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Whether you’re a photog who likes stunning views or someone in search of some action and adventure, Iceland is going to blow you away. Iceland is home to some famous glaciers, volcanoes, and waterfalls, along with a certain quirky pop singer who I may have a creative crush on.
Much of the terrain of Iceland can be challenging, but it makes a variety of once in a lifetime outdoor adventures possible. Picture yourself going glacier hiking, ice climbing, enjoying a jeep adventure, visiting black sand beaches, or hiking to some stunning waterfalls. You can even snowmobile to an ice cave or go diving or snorkeling between two continental plates! Yep, there are few places on earth like Iceland, so pack your boots and your camera, and get ready for some fun and adventure!
The official language of Iceland is Icelandic. In Iceland, students are required to learn English and Danish (or another Scandinavian language) in school, so there’s a widespread knowledge of both. In the service industries, especially, almost everyone speaks English, so don’t worry too much about a language barrier.
Do I Need a Visa to Travel to Iceland?
US citizens can travel to Iceland without a visa for tourist or business purposes and stay for 90 days. Your passport should be valid for at least 90 days past your intended date of departure. Also make sure to have a return ticket and enough funds for your stay and any incidentals, because this is technically a condition of getting a visa.
Iceland is often called the “land of fire and ice.” It has one of the most unique landscapes you’ll ever see, including glaciers, fjords (formed by the glaciers), icebergs, waterfalls, volcanoes, craters, cliffs, lava fields, and black sand beaches. The terrain can be challenging in places. Pack good, sturdy hiking shoes or boots, layers of clothing, and a raincoat for any outdoor adventure. Especially in winter, it can be rainy (which makes any hike slippery). But on a good day, you will see some stunning views from atop glaciers and waterfalls, crystal blue waters, and lava pebbles on the black sand beaches.
Black Sand Beaches
Iceland has many black sand beaches, but the most famous black sand beach in Iceland is Reynisfjara, which is located at the southern end of Iceland, near a small fishing village, Vík í Mýrdal. The beach is considered one of the 30 most gorgeous beaches on the planet by Architectural Digest. It was also named as one of the 10 best non-tropical beaches, so it’s a definite must-see. Reynisfjara is named for the Norwegian man who discovered it, Reynir, so Reynisfjara translates to “Reynir’s Beach” in English.
While it may not be the ideal swimming destination, it’s so unlike other beaches that it’s worth taking in. Reynisfjara is unique, not just because of the jet-black sand beach, but also the basalt columns and rock salt stacks. Reynisfjara is near an ice-covered volcano that’s been dormant for more than 100 years. The sand is black because when the now dormant volcano was active, the lava floated across the beach, cooled when it hit the water, and broke apart, leaving just a black sand beach. The sand isn’t like the sand you’re used to seeing at the beach, because it’s not really sand, but rather tiny, shiny, black lava pebbles.
Jutting up from the ocean in front of the beach are huge basalt columns, called Reynisdrangar (“Reynir’s Pillars”). These columns almost look like a pipe organ from afar, and they are a great place for selfies if you’re so inclined. The columns were formed by lava that cooled, and the local legend is that they were once sea trolls who at night tried to drag passing ships into the beach and hardened into stone when the sun hit them. (That's only one of many quirky local legends, so be sure to learn about Icelandic folklore while you're here).
Because the beach is the only landmass directly to the north of Antarctica, the waves are large, and the currents are very strong at Reynisfjara. These currents can kill, so pay attention to any safety instructions on signs or from your tour guide if you do visit the beach. A lot of people are also tempted to get their photo taken on the beach, with the sea and waves in the background. Do not do this. Never turn your back on those waves, because there are often surprise waves large enough to drag you backwards into the ocean. It’s beautiful, but it deserves a healthy amount of respect. Take it all in and take lots of photos, but don’t get too close to that water.
There are over 30 active volcanoes in Iceland. There are all types of volcano tours available where you can hike, go on caving excursions, jeep tours, and other sightseeing tours.
Askja (or “box”), Iceland’s hot spring volcano, is a popular spot for tours in Iceland. It’s located in the highlands of Iceland, to the north of the Vatnajökull glacier. There’s a crater (called a caldera) at Askja that is now a lake, but the water there is too hot to be one of those therapeutic hot springs, but it is beautiful.
Krakla is another famous Iceland volcano that has a lake in its crater, but the water in this crater is cold, rather than hot, and the water is a beautiful emerald blue. If you’re close enough, add it to your Iceland itinerary.
Þríhnúkar is the only volcano in Iceland or the entire world that tourists are allowed inside. You enter the magma chamber and then get lowered down to the chamber floor, which is about the size of a football field. There are several tunnels you can explore that go down to a 200-meter depth. The magma chamber is considered one of the most remarkable natural phenomena on Earth. The walls of the chamber are all sorts of cool colors. You really won’t see anything like this anywhere else. A lot of people travel to Iceland just to visit the magma chamber at the Þríhnúkar volcano.
One of Iceland's most dangerous volcanoes is Katla. Getting close to Katla requires a pretty serious hike or a helicopter ride. Katla is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Iceland because when it erupts, it causes massive glacial floods that can decimate farms and landscapes in the area.
