Iceland Attractions: Reviews & Suggestions
Entertaining the thought of going to Iceland? Go get yourself that plane ticket right now - you won't regret it.
Already purchased the ticket? Woohoo! Now you can begin planning how you're going to spend your time in what is arguably the most beautiful and unique place on the planet.
Below is a summary of some of the country's most popular tourist attractions, and some tips and tricks to guarantee you have the best time possible.
Gullfoss ("Golden Falls") is Iceland's most talked about and visited waterfall. It makes up a part of the Golden Circle, which is the name given to the 'ring' of popular attractions in the southern part of the country. Gullfoss is about 90 minutes outside of Reykjavik and pretty simple to navigate to.
The falls cascade into the beautiful Hvítá river, which is nestled between classic Iceland rock walls. It's a powerful and beautiful sight, and most definitely worth seeing. There's an adorable little restaurant/cafe/store right next to the falls. The coffee is a bit pricey but delicious, and the store has a bunch of really gorgeous and unique items that you can only find in Iceland.
There have long been talks of using Gullfoss' power for hydroelectricity but as of now the falls remain untouched and pure as ever.
It's not the biggest or most dazzling waterfall you'll ever see, but it's worth stopping at if you're driving past. It's right along the highway, so easy to spot and easy to pull over for some quick exploration. It's unique in that you can walk behind the falls for a new perspective (but be prepared to get wet!). The surrounding area is green, quiet, and beautiful, just like most of rural Iceland.
Yes, another waterfall! This one is, in my opinion, the waterfall to see. Gullfoss gets all the hype, and while it is spectacular, Skógafoss is so unique and special. It has some serious Icelandic character and I could not have loved it any more. You get a real feel for how magnificent it is as you climb to the top and look down to see how far up you really are (about 60 metres). It's a bit of a hike to get to the top, but it's well worth it once you get the view. Looking down over the falls is breathtaking, and looking out into rural Iceland is truly remarkable.
Legend has it that a settler has buried his treasure under the waterfall - but it's powerful enough that you're not going to want to go looking for it.
The Town of Vík
Okay, so this isn't necessarily a popular attraction, but I am incredibly thankful we made the trip to Vík. We had originally set out from Reykjavik with no real plans or destination. After exploring the Golden Circle and checking out a few waterfalls, we decided to make it to the next "big" town (I use the term "big" very loosely - Vík has a population of 291) and then turn back.
Vík is really quaint and feels a bit quirky, but its hidden gem is the black sand beach. It's really an incredible sight. There's a small cliff which looks out on the water, and this is an excellent spot to just sit and get lost in the beauty of your surroundings.
Just off the beach are sea stacks called Reynisdrangar, which have an interesting backstory: "Legend says that the stacks originated when two trolls dragged a three-masted ship to land unsuccessfully and when daylight broke they became needles of rock."
The drive along Ring Road 1 (the highway) offers many stunning views on the way to Vík. That alone is worth it, and the town is a delightful little destination.
Kerið is a volcanic crater which is located in the Golden Circle. Similar to Seljalandsfoss, this won't be the most spectacular thing you see in Iceland, but it's still worth seeing. It's a good reminder of the volcanic activity that Iceland is famous for. Most of the surrounding wall is very steep and if you go for a bit of a hike around the crater, you can get to a point where you could walk down to the bottom of the crater. Unfortunately we visited it at the very end of our day and the sun was on its way down, so we didn't want to risk descending into a crater in the dark! I would give yourself an hour or so to spend here if you're interested in walking all the way around and to the bottom.
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is a historical site with some unique landscapes. Þingvellir translates to "Parliament Plains" and that's exactly what this site was, all the way back in 930AD. Legislative assemblies met in the Park all the way up until the 1700's, and now it is a national shrine.
It makes up a part of the Golden Circle, so it's relatively near a lot of the other attractions you'll be wanting to check out. You can spend as much or as little time as you'd like here. There's hiking, horseback riding, and even camping. Alternatively, you can take a quick stroll around some of the grounds and walk between large rock fissures that have resulted from Iceland's very active geological history.
Geysir Geothermal Field
Yet another part of the Golden Circle, the Geysir Geothermal Field is a popular attraction; it was actually the busiest attraction we visited by far. We went expecting to see a geysir and got so much more.
The "Great Geysir" is actually inactive and has been since 1935. The pictures you see of a geysir going off every few minutes are of a smaller geysir called Strokkur. The whole area is filled with tiny geysirs, hot springs, mud pots, and various unique sights that truly make it seem like the ground you're walking on is alive. Visiting this area was one of the many times in Iceland that I felt like I was on a foreign planet.
