8 reasons to explore Iceland beyond its cool capital Reykjavik

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie

These days, Reykjavik is a brilliant city with a superb cultural scene, world-class dining and lively nightlife. But if you limit your Icelandic adventure* to the capital, it's like admiring the Scandi-chic porch of a massive Arctic palace and then leaving without seeing the rest of it.

Hit the road to explore Iceland beyond its capital -
Hit the road to explore Iceland beyond its capital - © Romuald KL - Adobe Stock Image

The Northern Lights shine much brighter outside Reykjavik, as does the country's remarkable wildlife, from those hulking whales to the impossibly cute puffins. And how about surging waterfalls and Europe's youngest volcano?

There are plenty of places to relax too, with new more bijou geothermal pools offering an alternative to the busy, much-hyped Blue Lagoon.

If you're short of time we've got the quickfire Golden Circle and the lesser-known Diamond Circle here for you too. So read on and see just why you should head outside the Icelandic capital on your adventure to the rightly lauded 'Land of Fire and Ice'.

Getting to Iceland: take your pic of fabulous breaks to Iceland with TUI*, which has numerous savings on deals year-round.

Not the Blue Lagoon

Everyone these days seems to have heard of the Blue Lagoon, Iceland's most famous geothermal spa. It is crowded and no self-respecting local would be seen dead there. Hvammsvik offers a totally different experience. They seriously limit numbers in their own pools here on the shores of the Hvalfjordur fjord.

Taking a dip in Hvammsvik Hot Springs
Taking a dip in Hvammsvik Hot Springs - photo courtesy of Hvammsvik Nature Resort & Hot Springs

The pools are filled with seawater warmed by geothermal waters, without any nasty chemicals, with the option to throw yourself in the fjord for a swim with a seal. Or you can paddleboard or kayak. If that is too energetic just swim up to the pool's lounge bar for local Gull beer, then tuck into their legendary fish soup in the café.


You should get to at least one island if you can. Videy makes a great choice as it is easily accessible with daily ferries from Reykjavik in summer and at weekends in winter.

It's worth the visit alone for the Imagine Peace Tower, the creation of Yoko Ono as a tribute both to her murdered husband and to world peace. If you're lucky, you'll see Yoko as she comes when she can to attend the tower's lighting.

On this cultural island you'll also find Videyjarstofa, the home of 'The Father of Reykjavik', Skuli Magnusson. It is open as a gallery showcasing the work of Icelandic artists. There is Milestones too, an outdoor sculpture formed from basalt columns by renowned American sculptor Richard Sierra.

Whales ahoy!

Yes there are whale-watching trips down Reykjavik way. But they cannot boast a 95% chance of meeting our marine mammal cousins like they can up north in Husavik, the self-proclaimed 'Whale Capital of the World'.

Scanning the horizon for whales, Iceland -
Scanning the horizon for whales, Iceland - © Petr - Adobe Stock Image

There is a positive human story here as some of the companies and people involved in running the whale-watching trips were once mired in the whaling trade. Tourism has given them a reason to put down their harpoons and by visiting, you're part of that success story.

Don't miss the Husavik Whale Museum too, where you will learn more about these majestic creatures and see the enormous skeleton of the blue whale, the largest mammal on our planet.

Wonderful wildlife

Whales may be the number one wildlife attraction, but Iceland's wildlife doesn't stop there. Not when the local waters are alive with flighty harbour porpoises and white-headed dolphins. The latter sometimes travel in pods hundreds strong; quite a sight!

Springtime puffin-spotting in north Iceland -
Springtime puffin-spotting in north Iceland - © Theo Crazzolara - Flickr CC BY 2.0

Then, of course, there are the puffins, surely the world's cutest bird, and one of the most unlikely. Watching them wobble around the cliffs is a joy, as is seeing them whirr around the skies. There are sea eagles, reindeer and Arctic foxes too.

Iceland's latest volcanic eruption

Out near the international airport at Keflavik the volcano at Litli-Hrútur put on quite a show in summer 2023. It erupted in 2002 and then again in 2023 with plenty of live action for people to enjoy.

