When it comes to (wonderfully) weather-beaten landscapes, Iceland reigns supreme. Centuries of active volcanoes and slow-moving glaciers have transformed this tiny, windswept island into a veritable Disneyland of outdoor delights. From plunging waterfalls to spewing geysers, aquamarine lagoons to black sand beaches, the entire country is practically begging to be Instagrammed (#nofilterneeded). And with great activities and daytrips available year-round, Iceland is one of the most popular destinations on PlacePass.
We sent our intrepid photographer Zeb Goodman around the island to test out several tours and discover what makes the island so magical. (Hint: it’s not just the northern lights).
Want to follow in his footsteps? Drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll help you put together the perfect itinerary.
Seeing the northern lights is one of the more surreal experiences you can have in Iceland, and that’s quite a claim considering what most of the country looks like. If you visit Reykjavik during the right time of year, taking a trip outside the city to search for the lights is almost a rite of passage, and one that, with a little luck and the right timing, will almost certainly prove to be unforgettable.
That said, it should be noted that seeing the northern lights on this tour (or any tour for that matter) is far from guaranteed. The tour bus can bring you out of range of the city’s light pollution and chase the lights based on a forecast, but apart from that there’s not much you can do but sit, shiver, and wait. A good night of aurora-watching calls for a bit of luck, a lot of patience, and a ton of warm layers, but when the conditions align it’s always, always worth it.
Unless you’re up in the highlands, a lot of your time traveling around Iceland will be spent inside of a car or within a few hundred meters of one. That’s kinda just how it goes. And while most of your time exploring the country in said car takes place on some of Iceland’s nicely paved tourist roads, this tour veers off the road in the first five minutes en route to the glacier as your guide starts off-roading across a landscape that probably looks more like the moon than the actual moon.
Twenty minutes of driving through a barren volcanic landscape, ten minutes by boat across a giant puddle of glacial meltwater, and you’re at the base of the largest glacier in Europe. Once you’ve strapped on your crampons and accidentally poked your friend in the eye with your ice-pick you’ll spend the next two hours hiking across crevasses and around canyons of meltwater on a gigantic block of electric blue ice. Unless you’ve been to Antarctica, this is just about the coolest ice-related experience you can have. Get out of your car and out of your comfort zone for this one. You’ll be glad you did.
With incredibly cheap multi-leg flights to and from Europe via Icelandair and Wow Air, Iceland is quickly becoming the layover capital of the world. Add to that the hundreds of cruise ships that call to port in Reykjavik each season and you’ve got a pretty serious crowd visiting the city on any given day. The problem with a layover, however, is that it doesn’t give you a whole lot of time for sightseeing.
This sightseeing shore excursion works flawlessly for travelers who want to get a sense of the city without much time (and who may not have done too much background research on what to do in Reykjavik before arrival). The hop-on hop-off bus runs all day and makes stops at some of Reykjavik’s coolest sights. Don’t miss Hallgrimskirkja, Harpa Concert Hall, or Reykjavik Harbor, and if you have a few spare minutes, grab a hot dog at Reykjavik’s infamous hotdog stand.
Aside from the Golden Circle, which many would argue has become too touristy, Iceland’s south coast — especially between Reykjavik and Vik — is the country’s biggest draw for tourists outside Reykjavik. Virtually every ten minutes of driving brings another epic waterfall, beach, landmark, or attraction, with some of the most epic volcanic landscapes linking them together along Iceland’s Ring Road.
This tour runs like a highlight reel of Southern Iceland’s best attractions, starting with the beautiful seaside town of Vik and its legendary black sand beach. From there you’ll head to Seljalandsfoss waterfall (which you can walk behind) and Skógafoss waterfall (which you can walk above), and finally to Sólheimajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers. If you’re in Iceland for more than a day and you miss out on the south coast then you essentially haven’t visited Iceland. Need we say more?
If you visit Iceland and skip the south coast you’re doing it all wrong. In fact, the road between Reykjavik and Vik is so jam-packed with epic natural attractions that Iceland’s tourism board couldn’t have planned out a better layout even if they designed the country themselves. The tour starts with Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which you can walk behind and feel the mist on your face, then on to Skógafoss waterfall which is objectively the most epic waterfall in the world (that’s right, Niagara Falls, don’t even look at me). Finally, the tour heads to the seaside town of Vik where you can walk along Iceland’s most famous black sand beach and marvel at the fact that the tiny rocks on this beach don’t look the same as the tiny rocks on the beach near your house. After all, why do we even travel if not for unusually-colored rocks?!
