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Reykjavik is the capital and largest city of Iceland at around 120,000 people, which comprises half the country’s total population. Although it was the site of the country’s first permanent settlement dating from around 870, there was no actual city here until 1786. Since then this friendly city has developed into a lively, creative capital with a focus on fishing, banking and the creative industries, predominantly music, fashion and design.
The laidback, low-rise city is dotted with new high-rise developments dating from the heady days of wealth before the 2008 banking crash. The jewel in the crown is the recently completed architectural showpiece and concert hall, Harpa, located on the waterfront.
Smaller ships will dock at the Old Harbor but most will tie up at the Cruise Dock a couple of miles from the center of the city. There is little to see here, but shuttle buses take only about ten minutes into the heart of Reykjavik.
Gullfoss is a massive waterfall on the river Hvita which originates in the glacial lake Langjokull. Gullfoss means 'golden falls' because the glacial sediment in the water turns the falls golden in the sunlight. The water falls 105 feet (32 meters) in two steps. As you approach, you hear the falls before you see the wild, tumbling water as the river valley is a deep, dramatic crevasse. You can stand at the top or walk down the path to the bottom.
During the first half of the 20th century, the then-owners of the waterfall and surrounding land leased it to foreign investors who were keen to build a hydroelectric plant but their plans fell through. Then it was sold to Iceland but even then there was talk of harnessing the power of the river. Legend has it that local landowner Sigridur Tomasdottir loved the place so much that she threatened to throw herself into the falls in protest, and then walked to Reykjavik barefoot in protest, thus making her point heard.
The Blue Lagoon is a unique wonder of Iceland, a result of all that volcanic activity the small island is so famous for. In the middle of the weird and wonderful, flat black lava fields of the Svartsengi National Park, the huge, outdoor lagoon is filled by naturally heated geothermal water which comes from 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) below the surface of the earth. It is full of minerals, silica and algae and is especially good for the skin and relaxation. In fact, part of the Blue Lagoon development is a health clinic specializing in cures for psoriasis. The water is almost startlingly blue in color, and the white of the silica on the black lava rocks around the edges makes an amazing contrast.
As well as soaking and swimming in the pool, the Blue Lagoon offers in-water massage treatments, saunas and steam rooms, and a cafe. On any visit to Iceland a few hours soaking in The Blue Lagoon is essential, and its location between Reykjavik and the airport makes it easy to do.
Iceland is famous for the extraordinary natural beauty of its volcanic-carved landscapes and more than ten per cent of the island is covered with ice. The nearest extensive glacier to the capital city of Reykjavik is Langjökull, which stretches across 367 miles sq (950 km sq) in the mid-western highlands and is the second-largest in the country. The glacier sits at 4,000 ft (1,200 m) above sea level and its melt waters travel through subterranean streams to feed Lake Þingvallavatn 32.25 miles (50 km) to the south. Over many millennia Langjökull’s ice has grown to a thickness of 1,650 ft (500 m), and in 2010 a system of vast manmade ice caves and tunnels were excavated underneath the glacier, big enough to be explored by eight-wheeled trucks, which venture underground to tour a mysterious world of dazzling blue and silver compacted ice.
With its slim cascade of water slicing through the air and pooling into the Seljalandsá River below, Seljalandsfoss is one of Iceland’s most undeniably photogenic waterfalls, located just off Iceland’s main Ring Road, between the Skógafoss and Selfoss waterfalls.
Plunging from a height of around 60 meters, Seljalandsfoss might not be Iceland’s widest or mightiest waterfall, but it’s certainly one of its most famous, forming a dramatic arch of water that dominates the picturesque Thórsmörk valley. Surrounded by wild flowers in the summer months and floodlit after nightfall, a visit to Seljalandsfoss provides ample opportunities for snap-happy tourists, but its most distinctive feature is its narrow chute of water, which allows a breathtaking vantage point from behind the falls. Uniquely, a footpath runs all the way around the waterfall, allowing visitors to get within meters of the rushing water, standing amidst the spray at the foot of the Eyjafjöll Mountains.
Geysers are spectacular and never fail to fill us with excitement and wonder at the nature of this planet we live on. Shooting hot water into the air if and when they feel like it, they really are like the Earth blowing bubbles of sheer joy. Iceland has some of the best in the world. The most visited are right beside the highway on The Golden Circle route, connected to the Hvitá River. Here several geysers erupt every few minutes.
