The moment you set foot in Iceland, you feel like you’re on another planet. It’s cold, the people talk strangely and the landscape is desolate, dramatic and unforgiving.
But that landscape consists of incredible things to keep you busy for weeks, and that’ll inspire you to return and experience them during different seasons. What looks sparse is actually a country full of lava fields, mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, hot springs and waterfalls; a true land of ice and fire.
With this playground – albeit, a potentially dangerous one – at your disposal, there are some truly awesome things you can do in Iceland. These are just a few of the top picks to get your heart racing.
1. Snorkel between tectonic plates
Iceland is unique because of its geography: it’s the country where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. These plates are moving further apart by about 2cm per year, giving you the opportunity to snorkel between them. The water is some of the clearest in the world, so you can see all the way down the chasm, and it’s so pure you can drink it. Be warned: it’s pretty chilly, but it’s the same temperature year-round, so you can grab the chance at any time.
Remember, you’ll be swimming between continents, and there aren’t many people who can say that.
2. Golden Circle
This is almost compulsory for any tourist to do, but you haven’t really done Iceland without doing this route. Do it as an organised tour, or for more freedom and flexibility do it at your own pace by renting a car and taking it back to basics by using a map (the paper variety). Iceland’s roads aren’t too difficult to navigate.
The Golden Circle will take you to Thingvellir National Park, the Geysers and Gullfoss Waterfall – translated as the ‘Golden Waterfall’. The latter is definitely something you can tick off your list as one of the most impressive things you’ve ever seen. It reaches a height of 32 metres and its wide, tiered structure makes Gullfoss appear larger than life.
Some tours also take you to a volcanic crater lake, Kerid, a stop so worthwhile and different to anything else on the route that it should be a compulsory part of it. The caldera is unlike most in Iceland in that the volcanic rock is red rather than black, giving Kerid a rusty, warm appearance.
3. Go chasing waterfalls
It’s far from the case with Icelandic waterfalls that when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Each one is impressive in its own way: in summer, the drops sparkle and conjure up rainbows against lush green grass, and in winter, icicles barricade the waterfalls within their deafening surge.
As well as Gullfoss mentioned above, there’s Seljalandsfoss (in the summer, you can walk behind this one), Skógafoss and many more. If you haven’t guessed by now, “foss” in Icelandic means “waterfall”, so you’ll be able to tell on any map when you’re going to bump into one.
4. Visit black sand beaches
As a volcanic country, black sand isn’t a strange occurrence in Iceland. But to us, forever taught to dream of white beaches dotted with palm trees, it’s seemingly the stuff of magic.
In a way, it is. The Icelandic are very keen on their folklore filled with elves and trolls, and this stands side by side with the black beaches. Take Vik and the world famous Reynisfjara beach: the eerie atmosphere is created by the jet black sand, the imposing basalt columns and the jugged rock poking out off the shore. The story goes that this rock was a troll trying to make it back to shore overnight when its boat capsized, but when the sun rose it froze the troll into the rock still there today.
As insane as a lot of these stories might sound, exploring Iceland becomes infinitely more fun when keeping them in mind.
5. Feel the volcano heat
With all this talk about volcanoes, what about directly involving them in an adventure? Plenty of tours can take you into lava fields in a 4×4 and in the summer months you can even experience a hike up to Thrihnukagigur volcano and do something you may have never dreamed of: disappear down the funnel and stand inside a volcano.
Of course, this volcano isn’t about to erupt any second, so it’s perfectly safe (or as safe as you can be hurling yourself into a volcano).
6. Dancing on ice
Now for the complete opposite: walking on water. Well, ice in the form of a glacier. As well as volcanoes, Iceland is a hotbed for glaciers, which make up around 11% of the total area of the country.
One of the more interactive experiences in Iceland, you can don crampons and hike a glacier, do some ice climbing or even explore an ice cave. Popular glaciers close to Reykjavik are Jokulsarlon, Eyjafjallajölkull and Solheimajokull – better write them down, because good luck pronouncing them.
7. Explore Reykjavik
The capital city of Reykjavik itself is well worth taking a day or two out to explore as a counterpoint to all this dramatic scenery. Its little houses are an architectural rainbow and the view over the rooftops out to sea perfectly encapsulates this quaint, quirky city.
Eat at Fishmarket, where you’ll be splashing out a bit (pun absolutely intended), but it’s worth it to see mussels on a bed of misty ice and fir tree branches, and sashimi laid out in more style than you could ever imagine for a fish dish. Go to the likes of the Laundromat Cafe and Kaffismiðja Íslands for your coffee fix, proving beyond doubt that Reykjavik is one of the most low-key hipster cities around.
If wandering around Reykjavik is high on your Iceland bucket list (honestly, I actually have one despite having visited twice already) then stay as central as you can. There are some great hostels like the quirky KEX Hostel. You’ll most likely be doing a lot of tours during the day, so setting up camp close to the city centre will enable you discover a lot more of Reykjavik’s charm in between exploring this alien world.
About the Author
Technically based in London, UK, Kirsten Powley left her heart (and possibly mind, too) back in Melbourne, Australia, after studying abroad there. Half-Czech, on skis from the age of two and cruising around the Mediterranean in her childhood years, travel made its mark early. Since, exploits have whisked her away around Australia, Bali, the US, Canada, Iceland and more. You can follow along on her blog, Kirst Over the World and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.