Best things to do in Iceland

Few destinations capture the imagination like Iceland: volcanic lands of ice and fire, glacier-carved fjords and meadows where wild horses roam. 

From taking a dip into Icelandic spa culture to delving into the history and legends of the Icelandic sagas, these are the best things to do in Iceland.

Experience an Icelandic saga 

At living museums throughout Iceland, visitors are invited to step back in time – they might bake bread over an open fire, listen to a story of ancient heroes and heroines, or swing a sword in an epic fight. At Eiríksstaðir in West Iceland, step inside a longhouse replica, and at 1238 – The Battle of Iceland, don VR goggles for an immersive experience of one of Iceland’s most fearsome battles. 

At Gásir Medieval Days, which happens every summer, a historic marketplace near Akureyri is brought back to life. Listen to a blacksmith hammer a blade, smell scorched birch as it’s transformed into charcoal, watch women dye wool by boiling herbs, have a witch tell your fortune with ancient runes, test your skills with a bow and arrow and help egg a thief. There are many more historic sites and intriguing exhibitions around the country; find inspiration from the Icelandic Saga and Heritage Association.

Soak in geothermal baths and spas

For a long time, the Blue Lagoon dominated the high-end bathing market in Iceland. The milky blue geothermal seawater in the middle of a lava field is still perfect for jetlag recovery (it helps that it’s 20 minutes from the airport). More geothermal baths and spas have popped up in recent years, attracting visitors for their elegant architecture, stunning settings, and unique bathing experiences. The Mývatn Nature Baths in northern Iceland overlook Lake Mývatn and the surrounding bird-filled wetlands and volcanic landscapes. Situated on the banks of Lake Laugarvatn, Laugarvatn Fontana pipes in natural steam for its steam bath. 

If you’re looking for solitude, the Canyon Baths by Húsafell include a guided hike through stunning Icelandic wilderness followed by a dip in the secluded geothermal pools. For Insta-worthy views, Geosea in Húsavík overlooks Skjálfandi Bay and its snow-tipped mountains. Vök Baths near Egilsstaðir features geothermal pools floating in Urriðavatn Lake. Right on the capital’s doorstep, Sky Lagoon in Kópavogur brings a fully Icelandic spa experience within reach for visitors to Reykjavík. New “forest baths” are due to open in early 2022 outside Akureyri. 

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A person in safety gear squats down low inside a huge pale blue ice cave
Hire a guide and head into the mystical ice caves that form in Vatnajökull National Park © Anna Om / Shutterstock

Explore Iceland’s caves

From ancient lava tubes to ever-changing ice caves and mysterious artificial caves, Iceland has a range of underground adventures for everyone. A little-known fact is that between Selfoss and Vík in South Iceland are 200 artificial caves carved into sandstone before or around the time the first settlers arrived. It is believed that Irish monks (called Papar in Icelandic) created them, but sufficient archaeological evidence is lacking. Twelve of these caves can be found at the farm Ægissíða by Hella, and guided tours are available of some of the caves.

Natural ice caves form in Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier, due to geothermal heat or spring thaw. This fleeting, crystalized world of wonder can only be explored with experienced guides. Alternatively, visit the artificial ice tunnel in Langjökull or the ice cave at Perlan in Reykjavík.

There are myriad large and small lava caves, tubes and tunnels around Iceland, all of which reveal surprising colors and formations like stalactites and stalagmites that have formed over hundreds of years. Guided tours are offered in Víðgelmir near Húsafell, Iceland’s largest lava cave, Vatnshellir on Snæfellsnes and Lofthellir near Lake Mývatn.

Check out the nightlife in Reykjavík

In a country with comparatively high booze prices, Reykjavík’s nightlife is unmatched. Happy hours in Reykjavík usually begin at 4pm – cozy Port 9 and Veður are good places to start. For creative cocktails, head for Apótek and Slippbarinn and find a spot on Petersen svítan’s rooftop bar, which is wonderful on sunny days. If pubs are more your thing, check out KEX Hostel and Röntgen, where there’s often live music to boot. Skuggabaldur caters specifically to jazz fans. 

Kaffibarinn and Prikið are good choices if you want to dance the night away. The crowd at Dillon always goes crazy when “rock’n’roll grandma” Andrea Jónsdóttir starts DJ-ing, and you’ll find a similarly joyful atmosphere at Kiki Queer Bar. Múlaberg is great for its happy hour cocktails and outside seating area, and R5 for its range of beers plus occasional blues concerts.

