With less than one week to prepare, I booked myself a solo trip to the remote island of Iceland!😲
Now don’t let the picture above fool you- Iceland is not just a massive island of ice. Ironically, Greenland would fit that portfolio much more nicely. 😂Although the country is located near the Arctic Circle, it’s also sitting on a volcanic hot spot, making for a unique geological landscape. 😍
Being such a geothermal hot spot, you’ll find an almost otherworldly atmosphere on this island, full of natural hot springs, volcanoes, geysers, waterfalls, lava fields, mineral-rich soils, glaciers, and black sand beaches. 🖤As such, Iceland has been aptly named, “The Land of Fire and Ice.” 🔥❄️
Now Tourism in Iceland is still relatively new. After the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano (trying pronouncing that 3X fast) in 2010, the island got a lot of media coverage, which resulted in some worldwide advertising of Iceland’s natural beauty. 🌋
In fact, tourism increased in the subsequent years by almost 300%! Now-a-days, with a population less than 350,000, tourists sometimes outnumber the locals! That being said, Icelandic people are aware of the economic benefits of tourism, and are warmly receptive to visitors. On the whole, with the combination of Iceland’s relatively unspoiled beauty and the cheap flights offered by WOW air, now seemed like the perfect time to visit! 😁
As I mentioned above, I booked my whole trip just about 5 days before I flew out. I used a combination of Skyscanner to book flights, and TourRadar to find a multi-day tour with Arctic Adventures. In the end, I had an absolutely phenomenal time visiting this country, with each day jam-packed visiting gorgeous sites and partaking in extreme activities.
Now, in no particular order, here are ten incredible things to do in Iceland!
Ten Incredible Things to Do in Iceland
1. Hike in Landmannalaugar
Landmannalaugar is a hiking area in the highlands of Iceland within the Fjallabak Nature Reserve. Our tour van had to drive about four hours to reach the region, driving across bumpy roads and through rushing rivers to get there. For the journey, our van did not have WiFi on-board. Our guide joked that our van was built for river crossings, not millennials. Hah! 😜
Although we were just there for a day hike, the area also has a campground, which is great for multi-day excursions.Even as a day hike, visiting Landmannalaugar is absolutely worth it! This area is oozing with geothermal activity. During our hike, we marveled at the lava fields, colorful mineral-rich soil, snow-capped mountain peaks, and bubbling hot springs. 😍Landmannalauger is only accessible during the summer months, and a few of the trails didn’t even open up until mid-July this year due to icy conditions. Apparently this was the rainiest summer Iceland has had in 10 years, which meant I always had my umbrella on hand.Anyway, our four-hour hike in Landmannalaugar began at the campground and finished at the summit of Mt. Brennisteinsalda.Our guide for the day was Matthew, a Brit who had met an Icelandic girl while trekking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. He decided to move to Iceland with his girlfriend, and now gives hiking tours during the summer months, and northern lights tours in winter. He was super knowledgeable of Iceland’s history, which he said impresses most people, except for his girlfriend’s father. Hah! Guess he’s a little hard to win over!😜
For example, we learned that although the scenery is spectacular here, there really aren’t any forests in Iceland. Basically, there were forests in Iceland decades ago; however, when the Vikings settled in Iceland, they cut down all the trees to establish their community. Since then, the country has put in many reforestation efforts, but it’s still not up to par. Matthew told us the joke, “What do you do if you get lost in a forest in Iceland? Stand up.” Hah!😜 They’ve even introduced this popular purple flower, the Alaskan lupine, into the environment to combat soil erosion. To deal with the lack of growth, the country also utilizes their geothermal energy to create greenhouses for growing crops. For a time, Iceland actually had the largest banana plantation in Europe! 🍌 😲
Side note: the smell of sulfur is pretty prominent all over Iceland, especially in places like this. I could even smell it in my shower in Reykjavik. 🚿
We even passed by a rushing river warmed by geothermal energy. From there, we passed through the dramatic Vondugil Canyon and finally up to the mountain peak, where we were rewarded with gorgeous panoramas of the Icelandic highlands. This mountain is a literal kaleidoscope of colors due to the mineral rich soil, mostly from sulfur, copper and iron. 🌈
Personally, I was just in awe of the dramatic snow-covered mountain peaks.We could even see some marks where someone had been skiing down the snowy mountain path.At the top of the mountain we took a group photo, then Matthew told us about some Icelandic mythology.Apparently, the rock atop this mountain was once a troll that turned to stone in the sunlight. Matthew joked though, that the Icelandic people think it looks like something else instead. 🍆🙈The sun also peaked its head out once we go there, so we had epic views of the green valleys on our hike back down!