Geysir's geysers, for all their steamy, spectacular shooting of water high into the air, are really a quick stop off on a trip to the nearby Gullfoss waterfall. There is not much else to do except watch water shoot out of the ground or visit the tourist shop across the road, but it's worth it.
Stretching 25 meters across the Skógá River and plummeting from heights of 60 meters, Skógafoss clocks in as one of Iceland’s biggest waterfalls and with its clouds of spray regularly casting rainbows across the waters, it’s also one of the picturesque. One of around 20 waterfalls dotted along the river, Skógafoss marks the start of Iceland’s famous Laugavegurinn long distance hiking trail, which runs for 90 km from Skógar all the way to Landmannalaugar. Alternatively, day-trippers can take in expansive views of Skógar’s glaciers, black ash beaches and thundering waterfalls by climbing the stairway to the top of the falls.
Skógafoss is also a popular subject of local folklore, which tells that the region’s first Viking settler, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a chest of treasure in a cave behind the mighty falls. Allegedly, a local boy found the chest years later and while attempting to haul it out, pulled the ring from the front of the chest.
The landmark Geysir Geyser might be the world’s most famous and the one after which all others are named, but its neighbor, Strokkur, is equally impressive. Despite only rising to heights of 60 to 100 feet (compared to Geysir’s 150 to 200 feet), Strokkur still erupts several times an hour (unlike Geysir, which remains largely dormant thanks to its clogged conduit) offering visitors a good chance of witnessing the natural spectacle.
Opened up by an earthquake in 1789 and reactivated by human intervention in 1963 after being blocked by a second earthquake, Strokkur has been erupting regularly ever since. Cradled in a 3-meter wide crater, Strokkur’s highly anticipated eruptions begin with the formation of a pulsing bubble of hot water, which reaches temperatures of around 200 °C before a rush of steam breaks through and shoots into the air.
Covering an area of 12,000 square-kilometers and encompassing the former National Parks of Jökulsárgljúfur and Skaftafell, Vatnajokull National Park has been collecting superlatives since it was established in 2008. The park is now Western Europe’s largest national park (covering almost 13% of the country), dominated by the Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s largest glacier, and containing Iceland's highest mountain, Öraefajökull, and deepest lake, Jökulsárlón.
An unyielding landscape of land and fire, Vatnajökull presents some of Iceland’s most diverse and dramatic scenery including glacial plateaus, active volcanoes, towering ice caps, beaches of black ash and bubbling geothermal terrain. The southern territory of Skaftafell is the gateway to the most accessible area of the glacier and one of the most popular regions of the park, with the Skaftafell Visitor Center providing a detailed introduction to the park’s many geological wonders.
Iceland is spectacular and so is the Golden Circle Route. The wide open landscapes are like nothing you've ever seen before. Actively volcanic, this inland route is a mass of waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, lava fields, and, of course, those volcanoes. The first stop is Thingvellir National Park, the spectacular site of Iceland's first parliament and the place where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet - and are moving apart. There is a widening fissure in the ground where the planet is literally opening up. Next it's on to Gullfoss waterfall, a huge fall of water. From here you can see a glacier off to one side. And then it's geysers. The sheer power of water and steam erupting from the ground due to the build up of extreme heat is awesome and really makes you realize how alive the ground is beneath our feet.
Snæfellsjökull National Park is located in the westernmost part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and is one of the top tourist destinations in Iceland. It is the only Icelandic national park to extend to the seashore — most of the coastline is home to luxuriant flora and fauna (arctic tern, guillemot, razorbill, fulmar, kittiwake and shag, to name a few), especially during breeding season. The area was formed through volcanic activity caused by Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000 year old stratovolcano located underneath a glacier. On clear days, it can even be seen from Reykjavik, 120 kilometers away across Faxafloi Bay!
Literary speaking, Snæfellsjökull is one of the most famous national national parks and volcanoes to ever be depicted in written history – or at least, it used to be up until the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption— since it was featured in the novel Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne in 1864 as the actual entrance to the center of the earth.
Reykjavík's most attention-seeking building is the immense concrete church Hallgrímskirkja, or Hallgrimur's Church, star of a thousand postcards and visible from 12 miles (20 kilometers) away. For an unmissable view of the city, make sure you take an elevator trip up the 250 ft (75 m) high tower. In contrast to the high drama outside, the church's interior is puritanically plain. The most startling feature is the vast 5,275-pipe organ, which has a strangely weapon-like appearance. Between mid-June and mid-August you can hear this mighty beast in action three times per week at lunchtime/evening concerts.
