The number one reason people want to come to Iceland is the nature. Not only has Iceland got a lot of it, Iceland’s nature is also a collection of some of the rarest and most stunning natural wonders in the world!
SvartifossPhoto by Ron Kroetz via Flickr
We may not have a lot of forests in Iceland or big cities, but when it comes to rocks, Iceland really rocks! Truly terrible jokes aside (sorry about that one), if it’s good-looking rocks you’re after, you can’t go wrong with columnar basalt. There’s nothing like a stretch of tall hexagonal columns of rock, so geometrically regular that you’d think they were hand-hewn, to really make you appreciate the grandeur of nature. Columnar basalt was the inspiration for many famous buildings in Reykjavík, most notably the national theatre and Hallgrímskirkja.
There are cliffs of columnar basalt all over Iceland so if you’re, for instance, headed to Snæfellsnes or the northeast, be sure to stop by Gerðuberg or Hljóðaklettar, respectively. Our top recommendation, however, is a columnar basalt/waterfall combo called Svartifoss. Head to Skaftafell in the Vatnajökull national park to see it! There’s a short hike to the waterfall from the visitor’s centre, about 5,5 km round-trip.
NámaskarðPhoto by Bjarki Sigursveinsson via Flickr
Even when there are no active volcanic eruptions, you can still see evidence of Iceland’s geothermal activity on the surface. You’ll recognise the geothermal areas because they look like you’re stuck on a hostile alien planet. I’m serious, imagine a multi-coloured desert where nothing grows, a chemical smell of sulphur in the air, steam rising from the ground and every here and there, a bubbling cauldron of water or grey mud. That’s what a geothermal area looks like!
If you’re going north, I recommend stopping by the geothermal area by Námaskarð but if that’s too far to travel, the Reykjanes peninsula (the area between the city and the airport) has got some good areas as well! You can rent a car to explore the area or take a tour.
Not only can you see geysers in Iceland, you can see the original one. Geysir in Haukadalur is the geyser that gave all the others their (slightly distorted) name! Geysir used to be one of the tallest geysers in the world, but today it’s mostly dormant, only erupting very sporadically, usually after earthquakes or other geological shifts. Even though Geysir isn’t erupting anymore, you can still expect a spectacle at the Geysir geothermal area. Strokkur, a geyser that lies just a few metres away, is one of the few geysers in the world that erupts at regular intervals – every eight minutes or so!
You can get a rental car and drive straight to Geysir but the area is also one of the stops on the popular sightseeing route the Golden circle. You would be missing out if you didn’t stop at Gullfoss and Þingvellir on your way as well! You can drive the Golden Circle yourself or take a tour.
ReynisfjaraPhoto by apasciuto via Flickr
The word beach has some pretty sunny connotations, right? It’s probably conjuring up images right now of a warm sunny day, the waves lazily lapping at the yellow sand while some kids play at the water’s edge. If you’re coming to Iceland, forget everything you know. Going to the beach means dressing in your warmest clothes because the wind is probably freezing, the waves are crashing on the beach in a white, frothy explosion, the sand is jet black and any kid playing even close to the water would be in mortal danger. Welcome to Iceland. The good news is that the views are stunning and your selfie at the beach is going to get a loooot of likes.
It’s not hard to find a black sand beach in Iceland (in fact, it’s much more difficult to find a yellow one) but if you want to see some good ones, the south coast is the way to go, either in a rental car or with a tour. The famous Reynisfjara with the beautiful rock formations jutting out of the sea is the most visited one but BE CAREFUL! Don’t go close to the water, the unpredictable waves can be and have been deadly.
Into the Glacier
Okay, people, let’s talk glaciers. Glaciers cover about 11% of Iceland’s surface and they look good doing it! Much like the rest of Iceland’s nature, they’re very pretty, you can and should go see one, and they can be deadly if you don’t know what you’re doing. They’re, of course, not limited to Iceland but we do have the biggest one in Europe, Vatnajökull. Vatnajökull is curious not just for its size, but also the fact that underneath it is a live volcano and a lake! The active volcano melts the underside of the glacier, feeding the lake and every now and then, when the pressure gets too much to handle, the water escapes, causing a flash flood.
You can go exploring on and around Vatnajökull, but we also recommend checking out Langjökull. It’s a little closer to the city and you can go snowmobiling and glacier hiking but in addition, you can actually go into the glacier, into a man-made cave at the heart of the glacier. You can take a tour from Reykjavík or drive up to Húsafell and take the tour from there.
