Volcanoes, Waterfalls, Geysers & Lagoons: 6 Incredible Things to See in Iceland
So stunning you'll think you're in a movie. Fitting, because many of these sights have been featured on the big screen. We talked to our resident Iceland expert—EF Ultimate Break Tour Director Andy, who runs our Iceland Escape—about the country's most picturesque outdoor attractions.
by Brendon Keefe
Iceland: so hot right now
The “Land of Fire and Ice” has had a major PR glow up since the days when people assumed it was just Antarctica Jr…oh, that was just me? Nevermind. There’s no doubt Iceland’s jumped up the world travel power rankings—especially once Hollywood took notice of its incredibly photogenic terrain. Indeed, if it’s outdoor adventure and jaw-on-the-floor scenery you’re after, you won’t do better than the sights in Iceland. But hey, don’t just take our word for it. As EF Ultimate Break traveler Ashlyn put it in her review of our Iceland Escape: “Iceland’s beauty took my breath away. Like every step of the way I was in awe of the nature around me.” Hell yea, Ashlyn!
To get a better understanding of what makes Iceland so dang appealing (aside from the obvious), we tapped one of our Tour Directors, Andy, to give us a deep dive of the top things to see and do in Iceland. We would call it #natureporn but that might not do it justice. And also, weird. Whether you’ve already got an Iceland trip planned or you're just thinking about visiting, here are the outdoor attractions you can’t miss. Best part is? With EF Ultimate Break, they’re all included (as well as flights, hotels, local activities, and plenty of time exploring Reykjavik) on our Iceland Escape.
Thingvellir National Park | © Nido Huebl/Shutterstock
Thingvellir National Park
One of the three famous stops along Iceland’s Golden Circle, this UNESCO World Heritage site’s wealth of natural attractions is rivaled only by its fascinating sociopolitical history. Thingvellir is Iceland’s first national park, and its story dates all the way back to the year 930. That was when Iceland’s earliest settlers established the world’s first ever parliament at the site, a tidbit we find fitting. What better place for such a monumental “meeting of the minds” than at the meeting place of two continents! The Eurasian and North American tectonic plates diverge here, and because this is one of the few spots on Earth where the divergence of two tectonic plates rises above sea level, the resulting series of cliffs, valleys, and other distinctive features are truly one of a kind. Hikers are treated to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to literally toe the line between two continents as they make their way through this incredible stretch of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. No need to worry about working up a sweat, either, as several of the valley’s gorges are filled with crystal-clear spring water where you can actually dive between continents. Talk about taking nature head-on.
Fun Fact: While Iceland is home to several famous waterfalls, Thingvellir National Park is home to one that is quite unique. Geologists have determined that the Öxarárfoss waterfall is actually “man made.” It was formed back in the 9th century by settlers who redirected the Öxará River to provide water to the Icelandic parliament. Besides its unusual origin, Öxarárfoss is special in that its water turns to wine on New Year’s Eve! At least that’s what locals tell us, and since it’s a bit too cold that time of year to stay out all night and test the theory, we’ll just take their word for it.
Strokkur Geyser | © b-hide the scene/Shutterstock
Geysir Geothermal Area
If working clockwise from Thingvellir, the next major stop along the Golden Circle would be the Geysir Geothermal area. According to our Iceland Tour Director Andy: “I could probably lead a group to Geysir blindfolded using just my sense of smell. Every now and then when on the road in Iceland, the air suddenly picks up a charming sulfureous scent. When this happens you know there is a geothermal area near by!” The site serves as a stunning reminder that there’s so much more to our planet than what meets the eye. As Andy continues: “The nature at Geysir is just so bizarre and awe inspiring—it’s easy to think there must be a team of people under the earth controlling this spectacle with taps and pumps!” Although the area’s namesake geyser, Great Geysir, is now mostly inactive, there are still plenty of smaller geysers and hot springs in the surrounding area. Strokkur is particularly dramatic and a favorite among visitors, erupting every 6-10 minutes with bursts of hot water that reach as high as 130 feet.
