In August and September 2022, my boyfriend and I spent 40 days in Iceland. We rented an Airbnb in Reykjavík for the first 30 days and then rented a camper van and cruised around the Ring Road for our final 10 days.
During our visit, we did a TON of exploring and activities, and basically fell in love with both the quirky vibe of the capital city and the exquisite natural beauty of literally the entire country. While I enjoyed nearly everything we did while there, a few “highly recommended” things definitely fell flat for us.
So, here’s my list of the top 20 things to do in Iceland that were 100% worth it.
Top 20 things to do in iceland:
1. Explore Reykjavík
I could honestly write another list of 20 things to do in Reykjavík alone, but for the sake of brevity, here are my absolute favorites:
- Eat and drink at Le KocK (burgers), DEIG Workshop (brunch), Baka Baka (pizza), Lebowski Bar, Einstök Bar, Kaldi Bar, and Röntgen Bar.
- Visit the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church.
- Walk to the top of the Þúfa, which is a giant grass mound art installation. It gives a killer view of the city, and it’s interesting and unusual.
- Visit the Harpa concert hall—it’s an incredible building.
- Pet the cats of Reykjavík. It’s a whole thing, there are a LOT of cats that roam the city. They aren’t strays, they just wander freely during the daytime.
2. Visit a volcano
We just happened to arrive in Iceland on the day that the Fagradalsfjall Volcano started erupting, so we immediately booked seats on a tour bus to go see the eruption. Obviously, you can only really enjoy this one if there’s an active eruption happening, but if you get lucky, absolutely make time to go see it.
It was so mesmerizing to see in person—we literally sat there and watched it spew lava for a good 45 minutes straight. If you do get to see a volcano eruption, wear hiking boots and bring lots of water and layers. Even in August it was freezing and windy, and the “trail” to hike out there was extremely rocky.
But, it was a strong contender for the coolest thing we did in Iceland.
3. Ride Icelandic horses
Icelandic horses are small-ish (NOT ponies, they’ll have you know, but very petite horses) and, interestingly, they have a fifth gait that no other horses in the world have: the tölt. It’s kind of like a jog between trotting and cantering, but it’s very smooth.
We rode horses along the black sand Reynisfjara Beach (more on this later), although you can book riding tours in many different places around the country.
4. Take a super jeep tour to the highlands
We wanted to explore the highlands, but to get there you have to take F roads, which are unpaved, rugged, and you aren’t permitted to take non-4×4 rental cars out there.
You can, however, ride out there on a full-size tour bus or in what’s known in Iceland as a super jeep: a Sprinter van with an insane suspension system and monstrous 40-inch tires that can inflate and deflate while in motion.
We went the super jeep route because we prefer smaller tour groups and, honestly, I had to know what it’s like to ride in such an absurd vehicle. Answer: it’s amazing.
Our driver absolutely bombed through the highlands, providing us with not only incredible views of lava fields and mountains but also an adrenaline rush. We stopped at several waterfalls along the way as well as Landmannalaugar…
5. Visit Landmannalaugar
Even if you don’t opt for the all-day super jeep tour, I still recommend finding a way to get to Landmannalaugar. The rhyolite mountains are insanely gorgeous, and the hot spring river is simply divine.
We had time for a quick hike, a soak in the river, and a boozy coffee from an old school bus that’s been turned into a store/cafe. Like nearly everywhere in Iceland, sheep grazed along the riverbed, completely unphased by the hikers, tourists, and bathers.
6. Drive the Golden Circle
Our original plan was to rent a car and drive the Golden Circle on our own, but after a minor fiasco involving a lost credit card, we ended up going on a group tour.
It was great to see the attractions of the area, but we felt rushed being on the tour and this area was by far the most touristy and busy—think Yellowstone National Park levels of tourism.
However, we got to see the Strokkur geyser, visit a few waterfalls, eat ice cream in the company of the cows who produced the main ingredient, and take a speedy tour through Þingvellir National Park.
7. Þingvellir National Park
Pronounced “THING-vet-leer,” this national park is home to the site of the first Icelandic parliament meeting as well as a giant lake. It also spans the Mid-Atlantic Rift, which is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet.
The park is an interesting confluence of history and geology, and you can also snorkel or scuba dive in some of the clearest water in the world here. We didn’t get to do that during our visit, but it’s definitely on my list if we go back.
8. See the Northern Lights
Your chances of seeing the Northern Lights are greater in the winter months, but we were thrilled to be able to see them two nights in a row in early September. If you’ve never seen them before, it’s truly indescribable.
There are Northern Lights tours available, but we just happened to luck out and see them while camping in Seyðisfjörður, which is incidentally also home to Seyðisfjarðarkirkja, the church with the rainbow sidewalk leading up to it that you’ve probably seen on Instagram—also worth a visit if you make it out to the east coast of Iceland.
9. Visit a waterfall (or 20)
There’s estimated to be over 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland, so it’s virtually impossible to visit the country without seeing several dozen of them.
Some waterfalls like Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss have become incredibly popular and busy, and while they are certainly worth visiting, I preferred the unnamed waterfalls that were not packed with tourists.
10. Relax at the Sky Lagoon
We treated ourselves to a spa day at the Sky Lagoon, which is comparable to the famous Blue Lagoon but it’s easier to access and slightly less expensive. No blue water, but it was incredible.
