Iceland was made for adventurers. Whether you’re visiting the Land of Fire and Ice for a day, a week, or a month, there are plenty of incredible experiences to add to your bucket list.
We’ve rounded up some of the best, just for you. And we even put them in order from least to most exhilarating (not an exact science, but hey, we tried!).
Visit as many waterfalls as possible
There are over 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland. Let that sink in. At least 10,000 waterfalls in a country roughly the size of Ohio. That’s a lot. And Iceland’s waterfalls are as varied as they come — from the greats such as Gullfoss, Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Goðafoss to some of the less-frequented falls like Hraunfossar, Hrafnabjargafoss, and Aldeyjarfoss. Add some to your itinerary, but always keep your eyes peeled for others along the way!
Make friends of a different species
Icelandic horses are a special breed. No, really — the breed was developed and is native to the island. The horses are smaller than regular breeds (usually considered pony-sized), are extremely friendly, and live especially long lives (it’s not uncommon for horses to live over 50 years). As you make your way around the country, take time to pull off the road to photograph and pet some. They’ll often walk right up to strangers on the side of the road.
Keep in mind that you’ll likely be interacting with horses that belong to a local farmer or breeder, so always act with caution. Don’t feed them anything except the grass growing in their pasture, and treat the animals with respect. To pet a horse, wait until it approaches you, then stroke down the middle or sides of its face, or pat its body.
Get your kicks … on a glacier
Roughly 11 percent of Iceland is covered in glaciers, masses of compressed, thickened ice and snow. They move slowly, but they’re a massive sight to behold. You can witness them from afar, but you’ll enjoy a more exhilarating experience if you book a glacier hike. Hiking guides will provide the proper tools (including crampons and ice axes), share information about the glacier itself, and show you the best way across.
Find secret swimming holes
While the Blue Lagoon may be the most famous place to take a dip in Iceland, there are plenty of other swimming spots that benefit from the country’s incredible geothermal water. The best spots include the Secret Lagoon (near Reykjavik), Seljavallalaug (Iceland’s oldest swimming pool), Jardboðin Nature Baths (in northern Iceland), a secret geothermal lake in Husavik, a somewhat hidden natural hot spring in Hrunalaug, Reykjadalur Geothermal River (less than an hour from Reykjavik), Landmannalaugar Hot Pot (in southern Iceland), and Víti Geothermal Lake (only accessible June through October). Don’t forget your swim suit!
Experience nightlife in Reykjavik
In a place where the sun never really sets during the summer months, we think it’s acceptable to party through the night. Grab your travel companions, find a bar, and be prepared for a night that might just never end.
Watch ice chunks drift by at Jokulsarlon
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon in southern Iceland is a must when touring the country. It’s just off the Ring Road, has ample parking, and boasts plenty of room to explore. Though most visitors don’t leave the area right beside the parking lot, take advantage of the space! Leave time to explore the other sides of the lagoon, and even stroll across the road to where it meets the ocean. This place is especially lovely to photograph at sunrise or sunset, but don’t forget to put your camera down at some point and simply let it all sink in.
Snowmobile across a glacier
If hiking isn’t really your thing, why not hop on a snowmobile? Many tour companies offer the experience — even for those beginners who have never been on a snowmobile in their life. They’ll give you a giant snowsuit and goggles, show you how to operate the vehicle, and then lead you on an exhilarating ride through vast white expanses of snow. These rides take place in the middle of the country, a region few get to explore otherwise, and, though it’ll be over before you know it, the ride and the views it provides will leave you breathless.
Visit the murder house
Even a country as safe as Iceland has a bloody past. Iceland’s only serial killer, a man nicknamed Axlar-Björn, lived on a farmstead on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Though his reign of terror has been over for many centuries (since 1596 to be exact), you can still visit an abandoned house on the very same land he once called home. At the right hour (when it’s misty and just a bit creepy), the dilapidated house and moody setting is enough to freak anyone out.
Discover a viking tomb
In southern Iceland, there is a mysterious, scenic mountain that is home to an ancient viking tomb. The mountain is Hjörleifshöfði (try saying that … at all), and the deceased viking is Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson, the brother of Ingólfr Arnarson, lauded as the first settler of Iceland. The roughly 45-minute long hike to the top is strenuous, but not impossible. Make sure to bring water, and wear (preferably waterproof) layers, as you always should in Iceland. The mystery of this place only increases the further you climb because the mountain is supposedly haunted. Many visitors (both local and foreign) have reported unexplainable occurrences, which, oddly enough, seems to draw them back instead of repelling them. If you make it to the top, be sure to sign the visitors’ book attached to the small cemetery, and take a breather while you admire the endless view.
Encounter animals in the wild
Horses, puffins, sheep, whales, seals, and arctic foxes … oh my! Iceland is rife with wildlife. Sheep and horses are the easiest to spot, especially when touring the country by car — you’ll see horses in huge pastures on the side of the road, while sheep of many colors dot the hillsides and, occasionally, the road in front of you. But, if you’re hoping to see some of Iceland’s other wild treasures, you may need to plan a bit further in advance. Compare wildlife photography tours, book a whale-watching excursion, or research where to find puffins and arctic foxes in the wild. As always, treat any wildlife you come across with respect.
Road trip through the night
If you’re visiting during the summer, when the light never really fades, take advantage of it and drive through the night! Stay up late to see the stars, enjoy the solace of the empty road, or pull over and camp right off National Road 1. For extra spontaneity, rent a campervan and forgo staying in hotels or hostels. That way, when you’re ready to stop for the night (if you ever are), all you have to do is find a good place to park.
Explore underground caves and lava fields
Iceland’s one-of-a-kind geographic features have created underground worlds unlike any other. Book a caving tour to view the ethereal color of a glacier from the inside, trek through ice tunnels and lava tubes, and see underground craters and caves that are truly otherworldly. Do your research and pick which caving tour piques your interest most — if you can’t choose, many tour companies offer combo or multi-day trips for curious travelers.
Swim between tectonic plates
Iceland is situated in a unique location — the island straddles the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. This means that, in certain locations, you can actually be in two place at once. While it’s cool to stand between the tectonic plates in Þingvellir National Park, the more engaging (albeit, more expensive) experience is to scuba or snorkel in the waters between the tectonic plates at Silfra. The water there is pure and clear, making for an unforgettable dive between two parts of the world.
Witness the Northern Lights
Only visitors to Iceland from October to March will have a chance to see the Northern Lights, but the possibility is too enticing not to try. Iceland’s northern location makes it an ideal place to spot the aurora borealis. Your best chances to see the Northern Lights are on clear nights, which usually coincide with the coldest temperatures (unfortunately). The further away you get from Reykjavik, the better, as the capital city’s light and pollution make it difficult to spot the colorful, wavy streaks of light that dance across the sky. Head to the Westfjords or northern Iceland to increase your chances, and check the cloud cover and aurora forecast ahead of time. Be sure to read our Northern Lights photography guide, then get your camera ready!
Chart your own path
This adventure tops the list because it is by far the most unique and spontaneous. Iceland offers ample opportunity to forge your own path and discover places and moments that will feel wholly personal to your travel narrative. Take advantage of Iceland’s unrivalled natural beauty. Turn down abandoned dirt roads, wing it with accommodations to allow for split-second decisions, stay out late, follow Icelandic signs that you can’t read, and don’t forget to pause to take it all in. The sheer vastness and magical quality of this country won’t fail to leave you spellbound.
Header image by Mario Pfahl