Anyway, although unrelated to the hike, I’ll end this section with three interesting facts about Iceland:
1. Icelandic babies are regularly put to nap outside in winter believing that the cold air is good for them.❄️
2. Icelanders derive from a single family tree and they actually have a dating app called Islendingabok, which double-checks to make sure the person you’re going out with isn’t a close relative. In this case, let’s not keep it in the family! Hah! 😜
3. According to Business Insider, Iceland has an approved list of names, and if you wish to name your child something else, it must be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee.
2. Go Caving in a Lava Tube
Being such a volcanic hot spot, it’s no surprise that Iceland is covered in lava fields. These fields have been formed from the flow of basalt lava during an eruption.You’ll also notice copious amounts of moss growing across these fields. These mossy beds actually take about 60-70 years to grow and they’re super sensitive to damage. You’ll see signs everyone warning not to step on the moss, since it takes so long to grow.Fun fact: some tourists and Icelanders have left “moss graffiti” on the mountainside, since they know it takes so long to grow back.I’m sure “SEND NUDES” is what everyone wants to see while their driving through the beautiful countryside. Oh brother! 🤦Luckily they’ve attached a hefty fine to moss destruction, and this no longer seems to be an issue.
Anyway, while in the lava field, I went with Arctic Adventures inside Leidarendi lava tube cave.This lava tube formed after two volcanic eruptions over a thousand years ago. The hollow tube was formed as the rivers of basalt lava slowly cooled from the outside creating a hardened shell.This lava tub cave is a literal kaleidoscope of colors on inside from minerals, like copper, iron, and sulfur.The cave was only recently discovered after a collapse in a section of the tube.While navigating this pitch-black cave, our group found drip stalagmites, sparkling bacteria found nowhere else on Earth, and shiny shark tooth stalactites, which looked like that came straight out of Alien vs. Predator.There were also lots of fake stalactites in the cave, because apparently Icelanders used to steal the real ones to use as a conversational piece in their house. Hah! 😜Many sections of the cave were very narrow and required us to crawl on all fours over jagged lava rock. Of course, I chose to wear capris, which wasn’t the best choice, but at least I didn’t wear flip-flops, which is my typical go-to footwear. 😂While in the cave, our guide had us turn off headlamps, and told us some spooky facts about Icelandic Santa Clauses. Seemed appropriate! 🤔🎅 Iceland actually has 13 Santas, known as “Yule Lads”, and all of them are pretty awful. They’ve even earned nicknames like “spoon licker” and “sausage swiper”.😂Most of them steal and cause a general ruckus around Christmastime. Even worse, if you’re a bad child, the mother of the Yule Lads will come and cook you into a soup. And I thought getting coal was bad! Yikes! 😱
3. Snorkel in the Silfra Fissure
Silfra is a fissure in Iceland’s Pingevellir National Park. It’s located between the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia, and on top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.The fissure, or crack, resulted from a massive earthquake, which shifted the tectonic plates. Side note: there is constant tension on this tectonic boundary, and subsequent earthquakes are always a possibility.Now-a-days, people can dive or snorkel in this fissure, which is full of glacial spring water filtered through 100-year-old lava rock. 😲This glacial water comes from Langjokull glacier, which is the largest in Europe. This water is also some of the clearest on Earth, with visibility up to 100 meters. Water temps; however, remain a frigid 2 degrees Celsius all year round.To snorkel in the fissure, the most important thing to consider is what to wear to stay warm. Our group had to first put on a long thermal undergarment, then a dry suit. On top of that, we had a cap, gloves, and boots made of thick neoprene, then flippers, a mask and snorkel.We then shuffled our way over to the fissure entry. If the scenery looks familiar, that’s because it was the filming location for Game of Thrones.The swim begins in the Silfra Cathedral, which has the most dramatic and spectacular views of the boulders lining the fissure and an abundance of vibrant marine algae.The fissure has a slight current, so you don’t really need to kick, but rather just float along the top and enjoy the view.Although my body wasn’t freezing, my hands and exposed face were. One tip I could give would be to not move your fingers too much inside the glove, and occasionally float on your back when your face gets too cold. From the Cathedral you enter the hall, then finally the lagoon. The lagoon leads into Thingvallavatn Lake, which is apparently teeming with brown trout and Artic Char.Overall, the chance to swim between two continents was surely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and something for everyone to add to their bucket list. 😉We ended the trip with some well-deserved, post-snorkel cookies and hot chocolate! ☕🍪
4. Ride Icelandic Horses
Icelandic horses have been ruling this country since the age of the Vikings. 🐎It’s actually illegal to import any other breed of horse into the country for fear of degrading the stock, and once an Icelandic horse leaves the country it cannot return for fear of foreign disease. Icelandic horses are uniquely stocky, strong, and blessed with a sweet temperament. ❤️Also, they may look like a pony, but they are definitely not, and it’s considered an insult to call them as such.I chose to go horseback riding at Eldhestar Farms, which is located in the picturesue countryside near the village of Hveragerdi. The farm had a nice riding stable, and waterproof pants and mittens for me to stay warm on this drizzly afternoon.
