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Best things to do & places to stay:

Last updated: 19 December, 2022
Expert travel writer: Oliver Berry

For nature in the raw, nowhere on earth compares to Iceland. Pocked by volcanoes, rocked by tectonic forces and coated in vast ice sheets, this strange volcanic island offers a smorgasbord of wild, weird experiences.

In a single day, you could find yourself hiking onto a glacier, strolling across a black sand beach, delving into a frozen ice cave, descending into a petrified lava tube or chilling out in a geothermal lagoon under the flickering lights of the Northern Lights Aurora Borealis.

Iceland is a paradise for nature lovers and adventurous travellers: savour every second.

Orientation

Reykjavik, the capital, is in the south west, the most populous area.

Other towns are dotted around the coast, while the centre is mainly a mountainous, volcanic and uninhabitable area.

The country’s second city, Akureyri, is in the north near Lake Myvatn; Seydisfjordur, the main ferry port, is on the east coast.

Culture & Customs

Iceland is a very safe place to visit. Icelanders can be reserved at first, but have a sly sense of humour once they warm up. People tend to eat and drink late, particularly in summer which is blessed with long hours of daylight; winter here can be tough.

There is a strong culture of swimming, thanks to the country’s natural hot springs, and an innate appreciation of nature.

If you’re planning a weekend break in Reykjavik, be aware that Sundays are notoriously quiet, with few shops open. Plan your day trips out of the city then.

In general, Icelanders don’t tip – but there’s nothing stopping you leaving a small gratuity if you wish to do so.

Food & Drink

With fresh lamb, salmon from crystal-clear streams and seafood from just offshore, Iceland’s raw ingredients are sublime, and eating out is a pleasure with excellent fine dining restaurants and twists on New Nordic cuisine.

More challenging traditional recipes include sheep’s head, puffin and seagull’s eggs. (You can try all of Iceland’s weird and wonderful local specialities during the Thorrablot Festival).

Locals love their pylsur (hot dog) smothered in ketchup, mustard and onions sold from street stalls in central Reykjavik. Braver souls should try hákarl (rotting shark) at Kolaportid market.

The bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination

Blue Lagoon

Reykjavik, Iceland

This world-famous (man-made) outdoor geothermal pool of steaming 39°C healing waters, surrounded by black lava fields, is Iceland’s star attraction.

Best for ages: 4+ | £35

See the Northern Lights in Iceland

Iceland

Iceland is land of striking volcanic topography, creating some of the most spectacular Northern Lights-lit landscapes. See the lights on cruises, glacier hikes, and 4WD tours – or just soaking in the Blue Lagoon.

Best for ages: 4+ | Free

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Whale-watching in Iceland

Iceland

Once-in-a-lifetime trips to see migrating humpback and minke whales up close, as they pass by on their annual north–south migration. Tours from Husavik, Akureyri and Reykjavik can be arranged.

Best for ages: 4+ | £70 | 3-4 hours

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Caving in lava tunnels

Iceland

Venture into these extraordinary tunnel-like caves, formed by cooling underground lava flows, to see dramatic subterranean rock formations. Geothermal Iceland has some of the world’s most accessible to explore.

Best for ages: 8+ | £40 | 2+ hours

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Other worthwhile experiences in this destination if you have the time or the interest

1238
Experience

1238

Sauoarkrokur, Iceland

A museum with a difference: the chance to experience a key moment in Icelandic history, the battle of Orlygsstaoir in 1238, using VR headsets to really bring the experience to life.

Best for ages: 13+ | £22 | 1 night

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Asmundarsafn art museum
Experience

Asmundarsafn art museum

Reykjavik, Iceland

An art museum and sculpture collection featuring white Viking figures and curvaceous shapes, housed in the former studio of Icelandic sculptor Asmundur Sveinsson. One of three museums that officially make up the Reykjavik Art Museum. Open daily.

Best for ages: 13+ | £12 | 1 night

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Close up of Elephant rock
Experience

Elephant Rock

Westerman Islands, Iceland

With grey basalt rock resembling wrinkled skin and the upper section of a trunk, and an overhang forming the eye, this rock in the Westerman Islands creates the image of an uncannily life-like pachyderm.

Best for ages: 6+ | Free

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Glaumbaer
Experience

Glaumbaer

Skagafjordur, Iceland

This folk museum is one of the few places in Iceland where you can view traditional turf houses, which were still in use into the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The grass roofs and turf walls acted as insulation, and made a convenient construction method in a place where timber was pretty much non-existent. There’s also a cute little cafe where staff wear traditional Icelandic dress.

