By Glenn Davis as told to Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
The allure of touring Iceland is in the vast array of natural wonders that distinguish the island nation. Everything from waterfalls to glaciers to volcanoes in the land of fire and ice.
I was eager to experience and capture as much of it as possible through still photography and video footage from my drone (where permissible) on a two-week driving tour of Iceland during the spring of 2023 with my wife, Lara.
Iceland proved to be every bit the smorgasbord for the senses that was promised: majestic waterfalls, geothermal-heated pools and lagoons, breathtaking vistas and seascapes, black sand beaches, stark fjords.
Lately, attention has been focused on the volcano that erupted in December 2023 on the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwest Iceland, a mere 25 miles from the capital of Reykjavík. A second eruption followed January 14, 2024 near Grindavik and caused damage to the town.
But unlike a 2010 eruption at Eyjafjallajökull that created a major disruption to air traffic across Europe as ash spewed across the continent, the latest eruptions only impacted the immediate area. The international airport has remained open and travel to all other parts of Iceland has not been affected.
So, anyone contemplating a trip to Iceland, by all means make plans and go. Stay up to date on travel advisories related to volcanic activity at Safe Travel Iceland.
Travel to Iceland not hindered by 2023-24 volcanic eruptions
Like your favorite all-you-can-eat buffet, there are so many tempting treats and you can only sample a portion on a given trip.
The best advice for planning a trip to Iceland is to prioritize. Start by identifying what you consider can’t-miss attractions and experiences and plot your course around those.
Iceland has so much to offer that during our trip I had to constantly fight the urge to pull off the main road and explore something that caught my eye. But you can’t do it all. So stick to your plan as much as possible.
And yes, geothermal activity is a constant in Iceland — there are about 130 volcanoes, most of them active. Guided volcano tours are offered and popular. Here are some to consider.
But there is so much more to see. Here are some of our highlights of Iceland.
Glacier hike reveals stunning crystal blue ice canyon
Prior to our Iceland trip, a glacier hike was at the top of my must-do list. I was expecting to just walk on the glacier and see some crevasses and moulins, but the Ice Explorers tour far exceeded my expectations when they took us into a breathtaking ice canyon.
To start with, we got insanely lucky. No one else booked the tour that day so we had a private glacier hike, just Lara and I and the tour guide on the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which is an outlet of the Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s largest.
With crampons fastened to our boots, we quickly got the hang of walking on ice. The guide pointed out various features, notably moulins, which are sinkholes in the ice. But we had no idea what was in store for us when the guide said, “This is nothing. I’ve got something much cooler to show you.”
I didn’t know what to think when he led us to a down slope where a rope was anchored in the ice to aid in descending. The traverse proved relatively easy and so worth it. It led to a massive canyon that had formed in the ice.
But that was just the beginning of an amazing scene. With the guide leading the way, we rounded a corner into what was almost a cave of crystal blue ice. It was a color I’ve never seen before in nature. You could look right into it and see air bubbles and black volcanic ash frozen inside.
Walking through this crystal blue canyon was the most surreal, mind-blowing experience we’ve ever had in a natural setting. Exploring further, the cavern narrowed and we straddled a stream from melted ice that was carving deeper and deeper into the glacier.
The guide said this cavern had been forming for about a year. We had it all to ourselves that day to photograph and enjoy.
Glacier lagoon boat ride
After the hike we took the hour-long Zodiac boat tour on the adjacent glacier lagoon where we got a close look at icebergs that had broken off of the Jökulsárlón glacier and were floating in the bay.
Some of this floating ice washes up on the famed black sands of aptly named Diamond Beach, where it sparkles like gemstones in the sun.
A day of incredible sights was capped by lobster rolls and delicious soup at the Glacier Lagoon Cafe.
Snorkeling between the tectonic plates
It may not be everyone’s idea of a perfect vacation adventure, but taking a plunge into water that varies from 35 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit to snorkel in the renowned Silfra Fissure was at the top of my list. It’s the ultimate tourist experience for a place called Iceland.
If you want to put a big check mark on your bucket list, Iceland is the only place in the world where you can snorkel or scuba dive in the crack between two continental plates. It is readily accessible less than an hour drive from Reykjavik in Thingvellir National Park where the crystal waters in the Silfra Fissure offer a breathtaking view between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
The water is among the clearest and cleanest found anywhere because it is fed by glacier melt water filtered through a lava field and is Iceland cold.
But the specialized material of the dry suit that you put on over your clothes keeps the water out and your body as comfortable as if swimming in Caribbean waters. Consequently, snorkeling and scuba diving in the Silfra rift, offered by a number of outfitters, is not even considered an extreme activity.