There’s a multi-step spa “ritual” that you can complete at your leisure before lounging in the main lagoon and sipping on drinks from the swim-up bar.
Be warned though: in Iceland, they are very serious about pre-swimming cleanliness and you are required to take a shower with soap while completely nude before you put on your swimsuit and enter the water.
Thanks to these strict requirements, they are able to use much less chlorine in their water than the United States, so it’s much gentler on your skin and hair.
11. Soak at a neighborhood pool
Swimming and soaking are very popular pastimes in Iceland, but it can get very expensive very quickly to visit the ritzy spas. Fortunately, there are plenty of neighborhood pools all over the country, which are absolutely worth visiting.
Most feature one or more large geothermal pools for swimming laps, playing games, etc. as well as multiple hot tubs of different temperatures, a cold plunge tub, a steam room, and a sauna. A day pass costs around $8 per person, while the Sky Lagoon is about $80 per person.
12. Go kayaking or hiking on a glacier
We had a glacier kayaking excursion booked, but unfortunately our tour got canceled due to extremely high winds. However, we were still able to view the glacier from a distance and it was so stunning.
There are many tours that also include hiking or climbing on glaciers, which I plan to do if we ever go back. It’s absolutely mindblowing to consider the age and sheer volume of the ice.
13. Drive the Ring Road
We drove the entire Ring Road in 10 days, which was plenty of time but we still felt a bit rushed to see everything we had on our list.
And, honestly, the south coast was by far the coolest, so since we left from Reykjavík and went counter-clockwise, we saw the most impressive bits first which unfortunately made the rest of the route feel a bit lackluster in comparison.
So, if you are only able to spend a few days on the Ring Road, I recommend sticking to the south coast so you have time to see and appreciate everything. The remaining seven items on the list are points of interest along the Ring Road.
14. Reynisfjara Beach
This black sand beach is absolutely stunning, and there are several rocky spires off the coast as well as a sheer cliff. When you look inland, you’re treated to a view of a quintessential Icelandic church in the distance against a backdrop of green hills. You almost can’t imagine a more scenic place.
15. Visit Diamond Beach and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Although perennially crowded, these two adjacent features (Diamond Beach and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon) are well worth it. I probably took several hundred photos of the floating glacial ice and brilliant shards on the beach.
Watching a chunk of glacier sail from the lagoon, along a channel, under a bridge, and out into the ocean is truly otherworldly. Romping seals frequently put on a show as well.
16. Hoffellsfjöll viewpoint
This glacier viewpoint is a bit off the beaten path and strictly speaking, you are supposed to have a 4×4 vehicle to access it. However, without implicating myself too much, on a dry summer day, the road is passable for virtually any vehicle.
It was uncrowded, and we spent hours hiking around and looking at the glacier from different angles, flying our drone, and just soaking in the raw beauty.
17. Stuðlagil Canyon
This canyon is so gorgeous that it’s no wonder it’s always crowded. It’s a bit of a hike to get out there, but the columnar rock walls and vivid turquoise water are too stunning to miss.
18. Drive Road 939 between Highways 1 and 95
We took 939 as a shortcut, but it ended up being our favorite stretch of driving in the whole country. It’s not paved and is very steep and windy, but you drive up through a canyon past dozens of waterfalls until you pop out at the top and can enjoy a sweeping view from what feels like the roof of the world.
19. Check out the murals of Hellissandur
Wander around this sleepy town and check out some extraordinary murals in all different styles. I wouldn’t necessarily drive out there specifically for this, but it’s certainly worth stopping if you are passing through.
20. Visit Snæfellsjökull National Park
Check out an impressive lighthouse, interesting rock formations, a glacier-peaked volcano, and craggy shores at this outrageously beautiful national park.
What is the number one thing to see in Iceland?
It depends on what you’re into, of course, but for me it was a three-way tie between the volcanic eruption, Landmannalaugar, and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon/Diamond Beach.
What food is a must in Iceland?
Beyond the food and drink recommendations I listed above for Reykjavík, you simply must try an Icelandic hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (a hot dog stand in Reykjavík) or from virtually any gas station in the country.
I recommend getting all available toppings, which is typically three types of sauce and two types of onions.
What clothing is best to wear in Iceland?
Layers, and waterproof everything. It’s cold and wet even in the middle of summer, and if it’s not cold and wet when you leave your hotel, it will be by the time you get where you’re going.
However, bring at least one outfit that doesn’t look like you are about to scale Mt. Everest in case you want to go out for dinner or to the club.
How many days do you need in Iceland?
As many as you can afford. We did 40 days and there are still several things we didn’t get a chance to do or see. If you plan to drive around the Ring Road, I suggest at least eight days, preferably ten.
Pro tip: if you book an Airbnb for 30 days or more, you can often get a fat discount—like 50% off. So, we paid the same for a month as we would have for two weeks.
Is Iceland cheap for American tourists?
Frankly, it’s not cheap, but you also don’t have to completely break the bank. Alcohol is obscenely expensive whether you buy it at a bar or from the liquor store, but if you can shop at a grocery store and cook you’ll at least save a lot on food.
Tours are surprisingly cheap, but gas and car/van rentals are pretty spendy.
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Cat is originally from Seattle, WA but has traveled around the US and Canada full-time in a self-converted school bus with her boyfriend Aaron since April of 2018. She enjoys rock climbing, paddleboarding, hiking, and generally being outdoors!