With miles of nothing but nature all around, Reykjavík is Iceland’s confirmed repository of all things cultural, from winning museums and sleek gallery spaces to a sparkling music scene, a fat year-round festival calendar and a colourful guild of craftsfolk and designers.
Reykjavík is notorious for its small but fierce nightlife scene. The best nights start with coffee at one of the dozens of cafes, ‘pre-gaming’ drinks at a friend’s apartment, an unholy pilgrimage between several beer bars, and a late sticky-floored jam to DJs or live music.
The perfect layover between Europe and North America: urban walking and biking tours take in the capital's top sights, but the magic of Iceland unfolds just beyond, and the city’s well-oiled travel machine can instantly launch you into the wilderness.
Volcanoes & Vistas
If the southwest were to print bumper stickers, they would say ‘the further you go, the better it gets’. Wander into the interior and you’ll find vistas of mythic proportions sitting under the watchful glare of several grumbling volcanoes.
Hiking, Riding & Vikings
High in the hills a hiker’s paradise awaits, while around Hella are plenty of bucolic horse ranches. Toss in a smattering of Saga-era relics and you have endless itinerary fodder for every type of visitor.
The stunning Vestmannaeyjar archipelago has the largest colony of puffins in the world, and the birds offer a spirited welcome as they shoot over the arriving ferries like wobbly firecrackers.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a technicolour realm composed of exotic splashes of sere lava, green waterfall-cut meadows, Arctic-blue water, and a dazzling ice cap. One of its most impressive vistas is Breiðafjörður – a bay reflecting cloud-filled skies and speckled with thousands of isles.
History buffs can take a trip back in time: the west is often dubbed Sagaland for its rich Viking history. Make a beeline for the Settlement Museum in buzzy Borgarnes to let the stories unfold.
The southern shores of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula are among the best places to ride the small, tough Icelandic horse – follow the crests of sand or trot into the hills to find hidden geothermal sources.
The End of the Line
On maps, the undulating coastline of the Westfjords makes the region resemble giant lobster claws snipping away at the Arctic Circle. The landscapes of this dramatic enclave of sea and stone inspire fables of magical, faraway lands.
Explore the Subarctic
Sitting at the edge of the Arctic, its jagged peninsulas stretching north, Iceland’s final frontier is the perfect setting for rugged mountain biking, sea kayaking, sailing and springtime skiing. Hornstrandir hiking reserve is the jewel in the crown.
Wild-maned horses rove throughout, but the main draws are the impressive bird cliffs dotting the region and the fleet Arctic foxes scurrying between grassy hillocks. With pre-planning, you can volunteer to monitor Iceland’s only native mammal.
A Land with the Lot
What landscape doesn’t North Iceland offer? There are offshore islands, lonely peninsulas, icy peaks, pastoral horse farms, belching mudpots, sleepy fishing villages, epic waterfalls, shattered lava fields, breaching whales…
Seals inhabit Vatnsnes Peninsula; puffins and seabirds nest all over. Waterbirds take to Mývatn like, well, ducks to water. The biggest draw lurks beneath: Húsavík is the whale-watching hub and towns along western Eyjafjörður, including Akureyri, are its apprentice.
The Active North
Horse riding is best in the northwest. Birdwatching around Lake Mývatn is world-class, but remote Langanes and Arctic Grímsey hold their own. Hike the northern reaches of Vatnajökull National Park, or ski the Tröllaskagi Peninsula.
The Eastfjords’ scenery is particularly dramatic around the northern fjord villages, backed by sheer-sided mountains etched with waterfalls. Inland, scenic lake Lagarfljót (and the forest on its eastern shore) is ripe for exploration, as is the 1833m mountain Snæfell, part of Vatnajökull National Park.
On Land & Water
Kayaking the waters of Seyðisfjörður is a breathtaking highlight; mountain biking here is good for landlubbers; and seal spotting on horseback at Húsey is a unique treat. Trails in and around the fjords offer peak panoramas and hiking delights – Borgarfjörður Eystri is a local favourite.
Puffins, Monsters & Reindeer
Wild reindeer roam the mountains, and Iceland’s version of the Loch Ness monster calls Lagarfljót home. Bird life is enjoyed at remote farms like Húsey or from the perfectly placed puffin-viewing platform at Borgarfjörður Eystri.
Home to glittering glaciers, toppling waterfalls, the iceberg-filled Jökulsárlón lagoon and Iceland’s favourite walking area of Skaftafell, it’s little wonder the southeast is among Iceland’s most visited regions. Contrasting this beauty is the stark grey sands of the sandar (sand deltas).
Seals are a photogenic addition to the camera-friendly waters of Jökulsárlón, while great skuas make their homes in the sandar and harass visiting humans and birds. Ingólfshöfði is overrun with nesting puffins and other seabirds – getting there in a tractor-drawn cart is a blast.
Icy activities include glacier walks, snowmobiling and winter ice-cave visits. Boat and kayaking trips among glacial lagoon bergs are in demand. There's ace mountain biking from Kirkjubæjarklaustur, and the underrated activity of cracking langoustine claws in Höfn.
This region is practically uninhabited – there are no towns or villages, only summertime huts and accommodation. NASA astronauts once trained here, and the recent Holuhraun eruption has added a whole new dimension to ancient lava fields.
Touring the highlands will give you a new understanding of the word ‘desolation’. The solitude is exhilarating, the views are vast. Some travellers are disappointed by the interior’s ultra-bleakness and endless grey-sand desert, others are humbled by the sight of nature in its rawest form.
It’s immensely tough but equally rewarding to hike, bike or ride horses along interior routes. Kerlingarfjöll and the Askja region have first-class hiking; Hveravellir lures with hot springs. Many visitors may be happiest visiting the sights from the comfort of a super-Jeep tour!