Top 9 Things Visitors to Iceland Find Most Memorable
Iceland is an amazing place. Recently, the Icelandic Tourism Board did a huge, detailed survey (it's here, but it's a long read) of tourists to find out exactly why people want to go (or go back) to Iceland. On page 394, they list the most memorable experiences, the things which draw people and cause them to fall in love with Iceland, not only once, but time and time again.
So, here are the top nine things visitors find the most memorable:
Nature and Landscape
The number one thing to remember about Iceland is the landscape. The black lava fields outside Keflavik are the first thing most visitors see. Black sand beaches, spectacular mountains, glaciers and the ocean around it all. There is no other place quite like Iceland; the stark landscape may feel threatening but it reminds the visitor that the natural world exists around them, is not always their friend, and can still be beautiful. 82% of the survey respondents mentioned the landscape; and it's easy to see why.
Glacial Lagoons and Icebergs
One of the must-dos of a trip to Iceland is a trip to a glacial lagoon. Gliding over the oddly blue water surrounded by icebergs (with, if you're lucky, a seal or two taking a rest on the ice) is an experience never to be forgotten. You do have to be willing to leave the Reykjavik area; glacial lagoons are a great stop on a self-driving tour of the Ring Road or on a bus tour if you would rather not deal with Iceland's road system. However, if you are mostly based out of Reykjavik, it is possible to tour the glacier lagoon fed by Vatnajökull in one (long) day. This fourteen hour bus tour also includes stops at Seljalandsfoss waterfall and the village of Vik.
People and Hospitality
The people of Iceland have a reputation for being brusque; this isn't because they aren't hospitable, but because they prefer to avoid small talk. The fact is that the people here are incredibly welcoming and willing to open their country to you. They are known for small acts of kindness to brighten a traveler's life. Bluntly, when nature is harsh, people become less harsh. They stick together, and that even extends to strangers. Once you get past their tendency to use fewer words, the people of Iceland are truly worth knowing.
Iceland is a land of waterfalls, especially on the south coast. You can devote an entire trip to just visiting different waterfalls. Some of the best ones to check out include:
Seljalandsfoss - (Foss, as a note, means waterfall in Icelandic). The best part about this south coast waterfall is that you can safely walk behind it without special gear (you may want a light rain jacket to keep from getting soaked by the spray). It's fifty meters tall and is very popular; the loop trail is an easy one hour walk, so expect a few crowds. The pictures you can get from behind the falls make it worth it.
Skógafoss - A wall of water, which you can get right up to. Rainbows sparkle in the mist around it when the day is sunny. You can climb up alongside the falls to see the top and continue up the Skoga River to a number of other smaller waterfalls; well worth the hike if you have the time.
Gullfoss - This is the waterfall seen by the most visitors as it's part of the famous Golden Circle. It's a spectacular tiered cataract, with two falls, totaling 32 meters, on the Hvitá River. You can walk surprisingly close to the falls (again, a light rain jacket is advisable, especially if it's a chillier day.
Dettifoss - Located in the Vatnajökull National Park in the north east, Dettifoss is a little harder to get to, but is Iceland's biggest fall by volume of water. You're going to have to take in this one as part of a driving tour, and be careful; unlike the more popular tourist attractions, there are few signs and no guide rails here. Stay away from the edge. A walking path upstream goes to the Selfoss waterfall. If you want to really avoid the crowds and have a 4WD vehicle, go to the less popular west side of the falls, although this doesn't give access to the path to Selfoss.
If you want to see the south coast waterfalls without driving, a day tour will take you to Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss as well as the stark beauty of the black sand beach at Reynisfjara.
The Blue Lagoon
If you only see one thing in Iceland, the Blue Lagoon's proximity to Keflavik International Airport means it literally is the only thing some visitors to Iceland see, taking the short trip to relax during a stopover. The famous spa is often busy (and sometimes booked up, so be flexible with your plans). If you want a massage, you should definitely book that in advance. The waters are good for stress, aches, and pains and the entire experience is one of utter relaxation.
Any visitor to Iceland needs a swimsuit; there are also a number of other natural spas, but the Blue Lagoon is the first and the largest, and perhaps may be more memorable because it is so often the last experience tourists have before they head home. You can easily take a trip to the lagoon from Reykjavik. You may not want to drive because there is alcohol around.
