Iceland’s spectacular natural beauty encompasses Western Europe’s largest national park and the mightiest ice cap outside the poles, plus a whale-filled ocean and the world’s biggest puffin colonies. Prepare to greet soaring mountains, hidden valleys, dark canyons, roaring waterfalls, twisting rivers and fjord-riven coastlines. Getting out into it is easy, and utterly exhilarating.
Opportunities for hiking are endless, from leisurely hour-long strolls to multiday wilderness treks. Setting off on foot will open up vast reaches of unspoilt nature; however, the unpredictable weather is always a consideration, and rain, fog and mist can turn an uplifting hike into a miserable trudge. Always be prepared.
Ferðafélag Íslands (www.fi.is) runs huts, campgrounds and hiking trips throughout the country. Offers solid advice on hikes – especially Laugavegurinn.
Top Short Walks
- Skaftafell Everyone’s favourite part of Vatnajökull National Park; offers a slew of short walks around glinting glaciers and brooding waterfalls.
- Þórsmörk An emerald kingdom tucked between the unforgiving hills of the interior; moderate-to-difficult walks abound.
- Skógar Hike up into the interior for a parade of waterfalls; continue on to Fimmvörðuháls and down into Þórsmörk for one of Iceland’s most rewarding day-long hikes.
- Snæfellsnes Peninsula Half-day hikes galore through crunchy lava fields; don’t miss the coastal walk from Hellnar to Arnarstapi.
- Mývatn Flat and easy, the marshy Mývatn lakeshore hosts a variety of geological wonders as well as prolific bird life.
- Borgarfjörður Eystri Superb trails among the rhyolite cliffs, and hikes up to the fjordhead for views.
Best Multiday Treks
- Laugavegurinn Iceland's classic walk takes you through caramel-coloured dunes, smoking earth and devastating desert. Duration: two to five days.
- Ásbyrgi to Dettifoss A sampler of Iceland's geological phenomena starts at the northern end of Jökulsárgljúfur (in Vatnajökull National Park) and works its way down the gorge, ending with Europe's most powerful waterfall. Duration: two days.
- Royal Horn Words can't do justice to Hornstrandir's fan-favourite route and the views of lonely fjords, emerald-green bluffs and swooping gulls. Duration: two to four days.
- Fimmvörðuháls A parade of waterfalls turns into a blustery desert as you pass between hulking glaciers. Then, the steaming stones from the 2010 eruption appear before the path leads down into flower-filled Þórsmörk. Duration: one to two days.
- Kerlingarfjöll Loop Largely untouched, this remote interior circuit unveils postcard-worthy vistas that rival those of well-trodden Laugavegurinn. Duration: three days.
Feature: Hiking Checklist
The specifics of gear required in Iceland will vary, depending on your activity, the time of year, the remoteness of the trail, and how long you'll be exploring (day hike versus multiday trek; staying in a hut versus camping). One constant: the changeability of the weather, and the risk it poses.
- Take proper navigation tools; topo map and GPS are vital.
- Dress in layers. This is essential. First base layer: thermal underwear (wool or synthetic). Second layer: light wool or fleece top; quick-drying trousers. Third layer: waterproof and windproof jacket (eg Gore-Tex). You'll need a breathable rain shell, including waterproof overtrousers. Your day pack should also be waterproof.
- Avoid cotton clothes such as jeans, T-shirts and socks – these lose insulation properties when wet and take hours to dry. Polypropylene, which is quick-drying (but can be flammable) or merino wool, which warms even when wet (but dries slowly), are recommended.
- Take gloves, hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. Woollen or synthetic socks, and waterproof, broken-in hiking boots or shoes.
For Longer Trips
- Packs need a waterproof cover or a plastic liner to keep things dry. A dry set of clothes is essential.
- Always carry a first-aid kit, a headlamp/torch and a survival kit (survival blanket, whistle etc).
- Sleeping bags should be capable of handling negative Celsius temperatures. Campers will need a tent (wind- and weatherproof), stove and cooking utensils (hut users may or may not need the latter).
- Pack a swimsuit (for hot springs), lightweight sandals (for river crossings, to keep your boots dry), and hiking poles for steep descents and river crossings.
- Take plastic bags, which are handy for separating wet and dry gear, and for carrying out rubbish.
Buying or Hiring Gear
You can buy hiking and camping gear in larger towns – Reykjavík is best for this; Akureyri also has options. Note that prices in Iceland aren't cheap – strongly consider bringing what you need from home, and/or hiring gear.
A few car-rental places offer camping equipment for rent (this is particularly true of campervan-hire companies). Otherwise, two good rental places in Reykjavík are:
Iceland’s range of wildlife is narrow but bewitchingly beautiful.
Lovable like a dog but skittish like a rodent, the Arctic fox is Iceland’s only native mammal. Sightings are rare, but these are the best spots to try your luck:
- Hornstrandir The fox’s main domain – join the team of researchers who set up camp here each summer.
- Suðavík Home of the Arctic Fox Center – there are often orphaned foxes living in a small habitat on-site.
