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Beautiful Iceland has much to offer beyond its stunning landscapes—although the sparkling glaciers, angular black cliffs, green peaks, and rushing waterfalls put Icelandic scenery in a league of its own. What makes Iceland truly special is its people and their warmth, individuality, and culture. The world’s first parliament was convened here in the year 930, but Icelandic politics are far from dated—they were the first country to democratically elect a female president, the first to elect an openly gay prime minister, and the first to officially require equal pay for women. Impressively, one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.
Iceland's progressive politics and culture are grounded in a countrywide embrace of family values—perhaps because most Icelanders are distantly related, having descended from just a few Viking settlers (they have an app to help them avoid dating a distant cousin). It’s not just the family tree that connects Icelanders to one another—their famous Ring Road, Route 1, encircles the entire country and connects to most communities. On its way, it passes active volcanoes, bobbing icebergs, deep fjords, thousands of friendly Icelandic horses—and, on a dark, clear night, the northern lights dancing above it all.
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The Golden Circle is a ring of highlights in southern Iceland, including Thingvellir National Park, the meeting point of two continents and the site of the world’s first parliament. Surrounded by mountain peaks, the park is dotted with geothermal springs, canyons, and a peaceful lake. Nearby Geysir is the namesake of geysers around the world. Although Geysir is now silent, the neighboring Strokkur geyser more than makes up for it, regularly shooting a column of steaming water up to a height of 120 feet. In this active geothermal field, the ground literally boils—although visitors are safe on the marked paths between mudpots.
Gullfoss is the crowning glory of the Golden Circle and Iceland’s most famous waterfall. The Hvita River, fed by the Langjokull glacier, tumbles from a flat plain down three gigantic tiers on its way into a rugged, 200-foot-deep canyon. In the 20th century, Gullfoss was nearly turned into a hydroelectric plant. Thanks to the efforts of a local woman who repeatedly trekked into Reykjavik on foot to fight the developers, this natural wonder was turned into a nature reserve in 1979.
Watch Incredible Geyser Erupt
Take a journey outside Reykjavik to the lava fields, waterfalls, and geological wonders of Iceland's Golden Circle.Courtesy CNN
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Goðafoss and Lake Myvatn
Goðafoss is more than a stunning waterfall—it is deeply entwined with Icelandic history. In the year 1000, lawspeaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði officially adopted Christianity on behalf of Iceland. Here at Goðafoss, he threw the statues of the Norse gods over the cliff to symbolize his country’s renunciation of the old faith.
The nearby Lake Myvatn is an area of stark beauty, the kind of landscape that many people imagine when they think of Iceland. Bubbling mudpots, acid-green ponds, steaming craters, and cone-shaped volcanoes surround the lake, where rare birds gather. Twisted columns of black lava rise from the earth at Dimmuborgir, or “black castles,” and locals relax in secret caves where water bubbles up at the perfect temperature for a soak. If you’ve ever wanted to walk on Mars, a field of scorched orange terrain interspersed with steaming sulfur vents at Námaskarð Pass offers the next best thing.
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The world’s northernmost capital city, Reykjavik is home to 40 percent of Iceland’s population and has been inhabited since Iceland’s first settler, Ingólfur Arnorson, built his farm here in the year 874. Located on Iceland’s southwest coast, the city is surrounded by tall peaks, stark lava fields covered in moss, and black sand beaches meeting the windswept North Atlantic. Despite the intense environment, Reykjavik offers a warm welcome, with 40 annual festivals, a collection of world-class museums and galleries, and a local population that loves to socialize in the many cafes, bars, and restaurants downtown.
Between Reykjavik and its bustling international airport lies the famous Blue Lagoon, a spa that makes the most of its dramatic location between a black lava field and a futuristic geothermal plant. Milky turquoise water, warm and rich in mineral salts that soothe the skin, flows out from the plant and fills a basin of fine white silica mud. Relaxing in such an otherworldly environment has proven irresistible to Iceland’s visitors, who have made the Blue Lagoon one of the country’s most popular sites.
Soar above the city of Reykjavik and out into the thermal wonders of the Icelandic countryside.Produced by Red Element Studios
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The sea between Iceland’s northern coast and the nearby Arctic Circle teems with life, including 23 whale species—making this the best spot in Europe to go whale-watching. Eyjafjörður, a sheltered bay ringed by snowcapped mountains, is an idyllic setting to keep an eye out for humpback, minke, and even blue whales. The fishing village of Dalvik, one of Iceland's first whale-watching centers, offers the unique experience of whale watching aboard a restored wooden fishing vessel.
