10 Most Famous Landmarks in Iceland: Must-Sees
Iceland is a country of great extremes. On one hand, you have sparkling glaciers and the other voluminous volcanoes. In between, you might find a lava field, a glacier, a fertile greenfield, or maybe even a gorge. The variety is without comparison.
- See Iceland’s best-loved landmarks on a guided group tour.
There are endless surprises around every corner. The crème de la crème of Iceland’s natural landmarks were not easy to select because each part of the country offers something so different from the other. Yet somehow each location and each site is special in its own way.
But, after careful consideration, we were able to choose 10. So, without further delay here they are.
10. Sólfarið sculpture
Reykjavík is a colorful and quirky city with unbelievable street art and charming architecture. The city center is relatively small, but packed with amazing restaurants, shops, and galleries. Strolling around the city you will stumble upon many sculptures and art pieces but only very few get as much attention as Sólfarið or the ‘Sun Voyager’.
The dazzling steel formation is located right at the brim of Sæbraut, in the middle of the waterfront pathway loved by locals. The sculpture resembles a Viking longship and it is a common way to describe it. However, the Icelandic sculptor who designed it, Jón Gunnar Árnason, had a very different idea in mind.
Sun Voyager was meant to represent a boat of one’s dreams. Something that Jón Gunnar saw as an ode to the sun. It should within itself hold the promise of undiscovered territory and a beautiful dream of hope, progress and freedom.
Sun Voyager was one of Jón Gunnar’s last pieces as he sadly passed of leukemia a year before the sculpture was placed in its current location. Some have even said that he thought of the ship as a vessel transporting a soul from this world to the next.
But be this as it may, most travelers still refer to the sculpture as the Viking ship down by the waterfront. The one with the Esja mountain in the background and on a clear day, even the volcanic glacier, Snæfellsjökull. It is a fantastic photographic location, especially during sunrise and sunset.
9. Lake Mývatn
A visit to Lake Mývatn and its surrounding attractions is truly a surreal experience. Mývatn is simply put a geological wonderland sculpted by thousands of years worth of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other natural phenomenons.
It is one of the largest lakes in Iceland and a nesting ground for many bird species. Some have even gone as far as to say that no other place on Earth is home to as many different species of duck.
Everywhere you can find volcanic craters and multicolored bubbling sulfuric hot springs. They together create a scene straight out of the movies which Hollywood producers have started to take notice. The steams from the hot springs were used in the hit TV show, Game of Thrones, during which Sam is struggling to get through the foggy storm but in reality it’s just the steam from the springs.
Interesting sights to visit around lake Mývatn are Mývatn Nature Baths, Námaskarð, Hverfjall, Dimmuborgir, the Askja and Krafla volcanic craters, and the Skútustaðagígar pseudocraters.
8. Hallgrímskirkja church
Hallgrímskirkja is the landmark symbol of Reykjavik. This towering gray pillar stands tall above all else in the otherwise modest architecture of the city. All around it are corrugated iron houses painted in all the colors of the rainbow, with the occasional wooden home sticking out in between.
The view from Hallgrímskirkja tower offers a splendid opportunity to see all the colored houses and the views of the harbor and Esja beyond. And of course, it’s an absolute can’t-miss photo opportunity.
The church was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, one of Iceland’s most famous and beloved architects. His inspiration is said to have come from Svartifoss waterfall, yet another landmark worth checking out. When compared, it is not hard to see the inspiration. The basalt rocks framing the waterfall are the rising pillars on each side of the church tower.
Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutheran parish church and reaches 74 meters (242 feet). This makes it the tallest church in Iceland. Inside the grand church, you can see the impressive and world-renowned pipe organ. Built by the famous organ builder Johannes Klais of Bonn, the organ is a staggering 15 meters high (49 ft) and unbelievably heavy, weighing 25 metric tons. It has four manuals, 102 ranks, 72 stops, and 5,275 pipes.
Outside the church, you’ll find the famous Leifur Eiríksson statue. It was a gift from the United States to commemorate the 1,000 year anniversary of Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament. Icelanders see this gift-giving as a formal acceptance on the part of Americans and an acknowledgment that Leifur Eiríksson, an Icelander, was the first European to find America, not Christopher Columbus.
Hvítserkur or ‘Dinosaur Rock’ in the north is another awe-inspiring sight. Its location, incredible form, and stature is something you can’t help but admire. It is located in the northwest, not far from the villages of Hvammstangi or Blönduós. The drive there is an additional 40 minutes but well worth it. It is placed out on Vatnsnes peninsula, away from the typical tourist route.
To many Icelanders, this place is pure magic. Not only because of its fairytale-like form but also because of its link to local folklore.
Some say that Hvítserkur is actually a petrified troll and once this very troll is said to have lived in Strandir, east of Hvítserkur. A few fjords away was a church called Þingeyrarkirkja. Henceforth, loud noises from its church bells would often be heard around the region. In short, this would send the troll into a craze.
He set off to rip them down but took too long and turned to stone midway. There he stands still today.
6. Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park needs no introduction. This UNESCO world heritage site is one of three stops forming the Golden Circle. Therefore being one of the most visited places in Iceland. It is not just a place of groundbreaking history – pun intended – but also a place where the ground literally breaks or put precisely, where the North American and the Eurasian continental plates meet and drift apart. This you can see with your eyes and the most adventurous can even snorkel or dive in between the plates.
Even though Þingvellir is largely recognized today for its immense beauty and geological wonders, it once played a different role. The Vikings would gather there to host Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament.
The parliament was founded in the year 930 making it one of the oldest parliaments in the world. You can just picture the scene when you visit. The leading Viking standing tall on Lögberg rock and reciting all the laws for the crowd.
