Looking for some adventure in Iceland? Our top 5 Icelandic favourites.
#1 Go hiking in the highlands
Hiking in the highlands is a must for each traveler and perfectly feasible with kids. If you don’t want to drive yourself, you can go on an organised tour but a self-drive is an experience in itself. Landmannalaugar is perfectly suitable. Magnificent views, moderate hiking trails and even a natural hot tub. Iceland at its best. Find some stunning images and more information in our separate blog.
#2 Take a swim in a (natural) thermal pool
Enjoy at least one time a natural hot spring. The Blue Lagoon near Keflavik is an option. You can book this on your way to or from the airport. The Blue Lagoon is the ‘Disneyland’ of the hot springs. It’s big, modern and has a variety of facilities. A perfect alternative are the Myvatn Nature Baths in the north, these are cosier and smaller. Make sure you book upfront. There are dozens of small natural pools all over the place. Check the website of the region where you are heading to and you definitely find some nice onces. Just check before whether children are allowed.
Also worth a visit are local swimming pools. These are all well heated, have hot tubs and often also slides. It’s a great (and cheap) experience, even on a rainy day. We tried one in Borgarnes, which was pretty good. Difficult to overcome for teenagers though may be the shared dressing rooms (one for man and one for women) combined with the obligatory naked shower (the Blue Lagoon and Myvatn Nature Baths accommodate individual dressing rooms for tourists).
#3 Admire whales, dolphins, puffins and seals
Iceland has some spectacular fauna. There are a great number of sea birds across the country but a hit are definitely whales, dolphins, puffins and seals. To be find in abundance in the right season.
We found seals on our drive between Borgarness and Husavik, a very long drive with a lot of variety. We made a stop at the Icelandic Icelandic Seal Center in Hvammastangi. We didn’t have time to visit the museum but the center has detailed maps on where to find seals in the region, even with some information on the timeframe. So we drove the Vatnsnes Peninsula loop, looking for seals. 100 miles unpaved road and a surreal tranquility. We found them and at the western and eastern side, along the Hvitserkur Troll Rock, an extraordinary 15 m high basalt monolith standing on its own inside the ocean. At the parking place, which gives view to an extraordinary scenery, the path to the rock is to the left. If you go right instead, you follow a small path to a black, sandy beach where the seals swim in front of you or lay bathing in the sun. To be seen!
The whale capital is Husavik, a cosy place up in the North of Iceland. In this town, you can easily book a whale tour. There are plenty of agencies and options. We took a tour of half a day and saw many whales, dolphins and puffins. We also saw whale tours in Reykjavik harbor. Depending on the season, you can even find whales close to Keflavik airport. When visiting the old lighthouse in Garður at the north end of the Reykjanes Peninsula Iceland, one of the waiters told me you can in summer spot whales from the coast.
And as for puffins, there are a must see. There are several places where you can spot them from close by, ideal for children. Check out my‘puffin‘ blog for more information.
Visitor centers of main cities often have maps with the main fauna in the area. Sometimes, there are even specific maps for children.
#4 Climb a volcano
You can’t leave Iceland without climbing at least one volcano. Top of the bill is of course to watch an active one. If you have the luck to visit the last one during your stay, don’t hesitate. But be careful. Always stay on the paths as marked safe, don’t go wandering on your own and always respect the safety measures in place. Good for incredible views, nature’s force at its best.
We were in Iceland near the end of the eruption of the Fagradalsfjall volcano, in the south of Reykjanes, about 30 minutes drive from Keflavik airport, near the town of Grindavik, along route 427. While there was no real ‘red’ lava eruption anymore, it was well worth visiting the eruption site. There are marked hiking trails, leaving from two parking sites and leading you along the valley and even into a lava tongue. The hike takes about 2-3 hours, round trip and, besides from the first rather steep path, it’s feasible. With decent hiking boots. To see stunning fresh vast lava fields covering the valley floors. Impressive.
Also worth a visit are the volcanic areas of the North straddling the Mid Atlantic ridge, the so-called ‘Land of Ice and Fire’. Both are part of the Diamond Circle, the counterpart of the Golden Circle in the south. Less crowdy and as impressive. Magnificent views from the Krafla volcano, Viti and Lake Myvatt. Kafla is a massive caldera with a diameter of 10 kilometers and a depth of 2 kilometers. From the parking area, you can walk to the edge of the rim on a marked path, guiding through sulfur vents and rocks that are still warm to touch from the Krafla fires. The views and colors are stunning: bright orange combined with the clear blue sky and black lava fields against fresh green valleys. Count two to three hours, but you can wander around the lava fields as long as you wish.
On the northwest side of the Krafla caldera is Víti, an explosion crater 300 meters diameter with a greenish-blue lake inside of it. The name Víti, meaning “Hell” in Icelandic, comes from the old local belief that the underworld was located under the volcanoes in this area. It’s a short but rather though climb up to see the glory of the lake itself in particular with windy weather.