- Breiðamerkursandur One of the main breeding grounds for skuas, the area has drawn a rising number of Arctic foxes hungry for a snack.
On coastal cliffs right around the country you can see huge numbers of seabirds, often in massive colonies. The best time for birdwatching is between June and mid-August, when puffins, gannets, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars get twitchers excited.
The best bird cliffs and colonies:
- Vestmannaeyjar Puffins arc across cliff faces as you sail into the harbour at Heimaey. Birds nest on virtually every turret of stone emerging from the southern sea.
- Hornstrandir This preserve offers an endless wall of stone that shoots down from the verdant bluffs straight into the waves – countless birds have built temporary homes within.
- Borgarfjörður Eystri This hamlet offers one of the best places in Iceland to spot puffins, who build their intricate homes just metres from the viewing platform.
- Látrabjarg Famous in the Westfjords for the eponymous bird cliffs.
- Mývatn A different ecosystem than towering coastal bird cliffs, Mývatn’s swampy landscape is a haven for migratory birds.
- Langanes Remote windswept cliffs are home to prolific bird life; there's a viewing platform above a colony of northern gannets.
- Ingólfshöfði Take a tractor ride to this dramatic promontory, where skuas swoop and puffins pose.
- Grímsey Visit for the treat of crossing the Arctic Circle, and to admire hardy locals outnumbered by countless puffins and Arctic terns.
- Drangey Climbing to the top of this storied Skagafjörður islet involves ropes, ladders and close-ups with puffins, guillemots, gannets and more.
Seals aren’t as ubiquitous as Iceland’s birds, but they're fun to spot.
- Hvammstangi and Vatnsnes Peninsula A seal museum, boat tours and a peninsula studded with basking pinnipeds.
- Ísafjarðardjúp Curling coastline and rock-strewn beaches offer good seal spotting.
- Jökulsárlón As if the ice lagoon wasn't photogenic enough – look out for seals swimming among the bergs.
- Húsey This remote, panoramic farm encourages you to do your seal spotting on horseback.
Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see whales and dolphins. The most common sightings are of minke and humpback whales, but you can also spot fin, sei and, very rarely, blue whales, among others.
Iceland’s best spots for whale watching:
- Húsavík Iceland’s classic whale-watching destination, complete with an excellent whale museum; 99% success rate during summer.
- Eyjafjörður Whale-watching cruises ply the scenic waters of Iceland’s longest fjord from Akureyri, Dalvík and Hauganes.
- Reykjavík Easy viewing for visitors to the capital; boats depart from the old harbour downtown.
- Snæfellsnes Peninsula Boat rides in Breidafjörður seek whales, especially orcas, and puffins too.
Horses are an integral part of Icelandic life; you’ll see them all over the country. Many farms around the country offer short rides, including a handful of stables within a stone’s throw of Reykjavík. Reckon on around 8000kr to 13,000kr for a one- or two-hour ride.
Best Horse-Riding Regions
- Southern Snæfellsnes The wild beaches under the shadow of a glinting glacier are perfect places for a ride. Several award-winning stables are located here.
- Hella The flatlands around Hella that roll under brooding Hekla host a constellation of horse ranches offering multiday rides and short sessions.
- Skagafjörður The only county in Iceland where horses outnumber people has a proud tradition of breeding and training.
Swimming & Spas
Thanks to Iceland’s abundance of geothermal heat, swimming is a national institution, and nearly every town has at least one sundlaug (heated swimming pool – often outdoors). Most pools also offer heitir pottar (hot-pots; small heated pools for soaking, with the water around 40°C), saunas and Jacuzzis. Admission is usually from 800kr to 1300kr (half-price for children).
The clean, chemical-free swimming pools and natural hot springs require a strict hygiene regimen, which involves a thorough shower with soap and without swimsuit before you enter the swimming area. Instructions are posted in a number of languages. Not following these rules is a sure-fire way to offend the locals.
- Swimming in Iceland (www.swimminginiceland.com) Info on Iceland's thermal pools.
- Thermal Pools in Iceland (by Jón G Snæland and Þóra Sigurbjörnsdóttir) Comprehensive guide to Iceland’s naturally occurring springs; sold in most bookshops.
- Blue Lagoon (www.bluelagoon.com) Iceland’s favourite soaking venue and undisputed top attraction.
- Visit Reykjavík (www.visitreykjavik.is) Click through to 'What to Do' for pools in the capital region.
Glacier Walks & Snowmobiling
Trekking across an icy white expanse can be one of the most ethereal experiences of your Iceland visit. The island has several options that offer a taste of winter even on the warmest of days – strap on the crampons!
Common-sense safety rules apply: don’t get too close to glaciers or walk on them without the proper equipment and guiding.
Best Glaciers & Ice Caps to Explore
- Vatnajökull Europe’s biggest ice cap is perfect for snowmobile rides; it also has dozens of offshoot glaciers primed for guided hikes and ice climbs – arrange these from Skaftafell and points east towards Höfn.