My two-hour ride in the countryside alternated between a walk and a tolt pace. Icelandic horses actually have five gaits, which is two more than other breeds. You may have heard of the walk, trot and canter, but the tolt is like a smooth fast-paced walk. Overall, riding them was much easier for me than other breeds of horses. (Video to follow at the end)My German guide for the ride was also very friendly and patient, which was great for someone who hadn’t ridden in over three years.We ended the day with a few photo ops before heading back to the farm for complimentary tea and rhubarb cake. ❤
5. Go Whitewater Rafting down the Hvítá River
This was one of those activities that I couldn’t believe I signed up for due to my low tolerance for cold temps! Hah!❄️ That being said, the whole afternoon was a blast and I’ll only remember the great memories and not the constant shivers! 😂The Hvítá River begins near the Langjokull glacier, and flows down a steady stream through the beautiful Gulfoss Canyon before it drops off to create the thunderous Gulfoss Waterfall. I began my rafting excursion at Drumbo Base Camp, where my group got dressed in some essential layers.Before rafting, the company provided us with a long fleece sweater, a wet suit, a waterproof jacket, booties, a helmet, and a paddle. After gowning up, we all hopped on a big yellow bus and made a 20-minute drive down to the river entrance. I sat and talked with a British guy on the ride there. He was telling me how shocked he was at the prices of things in Iceland. He had five children on the trip, including three growing boys.
After arriving at the river, we had a short safety briefing by our comical Icelandic guide, Thor. Thor actually joined my raft, along with 8 other girls, and he helped us name our raft. We called it ‘rassgat’, which basically means ‘butthole’ in Icelandic.😂🤦After entering in the river, we made our way through two sections of Class 3 rapids, which were a blast. We ended up smacking into a boulder at one point, but I’d say that the bus ride to the river was bumpier than being on the raft. Hah! 😂After passing through the two extreme sections of rapids, it tapered off into only Class 1-2 rapids. We played a lot of games along the river, and one guy in a kayak actually came by and ended up pulling one of the girls in. We ended the rafting trip at the canyon where everyone had the chance to jump off into the river. (Video to follow at the end)
6. Tour the Golden Circle
The Golden Circle Tour stops at three of the most popular spots along the Ring Road.
Essentially, there is no highway in Iceland and the Ring Road is the only road to get around the whole island. 🚗This actually made for a nightmare one day when there was an accident and our driver got stuck for four hours waiting for everything to be cleaned up. Also, the traffic was horrendous another day of my trip when Iceland hosted their largest concert in history- Guns and Roses! 🤘🎸Anyway, the three main highlights on this Golden Circle Tour are as follows:
1. The Geysir Geothermal Area
This geothermal area is well-known for its underground volcanic activity, which produces numerous hot springs and erupting geysirs.I feel like one of the most important words I learned in Iceland was ‘Haetta‘ or danger. It seemed like everything here could potentially kill you! Hah! 😂For example, The Great Geysir here can shoot boiling water from its core to over 200-feet in the air! 😮Despite this danger, I was surprised by how many curious tourists were crossing the rope to feel how hot the water was. 🤦They say, “curiosity killed the cat” for a reason. 🤦Anyway, being such a tourist hot-spot, the geothermal area also has many on-site restaurants and shops.Here’s a geysir souvenir…from the land of explosions. Hah! 😂
2. Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park is one of the country’s most significant landmarks. Iceland’s first parliament, Alþing, was founded here in 930 AD, making it the oldest continually operating parliament in the world, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here you can see the parliament, as well as, a historic church.This church was built in the 11th century, when the country first adopted Christianity.This national park is also the spot where I went snorkeling- where there is a visible boundary between the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia. While at the park, visitors can walk through the tectonic plates, and observe the stunning natural scenery in the surrounding area.