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Home to Iceland’s first national park, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula boasts some of the country’s most stunning scenery. The terrain reaches from black sand beaches, up craggy sea cliffs, over moss-covered lava fields, and across craters until it reaches Snæfellsjökull, an active volcano capped with a glacier. The “King of the Icelandic Mountains,” Snæfellsjökull is the setting of Jules Vernes’ Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The peninsula is dotted with small fishing villages, the largest of which is charming Stykkisholmur. On the edge of town lies sacred Helgafell, a small hill topped with the ruins of a monastery built in 1184.
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As the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier recedes from the ocean, it has carved a deep lagoon in its wake—this is Jökulsárlón, Iceland's deepest lake and one of its most iconic scenes. Blue icebergs bob in the forbidding gray water, their surface striated with charcoal gray and black stripes—layers of ash that settled on the ice during one of the many nearby volcanic eruptions. Seals peek up from the depths and seabirds whirl overhead. As the icebergs bob out to sea, some come to rest on a black sand beach and break apart, glistening like giant diamonds scattered across the landscape.
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Most Popular Films
Films featuring Iceland from international, independent filmmakers
CNNGo in Reykjavik Daytrip Golden Circle
We’ve been working with independent international filmmakers to provide you with videos that portray the people, culture, and lifestyles of the countries you're interested in visiting. We believe this video offers a unique perspective on Iceland.Courtesy CNN
8 Must Do Adventures in Iceland
Discover 8 heart-pumping adventures that Iceland has to offer.Produced by Kerrin Sheldon and Gaston Blanchet
Witness Iceland’s spectacular natural wonders—from rugged cliffs to roaring waterfalls.
Produced by Stian Rekdal
Immerse yourself in Iceland with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
These unseen enchanted creatures are widely known in Icelandic culture—uncover their mysterious lure here.
Iceland is for adventurous foodies—and with dishes like fermented shark, this country’s “delicacies” are far from normal.
Iceland has unparalleled natural beauty that will leave you in awe, including the wondrous northern lights.
The surprising secret lives of Iceland’s rumored elves
Jenny Cowing, for O.A.T.
A belief in nature spirits can be found around the world, from ancient aboriginal Australians to modern Shinto practitioners in Japan. But the affinity Icelanders have for their “hidden people,” the huldufolk, is unique enough to stop traffic—literally!—and also offers unexpected insight into the spiritual side of this secular, intellectual society.
Belief in elves is widespread in Iceland, and the magical beings are thought to be ubiquitous yet elusive, inhabiting flowers and rocks, and often dressing like humans—although their costumes, which evoke 19th-century period dress, help give them away. Some, like the Bualfar, or house elves, are human sized, while Blomalfar, or flower elves, are mere inches tall. Popular folk wisdom holds that elves can most easily be spotted on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve—when they seek new homes in rocks and streams that seem beautiful or strange enough to be enchanted by an unseen power.
Icelanders can petition their local government to divert roads and halt construction of buildings that might disrupt these inhabited “elf stones.” In 2001, Smaralind, one of Iceland’s largest shopping malls, had its electrical wiring and pipes rerouted to avoid a boulder suspected of boarding a family of elves. In the 1970s, construction workers clearing land for a highway near Reykjavik experienced a string of bad luck while trying to move a large boulder that lay in their path. The workers hired a clairvoyant who said he could communicate with the elves. He confirmed that the boulder was home to a family of elves, who agreed to leave—or at least allow the project to continue uninterrupted.
While this may seem curious at first glance, most Icelanders are quick to point out that this practice is more in the interest of inclusiveness and tolerance than in a literal belief in nature spirits. Indeed, Iceland’s population is among the most educated, and its people pride themselves on fostering a secular society that is sensitive to the beliefs of all its citizens.
Few Icelanders claim to have had personal encounters with the huldufolk, who are said to be invisible to most people, unless they choose to reveal themselves. However, The New York Times notes that more than half of those surveyed in 2007 won’t deny that the creatures exist. “It’s not like they think there are little people living in there who come and dance outside,” said Terry Gunnell, head of the Folkloristic Department at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. “It’s more a sense that there are other powers, other forces around them.”
