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11 of the best things to do in Iceland

Explore the inside of volcanoes, clamber over glaciers, or simply soak in a thermal pool. These are the activities that will take you to the very heart of this most unique of destinations...

Iceland glacier hike. (Shutterstock)

1. Plunge into a thermal pool

The Northern Lights over the famous and spectacular Blue Lagoon (Shutterstock)

The Northern Lights over the famous and spectacular Blue Lagoon (Shutterstock)

Icelandic folk have been bathing outdoors in thermal pools since Viking times. It would be remiss of you not to join in, either as a surreal way to spend a dark winter’s day, or to unwind after a strenuous hike.

The Blue Lagoon, with its vividly coloured water, is the most famous of Iceland’s pools – and its most commercialised. The Myvatn Nature Bath is popular too, set as it is amongst the Martian landscape of craters, fissures, lava beds and solfatara. (Be warned: the pool can be unbearably hot first thing in the morning.)

But really, there are thermal pools dotted all over the country. Ask a local for directions to their favourite. Chances are you’ll have it all to yourself.

2. Take to the ice

Inside an ice cave in Vatnajokull (Shutterstock)

Inside an ice cave in Vatnajokull (Shutterstock)

Climb over it or under it. Watch it glisten under the sun or listen to it crash into the sea. Ice puts on quite a show in Iceland.

Vatnajökull, for example, is an around 8,100 sq km dome of ice (covering eight percent of Iceland's landmass) 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.

What about going inside a glacier? Iceland's second-largest glacier, the Langjökull glacier, has been out of bounds for generations – but is now home to a 500m-long manmade ice tunnel, where you can walk to see the glassy-blue colour of the inside. 

3. See the Northern Lights in style

Kirkjufell with the Northern Lights (Shutterstock)

Kirkjufell with the Northern Lights (Shutterstock)

The extreme dark of the Icelandic winter has a few perks. Between September and April, Iceland is one of the best places in the world to observe the Northern Lights. Apart from the ‘Big Smoke’ of Reykjavik, there is virtually no light pollution competing with the display in Iceland.

Hotels dotted around the country are designed with Aurora viewing ­– and your comfort – in mind. You can watch the lights as you eat or drink or kick back in an outdoor hot pool and leave your thermals packed away safely in your bag.

4. Watch whales from Húsavík

See humpback whales at Húsavík (Shutterstock)

See humpback whales at Húsavík (Shutterstock)

Your chances of seeing whales in Húsavík are amongst the best in the world. Whale-watching boats fill Húsavík’s snug harbour and most days between May and September they chug out into Skjálfandi, a bay backed by brooding mountains. 

Look out for minke whales and white-beaked dolphins – humpbacks and giant blues sometimes turn up too. On land, allow time for the Whale Museum a brew at one of the harbour’s bars and cafés.

Find more great places to spot whales 

5: Explore the magical east

Seydisfjordur in Eastern Iceland (Dreamstime)

Seydisfjordur in Eastern Iceland (Dreamstime)

Accessing Iceland's wild Eastern Fjords once required a long drive, internal flight or long sea voyage. But now direct flights ensure this untouched land of jagged mountains, mighty waterfalls and black sand beaches is easily within reach.

Picture postcard villages like Djúpivogur are a delight – complete with a pretty little harbour with colourful boats scattered like confetti beneath old wooden buildings. 

6: Help round up some sheep

Rounding up sheep in Iceland (Shutterstock)

Rounding up sheep in Iceland (Shutterstock)

Réttir is an Icelandic farming tradition, where huge crowds of sheep and horses that have spent the summer roaming free in the highlands are collected together by a long line of horsemen that stretches for miles, and driven back down to the lowlands for winter. While gathering the animals is serious business for the farmers, it’s a day of fun for other Icelanders and visitors alike.

Spectators flock to see thousands of sheep and horses being herded down the mountain slopes. The first round-ups start in early September and continue across the country until early October. You can experience Réttir by walking or on horseback. The animal round up is always followed by a ‘round up’ of the locals for traditional songs and dancing.

