Last Updated on May 5, 2022 by Nellie Huang
Far from Europe’s crowd-pullers lies the Arctic island nation of Iceland. This Iceland travel guide will bring you high over its volcanoes and deep underground.
Marooned just outside the Arctic Circle, Iceland is a Nordic island nation that’s barely three hours away from London by plane – and yet anchored within its own world of raw and untouched wilderness.
Volcanically and geologically active, the country is a land of extremities. Its coastlines are fringed with ragged fjords, its interior is speckled with lava fields, bubbling mud pools, erupting geysers, active volcanoes and topped with larger-than-life glaciers.
Thanks to its location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – the dividing line between the Eurasian and North American continental plates – Iceland is a potent concoction of geological formations. Intense, dramatic and colossal: this country is strikingly beautiful and packed with an endless list of natural attractions.
Table of Contents
- My Complete Iceland Travel Guide
- MY ICELAND TRAVEL GUIDE
- Top Sights in Iceland
My Complete Iceland Travel Guide
Our journey started in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. It’s a small and artsy city buzzing with activities, sprinkled with Scandinavian huts and a cluster of bars and museums. Some of my favorite spots in the city were the Harpa concert hall, Sun Voyager boat sculpture, and Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral and its stunning tower. We spent three days in the city with one of our best friends, Ivar, who’s born and raised here. We had a great time exploring but it didn’t take long to head out and see more.
Beyond Reykjavik, Iceland puts on quite a show with its sweeping landscapes of ice mountains and rugged tundra plains. This natural, rugged wilderness was the side of Iceland we were eager to explore. Fortunately it is all easily accessible from Reykjavik. On board a rented 4WD jeep, we headed out to the southwestern coast and seemingly entered a different world.
A Country of Volcanos, Waterfalls and Glaciers
Despite its very chilly name, Iceland really is green – its landscapes smeared in 50 shades of emerald, putting Ireland to shame. We wound through rolling hills covered in tundra carpets and gushing waterfalls that trickled down jagged cliffs. Sapphire-blue rivers snake through verdant green valleys, where herds of beautiful Icelandic horses roamed free.
After a two-hour drive, we pulled up at the base of Sólheimajökull Glacier. This is an ice mountain that cloaks the semi-active Volcano Katla, one of the highest volcanoes in Europe at 1,512m (4,961 ft). This Iceland volcano is completely covered by thick coats of black sand, with bluish-grey chunks of ice piled up one on top of another, stretching high into the sky.
With our crampons firmly latched onto the glacier, we slowly made our way up the slippery glacial slopes. Carefully jumping over giant cauldrons, and criss-crossing waterways and deep crevasses. If I fell, it wouldn’t be to the ground. It would be into that crevasse with its death-blue tinge and promise of an icy coffin. I needed to focus on what lay ahead and continued trudging up the slopes.
Soon we found ourselves in front of a vertiginous wall. “First sling each axe into the wall of ice, then kick the foot spears into the wall”. Our guide Røbert Halldorsson gave us a quick briefing and then demonstrated by scaling up the solid glacial wall like spiderman on ice.
Ice and Spikes: Climbing up a Glacier
But once I got on that wall, it proved way harder than expected. My lungs were quickly burning, my shoulders were screaming, and my mind tried to concentrate on what lay ahead of me. I plummeted my ice axes into a patch of cracked ice and pushed my body upwards with all my strength. I couldn’t hear anything, except for the crunch and the swish of my poorly orchestrated movements.
All that followed was a blur as my world spinned 360 degrees in fast-forward motion. Thank goodness for the harness – I ended up hanging mid-air, in the safe hands of Røbert.
My first attempt at ice-climbing was a complete failure. At least I overcame the rush of pounding nerves and got myself mid-way up the wall.
By the time we reached the top of the glacier, the sky had cleared and the sun was coyly poking through the thick clouds. From this vantage point, the glacier and the sea stretched into the near distance. Their colors of blue and grey played against the sunlight, while the dramatic ocean danced a ferocious tango with the black volcanic sand.
Hiking Iceland’s Most Active Volcano
The next morning at the crack of dawn, we made our way further down Iceland’s southwestern coast to the base of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano. They don’t call this one of the ‘Angry Sisters’ (the other being Katla) for nothing. It’s a name that none if us can pronounce or spell but we all are extremely familiar with.
Just last year, this explosive monster of a volcano made its name worldwide with a ferocious eruption, spewing hundreds of tonnes of ash into the sky and severely affecting air travel in Europe. This was the biggest Iceland volcano eruption in the past decade. Families living in the area were evacuated out within 24 hours, and over five weeks, layers upon layers of ash descended upon Iceland.