And while you are in the neighborhood, do’t forget to visit the exquisite Hverir in the Námafjall Geothermal Area, located by route 1 and home to many hot springs, steam vents and fumaroles. Boiling water and a ‘rotten egg’ (sulphur) smell in a bare landscape, with no vegetation on the slopes. On a clear day, the colors here are simply stunning: shades of red, orange and green. Just get over the smell and think of the powerful forces at work beneath your feet. Welcome on another planet. Spectacular!
If you want some scientific background on volcanoes, you can stop at the the interactive Lava Centre museum in Hvolsvöllur, an innovative museum not far from Mount Hekla, an active volcano that was considered to be the gateway to hell in the Middle Ages. It gives an overview of Icelandic volcanic activity and covers earthquakes, eruptions, glacial floods, rift systems and the formation of Iceland’s landmass. Interesting but pretty expensive for a tour of about 1 hour.
#5 Admire Iceland’s Water elements: visit at least one waterfall or glacier (lagoon)
Icelandic waterfalls: you find them in all formats and shapes, impressive or sheer beauty. So which ones to choose? Well, the one(s) you like.
There’s Dettifoss in the north, Icelandic most and Europe’s second most powerful waterfall. One of our favorites. It’s an 100 (!) meters wide and sends 7,000 cubic feet (200 cubic meters) (!) of water per second crashing over a 44-meter cliff. One of the most impressive features is the overwhelming roar of the water tumbling down the gorge. The water is grey-white in color due to the sediment-rich runoffs. We visited on a sunny day and saw the sunlight beam in the water. There are several viewing platforms, one higher up, where you can feel the water splash and literally need a raincoat. To feel very tiny … A must see!
Also located in the north is Godafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods. It’s a real beauty, maybe also because of the special light and atmosphere: we visited around 9 in the evening and we were completely alone …. According to the Sagas, chieftain Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi settled a religious crisis in Iceland by throwing the idols of the Old Norse Gods into the falls. This symbolized the nation’s conversion to Christianity and gave the spot its nickname.
Then there’s Gullfoss, one of the most famous Icelandic waterfalls, on the Golden Circle route. Impressive with a 32 meter drop down into a narrow river gorge via two tiers. Here too, you can walk upon a platform to feel the water. Be sure to stay within the fence for safety. Once you are here, drive about 30 minutes and stop at Geysir to admire the famous Strokkur geysir, shooting vast jets of boiling water from 20 metres up to 40 metres high every 5 minutes or so. Just wait and enjoy this spectacle. And watch the special clear blue color at the bottom.
Svartifoss, the Black waterfall can be found in Skaftafell Nature Reserve, known for its dark hexagonal basalt columns. At the base of the falls sit sharp rocks that have broken from the columns, giving the waterfalls an otherworldly feel. We were not that impressed, but the hiking route over the hill with a clear view on the glacier tongue and the surroundings was magnificent.
And then there is the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, one of the most pittoresque waterfalls on the south coast with a special feature: you can walk behind the waterfall, a guarantee for some spectacular photos.
And finally, but not least, we hiked a beautiful waterfall trail, the Vestdalsfossar or est Valley Falls in Seyðisfjörður. 2 hours in pouring rain in a beautiful, misty scenery.
And last, but not least, don’t forget a glacier (lagoon on your trip.. Here too, Iceland offers some marvelous trips.
Top of the bill and on all Icelandic postcards is the Jökulsárlón Glacier lagoon in the south on ring road 1 and part of the Vatnajökull National Park. Its still blue waters are a sight not to be missed, as it is dotted with the icebergs from the edge of Breiðamerkurjökull, a part of the Vatnajökull glacier, Iceland’s biggest glacier. We took a boat tour on the lagoon – with the feel of a massive ice cube included – and walked afterwards to the spectacular Diamond beach: the lagoon flows through a narrow gateway into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving the spectacular sight of the large chunks of ice as diamonds on the black sandy beach.
Further to the east you can explore Skaftafell Nature Reserve, home to the Swartifoss waterfall. This natural reserve offers a short hikes to the glacier tongue and another one via the waterfall over the rim, offering superb views over the glacier and its surroundings.
And to finish this blog, a final word on our ‘Into the glacier’ trip‘: a visit to the world’s largest man-made ice tunnel in the heart of the Longjökull glacier, the second largest in Iceland. It covers an area of about 950 km² and most of it rises between 1200 and 1300 m above sea level, resting on a massif of hyaloclastite mountains. The drive to the tunnel is pretty spectacular and we had a magnificent view atop the glacier. Walking through the tunnels is also quite an experience, knowing there is 25 meter of ice above your head and 200 meters below your feet.