5 Iceland tourist attractions worth your money

Between Icelandair’s Stopover Buddy Service and the glorious videos popping up that show the immaculate landscape of the country, Iceland is putting itself on the adventure map.

And if you’ve checked out some photos or even better, visited the country yourself, you know why.

Iceland is only the size of Kentucky (with a population of about 320,000) but the tiny country has a vast and varied landscape filled with volcanoes, glaciers, black sand beaches, lava fields, and remote fjords.

With more flights heading to Iceland and a push from their tourism board, it’s no surprise that the country’s international visitors has increased immensely.

In the first half of 2015, more than 517,000 tourists visited Iceland, an increase of almost 29 percent since the first half of 2014. With such a large influx in visitors, the country has increased their tours and guides to reap in on their new found fame.

Heading on a guided tour might not sound ideal when you are used to adventuring on your own time, but most often, having a guide can get you to far off places that are restricted to the public.

Plus, you get to chat with locals and hear the inside scoop on the best restaurants and coffee shops, plus listen to some of Iceland’s elf lore (yes, they believe in elves).

Check out these tours and attractions that are well worth your time and money, and will still give you a taste of adventure.

Whale Watching with Gentle Giants

Getting up close to a humpback whale in one of Gentle Giant’s speed boat. Photo: Mattie Schuler

In Northern Iceland, in the quaint town of Húsavík, you’ll find plenty of whale watching guides to join. But with Gentle Giants, you have the option to hop on an RIB Speed Boat that can follow along closely as the whales swim within feet of the boat and has the ability to speed over to a whale spotting hundreds of feet away.

For the speedboat tour, you’ll be equipped with a full-body suit that doubles as flotation and warmth, then you’ll set off at top speed to puffin island, where more than 100,000 puffins live.

Then it’s time to spot the whales by looking for puffs of water spraying into the air. Once a puff is spotted, the RIB Speed Boat cruises over to the spotting to get you up close and personal with blue whales and humpback whales.

You are pretty much guaranteed to see whales in Húsavík, but with Gentle Giants and their speed boats, you’ll be able to see the unique spotted designed on the humpback whales tails.

Glacier Hike with Extreme Iceland

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Hiking on the Svínafellsjökull glacial tongue in the Skaftafell nature reserve. Photo: Mattie Schuler

Dubbed the Land of Fire and Ice because of the country’s many volcanoes and glaciers, it would be pretty hard not to see a glacier when traveling around Iceland.

The country has six glaciers, with the largest, Vatnajökull, covering 3,200 square miles. Vatnajökull resides in Vatnajökull National Park (one of three national parks in Iceland), which includes the Skaftafell Nature Reserve.

At Skaftafell, you can see the glacier as well as waterfalls, like Svartifoss, and hike trails that stem from the Skaftafell Visitor Center. You can get pretty close to the glacier’s edge via the Skaftafellsjökull trail, but why get close, when you can get on.

With Extreme Iceland’s Ultimate Icescape Glacier Hike, you’ll be equipped with crampons, helmets and ice picks to explore the Svínafellsjökull glacial tongue in the Skaftafell Nature Reserve.

The guides will teach you about how the glacier was formed, how it is constantly changing, and even provide you with some fresh ice to crunch on.

Zodiac Boat Glacier Lagoon Tour

How 'bout them icebergs? Photo: Courtesy of Gian-Reto Tarnutzer/Unsplash
How ’bout them icebergs? Photo: Courtesy of Gian-Reto Tarnutzer/Unsplash

About 40 minutes east of Skaftafell, you’ll stumble upon one of the greatest sites Iceland has to offer, the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon.

Fed from the Vatnajökull glacier, the glacier lagoon is only about 80 years old and is chock full of icebergs, large and small, that shimmer blue in the sunlight as they slowly make their way out to the ocean.

With Zodiac Boat Tours, you are able to get quite close to the glacier and the icebergs (pending that they aren’t breaking off in the moment) in a small speed boat that can cruise quickly throughout the entire seven-square-mile lagoon.

Book ahead, as these Zodiac tours fill up quick. After you’ve see the icebergs melting into the lagoon, don’t think the beauty is over yet.

Head across the road to Iceland’s Diamond Beach, where you’ll find beached icebergs creating glass art atop the black sand. Make sure your camera is charged and your memory card empty.

Lava Cave Exploration

One of the many ice formations in the Lofthellir Lava Cave. Photo Credit: Extreme Iceland
One of the many ice formations in the Lofthellir Lava Cave. Photo: Courtesy of Extreme Iceland

Although Iceland provides plenty to see atop the land, the country also has lava caves and ice caves abound underneath.

In the northern area near Lake Myvatn (pronounced mee-vaht) lies the Lofthellier Lava Cave, a 3,500 year old cave that is covered in ice.

After a bumpy jeep ride to a lava field, you’ll hike for about 20 minutes before entering the cave. From there, headlamps are lit and crampons stay on as you navigate the frozen world just underneath the earth.

You’ll climb, slide and scoot your way over ice and through the cave to visit the ice formations in the Kingdom, Elf City and the Church.

Watch where you step, as these formations have taken hundreds of years to form and breaking them will anger the elves.

Other lava cave tours in Iceland include the Vatnshellir Cave on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula near Reykjavik, as well as the Raufarholshellir Lava Tube in Hveragerði, also near Reykjavik. 

Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa

Soak in a relaxing hot spring at the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa. Photo: Flickr user, Megan
Soak in a relaxing hot spring at the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa. Photo: Courtesy of Megan/FLICKR

Yes, it’s touristy. And yes, it will be packed with people. But the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa is right next to the airport, which makes for a perfect stop after you land or before you leave.

Don’t go out of your way for a soak (there are plenty of other natural hot springs in Iceland) but if you are nearby and have the time, bask in the warm water that is said to have healing properties for your skin.

Plus, Iceland can be quite a rainy, cloudy country, but sitting in warm water as cold rain drops surround you — it just adds to the ethereal feeling that Iceland offers. The spring water, which comes from the Svartsengi Geothermal Power Station, is a nice 98 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit year round, and is self-cleansing.

Its blueness comes from the silica and other minerals in the water. Packages come in standard, comfort, premium and luxury, with the standard package covering entrance as well as a Silica Mud Mask.

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