Iceland is one of the most remarkable landscapes on the planet – but what to do while you're there? And where to start? Experience geysers, lagoons, whales and volcanoes. Lots of volcanoes...
East of the cool capital lie the hotspots of Geysir, Gullfoss Falls and Pingvellir National Park. The Blue Lagoon revives tired limbs and leads to the surf-lashed Reykjanes coast and lighthouses. Further east rumbles Hverageroi's geothermal hinterland
Opt for a personalised tour by super jeep, the fat-wheeled vehicles that are the transport of choice across Iceland’s volcano-pitted landscape. As you leave Reykjavík and cross the wind-buffeted plains and fast-flowing rivers, navigate off-road towards Þingvellir National Park. Here, Lake Þingvallavatn lies directly over the separating American and Eurasian plates, ready to be explored by intrepid scuba divers...
Thingvellir National Park fissure (Shutterstock)
Take a deep breath, steady your nerves and plunge down the the water-filled fault line at Silfra. Once acclimatised to the utterly surreal visibility delve deeper to the lake bed, stretching out your arms to become a living link between America and Europe.
Next stop should be the the confection of lava tunnels known as the Gjabakkahellir lava caves, in some places stacked three deep and as much as a kilometre long.
There’s one place in Iceland where the adventurer and the city explorer meet, and that’s its most famous tourist attraction, near to Reykjavík, and an apt end point on the Golden Circle tour – the Blue Lagoon. Here Icelanders have created a cool environment in a cold climate, a world-class natural spa on a lunar landscape.
Get started: You will need a PADI Open Water qualification to dive at Silfra, but snorkellers are free to swim between the continents, a similarly enchanting experience.
How tough? Easy – if you've got the nerve to dive...
At 19, you’re old enough to vote and drive, but not drink. Here’s how the rúntur pub crawl goes: dress up, drive around town with your mates, buy cola at the petrol station, stop and chat to those who don’t have a car and block the traffic as often as possible.
Over 20? Get drunk at home (it’s cheaper), and then head for the city centre. For music, aim for what Rolling Stone magazine labelled the hippest long weekend on the annual music-festival calendar, the Iceland Airwaves Festival (Nov 5-9) or Menningarnótt (Culture Night) in August.
Steaming Reykjadalur Valley is an active geothermal field sited on a tectonic plate boundary. It’s been 2,000 years since the last eruption here but in 2008 a powerful earthquake ripped through, bringing dozens of gurgling, sulphurous springs to life. A 3km trail leads up the grassy valley to a warm stream, where you can take a dip. Watch your step and stick to the path as the crust can be wafer-thin and springs are unfenced.
Reykjadalur Valley (Shutterstock)
At €35 for a standard ticket, the Blue Lagoon may be pricey and indulgent but you can stay all day in this giant therapeutic hot pond. After a hedonistic soak in powder-blue geothermal seawater, head for the nearby Reykjanes coast. Wild and treacherous, the boot-shaped peninsula is guarded by 11 lighthouses including Iceland’s tallest, at Garðskagi. Extreme surfers and migrant birds flock here, and a passing whale might fluke offshore, but it’s hard to beat the mystical volcano silhouetted across the bay at sunset.
Bathing in the Blue Lagoon (Shutterstock)
For its variety of landscapes the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is hard to beat, while the West Fjords are all about nature and deserted fjords (don’t miss impressive Dynjandi Falls). In the north, cross the Arctic Circle on Grímsey, look for whales at Húsavík and explore volcanic Lake Mývatn and the Jökulsá Canyon, with its trio of thunderous waterfalls.
This perfect snow-capped volcanic cone is where Jules Verne based his Journey to the Centre of the Earth; it now boasts a ski tow and snowmobile tours to its 1,446m summit crater. In and around its national park you can hike along cliffs of jointed basalt columns, past sea stacks, craters and plenty of rugged lava. Head for the peninsula’s north shore and Bjarnahöfn to sample the locally produced delicacies hákarl (cured shark) and harðfiskur (dried fish).
Snæfellsjökull volcano (Shutterstock)
Látrabjarg is a 14km-long cliff, rising over 400m, at Iceland’s westernmost tip. Tens of thousands of puffins come ashore in May to nest in burrows, and are easy to observe. Nearby, take a detour to Rauðisandur, a gorgeous beach, empty but for a seal or two. Look out for Arctic foxes, too.
