Snæfellsnes Peninsula – Ultimate Guide
Lava fields, fishing villages, and its very own glacier – all this and more is in store for you on a trip to Iceland’s Snæfellsnes peninsula.
This slice of West Iceland is sometimes described as ‘Iceland in Miniature’, and for good reason. Its diverse landscapes capture the essence of what Iceland is all about, but it’s easily accessible and doable in a day or two.
- See all of Snæfellsnes on one of these Iceland vacation packages.
So what are the Snæfellsnes peninsula must-sees? There’s too many to squeeze into one paragraph, so read on to get the lowdown on this breathtaking region of Iceland.
Top Snæfellsnes peninsula things to do
1. Snæfellsjökull National Park
At the far end of the Snæfellsnes peninsula sits Snæfellsjökull National Park. Named after the Snæfellsjökull glacier, this nature reserve is home to a wide variety of different landscapes.
The crowning glory (quite literally) is the glacier itself. Although Snæfellsjökull can’t compete with its bigger brothers Langjökull and Vatnajökull for size, it’s no less jaw-dropping. On a clear and sunny day, you can even catch a glimpse of its white peak from Reykjavík.
Snæfellsjökull is famous for appearing in Jules Verne’s classic novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the novel, the main characters find a passage leading to the center of the earth underneath the glacier.
The ice sheet covers a giant volcano, the largest in this part of Iceland. It’s inactive though, as it hasn’t erupted for a couple of thousand years. The foot of the volcano is hemmed in by giant lava fields that stretch all the way to the sea.
At the extreme western edge of the park, you’ll find a cliff-lined coast where the lava meets the Atlantic Ocean. This coast is dotted with interesting rock formations and lighthouses that are well worth checking out!
The sleepy fishing village of Stykkishólmur is the largest settlement on the Snæfellsnes peninsula and the main harbor in the region. Founded in the 16th century as a trading post, it’s an Icelandic town wears its merchant history on its sleeve.
Some of the old merchants’ houses around the old harbor have been converted into trendy modern bistros serving up fresh and tasty Icelandic seafood. This is probably the best place to eat on the whole peninsula.
- Read our Travel Guide to find out more about Icelandic food & restaurants.
You might recognize the row of buildings along the harborfront from the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The village was actually used as Greenland in that film!
From the harbor you can sail out into the Breiðafjörður bay (more on that below). A ferry connection is available to the island of Flatey and the Westfjords, or you can join a puffin-watching tour by boat.
It’s also worth taking a wander to the cliff on the other side of the harbor, where you can get a panoramic view across the whole bay.
3. Kirkjufell mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall
Kirkjufell is one of the most instantly recognizable mountains in Iceland thanks to its pointy peak resembling a witch’s hat.
If it seems familiar to you, that might be because you’ve seen it as Arrowhead Mountain in Game of Thrones. (Authors and filmmakers seem to love this part of Iceland!)
Kirkjufell lends its name to the nearby Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall, which rolls gently into the sea through a series of shallow cascades. The waterfall is easily accessible from the 54 road, the main route around the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
Explore the area around the waterfall by following the footpaths and crossing the bridge above the falls. The scene is especially magical at sunset, so if you want to nab the best pic, this is the time of day to visit.
4. Grundarfjörður & Ólafsvík
If you’re driving to Kirkjufell along the north coast of Snæfellsnes, then you’ll pass through Grundarfjörður, one of a handful of fishing villages on the peninsula. This is a great place to stop for a coffee or a bite to eat as you admire the view of the mountain.
Whilst you’re in town, you could also pay a visit to the Saga Center. Here you’ll find an information center, the Bæringsstofa photo collection, and a small exhibit about the town’s history. The exhibit includes a replica of a shop from the 1950s, which is like a time capsule!
Grundarfjörður is located between the small towns of Stykkishólmur, the hub of the region, and Ólafsvík. The latter is a fishing community worth stopping at for the cute waterfall alone (see below), but there’s some more dining options here too.
Ólafsvík is also home to Pakkhúsið, a historical building where you’ll now find the Útgerðin fashion and lifestyle shop. Drop in here to pick up Icelandic design products and gifts.
As you drive around Iceland, you’ll no doubt notice some of its radical modernist churches. Many of these were built around the middle of the 20th century and have striking modern designs. The church in Ólafsvík is no exception, with its minimalist spire and angular roof.
5. Caves & gorges
Buried under the lava fields of the Snæfellsnes peninsula is a hidden gem: Vatnshellir cave. As you descend into the cave via a spiral staircase, you’ll be surrounded by gnarly rock formations.
To explore the cave, which was only opened to the public in 2011, you will need to join a guided tour. Exploring the actual cave is not too difficult, but you’ll need to wear the right safety gear and follow precautions.
There are a couple more awesome rock formations in the area you can check out yourself. First up is Sönghellir (‘Singing Cave’), renowned for its magical acoustics. To get here, you’ll need to turn off the coastal road onto a gravel track, so a 4×4 is required.
