Updated on September 21st, 2023
What is Iceland famous for? If you have read any of my recent blog posts, you will know that I fell hard for Iceland. Was it the spectacular landscapes? Probably! The amazing waterfalls? Definitely! The interesting wildlife? For sure. The people, culture & their attitude to life? 100% YES! But if you still need convincing, here are my top 25 reasons which will make you fall in love with this unique and fascinating country too.”
OK, I’ll say it, Iceland, the Land of Fire & Ice! I’ve tried to avoid using that phrase as I have seen & read it so much while doing my research around this amazing country. But as this is a summary of all the reasons you need to visit Iceland, it seemed appropriate to join the crowd!
But Iceland is so much more than that. It is mind-boggling landscapes, beautiful people & fascinating history. It is steaming earth & exploding volcanoes, freezing glaciers & majestic waterfalls, relaxing lagoons & unique equine beasts… & I could go on for days!
To read all about how I fell in love with Iceland, check out my blog post – A Yoga Retreat in Iceland – Finding Freedom Again. If you fancy joining the same yoga retreat next year, then click on this link for all the details. But before you do, here are my top 25 reasons why you will be head over heels too.
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What is Iceland Famous for? 25 Reasons to Fall in Love with Iceland
You can’t have fire & ice without the fire! And one of the big things that Iceland is famous for are its volcanoes. After all who can forget when, in 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted & sent clouds of ash & dust high into the atmosphere. It caused chaos across Europe, over 100,000 flights were grounded & millions of passengers were left stranded. Ironically, everywhere apart from Iceland! It also caused much confusion across the world when journalists tried to report on the incident & had difficulty pronouncing the cause of all the trouble! AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuutl (-uh)if you would like to have a go ;). Apparently, it was this event that also made the tourism industry explode too.
Then there is Mount Fagradalsfjall which has now been spewing molten lava for over 6 months, the longest eruption the country has seen for more than 50 years.”
The one thing I regret about my visit is not making it on the hike to see this volcano in all its explosive glory. But you don’t have to – check out these tours of Fagradalsfjall in Iceland from Get your Guide:
And what about the ice? And plenty of it too in the form of all the epic glaciers that freeze the landscape. A visit to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is a must on any trip to Iceland. The distant glacier has created what will unfortunately soon become the largest lake in Iceland. It is an education in the impact of global warming before your eyes, as well as a beautiful sight as icebergs break off & float in the lake.
But for me, the best way to experience these glacial wonders is to take a hike. Hiking on Sólheimajökull Glacier was one of the best experiences of my whole time in Iceland. But you may also choose to kayak for a different perspective.
Read all about it in my blog post – Sólheimajökull Glacier Hike – One of the Best Activities in South Iceland.
With all that volcanic activity, you can’t expect white tropical beaches. Iceland is famous for its stunning black sand variety. One of the most spectacular in Reynisfara on the south coast. Not only does it offer black sand, but also mind-blowing hexagonal basalt columns which surround the cliffs. The wild Atlantic waves here can be deadly if they catch you out but have also created picturesque caves within the angular landscape.
But if black sand beaches are your thing, then don’t miss Diamond Beach. Those glaciers we just discussed at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, eventually make their way out to sea & as they do many are deposited on the black sands here, creating a glistening landscape that look like gemstones along the sand. Not one to be missed!
What can I say about the waterfalls in Iceland? I have seen Niagara, got soaked at Victoria, stared in awe at Iguazu but was still blown away by the sheer number & epic scale of some of Iceland’s finest waterfalls. There’s one named after the Gods (Goðafoss), the one you can walk all around (Seljalandsfoss), the photogenic one used in all the films (Skógafoss) & then Gullfoss, the most famous of all.
Add to that all those that you haven’t heard of (& of course can’t pronounce), that are just around the corner, in a cave, or when you have special permission from the landowner to visit. That’s what makes these falls so stunning.”
The Northern Lights are one of the big things that Iceland is famous for & it is a great place to attempt to see this iconic natural phenomenon. The best time to increase your chances is during the winter months from September to March. However, I was surprised to learn that they are always “ON”, it just depends on the conditions a whether you can see them or not. The prerequisites are that your surroundings are dark & there are few clouds in the sky. During my visit to Akureyri in early September, I had no expectations that I would get to fulfil this bucket list dream. But I did. And it was epic!
For all my recommendations for the North of Iceland, check out my post on 20 Best Things to do in Akureyri.
What can make a country more famous than having a whole natural phenomenon named after theirs? There aren’t many Icelandic words that have made their way into other languages, but this country is home to the mother of all geysers, literally. Geysir has been sporadically active for around 800 years however, not now. Historically she needs some significant volcanic activity to “wake up”. Even recent earthquakes measuring 6.5 on the Richter Scale have not been enough to kick start her again. But when she blows, she is powerful, & has reached a height of 120 metres.
The good news for visitors is that her neighbour Strokkur is a very regular contributor to the landscape. Strokkur sends its explosive plume of hot water up to 30 metres into the air, roughly every 5-10 minutes. And she is magnificent!”
