The Best Summer Adventure Activities in Iceland
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Iceland has some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. The Land of Fire & Ice is packed with volcanoes, glaciers, and rugged terrain to explore. Iceland is a destination that is difficult to top. While you still will be impressed with this country if all you did was drive around and take pictures, getting out of your comfort zone and taking on some adventure will leave you with lifetime memories. When we travel we always try to prioritize experiences over spending unnecessary money on food and fancy accommodations. Like everything in Iceland, these activities are pricey but oh so worth it. We traveled to Iceland in June, which limits some of the adventures we could experience (namely the ice-related ones). There is so much to do in summer to make use of those long days and the midnight sun. Here we list the 5 adventure activities we did during our trip and rank them based on our experiences. There are other activities included at the end which we did not get around to doing, but still should be included on any list of the best adventure activities in Iceland.
Don't feel like reading about it... scroll down to the bottom to watch all of the action.
Húsavík, Iceland is known as the Whale Watching capital of Europe. Before you even get through the word "Húsavík", Google starts suggesting whale watching. While Húsavík is a charming harbor town, the real reason people come to visit is to see the gorgeous whales. While there is still commercial whaling in Iceland for whale meat, it is increasingly becoming unpopular. However, whale watching tours have exploded in the last few years.
Iceland is home to over 20 different species of whales, some of which hang around all year long. The most popular species include Minke Whales (all year) and Humpback Whales (summer). Iceland also has White-beaked dolphins. Typically on whale-watching tours, you can also spot puffins. While whale watching is most popular in Húsavík, there are also tours that depart from Akureyri and Reykjavik.
Having done a whale watching tour in Maui a few years ago, we had originally not planned to do whale watching in Iceland or even visit Húsavík. However, after a problem with our Airbnb which resulted in free accommodations for the night, we decided to use that savings and apply it to (what we thought would be) a fun activity.
We bought tickets for whale watching from Gentle Giants the night before and a quick check to the weather showed that the rain would probably hold off until the afternoon the next day (our tour was first thing in the morning). So the next morning, we checked the weather forecast again and it showed it would be freezing cold and a chance at drizzling. We bundled up, put on all of our warmest clothes. Got a good 4 layers on the top and 3 layers on the bottom.
As we drove to Húsavík, it started pouring rain. We went up to the desk to check in, expecting for them to cancel the tour. They did not and nor did they offer refunds. So we headed down to the boat, where the guide was pretty quick to let us know to keep our expectations low since they have had a difficult time finding whales the last few days. I was still very optimistic at this point and ignored his warning. They wouldn't send us out in a hail storm on an old whaling boat in a futile attempt to see whales, right?
Before departing, we were given two more layers to keep us warm and dry. Hah! As soon as the boat left the harbor and headed full speed out to sea, the wind pounded the rain against us. I am still baffled that the cold and wet could penetrate 6 layers of thick waterproof clothing. My hands, which only had one layer of gloves on, and the small bit of my face I kept exposed went numb pretty quickly, only making the pelting rain more painful. The condition of the sea was rough. Large waves constantly were rocking the boat back and forth. We were sitting on a slippery raised bench with no handrails, so I had to wrap my arm around the backrest to keep from falling overboard. I am not in the least bit prone to seasickness, but about 30 minutes in I was trying everything I could to not be nauseous.
The first hour of this, I was still optimistic and slighting enthralled by the adventure of it. All of those movies I had seen of shipwrecks, I was living in it. I understood what it must be like to be on The Deadliest Catch. Those scary clips of boats capsizing in storms, I could relate. No matter how miserable this experience was, at least it was an experience. I can say that I had an almost ... nearly ... close to ... a near-death experience. I was already imagining a cool "I survived" tattoo I could get to show off how much of a badass I was. That makes the $200 we paid worth it right?
