Travel to Iceland: Magical Nature in the Land of Fire and Ice
With its long history of volcanic activity, steaming geothermal baths, imposing glaciers, and blankets of snow, Iceland has earned its nickname as “The Land of Fire and Ice”. Well-known for its stunning landscapes, from moss-covered volcanic rock to deep craters to the rivers that snake through lush valleys, this remote European country packs a punch for the adventurous traveler. From the intimate cafes in colorful Reykjavik to the dense Kjarnaskogur woods in the North, you’ll be hard-pressed to explore all the country has to offer in just one vacation. We’re here to help you make the most of your time on this island of contrasts, whether it’s a weekend trip to the top sites of the south or an extensive cross-country drive.
- Population: ~338,000
- Size: 39,762 square miles (similar in size to New York state)
- Currency: Icelandic króna (note: foreign currency is often accepted, and debit and credit cards are widely used)
- Language: Icelandic (note: English is widely spoken)
- Nearby countries: Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Scotland, Norway
Best times to visit: See below
5 reasons to visit Iceland
1. Soak in soothing geothermal pools
Lagoons of the most brilliant blues are almost synonymous with a trip to Iceland, but the megapopular Blue Lagoon is not the only place to relax. Iceland’s volcanic origins mean there are a number of natural hot springs and baths to choose from. Head north to the nature baths overlooking Lake Mývatn for replenishing aqua waters with breathtaking views. Or hike out to Iceland’s oldest man-made swimming pool near Seljavallalaug and take turns jumping from the thermal waters to the ice-cold river nearby.
2. Experience the Northern Lights and the midnight sun
Many come to Iceland to see the otherworldly Northern Lights, the yellow-green and purple hued smoky columns of light that appear in the night sky. The lights, caused by the clash of particles between the Earth’s atmosphere and the sun, are best seen in late summer and early fall. If you visit in the summer, you won’t get to see the aurora borealis, but you will get to experience thelegendary midnight sun. From May to July, the skies hardly darken, meaning you can continue your outdoor activities far into the night.
3. Admire Icelandic architecture
From moss-covered stone cottages in small towns to the clean lines of Nordic houses in Reykjavik, the Icelandic approach to architecture means there’s more than just the island’s natural beauty to admire. Take an afternoon to walk through Iceland’s capital, checking out the colorful gables roofs and pretty house fronts of the homes as well as Scandinavian-inspired buildings like the Harpa Concert Hall. In smaller towns, you can walk through history in the restored turf houses that were the main dwellings of the Icelanders of yore.
4. Hike through contrasting landscapes
Jagged black volcanic rock, cool, clear waterfalls, marshy, neon-green paths, towering ice-blue glaciers—Iceland has the kind of electric colors and dazzling natural phenomena that make you feel like you’ve landed on another planet. For a great multi-day hike that gives you a glimpse at all of Iceland’s best natural features, try the Laugavegur & Fimmvörduháls trek. Or seek out the sites that most interest you, like the spellbinding Víti volcanic crater or the Háifoss waterfall, set on a brilliant green backdrop.
5. Explore unique and simple cuisine
Icelandic cooking is based on quality products served simply, but with an eye to highlighting natural flavors. Fresh fish, tender lamb meat, fermented seafood made with care—you’re sure to try something you haven’t tasted before. Locally-grown produce is worth trying and comes with an added advantage: since a cool climate = few insects, pesticides are basically absent from fruits and vegatables. And it’s not all haute cuisine—be sure to try an Icelandic hot dog, or pylsa, ‘ein með öllu’ (with everything on it), if you truly want to eat like a local.
Weather in Iceland
Despite what it’s name may imply, Iceland gets its fair share of good weather. If you’re hoping for sunny skies and temperate days, it’s best to book in a trip between late spring and early fall. If you don’t mind a bit of wind and snow, however, some of Iceland’s most beautiful views are best seen in the winter months.
Fall (September – November)
Fall is a great time to visit Iceland—the weather is slightly cooler (fluctuating between 35-50 degrees), but it’s the best time to visit the thermal baths, go on a adventurous hikes, and check out the many festivals and cultural offerings that happen during this season. Added bonus: this is when the Northern Lights start to appear.
Winter (December – February)
While winters can be particularly harsh in Iceland (expect lows of up to -22 degrees), it’s an excellent time to see the Northern Lights and way outside of tourist season. Late winter is also when orcas start to appear. If you’re traveling in winter, pack warm, insulating clothing and be prepared for the short days.
Spring (March – May)
Iceland blooms in spring, drawing visitors to its colorful landscapes. Spring means glacial melting, which results in thundering waterfalls that make excellent endpoints for day hikes. While the weather is fairly unpredictable (swinging between 30 and 50 degrees throughout the season), if you catch a couple nice days a spring trip is well worth it.
Summer (June – August)
Summer remains the most popular time to visit Iceland—it’s when the country is at its warmest (low- to mid-50s), the famous Midnight Sun is in full swing, and an abundance of greenery blankets the land. This is a great time to hike in some of the less-visited areas of the country.
