Mental Floss

11 Amazing Things to See and Do in Iceland

Erin McCarthy
ERIK KLEIN
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Hang out with a horse, hike a glacier, and watch the Northern Lights in the land of fire and ice.

ERIK KLEIN

1. VISIT SKÓGAFOSS. According to legend, this nearly 200-foot-tall waterfall, located in the south of Iceland along the Ring Road, hides a treasure planted by Þrasi Þórólfsson, a Viking settler, in 900. An old Icelandic rhyme outlines what will happen to the lucky person who finds the chest: “Þrasakista auðug er / undir fossi Skóga / hver sem þangað fyrstur fer / innur auðlegð nóga.” Or, in English:

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2. SPOT A SHEEP. Iceland’s sheep population—which, as of last year, was around 800,000, more than double the number of people on the island—dots the country’s fields and cliffs. The animals wander free from the spring until the fall, when they’re rounded up once a year for counting and slaughter, a tradition known as réttir.

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3. HIT UP VIK’S BLACK SAND BEACH. There’s plenty to see at Reynisfjara Beach, near the village of Vik. On the beach, there’s a cliff face of basalt rock columns that wouldn’t look out of place on another planet. Off the coast, there’s Reynisdrangar (visible in the photo above), two huge stacks of basalt that, according to legend, are trolls that were turned to stone by sunlight.

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4. SPOT THE NORTHERN LIGHTS. The Aurora Borealis are visible in Iceland from September to April. Their visibility depends on the weather, of course; thankfully, there’s a website that will help you figure out your chances of seeing the lights. 



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5. HIKE A GLACIER. There’s no shortage of glaciers to hike in Iceland, but one of the most striking is Falljökull, which means “Falling Glacier.” This portion of the Vatnajokull icecap takes its name from an icefall formation that looks incredible in photographs; climbing to see it requires setting aside a few hours and strapping on a helmet and crampons. (Glaciers can be treacherous; make sure to use an experienced guide.) Not far from Falljökull is Svinafellsjokull, the glacier used as a stand-in for another planet in Christopher Nolan’s movie Interstellar.

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6. TAKE A BOAT RIDE ON A GLACIER LAKE. Located in southeast Iceland, about 230 miles away from Reykjavik, Jökulsárlón is a saltwater lagoon that opens up into the Atlantic Ocean. The icebergs floating in the lake—which, at 820 feet, is the deepest in Iceland—break off of Breiðamerkurjökull glacier; many are not white but shocking shades of blue. Amphibious boat tours are available, but to get closer to the ice, book a trip in a Zodiac. You’ll have to wear a cumbersome floatation suit and a life vest, but being able to reach down and grab chunks of ice directly from the water makes it worth it. Keep your eyes peeled for seals fresh from the hunt hanging out on the ‘bergs. 

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7. FROLIC ON AN ICEBERG-CLUTTERED BEACH. Across the road from Jökulsárlón, where the lake meets the ocean, is a beach littered with huge chunks of ice and appropriately nicknamed Diamond Beach. Worth a stop for the photo op alone.

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8. KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED FOR RAINBOWS. Iceland’s frequent rain showers mean multitudes of rainbows. If you’re lucky, you might even see a moonbow.



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9. VISIT PLANE WRECKAGE. In late November 1973 (accounts of the exact date differ), a United States Douglas Super DC-3 plane crash-landed in Sólheimasandur, a black sand beach between Skogafoss and Vik. Some say icing was the cause, while others speculate that the plane ran out of fuel. Regardless of the reason, all seven crew members walked away from the crash, but the plane itself was not so lucky. It was left on the beach, where it has stayed for more than 40 years. Only the hollowed-out fuselage remains. You can find directions to the plane here—but be warned, access to the site has recently gotten a bit more difficult: The owners of the land recently banned vehicles from the area. If you want to visit the plane, you’ll have to walk nearly 2.5 miles from the road.

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10. ADMIRE THE COUNTRYSIDE’S HORSES. The history of Iceland’s horses goes all the way back to the settlement of the island, making it one of the oldest horse breeds in the world. (It’s also the purest: No other horses are allowed into Iceland, and once an Icelandic horse has left, it can’t come back—ever.) Like Iceland’s sheep, the horses are allowed to roam free for part of the year, and are herded together and returned to their owners in the fall. Icelandic horses work on farms, give rides to tourists, participate in competition, and end up on the dinner table. (According to Modern Farmer, if they weren’t culled, the horses would overpopulate the country, exhausting the natural resources, and starve to death.) These hardy and energetic horses, adapted to Iceland’s rugged terrain, are smaller than the equids you’ll find in other parts of the world, weighing up to 840 pounds and measuring a little more than 4.5 feet tall. Just don’t call them ponies—Icelanders find that insulting.

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11. PET A CAT IN REYKJAVIK. Cat ladies will love Reykjavik, where you can’t walk far without spotting a friendly feline. Most of the cats aren’t feral; in fact, they’re microchipped and roam free around the downtown area. According to some estimates, there is one cat for every 10 people in the capital area. Why so many cats? Some believe it’s because dogs were banned in the city until 2006. Following the antics of the felines in Reykjavik is easy—they have their own Facebook page.

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