Iceland, the Land of Fire and Ice, is a breathtaking and increasingly popular place – for good reason. It is very close to the Arctic Circle, meaning long winter nights and long summer days, with almost 24 hours of daylight in June, and close to 24 hours of twilight in December.
The island was one of the last places on Earth to be inhabited by humans, sometime in the 800s when the Vikings from Norway discovered Iceland by accident.
Iceland is home to some of the largest glaciers in Europe, covering 11% of the country. It also has some of the world’s most active volcanoes. There are 130 volcanic mountains, some very active, and some that will awaken as the country expands and grows! It is therefore one of the youngest landmasses on Earth.
This creates out-of-this-world landscapes for travelers and photographers.
This post provides a view of the top 12 places not to miss out on – out of many -, as well as 5 practical tips for when you go there, along with some insight on sustainability. Hopefully, this will engage you to go and see this amazing location!
Top 12 Iceland landmarks not to miss
The capital Reykjavik, which I do not cover here, deserves a day (and more) of visit, but the main reason to visit Iceland is for its natural wonders outside of the main city. There are endless things to see and do, especially if you’re passionate about landscape photography so my top 12 isn’t exhaustive and may be unfair to a few other spots. But these are, in my opinion, the must-see spots (not ranked in any particular order) and some of my preferred photography prints subjects
Kirkjufell (Church Mountain)
The Kirkjufell cascade and mountain are on the north coast of Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula and are, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular landmarks in Iceland. For those that know the book, this place is the location of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth for an absolute volcanic experience. I’ve looked for the entrance but could not find it, so let me know if you do, please. It was also featured in Games of Thrones (“Arrowhead Mountain”, season 7, north of the wall…)
The “golden waterfall” is a very popular and breathtaking landscape photography place in southwest Iceland, in the canyon of the Hvítá river. The fall is 105 feet high (32 meters) with an upper and a lower fall. It is the waterfall with the largest volume in Europe due to glaciers melting. For photographers, there are many viewpoints on the trail, both above and below. Twilight is good, as well (with much fewer tourists).
On the southern coast of Iceland, between Skaftafell and Jökulsarló, Cape Ingolfshofdi is a small island surrounded by black sand on the southern coast and the North Atlantic Ocean. This is a bird nesting paradise. You have to book a tour with a guide. You’ll enjoy observing the cute puffins, as per the picture below, as well as many other birds (razorbills, seafowl, guillemots, fulmars, and kittiwakes).
Seljalandsfoss cascade and cavern
The waterfall has a 200-foot-high (60 meters) single drop into a pool and it is one of the few cascades in the world where it is possible to walk behind it. Obviously, you won’t be alone, but with almost 24 hours of daylight in June, if you’re really motivated, you can get shots with nobody in them…
This is a large bay (with many characteristics of a fjord) on the north coast, close to Husavik, and it is an amazing place for whale watching. You have the highest chance in Iceland to see different kinds of whales over there (humpback whale, like in my picture below, minke whale, blue whale, and even the killer whale orca…). Of course, these are very touristic boat tours (from Husavik), but worth it…
This waterfall is located in Vatnajökull National Park and is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, as well as the most breathtaking in Iceland. The fall is “powered” by the Vatnajökull glacier and the 144-foot drop (44 meters) creates an amazing sound. Many viewpoints along the walking path make it a must-see.
A violent storm also adds a bit to the experience…
Krafla volcano area
The region near Myvan Lake in the north has many geological wonders to offer, with large geothermal areas of hissing steam vents and bubbling mud pools. The circular Stora-Viti crater (300 meters in diameter) offers an amazing and easy hike around. The color of the lake will vary with the changing light throughout the day, from beautiful turquoise – as per my picture below – to green.
This amazing place in the Vatnajokull National Park in Iceland is the largest ice cap in Europe. It is a popular place for glacier hiking. Vínafellsjökull is a great place to get close to a glacier tongue. Again, an area that made it to Game of Thrones, north of the wall…
This all-region north of the island is also an amazing area for landscape photography and hike, with fantastic views on the Arctic Ocean, insulated farms over the sea, horses and sheep in beautiful fields, and many other beautiful things.
