Wondering if Iceland is Worth Visiting?
Are you considering going to Iceland – the Land of Fire and Ice? We did a self-driving tour of the entire island, and we have a pretty good handle on the major places to visit in Iceland. This article will provide you with many things to see and do in this exciting country. You will definitely see that Iceland is worth visiting.
Many people ask why Iceland is so popular to visit. With a small population of only 385,000 people, you would wonder what is the big deal about this small island?
Well, our experience was that Iceland is one of the most diverse and one of the most beautiful places we have been to in the world! With sweeping landscapes, incredible ice caves, volcanoes, lava fields, fjords, and thermal springs, you will never get tired of exploring this country.
This is What Iceland is Famous For
Bathe in Geothermal Hot Springs
When most people think of Iceland, they likely conjure up that image of people in the famous Blue Lagoon. This is the most popular place in Iceland to soak in a hot spring. And it is a great activity to do especially coming in and going out to the airport since it is halfway to Reykjavik.
The sea water is brought from a geothermal well more than 2000m deep and has a high silica and salt content. This is thought to be excellent for your skin, but you need to be sure to remove all jewelry as it can be damaged by the minerals in the water.
The water was 38 degrees Celsius when we visited and very pleasant to sit in.
While the Blue Lagoon is the most popular spot, we also visited another hot spring called Myvatn Nature Baths on the north end of the island. While it’s not nearly as big as Blue Lagoon it is also not as crowded. We spent several hours at this location and preferred it to the more popular venue.
They don’t offer packages here – you purchase your entrance fee and if you want a towel or robe, they can be rented for an additional fee. Be sure to check it out if you are visiting outside of the Reykjavik area.
Discover an Ice Cave
Ice caves are readily accessible in Iceland – even when we went in August! The best and safest way to do this is with a guide.
These folks do the treks every day and understand the changing landscape. Things are constantly evolving here, and many spots are melting, changing, and shifting all the time.
We went with a small group with a pick-up from Vik, and the guides provided all the necessary equipment including helmets and crampons for your boots. This is essential since we first walked over a volcanic lava field, mostly covered in ice, to reach a dormant volcano that is also covered in ice.
The guide navigated us safely to an amazing ice cave where we could walk right inside.
He also showed us an enormous cave that they had previously been visiting which had completely collapsed only the week prior to our visit. These areas are fascinating to see and highly recommended as each one you see likely won’t be there within a relatively short time after your visit.
If ice caves aren’t of interest, you can always look at glacier hiking if you want to experience walking on the incredible glaciers that cover more than 10% of the island’s surface. Again, for safety reasons, this is best done with a guide.
Walk on the Black Sand Beaches
Since Iceland has many volcanoes (130 over the island) there is a lot of volcanic material on the land surface. This has resulted in many incredible black sand beaches. The most popular and easily accessible is Reynisfara Beach.
This location has a car park and provides safe beachfront access. You might be thinking – black sand?? While it is not your typical white sand beach this location has tremendous beauty with the dark black sand against the blue sea.
However, it is not for swimming. The waves (aptly named sneaker waves) are extremely dangerous. They can appear without notice and have reached upwards of 40m.
Since they are sometimes so tall, they reach much further and without warning they can sweep people up and out to sea. Unfortunately, people have lost their lives here, so it is important to heed the warning signs.
The area is very beautiful to see, and you can check out the sea stacks and basalt columns as well that line the beach. We also saw many puffins flying in and around the large cave areas. It is a definite must-see.
Check out the Amazing Geysirs & Hot Springs
If you have never been to a geothermal location, visiting the Geysir Centre is truly a highlight. This is an easily accessible location where you can walk on the paths to see bubbling hot springs, steam vents and mud pools. Be prepared as the scent of sulphur is quite strong in some areas.
The best part of this area is Strokkur – this geysir puts on a show when it erupts spewing boiling water that can reach 20-30 metres into the air. It is fantastic to see and since it happens about every 10 minutes, it is very easy to catch a few times while there.
Jet out on a Speed Boat to Whale Watch
Depending on the time of year you are visiting, a popular thing to do in Iceland is whale watching. The best time to see the whales is between April and September. Tours are offered both from Reykjavik and from locations in the north of the island.
We chose to take a rib boat from Akureyri. We were provided with warm suits and life jackets but make sure to also bring hats and mitts as it gets quite cold out on the water.
Our captain and guide were very diligent in finding whales to see and took us out a fair bit – over 50kms (and just on the cusp of the Arctic Circle) to see magnificent humpback whales. Along the way, we saw large pods of dolphins as well.
This was a wonderful way to see the whales up close and personal in their natural environment in a respectful manner.
✅ This was the tour that we took and would recommend it. Note that you must be able to stand in your seat for the duration of the tour.
Marvel at the Numerous Waterfalls
When we say numerous – we really do mean NUMEROUS. Everywhere you go there are gorgeous waterfalls in Iceland. This alone makes Iceland worth visiting.
