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8 experiences you absolutely must have in Iceland

8 experiences you absolutely must have in Iceland

It’s hard to believe that I actually got the chance to tick Iceland off my list.

I’d been dreaming about Iceland for a long while (Robert went so far as to say that I was ‘obsessed’ with the country), but I’d never had the chance to go. My travels had taken me to Europe twice before, but Iceland was always a little out of the way.

After we moved to New York City, a trip to Iceland became a real possibility – seeing as it’s only a 5 hour flight from NYC, and an easy stopover between North America and Europe, I didn’t hesitate to add 5 days in Iceland to the itinerary for our Nordics trip.

So now that I’ve actually visited the country that I’ve spent the past year daydreaming about, I ask myself this question: Was Iceland everything that I imagined it would be?

Oh yes, it was. It definitely was.

Here are 8 experiences in Iceland that you absolutely can’t miss!

Experiences in Iceland: Waterfalls

1. Get up close to a waterfall

This is one activity that you probably couldn’t avoid even if you wanted to. There are waterfalls around every corner in Iceland.

We visited three major waterfalls:

  • Seljalandsfoss on the south coast (which has a walking path that takes you behind the waterfall)
  • Skógafoss on the south coast (which was my fave, it was super impressive from every angle)
  • Gullfoss on the Golden Circle (which is huge and arguably the most famous waterfall in Iceland)

All of these waterfalls have viewpoints where you can get up super close – so close that you actually get drenched from the spray and muddy from the wet grounds. Totally worth it!

Experiences in Iceland: Geysir


You can spot the geothermal activity in Iceland before your flight even lands – the pillars of steam rising into the air can be seen from miles away.

Once you’ve got your feet on solid ground, you’ll get frequent whiffs of the not-so-pleasant sulphur smell. The hot water in Iceland is all geothermally heated so you’d better get used to it.

On the Golden Circle, you can see a geyser called Geysir shoot boiling water up into the air. Eruptions can be sporadic but when I was there the geyser was going off every few minutes. Unfortunately my camera battery went dead right as I arrived so I didn’t manage to get any photos of it erupting.

If you’d like to learn about geothermal energy in Iceland, you can also head to the Geothermal Energy Exhibition, which I’m sure would be interesting if you’re into that kind of thing.

Experiences in Iceland: Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal baths

3. Take a dip in some thermal baths

Seeing as all the hot water in Iceland is geothermally heated, it makes sense that there are numerous swimming pools and geothermal baths in Iceland.

Everyone has probably heard of the Blue Lagoon, but the 60 EUR entry price had me running in the other direction. Instead, we visited the Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal baths on the Golden Circle, which cost 3800 ISK and was positioned on a gorgeous lake.

A few other noteworthy options are Secret Lagoon on the Golden Circle, and Seljavallalaug on the south coast.

Experiences in Iceland: Icelandic horse

4. Say hello to an Icelandic horse

One thing that I really wanted to do on our road trips through Iceland was to say hello to an Icelandic horse. We saw plenty of them, but unfortunately we didn’t find any that were standing near enough to the road for us to get up close.

Luckily, on our last day of driving, we came across some horses standing along the fence next to the car park at the Gullfoss waterfall! I managed to get one to poke his head over my shoulder for what I consider the most epic selfie I’ve ever taken.

Experiences in Iceland: Puffin spotting

5. Spot some puffins

I thought that we would have to drive for hours out of Reykjavík to see puffins, but after doing some research I discovered that we could see them just by taking a 1 hour boat tour from the city.

There are two small islands near Reykjavík that host puffin colonies, and you can only access them by boat. If you head to Reykjavík harbour, you’ll find a number of companies that offer tours out to the islands for around 30-40 USD per person.

Be sure to take a zoom lens for your camera if you have one, and a set of binoculars would also be useful. The birds are much smaller than I expected and it’s difficult for the boats to get close to them.

Experiences in Iceland: Midnight sun

6. See the northern lights or midnight sun

As much as I dream about seeing the northern lights, we were travelling at the wrong time of year – you have to visit Iceland between September and April if you want to catch the aurora.

But on the plus side, I got to experience the midnight sun! Iceland is so far north that if you travel around the summer solstice (21 June), the sun will set after midnight and will rise again at about 3AM. The above photo was the view we had flying in at 11PM, and the sun didn’t set for another hour afterwards.

