From gazing on the northern lights to soaking in a geothermal pool surrounded by volcanic landscapes, Iceland's natural environment turns the prosaic into the extraordinary. With glaciers, geysers, and wildlife-watching opportunities, it's no surprise this astonishing place is has seen a surge in popularity. Here are 15 must-visit places to add to your Iceland itinerary.
Explore it all on the Ring Road (Route 1)
There’s no better way to explore Iceland than to hire a set of wheels and road-trip Route 1, affectionately known as the Ring Road. This 832-mile (1340km) tarmac trail loops around the island, passing through verdant dales decked with waterfalls (be sure to stop at Goðafoss), glacier tongues dripping from ice caps like frosting from a cake, desert-like plains of grey outwash sands, and velvety, moss-covered lava fields. It's supremely spectacular – but don’t forget to follow other roads as they splinter off into the wilderness. Allow around ten days to take it all in, longer to make the most of those detours.
Tour the Golden Circle for Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss
On a quicker visit to Iceland, you can take in some major sights on a shorter driving route, all within a couple of hours' drive from the capital. It can feel more commercial than other areas, but despite the hordes, the Golden Circle remains one of the most memorable routes on the planet. It spans roughly 185 miles (300km) and takes in three main sights, which are all true knockouts: Þingvellir where tectonic plates meet, Geysir where water erupts more than 100 times a day, and the roaring and staggeringly voluminous waterfall Gullfoss. It takes about four hours to drive the loop without any add-on stops. If you have time, though, check out nearby activities: rock-climbing, rafting and soaking in geo-pools, plus visiting a hydropower museum, fishing and exploring a 6500-year-old explosion crater.
See Europe's last true wilderness in the Westfjords
Iceland’s sweeping spectrum of superlative nature comes to a dramatic climax in the Westfjords, where mass tourism disappears – only about 10% of Iceland's visitors ever see the region. Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is one of Europe's last true wilderness areas. It’s a fantastic destination for hiking, with challenging terrain and excellent opportunities for spotting Arctic foxes, seals, whales and teeming bird life. At Rauðasandur on the Látrabjarg Peninsula, you will find a stunning beach with shades of pink and red sands stretching out ahead of you. Dynjandi is the most dramatic waterfall in the Westfjords. The bumpy drive to it is famous for incredible views; you'll see how the falls are the catchment area for run-off from the peaks and inland valleys all around.
Learn about Icelandic culture in Reykjavík
Petite Reykjavík boasts all the treats you’d expect of a European capital – such as excellent museums and great shopping – but the city’s ratio of coffee houses to citizens is nothing short of staggering. In fact, the local social culture is built around such low-key hang-outs that crank up the intensity after-hours, when tea is swapped for tipples and the dance moves are broken out. When you're not swigging handcrafted caffeine or microbrews, you might be wandering the Old Harbour and neighbouring Grandi, which have blossomed into hot spots for tourists, with key art galleries, and several museums. Other city draws are Hallgrímskirkja, the white concrete church with a viewing deck in the 74m-high tower, and the Icelandic Phallological Museum, with its huge collection of penises.
Watch icebergs drift by at Jökulsárlón
A ghostly procession of luminous-blue icebergs drifts serenely through the ten-sq-mile (25-sq-km) Jökulsárlón lagoon before floating out to sea. This surreal scene (handily, right next to the Ring Road) is a natural film set; in fact, you might have seen it in Batman Begins and the James Bond film Die Another Day. The ice caves come from Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, an offshoot of the mighty Vatnajökull ice cap. Boat trips and kayaking among the bergs are popular, or you can simply wander the lakeshore, scout for seals and exhaust your camera’s memory card.
Indulge your body at the Blue Lagoon
Iceland’s unofficial pastime is splashing around in its surplus of geothermal water. You'll find "hot-pots" everywhere, from downtown Reykjavík to the isolated peninsular tips of the Westfjords. Not only are they incredibly relaxing, they're the perfect antidote to a hangover and a great way to meet the locals (this is their social hub, the equivalent of the local pub or town square). The Blue Lagoon is the big cheese: in a magnificent black-lava field, the cyan Blue Lagoon spa is fed water from the futuristic Svartsengi geothermal plant; with its silver towers, roiling clouds of steam, and people daubed in white silica mud, it's an otherworldly place. Those who say it’s too commercial and too crowded aren't wrong, but you’ll be missing something special if you don’t go. Pre-booking is essential. It's conveniently close to Keflavík airport, making it the perfect send-off before flying home.
Get adventurous in Vatnajökull National Park
Europe’s largest national park – created by the combination of two previously-established national parks: Skaftafell in southeast Iceland and Jökulsárgljúfur in the northeast – covers around 14% of Iceland and safeguards mighty Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap outside the poles (it's three times the size of Luxembourg). Scores of outlet glaciers flow down from its frosty bulk, while underneath it are active volcanoes and mountain peaks. This is ground zero for those "fire and ice" clichés. You’ll be spellbound by the diversity of landscapes, walking trails and activities inside this supersized park. Given its dimensions, access points are numerous – start at Skaftafell in the south or Ásbyrgi in the north.
