19 Top Rated Tourist Attractions in Iceland
Of all the wonderful travel destinations in the world, Iceland is perhaps one of the least frequented. This is a country of incredible natural beauty, in which you'll find both the northern lights and some of the world's highest sea cliffs.
This land of fire, water, and ice is packed with dramatic sights and stunning outdoor adventures; you can swim with killer whales, take an amazing light show at night, bike among waterfalls, stay in a turf house, or sleep under the stars in a glacier cave. At the same time, Iceland is one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the world and enjoys a comparatively low cost of living.
Although its small population makes a visit difficult, its appeal is undeniable, and it will live on as one of the top travel destinations in the world for decades to come. Discover the best places to visit in Iceland with our list of the top tourist attractions in Iceland.
The Icelandic Blue Lagoon (Bláa Lónið), located on the island of and near Geysir, is truly spectacular: a lake of liquid, hot silica mud, with the color of the water changing from indigo to azure to turquoise. The main attraction is the thermal baths in the mud. Legend has it that these baths were the abode of the siren Bathi, who tempted and drowned both men and animals. A small natural hot spring with water of even more magical properties bubbles up nearby. The region around the Blue Lagoon is some of the most beautiful in the country, with long stretches of sandy beaches, many of them cradled by crystal-clear lakes, and a thriving outdoor tourism industry. The lagoon is accessible from Akureyri, which has good connections to the rest of the country. For more tips about what to do in Iceland, see here.
Hence named for the farmer's wife who discovered it in the mid-19th century, Geysir is one of the world's most visited geysers. Located on the huge and sprawling Holuhraun lava field, the hot water source in this mid-calf area is captured by a 50 meter-high waterfall, making it the largest continuously erupting geyser in the world. For over 130 years, the power of Geysir's eruption was given an almost living, voluptuousness as it pulsated up to 7 meters every few minutes, or with the force of a water cannon. But today, it has mostly been silent since 2007. This is due to the fact that geyser eruptions are almost always preceded by steam eruptions. If you want to go to the edge of the earth and experience the smell of molten lava and the constant seething of boiling water. Then Geysir is your destination.
Nestled in a sheltered bay on Iceland's southern coast, Reykjavik was settled by the Vikings in the 9th century and later developed into a trading center and the country's first capital. Once a dirty industrial town, Reykjavik has undergone an exciting renaissance over the past few decades and now boasts a modern city center filled with cultural attractions, cinemas, cafés and restaurants, shopping streets and fascinating boutiques. A bevy of galleries, museums and other cultural attractions display work by the most prominent contemporary Icelandic artists. For visitors, it's best to avoid the summer months when the vast majority of Icelanders vacation in the country's remote interior and most activities are closed. During the winter months, the city bustles with a party crowd, and it's a great place to visit at any time of the year.
Despite being one of Iceland's most unspoiled landscapes, Landmannalaugar's volcanic black landscape is utterly unique and its features are as fascinating today as they were for the first inhabitants who lived here 5,000 years ago. The dominant feature of Landmannalaugar is a 4,820m-high ridge called Hraunfossardur, the highest point of the glacier and one of Iceland's most beautiful sights. Gullfoss waterfall is a natural wonder at just 20m wide and 30m high and is one of Iceland's most spectacular sites. Some 17km northeast of Hraunfossardur is the region's highest peak, Vitiulaka; it's only a short but challenging walk to the top. As with all hikes in Iceland, it's advisable to go with a local guide for safety reasons. In addition to hiking, there are fantastic views of the jagged lava fields. The area offers up to 6km of one-lane tracks and rutted trails leading over rifts in the rocks. There are also various lava caves in the region.
Hekla is the youngest volcano in Iceland and was still in its formative stage when Englishman James Cook made landfall in the country in 1778. Early photos of Mount Hekla show the cone as a long, thick pillar of rocks in the foreground. At least 500 years ago, the base of the mountain flattened out and separated, forming a massive, ever-widening crater that reaches out more than six kilometers into the Pacific Ocean. The best way to view the cone is by driving around the three-kilometer-long Dyrhólaey coastal road that hugs the edge of the Hekla caldera. During the summer months, try to see Hekla on a clear day with a clear view of the Atlantic to the east. If you have a small vehicle, pull off at any of the pull-offs along the route. Hekla also makes a great picnic spot, with a few caves used to store food to sustain visitors during their stay. During winter, the view of Hekla is dominated by its snowcapped peak, with the topmost sections of the crater visible, and the whole snow-filled crater having a cold, somber appearance. Heimskringla, the official travel guide of Iceland, is a great resource for information on Hekla.
