Table of Contents
There are few places in the world quite as magical as the country of Iceland. From natural wonders like Gullfoss Waterfall and the Northern Lights to the buzzing culinary scene and fascinating history and culture of this Nordic island, Iceland has much to offer travelers.
If you’re planning a trip to the land of fire and ice, it can be challenging to narrow down what sights and activities to put on your itinerary. I experienced this myself when I planned a hot springs tour around the country a couple of years ago; this time, I turned to the pros for advice.
Travel + Leisure spoke with three local experts to gather their thoughts on the best of Iceland. Davíð Logi Gunnarsson, head guide of Nordic Luxury, shared his favorite museums, food and drink, and outdoor activities to check out; Dofri Hermannsson, expert hiking guide and owner of Reykjavik Erupts, shared top hikes to tackle and small businesses to frequent; and Aggi Sverrisson, executive chef at Moss Restaurant at the Retreat, offered restaurant and bar recommendations for every type of occasion. Without further ado, here are 25 of the best things to do in Iceland.
Related: The Perfect Three-day Weekend in Iceland
The National Gallery of Iceland
The National Gallery of Iceland is located in the heart of downtown Reykjavik and has more than 14,000 pieces in its expansive collection. The gallery features 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century works celebrating and preserving Icelandic culture, and there is a large variety of international art as well. “From traditional to contemporary works, [The National Gallery of Iceland] offers a captivating glimpse into the nation’s creative heritage,” says Sverrisson.
The Akureyri Art Museum
The Akureyri Art Museum is located in the center of Iceland’s second-largest city, and its collection focuses solely on visual arts. Showcasing work from both local and international artists, the museum serves as a cultural hub for the artistic community in North Iceland. Explore the museum at your own pace or visit on a Thursday, when guided tours are available.
Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum
Fermented shark is one of Iceland’s most unique culinary traditions, and you can take a deep dive into the connection between Iceland and Greenland sharks at the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum. Located in West Iceland on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, this museum highlights the destination’s long history of shark fishing, the fermentation process, and the importance of these predators to Icelandic culture. You can even try fermented shark yourself here.
National Museum of Iceland
This museum showcases paintings, statues, and other artifacts from Iceland’s storied past. It’s located within walking distance from Reykjavik’s center and is the perfect way to spend a rainy day or lazy afternoon in the city.
“A local favorite, this restaurant is tucked away on the western edge of Reykjavik and is surrounded by the sea in a nature reserve,” says Gunnarsson. “It’s cozy, and the menu emphasizes locally sourced ingredients while drawing inspiration from the simplicity of Italian cuisine.” While the restaurant is great to visit any time of year, winter can bring the backdrop of a lifetime, when you might see the Northern Lights right from your table.
Moss is a fine-dining restaurant located inside The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon in Grindavík. The restaurant’s innovative tasting menu features the best of Icelandic meat and produce, and it was awarded its first Michelin star earlier this year. With breathtaking views of the mystical Blue Lagoon, a meal at Moss makes for an unparalleled culinary experience.
Monkeys is the perfect place to kick off a lively night out in Reykjavik. Located near the popular Laugavegur street, the eclectic Nikkei restaurant boasts bright and colorful decor that complements the exotic dishes and spectacular cocktails it serves. “The Peruvian Japanese-inspired menu showcases a large selection of small dishes and tasting menus bursting with flavors that celebrate the palate,” says Gunnarsson.
For some of the best seafood in the country, head to Pakkhus Restaurant in Höfn. Set in a converted warehouse along the harbor, the unpresuming restaurant features a top-class menu focused on fresh and locally sourced ingredients. Sverrisson notes that the restaurant’s specialties include unique langoustine creations, so make sure to add one or two fresh lobster dishes to your order.
One of the oldest bars in the city, Kaffibarinn is a staple of Reykjavik’s nightlife scene. During the day Kaffibarinn operates as a coffee shop, but at night tourists and locals alike flock here for the high-energy DJ sets, the hip atmosphere, and of course to dance all night long. “This is the place to see and be seen,” Gunnarsson says.
Accoridng to Sverrisson, Port 9 is “A pioneer in Icelandic wine culture.” Tucked away on a quiet residential street in Reykjavik, the intimate wine bar has an unbeatable selection of international wines, plus small bites to nibble on between pours. The inviting ambiance of the wine bar makes it the perfect spot for a date night or small group tasting.
Even though it’s located on the busy Laugavegur street, this cozy bar feels more sophisticated than your typical brewery. “[Kaldi] is popular with locals and offers a great selection of Icelandic microbrews,” says Gunnarsson. “This place is bustling every evening, so be early.”
Escape the city lights with a leisurely hike from downtown Reykjavik to the Grotta Lighthouse on the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula. “On a summer evening, it is great to hike from Harpa Conference Hall towards the lighthouse,” says Hermannsson. Stunning sunsets are a treat in the summer, and in the winter months the clear skies are perfect for watching the Northern Lights.
