Backpacking in Iceland on a Gap Year

Countries  »  Iceland

Backpacking in Iceland might be the closest you ever get to stepping foot on another planet. Chances are you already know about its abundance of natural wonders: volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, waterfalls, and more. Iceland is a country of outlandish beauty and inconceivable primal forces.

Although you might spend most of your time there out in the wilds or chasing the elusive aurora borealis, Iceland is also well-known for its safety and hospitality, making it the ideal rest stop on a longer trip.

We probably don’t need to convince you to take a gap year in Iceland, but we’re going to do it anyway.

Cities in Iceland

Capital city Reykjavik is likely to serve as your base for Iceland adventures, but despite its modest stature you could comfortably spend a few days there – it’s a surprisingly popular weekend destination.

To call it quaint would feel a slight injustice, but it’s refreshing to visit a capital city that can be traversed end-to-end in little more than an hour, and without skyscrapers on its skyline. Reykjavik’s focal point is instead the church of Hallgrímskirja, a striking landmark designed to resemble mountains, glaciers, and trap rocks. Its presence makes it easy to navigate Reykjavik’s many bars, pubs, cafes, museums, and independent shops that lend the city its small-town feel (though brace yourself for big city prices).

The vast majority of tours, from day trips to longer excursions, are launched from Reykjavik. Almost all of Iceland’s most famous sights can be reached from the city.

Countryside in Iceland

*cracks fingers* Where to begin?!

If you’re backpacking in Iceland you probably want to pack in as many natural wonders as possible. The easiest way to do that is to tour the Golden Circle, either as part of an organised group or by hiring a car. Covering a relatively small area in southern Iceland, the route nevertheless includes ÞingvellirNational Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, Strokkur geyser, and more.

Close to the route is Vík beach, famous for its pitch black sand, Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, and Seljalandsfoss, a waterfall that you can walk behind.

Although most travellers want to visit Iceland while it’s wrapped up tight in winter, going in summer gives you significantly more daylight (up to 21 hours a day!) and makes the north of the country easier to access. This means you can see lesser-known but similarly spectacular sights like the Lakagígar craters, Hveravellir hot lake, and the geothermal waters of Víti. Summer is also the best time for wildlife spotting, especially whale-watching.

The only downside to travelling in Iceland during the summer is that you’ll miss out on the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights. These elusive, iridescent ribbons of celestial light are usually visible at night between September and April – just hope for clear skies!

Top Experiences in Iceland

The aurora borealis

The northern lights aren’t seen exclusively from Iceland, but it certainly offers one of the most dramatic backdrops. Head out into the countryside on a clear winter night and enjoy the most incredible light show you’ll ever see.

Gullfoss Waterfall

Iceland isn’t short of waterfalls, but Gullfoss is the most spectacular. The Hvítá river, fed by a glacier, plummets over 100ft into a canyon framed by the rugged Icelandic countryside. It’s a truly spectacular experience.

Hallgrímskirja, Reykjavik

Standing 244ft high on the capital city skyline, Iceland’s largest church is not only beautiful in its own right, but a waypoint for navigating Reykjavik. Head to the top of the church tower for incredible views over the city and surrounding mountains.

Vík beach

Standing on a beach with sand as black as caviar, waves pounding against strangely formed stones, and looking out over twisted spires of rock rising from the ocean, makes it hard to believe you’re still on the same planet.

The Blue Lagoon

After all these adventures you’ll deserve a little relaxation time. The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa in the middle of a lava field, allowing you to soak in hot, soothing water whatever the weather. Bliss.