The best places to visit in Iceland
Iceland as a tourist destination has surged in the past few years and was even awarded reader's choice Travel + Leisure's Destination of the Year in 2018. Instagram surely has something to do with the popularity of this photo-worthy Nordic country, with the demand bringing profound amounts of tourism, prosperous development and accessible yet breathtaking access to the Land of Fire and Ice.
We started planning our trip with a group of friends back in the summer, which stemmed from a casual conversation of us all wanting to visit the mysterious country. It became a reality one night after weeks of scanning and finally coming across the cheapest flights we had seen. From Boston, it really is a very easy 5+ hour flight especially if you take the redeye to Keflavik Airport, which is about a 45 minute bus ride to Reykjavik.
So what will you expect visiting Iceland in the winter? Although there is limited daylight (about 4 hours) you'll be surrounded by natural beauty that has diverse and captivating views everywhere you turn from volcanoes and glaciers to mountains and black sand beaches. If you're into photography, it transparently can be tough to capture photos with the limited daylight, but be patient because the perfect photo moment can unfold. Also from personal experience, don't book your trip just to see the Northern Lights because there's no guarantee you'll actually see them! We unfortunately had our tour canceled twice due to weather and on the final night half our group was able to go but still didn't see the lights.
With such a unforgettable trip I wanted to share the top places we visited, especially because I spent several months researching things to see. Beyond just my post scratching the surface, there's so many other places, tours or activities that may pique your interest when visiting Iceland so be sure to do your homework so you don't miss out on the amazing views this incredible country has to offer!
This stunning geothermal mineral spa is one of Iceland's most popular tourist attractions. Known for their transformative experience yet breathtaking views, the Blue Lagoon was named one of National Geographic's 25 wonders of the world in 2012.
It's extremely easy to get to the Blue Lagoon with the direct bus options and hourly transfers available. We booked it for our first day and took a bus directly from the airport, which we found most people visited as they arrived or the day they left Iceland because the location is very close to Keflavik Airport.
Considering the Blue Lagoon is a popular tourist destination, I'd recommend planning ahead and booking your visit in advance. There's several package options and because we had the premium package we received a bathrobe, towel, slippers, two face-masks while in the Lagoon, and a complimentary drink! They also provided us with wristbands so we could purchase additional drinks and refreshments at the cafes, restaurant or swim-up bar.
Everything was very clean and they really enforce hygiene which is great because we had to shower before entering the lagoon. It was also recommended that we remove any jewelry to ensure it's not damaged by the silica and minerals. Overall, our several hour experience was truly lovely while at the Blue Lagoon!
Our Airbnb was in central Reykjavik, which was perfect for exploring the city. While most of our time spent in Iceland was on day tours, we still had the chance to wander the city for dinner, drinks and exploring some of the cute shops. We also loved the beautiful sight of Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland's tallest church. The architecture is quite stunning, with the design inspired by the shapes of volcanoes, basalt rock, and cooled lava. Inside you can hear the chiming echo of organ music.
Taking a day tour of the Golden Circle offers a chance to see several natural wonders of Iceland, all in a reasonable amount of time from Reykjavik. During a traditional bus tour, like the Golden Circle Classic we took with Reykjavik Sightseeing, you'll have the opportunity to lay your eyes on Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall.
Þingvellir National Park is the site of the oldest existing parliament in the world but also stunning landscapes and natural views.
Our second stop of the Golden Circle was the Geysir Geothermal Area, a rare natural phenomenon where we had the chance to see Strokkur go off several times shooting hot water high into the air. The area is home to over a dozen hot spring holes which are pretty remarkable considering the intense conditions they require to flourish. During your visit you may even be lucky enough to see the oldest documented geyser in Europe, the Great Geysir, erupt itself, which is a rarity and very unpredictable.
The final stop we witnessed was Gullfoss, a roaring waterfall surrounded by a dramatic valley. It definitely is a popular tourist attraction, and if you hit the perfect time you can see the sun's glow or even catch a rainbow formed by the waterfall's mist!
The next several places we visited were part of an Arctic Adventures tour we selected for our final day in Iceland. While I loved everything else we saw on the trip, I have to say Southeastern Iceland was probably my favorite. When we were finalizing our plans for the trip, I had come across several blogs and travel pieces that said this was a 'must-see' part of Iceland, and honestly how many can say they have seen a glacier?! I'm also someone that likes to explore as much as possible when visiting a new country, so I knew this was something I wanted to push myself to do. Everything was absolutely mesmerizing, and was worth the 14+ hours we traveled. It was truly a special sight like nothing you've ever come across before.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
This world-famous beach is one of National Geographic's Top 10 non-tropical beaches to visit, and it's beauty lives up to its title. Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach also has stunning caves, sea stacks, and powerful waves that make it such a draw to visit. There is also a mischievous folklore associated with the basalt columns, where it's said trolls would take ships from the water and try to pull them to shore, yet they met their demise when they ventured out too late at night and turned into stone.
Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach
Out of all the places we visited in Iceland, Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach were by far the most memorable for me. Right across the street from each other, Jökulsárlón is the deepest lake in Iceland and a glacial lagoon, where you'll see large icebergs of varying colors. With a sight ever changing, it's breathtaking to see the icebergs floating peacefully.
Diamond Beach is very unique, with different sized chunks of ice from Jökulsárlón washing up on shore (some you can even pick up!). We visited during a rainy sunset, but were still able to capture the magic of the black sand with the sharp contrasting glimmer of the ice. Both Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach are considered the most photographed natural places in Iceland!
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall & Skógafoss Waterfall
Both these waterfalls are very different, but are famous in their own right. We started our tour with Skógafoss Waterfall, walking right up to the base of the cascading falls. It was very icy, but amazing to be underneath the waterfall! You can also climb to the top for a different perspective.
Due to the winter, we weren't even supposed to stop at Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, but our tour guide did on our drive home! It was pitch black out but the waterfall was light so we could see the beautiful falls. We unfortunately were unable to walk behind it because the path is closed in the winter, but during spring and summer you can which is pretty remarkable.
What to wear in Iceland
In the winter, I recommend LOTS of layers! Here's a list of things we packed (and some things I wish I remembered)...
5 pairs of pants, jeans and leggings
Long underwear (this was VERY helpful, especially the thermal shirts)
Jacket (because it rained everyday, I wish I had another winter jacket option with me and ended up using a hairdryer to dry my jacket)
Fuzzy Socks (during day tours bring extra socks because your boots can get pretty wet)
Hat, gloves, scarf
Camera (make sure to bring a cloth to clean your lens, I had to several times due to the rain)