The Best Things to Do in Iceland
From the steam rising off the Blue Lagoon to the black basalt cliffs looming above the roiling Atlantic, Iceland’s dramatic vistas are second to none. Waterfalls tumble, geysers shoot for the sky, whales breach, and, during the long winter months, the Northern Lights put on a free show high above. Whether you’re up for an active vacation, something more relaxing, or the perfect tourist combo, Iceland enchants. There’s plenty of culture and history to take in too as the island nation’s museums—fine art, folk life, and fascinating oddities—are ready and waiting.
Tryggvagata 17, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
The Reykjavík Art Museum comprises a trio of buildings that have been constructed around the collections of three of the city’s most famous artists: the painters Erró and Jóhannes Kjarval and the sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson. The museum often exhibits other works (contemporary art, paintings, sculptures, installations) by established local and international artists as well. Erró’s work is showcased at downtown’s Hafnarhús, which is the most central spot and offers the biggest range of temporary exhibitions. The Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum and the Kjarvalsstaðir museum are worth visiting not just for the rich examples of their namesakes’ works but for their lovely gardens also.
4, 110, Kistuhylur, Reykjavík, Iceland
This impressive open-air museum was once a functioning farm as well as a popular resting place for people on their way to and from Reykjavík. It was transformed into a museum in the 1950s in an attempt to preserve something of an old Reykjavík that was disappearing quickly due to postwar developments. Today the original farm is supplemented by around 20 buildings, most of which have been relocated from central Reykjavík, including a grass-roofed timber house from the late 19th century. The ensemble forms a small village, complete with a village square. On display are several exhibitions pertaining to older periods of Reykjavík’s history, including antique farm machinery and a slew of domestic animals that call the place home. There are also regular events along the same theme.
Hallgrímstorg 101, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
You can’t miss Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík’s 240-foot-tall, rocket-shaped church, which soars above the city skyline and is illuminated at night. Designed by famed national architect Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937, and inspired less by outer space than by Iceland’s picturesque basalt rock formations, the church took over 40 years to construct, finally opening in 1986. The statue outside the church doors is of Leifur Eiríksson, the first European to discover continental North America, 500 years before Christopher Columbus. The church interior is well worth a visit, if only to admire the giant organ, which has over 5,000 pipes and was designed and constructed by German organ builder Johannes Klais of Bonn. You can also take the elevator to the church’s tower for magnificent views over Reykjavík’s colorful rooftops.
Laugavegur 116, 105 Reykjavík, Iceland
Surely the world’s only museum to showcase the phalluses of an entire nation’s mammalian wildlife, Iceland’s Phallological Museum is somewhat unique. Despite its obvious quirk factor, the museum is actually an interesting and—for the most part—fairly serious establishment. It offers guests the chance to inspect almost 300 penises (including parts of penises) that together represent pretty much all the land and sea mammals to be found throughout the country. A quarter belong to various types of whales, but there are also samples from polar bears and seals, as well as a letter from a local human pledging his own personal specimen posthumously. There are also elf penises, though you’ll need special psychic powers to see them.
Reykjavík’s Settlement Museum was established in 2001 after archaeological remains were discovered during an excavation. Said remains turned out to be the oldest relics of human habitation in the city, with some fragments dating to before 871 C.E. Today the museum has many of those finds on display, including the largest element from the historic haul, parts of a 10th-century longhouse, whose main hall and wall fragment form the focal point of a compelling exhibition about the nature of local life during Viking times. Mixing multimedia technology such as holographic dioramas with original artifacts from various excavations around the city (farming implements, sacrificial cow bones), the exhibition does a great job of bringing the Viking era to life.
Rekagrandi 14, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Reykjavík’s old harbor, built between 1913 and 1917, has seen quite the transformation in recent years, morphing from a mainly functional area dominated by ships and their fishermen to a lively, modern tourism area that’s almost a new city district of its own. The sparkling, award-winning Harpa concert hall and conference center has dominated the area since it opened in 2011, and several restaurants and cafés, along with offices, now line the harbor promenade, interspersed with the occasional cultural spot such as the fascinating Reykjavík Maritime Museum. The boats, trawlers, and whaling ships are still there, of course, and remain a big part of the atmosphere, but they’re today joined by a number of tourist boats offering whale-watching and puffin tours.
One of the most popular day trips from Reykjavík, this dramatic and scenic rift valley is both the historical site of Iceland’s Viking parliament and a geological wonder in its own right. Among the highlights are the Almannagjá cliffs, where the island’s chieftains and most of the Icelandic population traditionally congregated for an annual Alþing (general assembly), the last of which was held as recently as 1798. Wooden walkways around the park lead to other sites of interest like the black-roofed Þingvellir Church and Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland. There are also waterfalls, flower-filled valleys, and abundant wildlife. It is possible to organize a diving trip to explore the tectonic rift that divides the Eurasian and North American plates, and there’s a visitor center with great views and decent coffee as well as exhibitions and a gift shop.
Reykjadalur means “Steam Valley"—a perfectly apt description of this pleasant geothermal area close to the town of Hveragerði, a 40-minute drive south from Reykjavík. Formed from a now extinct volcano (Mount Hengill), the valley is best experienced via a two-mile walk along a gravel road, which leads into the hot springs. The hour-long stroll—fairly easy but quite narrow in places—is highly photogenic thanks to the presence of boreholes, waterfalls, and springs, so bring your camera as well as your swimming gear. Be sure also to use only the official bathing pools, since although the light-blue water may look innocent, some pools are hot enough to cause severe burns. If you don’t have a car to get to the site, you can visit the springs via an official tour, which can be done in combination with some horse riding. There is also a restaurant close to the parking lots and bathrooms.
