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The best places to visit in Iceland: a cheat's guide

The must-visit spots in the key regions of awe-inspiring Iceland

When it comes to gasp-inducing nature, Iceland won the tectonic lottery. It has the same sort of glacial landscapes and sea cliffs as the Faroe Islands, fjords that recall Arctic Norway, and icicle-jewelled waterfalls that feel like Niagara without the crowds and souvenir shops. Its natural curiosities run from the basalt cliffs at Reynisfjara’s black sand beach to the rainbow-coloured mountains of Landmannalaugar. But Iceland’s real geological X-Factor comes bubbling up from below: a volcanic tumult that results in eruptions now and again, and a constant supply of natural hot baths, hissing steam vents and geysers. Add in the possibility of seeing Northern Lights, and a rich culture that encompasses great music, sharp design and sociable hot tubs in even the smallest villages, and Iceland’s advantages seem altogether unfair. In some ways, it’s a surprise that it took until the 21st century for tourism to explode here (the ash cloud of 2010 was an unlikely spur), given the country’s relative accessibility from both the US and Europe, and the fact that it’s so safe that people still hitch-hike along the A1 road that circumnavigates the country. Iceland remains as awe-inspiring as ever, if busier – with more of a need than ever for visitors to tread lightly, sensitively and with due reverence.

And with that in mind, we've personally gathered our list of the best places to visit Iceland, consider this your cheat guide for your next visit to this magical landscape.

The best places to visit in Iceland

Reykjanes Peninsula

International flights land on Iceland’s southwestern peninsula, and it’s worth sticking around for one of the country’s most dramatically volcanic areas. The Mount Fagradalsfall volcano, in the centre of the peninsula, has been erupting on and off since 2021, with gushing lava visible at times in Reykjavik, 40 miles north. It’s not the only visible volcanic activity round these parts, from the steaming burnt ochre fields at Krysuvik to the mud pools and steam vents at Gunnuhver, in the far south. So much of the landscape here consists of jagged, treeless black lava fields – the sort that surround its most famous attraction, The Blue Lagoon.

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Bathe There may be cheaper and less touristy baths in Iceland, but none are more iconic than the Blue Lagoon – a striking splodge of milky turquoise in a black landscape, which started accidentally in the 1970s as the run-off from a geothermal power plant, and is now a steaming water world of silica masks, flotation therapy and in-water massages.

Stay The 62-suite Retreat at the Blue Lagoon is all sharply angular concrete, built unobtrusively into the moss-covered black volcanic landscape and surrounded by silica-rich moats that feel worlds away from the adjacent main lagoon. Many of the neutral-toned suites have direct access to the water, and there’s a subterranean spa built evocatively into the lava, as well as a locavore restaurant overseen by chef Aggi Sverisson, a one-time head chef at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons.


Iceland’s capital may be busier than ever, but it still has a tangible soul and culturally punches far above its weight – from the harbourfront Marshall House, an old fish factory turned into a grass roots gallery space and the studio of installation pioneer Olafur Eliasson, to the annual Iceland Airwaves festival that takes over the city every November while showcasing Iceland’s preposterously vibrant music scene.

Eat and drink While Reykjavik has a shabby-chic side, epitomised by music-first bars like old-timer Kaffibarrinn, it also does New Nordic to compete with the bigger Scandi capitals: at OX, a 16-seat space for 12-course set menus by chef Thrainn Freyr Vigfusson, who also runs the highly-rated, Lebanese/North African-influenced Sumac; and the more established Dill, where chef Gunnar Karl Gislason first brought Noma-ish food to Iceland in the midst of the financial crash, when importing ingredients became too expensive – and later won the country’s first Michelin star.

Bathe At the Vesturbaer public pool, bathers might bump into Bjork in the hot tub (be cool: celebrity worship is very un-Icelandic), while Nauthólsvík is a man-made beach with a rectangular sunken bath and friendly local swimmers. On the southern edge of town, the Sky Lagoon is more show-stopping and tourist-facing – a futuristic rival to the Blue Lagoon, which opened in 2021 with a vast infinity pool built into a rocky cliff, and a spa ritual involving saunas, mist walks and scrubs in a series of Hobbit-like turf houses built into the volcanic rock.

