From the hip capital of Reykjavík to the dramatic black beaches of Vik, Iceland is wild, brooding, and beautiful. In the “land of ice and fire” you can swim between continental plates, walk behind waterfalls, and more. Here’s how to make the most of Iceland’s outdoors from your base in Reykjavik!
In September 2017, I visited Iceland for the first time. According to the Iceland Tourism Board, I was just one of 2.3 million visitors expected that year — nearly five times the foot traffic Iceland experienced seven years ago.
It wasn’t until I went away to research for this article and saw the data that I truly began to appreciate the scale of Iceland’s tourism boom and consequent exceptional economic growth. Professor Edward Huijbens, of the Icelandic Tourism Research Centre, puts it best in his comment to the Financial Times that “the graph of tourist numbers is currently almost vertical.”
So if it seems like everyone on your Instagram feed is visiting Iceland, you’re not wrong. It has risen through the ranks to being one of the hottest ‘must-see’ destinations right now, and its popularity only keeps growing. The increasingly widespread images of volcanoes, waterfalls, and black beaches inspired my own visit and were scenes that I had hoped to see for myself too.
When to go?
Iceland is popular. That much is obvious. Luckily, it’s just too big to be ‘too busy’, so don’t worry about trying to beat the tourists because you won’t be trampling over each other and they’re there all year round anyways.
A few Google searches will tell you that tourist peak season in Iceland is from mid-June through August, but all the tour guides I consulted said they see a high volume of tourists all year round regardless. So don’t choose your dates based on when you think it’ll be ‘freer’, but rather depending on what activities you want to do. The summer months between June to September are best for hikers, September is whale-watching peak season, and the winter months of December to March are when you stand the best chance at seeing the northern lights and can visit the ice caves.
What to do?
No trip to Iceland is complete without experiencing Iceland’s most popular attraction. The Blue Lagoon is a man-made geothermal spa supplied with superheated, mineral-rich water from the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power station. Bathing in this water is reputed to help people suffering from skin diseases such as psoriasis, and the lagoon even has its own research centre devoted to clinical studies on the water’s healing effects. For all recreational users, it’s a great way to enjoy the Icelandic landscape and unwind at the same time. Come here to press ‘pause’ on a busy itinerary and (literally) immerse yourself in a lesson on Iceland’s geothermal energy.
The Blue Lagoon manages the number of people visiting at a time, which means that visitors are advised to book their tickets at least a few weeks or a month in advance in order to secure a spot. As a result, the lagoon is never over-crowded and relaxation is guaranteed. Since the lagoon is only about twenty minutes from Keflavik airport, compared to fifty minutes from the city centre, people often choose to visit the Blue Lagoon either straight from the airport when they land, or on their way to the airport prior to flying out.
Visitors are required to shower in the changing rooms before entering the lagoon, and have the option of using a special conditioner provided for free. Whilst this mineral-rich water supposedly works wonders for skin, it definitely doesn’t go easy on the locks — avoid hair damage by lathering and leaving in the provided conditioner, or your hair will end up slightly crusty and brittle for a few days.
The lagoon, with its famously pale blue, warm water, is dreamy. Clouds of steam rise and scurry across the water’s surface if there’s a wind, obscuring the shapes of other visitors to otherworldly effect. You might occasionally stumble upon a ‘hot pocket’ of higher temperature, which makes you feel like you’re in a giant (albeit totally still) jacuzzi.
You can drink and drift at the same time if you so desire, thanks to a bar in the lagoon that serves wine, beer, slushies and skyr smoothies. (Skyr is a thick, high-protein Icelandic yogurt that you MUST try when in Iceland. Something about it just sets it apart from any other yogurt you’ve ever had — it’s a bonafide hit with tourists.) All purchases are charged to the entrance bracelet on your wrist, which is scanned when you leave to show what you then need to pay for.
I arrived at the lagoon straight from the airport and stayed about 3 hours. I was happy just to stay in the water with a smoothie, but there’s plenty of other services on offer to help you make the most of your visit: you can wear silica mud masks, enjoy the sauna and steam room, and receive a massage on a float right in the lagoon. Kick back and relax!
South Island & Golden Circle Day Trips
If you’re based in Reykjavík but want to see some of Iceland’s renowned outdoors scenery, consider taking one of the many day trips on offer. These tours will take you a few hours outside of the capital, and usually focus either on the South coast, with its black beaches and spectacular waterfalls, or the Golden Circle, a tourist trail that loops into the southern uplands of Iceland through more waterfalls, geysers, and Þingvellir National Park.