Experiences in Iceland: Tectonic plates

7. Stand on the border of tectonic plates

Thingvellir National Park is where the Eurasian tectonic plate and the North American tectonic plate meet. It’s actually one of the only places in the world where you can see this phenomenon on land, as most tectonic plates meet beneath the ocean.

This has resulted in some awesome landscapes with a giant gorge and fissure stretching for miles along the terrain. You can actually go diving down into those clear waters if you so desire!

Experiences in Iceland: Black Sand Beach

8. Walk on a black sand beach

If you’ve ever done any global beach hopping, you’ll know that there are many different shades of sand, usually ranging from bright white to golden yellow.

Well, Iceland is one of the only places in the world where you’ll find a beach with sand that’s nearly black. If you head down the south coast to Vík, you can pull in at Reynisfjara and take a walk along this black pebbly sand beach. Just don’t expect it to be warm enough to go for a dip!

Are you planning a trip to Iceland sometime soon? Which experiences are you most excited about? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

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39 Responses to “8 experiences you absolutely must have in Iceland”

  1. Maria Salomonsen

    I’ve been to Iceland once before for 5 days and did most of what you list here, plus went on a horse ride! It was awesome and I’d love to go again for a little longer. Really want to experience northern lights up there..!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      A horse ride sounds like a fun way to meet the horses! I’m with you – the northern lights would be truly awesome 😀

    • Lisa

      We are going in October 2018 – planning to see the northern lights hopefully from a bubble hotel. Cheesy as can be but how amazing will it be???

  2. Amanda | Chasing My Sunshine

    I’m heading to Iceland in October and your experiences sound perfect. Like it would be a perfect trip! I am PARTICULARLY jazzed about chasing waterfalls. I’m contemplating renting a camper van, but we’ll see what happens. 🙂 Definitely looking forward to your coming posts on this trip too!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Oh, that’s great Amanda! I’m sure you are going to LOVE the waterfalls, they really are a truly awesome part of Iceland. A camper would be good, too – though make sure it has heating! It might get a little chilly in October 😉

    • Katie

      Certainly go the camper van route!! My husband and I did that for our honeymoon and it was perfect, go campers are the cheapest!! Just make sure to rent a sleeping bag and food cooler from the company. Then your set and good to go!

      • Ashlea Wheeler

        I’ve heard that a lot of people rent a campervan, especially if they’re driving the ring road! Which parts of Iceland did you drive?

  3. mark wyld

    Being Australian yes Australia is inconvenient for exploring the rest of the world for sure. We are heading Iceland in January cant wait

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Glad you can relate, Mark! As an Australian, I feel like I’ve seen much of South East Asia and the Pacific, but not as much of Europe and the Americas because of the distance from Australia. I’m glad you’re making the long journey to Iceland nonetheless, and I hope you have a fabulous time!

  4. Eleftheria

    I want to visit Iceland one day, so I’m saving your post!!!! I loved it!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Northern lights/midnight sun,thermal baths and puffins are my most favourite experiences from your list!!!!
    Black sand beaches are also unique and so beautiful!!!!!
    There are a few in my home country -Greece- too and specifically in Santorini island!!!!!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Iceland is a destination that seems to be on many people’s to-do lists! I’m so glad you’re excited about visiting this island country, Eleftheria. And you’re right – the only other place in the world that I have seen a black sand beach is on Santorini 😉

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I hope you get the chance to go, Danielle – it’s seriously worth the journey! I’m already thinking about when I could visit a second time 😀

  5. Leah

    I mean, I think this trip was worth it for the horse selfie alone. *Perfection*

  6. Jessica Cutrufello

    Iceland looks epic! Definitely on the 2017 list. Can’t wait and I appreciate the other geothermal spots, I’ve been to Blue Lagoon which was great for a 10 hour layover, but I’d rather go somewhere not as super touristy!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I suppose Blue Lagoon would have been an alright place to spend a 10 hour layover! I didn’t go because of the cost, but it is super close to the airport 😛 Still, Iceland has so much more to offer. If you get the chance to go back, rent a car and drive around for a few days – you’ll see so many amazing places!

  7. Chloe Logan

    I absolutely loved puffin watching!!! I ended up with a private tour–so it was too bad that I don’t have a proper camera, but I got great views with binoculars and an awesome one-on-one experience. That’s an awesome shot!

