5 Must See Places In Iceland - A article written by our Iceland expert Ryan Connolly founder of Hidden Iceland
Iceland is often referred to as the Land of Fire and Ice. And rightly so!
With over 100 named volcanoes and over 400 named glaciers it's no wonder this moniker has been making the rounds in the tourism circuit for years. The entire country was formed from constant volcanic eruptions, splitting tectonic plates and glacial scarring. This geological performance is ongoing, and with the advent of climate change new parts of the country are being discovered every day as the glaciers melt away and outwash floods clear vast areas of land. Not to mention the odd volcanic eruption adding city sized lava fields from time to time. To stand on a spot that no one has ever stood on before in Iceland is very achievable. An adventurer's dream!
Therefore, I have created a list of must see places in Iceland that can scratch that isolation itch. Some are easier to access than others but I would suggest that all are better experienced with a dedicated guide.
1. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond Beach
The first on this list is arguably the most accessible one, in the south east of Iceland. You can technically drive there in one day from Reykjavik in a normal vehicle. However, this natural wonder should be enjoyed over 2 days to take advantage of the ever changing light, and include other activities in the Vatnajökull national park where it is situated. This area was inducted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019 due its unique interactions between volcanoes and glaciers.
The glacier lagoon is a deep lake filled with building sized icebergs that have calved off from the nearby glacier. The lagoon is unique in Iceland as it is at the mercy of the rising and falling tides of the sea, as well as the melting from the glacier itself. This means that the lagoon where the icebergs fall can drag the icebergs out to sea but also accumulate in large numbers where the lagoon meets the ocean. It all depends on the tide. The larger blue icebergs will often get stuck in the narrow mouth of the river flowing out to sea. Whereas the smaller broken shards escape the lagoon a little easier and get washed up on the shore of a nearby black sand beach, now referred to as the Black Diamond Beach. To walk amongst smashed up icebergs in the low morning light is a photographer's dream. The lagoon is over 5 miles long, and similarly wide. If you opt to spend more time here you can walk the tranquil trails along the edges of the lagoon getting different perspectives of the icebergs, the distant glaciers and the tallest volcano in Iceland. Also, keep your eyes peeled for some sleepy seals that call the lagoon home all year round.
2. Blue Ice Cave Discovery
The Vatnajökull national park is roughly 10 times the size of New York City so there is far more to it than just an iceberg filled lagoon. Breiðamerkurjökull, the distant glacier that creates the ever present icebergs is a treasure trove of adventure. Few can make it to this glacier in the summer months due to the high levels of melt water flowing from the front of the ice. However, in winter it is one of the most ideal spots for discovering new ice caves.
Generally, a glacier forms over hundreds or thousands of years and can survive warming temperatures for years before melting away completely. A beautiful blue ice cave doesn't have this luxury, or longevity. In fact, ice caves are most often formed from the summer melt water cutting deep into the stalwart glacier, forming impossibly unique shapes. In winter, the temperature drops enough to halt this process and sometimes leaves behind a strong and stable blue ice cave. The blue ice cave will generally survive the winter (November to March) but inevitably melt and collapse as the warmth of spring arrives in April. The local ice cave explorers begin their hunt in the autumn months. Some years we find cathedral sized canyons and other years, snake like tunnels that require crawling on hands and knees to get into. This past winter we were treated to both styles of ice cave which allowed us to pick and choose which one to enter depending on the conditions of the day. One thing is for sure, they are always beautiful and always blue.
To get to these unique bodies of ice you will need to join a small group tour with a dedicated glacier hiking company. Even if this year's ice cave doesn't require a lot of on-ice hiking you will still need to utilize their specialized super jeeps to gain access to this changeable and barren landscape. You can only safely discover these areas with an experienced guide. Please don't attempt to step onto a glacier without the proper equipment and dedicated guide.
