Explore Iceland

Iceland Travel Guide

With its glassy glaciers, hot thermal springs, spectacular geysers, active volcanoes, lava fields, stunning waterfalls and snow-capped mountains, Iceland is indeed the original 'land of fire and ice'.

Iceland, the second largest island in Europe, lies close to the Arctic Circle northwest of Scotland and south of Greenland, and it is primarily the unique and wonderful natural phenomena that draw visitors to the country. The hardy Icelandic people, descendants of ancient Norsemen and Celts, are intriguing too, having spawned what is now renowned as the oldest-surviving parliament in the world (called the Althing), founded in 930 AD. Iceland also boasts a much-revered literary heritage of the best medieval works, mostly based on heroic sagas.

Most of the country's popular tourist features are in the south of the island near the capital, Reykjavik, and can be explored on the much celebrated 'Golden Circle' route. Top of the list for scenic splendour are the Gullfoss double-tiered waterfall and the spouting hot springs of Geysir.

Reykjavik means 'smoky', but in the case of Iceland's pristine capital (which is Europe's most northerly capital city) the smoke is not smog, but rather steam from the underground springs that warm the city. Reykjavik has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the cleanest, most invigorating cities in Europe, and boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world. The city may be small, but it is full of interesting attractions, from galleries and museums to thermal bathing spots, and the nightlife is second to none.

Iceland is steadily increasing in popularity as a travel destination, and offers so much to see and do that repeat visits may be necessary, particularly as the country seems so different in summer and winter. The summer weather enables all sorts of outdoor fun in the gloriously unique landscapes, but the icy winter months bring with them the spectacle of the Northern Lights, truly one of the most magical experiences the world has to offer.

The borderless region known as the Schengen Area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option, and which allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all the aforementioned countries. Additionally, foreign passengers to Iceland must hold return or onward tickets, the necessary travel documentation for their next destination, and sufficient funds to cover their stay in Iceland. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.

Hallgrimskirkja

Address: At the end of the Skólavörðustígur Reykjavik

This landmark church, the tallest building in Iceland, dominates the city from its highest point and is visible on a sunny day from up to 10 miles (16km) away. Named after the 17th-century Icelandic poet, hymn composer and clergyman, Hallrimur Petursson, the church's unusual design includes volcanic basalt columns flanking its towering steeple. It took nearly 40 years to build the edifice, which was finally completed in 1986. In front of the church stands a statue of Leif Eriksson, donated to Iceland by the United States. The church is lovely inside but even those uninterested in exploring this place of worship will be impressed by the striking facade. It is possible to climb the tower for views over the city.

Botanical Gardens

Address: Laugardalur Valley 104 Reykjavik

Although Iceland is better known for more stark, rocky landscapes, a walk in Reykjavik's gardens will convince travellers of the country's more lush and flowery offerings. The pretty Reykjavik Botanic Garden is a haven for strollers, enshrining about 5,000 plant species, including a large collection of Icelandic indigenous plants and other plant collections, which give an idea of the enormous diversity of vegetation in the northern temperate zone. Besides walking trails and water features, the garden has a display greenhouse where a cosy café is open during the summer months. Located close to the garden is the Reykjavik Zoo and Family Park.

The gardens are open all year round, though opening times may vary season to season and there is less to see in the colder months. Admission is free.

Einar Jónsson Museum

Address: Eiriksgata Reykjavik

Einar Jónsson was Iceland's foremost sculptor, and he himself designed and established this museum, which contains over 300 of his works spanning his 60-year career. The museum building itself is deemed to be Jónsson's largest work, and served as his home, gallery and studio. The foundation stone was laid in 1916; it was Iceland's first art museum and retains pride of place on the highest point in Reykjavik. It is adjoined by a pristine, leafy sculpture garden, which sports about 26 bronze casts of the artist's work. There is also a museum shop selling plaster casts of Jónsson's works, books and postcards.

Travellers should note that the museum is closed on Mondays and for the whole of January and February. All other admission details can be found on the official website listed below.

Blue Lagoon

Address: 240 Grindavik, Iceland Reykjavik

A favourite and unique attraction close to Reykjavik, about 30 miles (50km) southwest of the city, is the man-made geothermal 'Blue Lagoon', set in a lava field, filled with mineral-rich hot water pumped from about a mile below the surface. The lagoon is flanked by a luxurious health spa where visitors come to be pampered and treated for skin ailments like eczema and psoriasis. The lagoon's surreal phosphorescent aquamarine colour is caused by the therapeutic ecosystem of algae, silica and minerals in the water.

The Blueline bus company offers transport to and from the Blue Lagoon, and other transport options are outlined on the official website. Visitors should note that the Blue Lagoon is very popular and should be booked as far in advance as possible to avoid disappointment. The opening times change seasonally and can be found on the website listed below.