3. Gulfoss Waterfall
Last but certainly not the least is Gulfoss, the most famous waterfall in Iceland. This waterfall cascades down two steps- one with an over 70-foot drop!This water initially comes the Langjökull Glacier. The melted glacier then flows down the Hvítá river, where I went whitewater rafting.
7. Tour the South Coast
The South Coast of Iceland has a wealth of unique natural wonders, including a glacial lagoon and black sand beach. The Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon stems from the Vatnajokull Glacier, a 1,000 year-old glacier, which is the largest in Europe. 😲Large chunks of this glacier are continually breaking off and floating to the nearby lagoon. Some people paid for an option boat tour of the lagoon, but I just admired the lagoon from ashore, while I watched a few seals swimming amongst the ice bergs and checked out the on-site gift shop. The glacial lagoon can obviously be very dangerous, so there are many signs warning you not to walk on the ice. My guide told me that Icelanders don’t put up warning signs as prevention. Usually if you see a warning sign somewhere, it’s probably because someone died there. 😮Anyway, these glacial chunks also wash up on the shores of the nearby volcanic beach. The ice chunks take on many forms and colors, ranging from massive boulders with an incredible blue hue to tiny glistening ice crystals that look like diamonds. As such, the beach has been aptly named “Diamond Beach.”These glaciers are an absolute work of art, literally sculpted by the sea. ❤️🌊Anyway, another one of these extremely beautiful volcanic beaches is Reynisfjara.Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach was voted by National Geographic as one of the top ten non-tropical beaches to visit in the world, and I’d have to agree! This stunning beach, located on the Atlantic coastline, is covered in volcanic black sand and surrounded by towering basalt stacks. 😍The basalt stacks actually form a cave inlet, which was the filming location for the newest Star Wars movie.The grassy patches above the basalt stacks are also the perfect nesting spots for sea birds, like the puffin.You can see him here flying into the grassy with a fish hooked between his beak.This beach also has something called sneaker waves though, which are very high and literally sneak up on tourists, carrying them out into the open sea! 😮This place really makes you humbled by the beauty and power of Mother Nature.Now, while driving to the South Coast, we also passed by two beautiful waterfalls- Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss.Skógafoss had a incredible double rainbow.We also had the ability to view the waterfall and double rainbow from both below and above.Seljalandsfoss, on the other hand, gave us the ability to walk behind a waterfall.Both were equally amazing! 😍
8. Indulge in the Luxurious Blue Lagoon Spa
The Blue Lagoon is a gorgeous geothermal spa in a lava field in Iceland.It is rich in minerals, like silica and sulfur, giving it an ethereal milky blue hue.These warm mineral waters, at a perfect 102 degrees Fahrenheit, are known for their ability to relieve pain and boost circulation.This place is also ranked as on the top ten spas in the world, and it really just oozes luxury and charm. While bathing in this picturesque open-aired lagoon, I was able to indulge in cocktails at the swim-up bar and a DIY mud mask.Visitors are given a bracelet upon entry, which gives them access to all the facilities, and is also used as a credit card for purchases during their stay.The facilities here are really quite spectacular, and include an on-site restaurant, shop, hotel, and full-service spa.For something a bit more budget-friendly, I’d suggest the free natural hot spring in the Reykjadalur Valley.The hike to the hot spring takes around one hour, but it is incredibly rewarding to pass through the lush hillside teeming with rushing waterfalls, steaming vents, and free-ranging sheep. 🐑
Fun fact: Sheep graze freely in Iceland from May until September. In September, they hold an nationwide sheep roundup called, Réttir.
9. Go Whale Watching in the Atlantic Ocean
Whale watching in Iceland gives you the opportunity to see over 20 species of aquatic mammals, including Minke Whales, White-beaked Dolphins, and Harbour Porpoises.