Seyðisfjörður and Borgarfjörður Eystri
A tale of two east-side fjords. Stunning, art-fuelled Seyðisfjörður garners most of the attention – it's only 17 miles (27km) from the Ring Road, and it welcomes the weekly ferry from Europe into its mountain-lined, waterfall-studded embrace. The town's Rainbow Street is a favorite with photographers and Instagrammers for its rainbow-painted pathway leading to a quaint church. Beautiful Borgarfjörður Eystri, on the other hand, is 43 miles (70km) from the Ring Road, and much of that stretch is bumpy and unsealed. Its selling points are understated: puffins, mythical elves, rugged rhyolite peaks. Both fjords have natural splendor and bumper hiking trails in spades, and many people can’t help but love ’em equally.
Take a dip in this fjord-side swimming pool on Tröllaskagi
Touring Tröllaskagi, or Troll Peninsula, is a joy, especially now that road tunnels link the spectacularly-sited townships of Siglufjörður and Ólafsfjörður, once end-of-the-road settlements. The peninsula’s dramatic scenery contrasts with the gentle hills that roll through most of northern Iceland. Pit stops with pulling power include Hofsós’ perfect fjord-side swimming pool, Lónkot’s plates of fine local produce and Siglufjörður’s outstanding herring museum. Plus you'll find glorious panoramas, quality hiking, ski fields (including a growing trade in heliskiing), microbreweries and beer baths, whale-watching tours, and ferries to offshore islands Grímsey and Hrísey.
Visit black sand beaches on Snæfellsnes Peninsula
With its cache of wild beaches, bird sanctuaries, horse farms and lava fields, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is one of Iceland’s best escapes – either as a day trip from the capital or as a relaxing long weekend. It's little wonder it's called "Iceland in miniature" – it even hosts a national park and glacier-topped stratovolcano. Jules Verne was definitely onto something when he used Snæfellsjökull's icy crown as his magical doorway in Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Visit the black sands at Djúpalón Beach, where a series of rocky sea stacks emerge from the ocean. Stykkishólmur, on the populated northern coast, is the region’s largest town and a logical base.
Take a boat tour of the islets of Vestmannaeyjar
An offshore archipelago of craggy peaks, Vestmannaeyjar is a mere 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland, but feels miles away in sentiment. A boat tour of the scattered islets unveils squawking seabirds, towering cliffs and postcard-worthy vistas of lonely hunting cabins perched atop rocky outcrops. The islands’ 4000-plus population is focused on Heimaey, a small town of windswept bungalows with a scarring curl of lava that flows straight through its center – a poignant reminder of Iceland’s volatile landscape.
Head to the lava fields of Askja
Accessible for only a few months each year, storied Askja is a mammoth caldera ringed by mountains and enclosing a sapphire-blue lake known as Víti crater. To access this glorious, otherworldly place, you'll need a robust 4WD, a few days for hiking, or passage on a tour. Highlands excursions generally incorporate river crossings, impossibly vast lava fields, regal mountain vistas and outlaw hideouts – and possibly a naked soak in geothermal waters. While you're in the area, head just south of Askja for Iceland's freshest lava field at Holuhraun.
Marvel at the waterfall at Hengifoss
Crossing the bridge across Lagarfljót on Rte 931, you’ll reach the parking area for lovely Hengifoss, Iceland’s second-highest waterfall. The falls plummet 128m into a photogenic brown-and-red-striped boulder-strewn gorge. Getting to Hengifoss requires a return walk of one-to-two hours (1.5 miles/2.5km each way). From the car park, a staircase and path lead up the hillside – Hengifoss is soon visible in the distance. It’s a steep climb in places but flattens out as you enter the canyon. Halfway to Hengifoss is a noteworthy smaller waterfall, Litlanesfoss, surrounded by vertical basalt columns in a honeycomb formation.
Spot puffins at Hafnarhólmi
The photogenic small-boat harbor and islet of Hafnarhólmi is home to a large puffin colony. A staircase and viewing platforms allow you to get close to these cute, clumsy creatures (and other seabirds). The puffins arrive by mid-April and are gone by early to mid-August, but other species (including kittiwakes, fulmars and common eiders) may linger longer. In summer's peak, from the islet you can enjoy midnight sun viewings in the company of puffins and with an evocative soundtrack of bird calls.
Go whale-watching in Húsavík
Húsavík, Iceland’s whale-watching capital, has become a firm favorite on travelers’ itineraries – and with its colorful houses, unique museums and stunning snow-capped peaks across the bay, it's easily the northeast's prettiest fishing town. The excellent Whale Museum provides all you need to know about the impressive creatures that visit Skjálfandi bay. Húsavíkurkirkja, the town's beloved church, has an Alpine style and is nothing like any other church you'll see in Iceland.