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Iceland should be top on the bucket list of thrill seekers and nature-lovers. After all, rivers snake through deserts and ice erupts into lava here. Gorgeous natural wonders and an out-of-the-way location has built an aura of enigma around the country. If you’re heading there this winter or in the coming summer, you’ll want to keep an eye and an ear out for the best places to visit in Iceland in 2020.
When to Go
If you’re wondering about the best time to travel to Iceland, the answer is not easy. The best weather overall – clear skies, long days and pleasant temperatures – lasts from May to August. But that’s when you’ll also find yourself elbowing hoards of other tourists and high prices. A safer alternative is April or September. When you go will also depend on the kind of experience you’re looking for. You can’t expect to enjoy the glory of the Northern Lights in the half-light of summer nights, for instance.
Nature lovers pay attention. If you’re on a whirlwind tour and the guidebook is throwing too many options at you, get your blinkers on and follow our list of the best places to visit in Iceland on a time constraint. If you have plenty of time and this is your first visit to Iceland, you’ll find this list useful too. Here are some of the finest places of natural beauty in Iceland that are highly recommended.
Husavik is where to go for whale-watching. There are more than twenty species of dolphins, whales and porpoises around Reykjavik, Akureyri and the Westfjords. Husavik in the north is one of the recommended places for whale-sightings. While you’re there, stop by at the beautiful wooden Husavik church with its unique architecture.
The Golden Circle
This popular five-hour tour of the southwest of the island will take you through the Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and the Gullfoss waterfall. On the trip, you’ll see lava fields, stunning valleys between continental plates, swathes of forests, explosive geysers, clear streams, and a waterfall dropping into an ancient valley.
Along the way, you’ll find opportunities to use your diving gear in freshwater springs at Thingvellir and underwater at Silfra. You could also enjoy a snowmobile trip from the waterfall to the Langjokull glacier.
Note that Gullfloss is busy from May to August, so April to September are good too. Avoid the waterfall area in the winter, and stay safe from slippery slopes unless you’re thrill-seeking and want to see water turn into stunning ice crystals. The Golden Circle is one of the top places to visit in Iceland, on your first visit.
Get away from the tourist crowds by taking a self-driving tour of the sparsely populated Eastfjords, across high mountain passes and past dramatic cliffs over stunning seascapes. The Vatnajokull National Park and its glacier will welcome you here, as will the charming remote settlements of Egillstadir, Seydisfjordur and Djupivogur. Get out your hiking boots and book a glacier tour at Svinafellsjokull. This is one of the best places to visit in Iceland from November to March. You can explore ice caves in these months. For other winter activities, visit from October to May. July is the best time for rock-climbing, and hiking is best in spring and summer.
Lake Myvatn Geothermal Area
If you’ve seen the Game of Thrones series, you may recognize the dramatic landscapes of the Lake Myvatn Area, especially the Grjotagja hot springs in a cave in the middle of the lava field of Dimmuborgir. All of this and more is an hour’s drive to the east of Akureyri in the north of Iceland. The incredibly powerful Dettifoss falls are nearby. So are the bubbling mud pits of the Namaskard Pass. You can’t bathe in the Dimmuborgir hot springs but you can do so in the Myvatn Nature Baths. This is one of the best places to visit Iceland in summer. Bird lovers bring your gear along to the lake area, especially in July and August. Keep an eye out for moss balls too.
Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
In the north of the Westfjords is Hornstrandir, from where many stories of the Saga originate. The area is sparsely populated and deeply wild, but ripe for adventure. Challenge yourself on its hiking trails, wait and watch for whales and birds, and even catch glimpse of elusive Arctic foxes. You will come across some farmlands run by the descendants of old farmers. But stick to the marked trails and campgrounds, respect the farmers’ privacy and make sure to carry out everything you bring into one of the last wildernesses of Europe.