Our experience in a small-group guided tour with Troll Expeditions was outstanding. We were in the water for about 45 minutes staring into a barren abyss where the continents are literally ripping themselves apart at a rate of something like 4 inches a year.
Scuba diving tours offered at Silfra provide a different perspective on the rift. But snorkeling on the surface with a view into pristine waters where visibility can exceed 100 meters into a natural wonder is one of those mind-expanding experiences that stays with you.
Waterfalls galore in Iceland
Wherever you go in Iceland you become familiar with references to foss — the Icelandic word for waterfall. There are estimated to be as many as 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland.
Just driving along you look and here’s a waterfall, there’s a waterfall, just nonstop waterfalls everywhere you go. You’d have to try hard to not see a waterfall. There were waterfalls that weren’t even considered attractions that you could pull off to view and you’d say, “That’s a significant waterfall.”
The geology and geography of the island with mountains and cliffs, ample rain and ice melts, lends itself to cascading waters. Just hearing the roar of the water is impressive.
Seljalandsfoss waterfall, on the south coast about 80 miles from Reykjavik, is aptly nicknamed “The Beauty.” A very photogenic setting, the waterfall is almost 200 feet tall and has the appealing feature of being able to walk behind the falling water, which is really cool experience. We wore rain gear because you do get sprayed.
Another 19 miles along the south coast is majestic Skogafoss, which is often rated as Iceland’s best waterfall. Its appeal is enhanced by the rainbows (often doubles) common on sunny days and frequently photographed. At 82 feet wide the volume of water plunging off a 197-foot drop is immense, and the spray is wide ranging; so again waterproof covering is a must.
Both waterfalls are reachable on a day trip from Reykjavik, so it can be crowded at both falls, especially in the summer.
Here is a ranking of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls and how to access them:
Best fish and chips at Mia’s Food Van
It is easy to work up an appetite when visiting the natural attractions of Iceland and dining options aren’t always close at hand. We found a hidden gem upon leaving Skogafoss waterfall in a small trailer conspicuous by its ladybug-like appearance — red with white polka dots — called Mia’s Country Van.
We only found it by searching Google for a place to eat near the falls. To our surprise it had something like 9,000 rave reviews.
Mia’s Country Van has also received recommendations from Lonely Planet and 11 other food critics.
We concur, you won’t find better fish and chips anywhere.
Prime whale watching at Húsavík
Iceland is a world-class destination for whale watching and we experienced it at the island’s prime spot for viewing the gentle giants at Húsavík, a small fishing village on the north coast. What made our tour a success was the high-speed Rigid Inflatable Boat, or RIB, that enabled the guide to search a wide area for surfacing whales and maneuver close to them.
While there are plenty of whales of various types right in Skjálfandi Bay outside Húsavík, the Gentle Giants tour uses RIB to seek the biggest whales farther offshore.
Thanks to the RIB boat, we got a close look at numerous humpbacks. Everyone on board would scan the water for the telltale puff of air that signals a surfacing whale.
Our tour guide, a marine biologist from France, was so knowledgeable she could tell us the habits and tendencies of specific whales. She’d say, this one stays down for eight minutes, and there was another that only stayed down for four minutes. Like clockwork, different whales would come up at the intervals she predicted.
Individual whales are identifiable by the pattern underneath their fluke, or tail, which is a sort of whale’s fingerprint. Their act of surfacing to breathe followed a similar pattern: You’d see the dorsal fin and a good amount of its body and finally it would begin a deep dive, providing the glory shot when the tail comes out of the water.
It was an incredible experience seeing these amazing animals close by the boat.
The bonus to the tour was a visit to Puffin Island where thousands of the birds known as “clowns of the ocean” were in their nesting period in late April.
We were fortunate to have our tour on a mild, sunny day when the seas was calm. The prime months for whale watching at Húsavík are May through September, and weather and sea conditions can be adverse, particularly early in the season. The day of our tour conditions were ideal and contributed to a memorable experience.
Food walk in Reykjavik
Throughout the trip I was pleasantly surprised by how good the food was everywhere we went. Much of the cuisine centers around fish or free-roaming Icelandic lamb.
We got a delicious introduction to both by taking the very popular Reykjavik Food Walk. Our guide Thor led us on an enjoyable three-hour hike of the nation’s capital, which has gained the reputation in recent years as very much of a foodie city.
