Video by Seth Wharton
Stunning landscapes and unique activities make this safe, eco-friendly nation a must-visit. Iceland has reigned as the most peaceful country in the world since 2008, according to the Global Peace Index. And the Land of Fire and Ice is also among the greenest countries, given its access to hydro and geothermal energy. But it's the people, culture and access to nature that cause this Arctic island to warm your heart.
The Northern Lights are a huge draw from September to April, but be aware that solar activity and weather conditions dictate whether you'll actually catch them. Though it's still winter-coat cold from May through August, the daylight hours last too long to see the phenomenon. We’ve rounded up an aurora borealis–free list that can be tackled most of the year.
1. Blue Lagoon and Geothermal Pools
Photo by Seth Wharton
Walk from the crisp Icelandic air right into the milky blue lagoon surrounded by black lava rocks. The geothermal water here hovers around 102˚F year-round. Located about 45 minutes from Reykjavík, the Blue Lagoon is a luxury spa where you can go all out with the pampering, but it's also a popular spot for day visits. You'll love the free drink—juice, smoothie, wine, beer—that comes with admission. Your teens will love the silica face mask that's included with all packages. There are two cafés for snacks and sandwiches and a fine-dining restaurant. Expect to spend about $82 per person over 14, but kids 2 to 13 are free. You must book in advance online.
If you aren’t looking for a spa treatment, try one of Reykjavik's 17 public geothermal pools, which local children use for their mandatory swimming lessons. The naturally warm water averages 84 degrees. The pools have hot tubs as well, since a warm soak is an important part of Icelandic culture. Prices are roughly $1.50 for kids 6 to 17 and $9 for adults. The swimming centers even rent swimsuits and towels.
2. North Iceland
Photo by Seth Wharton
Among the adventures to be had in the charming North are fishing, whale watching and hiking. You can drive from the Keflavík International Airport in roughly five hours or fly from the regional Reykjavík airport in about 40 minutes. In Akureyri, visit the Akureyri Botanical Garden. It sits in a public park that’s open for strolling year-round, and from June to September, you can explore the lush botanic section, where hundreds of species of plants are grown.
Drive beyond Akureyri to Goðafoss, an impressive waterfall that's just shy of 100 feet wide with a nearly 40-foot drop. Continue on for short but scenic walk (about ¼ mile) along the Víti Explosion Crater, which was formed after a volcanic eruption in 1875. The crater is a popular swimming spot—the water temperature ranges from upper 70s to mid-80s—but be warned that the sloping path is very slippery in wet weather.
If your family loves being out on the water, try a whale watching tour. Summer is the busiest season—and the only one in which you can also try sea angling—with a roughly 95 percent success rate on whale-spotting. But winter can be good for whale watching as well, especially when whale-favorites herring and capelin come in; you can spot humpbacks and orcas feasting on them.
Hiring a guide is a great way to learn about the area. GeoTravel offers summer and winter packages with focuses such as food, hiking, ice caves, glaciers and birdwatching. Whale Watching Hauganes uses classic Icelandic oak boats for its whale watching and/or sea angling tours. You’ll need waterproof shoes, but they provide warm, waterproof suits for adults and children.
3. South Iceland
Photo by Lindsay Cotter
The South coast of Iceland is famous for its puffins. They roost mainly on the open waters, so the best time to see them is when they breed and raise chicks on land from June through September. They are endangered, so don’t approach them. A good spot for viewing the birds—as well as whales (and a brewery)—is Westman Islands, reachable by ferry for about $26 round-trip.
Photo by Getty Images
In the South, you can also visit spectacular, one-of-a-kind landscapes: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, a shimmering collection of glaciers located on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park; Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon—nearly 330 feet deep and more than a mile long—which is thought to be about 9,000 years old, and Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s biggest waterfalls, which produces enough mist that on sunny days, you’re likely to see a rainbow.
If you want to visit the most rugged terrain, a guided tour is a good idea. Midgard Adventure offers sightseeing tours, ice walks, hikes and more. Your family can join a group or take a private tour. You can opt for a trip in a Super Jeep, a vehicle outfitting for highlands driving and unpredictable conditions.
If you have a lot of time, hit the North and South by planning a trip along the Ring Road, the highway that loops the entire island.
4. The Food
Photo by Naotake Murayama / CC 2.0
Some culinary delights transcend borders: Icelanders love hot dogs. Their dog includes lamb—try it with crispy fried onions and remoulade. And local specialties are not to be missed. Start your day with a bowl of skyr, a strained cultured dairy product similar to Greek yogurt. Top it with cream or jam or granola. (Learn more about the skyr available in the United States.)
Photos courtesy of Icelandic Provisions, Siggi's, Smari, and Lifeway
The island’s fresh fish is excellent. Trout, salmon, cod, mackerel and haddock are common. But also try the salt cod, which is preserved in salt and served dry with butter or rehydrated and tucked into soups or stews or plated as a filet.
Smoking is a traditional method of food preparation and preservations: Delicious smoked fishes, lamb, meats and cheeses are available on most menus throughout the country. The smoked goods and preserved fruits and vegetables are delicious with the local rye bread, which is dense and moist and fairly sweet.
5. The Art and Museums
Photos: Ásmundarsafn Museum (left) by O Palsson / CC 2.0 and Arbaer Museum Farm House by Lydur Skulason / CC 2.0
Galleries abound, but don't miss the free art along Reykjavík's sculpture walk. Grab some of the country's famously good coffee and stroll between pieces along the waterfront of the city.
You can also customize a museum route for your family within Reykjavík. Ásmundarsafn features sculptures both inside and outside in a sculpture garden. And it’s located in Laugardalur, a family-friendly park that is home to the largest outdoor thermal pool in Reykjavík, a café, the Family Park and Zoo and a botanical garden.
You can also hit Kjarvalsstaðir, which focuses on modern art, including the works of its namesake, Jóhannes S. Kjarval, one of Iceland’s most famous artists. Kjarvalsstaðir is located at Klambratún Park, where sporty types will be happy to find a basketball court, a frisbee golf course and a football field.
Impress your kids by hitting the Icelandic Punk Museum, located—fittingly—in a former underground restroom. You’ll find photos, sounds, posters, instruments, clothes and various other memorabilia from the ’80s to ’90's punk scene in Iceland.
Take boat and history lovers to the Reykjavík Maritime Museum, which details the history of fishing, sailing and the Cod Wars, a battle with England over fishing rights. And you can take a one-hour guided tour aboard the Óðinn, a 900-ton former coastguard ship.
Let guides in traditional Icelandic clothing show you the way past generations lived through a tour of a re-created village at the Árbær Open Air Museum. You’ll find restored homes, grazing animals and traditional crafts. Árbær is about 25 from the city, reachable by bus.
For access to all these museums as well as the public pools, consider the City Card. It’s an affordable and eco-friendly way to experience Reykjavík. Along with free entry to the city’s museums, galleries, and pools, you get free entry to the Reykjavík Zoo and Family Park and a free ferry ride to Viðey, a beautiful historic island right outside of Reykjavik. You’ll also find discounts for some restaurants, attractions and tours and throughout the Reykjavik area.
Your trip is basically planned!