Writer | Rachel White
Treks to thundering waterfalls before soaking in natural hot springs. Black sand beaches and erupting volcanos. Northern lights and whale watching. Towering glaciers and Viking culture. The energy here — the geothermal kind — is palpable. No place on earth captures the imagination quite like the land of fire and ice. Welcome to Iceland.
The first stop to shake off the jet lag should be a soak in some hot springs. There are many throughout the country but most people fly into Reykjavik and visit the iconic Blue Lagoon located just outside the capital. While there, enjoy the steamy azure waters, optional spa treatments and swim-up bars.
During your journey, check out some of these off-the-beaten-path options on your trip as well. The luxe Sky Lagoon is a newer spa that’s close to the capital, with an infinity pool that makes you feel like you’re on the edge of the Atlantic. Stay until sunset for incredible views of Kàrsnes Harbour below. If you want to go a more natural route, try out Reykjadalur, where you’ll hike almost two miles through verdant “Steam Valley,” past bubbling mud pools and a breathtaking waterfall before reaching the swimmable 104-degree Fahrenheit river. Head north to check out the Geosea Geothermal Sea Baths, where if you come at the right time of year, and look toward the Arctic Circle, you may be lucky enough to see the northern lights.
The aurora borealis is never guaranteed, but Iceland is one of the best places to see the swirling, dancing green and purple lights in the night sky. If you’re staying near the capital, the city’s lights make it difficult to see the lights in the sky, but there are guided tours that will take you to the places where you’re most likely to see those amazing northern lights. It’s easiest to spot between September and March, when the nights are longer. Make sure to avoid a full moon when planning your trip; the light will make you unable to see them.
If you choose to go in the summer, a whale-watching expedition is an awesome opportunity to see these giants in their natural environment. Humpback sightings are common, as are Minke, but you can even see orcas and blue whales on a cruise along the coast. The storybook town of Husavik is one of the best places to embark on a tour, with a high likelihood of seeing a whale.
For an other-worldly adventure, head to Jökulsárlón Lagoon to see the stunning sculptural blue and white glaciers. You can zip around the bay on a zodiac boat tour, weaving between chunks of ice, where you may also see seals and terns swooping into the boat. While you’re there head to Diamond Beach, where pieces of the glacier wash up onto the black sandand glitter like diamonds. A lesser-known and more peaceful glacial lagoon is Fjallsárlón. Here you can wander the beach for up-close views of the glacier with a backdrop of stunning mountains.
Waterfalls, Geysers and Tectonic Plates
There are thousands of waterfalls in Iceland, and it’s hard to take a hike without seeing one, but there are some that you shouldn’t miss on a trip. Many tourists drive the Golden Circle, a 155-mile route that traverses Thingvellir National Park, The Geysir Geothermal Area, and a can’t-miss waterfall, Gullfoss, which literally translates into “Golden Falls.” This two-tiered fall comes from the Langjökull glacier before pouring 105 feet down into a crevasse.
While you’re driving the Golden Circle take in the Stokker Geysir which erupts every 5-10 minutes and explore the opening between the tectonic plates of Europe and North America, called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, in Thingvellir National Park. Another waterfall worth traveling to is Goðafoss, the “waterfall of the gods.” This horseshoe-shaped fall is beautiful but also supposedly the site where Iceland officially converted to Christianity,
eschewing the Norse gods. The photogenic Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss, which you can walk behind, are along the south coast and well worth visiting.
There are so many cool things to do in Iceland that one trip may not cover everything. There are Viking culture museums and experiences, the rock formations in the Highlands, the fuming lava fields of Leirhnjukur, or the charming coast of the Westfjords. Whatever you choose to do while you’re there, Iceland is truly a vacation that you’ll never forget.
Tips for your trip:
- Most everyone speaks English, so it’s not necessary to learn Icelandic, but knowing a few Icelandic words makes the trip more interesting and navigation a bit easier.
- It’s important to book your travel in advance. Tours, rental cars, and hotels may be scarce and more expensive if you wait.
- You can pay for pretty much everything with a credit or debit card, there is no need to bring lots of cash.
- Be prepared for all kinds of weather: the temps in summer average 55 F and the winter drops down to an average of 36 F.
- Road trips are the best trips, so rent a car and go explore!