Things to Do in Reykjavik
Reykjavik is the capital and largest city of Iceland at around 120,000 people, which comprises half the country’s total population. Although it was the site of the country’s first permanent settlement dating from around 870, there was no actual city here until 1786. Since then this friendly city has developed into a lively, creative capital with a focus on fishing, banking and the creative industries, predominantly music, fashion and design.
The laidback, low-rise city is dotted with new high-rise developments dating from the heady days of wealth before the 2008 banking crash. The jewel in the crown is the recently completed architectural showpiece and concert hall, Harpa, located on the waterfront. Smaller ships will dock at the Old Harbor but most will tie up at the Cruise Dock a couple of miles from the center of the city. There is little to see here, but shuttle buses take only about ten minutes into the heart of Reykjavik.
Gullfoss is a massive waterfall on the river Hvita which originates in the glacial lake Langjokull. Gullfoss means 'golden falls' because the glacial sediment in the water turns the falls golden in the sunlight. The water falls 105 feet (32 meters) in two steps. As you approach, you hear the falls before you see the wild, tumbling water as the river valley is a deep, dramatic crevasse. You can stand at the top or walk down the path to the bottom.
During the first half of the 20th century, the then-owners of the waterfall and surrounding land leased it to foreign investors who were keen to build a hydroelectric plant but their plans fell through. Then it was sold to Iceland but even then there was talk of harnessing the power of the river. Legend has it that local landowner Sigridur Tomasdottir loved the place so much that she threatened to throw herself into the falls in protest, and then walked to Reykjavik barefoot in protest, thus making her point heard.
With its slim cascade of water slicing through the air and pooling into the Seljalandsá River below, Seljalandsfoss is one of Iceland’s most undeniably photogenic waterfalls, located just off Iceland’s main Ring Road, between the Skógafoss and Selfoss waterfalls.
Plunging from a height of around 60 meters, Seljalandsfoss might not be Iceland’s widest or mightiest waterfall, but it’s certainly one of its most famous, forming a dramatic arch of water that dominates the picturesque Thórsmörk valley. Surrounded by wild flowers in the summer months and floodlit after nightfall, a visit to Seljalandsfoss provides ample opportunities for snap-happy tourists, but its most distinctive feature is its narrow chute of water, which allows a breathtaking vantage point from behind the falls. Uniquely, a footpath runs all the way around the waterfall, allowing visitors to get within meters of the rushing water, standing amidst the spray at the foot of the Eyjafjöll Mountains.
Iceland is famous for the extraordinary natural beauty of its volcanic-carved landscapes and more than ten per cent of the island is covered with ice. The nearest extensive glacier to the capital city of Reykjavik is Langjökull, which stretches across 367 miles sq (950 km sq) in the mid-western highlands and is the second-largest in the country. The glacier sits at 4,000 ft (1,200 m) above sea level and its melt waters travel through subterranean streams to feed Lake Þingvallavatn 32.25 miles (50 km) to the south. Over many millennia Langjökull’s ice has grown to a thickness of 1,650 ft (500 m), and in 2010 a system of vast manmade ice caves and tunnels were excavated underneath the glacier, big enough to be explored by eight-wheeled trucks, which venture underground to tour a mysterious world of dazzling blue and silver compacted ice.
Snuggled between the peninsulas of Snæfellsnes and Reykjanes in Southwest Iceland, Faxafloi Bay has always held economic and culinary importance to Icelanders thanks to its enviable location on the shore. Back in the day, fishermen used to catch rations that would feed entire villages.
Now Faxafloi Bay isn’t exactly the fishing hub it once was, with bigger boats needing to venture further out at sea, but it still holds historical significance in the country’s history. One of the main attractions in the entire bay is Viðey Island, the largest island of the small Kollfjörður Bay around Reykjavik. It is where the famous Image Peace Tower “Friðarsúlan” is located, which was commissioned by none other than John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, and which bears the words “imagine peace” in 24 different languages. Additionally, Viðey Island is also home to the country’s oldest church, with some settlements dating back to the 10th century.
Covering an area of 12,000 square-kilometers and encompassing the former National Parks of Jökulsárgljúfur and Skaftafell, Vatnajokull National Park has been collecting superlatives since it was established in 2008. The park is now Western Europe’s largest national park (covering almost 13% of the country), dominated by the Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s largest glacier, and containing Iceland's highest mountain, Öraefajökull, and deepest lake, Jökulsárlón.
An unyielding landscape of land and fire, Vatnajökull presents some of Iceland’s most diverse and dramatic scenery including glacial plateaus, active volcanoes, towering ice caps, beaches of black ash and bubbling geothermal terrain. The southern territory of Skaftafell is the gateway to the most accessible area of the glacier and one of the most popular regions of the park, with the Skaftafell Visitor Center providing a detailed introduction to the park’s many geological wonders.
