Things to do in Southwest Iceland: your personalized tour guide

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Using Kiwi.com’s Where Next? social media game, our users built their very own personalized tour guide of Iceland, giving suggestions and their own tips, and deciding on things to do and see!

For some years now, Iceland has been a very popular place to go, and yet, despite the fact that all and sundry on your Instagram feed seems to be hanging out in hot springs or wandering by waterfalls, it still feels like a strange and distant land.

This might be because it is – after all, it’s closer to Greenland than anywhere else. The nearest capital city to Reykjavík is, oddly, Edinburgh, and that’s still 850-odd miles away. The commonly-held notion that not even trees can survive there is a myth, but it seems like it could be true, you know? With this detailed travel guide, we want to give you an insight into all the fun and adventurous things you can do in Southwest Iceland.

Your very own Reykjavík city tour

Reykjavík cityscapeReykjavík cityscape — Shutterstock

For a capital, Reykjavík is oddly small and can be seen in less than a day. The city is vibrant and cute with many great sights to see.

In about half an hour, you can see all of downtown Reykjavík. From the old harbor — which is the main port of departure for whale and puffin watching tours, as well as Northern Lights cruises — walk to Harpa Music Hall, Tjörnin Pond and Hallgrimskirkja Church, Reykjavík’s most iconic structure. It’s this Middle Earth-esque church, spearing upwards in a combination of elegance and strength. Construction on Hallgrímskirkja began in 1945, but it wasn’t actually completed until 1986. The interior is pretty minimalist, but it has a glorious organ (there are frequent concerts performed), and if you feel like paying the equivalent of $15, you can climb to the top of the tower for views over the city.

If you’re up for a geography lesson, the Perlan — Wonders of Iceland museum, as the name suggests, is all about Iceland’s natural wonders. From ice caves to volcanos, you’ll learn about it all here. Alternatively, skip the museum if you want, and head up to the free viewing platform. Perlan is located on a hill from which you get a breathtaking view over Reykjavík and the surrounding mountains. For a quick treat, lounge about the café inside and enjoy some breakfast, with or without a comforting cup of hot chocolate.

On the hunt for the Northern Lights

The opportunity to see the aurora borealis brings many tourists to Iceland every yearThe opportunity to see the aurora borealis brings many tourists to Iceland every year — Shutterstock

Aurora borealis (or the Northern Lights) is one of the most amazing phenomena you’re ever likely to encounter, and Iceland is one of the finest spots in which to witness it. You’ll have the best chance of catching a light show when the nights are darkest — from the end of September to early April. If you spot a lot of solar activity and clear skies during the day, your chances double.

To see such a natural wonder, you also have to venture far from light pollution. A great place within the city limits of Reykjavík is around Grótta Island Lighthouse — just make sure to park in the parking lot in front of the island and stay there. If you go all the way to the lighthouse, the tide may come in and you’ll be stranded there until the next day. Two more great spots are Kleifarvatn lake and Þingvellir National Park, just 30 kilometers outside of Reykjavík. The Perlan viewing platform and the square in front of Hallgrímskirkja Church are also ideal, but only throughout December and January.

Generally speaking, the farther out of the city you go, the better. You can see the Northern Lights from almost anywhere in Iceland if the weather conditions are right.

Your taste of adventure around Iceland’s Southwest

Iceland's waterfalls are some of the most magnificent in the worldIceland’s waterfalls are some of the most magnificent in the world — Shutterstock

Mighty waterfalls and volcanic hot springs

Waterfalls in Iceland aren’t just waterfalls; they’re almost an almighty presence that consumes you. It’s hard to put the feeling of standing next to Skógafoss into words — it’s a very powerful waterfall with a soft side and magical side, created by the ever-present rainbow. If you hike up the steps to the top, you can see it from above and explore the landscape even further. For some reason, it has a Noah’s Ark vibe. I can’t explain why.