Best for ages: 8+ | £10

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Our selection of the best Viator tours of this destination, plus helpful tickets and transfers

 4 Day Blue Ice Cave, South Coast, Golden Circle, Snæfellsnes & Northern Lights

4 Day Blue Ice Cave, South Coast, Golden Circle, Snæfellsnes & Northern Lights

Reykjavik

Come on a 4-day excursion with us to explore the most famous locations in the Golden Circle, Snæfellsnes, and the South Coast. See our stunn...

€1,060 | Rating 4.89 / 5 [37 ratings]

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3 Day Summer South Coast, Golden Circle and Jökulsarlon glacier lagoon

3 Day Summer South Coast, Golden Circle and Jökulsarlon glacier lagoon

Reykjavik

Come on a 3-day excursion with us to see the famous Golden Circle and the South Coast. Experience the beauty of our glacier lagoon Jökulsárl...

€718 | Rating 4.95 / 5 [44 ratings]

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4-Day Iceland: Golden Circle, South Coast, Volcano Hike & Northern Lights

4-Day Iceland: Golden Circle, South Coast, Volcano Hike & Northern Lights

Reykjavik

On this 4 day enchanting Iceland tour you will experience all the wonders that the Icelandic winter months offer. See highlights like the Go...

€1,210 | Rating 4.41 / 5 [24 ratings]

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6 Day Minibus Winter Tour | Around Iceland Small Group

6 Day Minibus Winter Tour | Around Iceland Small Group

Reykjavik

This 6-day tour takes you to the must see Golden Circle route with all its amazing sites. You will see the unbeatable Gullfoss waterfall, Ge...

€1,680 | Rating 4.95 / 5 [105 ratings]

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Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay in this destination

Buuble Hotel

Reykholt, Iceland

Spend a night in a transparent glass bubble, with 360-degree landscape views – and keep your fingers crossed for the Northern Lights. Glamping at its best.

Official star rating:

Hostel Kex

Reykjavík, Iceland

An upmarket, sociable hostel oozing vintage-style chic in an old biscuit factory in downtown Reykjavik. One of the best value stays in this expensive city.

Official star rating:

Hotel Egilsen

Stykkishólmur, Iceland

A heritage hotel in the small fishing town of Stykkisholmur on the spectacular Snaefellsnes peninsula. Retro design and super-friendly owners make it a real home away from home.

Official star rating:

Hotel Djupavik

Djúpavík, Iceland

This former lodging house in the herring-fishing town of Djupavik is a great base for explorations of the Westfjords and the Hornstrandir peninsula.

Official star rating:

When to go

Travel in Iceland is highly seasonal. Visit between November and February for the Northern Lights, but be aware that it’s cold, daylight is in short supply, and sightings need a clear night and aren’t guaranteed.

Visit between June and August to bask in the midnight sun, with up to 23 hours of daylight. Summer is, of course, peak season, so flights and accommodation will be more expensive. But it’s the best time to be outdoors, with a raft of activities available.

Spring and autumn can also be good for getting outdoors with fewer crowds – but more chance of rain.

Getting there and away

If you’re flying into Keflavik International Airport, Reykjavik is approx 40 minutes away. Hire a car or take the Flybus, which works out significantly cheaper than a taxi.

The island’s other main access point is the ferry port of Seydisfjordur in eastern Iceland. Buses link up with ferry crossings to take you to Reykjavik (approx 8-hour journey).

Getting around

It’s a good idea to hire a car if you’re coming to Iceland to see more than Reykjavik (which is best seen on foot or by bike). Iceland is ringed by Route 1, the only major road, linking all the major towns; roads in the highlands and centre of Iceland can be closed for part of the year by bad weather. There are car rental offices at Keflavik Airport, Reykjavik and Akureyri.

Note that petrol in Iceland is expensive, and outside the main towns, petrol stations can be few and far between.

Where to stay

First-time visitors will certainly want to spend a couple of days in Reykjavik, which acts as a good base for visits to Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss, and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula (a lengthy day trip away). You can take day trips from Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar in the central highlands too.

Akureyri is the main place to stay if you’re visiting the natural wonders of Myvatn or whale watching in Husavik.

Hella is a good option if you’re investigating the southern reaches, including Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon; Seydisfjordur is the hub for eastern Iceland.

Our writer’s recommended itineraries for this destination