Iceland has quickly become one of the top travel destinations in the world, but it still feels like a well-kept secret. Perhaps that’s because of its stunning natural beauty, or the swaths of open land with nothing but Icelandic horses and occasional waterfalls to remind you that you aren’t completely alone. It is a country of not only natural wonder but also a thriving local culture, known for hospitality and strong national pride in its history and mythology. By Kaye Toal
From the Blue Lagoon to the iconic Skogafoss waterfall, Iceland’s scenery is the stuff of legends — sometimes quite literally, as many of its most well-known destinations have been referenced in Viking mythology and classic literature. When you visit, prepare to be awash in natural beauty; around every bend in the road is another vista so gorgeous it doesn’t seem quite real.
Greenwich Mean Time
Best Time to Go
Iceland is a country of extremes in many ways, and the best time to visit depends entirely on how you’d like to spend your trip. Peak viewing season for the northern lights is September through March, but the country also gets quite cold during this time and daylight lasts only about five hours. The period between early June and late August sees temperate weather for visiting natural wonders and experiencing the entire Ring Road, but bring a sleeping mask — at the height of summer, the sun sets for only three hours.
Things to Know
Iceland is one of the most stunning places in the world, with incredible vistas and natural wonders seemingly around every bend. As a result, ecologists and environmentalists recommend not eating puffin or whale — sometimes offered to tourists — and following the leave no trace rule: When visiting these natural attractions, take all of your trash with you and stick to marked paths to avoid harming the land. You may also spot horses during your visit to the country, but don’t feed or pet them.
Iceland has been working hard to revitalise its tourism since its financial crisis spanning from 2008 to 2011. Local airline Icelandair offers deals for stopovers in the country, and you can usually fly to Reykjavik and then on to another major European city for about the same cost as travelling directly to the European destination. Locals are quite friendly and helpful, and Iceland’s crime rate is extremely low. It’s a safe and exciting place to travel alone, should solo travel be your plan.
Towns and Cities to Know
Reykjavik: Vibrant, welcoming, and gorgeous, Reykjavik is the capital and most popular tourist destination in Iceland. It’s close to the airport and in the middle of some of Iceland’s most famous landmarks. It’s easy to visit them, too; shuttle tours depart regularly from the city, and deals are offered for more comprehensive packages.
Akureyri: Sometimes referred to as the capital of North Iceland, Akureyri is a port town that’s home to some of the most gratifying whale watching in the world, with several tours guaranteeing sightings in the summer. The Akureyri Botanical Garden, founded in 1912, is famous for its vibrant flora and walking paths. An ideal destination for nature lovers, Akureyri also offers tours to nearby natural wonders, including options on horseback.
Húsavík: Húsavík is home to Húsavíkurkirkja, a must-see wooden church built in 1904 and a major reason people travel to Iceland. Visitors will also enjoy the town’s many biology and cultural museums, as well as the Húsavík Whale Museum. Whale watching from Húsavík is lovely, with several species frequenting the bay.
Höfn: A fishing town in the southeast, Höfn is primarily known for its scenic views of the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest ice cap in Europe. Surrounded by shoals and beaches, Höfn has also served as a filming location for a few James Bond and Tomb Raider movies, among others.
Vík í Mýrdal: A village of just 300 people, Vík í Mýrdal (or just Vík) is nevertheless one of the most popular stops on the Ring Road for those taking the south coast sightseeing route. Two of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls — Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss — are between Reykjavik and Vík, making the two-and-a-half-hour drive more than worth it. On clear days, the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers can both be seen, but Vík’s biggest draw is Reynisfjara, a black-sand beach and one of Iceland’s most famous natural landmarks.
Vestmannaeyjar: The islands of Vestmannaeyjar (or the Westman Islands) are reachable by ferry — or a bus and a ferry if you choose to visit from Reykjavik. A volcanic archipelago featuring some of Iceland’s most diverse wildlife, the Westman Islands are a must-visit for anyone wanting to be at one with nature.