There are small ones, massive ones, tall ones, multi-tiered ones – just so many incredible falls to see on one tiny island! They are all magnificent in their own ways.
If you have limited time, then it is recommended that you see the major ones that are located closest to Reykjavik. These include:
Gullfoss – 100,000 litres of water every second
Seljalandsfoss – 60 metres tall
Skogafoss – 25 metres wide
If you have more time for your visit, be sure to include some of the waterfalls in other parts of the country. There are many but here are a couple more that we visited.
Dettifoss – most powerful waterfall in Europe
Godafoss – horseshoe shaped and 30 metres wide
Take Time to Smell the Flowers
While the perception of Iceland may be that it is cold and dreary all the time due to its northern location – that is not fact. It is very north but in the summer months it can be quite sunny, and the days are long.
Surprisingly there is a beautiful botanical garden in the northern city of Akureyri that is full of blossoms and greenery. This garden is one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world and thrives in the microclimate of Eyjafjord.
Aside from beautiful flowers, it is also a location for scientific research to determine what types of plants can survive this close to the Arctic.
It is open from June to September and is free to enter. Be sure to check it out if in the area.
Climb a Volcano (Safely)
As mentioned, Iceland has 130 volcanoes on the island. It is not surprising that 32 of these are active. When we visited the Fagradalsfjall volcano had been erupting for several months before we arrived. We had been watching the images on the internet and were very excited to see this incredible site.
As the volcanic eruption progressed, the direction of the lava flow dictated where people could climb for safe viewing. We booked a tour that had us with a leader who led a guided hike up through the Reykjanes Peninsula to a viewing point approximately 1 km from the erupting crater.
It was a challenging hike and slippery in many areas where the rubble was unsteady. But we were very happy that we persevered to get to the top. There is nothing quite like seeing the eruption with the magma exploding into the sky. And it was fascinating to be up so high and see the path of the lava from this perspective.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we were so glad we did it. Be sure to check what may be happening at the time of your visit.
Appreciate the Immense Icebergs
Our trip to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon was one of the most amazing moments in Iceland. We went on a terrific tour that takes you out on a boat through the centre of the lagoon to get an up-close look at the edge of the Breidamerkurjofull glacier.
Unfortunately, this glacier has been receding for the past 90 years and has left the lagoon open in the places where it has melted. It gives people a real appreciation for what is currently happening in the world as it continually warms.
Touring through the lagoon is an incredible sight where you can see massive icebergs that are only showing 10% of their size above the water.
It is a continually evolving location since most of the icebergs you see won’t even be there within 3 months’ time.
✅ For a truly magical experience check out this awesome zodiac tour that we took.
Chase the Northern Lights
While visiting Iceland in the summer gives you beautiful sunshine and mostly temperate days, if you are wanting to see the Aurora Borealis you will need to visit the island from September to April. This is when the days are shorter, and the nights are darker.
The shortest days occur around the winter solstice (Dec 21) and this means darkness for upwards of 20 hours each day. Darker skies mean a better chance for viewing.
It is suggested that one of the best places to see the lights in the south part of the island is from the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon which is located beside the Vatnajokull glacier. It is very remote in these areas with little light pollution, so it makes for good viewing possibilities.
Be sure to check the Aurora Forecast website which uses a scale to indicate visibility and cloud coverage.
Explore the Capital City of Reykjavik
Most visitors to Iceland will come to the airport outside of Reykjavik so it is worth it to spend some time in the city. Depending on your plans, you can make this a home base and do day trips from this location. Alternatively, you can spend a couple of days here and then move on to see more of the island.
Reykjavik has many hotels and since the largest bulk of the population is located here, they have many sights to visit. Here are a few that you can add to your list.
Be sure to visit the famous Hallgrimskirkja Church. This building has a unique design that represents the different landscapes of the country – lava flows, mountains, glaciers and basalt columns. The spire is 74 metres tall and can be seen from anywhere in Reykjavik.
Inside the design is simple and mainly white but the ceiling is gorgeous with a sweeping arched symmetrical design. It is very pretty. Be sure to take note of the large pipe organ as well.
The Sun Voyager
Reykjavik has some fascinating art around the city. Known as the most famous piece of art, The Sun Voyager is the skeleton of a ship and the artist’s vision was for it to be a “Vessel of Dreams” eluding to the promise of undiscovered territory, dream of hope and progress and freedom.
It is quite the structure and easily accessible along the waterfront.
There are several historical and important buildings in this square including the Parliament building, the Domkirkjan Cathedral and the Borg Hotel. This is a popular spot for people to meet. It has cafes and shops surrounding the square and is also where local people have come to protest through the years.
This is one of the oldest streets in Reykajvik. The name translates to “the Water Road” since this is the road that was used by women to take their laundry to the hot pools. Now it is a very popular spot for shopping and dining.
Many high-end stores with Icelandic made products are available as well as souvenir shops for less expensive items. There are also many restaurants and cafes along this stretch. We were there during Pride and the stores and streets were very colourful.