You don’t have to venture far from Reykjavik to find the wild landscapes that Iceland is famous for. After all, within easy reach, you have an active volcano & the infamous Golden Circle Route. But the truth is, Iceland contains some epic panoramas & there is nowhere to witness this better than in the Lake Mývatn area. On a day’s visit, you can see pseudo craters where they practised for the moon landings, the crack in the earth between tectonic plates, hike into several volcanoes, wander through otherworldly rock formations & witness the earth steaming like a kettle. To read all about it, check out my blog post on all these & many more.
Iceland marks the point where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates meet which is responsible for all the volcanic activity & fascinating landscapes along its length. The plates are separating on an average of 2-3 centimetres each year. Some years, they hardly move at all, others it could be as much as one foot after a significant earthquake. Ultimately, this could split the island into two, but so far, enough magma has emerged to fill the gap.
But there is a gap. I met it several times on my Iceland exploration, first where I could jump over it near Mývatn. Then as part of the Golden Circle tour, I walked between the plates in Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park & finally snorkelled in the glacial waters of the fissure.
It is the only place in the world that you can experience this unique activity. Trust me, it blew my mind!”
Check out all the details in my blog post, Snorkelling Silfra – An Experience Not to be Missed.
The unmissable Golden Circle is the most popular tour in Iceland for good reason. After all, where else can you explore the land between two continents, get soaked in the spray from an epic waterfall and watch a geyser explode every 5 minutes? How about soaking in healing mineral-rich lagoons, hiking on a volcanic crater and even learning how the power of nature is harnessed to create electricity. And all in one day and in easy reach of Reykjavik?
Read all you need to know about booking your tour in my post – Unmissable Sights for Your Perfect Golden Circle Tour.
The thing about Iceland is that you can also expect very changeable weather & a lot of rain. And hopefully, after the rain, you will eventually see the sun. And a combination of the two can produce magical rainbows! If you’re lucky these will appear among the spectacular landscapes. I was lucky enough to see one after hiking at Sólheimajökull. But the spray from all those waterfalls doesn’t just have the power to soak you. It can also revive you & create some gorgeous rainbows. Every one is a magical experience.
You don’t have to delve too far into your research on Iceland to discover the Blue Lagoon. It is famous across the world for its warm, healing opaque waters. So much so that it featured on a list of National Geographics 25 Wonders of the World. Apparently, it is something everyone MUST DO when visiting Iceland.
I must admit, I didn’t. And if you don’t want to be with all the other tourists, you don’t have to either. You can find a pool to soak your bones practically anywhere in Iceland. The locals love to do it as well, but you will rarely meet any at the Blue Lagoon. They go to their public baths, meet their friends & pay a fraction of the price for the privilege.
Next time I visit, I will head to one too & report back. As well as the Blue Lagoon…after all everyone says I MUST GO & it is the perfect stop on the way to & from the airport ;).”
12. Midnight sun
Another thing that Iceland is famous for, alongside its Scandinavian neighbours is the experience of the midnight sun. On 21st June each year, the sun never fully sets & you can see a painted sunset sky well into the early morning hours. Although this is greatest during the solstice itself if you visit between mid-May to mid-August the sun may not set before midnight. After the solstice, the daylight hours decrease by 1-3 minutes each day until 21st December when daylight hours last only 4-5 hours.
In travel, especially as a woman alone, there is always concern over whether a country is safe or not. But in Iceland, I can categorically say that it is safe. At least it is if you discount over 100 earthquakes a day, erupting volcanoes & glacial flooding! But in terms of other people, you are safe. On my walking tour of Reykjavik, we stood outside the Prime Ministers home & almost didn’t notice the complete lack of security guards. And it sits in the centre of Reykjavik.
In fact, the only place in the whole country which is guarded by security is the American embassy. Iceland has been voted the safest country in the world for 14 years running.”
For all the details on my walking tour & much more besides, head over to 3 Days in Reykjavik – Your Perfect Iceland Itinerary.
14. Female Empowerment
Another thing that Iceland is proudly famous for is its gender equality. For the last 8 years, the World Economic Forum has ranked Iceland as the number 1 country for its work to close the gender gap. Here they start equality lessons in preschool, have banned gender-discriminatory advertising & was the first country to banish strip clubs for feminist reasons. In addition, they have numerous laws protecting women in the workplace, including one which states 40% of all Company Boards must be female & the best parental leave policy in the world. So, if you are a woman, there is no more equal place to be one than in Iceland.
Even just turning on the tap in Iceland is a lesson in how to fully use your natural resources. The water in the hot taps in Iceland is geothermally heated. It takes a bit of getting used to the gentle aroma of sulphur with your shower. In addition, there is no reason to ever buy bottled water as the cold tap comes directly from a natural spring. Just make sure you have a refillable bottle with you.
In fact, Iceland’s sustainability practices have led to the country being voted as the greenest in the world. More than 99% of the electricity & almost 80% of the energy comes from hydropower and geothermal sources.”