Anthropologists point to Iceland’s Celtic roots, which have nurtured an affinity for magic and the supernatural. But the prevalence of visitors to supposed elven hotspots demonstrates that a fascination with these enchanted creatures is not just an Icelandic phenomenon. The port town of Hafnarfjordur prides itself on its unusually high elf population, and tourists gather each year to visit so-called elf habitats. Reyjkavik, Iceland’s capital and its largest city, even boasts an Elf School, known locally as Álfaskólinn, which teaches about the country’s different kinds of elves, and offers certificate programs for particularly curious visitors.
Once you see Iceland’s volcanoes, geysers, and icebergs illuminated by Aurora Borealis’ cosmic fireworks, it’s hard not to think of a fantasy world like The Lord of the Rings’ Middle Earth. Is it any wonder that folklore fancy of elves persists in Icelandic culture? This small island’s haunting landscape, wrought by ice and fire—after all, Iceland sits atop a volcanic hotspot—has long sparked the imagination of visitors and lifelong residents alike. “We think nature is a lot stronger than man,” Björk, one of Iceland’s best-known musicians, told the New Yorker in an interview. Björk’s otherworldly voice, eclectic compositions, and avant-garde costumes lend an ethereal quality to her performances that perfectly reflects her country’s love of magic with a touch of whimsy. This sentiment may be one of Iceland’s greatest treasures. Even in such a secular society, she says, “a relationship with things spiritual has not gone away.”
The surprising secret lives of Iceland’s rumored elves
from The Inside Scoop
Question: In which country can you dine upon such delicacies as fermented shark, singed sheep’s head, and horse meat?
We’ll preface this list by saying that it does not represent all Icelandic food. The country boasts a bounty of fresh seafood, some of the best lamb in the world, outstanding hot dogs, and a deliciously nutritious yogurt-type product called Skyr (which is technically a soft cheese). Greenhouses have made fresh fruits and vegetables much easier to come by—and crops like root vegetables and kale grow just fine in Iceland’s cool, northern climate. Today, Iceland even boasts a number of fine dining restaurants.
That said, many of Iceland’s traditional dishes are famously off-putting to the American palate. In order to survive the cold, harsh winters, Icelanders once had to rely on preservation techniques like smoking, drying, and fermenting to ensure they wouldn’t go hungry.
With that in mind, would you try any of the following “delicacies”?
- Shark attack. Certainly the most polarizing Icelandic dish is hakarl: fermented and dried Greenland shark. Not only does the long curing process ensure that hakarl can be safely eaten all year round (hooray!), it also removes toxins from the shark, which is poisonous when eaten fresh. To the uninitiated, hakarl tastes like cleaning products due to its high ammonia content. It has even bested the likes of TV host Anthony Bourdain, who proclaimed it “the single worst, most disgusting, and terrible tasting thing” he’d ever eaten.
- Feeling sheepish. “Nose-to-tail” cooking is something of a trend in the U.S. these days—but in cold climates like Iceland, using every edible part of an animal was once a matter of survival. Svio—singed, boiled sheep’s head—covers the “nose” part of the “nose-to-tail” spectrum. The head is singed (to remove the hair), sawed in half, and boiled. While the traditional presentation makes no attempt to disguise what’s on the plate, many adventurous eaters manage to look past this and come to an unexpected revelation: Svio actually tastes pretty good.
- Testing your mettle. Closer to the “tail” side of the equation? Hrutspungar: boiled and cured ram’s testicles. We don’t know anyone adventurous enough to look past this one.
- Friends, not foods. Despite the fact that culinary tradition is often dictated by necessity, some of the animals eaten in Iceland cause the American moral compass to go haywire. First, there’s the puffin. With a conservation status on the lower threshold of “vulnerable,” some populations of Atlantic puffin have declined, but their largest—and thriving—colony is in Iceland. Most Americans who object to eating puffin do so because they’re so darn cute. Horses—to us, beloved companions—have been raised domestically and eaten in Iceland since the 19th century. And yes, Iceland currently practices commercial whaling. To those who are morally opposed, it matters little that the Minke whale—the only species eaten in Iceland—is not endangered.