    Chloe | Wanderlust in the Midwestm

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Oh, that sounds like an awesome way to see the puffins! How much did you pay for the private tour, if you don’t mind me asking?

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I’d been wanting to go for SO long, and when I finally did, it absolutely lived up to my expectations! I hope you get the chance to head to Iceland sometime soon, Calum 🙂

  8. Carolina

    Heey! I am planning a trip to Iceland in November. I cant believe how amazing is! I cant wait to be there 🙂 any other tips?

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      That’s great news, Carolina! I’m sure you will love it 😀 I’ve got some more posts on Iceland coming up – keep your eyes peeled!

  9. Lori

    My sister and I spent New Years Eve in Iceland last year! It was one of the most amazing sights! We snorkeled the tectonic plates(the only 50 year old women :), snowmobiled on a glacier,and took in the amazing waterfalls! Like you, I am still obsessed with the country and it’s beautiful, unearthly landscapes. I hope to return one day to catch the Nothern lights! Thanks for bringing back the memories

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Oh wow, that’s great Lori! I’ve heard that Iceland is quite amazing over New Year 😀 It’s too bad you missed the northern lights on your trip – I also want to head back to Iceland to see the lights!

  10. Laura Ross

    I’m heading there in two weeks!! Hoping to see the Northern Lights! Fingers crossed. We have most of what you have listed here on our list. Can’t wait!!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      That’s so exciting, Laura! I really hope you get to see the northern lights – that experience is definitely on my list, too!

  11. Meredith Kovner

    We went in August 2012 for our honeymoon and did/saw most of what you have listed here. It is an amazing country! We will be going back this October for 2 weeks, and I think I am most looking forward to seeing the Northern Lights, although exploring the West fjords is also up there as we only did the South and East last time. We will be driving the entire Ring Road this trip! Can’t wait!

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      That is so exciting, Meredith! You will have to let me know what the Northern Lights, West Fjords, and Ring Road are like as I haven’t done any of those. A great excuse for a second trip to Iceland, I think 😉

  12. Bridget

    Hawaii has black sand beaches as well. I’m traveling to Iceland in November and looking to do most of these items. Plus a snowmobile tour 🙂

    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Ooh a snowmobile tour in Iceland would be amazing 😀 I’m sure Iceland will be nice and quiet in November, too. Have fun, Bridget!

  13. Johann H Ragnarsson

    As local, I am always interested to see what enjoy tourist most.
    I like your post a lot, great ideas you have for people and evident that you have been very well prepared.
    But it´s a one thing I want to mention. Reynisfjara, and similar beaches like Dritvik in West side of Iceland (2 hours driving from Reykjavik) and beautiful and have a big effect on a lot of people. But don´t think about to go for a dip there, stay away from the sea because the waves are so strong there that it can be a live danger because if they get you, they can, and that had happened to many times, take you out in the see in small time. It comes quickly, and you need to look at the sea all the time. Many people are not used to seeing the open sea, and they don´t know the danger, so that is why I want to mention it.
    But a great post which I like a lot!

  14. Dianne Lucas

    2/2/18 Just returned from Iceland. Awesome trip, want to return in summer/Call time of year. Did golden circle tour 1st day. We had rented a SUV so did our own the next 2 days. Headed out to glacier one day but the further we went the worse the weather got. Near Vic so stopped at the black sand beach all coverd in snow. Beautiful site. Did not do Blue Lagoon, could not get appointments. Book ahead! Went to another one, half the price and was oh so wonderful. Saw alot of waterfalls, horses, no sheep though. Did not see northern lights, no show the night we went. Still it was a great trip and one I would do again. Make note-alot of places close by 6:30.

  15. Julia Reyna

    I loved your post and pictures!! I’m going to Iceland for a few days in September and will be doing pretty much everything you posted. I really hope we get to see the Northern Lights while we are there! I also really want to do the Blue Lagoon!! I’ve never thought of Iceland as a place I’d want to visit but I am so glad I am. I actually found it’s the cheapest way to get to Europe from America. We’ll be flying to London from there, then to Paris, then to Interlaken, Switzerland, and then to Venice! All in two weeks…am I crazy?!? I’m adventure hungry!!



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