Known as the Land of Fire and Ice, Iceland is a country of sharp contrasts. A place where volcanically active hot spots and enormous glaciers can be found side by side. Where dark winters are offset by the summer’s midnight sun. A country where strange and desolate landscapes lay just outside the colorful capital of Reykjavik. An overview of the top tourist attractions in Iceland:
Framed by black basalt hexagonal columns that hang down like the pipes of a giant organ, Svartifoss is one of Iceland’s most unusual looking waterfalls. Its name, which means Black Falls, comes from these dark columns. Svartifoss is located in the Vatnajokull National Park in southeast Iceland. To view this stunning waterfall, visitors need to hike for approximately one mile to reach the falls. An added bonus? Visitors can view three other falls while on the path to Svartifoss.
Breidavik Beach is, arguably, Iceland’s most beautiful beach. It boasts pretty turquoise blue waters, rugged cliffs that have been carved by glaciers and a wide stretch of golden sand. It is a lovely area to go camping or to explore on an ATV as it is not a huge tourist destination. It is, however, the closest town to the Latrabjarg bird cliffs, which is Europe’s largest sea-bird cliff and home to millions of birds, including northern gannets, razorbills and puffins. Because many of the birds in this area, especially the puffins, have become accustomed to humans, the cliffs have become a popular spot for bird lovers and photographers to get up close and personal with these beautiful creatures.
Seljalandsfoss is one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls. Part of its popularity is probably due to the fact that visitors can actually walk behind this waterfall — a unique, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most. One word of warning — the path behind the falls is closed during the winter months. Seljalandsfoss, which cascades approximately 60 meters (200 feet) over a volcanic cliff, is also considered to be one of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls. Visitors can find Seljalandsfoss right off the Ring Road on Iceland’s south coast.
Askja is a huge caldera that is located in the Dyngjufjoll Mountains. It is a popular day tour that takes approximately 11 to 14 hours in total to complete. To reach Askja, visitors must first travel through Odadahraun, which is Iceland’s biggest desert. The landscape in this area is so otherworldly that two American astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, actually trained here before rocketing to the moon in 1969. A popular spot in Askja for visitors is a geothermal lake that can be found in a crater called Viti. This lake is filled with warm milky blue water that visitors can bathe in, if they so choose. Lake Askja, the second deepest lake in Iceland, can also be found in this caldera.
It is hard to miss Hallgrimskirkja if you’re in Reykjavik. The church stands on the top of a hill, and its tower is 73 meters (244 feet) tall. Hallgrimskirkja was designed by the state architect Gudjon Samuelsson, who was inspired by Iceland’s amazing landscape, including its basalt lava flows, glaciers and mountains. Although construction on this church first began in 1945, it wasn’t official completed until 1986. Today, it is the largest church in Iceland, and a ride up its elevator to the top of the tower will reward you with magnificent views of Reykjavik.
Thingvellir is a protected national shrine that was the open-air site of Iceland’s parliament from the 10th to 18th century. Because of this, it holds a very important place in this country’s history. Over the years, Thingvellir has also been the site of many large gatherings and celebrations. In June 1994, for instance, a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Icelandic Republic was held at this site. Thingvellier, which sits on the rift between the European and the American tectonic plates, is also known for its unique geological features. Today, Thingvellir, which was made a national park in 1930, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland.
In a country of many waterfalls, Skogafoss is one of its largest and most spectacular. Located in south Iceland, not too far off of the Ring Road, these thundering falls have a drop of 60 meters (200 feet). Skogafoss is a photographer’s dream, especially on sunny days, when a beautiful rainbow — or even two — can often be seen in front of Skogafoss. Visitors who want to view this gorgeous waterfall from above can climb up steps that will take them to an observation platform overlooking Skogafoss.
One of the best ways to get to know Iceland is by foot on the Laugavegur. At 79 km (49 miles), Laugavegur is Iceland’s longest hiking trail, stretching from Landmannalaugar to Skogar. This popular trail takes hikers through some of this country’s most gorgeous scenery and past geysers, glaciers, hot springs and waterfalls. Experts recommend that hikers plan on taking about five days to cover the trail if they want to enjoy it a leisurely pace. It can, however, definitely be done in more or less time. Hikers can either pitch a tent along the way or rent one of the huts that can be found on the trail.