7: Drop inside a volcano

Inside Thrihnukagigur volcano (Shutterstock)

Inside Thrihnukagigur volcano (Shutterstock)

Ever wondered what a volcano looks like on the inside? The only place in the world you can find out for yourself is Thrihnukagigur volcano.You'll be lowered into the volcano through an opening at the top in a glass lift. Once at the bottom, you'll be able to admire the volcano’s magma chamber where a world of vivid red, burnt orange and golden yellow rock awaits.

Thrihnukagigur lies in the Blafjoll mountains, just a 30 minutes drive from Reykjavik. Don’t worry! The volcano has not erupted for 4.000 year and is safely dormant.  This unique volcano tour is only available from May to October.

8: Hike Landmannalaugar

The surreal, colourful landscapes of Landmannalaugar (Shutterstock)

The surreal, colourful landscapes of Landmannalaugar (Shutterstock)

Landmannalaugar is famous for its spectacular hiking trails. And it's easy to see why. This hiking hub in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve is situated in the southern part of Iceland’s highlands, near the volcano Hekla and offers candy coloured slopes to ascend and descend. With aquamarine lakes. steaming hot springs and fiery lava flows, there's plenty to see and do along the way.

Laugavegur is a popular trail in Landmannalaugar. This trek is usually four days long, taking in the rugged glaciers, epic waterfalls and panoramic view of the North Atlantic Ocean. 

For a shorter trip, the two-hour hike through the Laugahraun lava field to Mt. Brennisteinsalda ('Sulphur Wave') and the one hour hike up Mt. Bláhnjúkur ('Blue Peak') are well worth the trek.

9: Ride like a Viking

Icelandic horses (Shutterstock)

Icelandic horses (Shutterstock)

Although small, Icelandic horses are as tough and uncompromising as the environment they live in. Since arriving with the Vikings they have developed in isolation, making riding them the ideal way to roam the wild landscapes of Iceland's interior.

Riding an Icelandic horse takes some getting used to – they have two extra gaits to other horses that you may have ridden. You may well get to try one of them, the tolt, a kind of running walk that will momentarily unsettle even experienced riders, but is incredibly comfortable once you relax into it. They’ll transport you back into the land of the Sagas, tolting or trotting across the wide and rugged terrain, towards giant mountains and thundering waterfalls.

10. Spend time in the colourful capital, Reykjavik

Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland (Shutterstock)

Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland (Shutterstock)

The colourful, coastal city of Reykjavik, with its bright buildings and blue sea views is bound to brighten up your day. People often use the capital as a base for accessing Iceland's wider adventures, but those who spend time exploring Reykjavik are in for a treat. 

You don't need to leave the capital for a wildlife fix, as whales fill the city's harbour, while swans and geese glide gracefully across the surface of Tjormin Lake in front of City Hall. Northern Lights experiences can also be had in the capital, with the green lights illuminating the glittering buildings below. 

Like most cities, Reykjavik has a wealth of museums to explore, including the Reykjavik Art Museum, the architecturally-impressive Perlan and the more unusual Iceland Phallological Museum. 

See more things to do in Reykjavik

11. Drive the Arctic Coast Way

Puffins on Grímsey Island (Shutterstock)

Puffins on Grímsey Island (Shutterstock)

If you're eager to get away from the crowds of Reykjavik and the popular Golden Circle, then look no further than the Arctic Coast Way. Running between Hvammstangi on the north-west coast to Bakkafjörður in the north-east, the new route was created in June 2019 to highlight the lesser known and less-visited parts of the country. 

Explore the 900km of coastal routes in your own car at your own pace. With charming fishing villages, soaring peaks, twisted rock formations, quirky lighthouses and colourful churches, there's plenty of places to stop off along the way. 

Don't miss a chance to snorkel with puffins on Grímsey Island, the only community in Iceland located on the Arctic Circle. Not only are the skies filled with the popular birds, but the ocean too as puffins love a dive. 

Be sure to stop off at Akureyri, the capital of the north. From here, you can head out into Skjálfandi Bay in a traditional fishing boat to spot whales. The small city is also a prime spot for seeing the Northern Lights. Hire a local guide and head out after dark to see if you're lucky enough to catch the display. 

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