Iceland has been regarded as a realm of stark contrasts, an island made up of striking landscapes, where rivers run through deserts and molten lava erupts from the ice. Iceland has become a top world destination not only for thrill-seeking adventurers but also for travelers with a deep love for nature, as well as those looking for something…different.
As you venture through the island you’ll discover active volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, glaciers, ice fields, and fjords. This sparsely populated country, sitting at the edge of the Arctic circle, is truly a destination that needs to be added to your bucket list.
Join us as we explore the best of what Iceland has to offer, from the eye-catching Northern Lights that dance in the Icelandic sky, to whale watching in Reykjavik - we’re taking a look at it all!
Top Attractions in The Ice Kingdom
The Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are among the most captivating attractions that Iceland has to offer.
Auroras are linked to solar wind, a flow of ions radiating from the sun. These particles become ensnared in the earth’s magnetic field and collide with atmospheric molecules, causing bursts of energy, which appear as large multi-colored waves that circle the poles.
Since the Northern Lights are a bit unpredictable, if you’re staying at a hotel in the city, most hotels can provide you with nightly predictions before you go to bed and add you to an overnight call list.
Travel Tip: For one of the most optimal opportunities to experience the Northern Lights you can take a tour that guides you to the remote countryside for the best chance to see this natural spectacle without the light pollution of the city.
Whale Watching, Reykjavik
No matter when you decide to visit Iceland, whale watching happens year-round – although spring and summer are the most popular times to see these gentle giants. During the warmer months, trips run day and night, including whale watching in the midnight sun.
These beautiful creatures often surface right near boats sailing in the area, so you may be able to enjoy a ringside seat for one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles.
Other ocean-going tours are also available, such as bird-watching and island visits. Tours are convenient since there are several types available, and they depart from Reykjavik’s Old Harbor. Stop for a dinner of fresh cod after your return in one of the many small, rustic restaurants located in the harbor area.
Fun Fact: April is an ideal month for wildlife viewing as it is the month when new wildlife is born. It is also the time to view whales and puffins. Although you can go whale watching throughout the year in Iceland, it’s April that takes the cake with many species like the humpback whale, killer whale, orcas and minke whales being spotted all around the Icelandic coastline.
The Blue Lagoon - Grindavik
Just 40 minutes drive from Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon geothermal spas is a must-see tourist attraction. The water from the underground hot springs reaches temperatures of between 37-39 degrees Celsius and is said to be highly beneficial for both your skin and health.
Aside from bathing in a marvelous dream-like setting, there is a range of spa treatments to choose from and places to eat and drink. Rub on a mask of natural mud minerals, sit back, and relax in the healing geothermal waters.
Travel Tip: For the ultimate relaxing visit, you can stay at one of the two hotels at the Blue Lagoon and add on a day at the Retreat Spa.
Although booking transport to the Blue Lagoon from Reykjavik is relatively easy, if you’re looking to add another layer of excitement to an already unforgettable journey, you can book a day trip on an ATV that will have you ride to the Blue Lagoon over lava rock paths.
Hiking in the Landmannalaugar Nature Reserve
Located on the southside of Iceland – 1800 km from Reykjavik – travelers will find the Landmannalaugar National Park – one of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions. The main features of this mystical landscape are the multi-hued rhyolite mountains, Hekla volcano, and extensive lava fields.
Hiking and horse riding are popular things to do here, and hikes range from a couple of hours to several days. When you visit this area, expect raw nature, rugged untamed scenery, and utterly spectacular views.
The Skaftafell Ice Cave - Vatnajökull National Park
In the south of the country, Vatnajökull National Park is a land of glaciers and magnificent ice caves, which attracts adventurers from all across the globe.
The vast national park (one of three in Iceland) is divided into four sections and consists of Vatnajökull glacier and its surroundings.
Fun Fact: If seen at the right time, the cave is bathed in spectacular blue light. Group visits to all areas can be arranged off-season.
If you have the stamina and are in healthy shape, you might consider doing a glacial trek with an experienced guide. The treks get you on the ice for an unforgettable experience to see glacial cracks and caves and even drink fresh water from small pools on the icy surface.
The Marvelous Gullfoss Waterfall is a 90-minute drive west of Reykjavik. The river Hvítá plummets into a canyon, forming three-step terraces, and creating a powerful torrent.
The Gullfoss Waterfall encompasses two cascades; the upper cascade drops 11 meters, whereas the lower cascade is roughly 21 meters.
Torrents of water flow over Gullfoss Waterfall at an average rate of 109 cubic meters per second, although heavy floods have recorded an astonishing rate of nearly twenty times that.
Hangikjöt (Smoked Lamb)
Icelandic smoked lamb is the preferred Christmas dinner for Icelanders. It’s everything that a holiday Icelandic dish needs to be: very tender, healthy, and delicious.
Served at lunch or dinner, it’s consumed as a warm dish, traditionally served with cooked potatoes, white bechamel sauce, peas, and a pickled red cabbage.