Located in northern Iceland, Myvatn is a shallow lake that is famous for the large number of birds that can be seen here. Some of the many species that frequent this lake include several species of ducks, common loons and whooper swans. This lake was formed approximately 2,300 years ago by a huge basaltic lava eruption. Evidence of this eruption, such as volcanic formations, can still be seen today around Myvatn. The lake’s name translates to Midge Lake, and so it’s not surprising that large clouds of midges can be found in this area during the summer months.
When visitors first see Dettifoss, most are blown away by the sheer wild power of these falls. Located in Vatnajokull National Park, this magnificent waterfall is said to be the most powerful in all of Europe. Dettifloss, which is located on the Jokulsa a Fjollum river, is fed from meltwater from the Vatnajokull glacier and drops approximately 45 meters (148 feet) into the Jokulsarglufur Canyon. The gorgeous falls are sometimes referred to as the Prometheus waterfall because they were featured in a popular sci-fi movie by that name.
Whale lovers will be in heaven in Husavik. This town, which sits on Skjalfandi Bay, is considered to be one of the best places in the world to see whales. The waters of the bay are rich in plankton, which attracts large numbers of baleen whales that feed on the small organisms. Some of the most common whales seen in Skjalfandi Bay are humpbacks, blue and minke, but many other species have also been seen near Husavik. In addition to whales, visitors should keep an eye out for the puffins. These adorable birds nest in large colonies in this area.
The Geysers of Haukadalur can be found on Iceland’s Golden Circle, along with bubbling mud pots and hot springs. The somewhat surreal valley in which these geysers are situated is known as the Haukadalur Geothermal Area. One of the most popular geysers in Haukadalur is Strokkur. This very active geyser erupts about every five to eight minutes, guaranteeing tourists some great photo opportunities. In contrast, Geysir, which gave us the word ‘geyser’, erupts very rarely. Another popular geothermal feature in Haukadalur is Blesi, which consists of two ponds. One appears clear, while the other is a stunning blue color.
With its inky black sand, rugged basalt columns and large crashing waves, Reynisfjara Beach can appear at times almost otherworldly. This gorgeous beach, which is also home to comical puffin birds, is located near the village of Vik on Iceland’s south coast. Not surprisingly, this beach’s strange appearance has inspired at least one tale. According to local legend, the basalt sea stacks that can be seen in the ocean were formed when two trolls tried to drag a three-masted ship to the shore during the night. But they were unsuccessful and when the sun rose, the daylight turned the trolls to stone. A word of warning — the raging waves at this beach can be very dangerous so tourists are warned to keep their distance.
Located on the edge of Vatnajokull National Park is a beautiful glacier lagoon. Its waters come from melting glaciers, and the lagoon has been growing larger each year. It has, in fact, grown in size fourfold since the 1970s. It is one of the deepest lakes in Iceland, if not the deepest, and is filled with icebergs that have been calved from the glacier. The lagoon and the surrounding area is very beautiful and is so surreal that it has often been used in films, such as “Die Another Day” and “Tomb Raider.”
Visitors to Iceland have the opportunity to embark upon a very unique excursion — exploring ice caves that have been carved by rivers of meltwater deep underneath the Vatnajokull Glacier. Inside of these caves, explorers will discover a mesmerizing world where they will be surrounded by surreal blue ice formations. In some areas, black volcanic ash trapped in the ice have created a ribbon effect against the blue. Tours of these caves, which are also known as Crystal Caves, can only be done in the winter, as there is always a danger of collapse during the warmer summer and spring months, and visitors should only enter them with a trained guide.
The Blue Lagoon is one of the first things that comes to most people’s minds when they think about famous tourist attractions in Iceland. This geothermal spa is located in Grindavik on the Reykjanes Peninsula. The manmade lake is fed by superheated seawater vented from a nearby lava flow. Many people believe that its milky blue waters, which contain minerals, silica and algae, can actually soothe and improve certain skin conditions, such as eczema. It is important to note that travelers who want to enjoy a dip in the Blue Lagoon should book well ahead of their visit. This attraction is so popular that it is often sold out.
Gullfoss means Golden Falls, and it gets its name from the brownish hue of its water. These falls are truly magnificent and are known for being the largest volume falls in all of Europe. It is also notable for having two distinct drops that are at right angles to each other. From the main overlook, the view is slightly obscured, so it appears as if the lower falls plunges away into an abyss. Today, it is hard to imagine that this popular tourist attraction was almost lost. At one time, foreign investors proposed to build a hydroelectric powerplant on it. But a local woman fought vehemently against the project, even threatening to throw herself over the falls if the plant was constructed. Thankfully, her efforts paid off and Gullfoss was saved.