Our guide for the day, Tómas Magnússon, was one of those who were severely affected – he and his family spent weeks clearing ash off their house, repairing water pipes and most of all, getting their business back in shape. Tómas leads hikes up the volcano for adventure-seekers, but had to suspend his tours after the eruption.
But for him, it’s a way of life. Iceland is one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth, with a volcano erupting about every 5 years on average. Eleven volcanoes have erupted between 1900 and 1998.
Fortunately, his business revived once the ash cleared, with tourists arriving in bulks to climb this monster of a volcano after the earth-shattering eruption.
Witnessing the Volcano’s Ferocious Temper
Under clear skies, Tómas drove us to the base of the volcano on a sturdy 4×4 Superjeep, weaving past waterfalls and moss-filled green slopes before reaching the layers of solidifed ashes that had been churned out from the center of the earth.
We plunged and lurched for over two hours, scaling a height of 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) on the treacherous jeep trail to get to the start of our trek. As soon as we ascended above the clouds, the sunshine was abruptly replaced by a thick curtain of fog and rain. In the bleak midst of grey ash and white ice, the setting resembled a scene straight out of a disaster movie.
With the icy frost whipping across my face at lightning speed, I could barely open my eyes nor fight the strong wind. With less than a hundred meters up to the crater, we were now stuck in a snow storm.
Luckily the winds slowed just for a minute; we jumped on that short window and hurtled down the volcano for shelter. Miraculously, the minute we got back to the base, it was all sunshine and clear skies. Although we never made it to the top of the volcano, we did experience its sheer power – and ferocity.
Driving the Golden Circle in Iceland
Over the next few days, we cruised around the Golden Circle, a 190-mile (300-km) circular route. It passes through Iceland’s most famous trio and is just a short two-hour drive from Reykjavik.
Our first stop was Gulfoss, Europe’s largest waterfall. We heard it before we saw it: a thundering roar engulfed us as we walked through the mist clouds surrounding the hammering falls. It was a sight to behold — thousands of gallons of gushing water plummeting down a 105-foot (32-meter) double cascade, into the churning Hvita glacial river.
Nearby, the geothermal waters of Iceland put on quite a show. We wandered around the walking trails, past steaming vents and colorful mud formations in a bizarre Mars-like setting – but we had come to see the star of the spectacle, Geysir; the one single geyser from which all other geysers are named after.
Unfortunately, it has become somewhat shy in recent years and only spews once or twice a year. Thankfully we spotted the nearby Strokkur spouting 100-feet water jets almost every five minutes. We watched as the orange-blue pool bubble up, releasing steam and foam into the air. It then explodes into a light blue jet of steaming water. It resembled a magic show, except that the magician in this case was Mother Earth.
Digging up History in Þingvellir
Next, we headed out to Þingvellir National Park, to trace the root of all these volcanic activities. This is where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge lies. It’s an area where new earth is constantly formed by the movement of the North American and European tectonic plates.
But it’s not just a place of geological significance; the first parliament in Iceland actually took place here in 930 AD. The chieftains could hardly have chosen a more appropriate place to meet. Nowhere in the country is there a landscape that better epitomize the geologic history of Iceland.
With the past behind us, we went in search of Silfra rift to literally go beneath the surface. Silfra, by virtue of its location in the largest freshwater lake in Iceland, contains sparkling clear, cold water that with extremely high visibility and geological importance. Considered one of the best dive sites in the world, Silfra promises visibility of 150 to 300 meters (in clear glacial waters fit for drinking) and an underwater environment found nowhere else.
Snorkeling between Tectonic Plates
Despite the sub-zero temperature, the opportunity to snorkel between tectonic plates beckoned. Dressed in nothing more than a bulky dry suit, airtight hood and gloves, we plunged beneath the glacial waters, into an alien world.
Sunlight pierced through the clear-as-glass water, lighting up the entire water channel in an Avatar shade of blue. Giant boulders flanked both sides of the narrow channel, with lime green algae growing out of them, lifelessly swaying in the still water. Observing the spillage of rocks and boulders all around me, I let my imagination run wild.
Our guide Hössi reminded us, “Remember where you are. On your right is America,” he paused for effect, “on your left, Europe.”
As we meandered further, I could see beyond the narrow channel as it opened up to a wide waterway and deepened to depths of 100 meters and beyond. It was easy to see why some divers experience vertigo here. The water was so clear and motionless it felt like we were floating in space.
