gasps and camera clicks. Reaching heights of up to 30 metres, you definitely want to be standing upwind of the eruptions.
The geyser is surrounded by hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles so be prepared for that slightly “eggy” sulphur smell in the air!
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is another top attraction in Iceland. The area is protected as a national park due to its geological significance as evidence of continental drift. The park sits on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the huge canyon was formed due to movement in the earth’s crust. It’s a pretty amazing display of nature’s power.
The park is also a UNESCO World Heritage site owing to its historical importance as the site of the first assembly of the world’s oldest parliament.
The Blue Lagoon
A visit to Iceland is not complete without a dip in the Blue Lagoon. Touristy? Yes. Expensive? Yes. Worth it? 100% yes. Don’t listen to the nay-sayers.
As the lagoon is en route to Keflavik, visit on your way to or from the airport. It’s definitely worth pre-booking several days in advance so you can get your preferred time slot as there’s limited numbers of tickets available for each entry time (but once you’re in, you can stay as long as you like).
I don’t recommend leaving the booking to the night before and getting stuck with the 6am departure from your accommodation. However, on the plus side, a hideously early start does mean first entry to the lagoon and thus sharing to water with far fewer bathers…
Your skin will relish in the the free silica mud mask and the swim-up bar is a welcome novelty.
Plus, I’ve never been so relaxed getting on to a flight…
Check out my Icelandic Eats for more travel inspo!