What to do in Iceland: the best tours, activities and places to stay

Discover the restorative properties of hiking, swimming and horse riding in Iceland

After week upon week of working the 9 to 5, who doesn’t yearn for a little adventure on holiday? Several times a year I like to leave the daily routine of home behind and head somewhere new to get a fresh perspective on life.

As soon as I landed in Iceland I knew I’d found the perfect place to do just this, and was instantly mesmerised and excited by the otherworldly landscapes. As the most sparsely populated country in Europe, Iceland is filled with enough empty space to make you feel like you have the entire island to yourself. Scattered with around 130 volcanoes and an abundance of waterfalls, plus mysterious black sand beaches, blue lagoons, glaciers and lava fields, the place really is like arriving into a long-lost dream world. 

Special stays

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Our Glacier Lagoon hotel is looking good these days 🙌

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I decided that fresh air and nature would be the best way to immerse myself into the spirit of Icelandic life – and start the process of fully unwinding – so I hired a car and booked a cosy and warm apartment just outside of Reykjavik on Airbnb. Sigrún and Hallur’s apartment is a Scandi cool place with two bedrooms, free parking and a hot tub. Like most places in Iceland, water used for showering or bathing is heated geothermally so has a sulphurous smell, but is perfectly clean and always steaming hot, which is so needed after a day out in the cold (Icelandic winters can drop to -10C).

In the south of the island, Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon (pictured above) is the best place to stay for stunning scenery – rooms here start from around £89 a night with stunning glacier or sea views. Splitting your time between two or three locations is a great way to see Iceland’s best parts, without wasting too much time driving. 

Gung-ho on a Glacier

things to do in Iceland

There are an astonishing 269 glaciers scattered throughout the country, meaning 11 per cent of Iceland is covered by some form of glacier. Yet if global warming continues at its current rate, they could be gone in as little as 150 years, a sobering thought that makes you realise how frail our planet really is. I decided to pick an eco-friendly company, Go West, to hike Snæfellsjökull, a glacier that, incredibly, sits on top of a dormant volcano. As a classic introvert I’m usually not a fan of group tours, often happiest discovering new places alone or with my close circle of friends, but hiking a glacier with no guidance is not the best idea, especially if you don’t own the equipment. Go West kit you out with a climbing harness, crampons, hiking sticks and an ice axe for the seven to 10-hour round trip that takes you all the way to the 1,446m summit. 

The trek, of course, is beautiful, surrounded by a blanket of bright white snow. Our guide John told fascinating stories about the history of Iceland and his passion for the country made the trip all the more special. Once you reach the top, it’s hard not to be humbled by nature and be hit with a real sense of fulfilment. My hike cost around £140 – for that you’re part of a really small group and all equipment is taken care of. 

Lagoon life

The endless properties of water are widely known, from the art of ancient Roman bathing to the rise in popularity of flotation tanks that can help to lower cortisol levels and alleviate stress. Water therapy has never been cooler. Of course Icelanders, with their unique source of natural hot water, are no strangers to its positive benefits bathing and swimming is a way of life for many people, as well as a place to socialise after a day at work.

Eager to soothe my mind and body and avoid the crowds, I hunted out the Secret Lagoon in Fludir (pictured above). Built in 1891 it was Iceland’s very first swimming pool and is heated up to 39C by natural hot springs. Sitting in the naturally heated water with steam dancing into the cool Icelandic air really is a blissful experience and the rural setting of Fludir conjures up images of elves and trolls.

Equally mystical is Krossnes (pictured top). This remote pool is a place for serious adventurers, a good five-hour drive from Reykjavik. The pool here was built by local farmers and overlooks the wildest ocean – a lucky few swimmers have even spotted whales from their spot in the pool, an experience that’s surely hard to beat. 

Heights on horseback

things to do in iceland

Another way to experience Iceland’s whimsical rock formations, incredible waterfalls and endless rainbows is by horseback. Icelandic horses are a unique breed that came to the country with the first settlers back in 874AD. Now they’re one of the purest breeds in the world with a thick winter coat and sturdy frame that’s ideal for exploring, plus they’re also incredibly pretty.

I took an evening riding tour with Islenski Hesturinn; they have well-looked-after horses and great guides, including Begga who is hilarious and a great teacher, making even first-time riders feel confident. Our group trekked over lava fields and past volcanic craters that at times felt like we were on another planet, but the highlight was the ending when the distant sun began to set, turning the fresh snow a faint purple shade and then suddenly to orange – it wasn’t the Northern Lights but it felt pretty special.

That’s the thing about Iceland – a week of outdoor activities in a country filled with volcanic energy, surrounded by nature, has the power to uplift anyone – whatever reason you choose to journey out to this majestical country.

 

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