Arguably one of the most geographically unique countries in Europe, and perhaps the world, Iceland is home to a wealth of natural wonders like the famous ones along the Golden Circle tourist route, richness in folklore and Norse mythology as well as a local culture that has greatly added to the history of visual and street art, iconography, music and literature.
So, yes, you can expect much more than a land of ice in this beautiful Nordic country. Even in the wintry weather, there are plenty of things to do. From checking out breathtaking mountains and explosive geysers to mighty volcanoes and the famed Northern Lights, here’s what you can put on the itinerary for your next (and certainly not your last) trip to the exotic country of Iceland. We recommend at least a week to 10 days to cover the most important places you want to see and things to do in Iceland.
1. Reynisfjara, Iceland’s fantastical black sand beach
Iceland does not lack in absolutely striking sights, but we’d be remiss not to start with one of its most popular attractions: Reynisfjara, the country’s premier black sand beach.
Known locally as Vik Beach – which is certainly less of a mouthful – its sands extend to several kilometres while nearby rock formations (or basalt sea stacks) give the place a truly otherworldly charm. Its black sand is given its profile by being ground down from black volcanic rocks, which were formed from lava that has since cooled and solidified.
While its wistful environment might suggest a highly isolated place, it’s merely located on the country’s southern coast – a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the capital city of Reykjavik. If you’re a fantasy geek, well, this place might ring a little familiar to you. Its beaches were featured on several episodes of Game of Thrones, alongside other franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek. Truly, it’s the beach of the past and future.
Although the Reynisfjara scenery is tranquil, you might want to take caution when it comes to being at the seaside: its waves can be unpredictable. Known as sneaker waves, its waters may turn turbulent in an instant, so best to keep a distance of at least 30 metres away on the shore.
Not to worry – if you’re travelling to Reynisfjara with a private touring group, you’ll be in safe hands as you’re guided along Iceland’s South Coast with local experts.
They'll be happy to tell you about the viking folklore, myths, legends and hard facts that were built on its soft and resplendent legacy. Nearby Reynisfjara are the Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls, which are truly breathtaking sights of their own.
2. Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Iceland’s best view of the Northern Lights
If there’s one reason why anyone would want to travel to Iceland, it’s for the Northern Lights.
Also known as the aurora borealis, it’s been depicted countless times in film and television series, but anyone who’s made the trek to this side of Europe can attest to its awe-inspiring presence in person. The aurora borealis is a natural light display that takes place when the magnetosphere is disrupted by solar winds.
This causes light particles to ionise, emitting energy of varying colour patterns as they move into the upper atmosphere of the Earth’s magnetic field. That results in the kaleidoscopic beauty that attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year. Don’t forget to pack all your camera equipment!
You can also view the Northern Lights in other European countries, but there’s a reason we’re bringing this up as an important attraction of Iceland. It’s the place: Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, which is known as Iceland’s deepest lake. It was formed naturally over the decades from melted glacial water
Due to global warming, it unfortunately continues to grow as ice blocks start crumbling. Nonetheless, it’s a sight to behold as much as it is a stern reminder about the urgency of eco-conservation efforts.
You can take part in a Zodiac boat tour, which covers a large part of the glacier lagoon and allows you to be up close to icebergs both big and small. You won’t be alone with other people at Jokulsarlon – seals can be seen swimming in the wide lagoon, or simply relaxing on top of icebergs.
If you’re down for a bit of an expedition, a natural blue ice cave within the Vatnajokull glacier stands nearby – you can take a tour from mid-March to October every year, when it’s safest to visit.
3. Hlemmur Mathöll Food Hall, a place for the ultimate Icelandic feast
Icelandic cuisine may not be fully established outside of the country, which makes a trip just for its delicacies a must. The Hlemmur Mathöll Food Hall is the country’s first immersive food hall, which encourages communal eating and libations under one roof.
Less a food bazaar and more a comprehensive look into Icelandic food culture, Hlemmur Mathöll is an essential stop if you can’t afford a lengthy itinerary. Just prepare a decent budget if you intend to have a proper feast.
You can start at Fjárhúsið, which specialises in lamb dishes – Icelandic meat soup, burgers, pitas, wraps. A solid lamb burger is pricey at 2,700 kr. (S$28), but it’s guaranteed to fill you up. Their meat is sourced from free-range Icelandic lambs, so this is absolutely on the artisanal side of things.
And yet, it gets even more high-society up here. But at a decent price! Skál, a bar and restaurant in the same food hall, is led by head chef Thomas Lorentzen, who hails from famed Copenhagen restaurant Kadeau. The restaurant’s menu veers on the experimental side, but with a mission to source its ingredients locally. Its beautiful skirt steak (3,250 kr., S$33) is served with a decadent blessing of potatoes, onions, and tarragon emulsion.