Ísafjörður: Home to Iceland’s popular musical festivals — the Ísafjörður Rock Festival and Við Djúpið Music Festival — Ísafjörður is a music lover’s dream. Surrounded by sweeping vistas, these events offer a truly unique experience.
How to Get Around
There is one main highway in Iceland, called the Ring Road or Route 1. And as you might expect based on the name, it goes all the way around the country. Many of Iceland’s most famous and beautiful natural wonders can be found near the Ring Road. There are several smaller roads off the route, but the Ring Road is by far the most travelled and central.
Most travellers start in Reykjavik, the city closest to Keflavik Airport. There are shuttles from the airport to Reykjavik, some with stops at the Blue Lagoon for those wanting to take a refreshing, post-flight dip in its famous warm waters. Reykjavik also has a public bus service, the Strætó.
It’s easy to visit the most well-known natural sightseeing locations around Reykjavik, as there are several tour companies offering regular trips in all manner of combinations, whether you want to visit just one or everything within a three-mile radius of Reykjavik. There are also several car rental options if you prefer to extend your trip beyond Reykjavik and explore along the Ring Road.
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Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina
Address: Mýrargata 2, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Phone: +354 444 4000
Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina is Iceland’s premier hotel, owned and operated by the Icelandair tourist group. Decorated in modern Icelandic style with unique references to the county’s maritime history, the hotel is colourful, comfortable, and centrally located. Interested in seeing an Icelandic movie? The attached Slipp Cinema shows them with English subtitles. Hungry? Hang out in Slippbarinn, the hotel’s cafe and bar, which serves a wide variety of local and international favourites. You can also book day tours to surrounding landmarks on the hotel’s website or at the front desk.
Address: Olnbogaás, 660 Mývatn, Iceland
Phone: +354 464 1900
If you’re visiting Lake Mývatn and the surrounding area, Hotel Laxá is an excellent choice for an overnight. The property is decorated in clean, comfortable Nordic style, and has an attached restaurant that serves delicious cuisine inspired by traditional Icelandic recipes. With day tours to the nearby hot springs and lava fields, it’s easy to spend more than a day or two in Mývatn, and Hotel Laxá will take good care of you while you do.
Address: Hafnarstræti 87-89, 600 Akureyri, Iceland
Phone: +354 460-2000
Located in the heart of Akureyri and right next to the famous Church of Akureyri, Hotel Kea holds prime real estate. Like most hotels in Iceland, it’s happy to help you book day tours to surrounding areas. Akureyri is known for its whale watching and horseback riding tours, as well as its proximity to the gorgeous Goðafoss waterfall (or “Waterfall of the Gods”). The hotel is also decorated with an emphasis on elegance and comfort, offering a pleasant oasis after adventurous days.
Address: Hverfisgata 10, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Phone: +354 580-0101
The 101 Hotel is known for its luxurious spa and chic design, which combines an industrial aesthetic with clean minimalism. Rooms here range from doubles to full apartment suites. It’s also easy to book all kinds of day tours from the front desk. The 101 Hotel offers frequent deals and packages, so it’s worth checking the website before you book.
Ion Adventure Hotel
Address: Nesjavellir við Thingvallavatn, 801 Selfoss, Iceland
Phone: +354 578 3720
If your goal is to immerse yourself in the beauty of the land around you, the Ion Adventure Hotel is a perfect choice. Comfortable and outfitted with a natural spa, including a sauna and outdoor hot pool, the Ion Adventure Hotel puts an emphasis on – you guessed it — adventures, with several unique tours on offer.
Address: 851 Hella, Iceland
Phone: +354 487 5700
Feel like staying at the base of a volcano? Of course, you do. Hotel Rangá boasts such a unique location that it’s almost always booked in the height of the season, and should you stay here, it’s likely you’ll see one of the many weddings hosted every year. Hotel Rangá’s available tours emphasise the beauty of the stars and northern lights, as well as the luxurious experience of geothermal baths. But if you’re more interested in hiking or kayaking, fear not, as Hotel Rangá is also in a great location for all kinds of outdoor activities.