The church's radical design caused huge controversy, and its architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, never lived to see its completion - it took a painstaking 34 years (1940-74) to build. Those sweeping columns on either side of the tower represent volcanic basalt - a favorite motif of Icelandic nationalists.
Snuggled between the peninsulas of Snæfellsnes and Reykjanes in Southwest Iceland, Faxafloi Bay has always held economic and culinary importance to Icelanders thanks to its enviable location on the shore. Back in the day, fishermen used to catch rations that would feed entire villages.
Now Faxafloi Bay isn’t exactly the fishing hub it once was, with bigger boats needing to venture further out at sea, but it still holds historical significance in the country’s history. One of the main attractions in the entire bay is Viðey Island, the largest island of the small Kollfjörður Bay around Reykjavik. It is where the famous Image Peace Tower
“Friðarsúlan” is located, which was commissioned by none other than John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, and which bears the words “imagine peace” in 24 different languages. Additionally, Viðey Island is also home to the country’s oldest church, with some settlements dating back to the 10th century.
The striking steel and glass Harpa Concert Hall, opened in 2011, houses both the Icelandic Opera and Symphony Orchestra. The building, designed by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, features honeycombed glass panels that reflect the sky and the ocean.
As the hub of the Reykjavik cultural scene, there’s something going on within Harpa Concert Hall nearly every night of the week; the venue also hosts most of the city’s most popular events. Besides performance spaces, the building also houses a couple of restaurants and several shops selling Nordic music, books, design items and gifts. Guided tours take visitors behind the scenes to areas of the theater typically only accessible to performers, including the stage itself.
Established in 1967, Skaftafell National Park became a part of the enormous Vatnajokull National Park in 2008, but the area, which sprawls across the southern tip of the vast Vatnajokull glacier, still remains one of the most popular corners of the park. Skaftafell is dominated by the Skaftafellsjökull glacier, one of the most accessible parts of Vatnajokull and offers 5,000 square-kilometers of rugged mountainous terrain and icy glacial tongues.
With no roads traversing the region, hiking, glacier hiking and ice climbing are the main ways to get around in Skaftafell and a vast network of trails are mapped out by the Skaftafell Visitor Center, which now acts as an information center and exhibition space for the entire Vatnajokull National Park.
Intrepid travelers visiting Iceland during the winter months can take their chances on viewing the elusive Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, but for summer visitors or those short on time, the Aurora Reykjavik (Northern Lights Center) offers the next best thing.
A fully interactive exhibition devoted to the otherworldly phenomenon, the center features a 23-foot-wide (7 m) time-lapse video of the majestic lights, which allows visitors to experience nature’s most impressive light show alongside innovative exhibits chronicling the discovery of the lights around the Arctic and the many myths and legends formed around the mysterious spectacle.
Additional highlights include a Northern Lights photo simulator, where budding photographers can master the art of capturing the lights, an awe-inspiring array of Northern Lights photographs and multimedia demonstrations of the science behind the lights.
Iceland has no shortage of active volcanoes, but the notoriously difficult-to-pronounce Eyjafjallajokull Volcano is among the most famous, making headlines around the world when it erupted on April 14, 2010, covering much of Europe’s airspace in a cloud of volcanic ash and grounding air traffic across 20 countries for several days.
While a few intrepid climbers have scaled the 1,666-meter Eyjafjallajokull in recent years, the still-active mount is best enjoyed with a visit to the nearby Eyjafjallajokull visitor center, which opened its doors exactly one year after the latest eruption. Devoted to recounting the history of the volcano and the lives of those who live in its shadow, the center’s fascinating exhibition includes film footage of the latest eruption and spectacular photos of Eyjafjallajokull’s 2.5-km-wide caldera.
The famous site where it is possible to literally stand between two tectonic plates! Located in the turquoise Þingvallavatn Lake in the Þingvellir National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage site), Silfra is part of a rift in the divergent tectonic boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates.
The way fissures are created is quite simple: as the tectonic plates drift apart (roughly two centimeters per year), tension builds up between the earth mass and the two plates, occasionally provoking a major earthquake and fissuring the earth mass in the process. Depending on their altitude and location, fissures may end up being submerged. In Silfra’s case, its translucent waters travel all the way from Iceland’s second largest glacier, Lángjökull, arriving in Þingvellir after a 30 to 100 year ride through underground and porous lava rock. Consequently, Silfra’s water temperature rarely surpasses the 2°C – 4°C mark.