Things to Do in Reykjavik
To understand why Iceland's Blue Lagoon is so popular, just imagine bathing in steaming milky-blue waters, sipping a cocktail at a swim-up bar, and looking out over an otherworldly landscape of jagged peaks and black lava fields. This geothermal pool, the most visited of Iceland's many such oases, boasts mineral-rich waters, a luxurious spa, and a magnificent setting, all just minutes from Reykjavik.
Thingvellir National Park is a remarkable volcanic landscape of gorges, waterfalls, lakes, and more, and is a favorite stop on Iceland’s Golden Circle Tour. The park offers endless recreation opportunities, from hiking and camping to snorkeling, diving, and fishing.
Gullfoss (Golden Falls) is a massive waterfall on the river Hvita in western Iceland. The falls are considered one of Iceland's most treasured natural wonders, with a name inspired by the phenomenon when glacial sediment in the water turns the falls golden in the sunlight.
There’s a lot to see in Iceland, and the grand Golden Circle (Gullni Hringurinn) is your ticket to easily hitting multiple popular sights, especially if you only have one day to venture outside Reykjavik. Departing from the city, Golden Circle tours showcase a number of Iceland’s main attractions and natural wonders—think geysers, waterfalls, lava fields, volcanic craters, and Icelandic horses. There are few other places in Europe where you can see so much topographical variety on one short trip.
Stretching 82 feet (25 meters) across the Skógá River, into which its teeming waters plunge 197 feet (60 meters) from a rocky cliff, Skógafoss clocks in as one of Iceland’s biggest waterfalls. Its clouds of spray regularly create vivid rainbows—often double rainbows—across the waters. The waterfall is also an important site for local folklore.
A slim cascade of water slicing through the air and pooling in the Seljalands River below, Seljalandsfoss is one of Iceland’s most photogenic waterfalls. Because the falls’ chute of water is so narrow, visitors can also step behind Seljalandsfoss for a unique vantage point.
The world's original geyser, the Great Geysir (Great Geyser) is the source of the English word after which all other geysers are named. Geysir literally means "gusher" in Icelandic, and this natural phenomenon in the Haukadalur geothermal region has been active for more than 10,000 years. Records of hot springs activity in the region date back to 1294.
Perched on the cusp of Europe’s largest glacier and separated from the Atlantic Ocean by just a narrow isthmus, the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon is the largest, deepest, and arguably most magnificent of Iceland’s many glacial lakes. Icebergs bob in glittering water framed by jagged peaks, rugged lava fields, and black sand beaches.
Among Iceland’s most famous peaks, the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce Eyjafjallajökull volcano made headlines when it erupted in 2010, spewing an enormous cloud of volcanic ash that grounded air traffic all across Europe. The imposing, ice-capped volcano has three main peaks, the tallest of which reaches 5,417 feet (1,651 meters).
Established in 2008 by combining Iceland’s former Jokulsargljufur and Skaftafell National Parks, Vatnajokull National Park is one of Europe’s largest national parks. It presents incredibly diverse and dramatic scenery including glacial plateaus, active volcanoes, towering ice caps, black-sand beaches, and terrain that is bubbling with geothermal activity. The park is dominated by the Vatnajokull glacier, Europe’s third-largest glacier, and contains Iceland’s highest mountain (Oraefajokull) and deepest lake (Jokulsarlon).
More Things to Do in Reykjavik
Named after Reverend Hallgrimur Petursson, author of Iceland’s most popular hymn book,Passion Hymns (Passiusalmar), Hallgrim's Church (Hallgrímskirkja) is an unmistakable landmark in downtown Reykjavik. Visible throughout the city, the tower of the white concrete Lutheran church offers some of the best views of the Reykjavik skyline and surrounding area.
Set on the waterfront, the striking Harpa (Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre), home to both the Icelandic Opera and Iceland Symphony Orchestra, is one of Reykjavik’s most prominent landmarks. Designed by world-renowned Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson and Danish firm, Henning Larsen Architects, the building’s glass facade features honeycombed panels that change colors as they reflect the sky and the ocean.
Langjökull is the second largest glacier in Iceland; it covers 361 square miles (934 square kilometers) and conceals at least two active volcanic systems. The glacier feeds Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir hot springs, and Thingvellir National Park, and offers opportunities for hiking, skiing, snowmobiling, and exploring ice caves.
Geysir may be Iceland’s best-known geyser (and the one after which all others are named), but its neighbor, Strokkur, is equally impressive. Despite only rising to heights of up to 100 feet (30.5 meters), compared to Geysir’s 200 feet (61 meters), Strokkur erupts several times an hour, unlike Geysir, which remains largely dormant thanks to its clogged conduit.
Skaftafell National Park, which sprawls across the southern tip of the Vatnajokull glacier, is one of the most popular corners of the larger Vatnajokull National Park. Dominated by the Skaftafellsjökull glacier, Skaftafell offers 1,930 square miles (5,000 square kilometers) of rugged mountainous terrain and glacial tongues.
The mirrored glass dome of Perlan shines from its position on Öskjuhlíð hill, just outside Reykjavik. Comprising a glass hemisphere sitting atop six massive hot water tanks, the building houses a restaurant, viewing deck, and the Perlan Museum, which focuses on Iceland’s natural wonders.
Dominated by a 700,000-year-old glacier-topped stratovolcano, Snæfellsjökull National Park embodies Iceland’s moniker, the land of fire and ice. Covering an area of more than 65 square miles (170 square kilometers), the park has lava fields, basalt sea cliffs, black- and golden-sand beaches, caves, and peculiar lava formations.
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.
A small eruption actually took place at Fimmvörðuháls following months of earthquakes under the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, just a few weeks before the big outbreak. This eruption produced a 300-meter-long fissure on the northern part of the pass, creating two new craters that later on erupted toward Thórsmörk, briefly stopping tours and hikes in the process. A small reminder that Iceland, despite being on everybody’s lips lately, is still a very wild, unpredictable place to travel to.
Sitting on Reykjavik’s waterfront, facing the impressive figure of Mt. Esja across the bay, the gleaming sculpture of Sun Voyager (Solfar) makes for an excellent photo opportunity. The 60-foot-long stainless steel artwork resembles the skeletal frame of a boat and sits on a circle of granite slabs jutting into the sea.
Looming on the horizon 6 miles (10 kilometers) north of Reykjavik, 2,999-foot (914-meter) Mount Esja offers a striking backdrop to the city and is an attraction in its own right. Mount Esja is a volcanic mountain range made up of basalt and tuff. From the top, you can see the entire city of Reykjavik, the bay, and beyond.
With its tunnels of multi-hued lava tubes, dripping with stalactites and dotted with peculiar rock formations, the Leiðarendi lava caves are a subterranean fantasyland. The Leiðarendi caves take their name—which translates as “the end of the journey”—from the carcass of a dead sheep that is found at the end of a tunnel (you can still see the bones), but intrepid travelers needn’t worry as seasoned guides keep everyone safe.
Iceland, the “land of fire and ice,” is a hotbed of volcanic activity. It’s one of the most active volcanic regions on the planet, yet the Thrihnukagigur volcano has been dormant for thousands of years. Because no recent eruptions have sealed it shut, Thrihnukagigur is the only place in the world where you can safely descend directly into a volcano’s magma chamber.
Located along Reykjavik’s scenic waterfront, the whitewashed building known as Hofdi House (Höfði) is best known as the place where US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev held the 1986 summit that led to the end of the Cold War. Images of the house were broadcast throughout the world, making it world famous.