Stretching 25 meters across the Skógá River and plummeting from heights of 60 meters, Skógafoss clocks in as one of Iceland’s biggest waterfalls and with its clouds of spray regularly casting rainbows across the waters, it’s also one of the picturesque. One of around 20 waterfalls dotted along the river, Skógafoss marks the start of Iceland’s famous Laugavegurinn long distance hiking trail, which runs for 90 km from Skógar all the way to Landmannalaugar. Alternatively, day-trippers can take in expansive views of Skógar’s glaciers, black ash beaches and thundering waterfalls by climbing the stairway to the top of the falls.
Skógafoss is also a popular subject of local folklore, which tells that the region’s first Viking settler, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a chest of treasure in a cave behind the mighty falls. Allegedly, a local boy found the chest years later and while attempting to haul it out, pulled the ring from the front of the chest.
More Things to Do in Reykjavik
The landmark Geysir Geyser might be the world’s most famous and the one after which all others are named, but its neighbor, Strokkur, is equally impressive. Despite only rising to heights of 60 to 100 feet (compared to Geysir’s 150 to 200 feet), Strokkur still erupts several times an hour (unlike Geysir, which remains largely dormant thanks to its clogged conduit) offering visitors a good chance of witnessing the natural spectacle.
Opened up by an earthquake in 1789 and reactivated by human intervention in 1963 after being blocked by a second earthquake, Strokkur has been erupting regularly ever since. Cradled in a 3-meter wide crater, Strokkur’s highly anticipated eruptions begin with the formation of a pulsing bubble of hot water, which reaches temperatures of around 200 °C before a rush of steam breaks through and shoots into the air.
Established in 1967, Skaftafell National Park became a part of the enormous Vatnajokull National Park in 2008, but the area, which sprawls across the southern tip of the vast Vatnajokull glacier, still remains one of the most popular corners of the park. Skaftafell is dominated by the Skaftafellsjökull glacier, one of the most accessible parts of Vatnajokull and offers 5,000 square-kilometers of rugged mountainous terrain and icy glacial tongues.
With no roads traversing the region, hiking, glacier hiking and ice climbing are the main ways to get around in Skaftafell and a vast network of trails are mapped out by the Skaftafell Visitor Center, which now acts as an information center and exhibition space for the entire Vatnajokull National Park.
Snæfellsjökull National Park is located in the westernmost part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and is one of the top tourist destinations in Iceland. It is the only Icelandic national park to extend to the seashore — most of the coastline is home to luxuriant flora and fauna (arctic tern, guillemot, razorbill, fulmar, kittiwake and shag, to name a few), especially during breeding season. The area was formed through volcanic activity caused by Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000 year old stratovolcano located underneath a glacier. On clear days, it can even be seen from Reykjavik, 120 kilometers away across Faxafloi Bay!
Literary speaking, Snæfellsjökull is one of the most famous national national parks and volcanoes to ever be depicted in written history – or at least, it used to be up until the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption— since it was featured in the novel Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne in 1864 as the actual entrance to the center of the earth.
Iceland is spectacular and so is the Golden Circle Route. The wide open landscapes are like nothing you've ever seen before. Actively volcanic, this inland route is a mass of waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, lava fields, and, of course, those volcanoes. The first stop is Thingvellir National Park, the spectacular site of Iceland's first parliament and the place where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet - and are moving apart. There is a widening fissure in the ground where the planet is literally opening up. Next it's on to Gullfoss waterfall, a huge fall of water. From here you can see a glacier off to one side. And then it's geysers. The sheer power of water and steam erupting from the ground due to the build up of extreme heat is awesome and really makes you realize how alive the ground is beneath our feet.
Iceland has no shortage of active volcanoes, but the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce Eyjafjallajokull Volcano is among the most famous, making headlines around the world when it erupted on April 14, 2010, covering much of Europe’s airspace in a cloud of volcanic ash and grounding air traffic across 20 countries for several days.
While a few intrepid climbers have scaled the 1,666-meter Eyjafjallajokull in recent years, the still-active mount is best enjoyed with a visit to the nearby Eyjafjallajokull visitor center, which opened its doors exactly one year after the latest eruption. Devoted to recounting the history of the volcano and the lives of those who live in its shadow, the center’s fascinating exhibition includes film footage of the latest eruption and spectacular photos of Eyjafjallajokull’s 2.5-km-wide caldera.
Some of Hengill’s best scenery can be enjoyed on a hike through Reykjadalur, nicknamed “Smoky Valley” for the steam emanating from several thermal springs in the area. From Hvergerði, a gravel trail leads hikers into the valley, and as the trail gradually ascends, the thermal waters become warmer.
The reward for the relatively easy hike is a chance to soak in a thermal river. The point where the thermal water merges with a cold river is one of the best spots, but hikers can head up or downhill to find their perfect temperature. The area has numerous signposted hiking trails, including an hour-long trail that circumnavigates Öklelduhnúkur and another that continues all the way to Þingvallavatn.