Litli-Hrútur in action 12th July 2023
Litli-Hrútur in action 12th July 2023 © Thrainn Kolbeinsson - courtesy of Visit Iceland

Head out there today and you can see the remnants of those remarkable eruptions. It's due to go off again, so you might even see a more dramatic show than you were expecting! Note: it's a hefty hike across rough ground to the site.

Get out on a glacier

As the glaciers shrink in the Alps, Iceland still sports a swathe of frozen land. An accessible option on a tour is the Vatnajokull Glacier, the largest glacier in Europe

This exhilarating adventure takes you hiking and climbing through this remarkable landscape in southeast Iceland. Tours kick off from the National Park Visitor Centre, with instructions on using crampons and ice axe.

Those Northern Lights

There is nothing quite like seeing the Aurora Borealis for yourself as the skies dance with emerald and pink lights. The locals take it almost for granted; you will swoon. And then swoon some more. But the chances are you won't easily see them in downtown Reykjavik, so delving beyond the built-up capital is the way to go.

Spy the Aurora Borealis over the sea
Spy the Aurora Borealis over the sea © Sailing Away - Adobe Stock Image

You need three things for a good spotting: a properly dark night, little or minimal cloud cover and then the all-important level of auroral activity. You can check out the daily forecast yourself. You really want to visit in autumn or winter when they are at their best too.

Impressive circles

Yes, ok it's touristy, but if you're short on time on your Iceland stay the Golden Circle full-day tour is an utter joy. You can whizz around, but the more time you devote to this 300 km joy the better.

Highlights include the Thingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the geothermal area in Haukadalur, home of the Geysir and Strokkur geysers.

Savvy visitors can instead opt for the 260 km Diamond Circle further north, which takes in the impressive Godafoss waterfall. Dettifoss is the highlight for many too; Europe's most powerful waterfall, a 100 metre-wide wonder that sees water pounding down from a height of 45 metres up.


Iceland may not seem the most likely family-friendly destination, but there's plenty for kids to love beyond the drama of fire and ice, including a network of farms. Take Holar Petting Farm, which lets wee ones meet horses, goats and sheep.

Meet playful locals at Holar Petting Farm
Meet playful locals at Holar Petting Farm © Holar Petting Farm - photo courtesy of Visit West Iceland

All these farms are great places for your kids to meet local youngsters too. Erpsstadir Dairy Farm takes the farm-to-fork ethos seriously so your kids see cows being milked and learn about the whole process, which is topped off with ice cream.

They make creamy Icelandic Skyr too. The Troll Garden at Fossatun is a great place to learn about the country that is the unofficial home of trolls. Your kids won't forget the Rock 'n' Troll restaurant.

Wild winter sports

Forget the Alps. Get out and enjoy real winter sports in a land of glaciers, ice and fire. There is classic Alpine skiing at Hildarfall above Akureyri in the north, with lifts and lessons on hand.

Cross-country skiing is popular too, as well as challenging off-piste mountain skiing for experienced skiers. You can cheat and ditch the effort of heading up the slopes by going heli-skiing with the aid of a helicopter. Sledding is popular too; great fun for families.

Weather in Iceland

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Maximum daytime temperature °C
Hours of sunshine (daily)
Days with some rainfall
Sea temperature °C

The above guide shows the climate in Reykjavik. Find out more about conditions across the country in our complete guide to the climate in Iceland.

Ready to explore Iceland? Browse the latest online offers on holidays with TUI, including breaks to Iceland all year round.

Low deposits on summer & winter sun holidays with TUI

More about Iceland

Iceland by month

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie is a Scottish travel writer, author and broadcaster. He has visited over 100 countries and regularly writes about Scotland and the Canary Islands. As well as frequently contributing to Weather2Travel.com, Robin writes for publications including The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and Wanderlust, and has authored more than 30 guidebooks.

Posted on Tuesday 19th September 2023 in: City Europe Excursions Nature

Back to top

Explore holidays in the sun for less

More holidays

Airport parking

More parking

Airport lounges

More lounges

Related posts

Back to Travel inspiration Top ^