I love when people get as excited about their travels as I do. I can’t help but relate to this passionate, curious bunch who delve deeply into the details of their itinerary and destination. When some friends of ours mentioned that they were planning a multi-generational trip to Iceland, I couldn’t wait to jump in – although quite honestly, like all good planners, they were already well on their way.
As luck would have it, just after these friends returned, a rather attractive IcelandAir seat sale opened up the opportunity for our family to plan a second trip to Iceland. As it has been a few years since our last visit, and we will now be visiting Iceland with a teen and a tween (as our friends had), I was very curious to find out which places and activities they had enjoyed the most. Knowing how much planning had gone into their trip, I asked if they wouldn’t mind sharing their highlights on this blog, to help make my planning easier, and hopefully yours as well. Lucky for me, their 14 year old son obliged. Thank you Fraser Hannay for giving up part of your summer to share this helpful information.
Before we get started here, I want to mention the fact that a great tour guide in Iceland can make a huge difference. The Hannay family spoke very highly of their guide Bjorn from Iceland Go Tours, describing him as “…..fun and friendly, but also very well informed” (see Iceland Go’s great reviews). As the Hannays were on a multigenerational trip (6 people), they did a number of private day tours with Iceland Go, although the company offers small group tours as well.
If you are looking for further Iceland trip planning inspiration, check out these popular Iceland tour offering from GetYourGuide.com. With an overwhelming number of tours and activities to choose from in Iceland, I encourage you to please always thoroughly read reviews before making a booking. Disclosure: This post contains several affiliate links.
10 Things to do in South Iceland
By: Fraser Hannay
As far as one-of-a-kind, spectacular places to visit on our planet, it doesn’t get much better than Iceland. The impetus for our trip was my Baba’s love of Icelandic detective novels – in particular, she enjoys the character “Detective Erlendur” who is the protagonist in a series of books written by Arnaldur Indriðason. Thanks to the fascinating adventures of Detective Erlendur, my Baba decided she wanted to visit Iceland and share this bucket list experience with me, my sister and my parents. Our trip was 8 days in the end of June and it exceeded all of our expectations. Here are some of my favourite places we visited in Southern Iceland.
1. Kvernufoss (Secret Waterfall)
With all of Iceland’s alpine glaciers and rocky, volcanic geography, waterfalls are naturally abundant. On our visit we saw an incredible variety of waterfalls. For big, powerful falls with a massive volume of water, Gullfoss was my favorite. For long, unbroken drops over massive cliffs, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss are great options. All of those places, however, are well known tourist spots with big crowds. For a truly breathtaking experience, a little known, secluded waterfall called Kvernufoss will not disappoint.
Kvernufoss is the neighbour of Skógafoss, a very popular place to visit, but while Skogafoss can be seen from the highway, Kvernufoss is tucked away in a small canyon. Behind the Skogar Museum, follow a river that twists its way through the bluffs. There are a few portions that are steeper and rocky, but most people will be fine. Before you know it, you’re surrounded by grassy cliffs. I walked right up to a group of sheep grazing and got some great photos. When I climbed up the hills (it isn’t as steep in some portions of the cliffs), there were even some small caves to explore. About a 10 minute hike from the Skogar museum parking lot, I found myself face to face with the falls.
Two streams of water converge midair and fall 30 meters before crashing down into a pool of water. I highly recommend following the path behind the waterfall, but be prepared to get a little wet. The most incredible thing is that the entire time we were there, we only saw two other people. You won’t have to dodge any selfie sticks on cramped lookout platforms, Kvernufoss is a true Icelandic experience. If you’re hungry, there’s a small fish and chips stand right in the area open noon to four o’clock that I enjoyed. (See Mia’s Country Van TripAdvisor reviews.)
My grandparents, my parents, my sister and I all loved the falls. It was a magical experience. All you need is good shoes, rain gear, a camera and a sense of adventure and you’ll be ready for an experience like none other.
2. Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands)
South of the mainland, the Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago boasts a charming fishing town, the best bird watching in Iceland and an active volcano. It made for a perfect (although long) day trip from Reykjavik. We booked a spot on the ferry (https://visitwestmanislands.com) from Landeyjahöfn to Heimaey, the largest island of the group. It’s a 35 minute ferry ride, but make sure to be outside during the last 10 minutes when the boat winds its way through some massive cliffs to the harbour. Upon arrival, we ate lunch at a restaurant called Gott (see Tripadvisor reviews) and had some of the best fish of the trip.
We started off by visiting two museums: The Maritime museum and the Eldheimar Volcano museum. The maritime museum was cute, the biggest draw being Toti the puffin. Seeing a live puffin up close hopping around the room at your feet was fantastic, but personally, Eldheimar takes the cake. The museum tells the story of when the Eldfell volcano on Heimaey erupted in 1973, destroying the town in it’s path. They equip you with an iPhone and a pair of headphones, and you walk around the exhibits with a curator’s voice in your ear. In the center of the museum is a house that was swallowed by the volcano, and only recently excavated. I loved how they made use of modern technology to make every exhibit interactive. The museum is also great for kids, as there is an incredible excavation activity and a puzzle station.
After some hiking and birdwatching, we came to our last activity of the day, the RibSafari. It’s not a BBQ food tour, RIB is an acronym for Rigid Inflatable Boat. The company provided rain gear, life jackets, gloves, goggles, even plastic bags for cameras or cellphones. We maneuvered between all the little islands, going inside caves and watching birds fly in and out of their cliffside homes. Our two guides were very friendly and knowledgeable, teaching us about birds, rock formations and even a bit of history. Although it was overcast and foggy during our trip, we still had a great time.