Iceland puffin (Shutterstock)
Whale-watching boats jostle for space in Húsavík’s snug harbour. Most days between May and September they chug out into Skjálfandi, a bay backed by brooding mountains. Look out for for minke whales and white-beaked dolphins – humpbacks and giant blues, sometimes turn up too. On land, allow time for the Whale Museum and a brew at one of the harbour’s bars and cafés.
Iceland whale watching (Shutterstock)
With luck you can bag both Arctic Circle and midnight sun if you head for Grímsey, a tiny island 40km off the north coast and the only accessible place in Iceland within the Polar Circle. Tens of thousands of sea birds and a handful of sheep share this lush green territory – oh, and 90 or so resilient islanders. Hop on a plane or ferry from Akureyri, a lively northern town with an enviable sunshine record, strung along the shore of Eyjafjörður.
As many ducks as tourists flock to this famous lake and nature reserve in summer but you can visit year round. The ducks are after the midge larvae, but for visitors it’s the volcanic and geothermal oddities. Once you’ve done the round of craters, fissures, lava beds and solfataras, hop on a four-seater plane at the local airfield and explore the amazing lunar landscape from above. End the day with a soak in the Nature Baths, a geothermal spa overlooking the lake, and dinner with the cows at the Cowshed Cafe.
Winter landscape in Myvatn (Shutterstock)
The south-east is home to infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano, standing mischievously in a land of waterfalls, glaciers and mossy lava beds. The Westman Islands lie offshore while, on the mainland, the south coast drive reveals 300km of black sand, Europe’s biggest icecap and the photogenic iceberg lagoon. The island’s east offers superb hiking and mouth-watering mountain and fjord scenery.
Ravaged by pirates in 1627, Heimaey, on the Westman Islands, came under attack again in January 1973 when a volcanic fissure opened up yards from the town. The 5,000 islanders fled on trawlers. Returning five months later, a third of their homes lay buried under lava and ash and a new crater named Eldfell towered over their island.
Volcanic view of Heimaey (Shutterstock)
From its 221m summit observe how lava engulfed the town and feel the heat of the steam seeping from the rock. The ‘Pompeii of the North’ project lets you walk among the ruins of houses dug from the rubble.
The 60m plume of Seljalandsfoss spills over a former sea cliff. Scrambling behind the falls you’ll find a huge cavity festooned with moss, ferns and saxifrages. It’s not the highest nor the most powerful of the island’s hundred or more fossar, but there’s a lot about the place that is magical and romantic. Make a wish as you gaze through the misty veil of water, then walk along to the next cascade, Gljúfurárfoss, wading up its dark spray-soaked canyon.
Vatnajökull is an 8,100 sq km dome of ice (one twelfth of Iceland’s surface) up to 800m thick, protected in an eponymous national park. To explore the rumbling glaciers, hire a guide, who’ll provide the gear and steer you safely through the jumble of crevasses and pinnacles. Then, head for Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon jammed with thousands of giant icebergs calved from a glacier. Stroll along the moraines and gaze at the icebergs as they drift by and out to sea.
Inside an icecave in Vatnajokull (Shutterstock)
Founded by Norwegian fishermen, this hip little East Fjords town is worth the detour and spine-tingling hairpin descent. Wander among the painted timber houses packed onto a narrow spit of land and ponder how anyone could live without sun for three months of the year, so sheer are the 1,000m peaks rising from the fjord. Adopted by Dieter Roth and other artists, the place hosts offbeat cultural events. In a similar vein, Skálanes, at the mouth of the fjord, is a nature reserve and heritage centre.
Seyðisfjörður church (Shutterstock)
Iceland boasts a rich and beguiling folklore. Borgarfjörður Eystri claims that the Queen of the elves or huldufólk (hidden people) inhabits a rocky outcrop in this remote fishing hamlet. But even non-believers will be wowed by the mountains – sensibly, the locals have staked out walking trails and provided huts to stay in. Don’t miss Dyrfjöll, a cleft mountain that collapsed, rolling boulders bigger than houses down a valley, and Hvítserkur, a pink rhyolite pyramid banded with basalt veins.