YourDayTours is a tour company that offers both South Island and Golden Circle day trips, and whose great service I can personally vouch for. I went on their South Island tour first, which takes visitors to the two waterfalls Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, Reynisfjara with its breathtaking black sand beaches and rock formations, and the glacier Sólheimajökull. Both tours involve a full day on the bus, but it didn’t feel long at all thanks to regular pit-stops at our locations and gas stations/cafes that broke the journey up into manageable chunks and gave us a chance to buy snacks & hot drinks. Towards the end of the day our tour guide came round offering some traditional bitesize Icelandic food & drink to try onboard the bus, which was a really lovely, homely touch.
South Island: The South Island tour bus picks its passengers up from arranged meeting points in Reykjavík before heading out of the city en route to the two waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. My tour group was lucky enough to spot Icelandic horses roaming freely in their paddock on the way to the waterfalls, so we made a brief stop to pet them.
Waterfalls are pretty sensational forces of nature, and Iceland certainly doesn’t run short of them nor cool ways to watch them. But don’t underestimate the amount of spray a waterfall can kick up and how far it can fly: be sure to bring a raincoat along or you’ll end up getting drenched!
A footpath runs behind the back of the 65m-high Seljalandsfoss, which means that you don’t just have to admire it face-on but that you can actually also walk behind it. It’s as extraordinary as it sounds, but this unique opportunity isn’t available all-year round: it’s easy to walk behind Seljalandsfoss in dry conditions, but when the weather is poor the path becomes muddy, slippery, and less reliable. In the wintertime it’s often totally closed off for safety reasons.
Skógafoss is a stronger waterfall than Seljalandsfoss, and one that can visitors can look down upon from a viewing platform on top of a hill. It is awesome and humbling to come so close to the tipping point of such a powerful torrent of water; to watch it plummet off a dizzying 60m-high edge and disappear into a tremendous mist. Even on ground level visitors can to walk very close to the foot of the waterfall — and this is where you want your picture taken!
We stopped at the village of Vík í Myrdal at midday to grab lunch and explore Reynisfjara beach. I’d never seen black sand before, but the effect of it was as dramatic and desolate as I had imagined it would be. Reynisfjara is beautiful in a solemn way; despite all the tourists, still lonesome and wild like all vast natural settings are.
Your tour guides will tell you to exercise caution and not go too close to the water or turn your backs to the sea, because the waves at Reynisfjara are especially strong and unpredictable. On the way down to the beach there are signs illustrating ‘creeper waves’ — waves that come out of no where on the back of regular waves or even when the water is totally still and calm — that are extremely dangerous and frequent here. Creeper waves hit hard and, on rare occasion, have been known to sweep unwitting bystanders out to sea to fatal consequences, so be sure to keep your eye trained on the sea if you’re very close to it.
Reynisdrangar sea cliffs stand under the Reynisfjall Mountain. From a distance they look like spikes crawling with ants; up close you’ll realise they’re basalt sea stacks and the ants are eager tourists scrambling about for photos. I find their form pretty bizarre; they are so symmetrical and such a strange, perfectly rectangular shape, that it almost seems like the design of a human hand rather than of nature. They are just one example amongst many of the unique patterns to be found at Reynisfjara. Duck into the Hálsanefshellir cave, formed by basalt columns, and you’ll see what I mean. I’m not sure I ever appreciated nature’s design so much as I did when I was in Iceland, with its jagged rock formations, dark coastlines and towering mountains.
Last but not least, Skafatell glacier. We couldn’t really get close to the glacier, so we just stood to admire it from afar. The view was still pretty grand, but if you really want to experience a glacier you need to do more than just eyeball it from a distance — I’d advise booking a separate tour that takes you for a glacier walk, for example.
Golden Circle: YourDayTours’ Golden Circle tour is another long full-day tour broken up into manageable chunks with regular pit-stops. It stops at the waterfall Faxi, Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir geothermal area, and Þingvellir National Park, the place where you can see the American and Eurasian tectonic plates pulling apart (and where I had snorkelled the day before!)
Faxi is an “extra stop”, meaning it isn’t considered one of the main highlights but is still worth a visit en route for its quiet beauty. Gullfoss, on the other hand, is arguably one of the most impressive waterfalls you’ll ever see. The scale of it is staggering, and the sound of it is ceaseless. A designated trail allows visitors to walk along one side of the valley and view the waterfall from different angles. The closest you can get is via the viewing platform that sits right at the top of the waterfall, a similar set-up to Skógafoss. Here you can watch the water rush towards the edge, explode into the air, and come crashing back down with such incredible force that the entire valley remains filled with what looks like a floating veil of mist.
