Iceland, island of fire and ice, has become one of the world’s top destinations, not only with thrill-seeking adventurers, but also nature lovers looking for something different. Here you’ll discover active volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, glaciers, ice fields, and fjords, for this sparsely populated country, resting at the edge of the Arctic Circle, sits atop one of the world’s most volcanically active areas.
1. Whale Watching, Reykjavik
No matter when you plan to travel, whale watching happens year round, although summer is the most popular time to see these gentle giants. During the warmer months, trips run day and night, including whale watching in the midnight sun. Tour operators say there’s an 80-95% chance of seeing these magnificent creatures, depending on the time of year. Best of all, surfacing often happens right near the boats, so you may well 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.
2. Blue Lagoon, Grindavik
Just 40 minutes’ drive from Reykjavík this most iconic of geothermal spas should be at the top of any visitor’s must-see list. Here, you’ll find natural bathing in pale blue water in the shadow of a power station. An entire Blue Lagoon industry has grown around this attraction since it first became a hit with locals in 1976. The water from the underground hot springs reaches 37-39 degrees Celsius and is said to be highly beneficial for both health and skin. If the die-hard Icelanders are anything to go by, don’t knock the theory. Aside from bathing in a unique setting, there’s a shop selling skincare products, a range of spa treatments, and places to eat and drink. Don’t visit Iceland without coming here.
3. Spectacular Geysers
An easy 50-minute drive from Reykjavik, Strokkur Geysir (after which all geysers are named) is the most popular fountain geyser in the country and famed throughout the world. This highly active hot spring area lies in the southwest of Iceland beside the Hvítá River and is a favorite stop along what’s known as the Golden Circle. Boiling mud pits and around 100 other smaller exploding geysers are waiting to be explored here. Every few minutes, Strokkur shoots water 30 meters into the air. Visit the newly opened Geysir Center for exhibits and informative presentations year round. A memorable experience is digging up Geysir or “hot spring” bread, rye bread that has been baking underground for 24 hours. Visitors can also help a chef boil eggs in a hot spring to accompany the bread.
4. The Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis
The northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are among the most popular visitor attractions in Iceland. 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 circles around the poles. This spectacular natural light show is best admired in remote places and is particularly impressive at times of increased solar activity. Of course there’s no guarantee of seeing the lights. Atmospheric conditions and the weather have to cooperate, and clear skies are a must. Having said that, if you’re lucky, the Northern Lights can be seen in most places throughout Iceland from around late September until the beginning of April.
In the south of Iceland, 180 kilometers from Reykjavik, is Landmannalaugar National Park, one of Iceland’s most popular tourist destinations. The main features of this mystical landscape are the multihued rhyolite mountains, Hekla volcano, and extensive lava fields. Hiking and horse riding are popular activities here, and hikes range from a couple of hours to several days. You can visit from June to late September, after which the road is closed. A mountain lodge (Landmannalaugar Hut) with basic facilities accommodates 75 people. Expect raw nature, rugged scenery, and utterly spectacular views.
6. Maelifell Volcano & Myrdalsjökull Glacier Park
South of Landmannalaugar lies Myrdalsjökull Glacier Park, which for safety reasons can only be visited during summer. Large amounts of rain soak the area, particularly in winter when roads can be severely damaged. Maelifell volcano is the undisputed jewel-in-the-crown of this wild, rugged glacial landscape. The perfect cone shape gives Maelifell the look of a classic volcano, however during the warm season, a lavish green covering of moss gives it a surreal, otherworldly appearance. The park is full of volcanoes, hot springs, and other remarkable sites. To the west of Myrdalsjökull is a smaller glacier, Eyjafjallajökull (Island Mountain Glacier). A popular and thrilling way to explore is by snowmobile.
7. 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 attract adventurers from 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. You’ll find a number of visitor centers, those in Skaftafell Ice Cave and Höfn are open year round, while Skriðuklaustur and Jökulsárgljúfur are closed in winter. The best time to visit Skaftafell Ice Cave is during winter after heavy rain has washed the top layer of the glacier away. If seen at the right time, the cave is bathed in spectacular blue light. Group visits to all areas can be arranged off-season.
8. Askja Caldera
In the northern region of Vatnajökull National Park, Askja caldera and geothermal pool in the Dyngjufjöll Mountains is not one for the faint-hearted. However, if you’d like to say you’ve taken a dip in a live volcano, then this is for you. Askja is an impressive 50 square kilometers in size. The surrounding mountain range was formed during volcanic activity, and Askja was partly created by an eruption of burning ash that collapsed the roof of the central volcano’s magma chamber. The water in Viti, the geothermal pool and volcanic crater, is generally around 30 degrees Celsius. A word of warning, the banks can be very slippery, particularly in wet weather.