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Iceland has it all — ice-capped mountains, dramatic cliffs, spell-binding waterfalls, black sand beaches, dizzying heights, imposing glaciers, and wildlife. It’s an outdoor adventure and photographic dream. No matter what part of the island or whatever time of the year it is, Iceland raw beauty is simply ridiculous. After spending my own 8 days, here are my top picks for what to do!
1. Go beyond hiking a glacier and climb it
Taking photos of Iceland’s glaciers is one thing but to be on one is an entirely different experience that will no doubt be the highlight of your entire trip. Hiking it is one thing though and if you want to make your friends truly jealous, sign up for an ice climbing expedition where you’ll be equipped with the tools and skills to scale a wall or descend into the deep of moulin. There are a number of glacier climbing trips to choose from but my recommendation is to do one in Skaftafell in the south which typically will have less visitors and features larger glaciers. Falljökull for my trip with Glacier Guides was absolutely breathtaking.
2. Find a hidden hot springs pool nestled in a valley
Sure there are hot springs all around the island that you can pay for but why do that when you can swim in the country’s oldest pool that can be found in the middle of it’s own little paradise? Not only is it free but it’s true when they say that the journey itself is just as rewarding as the destination itself. There’s a 20 minute hike that takes you through fields of black volcanic ash and dodging streams. Make sure you download the Iceland Road Trip app before your trip so you know exactly how to get there.
3. Snorkel in between tectonic plates
You’d probably think it’s a little crazy to snorkel in Iceland considering the water is as cold as the island’s namesake but one of the unique things to do in Iceland is the ability to float through Silfra. Within Thingvellir National Park, Silfra is a crack between the continental plates of North American and Eurasian and has been drifting apart at a rate of 2cm a year. This is in fact the only place in the world where you can snorkel directly in the crack of two plates. Since water is fed from glacial water, the water here is as clear as it gets with an unparalleled 100m of visibility. You won’t find any fish here but alien-like neon green algae can be seen all along the way.
The Black and Blue excursion is going to be your best bet if you’re based in Reykjavik to snorkel Silfra and also hike in one of numerous lava tube tunnels in Iceland.
4. Watch the Northern Lights show
This is probably one of the main draws for coming to Iceland and depending on the time of the year, your chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis is very high. The show of dancing electrons in the sky is mesmerizing as wisps of green cloud wave before your eyes. Make sure you plan your trip between September and April to give yourself a chance to see them. All you need is a little luck and tips for how to shoot the Northern Lights.
5. Stay in a bubble
If Northern Lights are your jam, combine that with a stay in a heated plastic bubble in the middle of an Icelandic forest. How’s that sound? They call it the “5 million star hotel” and with 5 bubbles in their collection, this is your chance to get away from the city lights and situate yourself right along the Golden Circle route. The Valdis is what’s depicted above and my full review tells you more about what the experience is like.
6. Hike to a downed plane
It sounds a bit strange to put something like this on your itinerary but the haunting freeze-frame in history of a DC-3 US military plane crashing in the middle of a volcanic desert plain. It’s a surreal landscape that provides an endless number of photo opportunities. Just be prepared for the 50 minute hike each way since cars are no longer able to drive right up to it. The full instructions on how to get there can be found here.
7. Go to where all the icebergs hang out
A must-see spot along the southern road of Iceland is Jokulsarlon. This ice lagoon is where you’ll find countless titanic icebergs calmly float towards the open sea as they break off from the glacier field behind. If you’re lucky, you might even spot an otter or two.
8. Snap the iconic Kirkjufell
One of my favourite thrilling landscapes is this one in the Snaefellsnes peninsula which features twin waterfalls and the giant Gandalf hat mountain of Kirkjufell as the backdrop. As with most sights in Iceland, this is easy to get being right along the main highway that takes you around the peninsula. You might also remember this spot where Walter Mitty must cycle in search of his friend Sean O’Connell played by Sean Penn.
9. The circle that includes Geysir, Gullfoss, and Thingvellir
As touristy as it is, you can’t go to Iceland and not do the Golden Circle. Despite the crowds, you’ll still find moments like Strokkur erupting to the crowd’s delight to be quite thrilling. What is great about this loop is that you can easily catch a day tour from Reykjavik if you’re short on time and get a real flavour of what the landscape is like.
10. See just how pretty Icelandic horses can be
These are special breed of horses that started as ponies when the Norse settled in Iceland. Over the centuries they’ve developed into the small-statured horses they are today through selective breeding. Beyond looking like ponies, they are special in that they have 2 additional gaits – tölt and skeið. To see them, it’s as easy as stopping off the side of the road or booking a horse riding excursion.
11. The might of a thousand waterfalls
There are way too many waterfalls to name but the big ones in the south you’ll want to see are Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, and Svartifoss. Each one is unique in its own way. With Seljalandsfoss, you can walk behind the veil of water. With Skogafoss, imagine the thunder of Niagara Falls but you can walk right up to it. With Svartifoss, hike through a trail within Vatnajökull National Park to get to waterfall surrounded by dark lava columns like the pipes of a church organ. There are of course more waterfalls than this. You just have to drive around to spot them!
If you’re tight on time and want to see as much as you can of Iceland in 3 days, think about joining a tour to see as many of these beautiful waterfalls.
12. Hike the Arnarstapi Coastal Trail
The fishing community of Arnarstapi is home to one of the best hiking trails in Iceland. Starting from the natural harbour on the east end of town, walk along the coast and encounter numerous extraordinary columnar basalt and cliff formations in additional to a few natural rock bridges. You can stop and turn back at the Bárður Snæfellsás rock gate or continue another 2.5km to the town of Hellnar and pass through a giant lava field.
If you’re spending a bit of time in Snaefellsnes peninsula, consider a tour around Snaefellsjokull National Park.
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Wait there’s more! If you’re in the middle of planning your trip to Iceland, make sure you check out everything else I’ve written.
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