The best times for an Iceland vacation
Iceland is a great place to visit year round, though the best time for a vacation depends on what you want to do. Here are the best times to enjoy some of Iceland's top activities and sights.
- Whale watching: The best time to see these majestic animals is during the summer months, from June to August. With a bit of luck, you can spot orcas, dolphins, and humpback whales in their natural environment.
- Aurora borealis: If you want to see and photograph the Northern Lights, come during the winter months, from October to March.
- Winter hiking: Enchanted, snowy landscapes with frozen waterfalls and breathtaking glaciers await adventurous winter travelers. After a day outdoors, warm up in the Blue Lagoon.
Affordable Iceland vacations
Iceland appeals to travelers of diverse budgets. The following tips will help reduce costs as you explore this remarkable travel destination.
- Avoid traveling in summer, as prices are higher and crowds are larger.
- Opt for local food over imported goods.
- Break up your flight to Iceland into two legs instead of taking one direct flight from your home country.
- Stay at hostels or apartments with a kitchen so that you can prepare your own meals.
Must-sees during your Iceland vacation
Make sure to spend at least a couple of days in Reykjavik, where you can check out the following attractions.
- The National Museum of Iceland: Learn about how Iceland became the place it now is.
- The Settlement Exhibition Reykjavík 871±2: Built around some of the island's oldest known ruins, this exhibition brings the 9th century to life.
- Volcano House: This free museum takes you through Iceland's eruptive history.
What to see outside Reykjavik
If you're traveling with a group, save costs and design your own itinerary by renting a car. Make sure to include the following highlights in your road trip.
- Vatnajökull National Park: This expansive park includes Iceland's highest mountain, Hvannadalshnúkur; its largest glacier, Vatnajökull; and its largest waterfall, Dettifoss.
- Blue Lagoon: This geothermal spa boasts milky blue water and stunning surroundings. Remember to book a time slot in advance.
- Gullfoss: The "Golden Falls," a spectacular double cascade, are considered among the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland.
Best Natural Wonders to Visit in Iceland
Headed to Iceland or just looking for some travel inspiration? Then this list is for you! We've rounded up the best natural wonders in Iceland that you can't miss! So why not set your inner explorer free and tick each one of these awesome destinations off your bucket list!
1. Skaftafell National Park
Staftafeel is home to some of the most amazing and surreal landscapes in the world! You'll find beautiful forests, glacial rivers, incredible ice caves, and a spur of the Vatnajökull ice cap! There are campgrounds if you'd like to spend a few days exploring, there is also a great selection of hiking trails.
2. Jokulsarlon Lagoon
Gaze out at the titanic style icebergs that float on Jokulsarlon Lagoon! You can also go sailing on the Lagoon and see the lagoons stunning glacier. There is plenty wildlife around the lagoon and in winter you can see hundreds of seals! If you're lucky you could even get a breathtaking view of the Northern Lights!
3. Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir is located just 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik! The National Park is full of historical and cultural significance and is quickly becoming one of Iceland's most popular tourist destinations. Here you'll find Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland, as well as Silfra diving or snorkelling spot located exactly on top of the continental plates that separates America and Europe!
4. Lake Myvatn Geothermal Area
Lake Myvatn is a bird watchers dream, here you will find many different kinds of birdlife. The area is made up of unusually shaped lava formations. There are caves filled with naturally heated water suitable for swimming (please only get into water with local guidance, some pools are extremely hot and dangerous). Tours of there area run from Myvatn and will guide to you to see the Krafla Volcano and Dettifoss Waterfall!
5. The Blue Lagoon
Hang out at this awesome geothermal spa located on the Reykjanes peninsula! The lagoon has a beautiful rocky landscape and is surround by lava! The water is filled with silica and minerals and is believed to have natural healing powers! The Lagoon also has a skin treatment clinic, luxury spa treatments and a restaurant!
Iceland’s best hot springs
The Blue Lagoon is popular for a reason: it’s nourishing blue waters are not only meant to be good for your health, but they make for an eye-catching photo. The Blue Lagoon is something special, but Iceland has plenty of gorgeous and secluded geothermal baths and hot springs to choose from. Some are just a quick drive from the city while some are in places even your GPS won’t recognize. Whether you’re taking a solo dip in the super small Landbrotalaug or trekking out with friends to the famous Seljavallalaug, you’re sure to find a hot spring to soothe your sore traveler’s muscles.
Landmannalaugar hot spring
The colorful slopes of the mountain ranges in Fjallabak Nature Reserve are made all the more beautiful when viewed from the area’s natural hot springs. The springs, known as the Landmannalaugar or “People’s Pools, are a welcome respite for hikers exploring the nature reserve. The mix of cool spring water and warm geothermal water means that you can swim to where you find your perfect temperature. Pack a swimsuit and keep your eye out for the telltale steam rising from the earth as you wander the paths of the valley.
