10 Reasons To Add Iceland To Your Bucket List
Updated: Dec 3, 2022
Iceland is not your typical getaway destination; the majority of people seek warmth, sunlight and sandy beaches for their annual two weeks of vacation and being Canadian, believe me, I understand the desire to escape to a tropical paradise. But Iceland was at the top of my travel bucket list for a very long time. The primary reason for me was that I wanted to ride an Icelandic horse on Icelandic soil, but a lot of people seemed genuinely surprised and wanted to know why I would select Iceland, of all places, for my first trip abroad.
Thanks to budget airlines’ affordable ticket prices, it’s slowly becoming a more popular travel destination. Rather than just providing a Top 10 Things To Do In Iceland for people already interested in going, my goal is to convince even those of you who have never considered spending your holidays a little further away from the equator, that Iceland is a place that will change you for the better.
Iceland has no shortage of waterfalls, and the scale of the these cascading rapids in combination with the unique landscape will take your breath away. You can visit Gulfoss as part of the Golden Circle Tour (see below) or rent a car and drive north to Kirkjufellsfoss and Skógafoss. Take your pictures, but then take a moment for a breath of fresh air. I have yet to find anywhere more peaceful.
2. The Northern Lights
Seeing the Northern Lights is an experience like no other, and because Iceland is so far north (Fun Fact: Reykjavik is the northern most capital of the world) it’s a prime location to spot these spectacular colours lighting up the night sky. The best time to see them is from September to late March when Iceland is not experiencing the midnight sun. If you’re traveling the ring road, you might be able to spot them on your own, but if you’re staying in Reykjavik and day tripping out to see the rest of the country, I’d highly recommend booking one of the many Northern Lights Tours offered there. The majority of them will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel, and you’ll travel out of the city by bus, to a place where it’s dark enough to see them. Remember to bring your camera and research your settings ahead of time to capture the aurora borealis at it’s finest!
3. Thermal Baths
If you went to Iceland and didn’t go to the Blue Lagoon, did you really go to Iceland? Technically yes, but why would you deprive yourself of this opportunity?? Conveniently located on route to the airport in Keflavik, the Blue Lagoon is located in Grindavik, surrounded by jaw dropping fields of lava rock and geo thermal springs. The smell of sulphur is strong, but it’s worth enduring. There are buses to and from the airport, as well as day trip tours from Reykjavik. Set aside a good portion of your day to soak in the hot water, enjoy a drink from the bar and exfoliate your skin with a mud mask. Their high tech locker system alleviates all stress of where to store your valuables, and you can easily spend hours here enjoying the relaxing mineral waters. If you’re looking for something a little less touristy, check out Laugarvatn Fontana or Mývatn Nature Baths. There are many natural hot springs and geo thermal pools in Iceland that you don’t actually have to pay to enter, but the Blue Lagoon is an experience I’d recommend to everyone.
4. The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a day trip you’ll never forget. It includes the Geysir, Gulfoss and Thingvellir National Park. Geysir is a hot spring that erupts several meters into the air approximately every 5-7 minutes. It's incredible to see, and is surrounded by tons of other tiny hot springs and geo thermal pools of various depths and colours. The next stop on the tour is Gulfoss, a stunning water fall (meaning Golden Falls), with multiple paths and levels along which you can walk to find the best view. Thingvellir National Park is somewhere you can spend a full day and still not see enough - a few hours stop on this tour was kind of a tease and left me wanting so much more. Lakes, lava rock, moss, grasses, endless grey and green landscapes with cloudy mountains towering in the distance. I don’t think you’ll find anywhere else on earth that looks quite like this.
5. Icelandic Horses
If you love horses, drop what you’re doing and add riding an Icelandic horse in Iceland to your bucket list now. Do it now. The thing about this breed is that they aren’t just another type of horse. They are the ONLY breed of horse in all of Iceland and remain unvaccinated in the wild. Because of this, no horse is allowed to enter Iceland from outside, to protect the herd from exposure to diseases. The only horses you’ll find in the land of fire and ice were born there, and if they leave to compete in a horse show, they will never be allowed to come back. There are many famous Icelandic riders who have had to sell their horses after winning prestigious competitions abroad because of this, and it’s a little bit heartbreaking. But it’s also why these magnificent animals are so, so special to this country. Their special gait, tölt, is very smooth and easy for beginner riders so even if you don’t classify yourself as a horse enthusiast, that’s okay. They have trail rides for all levels, often with an option to remain in walk for the duration of the ride. Seeing the landscape of Iceland from the back of it’s horses is indescribable and brings a deeper connection to the soul of this country through the horse that carries you.
6. Whale Watching
A day on the ocean watching the whales is a must do. You can board boat tours from the old harbour in Reykjavik, but from my personal experience, there isn’t a surplus of whales to be seen so close to the city. If you want optimal whale viewing, your best bet is to venture north to Akureyri. Tours depart from this location as well, but even just driving along the coast this far north you might be lucky enough to spot some tail.
7. Lava Rock in the Reykjanes
The Reykjanes Peninsula (close to the Blue Lagoon and Keflavik), is a day trip I’d recommend renting a car for. The landscape of lava rock is beautiful, and there’s lots of sight seeing stops along this route. If you rent a car in Reykjavik, there is typically an option to return it at Keflavik near the airport which makes this a great option to maximize your final day in Iceland. Make a stop at the Brimketill (which looks like a swimming pool in the rocks at the side of the ocean...swim at your own discretion), The Bridge Between Continents and the Lighthouse at Garđur. Bring snacks because you CERTAINLY will not find a convenience store or restaurant along the way.
Maybe it’s name was a giveaway, but around 11% of Iceland’s total area is covered in - yup you guessed it - ice caps. This country has such a diverse landscape, and if you want to see all the different sides of it, a glacier hike should definitely be on your list of reasons to visit. I’d recommend going on a guided tour for your own safety, and you can book these online or in Reykjavik at one of the many tourist kiosks downtown. Glacier tours are one of the most expensive in the country, but can you put a price on a once in a lifetime adventure?
(Incidentally you can, it’s approximately 16 000 ISK [about $193.00 CAD] or more depending on the length of your tour). So go ahead and add hiking Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier, to your bucket list.
9. Comedy in Reykjavik
If you’re only spending one or two nights in Reykjavik, do everything you can to make one of them a Monday so you can go to the FREE comedy show at Gaukurinn. Goldengang Comedy does an English stand up show there on Monday nights featuring up and coming comedians from many different countries. Some acts will be more entertaining than others, but it’s a fun atmosphere, a great chance to meet people and a perfect place to try some Viking beer.
Iceland is truly a magical place, so it should come as no surprise that 54.4% of Icelanders believe in Elves. You’ll notice all of the roads in Iceland twist and turn needlessly; the landscape is open and there are no obstacles in the way but according to myths, when the roads were being built, the construction crews became injured and ill inexplicably and believed the Elves, who were being disrupted by the construction, were causing these ailments. They brought in an elf whisperer (you can’t make this stuff up folks) to negotiate where the roads could be built, and thus were allowed to continue their construction. Maybe it sounds ridiculous; maybe it is ridiculous. But on a field of lava rock looking up at the sky streaked in green and purple lights, you might believe in Elves too.
Iceland is known for being a safe, peaceful country and you can sense that from the moment you step off the airplane. It is clarity, serenity and breathtaking nature that will shake your 9-5 job out of your head and awaken you again to what it means to be alive. Let it inspire you, let it cleanse you, and don’t forget your thermal underwear ;)