Snorkel at Stunning Silfra
If you are looking for an exciting adventure to experience, then look no further than snorkelling between two tectonic plates in a fissure. While we were initially hesitant given that the water was only 3 or 4 degrees celsius, once we were suited up in our dry suits, fins, hoods, gloves and masks, we made the plunge into the cold water to see the spectacular view underwater.
Swimming along in this area with spring water from the glacier was absolutely amazing since there was visibility of up to 100m in some spots. We were there in the summer when the algae is in full bloom and the sun shining above makes the viewing fantastic.
The guides are great, and they take many pictures for you including the best one where you can touch both Eurasia and North American tectonic plates at the same time! This is a highly recommended activity and something truly unique that certainly makes Iceland worth visiting!
Visiting Iceland FAQ
Is Iceland Safe?
Iceland holds the title of ranking #1 on the Global Peace Index year over year. So, from a crime and personal safety perspective, you should feel comfortable visiting there. However, the rugged landscapes and sparse population can provide challenges for those travelling independently around the country.
It is important to understand that the weather can change quickly in Iceland, and this can cause snowstorms or icy conditions in the winter. They also have many natural weather occurrences such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
You need to be smart when travelling and be sure to check in advance for safety advisories. Use this link for current information.
Driving the Ring Road
There is one major road in Iceland – the National Route #1 or also known as the Ring Road. This road easily connects all the major towns/cities on the island. This makes it relatively easy to get around and the road is good in all areas.
While this road is a great option in the summer months and is perfect for a day trip to drive the Golden Circle (Iceland’s 3 most popular spots), it can be difficult in the winter months. It is recommended that you take a guide if wanting to visit some of the sights outside of Reykjavik.
Best Time to Visit Iceland
If you are wondering what it is like to visit Iceland and want to take full advantage of the numerous things to do there, the summer months are the most popular time to visit. This is due to the warmer weather and longer days.
You can enjoy all the outdoor activities in the nicer temperatures and since this is their high season, everything will be open.
However, if you want to see the Northern Lights you will need to visit in the Fall through the Winter months. Just be prepared for much colder weather and for many places to be closed, especially in the more remote areas.
How Many Days Should You Visit Iceland?
Many people visit Iceland as a stopover on a flight connection. You can easily enjoy a few days exploring the Golden Circle and Reykjavik. If you really want to see the beauty of the island, then a trip of 7-10 days is ideal. This would allow you to get around the island and really see and experience some of the incredible sites on the other coasts.
Is Iceland Expensive?
We did find Iceland to be expensive. But since this is an extraordinary place, we felt it was worth it. Accommodations, food costs and tours were all significant.
Some ideas to manage this would be choosing more basic accommodations that include your breakfast, picking up your lunches at the Bonus supermarket and grouping your tours with the same vendor to negotiate a better rate.
What to Wear in Iceland
We visited in August, and we found the weather to be mild for the most part. But each day we wore multiple layers as the mornings were cooler, the mid-day was warm and the evenings cooler again. Many times, each day we would take sweaters off and then put them back on again.
A good pair of walking shoes or boots is required if you are going to be exploring the terrain on foot. You should also bring a raincoat with a hood – the wind would make an umbrella impossible to use.
For each of the tours that we did on boats, we were provided with super warm pants and coats to wear over our clothes. But you want to make sure you bring a warm hat and gloves as well as it can be quite cold and windy out on the water.
Where to Stay In Iceland
For a base in Reykjavik, we stayed at the Berjaya Reykjavik Marina Hotel. We found this spot to be a good central location within walking distance of many sights, restaurants and shopping.
When we ventured out to the east coast, we stayed at the Umi Hotel. This was a beautiful building overlooking the glacier and had very nice rooms and a fantastic breakfast.
In the city of Akureyri, we spent the night at the Hotel Kea. A centrally located hotel, this is a great spot for easily getting to everything in town. The rooms are small but efficient and they have a large buffet breakfast.
Where to Eat In Iceland
Iceland is known for some unusual dishes such as fermented shark and sheep head but don’t despair, they have many other more palatable dishes for the less adventurous eaters. We had some great dishes with locally sourced and seasonal ingredients.
In Reykjavik, we enjoyed a meal at Hofnin. This locally run restaurant is cozy and the meals were fresh and tasty.
For a real treat be sure to try the famous lobster soup from Seabaron. Some of the best soups we have tried.
Further up the east coast be sure to check out Jon Riki. This is a unique little place with interesting décor and traditional Icelandic dishes. We had some great lamb stew. And they also brew their own beer so be sure to ask about the current offers on tap.
In Akureyri, we enjoyed a wonderful birthday meal at Strikid. This is a lovely spot right on the water’s edge. They had a fantastic set menu that gave us tasty dishes such as shrimp maki, grilled beef tenderloin and sticky orange brownie. All were excellent.
The Final Word…Is Iceland Worth Visiting?
In our opinion – absolutely! The beauty of this island combined with the friendly people and the unique activities available here, made this one of the top places that we have visited.
We don’t think it is overrated at all and that is why we recommend you should add it to your bucket list.