5 Things you HAVE to do in Iceland

The number of foreign visitors to Iceland has more than tripled since 2000, so saying that Iceland is experiencing a tourism boom is almost an understatement. Obviously, I had to see what all the fuss was about. I visited this incredible country during the high season (June-August) and instantly fell in love with the scenery. I very quickly realized that Iceland was incredibly unique, and looking back on it now, I can say with certainty that there are things you have to do in Iceland, because Iceland offers opportunities you simply can’t find anywhere else.

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5. RENT A CAR

Reykjavík is usually the first place foreigners experience when they land in Iceland because it is the capital, largest city in Iceland, and Keflavík International Airport is under an hour away. But the truth is, if you limit yourself to Reykjavík, you’re missing out. While Reykjavík is an outstanding city, if you’re visiting Iceland to really experience Iceland, you have to get out of the city. Unfortunately, like everything else in Iceland, car rentals are expensive, costing hundreds of dollars for just a few days. But having a car gives you the freedom to experience all the glaciers, waterfalls, sheep, fjords and black sand beaches all on your own timeline, as well as the opportunity to literally get off the beaten track to experience things you wouldn’t be able to by bus. In my opinion, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not renting a car.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand

The famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand. Photo by: Jóhann Heiðar Árnason

4. HAVE A HOT DOG

Icelandic hot dogs are legendary. No, I’m not kidding. Although the Icelandic significance of the hot dog is a bit mysterious to me, the famous hot dog stand Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur has been a favorite of locals and foreigners alike since 1937. The traditional pylsur is primarily lamb-based, with both pork and beef mixed in, steamed, and served with ketchup, rémoulade, mustard, and a variety of fried and raw onions. If you go up to the hot dog stand with a confused look on your face, chances are they will start slathering your bun with the typical spreads before you can say otherwise. Definitely not a complaint, but something to keep in mind. I’m not a hot dog expert by any means, and in fact I couldn’t remember the last time I had a true “hot dog” prior to this trip, but I can say without a doubt that the Icelandic pylsur was a decent choice.

A mystery waterfall at the base of Langjökull glacier

A mystery waterfall seen from F550 (all F-roads are gravel, only accessible via four-wheel drive, have no bridges over rivers, and are only open in the summer) at the base of Langjökull glacier.

3. FIND A GLACIER

Glaciers and ice caps account for 11.1% of all landmass on Iceland, so for those of us who have never seen a glacier before, Iceland is the perfect place to see a few. Many glaciers cover volcanoes and calderas, like the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap, which covers the volcano that was responsible for the grounding of all air traffic in Europe in 2010 when it erupted. Unfortunately, many of the glaciers not only in Iceland, but worldwide are receding at frightening rates due to global climate change. Okjökull glacier in western Iceland recently lost its glacier title because it had receded so much that it was no longer heavy enough to sink and move under its own weight, one of the defining characteristics of a glacier. As somber as it may sound, who knows what’s in store for the glaciers of Iceland, and it may be wise to see them while they’re still around.

Skógafoss

Monumental Skógafoss, in the south of Iceland.

2. FIND A WATERFALL

When I asked people before my trip to Iceland what it was like, multiple people told me it looked like the Moon, but lush, with sheep and waterfalls everywhere. When I arrived, I realized how true that description was in the best possible way. If you follow tip #1 and rent a car, you’d actually have a pretty difficult time not running into a waterfall at least once on your journey. They’re scattered everywhere, and each one is unique, but equally beautiful and majestic. In fact, there are so many waterfalls that I’m just going to post just a handful of the ones I ran into…

Gullfoss

Gullfoss, one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Iceland, and for good reason.

Öxarárfoss

Öxarárfoss, a waterfall within Þingvellir National Park (pronounced similarly to “Thingvellir”).

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss, one of the best known waterfalls in Iceland.

Behind Seljalandsfoss

Behind Seljalandsfoss.

Gljúfrafoss

Hidden Gljúfrafoss, tucked away just north of Seljalandsfoss.

Seljavallalaug thermal bath

The hypnotizing Seljavallalaug thermal bath.

1. TAKE A DIP IN A HOT SPRING

One of the things that Iceland is best known for is its abundance of hot springs and thermal baths. Iceland, geologically speaking, sits right in the middle of the Eurasian plate and the North American plate, above the Icelandic hotspot, which makes it very geothermally active. This creates a landscape abundant in volcanoes, geysers (the word “geyser” in English came from the Icelandic word “geysir”), and many hot springs that you can bathe and swim in. One of the most famous hot springs in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon, which lies 24 miles southwest of Reykjavík. I didn’t actually go to the Blue Lagoon because I’ve read that it’s a bit of a tourist trap, and very expensive. However, if thermal baths and spas are particularly interesting to you, do visit the Blue Lagoon, and do so early in the morning before it gets too crowded. There are also many, many thermal baths and spas scattered around Iceland that can offer a similar experience. If you crave a more private, personal experience, I suggest visiting Seljavallalaug. This thermal pool was one of the highlights of my trip in Iceland. Parts of the pool were quite warm, others were a bit cooler, but all of it was nestled away at the foot of Eyjafjallajökull, along a creek, completely hidden away. Also, it’s completely free. Reaching the pool can be a bit confusing, as it requires a bit of a walk over rocky terrain and through a creek, but relaxing in the pools surrounded by volcanoes, waterfalls, rivers and exquisite land–essentially what makes Iceland, Iceland–makes it beyond worth it.

Seljavallalaug

What are your bucket list experiences in Iceland? Or, what things were you so happy you did when you visited?

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