Well that optimistic, still-glad-we-went, feeling slowly went away. The whale watching tour is 3 hours! I can easily withstand an hour of fearing for my life in the freezing cold and wet. Anything more than 2 hours, I shut down just wishing for it to be over. At that point, I did not care if I saw a whale or even 30 whales jumping up out of the water to perform a synchronized dance routine. I wanted to be on stable land.
No whales showed up. Not even a lousy tail far in the distance. Nothing.
We stayed around the area looking for way longer than we should have. And by looking, I mean I did no looking. I stayed intertwined with any part of the boat I could reach taking deep breaths so I didn't throw up or get knocked off the boat. Once the guide and boat captain gave up trying to find whales that they already knew wouldn't be there, we headed back to the harbor for another hour in misery. In the 3 hours of being freezing cold... there was one thing I was still holding out hope for: we were promised hot chocolate and donuts at the end. We were stiffed! I was almost more upset about not getting the hot chocolate and treat we were promised than not seeing whales. I am guessing the guide was not able to make the hot chocolate and hand out the donuts because of the other passengers stuffed under the boat for puking or the pouring rain.
Okay, so in all seriousness, I know that it was a nature tour and there is no way they can guarantee that the weather will be pleasant and the whales will be there (despite the 99% success rate they advertise). I have no doubt that whale watching might have been a highlight of our trip if we had gone on a different day. I do believe Gentle Giants should have been canceled their tour given the circumstances of the weather and the low chance of whale sightings. They did offer us a make-up tour for later in the day, however, the rain was not supposed to let up, we had other places to see that day, and I do not think you could have paid me to get back on that boat.
I would still recommend whale watching – due to all of the positive reviews I've read – IF (and only if) you buy your tickets the day of and check to make sure no rain is forecasted that day.
Cost: $80 - $190
Horseback riding in Iceland is unlike anywhere else in the world. Icelandic horses are a special (and magical) breed of horses that are pony-sized (but don't call them ponies) that are able to run, unlike any other horse. You also get to ride on a horse in the middle of the staggering Icelandic landscapes. Iceland is full of horses – 80,000 horses compared to a human population of 330,000. That's 1 horse for every 4 people! There are dozens of horseback riding stables dispersed all over the country. Many are located under 30 minutes from Reykjavik.
Horses typically have three gaits: walk, trot, and canter. Icelandic horses have two more: tölt and skeið (flying pace). All Icelandic horses can naturally do the tölt, but the flying pace typically has to be trained. You ride Icelandic horses to feel the tölt. Essentially, the tölt is a fancy run (watch this video to see it in action) where the horse only has 1 hoof on the ground at the time. It is very smooth and comfortable for the rider but at a fast speed. It is pretty humorous to see the horses do it from afar but is remarkable actually experiencing it on the horse.
Icelandic horses are also unique in that they have no diseases as they are completely isolated from the rest of the world. Iceland has several laws in place to ensure that endures. Since they are never exposed to diseases, the horses are also not immune to diseases – one infection has the potential to wipe out a good portion of their horse population. You are not allowed to bring any horse equipment or materials or horses to Iceland. This also means that competitive horseback riders of Iceland that travel competitions in Europe or elsewhere, have to abandon their horses after. But don't feel sorry for those abandoned horses, the majority of Icelandic horses are actually outside of the country (mainly in Germany) as they are a very popular breed.
We went to a horse farm just 15 minutes away from Reykjavik. After arriving, we were given a lesson on Icelandic horses and horseback riding. There was a couple of first time horseback riders in our group (including Eric!!). After the introduction, they asked our skill level to know what horses to get ready. They fitted us into helmets and had waterproof jackets, boots, and gloves to use.
We met up with our horses and were helped on to them. I have ridden a horse 5-6 times so was put with a bit of a harder to control the horse. Eric, a complete horse newbie, was given a very easy going horse. From the very beginning, my horse gave me trouble. He was apparently very hungry and whenever there were lupines in view, he went straight for them. The guides constantly kept telling me to keep him out, but man.. he was strong. I was a bit stressed most of the time while riding trying to keep my horse in control. Eric had a great time, despite being the more nervous one going in.