Take a bath in the Myvatn thermal area
It is possible (and recommended) to swim outdoors in hot springs all year-round and you’ll find many amazing spots to do so (beyond the very touristic Reykjavik blue lagoon). There are amazing, hot turquoise lakes, with steam mixing with white clouds in the beautiful blue sky.
The Jokulsarlon glacier and its iceberg lagoon are one of Iceland‘s natural crown jewels and another amazing spot not to miss. The lake is up to almost 250m deep and you can explore in a boat to observe many birds and seals.
Again, there are many other great spots in the Land of Fire and Ice. Have a look at my Iceland gallery for more images…
Five practical travel tips when going to Iceland
Winter and summer are two different (but both outstanding) experiences
Winter is obviously the time to go and see the Northern Lights, something that is still on my own bucket list of travels as a photographer The Northern Lights can be seen from September to March, so winter is the best. During this time, most roads are closed, so it is more difficult to get around.
On the other hand, summer allows you to get around easily and have amazing opportunities to enjoy the natural wonders, with sunsets around midnight and sunrise around 3 AM. Both winter and summer deserve a trip, but summer will give you a much more “accessible” and diverse experience of this gorgeous place.
In summer, go around the ring to see the natural wonders
The best way to visit the island is to rent a car and get out on the Iceland ring road, either for a full tour of (around 1300km) or a portion of it. If you do the full tour, allow yourself at least a full week (8-9 days, ideally) as there is a lot to see! The map below gives you an overview of the Ring Road 1 and marks the 12 wonderful spots described above.
Book your accommodations ahead of time…
A great way to visit the ring road is to stay close to some of the extraordinary sites for one or (ideally) two nights and then keep going. There are a lot of simple but very good family-run guesthouses, so that’s a good option to consider. Especially in summer, you really want to choose and book your accommodations ahead of time (easy to do online these days) as the best ones fill up quickly a few months ahead of time.
You can always find some free external facilities, but…
Pack for all kinds of weather, regardless of when you go…
One of the locals’ favorite jokes is “if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes”, so do that and be prepared to experience very diverse weather, even in summer. Iceland is, however, actually not as cold as its name implies due to the gulf stream, so don’t be afraid to go!
Iceland is one of the most sustainable places on Earth
Iceland is ranked as one of the eco-friendliest countries in the world. Almost all of the electricity in Iceland is produced using renewable energy sources. Around 73% comes from hydropower, and the remaining from geothermal power. It’s easy to see why when going around the geothermal station in the Myvatn region, as seen below.
Reykjavik won the Nordic Nature and Environment Prize in 2014 and is well on its way to becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2040.
Beyond using its natural geothermal and hydraulic gifts, the country also has a very responsible approach to the fisheries quota system, limiting the total allowable catch at a sustainable level based on marine scientists’ research, and this seems to be paying off.
Icelandic waters are among the cleanest in the world, and Iceland is a big global advocate and voice in the fight against the pollution of the oceans. 95% of drinking water in Iceland comes from springs and the water has a reputation for being the cleanest and the best drinking water in the world (no nitrate, calcium, or chlorine).
The country is, however, not separate from global warming issues and consequences. All Iceland glaciers are melting. Close to 10 glaciers with names, as well as many unnamed ones, have already disappeared. One fully disappeared last year.
I talked about the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon as one of the country’s top 12 attractions. The 250-meter-deep lagoon did not even exist 70 years ago and the acceleration of the melting in the last 20-30 years has been scary and highly visible.
Anyway, we heard this week from the president of one of the largest economies on the planet (the guy with yellow hair) that “it will start getting cooler, you just watch”, insisting that “scientists don’t know what the hell they’re talking about”.
Maybes he sees something that most others don’t see. However, if you have a few minutes more to spare, take a look at one of the many videos on this topic:
For more insights on glaciers melting consequences, you can read another example my article on the wonderful Tuamotus archipelago in Polynesia, that will give, from a different corner of the planet, insights on what’s going on.
Sustainable travel international, a great organization that has for mission to protect and conserve our planet’s most vulnerable destinations by transforming tourism’s impact on nature and people, had a good article on climate impact on tourism destinations, showing that the issue affect all type of touristic places (mountains, oceans, islands..) and obviously indigenous peoples
I’m glad that I was able to bring my family on top of the Langjökull glacier, as I’m unfortunately really not sure that my daughter’s kids or grandchildren will be able to see this view…