For a city of its size, Reykjavik has a lot of variety in terms of things to see. From the lights of the Harpa Concert Hall near Reykjavik Harbor, all the way up to the hilltop tower of Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik has history, culture, fine dining, beautiful landscapes, and trendy shops, all of which you can access from this hop-on hop-off bus tour. In fact, the only thing you’re not guaranteed to see on this tour is perfect weather, which makes the tour bus all the more appealing. If you’re not a fan of gale force winds blowing rain sideways into your face while you’re trying to snap a selfie, then maybe opt for the bus instead of the sidewalk.
As of 2016, tourists outnumber locals in Iceland 6:1, with 1.8 million people flocking to the country this year to take photos of unusual black rocks they can’t find at home. That many tourists can only mean one thing: Tourist traps. Reykjavik has its fair share of overly-touristy restaurants that serve not-so-fancy meals for very-fancy prices.
If you’re looking for fine-dining, then sure, the trendy restaurants along Laugavegur will suit your needs just fine. If you’re looking for unique, local stops that you’d never find outside of Iceland, then this tour is exactly what you need. Distinctly Icelandic dishes such as homemade rye-bread ice cream, Icelandic lamb stew, cured Icelandic horse meat, and goose liver pate can be sampled along the thirteen stops of the tour, as well as a stop at Iceland’s legendary hotdog stand. The guides are all incredibly friendly and knowledgeable about Icelandic cuisine, having mostly come from culinary backgrounds themselves. If you want interesting and delicious Icelandic food without the embellishments (and price tags) that come with fancier restaurants, then this tour is for you.
There’s no real reason you’d know this unless your a hardcore history buff (or have been on this beer tasting tour already), but Iceland has a very interesting and, at times, seemingly unbelievable history with alcohol that you need to hear first hand to believe. Unlike some brewery tours where you sit through an unnecessarily technical monologue about the brewing process, and only then get to sample a few beers at the end, this tour is more like a stand-up comedy act recounting the history of alcohol in Iceland, accompanied by (way) more beer than you would expect to drink. Then, and only after you’ve been sufficiently inebriated, does the tour of the facility itself begin, at which point, if you’ve drank your cards right, learning about the bits and bobs of the brewing process becomes kind of interesting. All in, the highly energetic and supremely hilarious guides, paired with the delicious free-flowing Icelandic lagers, make this tour a beer-lover’s dream.
For a city of such modest (read “tiny) size, Reykjavik boasts a pretty wild nightlife. The range of options stretches from bumping minimalist-chic nightclubs all the way to Big Lebowski-themed dive bars (White Russian, anyone?) making decision-paralysis a very real issue when deciding where to head out for the night. If you don’t want to spend your night deliberating on where to go (or risk ending up somewhere lame) then grab a spot on this ever-popular bar crawl and let the guides do all the work for you. Not only do the local guides know all the best bars in the city, they’ll get you in quickly and can order secret off-menu drinks like a White Russian with coco puffs inside! All in all, this bar crawl is a great way to see the city’s nightlife, make some new friends, and try some traditional Icelandic drinks and snacks you’d never otherwise think to order, like putrefied shark meat and a shot of Iceland’s infamous Black Death. Our only suggestion would be to wait on the shark meat until you’ve had a few drinks first. After all, there’s a reason its included in the bar crawl instead of the food tour.
If you’re anything like us, your preconceived notion of a whale watch is probably a bunch of seasick old people throwing up over the railing of an old steamship-looking boat while the captain points at a dot on the horizon and tries to convince you it’s a whale. That sounds like the opposite of a good time so let’s be as clear as possible right up front: THIS IS NOT THAT KIND OF WHALE WATCH.