Address: Höfðabrekka, 871 Vík, Iceland
Phone: +354 487 1208
Owned by the same hotel brand as Hotel Kea, Hotel Katla is decorated in a similar way and boasts many of the same luxuries as its northern cousin. However, if your trip is focused on the beauty of southern Iceland, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better hotel to spend your nights in. Hotel Katla is centrally located to Reynisfjara black-sand beach, Skógafoss waterfall, Mýrdalsjökull glacier, Vatnajökull National Park, and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
Frost & Fire Boutique Hotel
Address: Hverhamar, 810 Hveragerdi, Iceland
Phone: +354 483 4959
With a name as dramatic as the landscape surrounding it, Frost & Fire offers an off-the-grid experience 40 minutes away from Reykjavik. The hotel prides itself on offering a resort experience, including geothermal swimming, an excellent restaurant, and lushly appointed rooms. And, of course, the sightseeing opportunities around Frost & Fire are many and gorgeous.
Address: Aðalgötu 2, 340 Stykkishólmur, Iceland
Phone: +354 554 7700
Formerly a farmhouse, Hotel Egilsen retains all that rustic charm. With cosy rooms, freshly made daily meals and snacks, and live storytelling in the common areas, Hotel Egilsen offers a one-of-a-kind experience.
Address: Kaupvangsstræti 6, 600 Akureyri, Iceland
Phone: +354 462 2223
Serving seafood, sushi, and meat dishes, Rub23 is an Akureyri favourite. The lunch buffet is offered daily, and the service is excellent. The restaurant also uses its own spice blend, giving each dish a unique flavour that you won’t find anywhere else.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
Address: Tryggvagata 1, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Two words: hot dogs. These aren’t just any hot dogs, though; this stand in Reykjavik is world-famous for its particular hot dog blend (beef, pork, and lamb) and fixings. It’s open until 1 am, so if you’re out drinking at one of Reykjavik’s many pubs, cap off your night with one of the tastiest hot dogs you’ll ever eat.
Address: Vesturgata 2a, Grófartorg, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Located in the Zimsen house, a former store built in the 19th century, Fish Company is both modern and cosy — a style also reflected in the menu. Here, chef Lárus Gunnar Jónasson serves up fresh seafood with a contemporary take on traditional recipes.
Address: Lækjargata 2a, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Phone: +354 571 7777
Using meat and produce from local farmers, Grillmarkaðu is the ideal choice for visitors who aren’t fond of seafood. The menu, which changes seasonally, focuses on infusing dishes with unique flavours brought on by smoke, wood, and coal.
Address: Nýlendugata 14, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Phone: +354 517 1800
Delicious, frequented by locals, and comfortably decorated in a modern diner style, Forrettabarinn is an excellent, inexpensive choice for any meal of the day. It’s specifically known for its set of four-course menus, which are sure to fill you up without emptying your wallet.
Address: Suðurvegur 1, 870 Vík, Iceland
Phone: +354 487 1515
This is one of Vík’s most popular restaurants — and for good reason. Should you find yourself touring Iceland’s south coast or black-sand beaches, Restaurant Suður-Vik is a must-stop for lunch or dinner. The menu includes delicious, locally sourced, and hearty fare with several gluten-free and vegan options.
Address: Gardarsbraut 6, 640 Husavik, Iceland
Phone: +354 464 2551
After some whale watching, make your way to Salka Restaurant for a pizza or the fish of the day. Beloved by tourists and locals alike, it’s also a great spot for groups larger than 15. In fact, there’s a menu dedicated for groups this big.
Things to Do
The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route in Iceland, an easy path between three stunning and famous natural spots: Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. Several well-appointed tour companies offer Golden Circle packages, or it’s simple to rent a car and drive it yourself.
The Diamond Circle, located in northern Iceland, has four primary stops, but it encompasses much more. Leaving from Akureyri, touring the Diamond Circle will bring you to the town of Húsavík (home to the Húsavík Whale Museum), as well as to natural landmarks such as the Dettifoss waterfall, Lake Mývatn, and Ásbyrgi canyon.