Hike up active volcanoes

In Iceland there are approximately 130 volcanoes, and eruptions occur every three years on average. In Geldingadalir, on the doorstep of Keflavík International Airport, a small-scale eruption has attracted onlookers with its magnificent (yet intermittent) lava flow since March 19, 2021. In 1973, the inhabitants of Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago off the southwest coast, escaped an eruption that started unexpectedly in their town, burying houses in lava and ash. One of these houses is the centerpiece of the museum Eldheimar. 

Hekla, Iceland’s most active volcano, was believed to be the entrance to hell, but it has been quiet since 2000. At 1500m (4920ft), Hekla provides an interesting and challenging hike with a panoramic view from the top. At dormant Þríhnúkagígur, you can explore a volcano from the inside. From the top, you’re lowered down 213m (699ft) into an enormous and unbelievably colorful magma chamber.

A streak of green and yellow lights sweeps in an arc across the night sky, with millions of twinkling stars shining through.
Check the forecasts and find a dark spot – you might be lucky enough to see the northern lights © Assawin Chomjit / 500px

See the northern lights and other celestial phenomena

If luck is on your side, green, purple and red ribbons flow across the dark sky on a clear winter night. The northern lights are beautiful, powerful, hypnotizing; you can sense how small you are under the hue of a celestial phenomenon that dominates the heavens above. It’s best to follow forecasts, base yourself far from light pollution and be patient – or book a tour to up the odds. Learn more about the elusive aurora borealis at Perlan or the Northern Lights Center in Reykjavík. 

There are other things to observe in the winter sky above Iceland, too. The Hotel Rangá observatory in South Iceland has a roll-off roof and two high-quality telescopes, bringing you closer to the stars in the sky. 

In the summer, the midnight sun provides for spectacular views, especially in north Iceland. At the summer solstice (June 21 in 2022), find a good location for observing the sun bouncing off the ocean surface. One idea is the Arctic Henge in Raufarhöfn, which was designed as a giant sundial to capture the midnight sun in perfectly aligned gateways. 

Take a budget-friendly swim

The most authentic and budget-friendly way to enjoy Iceland’s geothermal energy is the public swimming pools. Practically every town and village has at least one. The water is warm and welcoming, lounging in the hot tubs is bliss, and some of the views are worth the trip alone. 

Make the most of the snowy season 

The backcountry skiing season lasts through May, with a range of tours on offer, including skiing from the mountaintop to the shore. Kaldbakur mountain by Grenivík is popular among backcountry skiers. It’s possible to hitch a ride with a snowmobile up the mountain. The view from the top of Eyjafjörður fjord and Hrísey island is breathtaking. If you’re not keen on skiing, you can take a thrilling sleigh ride down the mountain in a custom-made toboggan. 

At Lake Mývatn, you can book a ride with sleigh dogs. For a motorized, action-packed adventure, Skidoo tours are particularly popular on the glaciers in the west and south. If you’re looking for a slower-paced type of winter activity, snowshoeing might be your thing, walking up mountains in the north or exploring the black-and-white wonderworld of Dimmuborgir lava field.

Whale breaching in the ocean as the sun rises casting orange streaks across the sky
Be dazzled by ocean giants on a whale-watching trip from Húsavík © takepicsforfun / Shutterstock

Whale-watching and other ocean activities

When you’re out on the open ocean and feel the salty air and wind in your hair, you sense a special kind of freedom, and if you’re paying attention, you might see seabirds catch fish or even a blowing whale. Húsavík is the best place to go whale-watching in Iceland, with many tours on offer and a high sighting ratio – even blue whales are occasionally seen here. Tours also go from Hauganes and Reykjavík. Seal watching tours depart from Hvammstangi. Watching these curious creatures sunbathe in their natural habitat is delightful. 

Sign up for a sea kayaking tour for a slower and more intimate exploration of coastal regions. Find operators in Stykkishólmur and Ögur in Ísafjarðardjúp, among other places. Paddleboarding is becoming a popular activity in Akureyri. 