Further up the coastal road, you’ll find the more accessible Rauðfeldsgjá gorge. This narrow passage cuts into the Botnsfjall mountain, and it’s possible to explore the inside in summertime.
The walls are lined with palagonite, a kind of volcanic rock. And a small waterfall runs into the back of the gorge, creating a mystical atmosphere!
Around a 15-minute drive from Rauðfeldsgjá is Búðakirkja. This small black church sits next to a massive lava field featuring the Búðaklettur volcanic crater. You can park near the church and follow the trail to the crater to explore it up close.
6. Breiðafjörður bay
Breiðafjörður means ‘Wide Fjord’ and it’s easy to see why: this bay that divides Snæfellsnes from the Westfjords is one of the biggest in Iceland. You can see it from pretty much anywhere on the north shore of Snæfellsnes.
- Discover Iceland’s remotest region in our guide to the Westfjords.
The bay itself is packed with small islands and skerries, home to all sorts of wildlife including puffins and eider ducks. That’s right, eider ducks as in eider pillows. Locals collect the soft feathers from the birds’ nests as they naturally shed them.
The heart of Breiðafjörður is the island of Flatey, accessible by the Baldur ferry from Stykkishólmur. This car-free island has been settled for centuries and was once an important religious and cultural center.
Today it’s fantastic to visit for its laid-back vibe and collection of traditional timber-framed houses. A great place to escape to and disconnect from the rush of daily life.
7. Yellow and black sand beaches
You may well have heard of Iceland’s famous black sand beaches, but on the Snæfellsnes peninsula you’re more likely to come across a beach with yellow or red sand. In fact, almost the entire length of the peninsula’s southern coast is yellow beach.
One particular spot worth visiting is Ytri Tunga, a golden beach ideal for spying seals. They tend to bask on the seaweed-covered rocks just off the coast.
However, if you really do want to see a black sand beach, Snæfellsnes does deliver. Stop off at Djúpalónssandur or Malarrif in the Snæfellsjökull National Park. Malarrif is right next to the famous Lóndrangar sea stacks, which you can read about below. There you’ll also find a lighthouse to add to your photo collection!
8. Sea stacks
As well as beaches that seem stolen from the Caribbean, the south coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula has tons of otherworldly cliff and rock formations.
Within the Snæfellsjökull National Park, you’ll find Lóndrangar. This pair of basalt columns towers over a sea cliff. The bigger of the two is 75 meters (245 feet) tall, whereas the smaller is 61 meters (200 feet).
The columns are the remains of an ancient volcanic crater which has long since eroded. Today they are home to some nesting birds, including kittiwakes, murres, fulmars, and puffins.
Slightly further up the road is Arnarstapi, a set of cliffs and rock formations including Gatklettur (above). This famous rock arch is one of many you can spot in Iceland, formed by the sea wearing a hole in solidified lava.
9. Pocket-sized waterfalls
Although Kirkjufellsfoss is undoubtedly the crown jewel of waterfalls on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, there are plenty of pocket-sized gems dotted around the region.
Just above Ólafsvík is Bæjarfoss, literally ‘Town Waterfall’, which is easily walkable from anywhere in the town. It’s quite modest in size, but still charming enough to look at. It drapes over the mountainside like other ‘bridal veil’ waterfalls such as Dynjandi. And what’s more, you can enjoy it at night because it’s lit up!
Slightly more majestic is Svöðufoss (above), just west of Ólafsvík. At around 10 meters (30 feet) tall, it’s set within a cliff of basalt columns. This is similar to the famous Svartifoss waterfall in southeast Iceland.
From the same parking lot, you can also walk to Kerlingarfoss, a semi-hidden, multi-tier waterfall spanning about 60 meters (200 feet).
Despite their beauty, these waterfalls aren’t as well known, so they’re definitely a little off the beaten track. Thirst for waterfalls still not quenched? Read our guide to the best waterfalls to visit in Iceland.
How to explore the Snæfellsnes peninsula
If you’ve never visited Iceland before, adding the Snæfellsnes peninsula to your itinerary is a great way to see a lot of what the country has to offer in a short time. But what’s the best way to get to, and around, the region?
You’ll have the most freedom to explore if you rent a car. On a self-drive trip, you can set the pace and take as many detours as you like. This means you don’t have to miss any of the hidden gems of Snæfellsnes, and you can spend as long as you like at each one.
If you base yourself on the peninsula, you could also join day tours of the Breiðafjörður bay, where you could spot puffins and whales.
Browse these vacation packages and get inspired for your trip to this magical part of West Iceland.
About the author
Max has been back and forth from Iceland since 2009. He lived and worked there for several years, and although he’s moved away, he left a piece of his heart there. When he’s in Iceland, he loves to relax in the ‘hot pot’, chow down on some local food, and catch up with friends. He speaks Icelandic fluently, so if you need to know how to pronounce ‘Fagradalsfjall’, he’s your guy.View more posts by Max