Stay Already with a decent roster of smart boutiques, like the Ion City Hotel and Sandhotel on the main Laugavegur drag, the arrival of Ian Schrager’s Reykjavik Edition at the end of 2021 felt like a step up for the city – an embassy of knowing mid century-inspired cool down by the harbour, with buzzy spaces like a speakeasy and red-lit underground club, and the smart mod-Icelandic Tides restaurant, overseen by Chef Gislason of Dill fame.

The Golden Circle

It’s not hard to see why this 300km route from Reykjavik has struggled with over-tourism, given its easily reachable geological fireworks – from Geysir, where the water erupts more than a hundred times a day, to the dramatic ravine of the booming Gullfoss waterfall and the Thingvellir area, where it’s possible to snorkel in the vodka-clear waters of the Silfra fissure, between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon on the Golden Circle tourGetty Images

Eat and drink Few places make so much from a single ingredient as Fridheimar, where visitors eat in a large greenhouse surrounded by 10,000 tightly-packed plants that produce four varieties of tomato. Expect Caprese salads, mussels in red sauce and a famous tomato soup, as well as Bloody Mary varieties galore. There are also regular Icelandic horse shows on the farm.

Bathe To the south of the Golden Circle, Reykjadalur translates as ‘Steam Valley’ for its springs, hot pools and naturally heated stretch of river, with the best swimming spots about an hour’s pleasant walk from the car park. Though not technically in the Golden Circle, it’s worth heading north of Reykjavik to the new Hvammsvik Hot Springs, with heated rock pools built into the sea, and rentable houses onsite.

Stay In what was once a brutalist block for workers at the adjacent Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant, the ION Adventure Hotel has been the area’s smartest stay since opening in 2013 – with a double-height window at one end of the suspended concrete rectangle (given its remoteness, Northern Lights viewing is excellent here), and a sunken hot bath among the concrete pillars below. There’s a similar vibe of concrete and glass at the Greenhouse Hotel in Hveragerði, filled with light and greenery, with its own street food hall and Icelandic design store.

The South

Like the Golden Circle, the main stretch of road to Vik along Iceland’s south coast is busier these days, being dotted at regular intervals with the sort of sites that have become ubiquitous on Instagram: like the 60-metre high Skogafoss waterfall, usually fronted by its own rainbow; the crashed US Navy plane on the black beach at Sólheimasandur; or the basalt columns at the black Reynisfjara beach, like the Giant’s Causeway as imagined by Ingmar Bergman.

Skogafoss WaterfallGetty Images

Bathe Not far from the Umi Hotel, it’s a short hike to the 25-metre Selljavallalaug pool and its primitive changing room – built in 1923 and still fed by the same natural spring, overlooking a silent glacial valley and babbling stretch of river.

Stay For a long time, the hunting lodge-style Hotel Ranga was the main hotel in the South, but it’s been joined by the Umi Hotel, which follows the Icelandic style of slick barrack modernism, alone in a stark landscape at the foot of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano and ice cap (the one that brought aviation to a standstill in 2010) – with Marshall speakers in crisp rooms, and a serious restaurant that always has Icelandic lamb on the menu.

The Troll Peninsula

Up in the windswept northwest, native Icelandic horses (they of the unique ‘tolt’ gait) outnumber people, and there’s a tangible sense of leaving the world behind on the fjord-side road to the old herring town of Siglufjordur, at the northern tip of the peninsula.

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Bathe On the other side of the Skagafjordur, the Grettislaug baths were dug in by a local farmer, around a campsite that feels like the end of the world, with romantic views of the fjord and Drangey island. On the other side of the water, the Hofsos pool might be the most beautiful public pool in Iceland, or anywhere – dug almost invisibly into the hillside by Basalt, the same architects as the Blue Lagoon, there are unbroken fjord views from the tub and 25-metre pool.

Stay Deplar Farm, an adventure-focused lodge run by US operators Eleven Experience, is one of the more epic hotels on the planet. From the lonely road, it looks like just another sheep farm (as it used to be), but inside it feels like a lair of hedonism for the one per cent – with a focus on on adventure (heli-skiing, surfing, sea kayaking) and in-house wellness, from sound baths to hot-cold Viking sauna rituals around the indoor-outdoor spa with a Middle Earth swim-up bar.

The North

The triangle between the second city of Akureyri, the fishing and whale-watching town of Husavik and the geothermal area around Lake Myvatn is one of the most naturally rich areas in the country – with equivalent sights for just about everything you’d see in the Golden Circle and South, but fewer tourists. There are serious waterfalls up here, from the Niagara-like Godafoss to the deafening Dettifoss, a great slab of water that’s the second most powerful in Europe. The Myvatn Geothermal Area has some of the most otherworldly steaming landscapes in the country, while humpback whales are all but guaranteed on regular whale-watching trips from Husavik.

