Whether you’re getting ready to visit Iceland for the first time or are returning for another trip, you're guaranteed experiences that deliver. Iceland is considered one of the most beautiful countries on the planet, and this fact remains true on both your first and your 100th visits. And with the changing of the seasons, a world you may have seen before could look entirely different, full of new color and new life.
For starters, the country is Mother Nature at her best and most extreme — with several national parks located in different parts of the country, visitors can embark on multi-day hiking trips in remote areas or day-long tours of waterfalls, volcanoes, and glaciers. Around 30 islands (home to a large number of puffin colonies) are also part of the country, and many of them are accessible by ferry.
Then there's Iceland's urban side. Peek into Icelandic culture and history at one of the museums in Reykjavik, Akureyri, or Husavik, and then dive deep into Icelandic cuisine — both traditional and contemporary takes specialize in lamb, dairy, and fresh seafood.
In short, below are just three of the ways to spend an unforgettable week in the "Land of Fire and Ice."
Itinerary #1: Reykjavik, The Golden Circle, South Iceland, The Westman Islands, and Jokulsarlon
Start off your adventure by exploring Reykjavik. If you can, use your own two feet — Iceland's capital is a small and walkable city. Go to the top of Hallgrímskirkja and take in the gorgeous panoramic view over the coast, catch a comedy show or a concert at the futuristic Harpa Concert Hall, and snap a picture with the Sun Voyager, a magnificent sculpture resembling a boat. Before you depart, be sure to take advantage of the booming dining and cultural scene. (For more things to do, check out this article on sights and activities in Reykjavik.)
And then you're off. The Golden Circle is a 190-mile loop east and southeast of Reykjavik that you can experience one of two ways: drive on your own or take a day trip with a tour company and a guide. Luckily for drivers, the most popular attractions in South Iceland are located along Route 1, the main road in the country. Touring the Golden Circle will take you about half a day since it's a bit of a long drive off Route 1. Here's what's in store:
- Þingvellir National Park. This is where the Icelandic nation was born and where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are now splitting apart. You can walk between the two, and you should, but you can also dive: The crystal clear waters of Silfra are one of the only places in the world where you can swim in the tight rift between two continents.
- Gullfoss waterfall. This spectacular 105-foot-high cascade is a natural marvel, even in winter.
- The Haukadalur geothermal area. This region is home to the geysers Geysir and Strokkur, the latter one erupting every couple of minutes, spewing hot water high (up to 230 feet!) into the air.
- Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls. Both are definitely worth a stop — there's even a path that goes behind Seljalandsfoss, which allows you to see this magnificent natural wonder from a unique perspective.
- If you have some time to spare, visit Kerið crater close to Selfoss. It is a beautiful volcanic crater lake —one of several in that region—that has emerald green water. Not far from it, along route 35, is the "secret lagoon." Although it is not entirely secret anymore, this natural hot spring is worth the stop and taking a dip, of course. If you're getting hungry and are still in the area, head to Friðheimar farm, a working greenhouse farm with stables and a restaurant. Their menu is vegetarian where center stage take the farm-grown tomatoes—try their signature Friðheimar Tomato Soup.
For lodging, consider staying a couple of nights in Vik, a small, centrally-located fishing town that's home to the wondrous Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. For a detailed guide to the South Coast, click here.
Drive a bit further, and you'll reach Vestmannaeyjar, or The Westman Islands. This is an archipelago of 18 volcanic islands off the South Coast, the largest of them and the only one that’s inhabited being Heimaey. These rugged islands are covered in a blanket of lush vegetation where puffins and other wildlife reside, making them a popular spot for photographers and wildlife-seekers. To get to Heimaey, take one of the multiple ferries that leave daily from Landeyjahöfn — the trip takes approximately 35 minutes.
If you're a hiking enthusiast, stop at Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park. You will find detailed maps with hike routes available at Skaftafell Visitor Center. There's also a large campground in the area in case you'd like to spend a night under the stars.
Another picturesque hike option is the magnificent Fjadrargljufur Canyon, a short detour away from Route 1. The 328-foot deep and 1.2-mile long canyon is believed to be formed about 6,000 years ago after a glacier retreated and formed a lake. And even though there's a river flowing through the canyon, it's usually very low on water so hikes are completely safe. You can also opt to see it from above and walk up a path along its edge.
Finally, end your week at Jokulsarlon lagoon in Vatnajökull National Park. Hop on a boat tour and enjoy the otherworldly landscape that lays before your eyes — the blue water is studded with huge chunks of ice and, in the background, is Europe’s biggest glacier, Vatnajökull.
Itinerary #2: Snaefellsness Peninsula, Flatey Island, and the Westfjords
On a clear day, you could actually see Snaefellsnes Peninsula from Reykjavik — but to get there, head northwest of the capital about 60 miles. Start off your journey at the southern part of the peninsula, and work your way around to its tip (where Snaefellsnes National Park is) and then to the northern side.
Locals say that the peninsula is like a “mini Iceland,” meaning that it's home to all of the country’s natural elements — endless lava fields and formations, black and white sand beaches, gorgeous waterfalls, underground caves (that you can tour), glaciers, and volcanoes. Snaefellsness Peninsula is where you’ll find Kirkjufell mountain, also known as the most photographed mountain in Iceland — it's located just outside of the town of Grundarfjörður.