Gullfoss Falls

Address: Gullfoss National Park Reykjavik

Iceland's famed Gullfoss (Golden) Falls are justly rated among the most beautiful in the world, and make for a popular excursion from Reykjavik. The falls, with their awesome double-cascade, are incredibly powerful, which has meant they have come under threat of being utilised as a source of hydro-electricity. Currently, however, the magnificent natural water feature, shrouded in mist and rainbows and gushing into a canyon on the Hvita River, is safely ensconced in a national park and remains one of the country's top tourist attractions.

The falls can be visited on Iceland's famous Golden Circle route, and many tour operators and public buses make daily trips to the national park during the warmer months.

Geysir

Address: Geysir Center, Geysir Reykjavik

The weird landscape of the Haukadalur Valley in Iceland's southern lowlands, where hot springs spout and mud pools bubble, has been dominated for centuries by the 'granddaddy' of all geysers, the Great Geysir, from which all other such phenomena around the world have gained their name. The Geysir, once shooting boiling water hundreds of feet into the air, has reduced its performance levels somewhat in modern times but is nevertheless still an impressive sight when it occasionally erupts. The rest of the thermal area, bathed in a sulphuric smell, is just as fascinating, featuring several other spouting vents and geysers which frequently display their prowess. The Geysir area has become a very popular tourist attraction, and a centre has been opened containing a multi-media geology museum and folklore exhibits. There is also a hotel, souvenir shop and restaurant on site.

Thingvellir National Park

Address: 801 Selfoss Reykjavik

The national park of Thingvellir, 30 miles (50km) east of Reykjavik, is not only Iceland's most important historic site, but also a place of natural and geological wonder. It was here that the world's first-ever parliament, the Alting, initially convened in AD 930, and where Christianity was first introduced to Iceland. Even today, people gather at Thingvellir to celebrate any major national event. Geologically, this is the only site in the world where the American and European tectonic plates are visible; and the park is also home to the largest lake in Iceland, and stunning scenery including a lava gorge, the Oxararfoss Waterfall, and the 'Money Chasm', where visitors drop coins down a gorge into water, to witness the strange distorted reflections that result. Activities available at Thingvellir National Park include hiking, angling, horseback riding, diving and camping.

The national park is open all year and in the warmer months a daily bus visits the park from Reykjavik.

Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis - or Northern Lights - is one of nature's most celebrated and most beautiful phenomena. The magical dancing blue and green light is caused by collisions between charged particles in the highest reaches of the earth's atmosphere, but most people watching the display are not thinking about the science behind it. Witnessing the spectacular lightshow is a numinous and unforgettable experience. Visitors to Iceland will be pleased to know that, due to the country's latitudinal position, spotting the Aurora Borealis is commonplace between September and April - just head away from the city lights on a clear, crisp night, and the otherworldly glow in the night sky soon becomes apparent. Although somewhat of a 'routine' display for locals, for tourists the chance of seeing the Northern Lights may well be one of the main motivators for choosing Iceland as a travel destination. There are websites that make predictions on the likelihood of seeing the lights and it may be worth checking these out while planning your travel itinerary. Many of the locals will also be able to offer advice about the best places and times to see the Aurora Borealis. The further away from urban areas you get, the more intense the lights are likely to be.

Jökulsárlón

Address: Reykjavik

Jökulsárlón - literally, 'glacier lagoon' - is the largest glacial lake in Iceland, and an enormously popular tourist attraction. The site shot to prominence after being featured in Hollywood movies (most memorably, Batman Begins), and now attracts thousands of visitors each year. Caused by the retreat of the glacier known as Breiðamerkurjökull, the lagoon is now nearly a mile (1.5km) from the ocean's edge, and is over 650 feet (200m) deep. Most easily approached from the fishing-town of Höfn on Iceland's southern coast, visitors in search of an indelible memory of their time in Iceland should definitely make the trip to Jökulsárlón, where luminous blue icebergs float eerily across the freezing water. Whatever you do, don't forget to pack a camera - Jökulsárlón is undoubtedly one of the best sights Iceland has to offer, and in such a staggeringly beautiful country, that's really saying something.

Hidden People

Address: Reykjavik

Never mind the Vikings, one of Iceland's most interesting cultural drawcards must surely be the Huldufólk, or 'Hidden People'. In Icelandic folklore, the Huldufólk are akin to elves - invisible, non-threatening, magical beings, that can be observed by humans with a talent for communicating with the 'hidden realm' of being. A large proportion of Iceland's population reputedly believe in the Huldufólk and they are an important element of the country's folklore and national identity. Visitors to Iceland will gain a lot of insight into the culture by exploring the concept a little.

Recommended Huldufólk-related activities include a visit to Reykjavik's Hellisgerdi Lava Park (which is supposedly full of elvin homes); a trip to the Museum of Icelandic Wonders in Stokkseyri (just 45 miles/70km from the capital); and, for the really enthusiastic, a half-day course at Magnús Skarphedinsson's Álfaskólinn, the Icelandic Elf School, where you'll learn all about the 'hidden realm', and even receive a diploma to prove it.