Lake Myvatn in northern IcelandGetty Images

Eat and drink Akureyri is a much smaller northern answer to Reykjavik, and has some decent places to eat – from globally-influenced Strikid, with its rooftop for langoustine maki or tiger prawn tacos, to the more traditional Bautinn, which has been doing its famous fish soup and burgers with house sauce since 1971.

Bathe The Myvatn Nature Baths feels like a slightly less developed and slick version of the Blue Lagoon, and tends to be less crowded. In Husavik, to the north, the Geosea Geothermal Sea Baths is one of the most gorgeous in Iceland: a series of peaceful, cloud-shaped infinity pools on a clifftop looking right over the Skjalfandi fjord. It’s a different vibe at the Forest Lagoon to the south of Akureyri, surrounded by trees on most sides, but overlooking the little Akureyri airport (watching the planes come and go from the steaming water is oddly peaceful).

Stay The Fosshotel Myvatn, from the pan-Icelandic brand, is a typically oversized rectangle of glass, larch and neutral tones, leaving the emphasis on the mossy outdoors – with views across Lake Myvatn from the sauna and locavore restaurant sometimes interrupted by wandering sheep.

Central Highlands

Much of Iceland’s uninhabited core is hard to reach, which only adds to the sense of isolation and drama. The landscape around the Askja Caldera is so alien that Neil Armstrong and his Apollo team once did lunar training around here, and the striated technicolour mountains of Landmannalaugar – streaked with snaking riverbeds – feel similarly otherworldly. The scale tends to be big, including the jagged Vatnajokull glacier, the largest in Iceland and possibly Europe.

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Bathe While the Highland Base will have its own, the Kerlingarfjoll Hot Spring is a naturally occurring bath above a pretty stretch of river, reached via a mile-long hike from the road.

Stay In the geothermal Kerlingarfjoll mountains (‘Old Lady Mountains’), the Highland Base is due to open in the summer of 2023 – a high-design guesthouse and campsite, with its own adjoining baths, which will only be reachable in winter by special 4x4 super jeeps driven by guides.

The Westfjords

The Westfjords are remote, even to Icelanders – a jagged protrusion of fjords, sea cliffs and steep hills off Iceland’s northwestern corner, that can seem singularly unsuited to the intrusions of humanity. There are blockbuster sites, including the wedding cake-like Dynjandi waterfall, and the vast Red Sand beach with its encroaching streaks of blue – but for the most part the vibe is of solitude and escape. That sense of isolation can be felt at the beached wreck of a steel ship near its southwestern corner, or not far away at the Látrabjarg sea cliffs – the largest in Europe, almost nine miles of high rock faces home to millions of birds.

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Bathe Just off the road but a world away, Hellulaug is nature’s idea of an infinity pool, a rock pool heated to a happy 38 degrees overlooking the beach at Vatnsfjordur.

Stay Hotel Flatey, in the village of the same name, is a lovely clapboard guesthouse in an old fisherman’s cabin – with a quaint homeliness that’s more common in Norway, and a community feel that includes regular gigs by local musicians.

The East

Austurland, or East Iceland, is the furthest region from Reykjavik – and hence one of the quietest. From the South, the region announces itself in dramatic fashion with the Vatnajokull glacier to the north and the Jokulsarlon lagoon right by the main road, filled with ethereally floating blue icebergs. From there, the A1 hugs the coast, passing fishing towns like Hofn, on the way to spots like the puffin colony at Borgarfjordur Eystri, or inland to the vast, organ-like basalt columns of the Studlagil Canyon, cut through by blue-green water.

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Bathe Just north of Egilsstadir, the Vok Baths are a series of six-sided infinity pools that jut into the Urridavatn lake – designed by the Basalt architects behind many of Iceland’s most striking baths. Chilly dips in the lake are encouraged (the name comes from the parts of the lake that, curiously, don’t freeze in winter).

Stay The closest East Iceland has to a grand dame, the Gistuhusid Lake Hotel at Egilsstadir has peered over the Lagarfljot lake (which has its own equivalent of the Loch Ness monster) since 1903. Echoes of old charm remain, even in the newer wing, with a hot tub and spa overlooking the lake, and a restaurant that sources from local farms.