- Eyjafjallajökull The site of a volcanic eruption in 2010; take a super-Jeep to discover the icy surface then wander over to Magni, nearby, to see the still-steaming earth.
- Snæfellsjökull Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth starts here; try the snowcat tour from Arnarstapi.
- Langjökull Close to Reykjavík; draws icy crowds thanks to its 'Into the Glacier' ice-cave experience.
- Sólheimajökull An icy tongue unfurling from Mýrdalsjökull ice cap, ideal for an afternoon trek.
Boating, Kayaking & Rafting
A new perspective on Iceland’s natural treasures is offered from the water.
- Heimaey Zip across the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, taking in the craggy cliffs and swooping birds.
- Stykkishólmur Wind through the islands of silent Breiðafjörður.
- Húsavík and Eyjafjörður Traditional wooden ships or high-speed Zodiacs sail through whale-filled waters.
- Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón Cruise between freshly calved icebergs on these glacial lagoons.
- Hornstrandir, Ísafjörður and Ísafjarðardjúp Sea kayaking at its finest; try multiday tours or a one-day adventure to Vigur, an offshore islet.
- Seyðisfjörður The charismatic tour guide will leave you wondering what’s more charming – the fjord or him.
- Glacier lagoons The Southeast offers a number of superscenic opportunities to paddle among icebergs, including at Jökulsárlón.
Best River Trips
- Varmahlíð Northern Iceland’s white-water rafting base, with two glacial rivers to choose from (family-friendly rapids or full throttle).
- Reykholt White-water rafting thrills on the Hvítá; you can also get your adrenalin pumping on Iceland's only jet-boat rides.
Short cycling excursions can be a fun, healthy way to explore. In Reykjavík you’ll find a couple of biking outlets, some offering day trips to nearby attractions such as the Golden Circle. Bike hire is possible in many other towns around the country.
Travelling around Iceland by bicycle can be more of a challenge than it might seem – shifting weather patterns mean that you’ll often encounter heavy winds, and you’ll be forced to ride closely alongside traffic on the Ring Road (there are no hard shoulders to the roads). Check www.cyclingiceland.is for the excellent Cycling Iceland map, also published and distributed locally.
Scuba Diving & Snorkelling
Little-known but incredibly rewarding, diving in Iceland is becoming increasingly popular. The clear water (100m visibility!), great wildlife, spectacular lava ravines, wrecks and thermal chimneys make it a dive destination like no other. The best dive sites are Silfra at Þingvellir and the geothermal chimneys in Eyjafjörður.
A Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Dry Suit Diver certificate is recommended – you can obtain this in Iceland through a handful of diving companies. The unique PADI Tectonic Plate Awareness course (designed by Dive.is – www.dive.is) gives you an understanding of plate tectonics and what it means to dive between them.
Joining an organised tour may not be your idea of an independent holiday, but Iceland’s rugged terrain and high costs can make it an appealing option. Tours can save you time and money, and can get you into some stunning but isolated locations where your hire car will never go. Many tours are by bus, others are by 4WD or super-Jeep, and some are by snowmobile, quad bike or light aircraft. Most tours give you the option of tacking on adventure activities such as white-water rafting, horse riding and glacier hiking.
If you’re planning to base yourself in Reykjavík and use day-long tours to explore the countryside, it’s vital to note that you will spend (some may say waste) a significant amount of time being transported from the capital out to the island’s natural treasures. If a series of short tours is what you’re after, you are better off choosing a base in the countryside closer to the attractions that pique your interest. Another advantage of this approach: sometimes the best and most personalised tours are offered by small-scale local operators who have grown up exploring the ice caves, glaciers, mountains and/or trails in their backyards, and can give you a real local insight (as opposed to large city-based companies that shuttle busloads to popular destinations).
There are hundreds of tour operators in Iceland, ranging from small-scale to large. The following list represents some of the largest, most reputable tour operators; check their websites to get a sense of what is on offer. And don't forget to look out for the little guys too.
- Reykjavík Excursions (www.re.is) Reykjavík’s most popular day-tour agency, with a comprehensive range of year-round tours.
- Arctic Adventures (www.adventures.is) Specialises in action-filled tours – from straight-up sightseeing to mountain biking, sea kayaking and even surfing.
- Grayline Iceland (www.grayline.is) Bus-tour operator offering comprehensive day trips and plenty of activities.
- Icelandic Mountain Guides (www.mountainguides.is) Offers an incredibly diverse range of activities, plus multiday hiking, mountain climbing, biking and skiing tours. Hard-core expeditions too.
- Midgard Adventure (www.midgardadventure.is) Local operator in South Iceland with immense expertise and a great vibe to boot.
- Saga Travel (www.sagatravel.is) A company with strong ties to North Iceland, and a diverse year-round program of tours from Reykjavík, Akureyri and Mývatn.
- Air Iceland Connect (www.airicelandconnect.is) Iceland’s largest domestic airline runs air, bus, hiking and 4WD day tours from Reykjavík and Akureyri. Also tours to Greenland.