Iceland, the land of fire and ice, attracts tourists looking for open spaces and spectacular lunar landscapes. Its latitude, rugged terrain, and geothermal activity create a world of amazing natural phenomena, and there is no shortage of activities on the island.
Travelers come here for the breathtaking and truly unique landscapes, a paradise to anyone who loves the great outdoors.
So, what's at the top of the list when you go to Iceland?
The map of Iceland's tourist sites shows the points of interest in each region and is a great starting point to start learning about the many features of Iceland so you can plan your trip.
When you think of Iceland, volcanoes are the first thing that come to mind (or perhaps the second, after ice). In 2010, European airports ground to a halt following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, and the world quickly understood that Iceland's volcanoes are not to be trifled with.
Iceland has dozens of them. Some are inactive but others still breathe fire once in a while, and tremors are very common on the island (like the locals, you get used to them).
Volcanic activity means geothermal energy and Iceland is brimming with traces of this interplay of immense forces with geysers, mud pots, or other solfatars, with some great examples in Myvatn in the north, and Geysir or even Krysuvik.
This geothermal activity has given us the famous hot springs that Icelanders love and where they spend a great deal of time lounging in 35 to 38°C waters. Some are very modern with spa amenities, while others are almost entirely wild and hidden in remote locations under the stars. It would be a crying shame to visit Iceland without taking a dip in a hot spring!
Volcanoes are also the reason there are so many stunning canyons carved into the island's surface.
Another highlight of Iceland is, of course, the glaciers. Along with the great Vatnajokull, Iceland has the second-largest glacier in Europe which counts among the largest in the world.
Glaciers are plentiful in Iceland and cover a large part of the country, however their surface area is shrinking and this is accelerating with global warming. Most are on the south coast and can be seen from up close, in fact some you can even walk on. Svinafellsjökull, Sólheimajökull or Skaftafellsjökull for example can be visited in depth.
Jökulsárlón, in the south, features one of the emblems of Iceland, a magnificent lagoon in which icebergs drift by like frozen abstract sculptures. The site has become an "unmissable stop" for visitors, whether you come in winter or summer. Learn more about Jokulsarlon and Fjallsarlon.
A lot of ice means a lot of water flowing from these glaciers, which inevitably turns into a river. These rivers flow through Iceland's rugged terrain, carving its canyons over the millennia and generating countless waterfalls. These magnificent falls really are ubiquitous all around the island.
Some waterfalls like Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Gullfoss draw the most visitors as they are conveniently located near the capital, but the country has many more hidden treasures in more remote areas. Learn more about the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland.
Because of its high latitude and proximity to the Arctic Circle, Iceland enjoys (literally) endless days in summer. So much so that between mid-June and mid-July you'd better have opaque curtains or you'll never fall asleep. This phenomenon is called the “midnight sun”.
This incredible silvery light, typical of the northern countries in our hemisphere, is very popular with photographers. These long days can confuse one's circadian rhythm, as your body is used to timing your energy cycle on the light cycle above you.
Regardless, the phenomenon is fascinating and you'll need to travel in summer to witness it, because as you can imagine, the midnight sun can only be observed around the summer solstice. Learn more about the midnight sun in Iceland.
Many dream of seeing an aurora borealis, and it's not hard to understand why. For visitors who go to Iceland in winter between October and March, if you're lucky the Northern Lights will illuminate the Icelandic sky for you. The show is absolutely sensational, if you can catch it, and worth the trip alone.
The aurora borealis or Northern Lights are natural phenomena caused by powerful solar flares. Large quantities of charged particles are ejected by the sun, escape and form solar winds which splash the Earth's magnetic field.
Our planet is protected from the worst of these radioactive solar winds, but at the North and South Poles this hidden battle becomes visible. The charged particles interact with atoms and ions in the ionosphere to generate the famed aurora borealis. Learn more about the Northern Lights.
The fjords are another popular feature of Icelandic landscapes and some travel to Iceland just to see them. The vast majority of them are in the northern, northwestern, and eastern regions of Iceland.
In the east, the best known are Seydisfjörður and Borgarfjörður Eystri. In the north, Siglufjörður is probably the most charming and in the northwest there are plenty of them, including the famous Ísafjarðardjúp, Isafjörðdur or the fjord of Arnarfjörður.
Iceland is a wild place, with alien landscapes aplenty, from lava fields to glaciers, volcanoes, rivers, and waterfalls. Nature means rugged terrain, which means hiking, and Iceland has hundreds of trails across the country for you to enjoy.
Hiking trails come in all shapes and sizes, from leisurely strolls to multi-day marathon treks. The famous Laugavegur trek, for example, takes you to the incredible vistas of Thorsmörk from the Landmannalaugar region, the whole journey a sequence of extraordinary landscapes.
In Iceland, there is no shortage of activities and while some people are happy to admire the landscapes and hike into the wild (which can be a thrill), others will enjoy the many excursions, tours, and group activities available.
The Icelandic horse is atypical, a unique breed of the species. One of its main characteristics is its unique gait, of which it has 4 rather than the usual 3: the walk, the trot, the canter/gallop, and the “tölt”. Tölt (pronounced Teult) is a very smooth 4-beat lateral gait that is comfortable at all speeds. The particularity of this pace is that the horse always has at least one foot on the ground. Some breeds even have a 5th gait, the flying pace, which is a sight to behold.
The Icelandic landscapes, especially the beaches, are particularly well suited to horseback riding for amateurs. Learn more about Icelandic horseback riding and horseback riding.
One of the best things to do when you have access to the most beautiful fjords or the most beautiful glaciers is kayaking. Who has never wanted to sail between icebergs near a glacier or on a picturesque fjord? Learn more about kayaking in Iceland.
In both winter and summer, visitors can sail out on expeditions to find and observe these most venerable of sea creatures. Husavik, in the north of Iceland, is even considered the European whale watching capital.
Although we don't recommend swimming in the sea in Iceland unless you're very quick about it and resistant to the cold, the fact remains that Iceland is well known for its magnificent beaches.
In fact, some of them are regularly in the top rankings (National Geographic) and are among the most beautiful beaches in the world!
In both winter and summer you can find numerous caves to visit in Iceland. For those who travel there in winter, the ice caves in the south of the island are mostly open. Learn more about caves in Iceland.
The small country of Iceland brings to mind images of fjords, volcanoes, and icebergs, but for there is another symbol that stands out: these traditional small houses with grass roofs. These quaint constructions can be found all around the island, and first-time visitors are often charmed by their picturesque appearance.
Of all Icelandic cooking specialties, if we had to choose just one, it would probably be Skyr. This delicious dessert, halfway between cottage cheese and yogurt, is a must for anyone going to Iceland.
Skyr is often served as a dessert but it is also very commonly served for breakfast in the morning in hotels and B&Bs. Learn more about Skyr.
Another culinary specialty that can be found in Iceland is of course mutton. This is a country of sheep, and they are simply everywhere and in very large numbers, so you're bound to find mutton and lamb dishes of all kinds. You can literally find them on every street corner as Icelandic hot dogs, the famous “pylsurs”, are a popular street-food made from mutton.
We also recommend you try traditional Icelandic mutton soup, which is delicious and quite filling.
Hangikjöt, or smoked mutton, is one of Iceland's most cherishes Christmas traditions. End of year celebrations are a major festivity in Iceland and alongaside the food are a world of Christmas activities and specialties for you to discover.