There's A LOT to do in Iceland, and 99% of it takes place outside and consists of some kind of crazy ass natural wonder. Be prepared, though, as the island is vast and travel time to most spots can be long. But don't let that put you off: there are a million things to see along the way and the simple act of driving there is pretty incredible in itself. You an literally drive for hours without ever seeing another car on the road. Below is a very small sampling of some things I personally think you can't miss.
THE BLUE LAGOON
240 Grindavík, Iceland
+354 420 8800
When we were planning our trip, everyone told us that the only way to go was to go directly from the airport to the Blue Lagoon. I was skeptical because it feels like the last thing you want to do upon landing after a way too short overnight flight is to get into a bathing suit. But I know what I don’t know, so I gave in and listened and here’s a shocker: I was dead wrong. In fact, it’s true; the ONLY way to land in Iceland is to go directly to the Blue Lagoon. There are a number of reasons for this:
1. Most flights (from the East Coast anyway), land at an ungodly hour (hello 6:15am) and no hotels in Iceland will let you check in before 2pm. That’s a lot of hours to kill, especially since …
2. The Blue Lagoon is about 15 minutes from the airport but an hour from downtown Reykjavik. So you save time by going straight there.
3. There is no better cure for jet lag (or a hangover) than the soothing waters of the Blue Lagoon. You’ll be surprised at how much time you can spend in the water.
So all of this is to say that the Blue Lagoon is as good as it looks on Instagram. Make sure to take advantage of the silica mud mask bar, and book yourself an in-water massage ahead of time – it’s super relaxing and certainly not like any other experience you’ve ever had. Finally, end your visit with lunch at Lava, the on-site restaurant. It’s worth it and you can read more about it here. .
PRIVATE + GROUP TOURS
Yes, it’s certainly possible to rent a car do all of the touring you’re going to want to do on your own, but I think there’s so much to see that it’s really worth taking a proper tour. (Note: I might change my thoughts on this had we been there in a different season, but the weather is so unpredictable in the winter and roads can close in an instant that I just really don’t recommend driving without a guide in the winter). The biggest tour company in Iceland is Grayline Tours and everyone I’ve spoken to really loved their tours. The downside is that they tend to be crowded, but are less expensive than private tours. If you’re going to go the private route (and by the way, even the private tour companies offer group tours which might be a good middle of the road option as they are likely more tailored than Grayline yet still less expensive than fully private), we like Extreme Iceland which offers a HUGE variety of tours, and Eskimos Iceland. We used Eskimos, and if you call them you should ask for Tristan to be your guide. He is walking encyclopedia of Icelandic facts. They also offer a huge number of tours including a bunch that fall under the category of “adrenaline shock.” Here are the spots you do NOT want to miss:
The Golden Circle
This is a pretty standard tour, but can’t be missed. You’ll see Gulfoss Falls, Thingvellir National Park and Geysir.
Into the Glacier
This is where Iceland really shines. You’ll take a “Super Jeep” to an ice tunnel, which is located on the second largest glacier in Iceland (Langjokull). The man-made tunnel is 500 meters long and has an average temp of 32 degrees, making it warmer than it usually is outside. The walls tell an amazing history of the glacier: normal snow opt glacier ice that have been formed over time and you can even see a layer of ash in between the ice that came from the volcanic eruption in 2010. It’s an incredible experience.
South Coast Tour
This is where you’ll see the famous Black Beach Reynisfjara and the truly massive Skogafoss Waterfall which is 80 feet wide and which you can view from the top if you’re brave enough to climb the narrow (and windy) staircase! And if the weather cooperates, you’ll also get a quick glacier hike in at Solheimajokull.
And as I mentioned, there are a million more tours to go on. Check out the two companies I mentioned above – they both go into great detail about what to see and how to get there.
A great way to get your bearings and learn about the city is to do a walking tour. We liked the guys from Free Walking Tours of Reykjavik. They were hip, funny and kept the tour lively.
There are a surprising number of museums in Reykjavik, and all are worth a look. My personal faves were the Reykjavik Art Museum which is the largest in Iceland, and is comprised of three separate buildings throughout the city: Kjarvalsstaðir (Flókagata 24), Hafnarhús (Tryggvagata 17) and Ásmundarsafn (Sigtún). Each hosts exhibitions of local as well as international artists. We went to Hafnarhúsand loved the modern vibe and interactive exhibits.
The Reykjavik Museum of Photography (Grófarhús, Tryggvagata 15, top floor 101 Reykjavík, 354 411 6300) sits on the top floor of the city’s library and while small, has some pretty incredible work. Take the stairs and see a photographic history of Iceland on the way up.
There’s not much I can say except that if you find yourself with a free 30 minutes, a trip to The Icelandic Phallological Museum (read: penis museum) is worth it for the shock value and your Instagram feed.
HALLGRIMSKIRKJA CHURCH (Hallgrímskirkja, Skólavörðuholti, 101 Reykjavík)
The Hallgrímskirkja Church is a Lutheran parish church in Reykjavík that, at 73 metres (244 ft), is the tallest church in Iceland and among the tallest structures. It's named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson. Situated in the center of Reykjavík, it's one of the city's best-known landmarks and is visible throughout the city. State Architect Guðjón Samúelsson's design of the church was commissioned in 1937. He is said to have designed it to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland's landscape. It took 41 years to build, with construction starting in 1945 and ending in 1986, with the landmark tower being completed long before the church's actual completion. It truly is a sight to behold and well worth the trip up the elevator to the top to take in the breathtaking views of the city.
HARPA, Iceland's Opera House (Austurbakki 2, 101 Reykjavík, +354 528 5000)
A true architectural masterpiece, Harpa sits right on the water and is so sparkly you can't help but be drawn in. The concert halls are spectacular and the views incredible.
Something we didn’t get to do because of the season was a ferry ride to Videy, an island five minutes off the harbor in Reykjavik, and which is actually one of the coolest spots, or so I’ve heard. What will you find there? Ancient ruins, the oldest church in the country and Videy House, the first building in the country to be constructed with stone. But here’s what’s REALLY cool about Videy: works of art by Yoko Ono and Richard Serra. Ono’s piece, entitled Imagine Peace Tower, is a piece conceived to be a beacon of world peace. The work is composed of a large number of individual lights that join together to form a single beam of light that emerges from a wishing well in which the words “Imagine Peace” are written in 24 world languages. The lights are reflected upwards to the sky with mirrors. The strength, intensity and brilliance of the light tower continually changes as the particles in the air fluctuate with the prevailing weather and atmospheric conditions unique to Iceland. Serra’s piece, Afangar (Milestones), was set up on the western part of the island in 1990 and was commissioned by the Reykjavik Art Museum. It’s environmental art at its best, as magical and eerie as the island itself. Afangar takes up the entire west side of the island with 9 pairs of basalt columns that are all placed at the same elevations – with one column of each pair at 9 meters above sea level and the other at 10. They all frame certain landmarks and destinations. The ferry runs daily in the summer and on Saturdays and Sundays in the winter.