Positioned right between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers in southern Iceland, Fimmvörðuháls roughly consists of a 25-kilometer-long and 1,000-meter-high pass accessible to visitors between mid-June and late-August. Its location makes it one of the most sought-after hiking trails in the country, with some travelers opting for a six-day trip by adding in Landmannalaugar and Thórsmörk nature preserves. The Fimmvörðuháls trail alone takes between eight and 10 hours to complete.
There are two mountain huts – the first one is modern and the second is quite rudimentary – along the route. The journey from Skógar to Thórsmörk is one of the most memorable hiking experiences in the country, if not the world, as it offers splendid panoramas of south Iceland, and of the new lava fields formed by the infamous Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010.
The famous site where it is possible to literally stand between two tectonic plates! Located in the turquoise Þingvallavatn Lake in the Þingvellir National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage site), Silfra is part of a rift in the divergent tectonic boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates.
The way fissures are created is quite simple: as the tectonic plates drift apart (roughly two centimeters per year), tension builds up between the earth mass and the two plates, occasionally provoking a major earthquake and fissuring the earth mass in the process. Depending on their altitude and location, fissures may end up being submerged. In Silfra’s case, its translucent waters travel all the way from Iceland’s second largest glacier, Lángjökull, arriving in Þingvellir after a 30 to 100 year ride through underground and porous lava rock. Consequently, Silfra’s water temperature rarely surpasses the 2°C – 4°C mark.
One of the final stops on South Iceland’s famous Golden Circle route and just 45 km from Reykjavik, the green-living town of Hveragerdi harbors a wealth of geothermic wonders. Located on an active volcanic zone, the steaming landscape of Hveragerdi sprawls along a 5,000 year-old lava field and its geothermal park is one of the country’s main centers of natural energy. A unique community powered by the earth, the Hveragerdi Geothermal Park heats a series of greenhouses that grow everything from flowers to vegetables, and even bananas.
The celebrated Hveragerdi hot springs are one of the principal draws for visitors to the town, ranging from hissing steam vents and gurgling puddles of mud, to pools so hot that locals use the water to boil eggs and bake bread in a ground oven. Along with bathing in the naturally heated Laugaskarð swimming pool and enjoying an organic clay foot bath, the area around Hveragerdi also offers prime terrain for hiking.
With its natural fjords encircled by lava fields and bustling port bobbing with fishing boats, Hafnafjörður makes a lively alternative to neighboring Reykjavík and at just a 20-minute drive from the capital, it’s become a popular retreat for both locals and tourists. As the gateway to the scenic Reykjanes peninsula, Hafnafjörður’s spectacular surroundings are its main draw and hiking, bird watching, horse riding and whale watching cruises are all popular activities.
There’s plenty to see and do in the town itself too, and visitors can soak in one of Hafnarfjordur’s three thermal pools, learn about the town’s history at the Hafnarfjordur museum, explore the bubbling mud pools at Hellisgerdi Lava Park or visit for one of the many atmospheric seasonal events, like the annual Viking Festival in June or the festive markets held over the Christmas period.
Jutting out from Iceland’s southwest coast and a popular choice for a day trip from nearby Reykjavík, the Reykjanes Peninsula is home to some of the country’s most beguiling landscapes—a patchwork of rugged lava fields, soaring sea cliffs and steamy hot pools.
Heading south from the capital the first stop is Hafnafjörður, Iceland’s third-largest town, but undoubtedly the biggest tourist magnet is the Blue Lagoon, the famous geothermal spa named for its startling blue, mineral-rich waters. While many day-trippers are tempted by a whistle-stop tour of the Blue Lagoon, there’s plenty more to see and do on the peninsula. Spot puffins, herring gulls and black guillemots swooping over the Krísuvíkurbjarg sea cliffs, sample traditional Icelandic cuisine at the fishing villages of Grindavík, Sandgerði and Garður, discover the secrets of Iceland’s geothermal energy at the Hellisheiði Power Station, or walk the ‘Bridge Between Two Continents’.
Aptly named after the Norse god of strength and storms, this mountain range is frequently featured in “most stunning landscapes on the planet” lists. It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that Thórsmörk is one of the top hiking spots in Iceland, nestled between the Mýrdalsjökull, Tindfjallajökull and Eyjafjallajökull glaciers. A wilderness retreat dear to the heart of many Icelanders, Thor’s Woods are nuzzled between three glaciers and contain canyons, still-warm volcano craters, mighty waterfalls, moss-covered caves and spectacular valleys crisscrossed by the Krossá River. This glacial valley truly is a hiker’s paradise!
Visitors thinking of visiting Thórsmörk should prepare accordingly, for this is one of Iceland’s most remote locations, and amenities are few and far between. Proper hiking boots, warm clothing and an acute common sense are required to hike this extremely rugged region that is characterized by harsh conditions and unpredictable weather.