Updated: Jul 15, 2020
The land of ice and fire, Iceland is quite magnificent for such a small country. It's often compared to Norway, I would imagine because of the climate, landscapes and Viking ancestry. But Iceland is still quite unique with a lot to see and do. Most activities being outdoor to get a real appreciation for the country's epic scenery.
The Northern Lights are one of the biggest attractions, but it's not always guaranteed to see them. In fact most people I know who have visited Iceland haven't seen them. I've actually heard from some locals that the best place to see the Northern Lights is actually northern parts of Norway and it's more of a gimmick to get people to Iceland.
Most people tend to visit Iceland during the winter months in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights. And winter in Iceland can be cold, very cold! But there's still quite a lot to see and do in the winter months.
If it's your first time visiting Iceland I'd suggest visiting September/October time. This should give you a chance to see the Northern Lights whilst it's not too cold, and let you hike and explore much of the outdoors without it being covered in snow. If however you want to visit when there's snow, then of course you should visit during the winter.
If you choose to hire a camper van and drive around Iceland on your own, it will be the cheapest way to see the country, and there's a good chance you'll see the Northern Lights by chance. However, driving around Iceland yourself means you have to be very careful. The terrain can be very dangerous due to bad weather, or even falling rocks.
If you don't plan to do the driving yourself, then staying in Reykjavik is probably the best option, and from there you can book different day tours. I chose the Golden Circle Tour, which takes in several of Iceland's top sights, and the Southern Iceland tour, which I preferred due to slightly less tourists and what I considered to be more beautiful scenery.
There are several waterfalls in Iceland, three of which I visited on my trip. There also seems to be beautiful and less touristy areas to the north and east of the country, but journeying here without your own transport is a little more tricky and expensive due to the distance.
The capital of Iceland, and where most tourists make their base whilst in Iceland. In all honesty, I didn't think there was a lot to see and do here. It's a nice city to walk around, and it feels quite calm and relaxing at times. However due to the popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination it's usually overrun with tourists nowadays.
I took part in a free walking tour here, but it was one of the most boring I have ever been on. I learnt a little about the history of the city, but there were no real amazing sights or stories that were divulged. Most of the sights I'd already seen in passing, and I didn't feel as if I'd learnt as much as I usually would from such a tour.
Reykjavik is thought to be one of the most expensive cities in the world. I would agree it was expensive, when it comes to buying food and drink, but I have been to more expensive places. I was estimating that I'd be paying about £15 for a pint of beer, but in reality I only paid about £10. Earlier in the evenings the bars and pubs will have happy hours, when drinks are even cheaper, I think maybe around £6 if you're lucky to be in a bar at this time.
When it comes to eating out, do your research. I checked a few restaurants and avoided any of the nicer looking ones. I was able to get meals for around £15, which was actually a lot cheaper than I'd anticipated. So when it comes to eating out, research the prices and maybe consider eating in a less classy place than you would usually.
The Aurora Borealis can be seen between late August to early April. If you're visiting during these months then the Northern lights will probably be the sight you want to see the most. The problem is you never know if you will see them. The advantage of visiting Iceland during the winter months when the nights are longer, gives you a longer window each evening to try to see them. However it's also weather dependant, if it's cloudy, you won't have such a good chance. It also depends on the solar activity, but you can check a forecast website to see when the lights look to be more active.
I picked early October and I was lucky enough to see a very strong display of the lights. However for several weeks before my visit the lights had not been visible due to cloudy weather and low activity.
One thing to note is that the Northern lights may not look quite the same as the photos you see. When I saw them they were white trails dancing in the sky. However the photos I took of them show they were green with hints or purple, how I imaged them to be from images online. Apparently it's to do with how our eyes operate during the night time.
There are different ways to see the lights, usually the further away from the city the better, due to less interference from the city lights. Surprisingly on one of my nights in the city the lights were clearly visible simply by walking into the street and looking up. I missed this as I was in the pub at the time and it was only the next day that I saw photos on peoples phones. Don't rely on this being the case though, as it's quite a rare occurrence.
There are many companies offering coach trips into the centre of Iceland away from the city where it's darker. The only problem with this is that it can take several hours of driving before you find the lights, and then several hours back again, which will take up most of your night. It can also get very very cold during the winter months, so wrap up warm.
I chose to go by boat, which is a faster option, as it's about an hour trip out to sea, and an hour back. It's a little more expensive than the coach option, but the quicker option. The other downside of the boat is taking photos. It's better to keep the camera as still as possible with a very slow shutter speed, and the boat will move as you take the photos. But thankfully my photos didn't turn out too bad.
If you don't have a camera on which you can't control the shutter speed, it's unlikely you'll be able to get a photo of the lights. However there are apps for smart phones which will slow your shutter speed, and the photos on my iPhone with an app came out reasonably. If I were to see the lights again though, I'd definitely prefer to use a good quality camera to get some nice shots.
