With its thundering waterfalls, steaming geysers, snow-capped volcanoes and black sand beaches, Iceland is a natural wonder — and it’s less remote than you might think. Just a five-hour flight from the East Coast of the U.S., Iceland makes for an accessible and unforgettable European getaway.
Here you can take a boat ride through a lagoon full of glittering icebergs, help local farmers herd sheep down from the highlands or sit in a relaxing hot pool under the northern lights in the dead of winter. Sound appealing? Click through our slideshow for more one-of-a-kind trip ideas; then check out our guides to where to stay and how to get around.
Sail Through an Ice Lagoon
If you look at a map of Iceland, you’ll notice a large white blob in the southeast corner of the island. The icecap Vatnajokull is enormous; at more than 3,100 square miles, this glacial expanse covers more than 8 percent of the island.
Iceland’s cloudy weather means that it’s often difficult to get more than a glimpse of the upper reaches of Vatnajokull, which is mostly encompassed by a national park. The best way to explore is by heading to one of its 30 glaciers that flow down from the mountains.
One of the most accessible of these is Jokulsarlon, located off the Ring Road between Vik and Hofn. Here you can take a boat ride through a lagoon laden with icebergs until you reach the glacier face. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a chunk fall off the face — or witness the even more stunning sight of watching a new iceberg emerge from the deep with a resounding crack.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Iceland by lynncarol
“The sun was out by the time we arrived at Jokulsarlon Lake, famous for its icebergs. An absolutely gorgeous spot, it lies right beside the Ring Road, is easily accessible and looks like a scene straight from an Arctic travelogue.” Read more!
Bake Bread in the Ground
Iceland’s famed geothermal resources, which are visible around the country in explosive geysers and bubbling hot springs, are used for everything from producing electricity to heating water (yes, that’s why hot showers here always smell like rotten eggs — it’s the sulfur). But did you know that you could also use geothermal energy to bake bread?
At the Fontana thermal baths in Laugarvatn, you can take a walk to a geothermal “bakery” where rye loaves are slow-baked for 24 hours just a few inches under the surface of the sand near the lake. After the bread is dug out of the ground, visitors get the chance to try a fresh, warm slice or two topped with butter.
Get Down on the Farm
Whether you’re looking to help herd sheep, ride a friendly Icelandic horse or simply sleep in a quiet rural setting, a visit to a local farm can make an unforgettable addition to your itinerary. Iceland has dozens of farms that open themselves to visitors; come in September and you could take part in rettir, when sheep and horses are brought back to the farm from their summer grazing grounds in the highlands. Nupshestar, near Selfoss, offers a three-night rettir experience in which guests herd sheep on horseback.
On the west coast, Bjarteyjarsandur invites visitors to learn about lambing, sheep shearing and other aspects of farm life, with overnight accommodations in two cottages. Efsti-Dalur II hosts travelers in clean wooden cabins on a farm with horses and cows; there’s a restaurant and ice cream shop featuring products sourced directly from the farm.
See FarmHolidays.is for more ideas.
Meet the Yule Lads
What do you get when you combine Viking history with a landscape so extreme, only mythical creatures could live there? In eastern Iceland, tales of trolls, elves and fairies are still told to this day (and people in Egilsstadir still give the Lagarfljot lake a wide berth, due to a large worm monster that allegedly dwells there).
Far more benign are the Yule Lads, folkloric figures who cause mischief around Christmastime. Bearing whimsical names such as Spoon Licker and Pot Scraper, the 13 trolls are generally good-natured and will leave presents for good girls and boys in their shoes during the nights leading up to Christmas (naughty children receive rotten potatoes instead).
The eerie lava formations of Dimmuborgir, on the shores of Lake Myvatn, are considered the traditional home of the Yule Lads. Every December, the lads appear at local festivals and events, and even hold an annual soaking bash at Myvatn Nature Baths. If winter weather isn’t your thing, cute ornaments illustrating Yule Lad antics are sold year-round.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Our Trip to Iceland by Roberta Taylor
“Afterward we went to a series of rock formations caused by a volcano. They looked like people. There is a myth surrounding these formations. It seems that the trolls (which many Icelanders believe in) were having a party and they were having such a good time that they forgot that it was nearly dawn, and then they were struck by the light of the rising sun and turned to stone. It was a charming place.” Read more!
Join the Locals for a Swim or Soak
Want to meet Icelanders in their favorite relaxation spots? Don your bathing suit. Nearly every city or town in Iceland has at least one swimming pool, and because they’re warmed by geothermal energy, the pools — even the outdoor ones — are used year round.
The most famous (and expensive) is the Blue Lagoon near the international airport in Keflavik, with its milky-blue waters and otherworldly setting amidst volcanic rocks. It’s an absolute must-do, but it’s visited almost exclusively by tourists. If you’re looking for a more local experience, consider Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik, which has various indoor and outdoor pools, a water slide, hot pots, a steam bath and even massage therapists. (It’s one of many public pools in the city.)
Out in the countryside, pools and hot pots often offer beautiful views along with a soothing soak. Hellulaug, near the Hotel Flokalundur, is a natural rocky pool overlooking a bay in the Westfjords. The fishing village of Drangsnes, also in the Westfjords, is home to three small hot tubs right on the shoreline — a sweet spot to hang out and watch for northern lights.
PlanIceland.com/swimming-in-iceland is a good resource for finding a pool or hot pot anywhere in Iceland.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Iceland in the dead of winter and the dusk of summer by Juli Zall
“There wasn’t a village that didn’t have it’s own ‘spa’ nearby and this was the highlight of the thousand-mile drive. One of our most memorable stops was Djupavik, a tiny town with seven structures and an oversize cement carcass of an old herring factory. … The nearest thermal soak was a 30-minute drive further north. It’s a tidy open-air municipal pool on the edge of the world, overlooking the Denmark Strait. This spa with a view is maintained but not staffed; just put a few hundred kroner in the box.” Read more!