Instead of the nightmare mentioned above, you’ll board a tiny RIB boat (rigid-inflatable boat) with a maximum of twelve other people and strap in while the captain steers you out into Eyjafjord so fast that the trip feels more like a rollercoaster than a boat ride. Once you’re out of the harbor you’ll spend the next two hours speeding around the fjord from whale to whale, often getting within ten meters of these epic mammalfish — close enough to feel the spray from their blowhole when they come up from air, which would probably be gross if you weren’t so pumped about there being a WHALE RIGHT NEXT TO YOU. Let us reiterate that this is NOT your grandma’s whale watch. If you’re ever going to get an adrenaline rush from sitting down and waiting for an animal to appear, then this is most definitely it.
If you’ve already been to the Blue Lagoon and thought to yourself, “wow, this sure is cool but why is the bottom of the lagoon coated in human hair?” then you should stop asking questions you don’t want the answers to and try to enjoy yourself a bit more. Within the context of enjoying yourself more, we recommend the Mývatn Nature Baths, which are like a better version of the Blue Lagoon, but with less crowds (and therefore less hair).
From Akureyri, this tour brings you as far as Lake Mývatn, stopping along the way at the epic Goðafoss — a name which appropriately translates to “waterfall of the gods” — as well as the Dimmuborgir Lava Fields, which are also epic, if not somewhat overshadowed by the overwhelming rotten egg smell from the natural sulfur deposits in the area. The tour then stops at the Nature Baths, giving you time for a relaxing soak in the aquamarine, silicon-laden water, before heading back to Akureyri.
When people think of Iceland’s waterfalls their minds generally jump to Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss by the south coast. Those may be the most famous given their proximity to Reykjavik, but this tour takes you to arguably the most epic waterfalls in Iceland: Goðafoss and Dettifoss. For starters, Goðafoss means “waterfall of the gods,” which, if anything, is an understatement. Meanwhile, Dettifoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall, the scale of which we can only properly convey by pointing out that some people bring earplugs when they visit.
In addition to the two waterfalls, this tour makes stops at the Hverarönd geothermal vents, Lake Mývatn, and the Dimmuborgir Lava Fields, all of which will leave you with some pretty dope fuel for your Instagram feed as well as the lingering scent of rotten eggs on all of your clothes.
If you thought Iceland in general was isolated, just wait until you see the Westfjords. The conceptual “middle of nowhere” might as well be New York City in comparison. The Westfjords are all gravel roads, abandoned cottages, winding fjords and inlets, and then, all of a sudden, a HUGE SEVEN-TIER WATERFALL! What’s that you ask? What on earth is a seven-tier waterfall? Why its a waterfall that flows into another waterfall that flows into another waterfall that flows into another waterfall that flows into another waterfall that flows into another waterfall that flows into yet another waterfall. What else?!
If your ship is calling to port in Isafjordur then a quick road trip tour around the Westfjords is an absolute must. This area of Iceland may as well be its own country entirely, with its beautiful fjords, looming mountains, and adorable little fishing villages, and if you’re coming this far to get to Isafjordur then you may as well enjoy the view. Sure, Dynjandi Waterfall is the main attraction on this tour, but every twist and turn in the road there and back brings a view that surpasses the last one, making the entire day feel like something out of a Nature Channel highlight reel.
There’s an old and vaguely sexist rule of thumb that says the only two times it’s acceptable for a grown man to cry are when his first child is born and when he sees the Grand Canyon for the first time. We’d like to revise that rule by replacing the whole first-child-being-born thing with the first time he sees the northern lights. After all, you can see babies all over the place, and they aren’t even that special. If you’ve seen one baby you’ve seen them all. The northern lights, on the other hand, are REALLY cool to see, much more so than babies, and better yet, they’re different every time you see them. Plus, the northern lights appear randomly and without notice, which is exciting! Babies? They take eight months just to get here so that by the time they’re actually born you’re already kinda over it, y’know?
Anyways, enough about babies. This northern lights tour leaves from Akureyri and brings you out into the vast, dark landscape to the south of the city. Once you’re out of range from Akureyri’s light pollution, you can relax while your driver chases after the aurora, stopping to let everyone out and take photos whenever the lights show up directly overhead. Actually seeing the lights is never guaranteed — that’s just their elusive nature — but you’re much better off finding them on this tour than wandering off on your own. Plus, if you don’t see the northern lights, you can always just have that baby after all for a similar, if not slightly less momentous life experience.
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