In the still water, there was complete silence and a pristine sense of peace. I thought back at what we had seen and done in the past week. From formidable glaciers to roaring volcanoes and raging waterfalls – it felt like we had leapt across continents and centuries. I could hardly believe that we had seen it all on just one island.
MY ICELAND TRAVEL GUIDE
Best Time to Travel Iceland
Summer (June to August) is the best season to visit Iceland as temperatures are milder. This also means that it’s the busiest period for tourism. You won’t, though, get overwhelming crowds here like in Western Europe. In summer, temperatures rise to a balmy 50-60°F (10-15°C) and the midnight sun promises 24 hours of daylight from the beginning of June to end of July.
Winter (November to February) can get extremely cold, but it is also the best time to see northern lights. It is usually fairly easy to spot the aurora borealis in Iceland, even in downtown Reykjavik. Temperatures dip to -4°F (-20°C) so be sure to dress appropriately.
How to Get to Iceland
The main airport is in Iceland is Keflavik International Airport, 30 miles (50 km) outside of Rekjavik. Flights from New York to Iceland are usually direct and flights start from only US$199 each way on WOW Air.
From Keflavik Airport, Flybus is the cheapest way to get to downtown Reykjavik (ticket price depends on destination). Read my review of flying WOW Air with kids.
Getting Around Iceland
The best way to travel around Iceland is renting a car, as you can reach places that public transport cannot access. Roads are in excellent conditions, well sign-posted and easy to navigate; there’s rarely traffic anywhere. Distances between sights and towns are usually not more than one or two hours’ drive.
You can easily find affordable car rentals in Iceland, with prices starting from US$33 a day. You will need a 4WD to manoeuvre off road and around the volcanic areas.
We hired a vehicle on both of our trips to Iceland. The first time, we hired a 4WD jeep and the second time, we rented a campervan that proved to be a great way to save money and camp wherever we wanted. Here’s more info about driving in Iceland.
Best Things to Do in Iceland
Iceland is an adventure playground with so many exciting excursions to take: from ice-climbing to volcano trekking. Guide to Iceland offers reasonably priced and well organized Iceland tours. These include the Golden Circle tour (from US$79 per person), glacier hiking excursion (from US$93), Northern Lights tour (from US$61) and multi-day self-driving tours.
Where to Stay in Iceland
In Reykjavik, there is a good range of accommodation. Everything from backpacker hostels to high-end luxury hotels. Once you get out of the city, choices are fewer and are usually limited to countryside cottages and rural bed and breakfasts.
Cost of Travel in Iceland
The currency used in Iceland is the Icelandic Krone (ISK). The exchange rate is currently at US$1 to 129 ISK. Prices are generally higher in Iceland as compared to Western Europe. A standard hotel double room costs around 15,500 ISK (US$120) in Reykjavik. A restaurant meal costs around 2,000 – 3,200 ISK (US$15-25). Prices of the airport shuttle from Keflavik start from 3,500 ISK return (US$27). Click to read more on how to tip in Iceland.
What to Pack for Iceland
Weather can be unpredictable regardless of season so come prepared. In winter, you’ll need four or five layers of well-insulated coating. I’d advise a thick Gore-Tex parka, a balaclava and windproof gloves. In summer, you just need a fleece and a raincoat. Check out my Iceland packing list for details.
Top Sights in Iceland
Soak up the Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon near Keflavik is a gorgeous pool of bubbling, volcanic water that provides the perfect respite in a chilly winter day. Entry is rather pricy, at 4,900 ISK (US$38) per person. For a cheaper alternative, head to Myvatn Nature Baths. A dip only sets you back at US$28 and you will have the whole place to yourself.
Watch Northern Lights in Winter
Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. November to February is the best time to see the Aurora Borealis in action and I’d recommend signing up for an Iceland Northern Lights tour to maximize your chances of seeing them.
Whale-Watching in Húsavík
Skjálfandi bay, whale capital of Europe, is visited by 24 species of whales all year round. They are drawn by its plankton-rich water. Whale watching in Husavik was one of the best experiences we had in Iceland and it was the closest I’d ever been to a whale.
Hike to the Centre of the Earth
Escape to the rugged Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Explore its sulphur lava fields and glaciers and visit the film setting of the movie, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”.
White Water Rafting in Glacial Water
Ride through Class III and IV rapids along Jökulsá Austari, the Beast of the East, and watch the eerie landscapes whizz by. This is the best white water rafting in Iceland. You’re guarantee to have a wet and wild ride!