We were able to experience the tölt. The horses seemed to automatically know when to start doing it. I know for sure that I was not in control enough to get it to change gaits. One of the better part of this horseback riding tours compared to my previous experiences is having a bit more freedom with the horses. The horses went faster and we did not have to stay in one straight line with horse head to horse butt the whole way. You are also riding through absolutely beautiful landscapes.
Cost: $80 - $200
3. Blue Lagoon
Chances are you know about the Blue Lagoon. If you have heard anything about Iceland, you know there is this amazing mineral-rich geothermal spa. Great thing is, it is just a short distance away from the airport and from the capital of Reykjavik. There are buses or private transfers that can take you to the lagoon, or you can drive yourself.
The Blue Lagoon is surrounded by lava field and is located right next to a geothermal power plant. The spa itself is actually a man-made lake made up of runoff from the geothermal power plant (but don't worry it is completely safe and great for your skin). The water is heated naturally by lava flowing under the lagoon and extra heaters to keep it a warm comfortable temperature in all seasons. The water is naturally refreshed every 40 hours. Due to high concentrations of silica, the water is a milky bright blue-white color and quite opaque. Your hand disappears just a few inches below the water.
The spa complex includes a swim-up bar, a silica mud mask station, saunas & steam baths, and a set up for in-water massages. You will leave feeling incredibly refreshed and relaxed.
Book as soon as you can in advance! The most popular times sell out. While you might be able to get tickets after you land in Iceland, it likely won't be an ideal time.
We bought the cheapest tickets for the Blue Lagoon ($80), which included free use of towels, silica mud masks, and one free drink. The pricier packages did not seem worthwhile. The Premium package extras include the use of a robe, a different mask, and slippers. At most, you would use a robe and slippers for the 30 seconds it takes to get from the changing room to the entrance of the lagoon. Once you get to the entrance you hang it in the mess of robes, pretty much giving up the chance of finding your specific robe or slippers again. There is also an extremely pricey package that gives you access to a VIP Retreat Spa. I have no idea what that is like, just that I was not willing to spend hundreds of dollars on it.
We chose one of the later time slots (7 pm) as admission costs less later in the day. The Blue Lagoon is open until at least 11 pm in the summer, so we had 4 hours to enjoy the spa. We used all of that time. We arrived before 7 pm and there was a fairly long line to be checked-in. After a 20-minute wait, we were given our bracelets and towels and headed to the changing rooms.
For Americans and British tourists, the open changing and shower rooms might be a bit off-putting. It was definitely something I had a bit of apprehension about going in. It turned out to be a non-issue. Stick to facing the wall of lockers while you get undressed, wrap yourself in a towel, and use one of the many newly installed private shower stalls. There are employees in the changing room that do make sure you shower. Either way, you want to shower, not only to keep the Blue Lagoon clean but also to slather your hair with conditioner. The minerals in the water are not the most friendly on hair. I loaded my hair up with conditioner (do not wash it out) and put it in a high bun.
After meeting up with the rest of your group right outside the changing rooms, you can hang up your towel and run through the chilly air into the lagoon. The water is nice and warm, but not as hot as I was expecting. It is a comfortable temperature and at no point was I cold, but I would have loved for it to be a few degrees warmer. There are heaters at various points throughout the lagoon (hint look for the trash cans) so you might find the occasional patch of hot water.
One one side of the lagoon there is a booth to get your silica mud mask. These are unlimited. We had a good routine going where we got a new mask every hour. You keep them on your face for about 10 minutes until it dries out and then can wash them off in the water. I doubt each subsequent mask provided much additional benefit, but it was fun to do regardless.
Your admission also includes a free drink. We got ours pretty early on – Skyr yogurt fruit smoothies. The warm water and minerals can dehydrate you so be careful of that while you are floating around. There is a small water fountain under a bridge where you can fill up empty cups or drink from.
