Iceland’s main airport is only about a six hours’ flight away from New York which makes it a nice easy escape from the hustle and of the city. On the flip side, once landed in Iceland, it’s still about an hour’s drive from the capital city of Reykjavik. Since the famous Blue Lagoon is located closer to the airport than the city, it’s common to make a pit stop a the Lagoon before ending up in Reykjavik- don’t worry- there are luggage lockers (and even bathing suits!) available for a fee.
Now, there are a few different ways to see the country that are popular amongst tourists. Traveling with a tour company or renting out a camper van is a good way to see a larger sampling of the country- and you’re not as likely to run into massive crowds of people. The most popular option is to book a hotel in Reykjavik and take different day tours out of the city. This allows for a more customizable experience without having to manage constant moves or the mercurial weather conditions on the roads.
I decided to pick the third option and stay in the city for my trip. You can check out my last post for some suggestions of things to do in Reykjavik, but no one goes to Iceland to stay in Reykjavik the whole time- so let’s talk about tours!
The first and most famous of Iceland’s tours is the Golden Circle. With only a short time in Iceland, this tour offers an excellent overview of the historic and natural attractions in the country. While tours can vary a little from company to company, the three key elements of the tour are the Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir geothermal area in Haukadalur Valley and Þingvellir National Park.
Gullfoss, or the “Golden Falls” is one of Iceland’s most beloved waterfalls and lends its name to the Golden Circle route. There’s a large tourist center in this area with gifts and refreshments for purchase- and a good place to warm up while visiting in the winter.
With only five major geyser fields on Earth, it’s always exciting to get to visit one. This visit was particularly exciting for me because the Great Geysir, though erupting with gradually decreasing frequency is actually where the word “geyser” comes from! Though visitors are unlikely to spot any activity at the mother of geysers, its nearby neighbor Strokkur erupts a boiling stream of water every few minutes.
There is a gift shop and cafe located by the geysers so it’s a good place to stop for a snack or two.
Þingvellir National Park is known for its historic and geological significance. Traditionally the site of Iceland’s annual parliament, Alþing, this National Park is located in the rift valley that marks the divide between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It was super cool to walk down this valley and not only be walking in the steps of history but also be walking between continents!
While the Golden Circle is probably the most important tour of Iceland, I always suggest that visitors also take a tour of Southern Iceland and it’s black sand beaches! This tour usually includes a stop at the Skogafoss waterfall, which I definitely saw on Instagram quite a bit before my trip. Be mindful of your footing in the winter- the spray from the falls turns into ice! There is also an option to climb nearby stairs to get a view of the waterfall from above.
Another popular stop is Seljalandsfoss, which also makes its rounds on social media due to visitors being able to walk behind the falls into a small cave. My stop to these falls was pretty late in the day so the cave was closed for safety, but I know a few of my fellow tourists hopped the barrier for a photo.
My favorite part of this tour was absolutely getting to see the famous black sand beaches of Iceland. The tour I selected made two stops for maximum beach time. We first stopped in Vik, which is a gorgeous little village in it’s own right-and the Southernmost village in Iceland, and a stop at Reynisfjara Beach. I’ve had my trust broken by Instagram before, so I was shocked to find that the black sand beaches really are that dark! I fell in love immediately with the pitch dark sand, and the basalt columns. The contrasting sea foam with the dark sand was gorgeous! Just keep in mind that you should never turn your back on the ocean.
Iceland has what they call “sneaker waves” which are unexpectedly large waves that occur every few minutes. The black sand is very fine so it’s super easy to loose your footing and get dragged out to sea. Iceland sees a few of these deaths a year, so there are signs everywhere, and tour guides constantly reminding their charges to watch their back and yet I still saw a few people nearly get taken out for a selfie.
One of the main draws for the country is, of course, the famous Northern Lights! There are a few places to see this phenomenon, but Iceland is probably the easiest option for travelers. While some people can get lucky with the lights on their own, I always recommend a tour guide since they know the best places to take you for your best chances at viewing the lights. I wrote about my experience seeing the Northern Lights here.