Snack on Shark
As you might expect from an island nation, Iceland’s native cuisine has been limited by what can be grown, raised or caught in such a northern environment. That means a lot of lamb, served in various guises; hothouse vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers (greenhouses in the country are powered by geothermal energy); and, of course, seafood.
Perhaps the most notorious local fish dish is hakari, fermented rotten shark. Served with a shot of Brennivin, a strong spirit flavored like licorice, the dish is served in small cubes and is not for the faint of heart. At our table, only one was able to get past the ammonia smell and chewy taste and actually swallow it. Luckily, these days hakari is more of a tourist dare than an Icelandic delicacy.
Shark is available on numerous menus around the country. We sampled ours at Narfeyrarstofa, a homey bistro in Stykkisholmur on the Snaelfellsnes Peninsula. In Reykavik, you can try it at Islenski Barinn (the Icelandic Bar), which also serves whale and puffin.
Take a Page Out of Iceland’s Book
Iceland’s most significant contributions to world literature are its 13th- and 14th-century sagas, which recount the adventures of the country’s earliest Viking settlers between about 870 and 1000 A.D. Modern-day Icelanders are carrying on the story-telling tradition; the country’s adult literacy rate is a sky-high 99 percent, and the BBC reported last year that one in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.
If you want to delve into Iceland’s rich literary history, you can take a Dark Deeds walking tour that begins at the Reykjavik City Library and wends through the city, stopping in relevant places for readings of Icelandic ghost stories and contemporary crime fiction. Tours, organized by the library, run on Thursdays throughout the summer months.
Also fun is the Bedtime Stories experience at the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura. Guests gather in a small auditorium on Thursday evenings to hear a local actor read selections from Icelandic literature, which could be anything from tales of elves and spirits to the work of novelist Halldor Laxness, who won Iceland’s only Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. Speaking of Laxness, his home-turned-museum, Gljufrasteinn, makes for another intriguing literary experience. It’s about 20 minutes outside Reykjavik.
Visit CityofLiterature.is for more information on Reykjavik’s literary landscape.
See Europe’s Most Powerful Waterfall
The consonant-heavy Icelandic language has been called one of the most difficult to learn. While that’s true, one word came up so many times as we traversed the Ring Road that we couldn’t help learning it: foss, meaning “waterfall.”
For such a small island, Iceland goes big with its waterfalls: tourists flock to some of the best, including Godafoss, Skogafoss, Gullfoss and Seljalandsfoss. But it’s remote Dettifoss, located down a bumpy gravel road in Iceland’s north, that wins the title “awe-inspiring.” At 147 feet high and spanning nearly 330 feet, the falls thunder into the canyon below with a force that’s supposedly the most powerful in Europe.
Rock Out at a Music Festival
Iceland has a relatively big music scene for such a small country. Acts from a few decades ago — like the Sugarcubes and Bjork — have paved the way for contemporary names like Sigur Ros and Of Monsters and Men. Who will be the next big thing? Find out at one of the country’s many music festivals.
The most famous is Iceland Airwaves, which started in 1999 in an airplane hanger and has since become a five-day celebration of new music from bands around the world (including plenty of homegrown favorites and up-and-comers). It runs each autumn in venues around Reykjavik.
Another alternative for music lovers is Aldrei for eg sudur (“I never went south”), which runs for a couple of days around Easter time on the Westfjords peninsula. Focused mainly on lesser-known Icelandic acts, this small but growing festival is free and well attended by locals.
Secret Solstice is a relatively new festival in Reykjavik that happens around the summer solstice in June, when the skies are light 24 hours a day. It features acts from around the world.
Check out IcelandMusic.is for a full list of festivals and events.
Journey to the Center of the Earth
You can’t visit Iceland without picking up a healthy respect for the country’s volcanoes. Eyjafjallajokull disrupted air travel for weeks in 2010 with a massive ash cloud, and Bardarbunga has been burning for much of autumn 2014. Parts of the country’s landscape have been rendered lunar-like from constant lava flows, and the beaches all have black sand.
Flightseeing is one way to see volcanoes in action. But a far less expensive choice is to go underneath the earth to explore the lava “tubes,” caves left by volcanoes long dormant. Guided tours provide you with necessary equipment, including hard hats and flashlights; bring your own gloves and dress warm, as it gets chilly down below.
In his 1864 novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” author Jules Verne used a lava tube on Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula as the gateway for his characters’ tunneling through to Italy. Follow in their footsteps at Vatnshellir, an 8,000-year-old lava tube now run by Iceland’s park service. A steep circular staircase brings you nearly 115 feet underground, where you’ll see rare and delicate lava stalagmites and stalactites, as well as evidence of a one-time river of fire.
Best Time to Go to Iceland
Iceland is truly a year-round destination, with something to offer visitors during every season: from endless days and balmy weather during summer to the northern lights and winter sports in the coldest months. Summer is the most popular tourism season in Iceland — that’s when the crowds descend. But budget travelers and winter-sports enthusiasts should consider an off-season trip to the country, as prices for accommodations in and airfare to Iceland are generally less expensive during the winter.
Iceland on a Budget
It can be tough to tour Iceland on a budget, but overall, the best strategy for finding great deals is to travel outside the summer high season. To save on accommodations, look for guesthouses and farmstays, which offer low-priced lodging as well as a unique way to experience local culture. (You can find a list of farm accommodations in Iceland at FarmHolidays.is). Icelandair regularly offers affordable vacation packages, which bundle hotel and airfare, for a reasonable price.
–written by Sarah Schlichter and Chris Gray Faust
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