We got to sample a variety of specialties at six restaurants while also getting a look at some of the notable attractions of the city, such as the Harpa Concert Hall. We sampled local cheese, homemade ice cream at a family-run business and visited Reykjavík’s renowned Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand.
In Iceland, hot dogs aren’t a run-of-the-mill fast food, they’re considered a delicacy. Even the hot dogs we grabbed in gas station stores we found to make a satisfying meal. Icelandic franks are mostly lamb — fed on grass and wild berries free from pesticides and herbicides — with some beef and pork blended in.
Iceland’s hot dog, know as a pulsur, has been touted as among the best in the world by the likes of Fodors, Conde Nast Traveler and Vogue. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a tiny stand operating in Reykjavik since 1937, translates to “best hot dogs in town.” All the locals go there. There’s a photo of Bill Clinton chomping a hot dog at the stand. Members of Metallica ate there.
The wait can be long, but it’s worth it, so order a couple of hot dogs. They recommend having your money ready so you don’t hold up the line.
More insights about touring Iceland
If you plan to fly a drone: Iceland is considered one of the best places for aerial photography and I was looking forward to capturing some footage with my DJI Mini 3 Pro lightweight drone. Part of my trip preparation was thoroughly researching where it is permissible to fly a drone in Iceland and rules that you must adhere to.
Here is an article that gives an overview of what you need to know about flying a drone in Iceland.
Many of the prime tourist spots are drone free because they draw large crowds. One of the few glaciers where you can fly a drone is Sólheimajökull on the south coast. I got some excellent aerial footage of the glacier there.
Later in the trip we stayed at an Airbnb in the town of Seydisfjordur situated on a fjord in the eastern region. It is an uncrowded area and I had a chance to spend considerable time flying my drone up and down the fjord without bothering anyone.
Soaking at Blue Lagoon geothermal spa: A common way to start a tour of Iceland is to stop for a soak in the milky blue waters of this geothermal spa 13 miles from Keflavík International Airport (30 miles from Reykjavik).
Blue Lagoon has been impacted by the volcanic eruptions on Reykjanes Peninsula and was closed during late 2023 and early 2024. The resort was open as of January 20, 2024. If planning a visit, check here for the status of Blue Lagoon.
It is easy to understand why Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most popular attractions. The waters are soothing, but the common area tends to be crowded, drawing about 4,000 guests on an average day. It frequently sells out, so it is important to book in advance, and you will be given a half-hour window to check in.
If you can afford to splurge, the adjacent luxury Blue Lagoon Retreat Spa provides a much more peaceful and relaxing experience at a separate, secluded lagoon with various amenities. The price difference is pretty steep, but we were glad we spent the extra money for a five-hour stay, which included access to the Retreat Lagoon. There was barely anyone there.
They have small rooms in the spa area, featuring a lounge chair and a fireplace — just a very relaxing setting. We almost fell asleep — especially coming off a red-eye flight.
Beware of those sneaker waves: One of the eye-catching attractions on the south coast of Iceland, popular with sightseers and photographers, is the black sand beach at Reynisfjara. The coast there is ruggedly beautiful.
It can also be deadly due to rogue waves that rise up unexpectedly and crash onto the beach. Unsuspecting tourists have been swept out to sea — five lost their lives in recent years.
They have a warning system for what they refer to as sneaker waves. We were aware of it and kept our distance from the shore. Some other people weren’t heeding the warnings so much and we saw several get surprised by a wave. Fortunately no one got washed away, but they had to retreat quickly from the powerful waves.
When to visit Iceland: The weather is best from June through August, and daylight is nearly endless during that period. But like many popular destination throughout the world, summer brings crowds, higher prices and inconvenience at popular attractions. We avoided those issues by visiting in early May — May and September/early October are considered shoulder seasons and the best times for an all-around experience in Iceland. But the weather in those months tends to be chilly and windy, so prepare to dress accordingly.
There was a significant snowfall a few days before we arrived. So on our drive from Reykjavik to the south coast there was a stretch where a lot of the landscape was covered with snow. Then within a blink of an eye there was no snow and it was back to farm land with awesome green grass. It was one of a number of instances that we encountered moments that to us were uniquely Iceland.
Our visit did not coincide with one of Iceland’s premier attractions, the Northern Lights. That alone provides incentive to return.
Travel advisories: For those with travel plans to Iceland who may be concerned about the volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula, check the U.S. Embassy site for updates.
About Glenn Davis
Glenn is a rocket scientist specializing in payload integration for United Launch Alliance at Cape Canaveral, Florida. His passion for photography is directed at capturing nature, rocketry and his always photogenic maltipoo pups Cubby and Rocket.