The best time to visit Hlemmur Mathöll would have to be in December, when the food hall is transformed into a neat Christmas wonderland!
There will be plenty of special Christmas menus by existing restaurants, along with additional pop-up vendors, and hearty servings of mulled wine.
Address: Laugavegur 107, 105 Reykjavík, Iceland
Opening hours: 8:00am-10:00pm (Mon to Fri), 10:00am-10:00pm (Sat & Sun)
4. Iceland Airwaves, where Iceland’s music meets an international stage
If you were to ask your more music-obsessed friends about Iceland, chances are they’ll wax poetic about the country’s incredible export of innovative artists. They’ll tell you about Bjork, the country’s experimental pop star, or Sigur Ros, a band who can make rock soundscapes feel orchestral.
As they say, it’s best to experience all of that live. Iceland’s music scene is alive and well, and at any time of the year, you’ll be able to catch a live act or two at the country’s decent selection of live music venues.
However, its crown jewel is Iceland Airwaves, a three-day music festival that promises to show some of Iceland’s best music acts alongside a carefully-curated selection of artists from all over the world.
After a challenging two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Iceland Airwaves is back in full force in 2022. This year, among the local gems are folk rock band Árstíðir, who are similar to Sigur Ros in their grandiose approach to composition and performance.
Meanwhile, you’ll also get to see a side to Icelandic music that usually isn’t covered in the rest of the world. Daughters of Reykjavík is an all-female hip-hop group that, despite only celebrating 10 years next year, have already accumulated accolades and a dedicated fanbase.
If you’re looking to expand your musical palette, you can catch British singer-songwriter Arlo Parks and Australian punk band Amyl & the Sniffers. The festival is in November, so expect to see more additions to their line-up soon. It will also be held at various venues in Reykjavík, so plan your to-see list wisely!
Don’t wait too long though – tickets are still available but the festival is hugely popular, so they won’t last too long!
Dates: 3–5 Nov 2022
Tickets: Buy here.
5. Husavik, a cosy place for whale watching
You may recognise the sights of Husavik, a beautiful seaside town, from the unlikeliest of films: Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, the musical comedy that saw Hollywood stars Will Farrell and Rachel McAdams transform into small-town pop star hopefuls.
In its many scenes, you would notice how small but welcoming its community is. However, since the release of the film, Husavik has become an essential part of Icelandic tourist spots, not just because of the town’s significance, but its everlasting attraction: whale watching.
Humpback and minke whales are the most frequently spotted mammals at Skjálfandi Bay, alongside white-beaked dolphins and the rarest of them all: the great blue whales.
Whale watching is a fulfilling experience in itself, but Husavik isn’t called Iceland’s whale capital for nothing. You can visit The Whale Museum to learn about the town’s unique relationship with the sea giants.
After a fulfilling early afternoon by the sea, it might feel tempting to be submerged in it. Husavik plays host to geothermal baths thanks to GeoSea Geothermal Sea Baths, where you’ll enjoy the traditional Icelandic public bath with beautiful scenery.
To cap it off, head up to Gamli Baukur, a popular restaurant in town that serves local Arctic char (3,850 kr., S$40) drizzled with creamy barley risotto, herb butter and curry mango sauce.
Things to note while travelling to Iceland
All Covid-19-related measures have been lifted in Iceland.
However, due to the nature of the pandemic, do check for the latest information on Iceland’s Covid-19 restrictions affecting travellers before your visit.
Experience all four seasons in one day at Iceland
From the beauty of the aurora borealis to the seaside charm of Husavik, there’s so much to Iceland to discover that feels utterly unique to the European country. If you’re new to Icelandic culture, there’s much to learn but rest assured: you’ll be a convert in no time.
While there are no direct flights available from Singapore (you will need to transfer in countries like Germany, Finland and the United Kingdom), this may not be a bad thing after all – it could mean a more extensive Europe itinerary!
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Best time to travel
While most visitors to Iceland are there for the freezing temperatures, those who don’t crave the cold that much but still want to admire the breathtaking sights can consider visiting during summer in July to August.
The official currency of Iceland is the Icelandic króna.
The best way to travel around Iceland is by driving. Be sure to check out the many scenic driving routes that wind their way through Iceland's stunning landscapes. This way, you can stop whenever you want to take photos or explore a new area. During winter, Icelandic roads can be challenging so make sure you're prepared with the proper essentials before setting out.
If you're not comfortable driving on the icy roads, there are plenty of tour companies that offer guided bus tours of the country as well.
Book your tickets to Iceland now!