There are tons of glaciers in Iceland, but here are five that you should make a point to visit on your trip:
Vatnajökull – The largest glacier in Iceland, as well as Iceland’s highest peak, this glacier also has volcanoes under its surface. If you’re feeling brave, you can hike on the top of the main glacier, but you must do so with a guide. It’s illegal to hike on a glacier without a certified guide. Glaciers, like a lot of other things in Iceland, can be dangerous, so never go it alone. If you do, you’ll be treated to some spectacular views.
Langjökull – Iceland’s second largest glacier, also called “The Long Glacier.” It’s snow-covered almost year-round, so it’s a hotspot for snowmobiling. Langjökull is famous for having the largest man-made ice cave in the world. There are also natural caves, which are blue and beautiful. You can take snowmobile tours to visit these caves. If you’re doing one of the Golden Circle tours, it’s easy to add a stop to Langjökull onto that tour.
Snæfellsjökull – Also called “The Entrance to the Center of the Earth” or the “snowfall glacier.” This glacier is famously referenced in the Jules Verne novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth. Some people think that this glacier may be one of seven energy centers on earth, and many people claim to sense a mystical energy here. The ice covers a cone-shaped active volcano. If you’re brave enough, it’s possible to summit the glacier in a day with a guide. For the less adventurous, you can also take in some breathtaking views, volcanic landscapes, sea cliffs, and black sand beaches.
Eyjafjallajökull – The “island mountain glacier.” Some hiking companies offer tours, and you can also take what are called Super Jeep tours to the glacier. This glacier became famous in 2010 when the volcano under its icecap erupted, causing problems with travel and a cloud over at least 20 countries.
Mýrdalsjökull – This glacier covers the volatile Katla volcano. It’s very panoramic with tons of cool ice formations as well as pure blue ice caves. You can take some good glacier hiking tours, or upgrade to ice climbing tours if you want a more active vacation.
Iceland is covered in waterfalls, and it’s definitely not a case of “seen one, seen them all.” Try to visit as many waterfalls as you can while in Iceland, but if you must limit yourself, here are my top three:
Glymur Waterfall – It’s the second tallest waterfall in Iceland, about a 1.5-hour drive from Reykjavik. Once at the park, it’s about a 2-hour hike to the waterfall itself, so be sure to pack good, sturdy shoes.
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall – One of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls. You can take some great photos of the waterfall as it erupts from the sea cliffs to a shallow pool below. Seljalandsfoss is about a 1.5-hour drive from Reykjavik and it’s very close to the Ring Road. The best way to access the waterfall is from the farm at Seljaland. It’s often called “The One You Walk Behind,” because you can actually walk behind this waterfall and get a totally different perspective on the view. If you do visit, bring a raincoat, because you will get wet from the waterfall spray.
Gullfoss Waterfall – One of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland, this waterfall is located on the famous Golden Circle route, and it’s a 1.5-hour drive from Reykjavik.
Silfra Diving in Iceland
You can go silfra diving and snorkeling in Thingvellir National Park. Silfra is a fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The silfra is a living dive site, where you can see a wild underwater seascape, consisting mostly of “green trolls” and other algae. The lake itself has lots of fish, and people often fish for trout there. The fissure itself, any caves with an overhang, and “the tunnel” are off limits to divers, but if you’re snorkeling, you’re allowed to float and explore the fissure between the two continental plates. There are one-day diving and snorkeling tours in the lagoon of the silfra.
Camping in Iceland
Camping is something of a national pastime in Iceland. Each summer, many Icelanders take to the many campgrounds to enjoy the great outdoors. Camping is very cheap in Iceland, which is good for those of you on a budget. A lot of things, like food and conventional lodging, can be quite expensive in Iceland. Plus, you get an up-close view of the Iceland landscape, scenery, and sunsets.
You might not want to drag all that camping equipment with you, but not to worry. There are several tour companies that offer package deals. There’s an 8-day self-driving tour that takes you around the famous ring road in a 4x4 vehicle. You also get a tent, camping card giving you access to over 40 campsites, camping supplies, USB charger, cooler, and itinerary for the trip. Just be sure to check the forecast before you go and obey all warning signs when driving around.
If you are bringing your own equipment, you can rent a 4x4 vehicle with GPS from several reputable tour companies. Be sure to stick to the designated route. Iceland has a challenging climate and terrain at times, and if you decide to go off the recommend course, you could get yourself into some trouble.
Eating Rotten Shark in Iceland
Kæstur hákarl is Icelandic for “fermented shark,” referred to by many as “rotten shark.” It’s a national dish usually made from Greenland shark that has been hung out to dry for 4-5 months and fermented. This rotten shark has a high ammonia content, and the smell can make some people gag. It’s sold year-round in stores or served as cubes on little toothpicks. There are two types of Kæstur hákarl: chewy and reddish (from the belly) or soft and white (from the body). It’s often served with a shot of local Icelandic spirits, called brennivin. So, if you dare, go ahead and try it, but you might want to hold your nose for the first bite.
In summary, there are many awesome and unique adventures to have while you're in Iceland. A 2 week itinerary is a good place to start for your first trip to Iceland, and luckily, many airlines are now offering stopovers in Iceland to make this as easy as possible.
Who Wrote This?
I’m Renee Hyde and I’ve been a digital nomad freelance writer since 2012. So far I’ve visited 60+ countries and counting! On this blog I share tips about dreamy travel destinations, travel hacks, ways to work remotely and travel, and advice for living your best nomadic life!