Visiting Iceland is the trip of a lifetime! It’s a beautiful country and any trip there is sure to be memorable, but to get the full Iceland experience, there are some things you just can’t miss out on! Whether you drive Ring Road and experience all of Iceland or stay in one city and soak in the atmosphere, here are 12 things you MUST include in your trip to Iceland.
How to Plan an Iceland Trip
You have a couple of choices for your trip to Iceland. Do you want to spend 1 to 2 weeks driving Ring Road? Do you want to spend most of your time in one place, visiting either the capital Reykjavik or the 2nd largest city Akureyri? Or do you want to experience a little bit of both, driving the Golden Circle from Reykjavik? This is a truly stunning country, so there are no bad choices.
Once you decide what part of Iceland you’ll visit, you’ll need to decide what time of year to go and how long to be there. The easiest answer is as long as possible! You won’t regret having a few extra days to try to see the Northern Lights or to drive to waterfalls and hot springs! May to August is a great time for hiking and viewing the lushness of Iceland, but it doesn’t get dark enough at night to see stars or the Northern Lights. November to January have limited daylight hours (as little as 3 hours in December, stretching to 6.5 in early November and late January), so sightseeing during those months can be more challenging. They also tend to be stormier, cloudier months, which is not ideal for seeing the Aurora Borealis. That leaves February to April, September, and October as the most ideal months for most people to visit Iceland.
12 Must Do Experiences: Top Things To Do in Iceland
See the Northern Lights
The Aurora Borealis is an easy number one for me and the top reason that many people plan a trip to Iceland. Nothing can prepare you for seeing something this beautiful! Only a handful of places in the world can boast the ease of Northern Lights viewing that you find in Iceland. But that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically see the Northern Lights in Iceland. You need 2 things, clear skies and solar activity, so there’s no guarantee of seeing the lights even during the winter. That’s part of what makes it so special.
Here are a few ways to set yourself up for Northern Lights success: Stay at least a week if you can. Plan to stay in an area with limited light pollution for at least part of that time or rent a car so you can drive away from the city. And download an app like “Aurora” that will tell you when the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights is high.
See a Waterfall
Iceland is known for their waterfalls and one of my favorite things about this beautiful country was seeing roadside waterfalls while driving Ring Road in Iceland. That’s what you get in a country full of rivers and elevation changes! There are dozens of waterfalls open to tourists around the country, some of the most popular being:
Near Reykjavik: Gullfoss Falls, Öxarárfoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Skógafoss
In the North near Akureyri: Goðafoss and Dettifoss
Soak in a Nature Bath, Hot Spring, or Hot Tub – or all three!
There’s nothing better than sitting in hot water and staring at snow covered mountains! Some great options here:
Secret Lagoon – the largest natural geothermal pool in Iceland
Blue Lagoon – manmade pool with geothermally heated water rich in minerals
Mývatn Nature Baths – a more remote alternative to Blue Lagoon with the same beautiful blue water
Geosea – geothermally heated pools built into the cliffside for an infinity pool look
A Spa – like Krauma or Bjórböðin Beer Spa
A private hot tub at your Airbnb
During our trip, we experienced a little bit of everything: Mývatn Nature Baths, a sunset soak in the wooden hot tubs at Bjórböðin Beer Spa, and our own hot tub at our apartment rental. You can never soak too much in Iceland!
Learn about Icelandic Culture
Learning about local culture is one of the best things about traveling to a new place. Get ready for your trip to Iceland by reading about the lore of trolls and elves. While on your trip, enjoy the architecture and keep an eye out for turf houses.
If you don’t want to enjoy nature in Iceland, why are you even going? Enjoy wildflowers. Go for a hike. Gaze at the mountains. Learn more about the geothermal activity in the area. Visit a crater or volcano. See a glacier or fjord.
Experience the Food
Icelandic food sometimes gets a bad rap, but it’s really quite delicious! We had lots of fish during our trip. Salmon and artic char are both very common. Another popular protein is lamb – and it’s almost guaranteed to be local, free-range, and grass-fed. Visit a bakery and look for apple cake or vínarterta, a layered almond cake. And for breakfast, enjoy Skyr, a local Icelandic dairy product similar to Greek yogurt.
Icelanders also really enjoy their hot dogs and ice cream, so I made sure to eat those while there as well. One local favorite I did not try is black licorice. You’ll find lots of chocolate bars with licorice and other licorice candy treats.
Go Whale Watching
Book a whale watching tour and spend an afternoon watching humpback whales in the fjord. If possible, book a tour on a larger boat for a more enjoyable journey. Some companies offer whale watching tours via speed boat which is a bumpier, windier, and wetter experience. Book a larger, slower boat instead and enjoy your journey and the beautiful views along the coast.
Watch the Sunset
Wide open Icelandic skies mean sunsets last forever here and they are beautiful. Plan your nature bath or hot spring visit for sunset and enjoy the colorful sky while staying toasty and warm!
Drive through the Countryside
Driving around is one of the best ways to get a feel for a place, and when you’re in a country with snow-capped mountains, fields of sheep, and roadside waterfalls, there’s always something to look at. If you drive Ring Road, you’ll also experience a mountain-pass tunnel or two.
Get Out on the Water
No matter where you are in Iceland, you’re probably not far from the water. Take a ferry to one of Iceland’s islands. In the north, you can take a ferry to Grimsey or Hrisey. Visit Grimsey in the summer to see the puffins or stand at the artic circle marker. On Hrisey, take one of the three hiking trails and have dinner at Verbúðin 66. There is also a ferry to the West Fjords, one to Videy Island, and one to Vestmannaeyjabær Island.
Embrace the Weather
A huge part of living in Iceland is embracing the weather and letting it guide your experience. As our tour guide told us (repeatedly), if you try to ignore the weather in Iceland, you die. Have room in your schedule to accommodate for bad weather days, so you don’t find yourself out on your whale tour in choppy waters. Talk to the locals about the weather. Pack the right clothes and dress in layers, so you can get out and enjoy yourself even if it’s colder than you expected.
Booking a horse back riding tour was a last minute decision for me, and it’s one I definitely didn’t regret! Even at a beginning level, riding in the countryside and up into the mountains on a beautiful Icelandic horse was a great alternative to a day of hiking. Quick tip: you have probably heard them referred to as Icelandic ponies, because they look very similar to Shetland ponies, but they are Icelandic horses. Now you know, and you won’t offend any locals. The Icelandic horses also have a unique gait called Tölt, so be sure to ask if you’ll be able to experience that as part of your horse riding excursion.
If you hit all 12 of these must do experiences in Iceland, you’ll certainly have a trip that you’ll remember forever! To learn more about planning your trip to Iceland, check out our other Iceland blog posts.
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