Eyjafjallajökull & Katla
I'm sure we all remember Eyjafjallajökull making the headlines and watching as non-Icelandic speakers attempted to pronounce it. We visited about a year after its eruption and couldn't pass up the opportunity to check out the impossible to pronounce volcano ourselves. It unfortunately doesn't look like a whole lot from the highway, but it's interesting to check out its surroundings and see how they must've been affected by the eruption. Right beside Eyjafjallajökull is Katla, another volcano which is due an eruption at any time. Katla is much bigger than Eyjafjallajökull and would be much more devastating if and when it does erupt.
If you're looking to see a really cool volcano that stands out amongst its neighboring non-volcanic mountains, you're not going to see it here. They are, however, on the way to Vík so you'll pass by anyway. I wouldn't go all the way out there just to see the volcanos, but it's worth a quick stop if you're already passing by. It's also a bit of an adrenaline rush to stand right next to a volcano that's due to explode!
We unfortunately did not have the opportunity to go for a swim in the gorgeous and much loved Blue Lagoon as we only made a quick stop on our way to the airport. However, even without swimming, it was a place worth going. The mere sight of the amazing blue water and lava rock that surrounds it is worth the trip out there.
There are trails you can walk throughout the lagoon and it's a surprisingly large area. You can always dip your hand in and scoop up some of the surprisingly soft white mud. There's also an indoor viewing area where you can sit with a warm drink and watch everyone enjoying themselves in the beautiful water.
Have you considered visiting Iceland?
Kaffi Reykjavik Ice Bar
This place is the only real complaint I have and the only attraction I would actively discourage people from visiting.
I remember seeing it on the Amazing Race many, many years ago and making a mental note that I absolutely must go there someday. Well, that day came, and it was incredibly disappointing.
The bar is really just a tiny room made of ice that's no bigger than an average dining room. There's no bartender or other patrons; it's sort of just like standing in a freezer taking shots by yourself. Weird and not even remotely exciting. It's located in the basement of an upscale restaurant, and sort of just tucked aside as an afterthought. You pay about $15CAD per person to get in and that includes a shot of Iceland's signature drink, Brennivín.
The man working there actually told us not to bother at all and just go have a drink of Brennivín somewhere else for a lot cheaper. I was intent on checking it out after many years of longing to see it, and in hindsight I wish I would have just listened to the man trying to discourage us.
All in all, very underwhelming and money better spent elsewhere.
Other Things You Should Do In Iceland
- Check out the museums: Iceland has a number of museums that will introduce you to its history and heritage. The Víkin Maritime Museum gives you a cool history of the Vikings, and is definitely worth checking out as it's very reasonably priced (about $12CAD). Also worth noting: Iceland has a Phallological Museum. Yes, you read that right; it's a museum of penises. Not everyone's idea of a good time, I'm sure, but it's certainly unique.
- Go see the 'The Sun Voyager': It's that famous statue of the really uncomfortable looking Viking boat. It's a beautiful piece of art and the walk along the seawall to get there is stunning.
- Drive aimlessly: I would recommend renting a car to do all of your sightseeing as opposed to doing the tours. You can stop wherever you'd like, spend as much time at any spot as you'd like, and just drive peacefully off into the beautiful Icelandic countryside. The landscape is gorgeous no matter where you're headed, so pick a direction and just go take it all in.
- Walk aimlessly: We spent a lot of our trip just walking random streets and stopping in at small pubs for a drink. We found ourselves in some great spots, which I unfortunately could not point you towards now, since we weren't keeping track of where we were going. But I'm sure you'll find your own great hidden gems by just wandering around the streets of Reykjavik.
- Eat at the pubs: We ate most of our meals at pubs, and were never disappointed. Pub food is a favourite of mine anywhere, but nowhere has compared to Iceland. I'm always surprised that I don't see more people talking about, because it really is consistently delicious. Also be sure to try out Víkin beer; it's one of the cheapest beers you'll find and it's really quite good.
- Don't eat at American restaurants: I know that when you're in a country with some obscure local cuisine, it's tempting to stop by the nearest American restaurant for something familiar. Towards the end of our trip we had the same inclination. We ended up paying almost $100CAD for one basic meal - a margarita alone was almost $20CAD. Stick with the pub food if you're craving a burger, it will be more than sufficient and much easier on your wallet.
- Pre-drink before a night out: Drinking in Iceland is expensive. The locals will tell you that no bar or club is truly busy until the early hours of the morning because of this. Most locals pick up their booze from a liquor store and drink with friends at home until 1 or 2am. After everyone has a good buzz going, they then go out to the bars. For this reason, if you're planning on taking advantage of the nightlife, you might want to schedule some naps so you're prepared to be out until 5am!
I've traveled to many countries and seen many amazing things, but Iceland has been my favourite. Its uniqueness is unparalleled and it's such a positive, special environment. The locals are friendly and almost everyone speaks English. It's easy to get around and the city is surprisingly trendy and lively. The land outside of Reykjavik seems untouched and pure, and you can see steam rising from the geysirs throughout the landscape. It's a place where you feel like the Earth is alive and keeping you company, and reminding you that the world is a truly beautiful place.