If you fail to see the lights, both the coach trips and boat trips will offer you a chance to go out another night for free, until you're able to see the lights. Therefore I suggest trying on your first night, and if you don't see them, just go again each night you're there until you see them. I think this can last up to a year, so if you visit Iceland months later, you should still be able to go out with the same company without paying a second time. I think there is also an option for a complete refund with some of the companies.
There's a good possibility you won't get to see the Northern Lights, so don't base your whole trip to Iceland on seeing them. Make sure you add lots of other exciting activities to your trip. Iceland is a wonderful country, and as much as the Northern Lights are a wonderful sight to see, there is so much more that Iceland has to offer.
In Haukadalur you'll find an area with several geothermal geysers of various sizes and frequency of activity. There are other areas in Iceland with geysers, but this area is the most famous and most touristy, and it will be part of the Golden Circle tour.
The most popular geyser here is "Strokkur" due to it's frequency and size. Definitely wait around here until you see this one erupt as it is quite impressive. Although it will vary in height on each eruption, so maybe watch a few of them to ensure you get to see it reach a good height.
There's a nice hill to hike up here too, which can take about 15 -20 minutes, but if you have the time to do so it'll give you a nice view of the various geysers in the valley below.
Make sure you're careful when walking around the area due to the boiling water which will quite easily strip the skin from your bone if you were to step into the bubbling pools.
The waterfall you'll be taken to on the Golden Circle tour. It's one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland, which at least means there's more room for you to walk around it and get some nice photographs, even with the excessive amount of tourists. There are plenty of different places to view the waterfall, including spots overlooking it as well as right next to it. It's certainly impressive seeing and hearing the amount of water gushing into the gorge below.
I visited this waterfall during my Southern Iceland tour and it was a pretty sight. It wasn't as crowded as Gullfoss, but there were still quite a few tourists here. You can view Skógafoss from the ground, which I personally thought was the best view, and you'll often see rainbows cascading from the water when the sun is bright.
It's also possible to walk the long tall staircase to the top of the waterfall for some views of the various landscapes above.
If you have the time I'd certainly suggest the trek up the stairway as the landscape is quite a sight once you're at the top.
This was my favourite waterfall in Iceland due to the fact you can actually walk behind it. Although it may not look as impressive as Gullfoss or Skógafoss at first, I actually thought it was more beautiful.
Make sure you have well gripped footwear if you plan to walk behind, as it can get a little slippery, especially if you intend to go all the way to the other side. You'll have to climb some rocks there which can be wet and muddy.
This was the last sight we visited on the Souther Iceland tour which I think worked well as there were less tourists and the sunlight seemed just right during the late afternoon.
Black Sand Beach
Located by the small town of Vik is this stunning black sand beach. There are of course many black sand beaches around Iceland which is due to volcanic nature of the island. What makes this beach different is the scenery around it. One of the first things you'll notice here will be the rock formation just off the coast. The rocks are said to have been a troll who tried to pull a ship towards him, but in doing so was turned to stone when the sun rose. One of the rocks is the troll, whilst the others resemble the ship and it's masts.
You'll some large open mouthed caves you can explore and many basalt stacks which are formed in quite an amazing way. These long columns look incredible, considering they were formed naturally. Many tourists will climb these, and it can get busy, so try to get here early to avoid the crowds.
The third and final stop on the golden circle tour was the site where the tectonic plates meet. What's interesting here is that the large gap here is constantly increasing as the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates slowly drift apart.
There's not a huge amount to see here, you can walk through the gap which goes on for quite a distance, or admire the surrounding scenery from high up. However knowing you're at the point of a tectonic rift is quite an interesting feeling.
Another sight on the Southern Iceland tour, although we only admired it from a distance and didn't actually get to trek on the glacier itself. The area in which our group stopped to view the glacier was beautiful in a strange way. It was a desolate area filled with rocks and a lake, but it was fun to climb around the area to get various exciting views. It felt a little like we were on the way to Mordor.
For around £60 it's possible to take a tour hiking the glacier itself, and you'll be given all the equipment you need whilst being led by a licensed guide.
There are many geothermal pools in Iceland, many of which are said to be much better than the Blue Lagoon, yet the Blue Lagoon is still the most popular with tourists.
I'm usually one for adventure more so than lazing around in a relaxing environment, but sometimes I need to slow down and take a break. Although expensive and not an actual natural lagoon, the Blue Lagoon is quite beautiful and very relaxing. I'd only planned to spend an hour or so here, but I enjoyed it so much that I stayed longer.
The lagoon is actually waste water from the geothermal power plant nearby, but the milky blue water looks stunning as the steam rises from it.
There are various packages available, but I went for the standard and cheapest option, whilst also booking transport from Reykjavik and back again.