Pro Tip: While exploring, be sure to watch your step. Because the scenery can be so distracting (in all the right ways), it’s easy to wander off and miss certain warning signs. Case in point: Ed Sheeran ended up with a nasty burn after accidentally stepping into a bubbling mud pool on a visit in 2017. Don’t worry, he was fine, but he did end up getting airlifted to the hospital. “On the plus side, he was forced to cancel his Euopean tour,” says Andy. “So you know, every cloud has a silver lining.” Ouch, Andy. What did Ed do to you?
Reynisfjara Beach | © Andrea Zanenga/Unsplash
Tour Director Andy says, like many of Iceland’s outdoor attractions, Reynisfjara Beach is rugged, wild, and unique—certainly not the kind of beach you go to for tanning. This world-famous black sand beach was ranked by National Geographic as one of the top ten non-tropical beaches on earth and is home to one of Iceland’s most unique sights. Not long after venturing out onto the beach’s signature black volcanic sand, your gaze will be drawn to the tall, distinctive basalt columns sitting off the shoreline known as Reynisdrangar. According to legend, the columns are actually trolls who were turned to stone. The details on exactly how this happened are fuzzy, but rest assured we’ve taken some samples to EF Labs Inc™ to further investigate the matter. Besides the black sand and the tall basalt columns, Reynisfjara’s other claim to fame is its incredibly strong waves. These waves are yet another Icelandic example of Mother Nature showing off—as they frequently crash much further up the beach than one might expect. Visitors will notice several signs warning them not to turn their backs to the waves and would be well served to take that advice.
Fun Fact: The rugged beach and harsh waves might make you wonder which ferocious species of wildlife would choose to call Reynisfjara Beach home. Well, if you guessed cute, fluffy Atlantic Puffins, you’re right! The unique positioning of the Reynisdrangar formation makes them the perfect habitat for thousands of seabirds like Puffins, Arctic tern, Fulmars, Seagulls, and Guillemots. Birdwatchers, rejoice!
Skógafoss Waterfall | © Martin Robles/Unsplash
Rainbows? Gold? Did I accidently make my way into an Ireland blog? Nope. Deemed Iceland’s “most magical and awe-inspiring waterfall” by our panel of experts (Tour Director Andy), this 203-foot spectacle has several unique quirks that make it one of Iceland’s top things to see. Legend has it a Viking left a pot of gold somewhere by this waterfall 900 years ago, and while we can’t say why he might have abandoned his treasure, we can certainly see why he wanted to visit the waterfall in the first place. If he was visiting Iceland in the summer, he might have been attracted to the double rainbows that often form when sunshine reflects off the waterfall’s spray. Today, those rainbows make the site a popular spot for photographers and Instagram aficionados alike. If he took a trip to Iceland during the winter and happened upon Skógafoss, he’d find a radically different, yet equally stunning sight. The cold winter weather will often cause the waterfall to freeze, creating giant icicles locals refer to as “troll candles.” Luckily, today’s visitors have a much more convenient way to observe the waterfall’s beauty than that Viking did 900 years ago. There’s a staircase that leads to an observation platform above the waterfall offering an unparalleled perspective of this awesome Iceland attraction, as well as a strategic vantage point for treasure hunters.
Pro Tip: One of the many benefits of booking your trip through EF Ultimate Break is the expertise of your Tour Director. Not only are they there to help you navigate your way through new areas with unfamiliar languages, but they make sure you see the hidden gems most tourists miss. One of Andy’s favorite detours in Iceland is just a five-minute walk away from Skógafoss. There, his travelers find the small village of Skógar and its many traditional grass-roofed turf houses. Settlers from Norway brought this method to Iceland, and for good reason. Turf offers premium insulation compared to wood and stone and is much more readily available. The time-tested method has held up and is still popular in many Icelandic villages like Skógar today.