Thingvellir National Park
Kaupanger and Stokksnes are towns on the shores of Thingvallavatn, a wide freshwater lake with miles of meandering hiking and biking trails. Keflavik International Airport can be reached by direct bus from Reykjavik, which makes it possible to see one of the main sights in Thingvellir from the first moment you step off the plane.
Reykjanes peninsula is an excellent natural region with mountains and glaciers towering above the hot and dry lowlands. Although the landscape has changed since European settlement, the natural beauty remains and so is a great place for visitors. Although Reykjavik is the largest town, the true highlight of a visit is the active volcanic nature of the landscape. The highest peak is the water-worrier, the 6,180-foot Eyjafjallajökull, named after the glacier that erupted in 2010, bringing extreme weather conditions to Europe. The area is well-equipped with hiking paths, cycling tracks and interesting villages.
Gullfoss is one of the most famous sites in Iceland. The main falls can be seen from several points, including the bridge, which is just under half a mile from the main entrance to the falls. The range of activities to do in this amazing national park are vast. Hiking and visiting the viewpoints are a great way to get a feel of the area and look out over the waterfalls. It is also possible to drive or walk around the area, but more adventurous tourists can either ride a horse over the falls, or float down the river below the falls in a specially built raft, visiting the many pools and caverns along the way. The North Geysir, also known as the 'Blue Lagoon', is also a favorite of both Icelanders and foreigners. Iceland also has many pretty glaciers, and if you have time you should visit one. The largest, Jökulsárgljúfur, runs all the way to the Arctic Ocean, but you can get to see some of the others on day-trips to places such as the Blue Lagoon.
When the Icelandic government offered to give five wealthy families exclusive access to an uninhabited island off the southwest coast of Iceland, the families chose to build a resort. Today, a handful of yachtsmen and pleasure boat owners share a private, gated island in the north Atlantic with a population of about 70 people. The only public amenities are a school, hotel, restaurant, gas station, and café, where most visitors buy snacks and gas before heading off to their destinations. The island's remoteness means it's not easy to get to, making the tiny port of Heimaey a popular spot for those wanting to spend a few days or weeks on the water. The view of the uninhabited island from Heimaey's very scenic pier is excellent, as is the view of the sky reflected in the snow-capped mountains and glaciers of the nearby glaciers.
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula, known for its rocky cliffs, jagged peaks, and striking landscapes, covers a total area of around 45 square kilometers. It is an amazing scenic area of natural wonders, with vertical cliffs plunging deep into the cold, clear water of the Snaefellsfjord. In many areas, the sheer cliffs reach heights of more than 200 meters. They were formed during the last Ice Age, and form a unique natural landscape in their own right. In most places you'll see formations resembling sea stacks, and in a few of these places cliffs are sheer enough to allow the water to spray high into the air, forming snow cones and waterfalls. Most of the sea stacks can only be reached on foot or by footpath. The best place to reach the ones above the cliffs is via the mountain. One of the best spots for climbing is the steep cliff above Snaefellsjokull glacier.
A limestone landscape of black, angular stones, the geothermally active region of Bjarnes lies east of Hveragerdi in southeast Iceland. During the annual summertime eruption, the fire-blackened sands glow red in the daylight. Enormous lava columns burst from the volcano, creating mounds with flat tops up to 50 meters high. The sheer number of lava flows seen from the air is astonishing. Scientists monitor the eruption through fieldwork, and bird watching, hiking, and horse riding are popular in the area. It is possible to walk or take a taxi directly from Reykjavik to this area; otherwise you can take a tour to this scenic area.
Situated in a remote glacial valley in southwest Iceland, Jokulsarlon is a natural wonder. The lagoon is fed by glaciers that rush through the valley floor to create the surreal, ice-carved landscape. Floating among the icebergs is a small island created when a giant glacier collided with the Earth. The lagoon is fed by the fast-moving water from the Melrakkasvatn Lake, which flows from Kaldarvatn Lake at the base of the valley. During the summer season, swimming is forbidden. There are several options for seeing the lagoon. If you visit in the summer, you can go on a boat tour through the glacial river. Another option is to rent a kayak from the onsite crafts shop in Jokulsarlon and explore the lagoon yourself. Jokulsarlon is also famous for its rich birdlife; there are more than 300 birds in the area including Eurasian cranes, ducks, geese, gulls and herons.