Husavik is known as the whale watching capital of the world, although it's also possible to go whale watching from Reykjavik. The waters around Iceland are full of minke whales, but if you are lucky you may also see harbor porpoises and other whales; humpback, blue and fin whales are also found here, as well as orcas (despite their common name of killer whale, actually a species of dolphin).
If you are staying in Reykjavik, you can book a whale watching tour or combine it with the Golden Circle. For those heading out along the ring road, Husavik is right on your route; plan to stay there, book a tour and enjoy this beautiful northern town. There are very few places you can see whales as easily as you can here, and there are a variety of tour options available.
Hiking and Trekking
The outdoors is what draws people to Iceland, and there are many options, ranging from one hour loop trails, to moderate to advanced hiking trails of various lengths. If you’re staying in Reykjavik, you can take public transport to Mt. Esja, a popular hike with locals. It comes with some absolutely amazing views. For serious hikers, multi-day trekking tours are available. These should not be attempted without a guide, but we have tours from three to ten days.
One of the most popular trekking routes in Iceland is the Laugavegur Trail, which offers amazing diversity and beauty. Trips here should be booked well in advance, as Iceland limits permits to prevent trail erosion and these trips sell out early; and no wonder. Take the longer trip to reach Thorsmork Valley, where the god Thor supposedly struck the earth with his hammer. If you can't get a booking there, consider the Westjords as a less popular but still amazing destination.
Hiking on a glacier is an experience hard to find anywhere else; don't try to do it without a guide who provides the proper gear and has the knowledge to keep you from falling over...as much. But there is no other experience like walking on thick ice and maybe drinking meltwater straight from the glacier, water that has been ice for thousands of years.
Glacier hikes are available across the south coast of Iceland, make sure to choose a good outfitter for your trip. Even kids can thoroughly enjoy a glacier hike. Wear your sunglasses as glaciers can get really bright.
The Northern Lights
Going to Iceland in the winter might seem to be a bad idea. It's cold and it's dark. Yet there's one beautiful reason to just do that; the Northern Lights. The northern lights are generally widely visible from the end of August until mid April. They are rarely seen in the summer because of the extremely long days. However, the phenomenon is still there, but the light is too bright to see it.
You also don't want to stay in Reykjavik; although the light pollution is low compared to many cities, it is definitely present. If the main purpose of your trip is to see the lights, plan on spending at least one night somewhere else, maybe two to have a greater chance of seeing more spectacular lights. You can take a self-driving or bus tour to see not just the lights but the beautiful winter landscape of Iceland. Oh, and those spa baths are even better when it's cold.
Sadly, the original geyser, the one for which they are all named, now erupts only rarely. Fortunately, it has a cousin, the Strokkur geyser, which erupts every five to ten minutes. If you stand downwind, you will get splashed; and realize that this water, which comes out of the ground literally boiling hot, cools to cold almost immediately.
Geysir is part of the Golden Circle tour.
Iceland is full of hot springs and spas. The Blue Lagoon is the most famous, but many visitors find it worth their while to seek out some of the smaller spas. Many houses are heated with geothermal heating; energy is, in fact, so cheap in Reykjavik that many people run their heat all the time and open the windows if it gets hot. If you are looking for a place to bathe that isn't the Blue Lagoon, check out this article.
The Golden Circle
Everyone who visits Iceland for the first time should take this tour. It's practically a requirement. Ideally, schedule it for your first day, as it's an amazing introduction to everything Iceland has to offer. You can drive the tour yourself, which has the advantage of allowing you to control how long you stay at each site, or you can relax and take a bus tour. (You can also combine your tour with whale watching in Reykjavik, the Blue Lagoon or a short horseback ride).
The tour includes Gullfoss Waterfall and Geysir, which are already mentioned, and Thingvellir National Park. This is the site of Iceland's original parliament, and appears to have been chosen to be equally inconvenient to everyone. It's also a spectacular rift valley, and if you want, you can take a selfie with one foot on the European tectonic plate and one foot on the North American.
This would probably be higher on the list if more people made it there. Touring the Westfjords is a great option if you want to get off the beaten track, or if this is not your first trip to Iceland and you already did the ring road. You'll need to drive quite a distance, but it's worth it (or you can fly, but the journey, in this case, is a very important part of the destination.
While there, check out the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve (by ferry), the Arctic Fox center, and Bolafjall Mountain. Take your binoculars; the birdlife is spectacular.