Nordurljosavegur 9, 240 Grindavík, Iceland
Iceland’s largest and most famous geothermal spa lies around an hour outside Reykjavik, quite close to Keflavik Airport. With a dramatic setting amidst large black lava boulders, the steam-filled, creamy-blue pool area is a striking and surreal sight. The Blue Lagoon has been open since the 1980s and today draws some 700,000 visitors a year. The pools are actually created by heated seawater that flows from the adjacent geothermal power station. The waters allegedly cure all manner of skin-related ailments (eczema, psoriasis), but whether these claims are true or not, it’s certainly an atmospheric place to unwind, with very comfortable (99 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures. The complex includes a small bar that dispenses healthy juices and beer, as well as a spa area for massages andbeauty treatments, and a very good restaurant; there’s also an upscale hotel if you wish to stay overnight.
Established in 2001, Snæfellsjökull National Park—the first ever national park created in Iceland—covers an impressive 65 square miles around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, which itself extends some 44 miles into the sea from Iceland’s west coast. The park is dominated by the Snæfellsjökull volcano, whose 4,741-foot-high ice cap—made famous by Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth—is sometimes visible from Reykjavík. The volcano remains one of the main draws of the park, thanks to its opportunities for climbing, sledding, and skiing, but the rugged coastline of the peninsula is also dotted with picturesque fishing villages and full of native birdlife and lava fields such as Búðahraun, a designated nature reserve, ripe for exploration.
This lake filled with giant, translucent chunks of iceberg is one of Iceland’s most distinctive and photogenic sights. Featured in high-profile movies, including two of the James Bond series and Batman Begins (as well as many local TV commercials), the sight is reached via a scenic drive along the country’s main ring road (Route 1). The icebergs originate at the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which looms in the distance behind the lagoon, and look especially otherworldly when they reach the nearby black-sand beach. The area is also a paradise for bird lovers, with arctic terns and skuas nesting in the area (they may dive-bomb you if you get too close to their nests), and it’s possible to spot the occasional seal. A nearby visitor center offers simple fast food and drinks as well as souvenirs.
This dramatic two-tier waterfall, whose name translates as “Golden Falls,” a reference to the shimmering mist that sometimes appears around the falls, is one of Iceland’s most famous—which is saying something in a country abundant with waterfalls. Saved from oblivion during the 1920s (foreign investors wanted to dam the falls to create hydropower), the waterfall lies in a canyon on the Hvítá river and is backed by scenic snowcapped peaks. It’s possible to follow the falls as they flow downstream through the canyon, either via a walking trail or on a rafting trip, though it’s worth noting that the paths are wet and can be slippery. The visitor center has a canteen that serves up surprisingly tasty local dishes like lamb soup; there are also a gift shop and a local exhibition centered around traditional life in the area.
Eyrardalur, 420 Súðavík, Iceland
The Arctic Fox Center, tucked away in the tiny Westfjords village of Súðavík, is dedicated to the only land mammal native to Iceland. The nonprofit research institution and exhibition center was set up in 2007 by a group of enthusiasts and scientists to collect all kinds of information about the animal. Located inside a renovated farmstead (one of the oldest buildings in the area), it offers an exhibition that explains that the arctic fox probably arrived in Iceland via ice floes from Greenland, is larger than the European fox, and has a distinctive dark blue summer coat that turns white in winter. The venue also has an on-site café and a couple of orphaned foxes in the backyard.
Þjóðvegur, Reykjahlidh, Iceland
Lake Mývatn is an unusually scenic body of water that covers some 14 square miles of the land east of Akureyri. This is one of the most striking regions in Iceland: The lake’s surrounded by a jaw-dropping landscape of extinct volcanic cinder cones, and otherworldly lava formations created by volcanic activity some 4,000 years ago. A tour around the area will reveal everything from hot springs and bubbling mud pools to plenty of birdlife and the Jarðböðin Nature Baths, the area’s answer to the Blue Lagoon, which offer the chance to bathe in the mineral-rich geothermal water. Despite the English translation of the lake’s name (Midge Lake), you’re not likely to be bothered by any such irksome creatures.
Around 100 miles from Reykjavik, and easily accessible due to its location on the main ring road, the tiny and cute village of Vík í Mýrdal has only under 300 inhabitants but is nonetheless one of the south coast’s key highlights. This is mainly because of its distinctive black-sand beach, Reynisfjara, which offers striking basalt columns and lava formations to admire, cliffs and caves to explore and, slightly out to sea, Dyrhólaey, a small promontory featuring a famous arch. Right behind the village also lies the mighty Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which offers some great hiking and other activities, and its worth walking up to quaint white village church (Reyniskirkja) for the views back down to the sea.
Located about an hour northeast from Reykjavík and part of the famed Golden Circle tour (along with Gullfoss), the Geysir hot springs area consists of around a dozen hot water blowholes, including the eponymous Geysir. The Strokkur blowhole is the most popular, principally because it regularly (every few minutes, usually) spouts its boiling water up to 100 feet into the air. It’s still worth looking around at the other pools, even if they haven’t erupted for years or even decades, since they usually offer interesting colors and bubbling geothermal activity. The site also has a hotel, souvenir shop, café, and a related exhibition.