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall | © Andrey Andreyev/Unsplash
Eyjafjallajökull Volcano & Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
Iceland’s nickname “The Land of Fire and Ice” is perhaps most appropriate when it comes to the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano. This 5,466-foot behemoth famously erupted back in 2010, sending volcanic ash miles into the atmosphere and grounding flights for an extended period. The volcano itself is actually glacier capped, which allows it to feed the nearby Seljalandsfoss Waterfall with melted water. Seljalandsfoss is one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland, and one of Tour Director Andy’s favorites. He notes “feeling the ice-cold spray of its water on your face and hearing the sound of that water crashing down in front of you is truly life affirming.” The 215-foot cascade has a path that allows visitors to walk behind its torrent of melted water, one of Iceland’s truly unique outdoor activities.
Pro Tip: Andy shared with us this little tidbit: “There is another secret waterfall not too far away…if you walk 15 minutes from Seljalandsfoss you will find a path leading you into a gorge. Take it! You’ll have to cross a bit of a nearby river (so make sure you bring waterproof shoes) but soon you’ll find yourself in an open cave and in front of you will be the hidden gem Gljúfrabúi Waterfall (meaning cave dweller).” He recalls finding this little-known natural treasure as a fairy-tale moment and says visitors should be “prepared to be blown away by its beauty.”
The Blue Lagoon | © Puripat Lertpunyaroj/Shutterstock
The Blue Lagoon
With all of the wild forces of nature Tour Director Andy’s helped us highlight so far, you might be feeling like a vacation to Iceland will leave you in need of…well a vacation. Don’t worry, our Iceland itinerary has just the thing for you. Enter: The Blue Lagoon. We’re talking about the spa day to end all spa days. The geothermal seawater is heated by volcanic earth, providing relaxation and rejuvenation you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Tour Director Andy put it best: “The Blue Lagoon is massive,” he says. “Lower yourself into the water so that the water line is just under your ears. You should be able to hear a lovely hissing and cracking sound a bit like a small fire traveling up your neck. This is the minerals in the water reacting to the surface of your skin, but I like to think of it as the sound of your stress exiting your pours!”
Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral, Reykjavik | © Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock
Yea, we know, there’s also a world-class city in Iceland, and Tour Director Andy wouldn’t help us with this blog unless we promised to talk about it. “Reykjavík is such a quirky town that packs a powerful cultural punch,” says Andy. “Be aware that one in 10 of the Icelanders you brush shoulders with in Reykjavík will be a published author.” Andy might be half-joking, but Reykjavík has been designated a UNESCO City of Literature and is the first non-native English-speaking city to receive this prestigious title.
In between all the outdoor adventuring and natural sightseeing, here’s Andy’s list of recommended cultural activities to experience during your free time in Reykjavík.
- Check out the Icelandic museum of punk in an old converted public bathroom at the bottom of the main shopping street, Laugavegur.
- If you can hold in your giggles, a trip to the Icelandic Phallological Museum is well worth a visit. Here you can marvel at the world's largest display of...we’ll let you go see for yourself.
- A short walk away is the Hallgrímskirkja (the main cathedral that overlooks Reykjavík). Climb the steeple for some stunning views over the Atlantic bay and the surrounding snow-capped mountains!
- Embrace local cuisine. My favorite traditional dish is a steaming bowl of Icelandic lamb soup with Geysir-cooked rye bread and lashings of homemade butter. If you’re more daring, try out some fermented Greenland shark as you stroll the streets past boutique shops and cafes. However, you MUST eat this outside as the smell is too overpowering for indoors. Wash it all down with a Viking beer—yep, that’s the name of Iceland’s famous brewery, obviously.
Planning your Iceland getaway
If those six (plus Reykjavik) highlights don’t get you excited for a trip to Iceland, here’s one more piece of good news: Iceland is open for business! That’s right, EF Ultimate Break tours to Iceland, Hawaii, and more destinations are back on the menu in 2021. If you’ve been dying to get back on the road, here’s your chance. We take care of all the hard stuff (flights, accommodations, activities, and more) so all you have to do is book your trip and start counting down the days. So, what are you waiting for? Iceland’s ready, are you?
by Brendon Keefe
Brendon is a Trip Consultant with EF Ultimate Break. Born and raised on Cape Cod, Brendon’s passions include cheering for Boston sports teams, obsessing over Star Wars, and maintaining his perfect attendance at happy hour events. His favorite country to visit is Tanzania.
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