3. Glacier Hiking on the Falljökull Glacier
We're not leaving this part of the country just yet since I know many of you will be visiting Iceland outside of the cold and dark months of winter, making ice cave exploration unsafe. Thankfully, hiking on top of a glacier is achievable all year round. Regardless of temperatures the glaciers themselves remain safe and accessible. In summer the surface of the glacier becomes crunchy and makes walking on the ice (with the correct safety gear and guide) very manageable for first timers.
The Falljökull Glacier is situated a little further west but can still be enjoyed over a 2 day period while visiting the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon area. The name translates to 'the falling glacier' and it's easy to see why. The base of the glacier is smooth and flat. This is where we put on crampons (spikes for our feet), practice our glacier walking techniques and take incredible panoramic pictures.
For the more adventurous traveller your guide will delight in showing you the more turbulent sections higher up where the glacier gets its name. In effect, the glacier 'falls' off the side of an active volcano as it makes its way to sea level. Don't worry, despite the term 'active' this particular volcano hasn't erupted for over 200 years. The pouring effect of the ice from the volcanic peak creates cracks (crevasses), holes (moulins) and dramatic spiky ice sculptures (seracs) across the entire top section of the glacier. With the right guide you can safely traverse these areas and step in spots perhaps no one else has ever been. And since the glacier is constantly melting, maybe, just maybe, no one will ever step there again.
4. Isolation in the forgotten Westfjords
Now it's time to escape the south east and head to the north west. If you are hoping to cover both areas in one trip then consider spending a night or two in Reykjavik before heading north. I recommend spending at least 4 days in this area. The Westfjords are far less travelled and far harder to access when the roads and weather don't play ball. Only around 7% of all tourists make it up to the Westfjords, and even those travelers rarely cover the entire area. Considering this rocky outcrop is 2/3rds the size of Belgium and sports winding and sometimes treacherous roads it's easy to see why many turn back before long.
Going with a guide in this part of the country is just as important as when hiking on a glacier, though for different reasons. Having local knowledge in this forgotten part of the country is key, and not just so that you don't have to worry about road conditions while you take in the incredible scenery. Knowing the best and hidden spots of the Westfjords is essential for enjoyment. Walking to the base of the well known 330ft Dynjandi Waterfall is one thing but finding local boat trips to islands filled with puffins, or hiking the 1500ft Latrabjarg sea cliffs is another.
Learning about the culture here is just as important as the stunning views. There is evidence that Erik the Red (who discovered Greenland) lived here with his son, Leifur Eriksson (who would later discover America). Understanding the harsh conditions that the vikings of old and settlers of modern times have to go through each and every year adds so much to the experience.
This is a summer only trip. Partially because the weather becomes too harsh in winter but also because the millions of puffins and whales that frequent these shores are only there in the summer, meaning a lot of the local attractions close down over winter. If avoiding the crowds is a priority for you while in Iceland then the Westfjords is a dream come true.
5. Northern Lights in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Our final place on this list is known for its recent appearances in Game of Thrones more than anything. The arrow shaped mountain, Kirkjufell appeared in a few episodes. However, the volcanic landscape, picturesque walks and local fishing villages are what you should really visit it for. You can travel to this area in the west of Iceland before or after your journey into the Westfjords or simply treat it as a standalone adventure. Many companies will travel to this area in one day from Reykjavik, but once the darkness grows in the autumn months I suggest slowing the pace a little and utilizing the empty spaces and lack of unnatural light as your hunting ground for the northern lights.
You don't need to go north to see the northern lights. All you need is a clear sky, an open landscape and no unnatural light. Iceland has plenty of spots like this but why not combine your chilly evening search with fun activities during the day too. The broken sea cliffs of Arnastapi can be the setting for a fun walk. The historic fishing village of Stykkishólmur will allow you to sample the catch of the day. And the hotel at the base of the Snæfellsjökull volcano can be your resting spot for the night as you walk amongst the lava fields and gaze up to the open sky. This peninsula is also one of the few places in Iceland where Orca (killer) whales can be spotted all year round too.