Two hours away from Reykjavík, you’ll be able to see Seljandsfoss from the road and right next to it, the smaller Gjiúfrabúi. If possible, you should venture behind the waterfalls to get an interesting alternative view.

The Seljavallalaug thermal pool is a hidden gemThe Seljavallalaug thermal pool is a hidden gem — Shutterstock

On the topic of wonderful water features, the Seljavallalaug hot springs are a must if you’re close by. To get there from Seljandsfoss, you should drive along the ring road (1) and turn onto road 242 (Raufarfell) — the first left after Þorvaldseyri, home to an exhibition on the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. Continue along the 242 until you see the sign for Seljavellir, then walk along the beaten path for about 20 minutes and across the narrow river. The thermal pool is nestled there, well-hidden behind a small hill.

(In)active volcanoes, black sand and iceberg beaches

Iceland's abundant unique geological features are a marvel to beholdIceland’s abundant unique geological features are a marvel to behold — Shutterstock

Fagradalsfjall, the volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula southwest of the Icelandic capital, began to spit lava on March 19, 2021. Eight months later, and it’s still active. With its steady flow and spray of lava reminiscent of a geyser, Fagradalsfjall is currently the most visited tourist attraction in the Nordic island state. This natural spectacle has already attracted hundreds of thousands of onlookers, and if you happen to be driving south of Reykjavík, you should stop by too.

On the southernmost tip of Iceland lies the sleepy seaside town of Vík í Mýrdal. This windy fishing village is close to the Reynisfjara black sand beach, with its famous basalt columns formed of solidified lava. Head up to Dyrhólaey lighthouse for a great view of the waves crashing on the beach. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could even try riding them.

Step out onto Jokulsárlón, a glacial lagoonStep out onto Jokulsárlón, a glacial lagoon — Shutterstock

Close to this black sand beach is the Sólheimasandur airplane wreck. The walk there feels endless because the scenery around you doesn’t change – it’s like you’re in a desert, just a black and windy one. Although the plane wreck is a popular attraction, not many people know the extent of what happened here. In 1973, a United States Navy DC plane crash-landed on the black beach of Sólheimasandur. Everyone survived the impact, but until this day, it’s not clear what caused the crash. Some say that the plane ran out of fuel, others believe it was a storm, and others think it was a technical malfunction — or it could have been a combination of all three.

Two and half hours east of Vík í Mýrdal is the Jokulsárlón iceberg beach. The icebergs are about 1000 years old and every year, around 100 meters of ice breaks away from them. We recommend booking guided tours to see the inside of the glaciers and the icebergs — it’s quite a breathtaking experience.

The Golden Circle: spraying geysers, not-so-secret hot springs, and cracks in the earth

The Silfra fissure divides the North American and Eurasian tectonic platesThe Silfra fissure divides the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates — Shutterstock

Þingvellir National Park is located in a rift zone that was created by two continental plates slowly drifting apart. This crack in the earth is called the Silfra fissure, and if you ever wanted to be in two places at the same time, now’s your chance. If you go diving in the Silfra fissure, you can touch both the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates, and effectively be in two continents at once.

The Great GeysirThe Great Geysir — Shutterstock

Iceland’s Great Geysir is a gush of boiling hot water from a crack in the earth, emitted almost every half an hour. It’s quite a show (despite the overpowering sulfurous smell) — lots of people enjoy watching the earth let off some steam. Right next to the Geysir is the fabulous Gullfoss waterfall, gull meaning ‘golden’ — from which the Golden Circle derives its name. The water cascades down from two points: one is 11 meters high, the other 21 meters high.

There are several tour companies that offer a bewildering variety of itineraries, differing in length, price, number of detours and featured stops. A basic tour of three locations in Southwest Iceland — Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and the Gullfoss waterfall — will take around six hours. Whichever way you decide to do it, though, it’s worth rounding off your trip at the Gamla Laugin Secret Lagoon (which is no longer so secret). These hot springs aren’t free to enter, so it’s advisable to book tickets in advance in order to avoid the lines.

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