While in Iceland, I went on a three-hour whale watching tour with Special Tours. I met the tour group at the Old Harbour where we boarded Andrea, the largest whale watching boat in Iceland. The ship had lovely on-site facilities, like a cafe, multiple restrooms, and a gift shop. The crew also provided us with these thermal overalls, which kept us nice and warm from the cool ocean breeze.On the boat we had multiple marine biologists who were giving our group interesting facts about marine animals, while keeping a look out for the 3 B’s: birds, bodies, and blows.Here’s a Zodiac RIB boat out cruising for whales as well.
Anyway, to explain the 3 B’s, the way that biologists spot these animals is either by seeing their bodies breach the water, their blows of water before they take a breath of air, or birds, which usually eat the safe diet as these animals, and can normally be found together.During the tour we spotted two Minke Whales, multiple pods of White-beaked Dolphins, a Harbour Porpoise, and oodles of puffins!
Puffins have super colorful beaks, which has earned them the nickname of the sea parrot. They are also super awkward at flying, which makes them even more adorable. 😍 They flap their wings over 400 times a minute just to stay in flight! 😲
10. Explore the Capital of Reykjavik
A trip to Iceland simply would not be complete without a visit to the capital city of Reykjavik.Reykjavik is not only the capital of Iceland, it’s also the northernmost capital on the planet, located just 2 degrees south of the Arctic Circle! 😲🌎 The name Reykjavik comes from the steamy hot springs around the city, which literally translates to “Smoky Bay.”Reykjavik is also one of the cleanest and safest cities in the world! The police here don’t carry weapons, and there’s even a wait list to serve a prison sentence, since there are so few jail cells. Almost all of the city is also run on geothermal energy, making it incredibly eco-friendly!
Now the undeniable icon of the city is Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran Church that resembles the basalt columns on the Southern coast.In front of the church is the Viking Leif Eriksson, an Icelandic explorer who supposedly set foot on North America long before Columbus. 😮
Fun fact: Apparently Vikings don’t actually have horns! According to one of my guides, Vikings were described as devils to the Christians and depicted as such, although the horns were more hypothetical than literal.Other highlights in Reykjavik include the Perlan, a giant water tank for the city, Harpa, a concert hall and conference center, Hofdi House, a building which has hosted many historic political meetings, and the Sun Voyager, a stainless steel art piece designed to be a dream boat as a beacon of light and hope. 💖
Personally, I just enjoyed wandering the streets to view the modern architecture of the city. The homes appeared to be influenced by Scandinavian style. I also found this cemetery, which is supposed to be creepy, but appeared quite lovely. 💖
Then I found this children’s entertainment van, which is supposed to be lovely, but appeared quite creepy! 😂
Side note: As you’ve probably noticed from this blog, the Icelandic words are not so simple to pronounce.😂 The words are extremely long with many symbols that don’t exist in English. Luckily, Icelandic people speak English very well here, so you won’t have any problems as a tourist. 😉Speaking of being a tourist, here are some typical souvenirs to purchase in Iceland.
Smoked and dried fish are a staple in Icelandic cuisine.
Alcohol was actually banned in Iceland until 1989, but now beer is one of the most widely consumed beverages. 🍺
This brings me to my bonus tip.
Bonus #11. Leave your budget at the door!
Realize that Iceland is not a cheap country. Between buying souvenirs, arranging transportation, booking accommodation, and eating basic meals, you can seriously injure your bank account here! I mean, the round-trip bus fare from the airport alone cost 53 USD! I talked to one guy who took a taxi, and it cost him almost 200 USD one way!To cut costs, I chose to cook all of my meals. I stayed at the Capital Inn for around 20-25 USD/night, which had its own kitchen to facilitate this.
I also stuck to a college diet of bread, noodles, peanut butter, and oatmeal. 😂
Sounds sad, but I couldn’t get over the sticker shock I had at the prices here. Eating at moderate restaurants can easily cost 50-100 USD for an entrée and drink. 😲💸
That being said, I suggest you just figure out your priorities. For some people, they enjoy splurging on meals and hotels, while I enjoy splurging on activities. I think it’s all about balance. Either way, you’ll have an incredible time in this country, with memories to last a lifetime. 😀
Anyway, to wrap up the post, here’s a video which documents my whole week in Iceland, including all the activities that I enjoyed. 💖
What’s next for ESLVentures?
As you may have noticed from my blog and Instagram, I’ve been visiting home quite a lot recently. I’m actually back in the States right now, and in the process of making some life changes. Definitely for the better! 😉 Anyway, once I get everything sorted out, I’ll post an update on what’s to come. Until then! Take care and happy traveling! ✈️