- Fire water. Particularly for those brave enough to attempt hakarl, there’s one spirit in Iceland that will banish the flavor of any offending food from your mouth: Brennivin. Unsweetened and flavored with caraway, Brennivin is affectionately referred to as “black death”—which, depending on what you ate, might be just what the doctor ordered.
Tune in to Iceland’s unique nature show
Megan Mullin, from Dispatches
Less than 20 million years ago, Iceland was born. While that may sound like a long time ago, the island’s landscape is actually very young when compared to the rest of the world—and is still developing today. Created by volcanic eruptions in the Arctic regions of the Atlantic Ocean and Greenland Sea, Iceland is a rare combination of molten lava and glittering ice. Its relative youth and geographical isolation has also contributed to its unique natural qualities. It is a land of stark beauty and home to an abundance of wildlife.
Of course, when most people hear “Iceland,” it is difficult not to envision a frigid place enveloped by glaciers and ever-falling snow. Iceland is also famous for its dark winters, with nights so long the sun never truly rises in December or January; for a precious five hours a day, the sky never brightens beyond a dusky gloaming. These long nights are not devoid of all light, however. From September to March, Mother Nature puts on her most breathtaking light show across the Icelandic skies: the famed northern lights.
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are a spectacular natural phenomenon visible in only a few places on Earth. Iceland happens to be one of the best locations to view this shimmering wonder, especially in the city of Reykjavik. An array of bright waves—ranging from green and blue to pink and purple—ripple across Iceland’s night skies in an undulating dance of color and light. This dazzling display is caused by solar wind particles and ions streaming from the sun towards the Earth. When these reach the Earth’s upper atmosphere, they collide with atmospheric particles and ions, creating the northern lights’ signature glow.
Iceland’s volcanic origins also provide a natural way to warm up during the colder months. Geothermal hot springs—which contain mineral-rich waters heated by underground lava flows—are known for their healing properties as much as they are for pure recreation. Locals and visitors alike bathe in these hot springs all year long, the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik being one of the most popular. It features a man-made lagoon, but it is nature that provides the steaming water, which can get as hot as 98-102 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fortunately, winter does not last forever, and the arrival of spring brings radiant skies and the bustling renewal of flora and fauna. While only a handful of wild mammals can be found here—a result of the island’s challenging environment—more than 300 species of birds have been recorded in Iceland, including 80 species that regularly use the island as a place to breed. Among the numerous colonies of seabirds that flock to Iceland’s shores is the country’s most iconic: the puffin. Stout little birds with coloration similar to penguins aside from brightly colored beaks and feet, puffins are one of Iceland’s most beloved residents. These winsome seabirds are expert divers—their short wings are ideal for swimming underwater. But unlike their Antarctic doppelgangers, puffins can also fly quite swiftly, usually close to the ocean’s surface. Over half of the world’s Atlantic puffin population breeds in Iceland—which brings the total puffin population to approximately eight to ten million. Nesting in the safety of Iceland’s majestic fjords and craggy cliffs, puffins have become a tourist attraction of their own, with visitors anxious to catch a glimpse of them in their austere natural habitat.
For an island roughly the size of the state of Ohio, Iceland contains a striking array of natural wonders. From icy-blue thermal baths to seabirds that choose to nest in frigid environs, it is indeed a land of contrasts.
Tune in to Iceland’s unique nature show
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
Iceland in November-March
Despite the country's name and its position just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is not an icy wasteland during the winter months. In fact, the average temperature hovers around 31 degrees Fahrenheit—comparable to winter in New York City. However, dark skies and driving winds can make it feel colder, and passing blizzards can make the roads treacherous. It's essential to be prepared during a wintertime trip to Iceland, with thermal gear, waterproof outwear, and plenty of layers.
With daylight confined to a few hours during the middle of the day, winter visitors have less time to admire Iceland's renowned scenery—but plenty of time to search the night skies for the northern lights.
Holidays & Events
- Early November: Iceland Airwaves, a five-day annual music festival, showcases popular music and rising stars in venues around Reykjavik.
- December 25: Christmas
- First weekend in February: Winter Lights Festival. Every February, Reykjavik is illuminated with colorful displays of light, meant to symbolize the growing sunlight hours.
- Late March: Reykjavik Fashion Festival brings fashionistas, editors, and designers from around the world to the Harpa Concert Hall to witness the daring work of Icelandic fashion designers.