As a cold snack, it’s similar to ham, and tastes great on a slice of bread as a topping.
Perhaps after salmon, cod is easily the most popular and common type of saltwater fish in the world. We’re certain you’ve already tried cod because it’s sold in supermarkets all across the globe, but the one being caught or farmed in the Atlantic Ocean is the healthiest there is.
Thanks to the rich marine life of the Atlantic Ocean, Icelandic cod is able to consume a lot of healthy seafood and can grow quite large. This results in them not having many natural predators left so they’re able to multiply fast and naturally.
Travel Tip: Icelandic restaurants will have fresh cod on their menus, and many of them also offer “catch of the day”, where it will almost always be cod.
The Icelandic Langoustine (meaning small lobster) soup is one of the most sought-after dishes when visiting Reykjavik. Icelandic lobster is caught in the wild (never farmed) in the South Coast waters of Iceland.
The lobster has very tender meat, rich in flavor, the lobster soup is creamy and salty, a real delicacy for any time of the year. It’s consumed with either toast or baguette slices.
Plokkfiskur (Fish Stew) is the national stew of Iceland. A simple but tasty mix of cooked and mashed Atlantic cod, flour, milk, potatoes and onions, seasoned with salt and pepper.
Centuries ago, the idea was to use and mix up all the leftovers from other Icelandic foods, in order to make the Plokkfiskur. This practice and some others (for example eating codhead) are perfect characteristics of the old Icelandic mentality: food in Iceland was scarce and hard to come by, so they cherished it and never wasted a bite of it.
Fun Fact: Plokkfiskur is a really good combination with homemade rye bread, a special Icelandic type of bread.
Luxury Accommodations in Iceland
The Retreat At Blue Lagoon
If you plan on visiting Iceland to explore the best attractions that this dream-like destination has to offer, why not opt for a stay at the most famous attraction in the country.
Book a minimalistic suite at The Retreat at Blue Lagoon. Spa breaks are a specialty – The Retreat Spa is a part of the Retreat experience.
Within the main subterranean spa lies Lava Cove, a private sanctuary, reserved for the affluent, offering gourmet dining, in-water massage, and guided yoga sessions. Be sure to try the signature ritual utilizing the silica, algae, and minerals of the geothermal seawaters. There’s also a restaurant with an equally soothing atmosphere. And of course, the lagoon, for quintessential Iceland bathing.
ION Adventure Hotel
Located in Selfoss, the ION Adventure Hotel is a remarkable modernist structure that stands on stilts, cutting an impressive outline in the already dramatic landscape.
Once a spooky abandoned inn, the hotel is now a 45-room boutique hotel that enjoys views of the Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant, as well as views across the lava fields toward Thingvellir National Park.
ION Adventure Hotel juts out on Mount Hengill as a secluded and sustainable retreat for adventure travelers and nature lovers looking to get off the beaten path.
The hotel makes for a great home-base for those adventurers looking to explore the incredible surrounding landscape.
Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon
Situated between Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon is one to add to your Icelandic road trip. The 125 rooms boast a minimal peaceful design, with huge windows looking out onto the vast Icelandic wilderness and the country’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnakúr.
High ceilings add to the sense of peace and serenity that this hotel embodies. The hotel’s large restaurant is decorated in a geometric style, with dishes inspired by the natural surroundings. The highlight of this property is, of course, its proximity to the Fosshotel Glacier, providing fantastic hiking trails right on your doorstep.
Edition Hotel Reykjavik
Bringing 5-star luxury to the city, the Reykjavik Edition is the perfect home-base from which to enjoy the many attractions of the region. Located in the historical heart of downtown Reykjavik, the hotel is a short walk from Laugavegur Street, the city’s vibrant shopping district, while the natural geothermal pools at Sky Lagoon are only a 10-minute car drive away.
The modern style flows throughout the hotel with room sizes and classes covering every traveler’s needs – with harbor and ocean views available too. The hotel also offers a formal dining experience led by Gunnar Karl Gibson, Iceland’s celebrated first Michelin-star chef.
UMI Hotel, Hvolsvollur
One of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Iceland is the backdrop to the UMI hotel. The hotel presents barefoot luxury at its best and is rooted in a deep connection to nature that flows throughout the design, decor, and overall experience of the hotel with only 28 simple yet stylish rooms, offering mountain and ocean views, guests will never feel overcrowded.
Stunning vistas can also be enjoyed from the hotel’s top-class restaurant which serves Nordic and Icelandic cuisine with a Japanese twist in a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The lounge and bar is the ideal spot to take in the panoramas of Eyjafjallajökull, the famous subglacial volcano.
For guests looking to enjoy more than the beautiful views, many action-packed activities such as glacier hikes, kayaking, and ice-cave adventures can easily be arranged by the team at the hotel.
Ready to take on Iceland? Check out our Curated Journey Iceland At A Glance. For more Curated Journeys like this one, check out our list of dream destinations for 2023.