It’s hard to distil Iceland’s huge, wild highlands into something recognisable: the views are vast, the solitude absolute. The highlands are punctuated by glistening icecaps and splashes of luminous green moss and purple willowherb. The intensely colourful rhyolite mountains of Landmannalaugar are an enduring emblem of the interior.
Forget fears of cancelled flights and travel disruptions if the vast Bárðarbunga volcano decides to erupt: intrepid travellers can take a helicopter ride over the spewing volcano with Discover the World. You'll hover over rub-red lava flows and the volcano's 10km wide caldera to (hopefully) witness spectacular live eruptions of up to 60m into the air.
The current fissure started erupting on August 31, but experts warn that there's much more to come: sign up for Discover the World's Bárðarbunga Eruption trips, and you'll be added to the Volcano Hotline list – just make sure you're available at short notice, as the trips are (of course) dependent on weather and flight conditions.
Flying over Bárðarbunga (Supplied: Discover the World)
How long? Flights from Reykjavik to Bárðarbunga (£1,333 per person) last 3.5 hours with 20-30 minutes over the volcano itself.
Alternatively, fly from Hotel Highland (£722 per person) on the edge of Iceland's most active volcanic region for a 1.5 hour journey with 20-30 minutes of flight time over the volcano.
How tough? Sit back, relax, and enjoy Iceland's wild landscapes from above.
Get started: Sign up to DTW's Volcano Hotline. Or, take a 4WD tour to Hotel Highland from Reykjavik, experiencing Iceland's rugged landscapes from ground level, before embarking on your flight.
The Laugavegur is one of the great hikes of the world, yet is little known outside of Iceland.
The four day, 53km trek which begins in a lava field, crosses rainbow mountains, passes bubbling pools and glacial ice and traverses a black-ash desert before finishing in green woodland at the foot of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
Hiking in Iceland (Shutterstock)
Hot springs, jagged lava trails and dark shimmering plains with a glacier to the the north and towering, encircling mountains await you on day one.
Small valleys complete with snow bridges and vistas of green plains decorated with volcano cones and streams are abound on day two, while you'll find cold river crossings and lunar landscapes on day three.
Observe the impressive Markarfljót River from the canyon above on day four, before finishing the trek in Thorsmörk – where birch trees and flowers lend the trek and enchanting finale.
How long? Four days.
How tough? You need to be quite fit and well equipped – there are some steep bits.
Get started: You can do it independently but local guides are available. www.fi.is/en/hiking-trails/laugavegurinn
Icelanders have a favourite word for gaping craters that blast out millions of tons of volcanic debris – víti, meaning hell. To get to the famous one, formed in 1875, you’ll need to negotiate the vast ash, sand and lava desert of the island’s core. Then, hiking over desolate pumice beds into the Askja caldera, Víti appears like a giant witch’s cauldron, fuming and sulphurous. Why we choose to swim in the tepid, stinking water is another matter.
From late August to March the ethereal Northern Lights can be seen all over Iceland. This celestial light show needs a clear, dark sky away from light sources. The solar particles that collide with the earth’s atmosphere work in cycles, so you have to check the forecast – and allow plenty of time.
Northern Lights north of Reykjavik (Shutterstock)
The Kjölur Trail is a historic route through Iceland’s highlands, a 210km trek between two icecaps. The sure-footed Icelandic horses take it all in their stride, fording glacial torrents as they have done for centuries. There’s always a herd of free-running horses so the riders swap mounts during the day. But it’s not just about the riding – it’s the open vistas, the glaciers and lava deserts, the golden plovers whistling over the moorland and the evening sing-song in the hot pool.
Horseback in Iceland (Shutterstock)
How long? Eight days, with six in the saddle.
How tough? Best suited to experienced horse riders
Get started: Local specialists Ishestar run the treks.
Wedged between glaciers in the deep south you’ll find a surprising oasis of green. This is the forested valley of Thorsmörk– named after the early Icelanders’ favourite Norse deity, Thor. The recommended way into this hiker’s paradise is by bus or, for more fun and thrills, by super-jeep. When you see the track and size of the rivers you’ll understand why it’s best to let the locals do the driving.
Midnight sun in Thorsmörk (Shutterstock)