Iceland has exploded onto the travel scene in the past decade. It’s no wonder – thanks to its combination of nearly unbelievable landscapes, Northern Lights-spotting opportunities, and badly-behaved (but great-looking) volcanoes.
Although it can feel like every traveler is planning or has just returned from a trip to Iceland, there are plenty of cool spots away from the island’s increasingly crowded Golden Circle.
I’ve picked 11 of my favorite things to do in Iceland that aren’t in the Golden Circle – don’t miss them on your next trip.
1) Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach
Although Jökulsárlón Lagoon and the nearby Diamond Beach are technically two separate destinations, they’re so close to each other that you should visit the two together.
Ok, that’s great, but what’s the appeal? How about a lagoon filled with icebergs that have broken off from the nearby Breiðamerkurjökull glacier?
Believe me, when I say that it’s just as stunning as it sounds – icebergs of brilliant whites and blues, studded with seams of black, floating serenely on the water. You’re never going to be short of picture opportunities, but here’s a hint: the further you walk away from the car park, the views get better while the number of other people you’ll bump into dwindles.
Icebergs that flow from the lagoon into the sea often wash up on the nearby black sand beach – hence the nickname Diamond Beach. If you’re lucky, the beach will be strewn with diamond crystals sparkling against the backdrop of the black sand. Unmissable.
You’re never far away from a waterfall or two in Iceland – the country has over 15,000 of them after all. Even so, Skogafoss stands out.
Perched on the edge of Iceland’s famous Ring Road (the road that circumnavigates the island) Skogafoss is one of the island’s largest waterfalls. 60m deep and 25 meters wide, the waterfall is so powerful that I ended up pretty much soaking wet after a few minutes at the bottom.
The powerful spray does mean that you get to see a lot of beautiful rainbows at the falls too. Make sure you have your camera ready.
You can climb to the top of the waterfall to the Skogafoss viewpoint – be warned – it’s over 500 steps to the top and you should wear sturdy shoes. The views are 100% worth it though.
3) Hiking in Skaftafell Park
Part of the much larger Vatnajökull National Park, hiking in Skaftafell is guaranteed to come with a side of some serious views. Hikes vary in distance, from the short hour-long jaunt to the impressive Svartifoss Waterfall, to long multi-day hikes in the Morsárdalur valley and more.
I’d recommend spending as much time as your itinerary will allow – but be sure to visit Svartifoss.
The waterfall’s surrounding basin is formed of a series of dark basalt columns – it looks like something plucked out of Middle Earth, hidden away along a path that takes you through woodlands and past a series of waterfalls with the kind of views that would be worth the trip anyway.
Iceland’s got plenty of black sand beaches but none quite match up to Reynisfjara. A short distance from the town of Vík í Mýrdal in the south of the country, there’s a reason this beach finds itself on pretty much every visitor’s list of things to do in Iceland.
If there are so many black sand beaches in Iceland, what makes Reynisfjara special?
Well, for one, the Reynisdrangar sea stacks. These are a series of cliffs framing the top end of the beach: each one a series of hundreds of black basalt columns stacked together in bizarre patterns. For fans of Game of Thrones Reynisfjara should look familiar as it was used as a filming location in the popular hit series too.
5) Hiking in Þórsmörk (Thorsmork) National Park
Tucked away between not one but three glaciers (Eyjafjallajökull, Mýrdalsjökull, and Tindfjallajökull if you really must know), the Valley of Thor is one of the best places to go hiking in the south of Iceland.
There are a number of trails that you can tackle independently, but if you want to get completely off-grid, I’d suggest booking a trip with a local tour operator.
I went on a hike with Midgard Adventures and loved it – we peeked into caves, squeezed our way through narrow canyons, navigated our way up rivers to secret waterfalls. It was some of the most fun I had during my first trip to Iceland.
If hiking is your priority – the summer is undoubtedly the best time to go to Iceland as many of the trails are closed in the winter months.
Another waterfall right? But how many times do you get to walk inside the waterfall basin to catch a look from behind the fall? Exactly.
Seljalandsfoss is very firmly on the beaten track – but you shouldn’t let that put you off. The short trail that takes you from the car park, behind the fall, and out the other side might take less than 15 minutes in total but what 15 minutes!
The noise is almost deafening, the spray will soak you to the bone… and you will love every second of it.
Bonus tip: don’t miss Gljufrabui – a secret waterfall about a five-minute walk away from Seljalandsfoss. Hidden inside a small canyon, it’s a cool spot for your Iceland itinerary.
7) Watch the Northern Lights
Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see the incredible natural phenomenon that is the Northern Lights. However, seeing them is easier said than done. Although the Iceland northern lights viewing season runs from September to April – there’s never any guarantee that the aurora is going to show up while you are in town.
So what can you do? Generally, there tends to be more aurora activity around the Autumn and Spring Equinoxes, so if you can coincide your trip with one of these, then do. Otherwise, it’s a matter of crossing your fingers and hoping for the best.
Download one of the many Aurora apps to see the forecast and where any current action is happening and spend your evening aurora chasing. Just remember to wrap up warm.
8) Go Whale Watching
Iceland might have surprisingly few wildlife spotting opportunities on land, but the same can’t be said for its shores.
Don’t miss your chance to go whale watching while you’re in the country. The best whale watching season is between May and September when Iceland’s surrounding waters teem with blue whales, minke whales, humpback whales, and even orcas.
You don’t have to stray far from Reykjavik for some great whale-spotting opportunities, so it’s a great thing to do, even if you don’t have much time to spend in Iceland.
9) Visit one of Iceland’s Ever-Growing Number of Microbreweries
Did you know that beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989? That’s right, the good people of Iceland were still not allowed to buy, brew or drink beer in the country until after the year I was born. It’s one of those crazy facts that I just couldn’t quite get my head around.
Still, quite a few things have changed in the past thirty years and beer has become one of the island’s favorite drinks. Take the time to celebrate Iceland’s growing craft beer scene with a visit to one of the island’s many microbreweries.
My favorite was the small powerhouse, the Ölvisholt Brugghús. Not only can you visit their tap room to try the brews on site – but you can also take a tour of the brewery if you book ahead. Skál!
10) Get Up, Close and Personal with Hekla Volcano
Mad, bad and dangerous to know, Hekla has built itself something of a reputation, even on an island that isn’t exactly short on a volcano or two. Its nickname “the gateway to hell” gives you a bit of a hint about the kind of trouble that Hekla has caused Icelanders over the years.
Turns out that Hekla is actually the most active volcano in Iceland – with over 20 eruptions since 874 under its belt. It’s also one of Iceland’s most striking volcanos: an unmissable sight on a clear day.
To see it, you’ll need to either set off on a long-distance hike or book onto a super-jeep tour to take you onto its slopes.
Either way, beware that the volcano is overdue an eruption, so be sure to check Iceland’s Meteorological Office’s website before you go.
Hang out in Reykjavik
Notoriously expensive and impossibly cool, many tourists skip Reykjavik in a hurry to see as many of Iceland’s natural attractions as possible. That’s a shame as Reykjavik has a laid-back charm all of its own.
Go to the striking Cathedral, check out a museum or two (the Icelandic Phallological Museum is something of a mind-boggle but worth a visit), and enjoy the city’s flourishing foodie scene.
Costs can mount up – look into whether buying a Reykjavik City Card works for you.
There are some great budget spots if you look hard enough too: Icelandic Fish & Chips serves hearty portions of freshly-caught fish at reasonable prices.
Julianna Barnaby is the writer behind the travel blog The Discoveries Of. Travel, culture and adventure for people who like to do cool things in awesome places.