From Ólafsfjörður jetski tours allow people to experience the vertical cliffs of Ólafsfjarðarmúli from below. As for experiences below the surface, Strýtan DiveCenter takes experienced divers on tours to a unique geothermal chimney on the ocean floor of Eyjafjörður. At Grímsey island, people can dive and snorkel with puffins right on the Arctic Circle.  

Sample Icelandic craft beers

The local beer always says something special about the place you’re visiting, and you can add a new frothy dimension to your Iceland trip by touring the country’s surprisingly many microbreweries. The craft beer scene is fairly new in Iceland; the first microbrewery, Bruggsmiðjan, was founded in the tiny village of Árskógssandur in North Iceland in 2006. Its product, Kaldi, proved a hit, and in the years that followed, a growing variety of craft beers appeared on the local market. 

Try fine dining

The Icelandic restaurant scene has come a long way in the past decades. Dill Restaurant earned the country’s first Michelin star in 2017, then lost it and reclaimed it – and in 2021, Dill remains Iceland’s only Michelin-star restaurant. Four others received special recommendations in 2021: Matur og drykkur, Óx and Sumac in Reykjavík, and Moss at the Blue Lagoon. Sumac draws inspiration from Middle Eastern cuisine, and all others emphasize New Nordic dishes with fresh, local and seasonal ingredients.

Outside of Reykjavík, Nielsen Restaurant in Egilsstaðir deserves a special mention for its loyalty to East Icelandic food producers – highlighting local fish, meat, vegetables, grain and dairy – and game, including reindeer. Meanwhile, Norð Austur Sushi & Bar in Seyðisfjörður (open in summer only) combines the best of Japanese cuisine with the freshest Icelandic seafood.

Hike and bike through stunning natural wonders

After the snow melts and the mud dries in summer, Iceland transforms into a hiker’s paradise with hiking routes past stunning natural sites. Two of the most famous trails are Laugavegur from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk, past multicolored mountains (2–4 days), and across Fimmvörðuháls from Skógafoss to Þórsmörk, along a series of waterfalls (1–2 days). 

In the East, the Stórurð trail – which takes about 5 hours – attracts hikers in growing numbers for its turquoise ponds trapped by huge boulders. In the West Fjords, hiking in the uninhabited Hornstrandir Nature Reserve (one to multiple days) provides a closer encounter with nature than most other places. 

If you’d rather explore Iceland on a bike, popular trails include the geothermal valley Reykjadalur by Hveragerði and the emerald green landscape around Kirkjubæjaklaustur, where Iceland Bike Farm is based.

Go on an outdoor art trail

Combine a walking tour of Reykjavík with a “treasure hunt” where you find as many outdoor artworks as possible. The “Viking ship” sculpture Sólfar by Jón Gunnar Árnason is a given. Fewer tourists pay attention to Vatnsberinn (The Water Carrier) by Ásmundur Sveinsson in the heart of downtown or Útlaginn (The Outlaw) by Einar Jónsson on the corner of Suðurgata and Hringbraut – works by two of Iceland’s most famous sculptors. 

Þúfa (The Tussock) is a more recent addition to the capital’s outdoor art scene but quickly became a landmark. The 8m-high grassy mound in the Grandi harbor area was created by Ólöf Nordal in 2013, inviting visitors to walk to the top for a view of the city. Download the Reykjavík Art Walk app to learn more about this interesting side of Iceland’s capital. 

Outside Reykjavík, Eggin í Gleðivík by Sigurður Guðmundsson represents the eggs of 34 species of birds that nest around Djúpivogur. In Seyðisfjörður, Tvísöngur is a fascinating musical sculpture by German artist Lukas Kühne.

Feel free as you go horseback riding

The Icelandic horse is one of a kind. The breed possesses two unique gaits in addition to the “regular” ones, the smooth tölt and fast-flying pace. For centuries Icelanders have relied on the small, sturdy and colorful breed for farm work and carrying them between places in a roadless country. 

Today, the horses remain Icelanders’ most loyal companions as more people practice horsemanship in Iceland than in other European countries. Riding on a good tölting horse in the wild Icelandic nature is an experience like no other. Through the horse’s movements, you connect with nature in a new way, and you feel incredibly free as you gallop along narrow dirt paths or across shallow lakes. Tour operators offer anything from one-hour tours for beginners to multi-day tours for experienced riders in different regions of the country in varied landscapes. Among the most popular treks is across the highland on the ancient route Kjölur.