Harpa Concert Hall
Harpa is an intriguing building that looks like a giant metallic ice-cream cone. Opened in 2007, this interesting structure was created as a multi-purpose concert hall. It is the result of a collaboration between the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the architects NORD-bygg and a Russian architecture firm, Maka JTM, and is among the most modern concert halls in Europe. Located in the north-eastern suburb of Reykjavik, the building is shaped like an arch and is located within the larger Harpa cultural center, which contains galleries and other facilities. Harpa is now home to many musical events, including the regular performances by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. Those attending events inside Harpa can choose from four seating levels and can reserve seats for performances.
A majestic peninsula jutting out of the Arctic Sea, Iceland's capital, Ísafjörður, is blessed with a temperate climate, with warm summers and snowy winters. In addition to a picture-perfect harbor lined with wooden fishing boats and ice-clad mountains, visitors can see the ongoing effects of the volcanic eruption that created the black-sand beach just south of town. Inaugurated in 2005, a ski area covers a large part of the Penitcshaftler mountain and is reachable by funicular or ski lift. A string of beautiful, white-sand beaches is linked to the capital by a state highway that travels around the southern coast. The city lies at the edge of a reserve of rare mosses.
Skógar Folk Museum
Skógar Folk Museum is a small but well-kept historical and nature museum in Iceland's premier ski resort. It features the stories of a number of Icelanders, showing how they lived and worked in different ages, including a long and relatively prosperous Medieval period, when the settlement flourished as a center of the European wool trade.
Vatnajökull National Park
Vatnajökull National Park is one of Iceland's most attractive parks and has a volcano named Hvannadalshnúkur, the smoke column of which can be seen from many parts of the park. The volcano last erupted in May 2000. Its huge glacier lies across the top of Iceland's most majestic canyon. Huge meltwater lakes formed at the time of the glacier's collapse, giving the park its color, and are still visibly changing with each summer as more glaciers melt and snow cascades down the canyon walls. Vatnajökull is home to a large number of species, including over 40 butterflies, 50 bird species and 600 species of plants. This is Europe's largest reserve and is open to the public.
Westman Islands are five, tiny uninhabited islets in the Atlantic ocean. With Iceland's two other largest volcanic formations, Kerið and Snæfellsjökull, the four are collectively called Eldhraun. The largest of the Westman Islands is Svartifoss, or Black Falls. Reaching up more than 100 meters in height and lined with basalt columns, Svartifoss is one of Iceland's largest waterfalls. The waters around the Westman Islands are renowned for fishing, particularly of Greenland halibut and, with its numerous rocks, is best for rock fishing. For swimming, there are several natural pools on the north and east coasts, or go diving in one of the many natural or artificial underwater caves. The islands are accessible by a regular ferry from Reykjavík, and by regular and charter flights.
Walking around Iceland's little jewel of a city, you are bound to see a handful of truly breathtaking natural wonders. One of these is Vík, which means "bay" in the country's native tongue. The bay's waters are one of the world's purest. An alternative beach is Keilsfoss, a waterfall that tumbles down the side of a cliff into a vast pool where you can bathe in geothermal water. Vík also has a number of museums, such as the Vík Guðmundsson Museum of Icelandic Antiquities, which chronicles the history of this small island. Also in Vík is the Ice House, an indoor facility featuring an 18,000 square-meter aquarium that looks like a subterranean lava cave. This is where you will find the island's seal population, while seals are spotted regularly from a nearby lookout point. Traveling between Reykjavík and Vík, there are bus or train services operated by Strætó and ferries run by the Icelandic Marine Tours. Visiting is easily done on your own, however, with rental cars available in Reykjavík. There are also a number of tours that visit Vík and Keilsfoss. For more information, visit vik.is.
Island of Surtsey
Surtsey, the volcanic island that erupted more than a century ago, is one of the few places where you can see a volcano in the wild, dramatic process of birth and death. Surtsey, known locally as "the puffin island," is the youngest volcano on Earth. Once an island, it is now a part of mainland Iceland and the first place to be uninhabited since Europe began. At 3 kilometers by 2 kilometers, it was recently renamed "Europe's newest national park" after the islands. Visit the dramatic lava fields and an abandoned children's camp on the uninhabited south coast. About 2,000 people live on the island and run businesses catering to visitors. There are tours of the island from Reykjavik and occasional transport to and from the mainland.