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The land of fire and ice, Iceland encompasses a variety of landscapes from moss covered lava fields to giant glaciers as well as vast waterfalls and serene hot springs. Iceland is perfect for the adventurous traveler looking for beautiful scenery, exciting excursions, and spontaneous side ventures. My advice, rent a car, bring your tent and take your time driving the entire ring road around the island. There are plenty of campsites scattered across the country that only require a small fee and usually are in the most beautiful locations. Soak up everything Iceland has to offer and don’t miss the essentials.
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1. Whale Watching And Puffins
One of my most favorite memories, whale watching off the shores of Húsavík in the bay of Skjálfandi. After reading tons of reviews we settled on Salka Whale Watching for an unforgettable voyage observing humpback whales and puffins aboard a traditional oak boat. The company outfitted us with a warm waterproof coat to wear during the excursion so no need to pack your heaviest winter gear if you are visiting Iceland in the summer months. They also served hot beverages and snacks during the return trip as an extra added amenity.
The guides were very professional and knowledgeable about all of the wildlife in the area which made for a very educational experience. They were also able to position the boat perfect for the best view of the whales while also giving them ample space. Make sure to reserve your spot online in advance for a cheaper price and your preferred departure time.
2. Ice Climbing And Glacier Hike
A top ten moment for me, spending the day on the Vatnajökull Glacier. We opted for the ice climbing tour with Icelandic Mountain Guides which also included a hike along the ice. The company provided crampons, an ice ax, and all safety gear to ensure a successful afternoon. We practiced our climbing skills on an ice wall before having the chance to repel down into a crevasse only to take on the challenge of climbing back out.
Ice climbing and hiking are tough, but this is absolutely an activity for anyone, no previous experience required! Bring warm clothes, including gloves that are waterproof and no need to have special shoes since they will fit you with climbing ones before you depart for the glacier. Bring a camera that is durable, waterproof and will last in the cold. Before or after your trek, make sure to visit Jökulsárlón for a chance to see beautiful icebergs in The Glacier Lagoon.
3. Waterfalls And Hot Pots
Honestly, it doesn’t really matter which waterfalls you visit during your time in Iceland because all of them will take your breath away. Stopping by the most popular ones like Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss or Dettifoss will offer outstanding photo opportunities, but will come with large crowds to share the view with. Go off the beaten path for a more peaceful experience with hikes to Glymur or Hengifoss. Most lesser known hikes are still relatively easy to find with a GPS as well as signage pointing you in the right direction.
Also, relax in one of the many hot springs that are scattered throughout the country. The Hidden Pool at Seljavellir is Iceland’s oldest hot pot and requires a bit of a walk from the road, but absolutely worth it. The bottom of the pool is a little slimy, but the water is the perfect temperature to relax in while you enjoy the fresh cool air and the sound of the rushing water from the river nearby. Also, there’s a building with hooks and hangers here to store your stuff, but no restroom facilities so be prepared to change in front of people.
4. Horseback Riding
The Icelandic Horse is a special breed that is short and hardy, designed to withstand the harsh winters. You will see plenty of options for this activity all over the island and my advice is to not put this in your initial itinerary and rather stumble across a smaller family-owned farm that offers trail rides. I mistakenly did not write down the name of the farm we found, but it was near Lake Mývatn in the north of Iceland.
We were on a three-hour trail ride where we were treated to the history of the Icelandic horse from our guide and encouraged to let our horse Tölt, which is a gait similar to a trot that is specific to this breed. At the very end of our ride, our guide told us to let our horse “take us home” which entailed a full out sprint back to the barn, a moment I will never forget.
5. The Black Sand Beach
Sure there are other black sand beaches in the world, but this is the first I had been to so it was definitely a sight to see. Reynisfjara is in the south of Iceland located near the town of Vík í Mýrdal and offers beautiful coastal views. During the summer months, you are sure to see tons of puffins along the unique rock formations.
The waves seemed pretty wicked here; we were told about “sneaker-waves” that can suddenly appear and drag people out to sea even on a calm day. Since this beach is only 2.5 hours from Reykjavik, it makes it fairly simple to visit even if you aren’t driving the entirety of the country. Stop here on your way to or from the Vatnajökull Glacier.
- If you do decide to camp, you’ll most likely have to pay for a hot shower or your campsite might not even have a place to wash up. When we couldn’t find a campsite with a shower, we paid a couple bucks for a day pass into local swimming pools. We were able to shower, enjoy all of their amenities and even meet a ton of local people who offered insider tips and directions.
- I did not buy the camping card (if you are researching camping in Iceland, you’ve most likely come across this) and actually benefitted from it. Some campsites that we would arrive at didn’t accept the camping card, but since we would roll in so late, my friends would end up paying for the site anyways out of convenience (no one wants to drive around in the dark longer than they have to).
- Save your receipts and get to the airport early before you depart Iceland. You can receive a refund from the taxes you paid on goods that you are bringing home with you. I did not get to the airport early enough for this, but if you follow the signs to the Arion Bank before you check your luggage you can find out if you are eligible. Purchases must be over ISK 6000 (about $50ish) including VAT.
- Buy food at a local grocery store close to Reykjavik. You’ll save a bit of money by not eating out every meal and can still enjoy some of the foods unique to Iceland. If you do decide to eat on the road, most gas stations had plenty of food options although a bit expensive.
- Geysir, a popular stop along the Golden Circle, was impressive, but not an activity for me. I spent only 15 minutes near the vents before I started getting a headache from the sulfur smell. Very beautiful and amazing to see, but just be ready for a strong odor!