The Blue Lagoon
The milky blue water of the geothermal spa in the Reykjanes Peninsula is rich in minerals and good bacteria. You can enjoy a silica mask, an in-water massage and rare beauty treatments with minerals and algae for a rejuvenating holiday. Any time is a good time to visit. But The Blue Lagoon is the best place to go to in Iceland in December and January, when there are fewer crowds.
Iceland is home to some fine historical places to visit, despite being quite a young country. The island was only born about twenty million years ago, from volcanic activity. While people come to the island for the natural wonders, they also find old medieval ruins, trails related to the sagas, Viking structures, homesteads and more to explore.
1. Historical Places to Visit in the Capital Area
When you’re in the capital region, be sure to visit the Hoffstadir Historic Park. A traditional Viking longhouse stood in the area over a thousand years ago. With a little imagination and help from the features left untouched and preserved, you can picture what homes looked like in those interesting Viking times.
2. Historic Sites in the West
One of the main historic sites in the country is Reykholt, to the west. The 10th century Snorralaug hot springs is where chieftain Snorri Sturluson may have often taken dips in the good old Icelandic way. When there, don’t miss a visit to the Church of Reykholt. It features historic church bells, stained glass windows, and the altar and font are remnants of a much older church.
Open everyday between May to August in the summer and on weekdays from September to April, Reykholt is good for round-the-year visits.
3. Historical sites in East Iceland
One of the most interesting places to visit in Iceland is the Saga of the Vopnafjordur People in the east of the country. Follow the sites of this particular saga trail to learn more about the 9th to 11th century power struggle between clans. Expect to see a well-preserved turf house, an exhibition to a pair of famous brothers in the region, and more.
Also in the east is the Hrafnkels saga trail. The important sites on the trail tell the story of a powerful chieftain of the Hrafnkelsdalur valley, who killed a shepherd that dared to ride his horse. Visit to find out what happened next. A guided tour of the marked sites will give you as full a picture as is possible centuries after the events have passed.
While you’re in the east, make a food stop at the Modrudalur farm. Make sure to save space for the cake!
4. Historical Sites in North Iceland
If you’re traveling in the north, be sure to visit the Vatnsdalur valley. Sitting in the stunning valley is the Abbey Church at Pingeyri. The stone church is one of the most unique places to visit in Iceland. Find out more about the saga of the local people, and take a look at one of the best preserved old Icelandic manuscripts.
The West Fjords is also one of the best places to visit Iceland in July, especially because of the folk festival that’s held in Pingeyri in the first weekend of the month. Here you can learn more about the Saga of Gisli Sursson, and enjoy a traditional outdoor festival in a circle lined with turf and sea-washed stones.
When you’re done, don’t forget to visit the sites of the Sturlung Trail, in Skagafjorour. The bloody wars between the powerful Sturlung and Asbjorn clans and the Bishop of Holar have left behind some bloodcurdling tales to stoke your imagination. Those in your group who are not history buffs will still enjoy the interactive VR exhibition of 1238 The Battle of Iceland.
5. Historical Sites in Southern Iceland
When you’re traveling in the stunning Icelandic south, drop by the Pjorsa River Valley. At Stong, you’ll find one of the best-preserved medieval farmhouses that was excavated from under volcanic debris.
Meanwhile in Skalholt, the restored medieval cathedral is a treasure trove of old and new elements. In the crypt lies the stone sarcophagus of a medieval bishop and a tunnel. The walls of the cathedral are embellished with modern art. You can attend service on Sundays. And if you’re lucky to be there in July and August, you’ll find the Summer Music Festival (free admission) is one of the best surprises waiting for you in the region.
The Pingvellir National Park is also one of the best places to visit in Iceland if you want to immerse yourself in the history and culture of the region. The national park is at the site of Iceland’s first parliament. You might want to dip into the Book of Settlements to find out more about the political history of the country.
One of the unusual places to visit in Iceland is the Convent at Kirkjubaer. At Systrastapa you’ll see a natural rock pillar which, according to folklore, is the site where disobedient nuns from the medieval Benedictine convent were burned for their sins.