On the same side as the entrance to the lagoon, there are a few saunas and steam baths that are free to use. We went into the natural steam bath a couple of times. It is an intense heat. We lasted for about a minute at most each time before escaping back to the water.
While there were a lot of people, it did not feel overly crowded. The Blue Lagoon limits the number of people they allow in at a time and it felt like a good amount considering how popular it is. I would not pay much more to have it more empty.
Overall, we loved our time at the Blue Lagoon. It is an incredibly relaxing and wonderful experience, worth the hype.
Cost: $65 - $350
Trekking out to one of Iceland's glaciers is an extraordinary experience. Iceland is the Land of Fire and Ice but in the Summer there are only a few ways to enjoy the frozen part of the country. More than 10% of Iceland is covered by glaciers – most of that is from the massive Vatnajökull glacier, which is the largest in Iceland and most voluminous in Europe. It is larger in area than two Rhode Islands or three Luxembourgs. One last fun fact: it is apparently the object with the world's largest sight line – as it can be seen 550 kilometers away from the Faroe Islands.
Glaciers are made when years of snowfall stays in one place long enough to be compacted into ice from the pressure of the snow above it. We were told it takes about 1 meter of snow to make just a centimeter of glacial ice. Unfortunately Iceland's glaciers are melting faster than they are being regenerated by new snow. Likely to be gone within a couple hundred years, now is the time to appreciate them. Many glacier tour companies also help educate visitors and protect their nation's glaciers.
Typically you can visit Iceland's glaciers on a super jeep, hiking, ice climbing, or snowmobile tour. Traversing the glacier on a snowmobile (ski-do) combines thrill with incredible views. There are a couple different snowmobile tour companies that will get you onto the glacier at different locations. We chose Glacier Jeeps, which departed a bit west of Höfn.
We meet our guides just off the Ring Road, where we loaded into their super jeeps rigged for ultimate mountain-roading. Being slightly afraid of heights, the road up the mountain to the glacier was the most heart-pounding part of the experience. The road begins relatively calm – just some bumps and river crossings. Then we passed a lovely sign that says Impassable.. so what did we do... of course pass it. A bit after that point the road becomes practically vertical. Very little (nothing) in the way of separating the truck from falling down into the very deep valley below.
The valley itself is gorgeous. It is the result of the retreating glacier – giving you further appreciation for how huge it once was. Our driver pointed out all of the TV shows and movies that were filmed in the area, as most of them used these same super jeeps and drivers to get them on location. Several Game of Thrones scenes were filmed here. At the end of the drive, the glacier finally gets into view. And Wow! Having been on a glacier before in Canada and seen many from afar, driving above and then on the massive Vatnajökull glacier is astonishing. Especially knowing that we are just seeing a very small fraction of it.
The drive ends at base camp which has restrooms and extra layers to put on to stay warm out on the glacier. When we first arrived there were some flurries that turned into larger snowflakes while we were out snowmobiling. I loved seeing it snow, especially since snow in June on the glacier is not as common. We were out on the glacier snowmobiling for over an hour. While snowmobiling, you have to stay on the same path to prevent getting stuck or falling into one of the many crevasses (which can be tens of meters deep). We stopped a few times to walk around or have a snowball fight. The glacier has some great snowball-making snow. A few snowmobilers did get stuck or flip but where rescued within a minute.
We then returned back to base camp and made the scary journey back down the mountain to our cars.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Perfect for first-timers (Eric again) or adrenaline junkies. Such an exhilarating way to enjoy some of Iceland's most beautiful but least visited scenery.