If you have access to a car, Hermannsson recommends driving to the base of Mount Esja, which is located about 50 minutes outside of Reykjavik in the southwest region of Iceland. Arrive ready for a heart-pumping hike at this year-round spot. There are many different hikes to choose from, and signage along the way to keep you on the path that best suits your experience level. Once you reach the nearly 3,000-foot summit, you can take in the jaw-dropping views of the city, the bay, and beyond.
Hiking a volcano is one of the most thrilling adventures you can embark on in Iceland, and Litli-Hrutur is the newest eruption. This particular hike is no easy trek, and since conditions are ever-changing, make sure you’re adequately prepared if you want to make the journey. “For a full experience, hire a local expert guide who knows everything about the volcanic activity of the Reykjavik area,” says Hermannsson. “It really makes the Earth come alive under your feet.”
“This otherworldly landscape captivates even the most experienced hiker,” Gunnarsson says of Landmannalaugar. “Located in the highlands of Iceland, the colorful mountains, hot springs, and steam vents in this unique place provide an unforgettable landscape and a silence that only a few have experienced in nature.” The best time to visit is mid-June to mid-September, when the long summer days allow you to take in as much of the boundless beauty of the reserve as you can.
Scenic views take on a new meaning on this hike alongside Þjórsá, Iceland’s longest river. The breathtaking trek leads to Háifoss, one of the tallest and most dramatic waterfalls in Iceland. Along the way you’ll encounter much more natural beauty, including the Búrfell Forest and Fossalda mountain.
Kaffitar is a small coffee chain with four cafes located around Reykjavík. Founded in 1990 by Adalheidur Hedinsdottir, the company is now one of the leading coffee names in Iceland, in part thanks to its emphasis on nurturing relationships with the farmers who supply its coffee beans. “[Hedinsdottir’s] specialty coffee and the original cafe she opened were a hit, and now she runs several cafes, still getting her beans directly from farmers in South America,” says Hermannsson.
Skool Beans is Iceland’s smallest micro-roaster. On the southern coast of Iceland inside a classic yellow school bus, you will find this unique café in the small town of Vík. “The rustic ambiance, as well as the exemplary coffee and chocolates, make for the best casual conversations with fellow travelers,” notes Gunnarsson.
What better way to start your morning than a cup of coffee with a great view? Located near the water on the Old Harbor, Sverrisson dubs Reykjavik Röst “one of the best coffee shops” in the city. “It offers all your standard coffee drinks, as well as maple sage lattes, keto coffee, and magic mushroom coffee. It also has a great selection of Icelandic cakes and traditional pastries, as well as amazing views.”
This geothermal spa has gained international fame as a modern wonder of the world. Located in a black lava field in Grindavik, visitors can soak in the milky-blue waters known for their healing properties due to the silica and sulfur found in the water. Just 15 minutes from the Keflavik Airport, it’s the perfect activity right after landing or just before leaving Iceland
One of Reykjavík’s most historic landmarks, this gorgeous church rests on top of a hill in the center of Reykjavik and stands out due to its height and distinctly shaped spire and side wings. Built to resemble basalt columns, the 244-foot church is the tallest in Iceland, and in addition to operating as a church it serves as an observation deck. “My favorite way to visit is to go up the bell tower and take in the panoramic views of the city from the observation windows,” says Gunnarsson.
Set on the coastline of Reykjavik, Sólfar (or Sun Voyager) is a striking sculpture meant to serve as an ode to the sun. Created by Jon Gunnar Arnason, the stainless steel sculpture was inspired by world expeditions and symbolizes light, hope, and the promises of undiscovered territory. Check out the artwork at sunset for a stunning view that will leave you just as inspired as Arnason was when he created this masterpiece.
“Awe-inspiring in its perfect conical shape, this ancient volcano sits like an island of greenery in a vast field of black sands and glacial streams,” says Gunnarsson. Standing more than 2,500 feet above the highlands of Southern Iceland, Mælifell is a monstrous volcano and an ode to Iceland’s otherworldly landscapes. It’s a must-see for adventure seekers, but note that due to its remote location, Mælifell is only accessible in the summer months. Those who manage to make it to this natural wonder will marvel at its truly majestic setting.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Jökulsárlón is Iceland’s most famous glacier lagoon, with massive icebergs looming over Jökulsárlón lake. “This is one of Iceland’s most popular landmarks, and it’s the deepest lake in the country,” notes Sverrisson. “It’s located on the south coast and offers awe-inspiring views of floating icebergs, black-sand beaches, seals, and so much more.”
This small lava cave is a hidden gem on Iceland’s famed Ring Road. Located near Lake Myvatn, the inconspicuous hideout is known for the bubbling geothermal hot springs found inside the cavern walls. The jagged rocks and turquoise waters make Grjotagja a hauntingly beautiful landmark to visit.