SurtshellirPhoto by Christoph Strässler via Flickr
The lava fields in Iceland can hide many secrets, with their rough surface and many nooks and crannies. In fact, many of them do, in the form of caves! There are plenty of different caves in Iceland but the ones that are most interesting are the lava tubes. Like everything with the word lava in them, they sound pretty exciting – and they are! They’re former lava channels that have formed underground tunnels and caves and exploring them can be pretty amazing.
The biggest lava tube in Iceland is Surtshellir. The cave is about a mile long and quite beautiful. It also has an interesting history as outlaws used to use it as a refuge. Last but not least, it’s named for the giant Surtur, a flaming sword-wielding fire demon prophesied to wreak havoc upon gods and men in Ragnarök, the Norse religion version of the apocalypse. We don’t recommend visiting the cave on your own as it can be quite dangerous but you can take caving tours there.
DynjandiPhoto by David Lee via Flickr
Okay, so waterfalls, of course, aren’t unique to Iceland, every country with rivers and mountains has waterfalls (show me a country without mountains and I’ll show you Denmark! But that’s beside the point). They still get a place on this list, though, mostly because they’re just so darn impressive to look at! (Also, it’s my list and I’ll put whatever I want on it).
The real headache is choosing a waterfall to recommend. There’s the obvious ones, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, the waterfall that flows out from underneath a lava field, Hraunfossar, or Dettifoss, because it’s really, really powerful. My recommendation, however, will go to Dynjandi, a waterfall in the Westfjords, for entirely capricious reasons. It’s a beautiful waterfall (well, five, actually – it’s a five-in-one waterfall), it’s not crowded like some of the more popular ones and the name is fun to say. Check it out! You can rent a car and explore the Westfjords while you’re at it.
If you’ve been pining for the fjords lately, you’re in luck, Iceland is lousy with fjords! We’ve got fjords in the east, north, west, and north-west, you can take your pick, really. The most fjordy parts, however, are the Westfjords and the east fjords. The coastline in both these areas is stunning, outdone only by the magnificent mountains separating the fjords. In addition, the fjords have always been isolated and the culture that has developed there is unique, stop by the small town museums while you’re there, they’ve got some good ones!
For some heavy fjord-on-fjord action, though, I have to recommend the Westfjords. The landscape there is very different from the rest of Iceland, as the mountains between the fjords weren’t made by lava piling up like most Icelandic mountains, but rather by glaciers carving the fjords in between them. The landscapes are beautiful, the culture is unique, and the hiking opportunities are out-of-this-world.
FjaðrárgljúfurPhoto by Andrés Nieto Porras via Flickr
When it comes to natural phenomena, nothing matches a canyon for sheer drama and splendour. Why, the Americans have got one they’re so proud of they named it the Grand Canyon. There’s nothing like seeing great big cliffs torn asunder by an unassuming stream of water to really get you contemplating the forces of nature and the smallness of man. And what’s a holiday, really, without some philosophical musings about your own insignificance?
If you feel like doing a little introspection in Iceland, there’s no place better than the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon (I know, the name’s a mouthful). If you’re a Justin Bieber fan, it might interest you to know that this is where he shot one of his videos in Iceland. If you want to go there, it’s probably best to rent a car and explore the south coast.
GjástykkiPhoto by Logi H G via Flickr
More rocks! Humble as it might seem, different kinds of rocks really are Iceland’s crowning glory. Also, you probably won’t find them humble at all when you’re standing in front of a sprawling lava field which looks like it’s just stopped smoking. Since Iceland has a lot of volcanic eruptions, it only makes sense that it also has a lot of lava fields. Depending on how recent the eruption, the lava fields can be black and rough or covered in a pillowy green moss.
For the ultimate lava field experience, head to Gjástykki. The landscape there looks like it belongs to another planet! You can drive there yourself or take a guided tour.
KeriðPhoto by Shaun Versey via Flickr
After eruptions every 4-5 years for the past few thousand years, the result is an island pockmarked by volcanoes and craters. We don’t complain about it though, because, honestly, the craters probably look better than whatever was there before! Another good thing about craters is that they’re usually not that tall. You can “hike” up to one in about 5-10 minutes!
There are plenty of good looking craters in Iceland but Kerið wins by a slim margin because of its proximity to Reykjavík and other natural wonders. It’s on the route you take to see the Golden Circle so check it out right after Gullfoss, Geysir and Þingvellir.