Furthermore, if you feel like you recognize this place. You just might. Þingvellir was one of the shooting locations of Game of Thrones and the Almannagjá gorge is where the walk to the Vail is seen take place.
Geysir is the first thing about Iceland you can read about in old travel books. The spouting hot spring that could reach the tallest skyscrapers sparked a story that traveled far. It later became the namesake to all the other geysers in the world and still, today holds the title. Sadly it hasn’t erupted for some time.
Nonetheless, you are in for quite a show, should you visit. Geysir’s baby brother Strokkur now holds the fort, shooting hot water into the sky every 4–10 minutes. Unlike his big brother, Strokkur is very timely and predictable.
Together with Þingvellir and Gullfoss, the trio makes up the Golden Circle. Undoubtedly the most popular tour in Iceland.
Gullfoss or ‘Golden Falls’ is a marvelous two-story water cascade in South Iceland.
It is the third attraction of the Golden Circle and to many photographers the highlight. No matter the season, this powerful waterfall is visible, sending water rushing down its glacier-carved canyon for viewers to admire.
Gullfoss’ water comes from a the nearby Langjökull glacier, which is the second-largest glacier in Iceland. As well as feeding Gullfoss, the Langjökull glacier is also the source of the Hraunfossar and Barnafoss waterfalls.
The waterfall has 3 different viewing points from which allow you to take in the glory. We recommend to visit all of them but know that the viewpoint closest to the falls will have you leaving damp!
Other extraordinary waterfalls in Iceland include Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Svartifoss, Goðafoss, Dettifoss, Dynjandi, Hengifoss, and Hraunfossar.
2. Blue Lagoon
The first thing most people hear about Iceland is the Blue Lagoon. Perhaps not surprisingly given its incredible unique location, color, and medically proven healing powers. It is located smack in the middle of the Reykjanes peninsula between Keflavík airport and Reykjavík, making it the ideal stop on the way to or from the airport.
Today the Blue Lagoon is a world-class spa with a built-in bar, lava flooring, steam cave, sauna, massage area in the water… the list just goes on. You now have options to stay at two different hotels and bathe in the geothermal waterfalls throughout the day.
Additionally, there are amazing restaurants, both Lava and Moss and the menus are packed with delicious Icelandic cuisine with a modern twist. There is no shortage of things to do at the Blue Lagoon. In conclusion, this is the perfect place to recharge or get that jet lag out of your system!
The story of the Blue Lagoon
The story of the Blue Lagoon is quite strange as its existence comes to be by pure accident. The Reykjanes peninsula on which it stands on is known for its admirable geothermal powers and the energy has been utilized for a long time. The power plant drills down for hot water, which then shoots up and pushes the turbine to create electricity.
On a very noteworthy day, the plant workers were drilling down a new hole when odd water came up. For some reason, they decided to just to see what happens. Unfortunately, the water was not like any other water. In fact, its materials quickly started coating the turbines, shutting them down completely.
This meant bad news. Iceland isn’t exactly known for warm weather and the people were in dire need. So, as quickly as they could the workers dumped the water and went back to an old hole.
However, the material in the water coated the sharp lava rocks and a lagoon was formed. Little did anyone know what was happening.
The first soak in the Blue Lagoon
Due to the unique turquoise color of the water, people were frightened of it and thought it to be poisonous. However, one man, Valur Márgeirsson, who had worked in the plant thought off it in a different way. He had psoriasis and no cure had worked. While he had worked with the turquoise water his hands seemed to get better. This Valur noticed and talked it over with his doctor.
In spite of not receiving good feedback initially, Valur found a doctor who said it was worth a shot. Geothermal bathing is a longstanding tradition in Iceland and he pretty much couldn’t get worse.
So, Valur decided to give it a shot and took a bath in the ‘dangerous’ lagoon. Remarkably, after only a few dips he was much better! Word spread and in only about 30 years this place has grown to the facility you see today. All thanks to a brave man named Valur.
1. Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon (and Diamond Beach)
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is in a league of its own. This glistening utopia is located on the southeast coast of Iceland, about 6 hours’ drive from Reykjavík. The surrounding area is dominated by the great Vatnajökull glacier which is Europe’s largest glacier. In fact, Vatnajökull’s outlet glacier Breiðamerkurjökull feeds the lagoon.
The name, Jökulsárlón, would roughly translate as ‘glacial river lagoon’, which sums its up quite well. Actually, the lagoon is the deepest found in Iceland carved out by the river and its feeding glacier.
The multicolored icebergs break off Breiðamerkurjökull, to drop into the lagoon only to keep floating around until they reach the black beach below. Once they have made it to the beach, the icebergs are much smaller. This is where most spent their last moments before being united with the Atlantic Ocean.
This black sand beach where they melt away is therefore often called the Diamond Beach.
The icebergs in Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon can be in many different colors. Which usually has to due with the amount of oxygen inside each block. In the summertime, visitors can join boat tours to get closer to the icebergs. An experience many say they will never forget.
Seals swim around in the lagoon and the arctic tern is the dominant bird in the area. Jökulsárlón is a lively place despite being surrounded by ancient ice. It is a place of true serenity. When you sit at its bay and watch the icebergs slowly float around you recharge somehow. This gets me every time!
About the author
Ragnheiður is a nature lover first and foremost, having studied anthropology and media at university. She also loves sharing her passion about her home country, Iceland, with everyone she meets. You’ll often find her traveling the Icelandic countryside, especially the Westfjords and south coast, although her hometown is Reykjavík. Her interests include Icelandic food and drink, plants and wildlife, and cultural traditions.View more posts by Ragnheiður Harpa