And our favorite Summer Adventure Activity is:
Is it too hyperbolic to say Snorkeling Silfra was life changing? That is how it felt. At the very least, it was (one of) the best experiences of my life. Sure, getting married was great – but not comparable to swimming in the fissure of two tectonic plates in the clearest water possible. Iceland sits right on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge or the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. All of the tectonic plate movements are the reason for Iceland itself and its volcanos, mountains, and fissures. Silfra is one of those rifts formed from the divergence of the plates. Essentially it is where the Earth is ripping apart. This large crack is filled with fresh water which originates from glaciers. Silfra is incredibly unique in its beauty. The multi-shades of blue in its water, the underwater landscape of lava rock and troll algae.
The glacier water is so pure, you won't see any fish or life other than the algae. However, snorkeling is not just for looking at colorful fish or coral.
Despite the rave reviews, prior to going in, I was incredibly skeptical and nervous. I get cold easily and we would be in 2ºC glacier water, essentially just looking at rocks. I could not have been more blown away. First off, it did not feel that cold. It was just a bit chilly around the face and hands but I did not notice the temperature at all until the very end. From the minute I put my face in the water, I was captivated. There is a slow moving current that takes you along the fissure so you do not even have to move a muscle.
If you are an experienced dry-suit diver, you can join a dive tour instead of snorkeling.
There are a few companies that are allowed to guide guests through Silfra. We chose Dive.is. They are the original, most popular, and the company with the best reviews. We are extremely glad we chose them. All of the companies do the same tour, but Dive.is seemed to have the better maintained dry suits. It is recommended that you only wear long underwear and two pairs of wool socks under your dry suits. It took about 10-15 minutes in total to get all suited up with plenty of help from the guides to ensure everything was fitting right.
After getting on our suits, we walked a little bit to the entrance of Silfra with our snorkel and flippers in hand. We slowly got into the water, two by two. As you step into the water, you can start to feel more pressure in the suit but it remains completely dry. After everyone was ready, we flipped over to see what was in the water right below us. At max, each group is only 6 people plus a guide. We stayed in the back so we could enjoy it at a slower pace. Most of the time you are able to just forget about navigating anywhere and just let the current take you along. There is one important turn to take so you don't get carried out into the connecting lake, but the guide is there to make sure you are in a safe area.
After the turn, you are away from the main fissure and have some open space to explore on your own. You can also just go straight to the stairs to get out of the cold (which is what the other 4 people in our group did). Before helping the other 4 people out of the water, the guide let out some of the air in our dry suits so they were less buoyant. We stayed in the water as long as we could, attempting to free dive as deep as we could or do flips. The dry suits still made it incredibly hard to go far.
Tip: A GoPro with a Floating Hand Grip is a must to capture this experience. You can just hold on to the grip, forgetting that it is there while still enjoying the snorkeling first-hand.
Without a doubt, it is worth the price!
Cost: $130 - $150
So now that you know what we saw, why don't you watch it:
Other spectacular Activities we did not try:
Honestly this tour looked amazing – getting lowered by an elevator into the magma chamber of a dormant volcano. After an eruption, the magma chamber was drained in an unusual nature event making it one of the only volcanoes you can safely go inside. The day starts with a hike through a lava field to get to the volcano. After you get suited up, you get lowered down into the volcano by an industrial lift. You get about 30 minutes inside the volcano exploring different rock formations with a guide to answer your questions and keep you safe.
The reason we decided against it was the price. 42,000 ISK (Roughly $400) per person. The reviews for this experience are exceptional though. I am sure the price is justified by
I have yet to go on a Helicopter, but Iceland would definitely be the place to do it. Most of Iceland is unreachable by car or best viewed from above. Taking a helicopter tour of the expansive lava fields or volcanic vents would be an awe-inspiring experience. You can get a better appreciation for the nature in Iceland. There are flights that can take you over waterfalls, geothermal landscapes or volcanos.
Another great action-packed way to explore the Icelandic landscape is rafting on one of the glacial rivers. There are rafting opportunities that leave from Reykjavik or Akureyri. Iceland's river rafting is not the highly dangerous and dramatic found in other countries, but they are still adrenaline-packed.