Touring the south coast is well worth your time, and can take one to 10 days, depending on your preference. Excursions begin in either Reykjavik or Vík and will bring you to stunning natural wonders, including the famous Eyjafjallajökull glacier and Skógafoss, a towering waterfall that often produces a rainbow on sunny days. Other highlights include the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Sólheimajökull glacier, Reynisfjara black-sand beach, and more.
Address: Sigtún, 105 Reykjavík
Phone: +354 411 6430
This small museum features many of the works of famed Icelandic sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson, who also designed, worked, and lived in the building. In fact, the building itself is a work of art. While Sveinsson’s collection is always on display, there are additional rotating exhibitions from other modern and contemporary artists.
Reykjavik Botanical Garden
Address: Hverfisgata 105, Hverfisgata 105, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Phone: +354 411 8650
A beautiful walk through the flora of Iceland is a lovely way to break up or end your day. The Reykjavik Botanical Garden features a large collection of roses and perennial herbs. Admission is free, including 30-minute guided tours every Friday during the summer.
Wherever you go in Iceland, it’s easy to find boutique shops, locally-owned cafes, craft stores, and the like, but here’s what’s best in Reykjavik.
Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main street, is shop after shop of fun. Here, you’ll find local boutiques, cute and delicious cafes, vintage stores, book shops, and the flagship location of 66°North. In other words, Laugavegur should be your first stop if you’re looking to have a shopping day during your trip.
Address: Tryggvagötu 19, Old Harbour Grófin, 101 Reykjavik, Iceland
Phone: +354 562 5030
Down by the Reykjavik Art Museum and world-famous hot dog stand Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur lies an unassuming building with a line of people usually heading in, and that’s the Kolaportið flea market. Open during the weekend, this eclectic shopping experience features booths selling old and new things, a food court, and stalls manned by locals trying to unload some of their clutter. The flea market has a stoop sale vibe, and you might even find a real treasure while there.
Address: Laugalækur 6, 105 Reykjavík, Iceland
Phone: +354 534 7165
A market that stocks imports from the mainland, Frú Lauga (or Mrs Lauga) is a great stop if you’re craving fresh fruit or would like to sample the kombucha bar. Pick up some snacks for your day or stock your kitchen if you’ve opted to stay at an Airbnb during your trip.
Address: Rauðarárstígur 10, 105 Reykjavík, Iceland
Phone: +354 551-1195
Lucky Records started in 2005 as part of the Kolaportið flea market and is now Iceland’s largest record store, offering a huge selection of vinyls and CDs both new and used. Expect a wide range of genres, including Icelandic music, as well as T-shirts, posters, and miscellaneous souvenirs.
Herrafataverzlun Kormáks og Skjaldar
Address: Laugavegur 59 Basement, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Phone: +354 511 1817
This menswear shop prides itself on gorgeous aesthetic and finely crafted clothing. Known for its military-adjacent style and wide range of offerings, it’s worth a visit if you’re interested in Icelandic fashion or are searching for a gift for someone you love.
From September through March, daylight in Iceland lasts only about five hours; at the height of summer, the sun only sets for three hours. Spring has a ratio of day to night that many tourists will be accustomed to. (Pack warm clothing or sleep masks accordingly.) Iceland’s summer weather rarely breaks 65°F, with average temperatures around 18°C. The winter months are kept comparatively temperate by mild air off the Gulf Stream, with average temperatures around 0.5°C.
The following are average Celcius lows and highs by month:
January: 2 to -2
February: 2.7 to -2
March: 3.8 to -1
April: 6 to 1
May: 10 to 3.8
June: 12.2 to 7.2
July: 13.8 to 8.8
August: 13.8 to 7.7
September: 10 to 6.1
October: 7.2 to 2.7
November: 3.8 to 0
December: 6.6 to 0
Apps to Download
Vegagerðin: Monitors road conditions
112 Iceland: Sends an SMS with your GPS location to Iceland’s emergency service, and calls it for you
Wapp: Hiking app with GPS-located trails, pop-up facts, stories, and photos
Strætó: Bus updates for the greater Reykjavik area
Veður: Weather app provided and updated by the Icelandic Meteorological Office