Seljavallalaug swimming pool
Drive an hour and a half east of Reykjavik, stroll down the short hiking path, and you’ll reach Seljavallalaug swimming pool. The drive itself passes by several beautiful waterfalls, so you can spend your morning exploring before cooling off with an afternoon dip. In the summer sun, with the river rushing by and the bright green hills around you, you’ll be tempted to stay long into the night.
Landbrotalaug hot spring
Sometimes the best things come in the smallest packages. The minute Landbrotalaug geothermal pool is just large enough to fit 2-3 people at a time. The cool morning mists, the mismatched rows of wildflowers, and the winding river just beyond the spring creates the perfect atmosphere for solo reflection. Head out on your own or with a friend or partner for a silent soak in the early morning hours, when you’re most likely to have the spot to yourself.
Mývatn nature baths
If you want the Blue Lagoon experience away from the crowds, head up north to the Mývatn nature baths. The area surrounding Lake Mývatn has plenty to offer, from the multicolored Ásbyrgi forest located deep within a canyon to the unusual Skútustaðagígar “psuedocraters.” However, your experience won’t be complete without a trip to the baths, whose silty blue waters invite visitors to while away afternoons chatting with friends and gazing up at the surrounding mountains.
The Secret Lagoon
The oldest swimming pool in Iceland, this lagoon is not so secret anymore and it’s easy to understand why: its calming 100 degree temperatures and diverse surrounding area make it a can’t-miss stop for hot springs enthusiasts. The lava fields are thick with moss, the air is clean and cool, and there is even the chance to see eruptions from a nearby geyser. Stop through the village of Flúðir, which is known for its greenhouse-based agriculture, for a chance to try the specialties from Iceland’s only mushroom farm.
How to Travel Iceland on a Budget? 5 Ways To Travel To Iceland On The Cheap
Iceland is a place of gorgeous natural landscapes, acres of wildlife and seemingly-undiscovered sights. We know you've seen Iceland pop up in your newsfeed and asked yourself, "Should I finally take the plunge?"
Well, the answer is yes. We've put together our own list of tips and tricks to travel to Iceland on the cheap, so you no longer need to worry about the price point. You don't have to break the bank to explore this gorgeous country, take our word for it.
1. Be flexible to travel Iceland on a budget
Winter and fall are some of the best times to visit Iceland, as the Northern Lights are at their peak between September and April. Don't let the cold weather scare you, just make sure you're prepared for the chill.
You'll be treated to a midnight sun between June and July, so be prepared for some extended days of exploring (and give yourself time to adjust to the light).
Keep an eye out for cheap fares to Iceland no matter the time of year and book early. Great fares to Iceland come up often, so you know that you'll be ready to book the next time one catches your eye.
2. Head Out With Friends And Save Money
Everyone dreams about heading out on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure with friends, so why not make Iceland your destination of choice? The country is known for being on the pricey side, but bringing friends along can help bring the cost of your rental car and accommodation down.
Airbnb has many wonderful places to stay both in and outside of Reykjavik. From cabins near the national park, to apartments in the middle of the city, you'll be able to enjoy time with friends and save a good chunk of change on your trip.
3. Plan Ahead to Travel Iceland On The Cheap
The Blue Lagoon, a gorgeous geothermal spa located about an hour from Reykjavik, is one of the most popular attractions in the country. The nourishing waters are rich with silica and sulfur, and their pale blue hue makes for some incredible photographs.
Due to its popularity, it's important that you book your reservation to the spa in advance to ensure that you'll be able to visit this must see location. As with any trip, planning ahead is an important part of deciding which attractions you should splurge on and which ones you should miss.
4. Eat Like A Local And Save Some Cash On Your Iceland Trip
As we mentioned before, Iceland can be on the pricey side. However, eating like a local (and planning ahead) can help you save some cash on your trip.
Decide on your drinks of choice ahead of time and purchase from the duty free store in the airport to save on liquor. Hot dogs are an Icelander's best friend, and this totally budget-friendly dining option will leave both you and your wallet satisfied.
However, you don't need to stick to franks your whole trip. Hit up the local Happy Hour to save on drinks and dine at the finest spots at lunchtime when the portions and prices are smaller. Also, take a trip to the grocery store and cook your own meals if you've decided on a rental.
5. Get Around And Do Free Stuff While Traveling Through Iceland
Mother Nature doesn't charge an entrance fee and neither does Iceland for its many national parks. While you may have a hard time pronouncing Vatnajökull, Snæfellsjökull and Þingvellir National Park, you don't need to speak Icelandic to appreciate their beauty. The Golden Circle is also a must-see trip that will take you past many of the country's landmarks.
From glaciers and waterfalls to active volcanos and a UNESCO World Heritage site, these parks have everything you need to enjoy this great country. In addition to exploring the natural sights, be sure to check out the streets of Reykjavik for some wonderful street art.