The northern lights draw visitors to Iceland from around the world, and they are easier to spot during the long nights of winter. All it takes is patience and clear skies—the notoriously fickle aurora are liable to appear at any time and fade just as quickly. Aurora forecasts can be found online, and many local hotels will wake sleeping guests during particularly vibrant displays.
Iceland in April-May
As spring arrives in Iceland, experienced travelers come too, hoping to beat the summer crowds. The days lengthen and snow thaws across the country's vast interior. In the south, flowers begin to bloom as migrating birds—like the famous puffin— touch down on coastal cliffs. Occasional snowstorms pass by even in April, but their impact is minimal and short-lived, as warmer temperatures and mild sunshine melt any lingering snowdrifts. Throughout the spring, daylight hours are long enough to allow plenty of exploring in Iceland's stunning landscapes—but not too long to prevent sightings of the northern lights.
Holidays & Events
- April 8-13: Reykjavik Blues Festival
- First Thursday after April 18: Iceland celebrates their own "official" first day of summer with a public holiday.
- Mid-May: Every other year, the Reykjavik Arts Festival brings classic and contemporary artwork from all disciplines to Iceland, where it is displayed—or performed—in unconventional venues.
Early May kicks off whale-watching season in the northern Iceland community of Dalvík. Enormous humpback whales, minke whales, even orcas and blue whales enter the nearby fjord, situated at the edge of the Arctic Circle, during the busy May feeding season. Many whale-watching excursions witness playful breaching and fluking, when the whales display their unique tails just before diving.
Iceland in June-August
With 20 or more hours of daylight each day during the summer months, Iceland becomes a magical playground for all-day adventuring. Although the northern lights are invisible during this bright season, dramatic landscapes including fjords, glaciers, lava fields, and serrated peaks more than make up for it. Although it rarely gets hot in Iceland, summertime is mild—with the exception of passing storms that bring wind and rain. Water- and wind-proof layers are a good idea, as well as an eye mask for the twilit sleeping hours.
All summer, tour buses deposit crowds at Iceland's most popular attractions, but the vast natural landscapes make room for more adventurous travelers to get off the beaten path and into a world of serene quietude.
Holidays & Events
- June 17: Icelandic Independence Day
- Second or third weekend in August: Danish Days. The residents of Stykkisholmur celebrate the town's heritage as a Danish trading post every summer.
- First or second Saturday in August: The Great Fish Day. Every August, the town of Dalvík hosts a public seafood buffet to show off their fishermen's wares.
- August 19: Culture Night. With the slogan "Come on in!" residents of Reykjavik invite visitors and each other to experience Icelandic hospitality and enjoy a diverse offering of cultural events.
Visitors from further south will appreciate the experience of long summer days—with the sun rising at 3 a.m. and setting after midnight for several days in mid-June. With such long days, summer is a good time to enjoy just about anything in Iceland, but glacier hikes, puffin-spotting, and whale-watching are especially enjoyable during this mild time of year.
Iceland in September-October
Fall in Iceland provides a preview of the long winter months to come, with rain, wind, and temperatures occasionally dropping toward 30 degrees Fahrenheit—but overall it remains mild and closer to 50 degrees. The Ring Road, which circumnavigates the country, remains open and allows visitors to see the entire island before winter weather closes in. Autumn foliage splashes the hillsides with color, brightening an already-beautiful landscape. The nights grow longer, with opportunities to spot the northern lights when the weather is clear. And across the country, summer crowds have departed, leaving natural landmarks and cultural attractions more peaceful. Locals often go berry-picking in the countryside, and then turn their wild berries into jams, cakes, juices, and wines.
Holidays & Events
- Late September: Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF). Every September for eleven days, RIFF showcases independent dramas and documentary films from around the world.
- Throughout September and early October: Every fall, Iceland's farmers and shepherds venture out into the country to round up their sheep in a traditional called réttir. Family, friends, and visitors are more than welcome to participate, especially during the post-round-up celebration. For a few weeks following réttir, roast lamb dishes are prevalent in Iceland's restaurants.
As the nights lengthen, the northern lights become more visible across Iceland when the sky is clear. October is the last chance to tour the Westman Islands' volcanoes and to cruise the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon by boat—an unforgettable chance to glide past the glowing blue icebergs up-close.
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
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Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
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Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
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Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
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Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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