Fishing in Iceland

Iceland is said to be home to the best salmon fishing in the world, with over 100 runs, almost a quarter of which are first-class fishing holes. While sea fishing remains mostly the domain of commercial fishermen, tourists will find equally prosperous waters inland. The island is pocketed with lakes which make for great trout fishing and more well-rounded family vacations. Some of the best and most scenic lakes are in the highlands. However, aficionados will want to head to the rivers, fly rod in tow.

Almost all fishing rivers can be driven to but it's best to arrange things through a tour operator, or travel with a guide who can also arrange fishing permits, a suitable vehicle and nearby lodging. The best salmon rivers all have impossible to pronounce names, such as Breiddalsa and Hrutafjardara making it tough to ask for directions.

All of Iceland's rivers are very well regulated so limited rods are allowed on the same river at any one time. It is wise to arrange with a guide well in advance of the visit to assure a spot. Salmon season is June to September and trout season is June to October. Ice fishing in the winter is also an option to get the ones that got away in summer; leave the waders and bring a jacket.

Glacier Trekking

Iceland offers a wealth of exciting outdoor sports opportunities to visitors - fishing, angling, hiking, camping, kayaking, skiing, mountain biking, golfing and scuba diving, to name but a few - but the great lure for real outdoor enthusiasts must be glacier trekking. There are many excellent, reputable tour companies offering visitors to Iceland the chance to unleash their inner Arctic explorer and experience Iceland's astounding natural bounty hands-on. Your adventure could consist of about seven hours of walking across the snow-blown, translucent landscape by day, before being fed and entertained while camping out on the freezing icefields at night. There are day-long tours available for less extreme personalities or less experienced trekkers, and some tours which combine glacier trekking with plenty of time spent camping next to hot springs and doing other more relaxing things. Snæfellsjökull glacier is probably the pick of the explorable terrains but Iceland boasts many potential areas for this sort of activity.

Travellers would be wrong to assume that glacier trekking is only possible in the summer months as many tour operators actually offer glacier tours and treks year-round. The frosty winter months, from November to February, have a beauty of their own, but inexperienced hikers may well be put off by the limited daylight which makes multi-day treks less popular for obvious reasons. Glacier trekking is a potentially dangerous activity and all hikers and climbers should ensure they are using a reputable tour company and good, safe gear - a capable guide can make all the difference so research your options ahead of time.

The Pearl Restaurant

Address: Perlan, Oskjuhlith Reykjavik

Food Type: Local

The unique and exciting Pearl Restaurant is located on the top floor of the Perlan building on a revolving platform which offers breathtaking panoramic views over the beautiful night lights of Reykjavik, completing a full revolution every two hours. The cool stylish décor sets the scene for a night of luxury where diners can feast on dishes such as the marinated Klaustur trout served with Russian blinis (pancakes), dill cream and horseradish sauce, or the pan fried pheasant with polenta and Porchini mushroom sauce, before finishing things off with a passion fruit tart with mango sorbet. Open dinner only. Bookings recommended.

Restaurant Lækjarbrekka

Address: Bankastræti 2 Reykjavik

Food Type: Local

Situated in one of the oldest houses in the centre of Reykjavik, Restaurant Lækjarbrekka is a classic Icelandic eatery serving traditional fare in a warm and relaxed atmosphere. Don't be shocked to find horse carpaccio or whale on the menu as these are local delicacies in Iceland. Enjoy the langoustine soup with cognac and cream, while brave diners can sample a traditional Icelandic dish, grilled steak of Minke whale with mashed potatoes and Brennivin sauce. After dinner retire upstairs to the bar and cognac room to sip on an aperitif and enjoy the Icelandic hospitality. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Bookings recommended.

3 Frakkar Hja Ulfari

Address: Baldursgata 14, Reykjavik Reykjavik

Food Type: Local

A restaurant perpetually full, and always full of local Icelanders, 3 Frakkar Hja Ulfari has been described at the 'best-kept secret' of the Reykjavik restaurant scene. Tucked away in a residential neighbourhood, the restaurant offers a beautiful and romantic ambience, and has a world-famous selection of (mainly) fish and seafood dishes. An ideal venue for a date, be sure to book well ahead.

Fiskfelagid (Fish Company)

Address: Vesturgotu 2a Reykjavik

Food Type: International

Fine dining in Iceland is typically centered on the incredibly fresh and wholesome seafood. Fiskfelagid makes the most of these assets with their celebrated cuisine served in stylish surrounds. Try the "tour of Iceland" which is a tasting menu of modern interpretations of traditional dishes. The lobster pizza is also interesting. The service is friendly and skilled.

There are no specific health risks associated with travel to Iceland, and no vaccinations are necessary for entry. Medical care in the country is of high quality. Payment is usually expected in cash from visitors. Travel health insurance is highly recommended. A reciprocal agreement exists whereby British citizens are entitled to free emergency medical treatment provided they possess a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).

Smoking in bars, restaurants and on public transport in Iceland is illegal. Penalties for the possession of drugs are steep. Travellers should note that although whale meat is legally available in Iceland it is not legal to bring it across borders into the UK or EU.

Service charges are included in bills and tipping is not expected in Iceland.

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