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Skógafoss, Iceland

8 experiences you absolutely must have in Iceland

This post was originally published on A Globe Well Travelled in 2016. The content has been revised and updated with fresh information.

It’s hard to believe that I actually got the chance to tick Iceland off my list.

I’d been dreaming about Iceland for a long while (Rob went so far as to say that I was ‘obsessed’ with the country), but I’d never had the chance to go. My travels had taken me to Europe twice before, but Iceland was always a little out of the way.

After we moved to New York City, a trip to Iceland became a real possibility – seeing as it’s only a 5 hour flight from NYC, and an easy stopover between North America and Europe, I didn’t hesitate to add 5 days in Iceland to the itinerary for our Nordics trip.

So now that I’ve actually visited the country that I’ve spent months daydreaming about, I ask myself this question: Was Iceland everything that I imagined it would be?

Oh yes, it was. It definitely was.

Here are 8 Iceland experiences that you absolutely can’t miss!

Skógafoss, Iceland

1. Get up close to a waterfall

This is one activity that you probably couldn’t avoid even if you wanted to as there are waterfalls around every corner in Iceland! We visited three major waterfalls:

  • Seljalandsfoss on the south coast (which has a walking path that takes you behind the waterfall)
  • Skógafoss on the south coast (which was my fave, it was super impressive from every angle)
  • Gullfoss on the Golden Circle (which is huge and arguably the most famous waterfall in Iceland)

All of these waterfalls have viewpoints where you can get up super close – so close that you actually get drenched from the spray and muddy from the wet grounds. Totally worth it!

Strokkur Geyser, Iceland

2. View some geothermal activity

You can spot the geothermal activity in Iceland before your flight even lands – the pillars of steam rising into the air can be seen from miles away as you approach Keflavík airport.

Once you’ve got your feet on solid ground, expect frequent whiffs of the not-so-pleasant sulphur smell. The hot water in Iceland is all geothermally heated so you’d better get used to it.

On the Golden Circle, you can see a geyser called Geysir shoot boiling water up into the air. Eruptions can be sporadic but when I was there the geyser was going off every few minutes. Unfortunately my camera battery went dead right as I arrived so I didn’t manage to get any photos of it erupting.

If you’d like to learn about geothermal energy in Iceland, you can also head to the Geothermal Energy Exhibition, which I’m sure would be interesting if you’re into that kind of thing.

Laugarvatn Fontana, Iceland

3. Take a dip in some thermal baths

Seeing as all the hot water in Iceland is geothermally heated, it makes sense that there are plenty of swimming pools and geothermal baths scattered around Iceland.

Everyone has probably heard of the Blue Lagoon, but the hefty entry price had me running in the other direction. Instead, we visited the Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal spa, which only cost 4500 ISK. You can also visit this spa as part of a Golden Circle day tour from Reykjavik.

A few other noteworthy options are Secret Lagoon on the Golden Circle, or Seljavallalaug on the south coast. There are thermal baths all over the country – take a look through the best hot springs in Iceland and pick a few to visit!

Selfie with an Icelandic horse

4. Say hello to an Icelandic horse

One thing that I really wanted to do on our road trips through Iceland was to say hello to an Icelandic horse. We saw plenty of them, but unfortunately we didn’t find any that were standing near enough to the road for us to get up close.

Luckily, on our last day of driving, we came across some horses standing along the fence next to the car park at the Gullfoss waterfall! I managed to get one to poke his head over my shoulder for what I consider the most epic selfie I’ve ever taken.

If you’d like to guarantee an up-close encounter, I’d suggest taking an Icelandic horse riding tour from Reykjavik!

Puffin spotting in Iceland

5. Spot some puffins

I thought that we would have to drive for hours out of Reykjavík to see puffins, but after doing some research I discovered that we could see them just by taking a puffin watching boat tour from the city.

There are two small islands near Reykjavík that host puffin colonies, and you can only access them by boat. If you head to Reykjavík harbour, you’ll find a number of companies that offer tours out to the islands.

Be sure to take a zoom lens for your camera if you have one, and a set of binoculars would also be useful. The birds are much smaller than I expected and it’s difficult for the boats to get close to them.

Midnight Sun in Iceland

6. See the northern lights or midnight sun

As much as I dream about seeing the northern lights, we were travelling at the wrong time of year – you have to visit Iceland between September and April if you want to catch the aurora.

But on the plus side, I got to experience the midnight sun! Iceland is so far north that if you travel around the summer solstice (21 June), the sun will set after midnight and will rise again at about 3AM. The above photo was the view we had flying in at 11PM, and the sun didn’t set for another hour afterwards.

Tectonic plates in Iceland

7. Stand on the border of tectonic plates

Thingvellir National Park is where the Eurasian tectonic plate and the North American tectonic plate meet. It’s actually one of the only places in the world where you can see this phenomenon on land, as most tectonic plates meet beneath the ocean.

This has resulted in some awesome landscapes with a giant gorge and fissure stretching for miles along the terrain. You can actually go snorkelling or diving down into those clear waters if you so desire!

Black Sand Beach in Iceland

8. Walk on a black sand beach

If you’ve ever done any global beach hopping, you’ll know that there are many different shades of sand, usually ranging from bright white to golden yellow.

Well, Iceland is one of the only places in the world where you’ll find a beach with sand that’s nearly black. If you head down the south coast to Vík, you can pull in at Reynisfjara and take a walk along this black pebbly sand beach. Just don’t expect it to be warm enough to stick your toes in!

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