On arrival you'll be given a bracelet for a free drink and a free silicon facemask. You'll find the bar as you walk around the lagoon and an area giving out the mushy silicon to apply to your face. I wasn't really sure what I was doing with the silicon mask, and I'm not sure if it had any beneficial effects, but most other people had there faces covered in it too, so I gave it a try.
I arrived quite early in the morning to avoid the crowds, but with the sun so low at this time, it made for an even more beautiful atmosphere. So I'd suggest visiting early for the best experience here.
I'm sure that many locals will advise you to try a natural hot spring in Iceland, and I would probably suggest the same, but if it's your first trip to Iceland, then I still recommend a visit here too.
I've seen hundreds of churches during my travels of various styles, some have been truly beautiful, whilst others have been quite plain and ordinary. But I've never seen a church quite like Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik.
It's the most noticeable and popular landmark in the city, and as a result always has tourists around it, even when visiting first thing in the morning. The church was only consecrated in 1986, so it's not all that old, which is evident by it's modern look. It's free to enter the church, but entrance to the tower is quite cheap, from which you get an amazing view of Reykjavik.
A gleaming steel sculpture located in Reykjavik, which I had assumed like many tourists was a Viking ship. It's actually meant to be a dream boat, an ode to the sun. Still, to me it still looks like a Viking ship.
It's a great location for a photograph during the day time, especially when the sky is blue and the sun is out. The ship gleams in the sunlight and looks quite magnificent.
Whilst walking around the centre of Reykjavik, you'll be sure to come across this street with a rainbow painted along it. Originally I had wondered if this was meant to be Bifröst, the rainbow bridge to Asgard in Norse mythology. But no, it's actually there to support diversity and I believe was originally painted in preparation for a Pride celebration, but has remained ever since.
Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre
This building is one of the most beautiful after dark. It is as the name suggests a concert hall and conference centre. You can enter free to have a quick look around, but it's the outside which is the most impressive. At night the outside lights up and changes colours through various different movements. This is a fantastic sight to see when taking a boat out to see the Northern Lights. But if you're not going out on a boat after dark, try to take a walk passing this well lit building.
If you're looking for a different snack to try, then why not try fermented shark? There are several restaurants that offer this appetiser, but I chose "Cafe Loki" to try the dish.
The shark meat is buried in the ground for 6-12 weeks while it ferments. It's then dug up and cut into strips and hung to dry over several months. It's then ready for consumption.
I received 3 small cubes of the meat on cocktail sticks with a shot of a liquor called "Brennivín". The idea is to chew the cube of meat for 1 minute, and as you do so the flavours and aromas will be released. It's hard to explain how it tasted. It wasn't as awful as many people make out, but the smell was exceptionally strong, and it almost felt hot in my mouth. After chewing for a minute you can swallow and then take a sip of the "Brennivín". It's an interesting taste and something I recommend trying for anyone visiting Iceland who's adventurous with food. It's not delicious nor is it disgusting, but it's certainly different!
At a restaurant called Sægreifinn which is located near the docks in Reykjavik, you'll find the worlds best lobster soup. I'm not usually one for soup, but I do love lobster, which could be why this soup really was delicious.
There was quite a long queue when I first arrived, and nowhere to sit. I finally found a place to sit, but it was quite crowded. I'd suggest visiting at off peak hours as this place in very popular with tourists and locals, most of which are here simply for the lobster soup.
There are various souvenir shops in Reykjavik selling Viking themed souvenirs, but Thor has one of the best selections of good quality Viking souvenirs. They are however quite pricey and could possibly be found cheaper elsewhere if you're lucky. Having said that though, I think the shop has so many beautiful items, I could spend a fortune here. You'll also notice various displays inside such as a giant statue of Thor defeating a troll, as well as other gods, Odin, Loki and Freya.
One thing about Iceland that I was fascinated by was the folklore. Apparently many of the residents believe in elves. I can't say that I actually met any locals who claimed to believe in such creatures, but some don't like to say they don't. The elves in Iceland are actually human size creatures known as the Hidden People. Still, no matter what you may be told beforehand, I didn't get the impression that they were widely believed in. There is a tourist attraction known as an Elf School where you're taught about different types of elves. This could be interesting to take part in, but most reviews I read of the place seemed negative. You're basically taken to an old man's apartment on a housing estate where he tells you stories about elves for quite a high fee.
If you get a chance to speak with locals about Icelandic myths then you should definitely do so. The one that fascinated me the most was that of their Christmas story. Instead of a Father Christmas or Santa Claus, they have 13 elf type creatures known as the Yule Lads. Each night for 13 consecutive nights a different Yule Lad will visit the residents houses leaving gifts for the children if they are good or a potato if they are bad. Each one will cause a different type of mischief like slamming doors or stealing sausages. Their mother is Gryla, a type of troll witch who eats naughty children after boiling them alive in her cauldron. She also owns a giant cat called the Yule Cat who will eat children who don't receive new clothing over the Christmas period. Which is why the people of Iceland are usually happy to receive clothing as gifts at Christmas time.