What is Iceland famous for? How about its unique horses? Icelandic horses are special for many reasons. They arrived with the very first settlers & although just the size of ponies, they are said to be more curious, intelligent & independent than most other horse breeds. They possess a couple of special gaits & whereas other horses have walk, trot & gallop, Icelandic horses add tölt & skeið to their repertoire.
Tölt is known for its speed & riding comfort. They say you can hold a pint of beer in one hand & not spill a drop while riding. Skeið on the other hand is a rhythmic gallop that makes you feel like you’re flying & can reach speeds up to 48km/h (30m/h). A ride on one of these beautiful creatures is a uniquely Icelandic experience.
Who doesn’t love seeing whales in their natural habitat? The only thing that can beat the thrill of seeing a plume of water spout on the horizon, is the flick of the tail as they dive. I have been whale watching several times across the world & I will never stop emitting a gasp of wonder when I see the tail-flick. I gasped 8 times during my tour in Akureyri.
Iceland is home to 60% of the worlds Atlantic Puffin population, which adds up to 6 million of these colourful beaked creatures. Puffins live on the surface of the ocean but venture onto land to breed. Most importantly, they only nest where they were born & exclusively when there are other puffins around. They are also monogamous creatures & have one lifelong partner. Both parents take an equal role in nurturing their young which takes around 3 months. Therefore, if you head to the right place at the right time, you stand a very good chance of a sighting.
Iceland is famous for its original settlers who sailed over from Scandinavia. Once they settled in the country, they fought civil wars for 100 years before agreeing to meet, once a year to set laws & punish those that broke them. In doing so they created the first-ever parliament in the world, at Thingvellir National Park.
As the country is so isolated, there has been very little immigration, meaning that most Icelandic people today can still trace their roots directly back to the Vikings.
Even the language has remained relatively unchanged, & the first book ever written here by the early settlers can still be read with relative ease by schoolchildren.”
To build their homes, the Vikings cut down trees, but this decimated the forests & they have never recovered. You can visit several of their turf-covered homes across the country to get a flavour of life in Viking times.
So, we have mentioned a lot that Iceland is famous for but how about its people today? The first thing to mention is that there aren’t many of them. Iceland’s population is only around 300,000, of which two-thirds live in the capital, Reykjavik. However, every year they welcome six times their total population in tourists. And make you feel exactly that, welcome!
The Icelandic people are laid back & have an underlying contentment with life. It was explained to me that in Iceland you never know when the earth will show you that it’s in charge. This makes you respect the present & appreciate it rather than focus on the past or the future. What is better than that? We are all guilty of searching for something else. Someone else. The next thing that will make us happy. In Iceland, they just seem very content with what they have & that is infectious.
21. Yule Lads
Maybe not what Iceland is famous for but in my opinion should be, are the Yule Lads! Who are they? There are 13 in total & they visit children in the 13 days running up to Christmas. They create huge merriment, mischief & mayhem in the process. And with names like Sausage Swiper, Door Slammer & Window Peeper, you can guess the kind of antics they get up to (although I promise less sinister than some sound!). So, there is no Santa Claus in Iceland & instead, the children leave a shoe in their window each night. By morning they will know whether they have been good (by finding sweets) or bad (maybe a rotten potato!).
Wondering what famous food to eat in Iceland? There are a few food tours you can take to try some of the local & authentic flavours of the country. Some will allow you to sample the famous fermented shark. But for me, the best thing to do was to just eat fish. All the time! And the best advice I got was to order the “fish of the day” in restaurants. I did. And I was never disappointed! This will always be the freshest catch & you will enjoy every mouthful of their delicious morsels from the sea.
Don’t fancy fish? Not a vegetarian? Then the other option to go for is lamb. The lamb in Iceland is the best you will eat anywhere. The sheep literally roam free for the summer months. In September when I was there, I learned about the “round up”. Over the course of a week, all the farmers go into the mountains on horseback to bring their sheep back for the winter. It is the ultimate in free range.
They have happy lives & they are treated with love by the farmers who rear them. So, if you enjoy lamb, then definitely order it in Iceland…whenever you need a break from the fish ;).”
I love a road trip & Iceland is the perfect place to get behind the wheel & explore. The driving is straightforward as there is effectively one road that circumnavigates the island. Add into that some routes which can take you to the best parts of the island. For example, there is the infamous Golden Circle or the Diamond Circle in the north. For those with a little more time, you can drive around the entire country on the Ring Road.
To plan your perfect trip to Iceland, check out my post – Your Ultimate Iceland 6 Day Itinerary.
Finally, another big thing Iceland is famous for is how expensive it is to visit. And it is. For us. However, this is because 50% of everything goes to taxes. And these taxes create a social welfare state. Healthcare & education are provided free of charge. University & the first 6 months of daycare are heavily subsidized, for just a small fee. And with such a small population, the expense must be shared amongst those who can work, discounting children & the elderly. So, it’s no surprise that everything costs so much more in Iceland.
There you have my summary of what Iceland is famous for. I hope I have done this stunning country justice & have no doubt that you too will fall under its spell, after all, how many more than these 25 reasons do you need?
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