Once you’ve picked your jaw up off the floor, get trigger-happy and find the best spots to snap some photos along the trail. I saw some solo professional photographers on the other side of the valley too, taking long-exposure shots.
We then stopped at the geyser geothermal area for lunch. It’s fun to wait with everyone for the geysers to go off, but eventually the sulphur smell drove me into the onsite canteen for food. On our way back to Reykjavik we drove slowly through Þingvellir National Park while our tour guide pointed out fissures in the ground around us and explained more about the pulling apart of the American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
These tours were both fantastic — they had me enjoying Iceland so much that I’m already looking at returning again this year, and possibly even next, which is really saying something!
A quick note on YourDayTours: pick-up/drop-off at centrally located Reykjavik hotel/guesthouse included, and my tour guide Lasma was brilliant — engaging, informative, patient and friendly. Bus was comfortable, and group size wasn’t super big (around 15-17 people) so it felt more intimate. (caption)
Snorkel or dive Silfra
Experiencing Silfra was a real bucket-list moment for me. I first read about it in a dive destinations book I got for Christmas six years ago, and it’s been in the back of my mind ever since.
The Silfra fissure is actually a crack between the North American and Eurasian continents, which are slowly drifting apart by about 2cm each year. I was always drawn to the prospect of diving Silfra for its renowned underwater visibility, supposedly unsurpassed in the diving world, and how alien it looked. The water clarity here is astounding, providing a clear line of sight straight to the bottom. I had heard it was meant to be like viewing something 100 feet away as though it were actually 10 feet away. The clarity comes from the fact that it’s almost-freezing glacial water from the nearby Langjökull, which also means that it’s pristine enough to drink!
The ‘alien’ part comes from the way it looks underwater. Slipping into Silfra must be what stepping onto another planet feels like. You won’t spot fish here, but you will see incredible rock formations, fissures, caves, and different types of algae that provide a vivid colorscape unlike anything that occurs naturally above the surface.
To dive here, you need a dry suit diving certification. If, like me, you don’t have one of those, you can snorkel it instead with a company like Iceland Adventure Tours, and still have an unforgettable experience. (Mine totally exceeded all six years worth of my expectations!)
First things first: getting into the drysuit. A long-winded, mortifying, and absolutely hilarious task. You just have to learn to laugh at yourself (and everyone else) and accept that you’ll have probably never looked or felt less appealing, but it’s going to keep you safe and sound in that 2-degree glacial water. I’ve never worn a drysuit before, so I didn’t really know what to expect. It’s a tight squeeze in places — especially at the wrist and neck seals — but aside from the fact that I felt like I was being re-born through the head seal, my face clamped in full throttle, I quickly adjusted to my clunky new frame.
After a slow waddle in our flippers down a platform, we entered the water one by one. When my cheeks, the only truly exposed part of my body, first hit the water, it was a real shock. It took a while for my face to get used to the searing cold, but thankfully the rest of my body was completely dry. In fact, I can confidently say I was colder walking through Reykjavik fully-clothed in the evening than when I was floating in glacial water in a drysuit.
As for the views; wow, just wow. The exceptional visibility combined with the good fortune of snorkelling on a bright day made it all the more surreal. The sunlight pierced straight through Silfra’s crystal clear water and set the jagged walls of rock furiously aglitter with brilliant rainbow colours. I drifted over fields of neon green ‘trolls hair’ algae and other vibrant, bizarre-looking plants. It really feels like another planet down there; eerily devoid of marine life, utterly weird and wonderful.
No picture does it justice. And on the topic of photos — if it’s your first time here, and if photographing Silfra wasn’t specifically what you came here to do, I wouldn’t bother trying to take them. Our guides took photos of us underwater, available for free download online afterwards, but even if you wanted to take your own photos of the underwater landscape your hands are just way too cold to operate.
Note on Iceland Adventure Tours: these tour guides were great fun. Ivan & Manuel were the funniest instructors I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, and total professionals. They clearly knew their stuff, took care of us, and had us all laughing. You’re in good hands with these guys! Pick-up and drop-off at Reykjavík hotel included.
These experiences were all unforgettable and had me hooked so hard on Iceland that I’m already looking at returning again in 2018! Iceland is as big as it is beautiful, which means I had to leave behind a lot that I’m still desperate to see. If you have more time in Iceland, do what I’m planning to do next time round and road-trip it. A road trip will allow you to more freely explore the stunning natural attractions beyond Reykjavík. I’m glad that my first visit to Iceland laid such a solid, familiar foundation for me in the city and let me see some definite bucket-list items. Iceland: I look forward to round 2, and till then I will endlessly sing your praises!