Look past the gorgeous landscapes and historic sites, and you’ll see the gastronomic gems and rich cultural offerings of Iceland. Here’s a look at Iceland from another perspective, that of a modern and vibrant people in a harsh climate.
1. Reykjavik tours
The capital is where people flock for good food, fun, festivals, architecture and museums. Reykjavik is one of the most special places to visit in Iceland. It is home to the world’s longest-running democracy and also the coolest bars. The city is unique, interesting and full of character. After the customary hop-on-hop-off bus tour to places like the City Museum, the National Gallery of Iceland and the National Museum, book a food tour. You’ll be blown away by the diversity of Icelandic food, like the lamb soup, the fermented Greenlandic Shark and the local spirit Brennivin.
2. Siglufjordur tour
The old fishing center of Siglufjordur has an award-winning museum of technology and industry. The Eyjafjordur coast nearby and the mountains of the Trollaskagi are some of the most scenic places to visit in Iceland. These tours typically leave from Akureyri, the capital of the north.
3. Hveragerdi food culture
In the Icelandic south, Hveragerdi is one of the most recommended places to visit for food. The fresh local produce from greenhouses are sent all over the country to restaurants and homes. Enjoy tours and fresh food tasting when you’re there.
4. Porlakshofn yoga tour
Yoga is hot in Iceland. One of the prettiest places to do yoga is on the black sand beaches of Porlakshofn. Join other Icelanders or tourists in their search for fresh air and mindfulness.
5. Dimmuborgir troll folklore tour
Iceland is home to a rich folklore, much of it involving trolls. Get up close and personal with the great lava formations and boulders that are reportedly, petrified trolls. One of the most interesting places to see these are in Dimmuborgir, where the Yule Lads of Icelandic Christmas folklore were said to live.
6. Lake Myvatn for GOT culture
Several locations in Iceland were used in the Game of Thrones series. Lake Myvatn is one such location, where the scenes North of the Wall were shot. The Snaefellsnes Peninsula and the Pingvellir National Park have also featured on the show. There are plenty of GOT tours around that you could book for cheap and have a special Icelandic holiday.
7. Hvitserkur rock formation
The amazing Hvitserkur rock formations are one of the most unique places to visit in Iceland. If you’re in the area, take a jeep tour out to see the rock formations standing out in the ocean shallows like petrified trolls. Find a local guide to tell you the stories behind it.
8. Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves
Lovers of music must stick around for the fun and famous Reykjavik Iceland Airwaves. This music festival is held every November, so now you know why Iceland is the best place to visit in November. This is the home of Bjork and Sigur Ros, so expect plenty of amazing and special ear candy at the cafes and restaurants across town all month.
When it’s not festival time, check out the bars such as Kex, Dillon and Gaukurinn for more exciting rock, metal and blues music.
9. Austurvollur for the Advent Festival
From December to February, many will want to experience the Christmas culture of Iceland. In Reykjavik’s Austurvollur square, you can be a part of the Advent Festival which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Eve. The city is decked with lights against the dark winter and there’s celebrations everywhere. Special menus and festive concerts are the highlight of winter in Iceland’s capital. Stick around for the fireworks after Christmas, especially from the church on top of Skolavordustigur Hill.
10. Eyrarbakki for Christmas traditions
For a more traditional celebration as seen in the rural south, visit the village of Eyrarbakki for Christmas 2020. This tiny fishing village will offer up cozy Christmas buffets, stories and more to you and your friends.
With so many off-beat and famous places to go in Iceland, and so much to do from June to May, it’s hard to pare Iceland’s attractions down to a list of the best places to visit in Iceland in 2020. But armed with a list like this, you could find your own favorites and discover some fun and nice things to do and experience in the land of fire and ice in 2020 and beyond. And as the Icelanders say, you can definitely expect plenty of raisins at the end of the hot dog!