Flatey Island is situated between Snaefellsness Peninsula and the Westfjords (as you might have guessed, its name comes from its lack of hills or mountains). To get there, take the Baldur ferry from Stykkishólmur, the peninsula’s most-populated town. While in the colder months this small island is home to only a handful of farmers, it transforms into a bustling destination in the summer. Sheep roam between the colorful houses in the village, and the island is a paradise for bird lovers. Puffins and arctic terns nest here in the warmer months, and you won’t have to look hard to spot them.
The Westfjords may be one of Iceland’s most overlooked — and yet most beautiful — destinations. Outdoor enthusiasts will easily find a home here: Ice climbing, kayaking between the fjords, fishing, skiing, whale watching, and, of course, hiking are just some of the activities that this region offers to its visitors. And while South Iceland is famous for its beautiful waterfalls, the most beautiful one in the country may be the Westfjords' Dynjandi. It's a massive 325-foot-tall cascading wonder surrounded on both sides by rugged cliffs.
And onto more wildlife. The steep coast of Látrabjarg, Iceland’s westernmost point, hosts thousands of birds that aren't shy around humans (so you’ll get plenty of photo opportunities from very close range). The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve covers 220 square miles of untouched natural terrain home to arctic foxes, puffins, and seals. This region hasn’t experienced any large-scale human activity in decades — there are no roads here, and the area is only accessible by boat or on foot, so campers and hikers will find themselves in true solitude. If you’d like to read more, here’s a comprehensive guide to Hornstrandir Nature Reserve.
The largest town in the Westfjords is Ísafjörður, a good base for exploring the region. The town is nestled at the foot of a steep mountain and into a deep bay. Bird enthusiasts should take a boat to Vigur Island, home to a colony of puffins, black guillemots, and Arctic terns among others. Iceland's only windmill and Europe's smallest post office are also here.
For show-stopping views, drive up to nearby Bolungarvík, another small village. A service road leads to a radar station at the top of Bolafjall Mountain from where you can see the entire Ísafjarðardjúp fjord and, some say, even all the way up to Greenland.
The small beautiful villages of Flateyri and Súðavík, known for being hit by avalanches in the past, are now popular vacation spots among Icelanders. Not too far from Súðavík is Valagil, a narrow ravine with a majestic waterfall running through its middle. There is a marked path from the main road that will lead you closer to it.
Itinerary #3: Akureyri, Lake Mývatn, Drangey island, and Húsavíkaption
Iceland’s second largest town, Akureyri, is located in North Iceland about 240 miles away from Reykjavik — there are direct flights from Reykjavik’s domestic airport (RKV) every day. The town sits at the base of one of the longest fjords in the country, Eyjafjörður, giving it claim to both natural beauty and urban appeal.
Akureyri’s downtown area is quite compact (though note all city buses are free) and it offers great dining, cultural, and sightseeing options. Check out the views over the bay and the fjord from Akureyrarkirkja, the town’s main Lutheran church, and then stop at one of the many museums worth visiting here, such as the Into the Arctic exhibition — it's a huge collection of centuries-old maps of Northern Europe, bygone navigational equipment, and Inuit artifacts. Akureyri Art Museum, another notable spot, is in the center of the town’s cultural life. For a detailed list of things to do in Akureyri, click here.
For something a little different, head to the beer spa, Bjórböðin. It's located in the small village of Árskógssandur, about 21 miles north of Akureyri. You can take a dip in one of the seven tubs filled with beer, reportedly beneficial for both your skin and health. Yes, beer is available to drink as well.
Some of the last preserved turf houses in Iceland are in this area. In fact, in Glaumbær farm, people lived in turf houses until the middle of the last century. Now, there are 13 turf houses with bright white-and-yellow facades turned into a sort of an open-air museum that is open to the public. You truly feel like you are stepping back in time here so take a few moments to walk around and explore this magical area.
Next, head to Mývatn, a volcanic lake surrounded by hot springs, caves, and waterfalls. Thanks to its stark beauty, the area made a cameo in Game of Thrones (you can see more GoT locations in Iceland here.) If you notice mysterious steam coming out of the area, you've spotted Myvatn Nature Baths. Just like the Blue Lagoon, the waters here are warm and milky blue, but, luckily, they lack the Blue Lagoon crowds. So take your time to relax and recharge after a day of sightseeing. Then put your hiking shoes on and take a tour to Lofthellir Ice Cave, a 3,500-year-old lava cave that houses the largest and most wondrous natural ice sculptures in the country.
Along those same lines, Drangey island, located in Skagafjörður, resembles a fortress sitting in the middle of the bay. The island is only open in the summer, though it's worth the wait — it's home to one of the largest puffin colonies in the area. If you're in the mood for some island hopping, don't miss Grímsey island, home to about a million seabirds and only about 100 residents. The island is about 22 miles away from the coast. To get there, you can either take a flight from Akureyri or a ferry from Dalvik.
If you have time, know that North Iceland has its own "Golden Circle," referred to as the Diamond Circle. It's a 162-mile loop that starts at Húsavík, a small town widely considered to be one of the best whale-watching locations in the world. After all, why do one when you can do both?
And just like the South has its majestic waterfalls, so does the North. Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, and Godafoss, "the waterfall of gods" are an absolute must-see. From Dettifoss, there is a 21-mile hiking trail to Asbyrgi Canyon. It is one of the most magical and otherworldly places in Iceland—the canyon itself is about two miles long with walls towering about it at 328 feet. There is a designated campsite at Vesturdalur and another one—with a lot more facilities— at Asbyrgi.
Rauðanes cape is situated in the northeast along Route 85 from where you need to walk about 4 miles (along a marked trail) before reaching it. The coast is dotted with wondrous basalt formations, rock arches, and rugged cliffs.