3. Jökulsárlón (Glacier Lagoon)
When I was first told we were going to visit a glacier lagoon, I didn’t know what to expect. What I got, was more than I ever anticipated. Jökulsárlón is a lake (or lagoon) at the base of a glacier where icebergs crack off and make their way to the ocean. There were so many different shapes, sizes, colours, textures; it was incredible. It was also a surprisingly great location for bird watching. Arctic Skuas were hunting smaller birds nestled in the icebergs while flocks of geese swam through the lagoon.
Massive icebergs were pulled out into the sea as the lagoon turned to river. Down by the ocean (a 5 minute walk from the lagoon), there were smaller icebergs washed up on the shore. At the lagoon, there is a parking lot with a small store to buy food and book tickets for the boat tour. We unfortunately did not get the chance to tour the lagoon on a boat, but I don’t feel that I missed out on too much.
The lagoon is a distance from Reykjavik (although the drive is incredibly scenic, I was never bored), so we stayed in the Horgsland Cottages (see Tripadvisor reviews). A nicer alternative is the Laki Hotel (see Tripadvisor reviews) where we ate dinner. Despite its location, I highly recommend visiting Jökulsárlón. I never knew glaciers could be so dynamic.
4. Fjaðrárgljúfur (River Canyon)
It may be a mouthful to pronounce, but Fjaðrárgljúfur is one of the most scenic and geographically unique places I’ve seen. It’s a canyon carved out by glaciers and rivers filled with mossy spires and outcroppings of rock. There’s a fenced path that runs alongside the ravine, making for a great 30 minute hike (although my grandfather struggled with his bad knee). There are portions where the fencing is sparse, so it’s not a place to let infants roam free. That being said, it’s still a place everyone can enjoy. Once you reach the end of the ravine, there’s a steel lookout platform that reaches over the canyon. If you’re like me and love photography, Fjaðrárgljúfur is a dream.
5. Friðheimar (Tomato Greenhouse)
I don’t like tomatoes, so when I heard the idea of eating lunch inside a tomato greenhouse, I wasn’t too keen. Friðheimar is a restaurant inside a greenhouse located near the town Reykholt. It supplies over 80% of iceland’s tomato market, so they run a pretty fantastic operation. The greenhouse is heated entirely by geothermal energy, and there are multiple beehives to pollinate the plants. They don’t just grow tomatoes, when you sit down, there’s a fresh basil plant for each group. I never expected to enjoy myself so much.
At Friðheimar, they serve a variety of tomato dishes, from fried green tomatoes to pizza. Their specialty is tomato soup with freshly baked bread, but I had the ravioli pasta with their homemade pasta sauce and pesto. It was delicious. They also have a variety of Bloody Marys and even a tomato beer. In the end, it’s not about the food, it’s about the experience. Eating inside the greenhouse was so cool, and the staff was very friendly. While we were there, another family came in who hated tomatoes. The staff was totally accommodating and made them a pizza without tomato sauce. I would never have thought that a tomato greenhouse would be one of the highlights of the trip, but the best things in life are the unexpected ones.
6. Strokkur (Geyser)
What’s better than getting showered by superheated sulphuric water blasting out of hole in the ground? On the way to Strokkur, I was trying to control my expectations. I wasn’t sure if this geyser was going to live up to the ones you see on TV. In the end, Strokkur did not disappoint. The geyser erupts every 5-7 minutes, but the wait is worthwhile. Strokkur normally blasts water 15-20 meters in the air, but it can sometimes reach heights of up to 40 meters. If you are planning on visiting the geyser, make sure to take a slow-motion video with your phone. Seeing the water bubble and expand before erupting into the air is incredible slowed down.
I also recommend you bring rain gear. There is a section where you can stand if you want to be soaked by the geyser. I stood there for five minutes, holding my breath, trying not to inhale the sulphuric gasses (nothing dangerous, it just smells awful). Then, finally, the geyser started bubbling. I was so excited, until it erupted five meters in the air. Disappointed, I began to leave. Suddenly, just a few seconds after the last blast, the geyser erupted again, only this time it was much bigger. I was enveloped by a thick fog instantaneously before the water rained down and soaked us. I had a great time at Strokkur. It’s certainly a must see stop on the Golden Circle.
7. Flúðir Secret Lagoon (Natural Hot Spring)
Hot springs are an essential part of any trip to Iceland, and no list would be complete without one. I was going to choose the Blue Lagoon, but I decided a more authentic experience was better. When we arrived at the Secret Lagoon, it was clear it wasn’t the massive tourist hub that is the Blue Lagoon. There were lots of locals coming for a relaxing afternoon just like us. Inside the main building, there are clean showers and change room facilities. They also provide pool noodles if you want to kick back and relax. The water felt so clean, yet isn’t pumped in from an energy plant like the Blue Lagoon, it’s a natural hot spring. You can see other springs bubbling and steaming all around. If some people don’t want to go in the water, there’s a small cafe with big glass windows towards the hot spring. Despite the Blue Lagoon’s popularity, I found the calmer, less crowded natural Secret Lagoon to be more relaxing.
8. Museums in Reykjavik
While in Reykjavik, we dedicated one day to touring the city and visiting some of the museums. We bought the city card (Buy a city card here: https://visitreykjavik.is) from the Official Tourist Information center before heading out. The city card gives you free entry to many of Reykjavik’s museums, and discounts on concerts, attractions and restaurants in the area for one day.
Our first stop was the underground “Settlement Exhibition” showcasing the earliest settlers of iceland and their ways of life. In the center of the exhibit, you can see an authentic viking longhouse (or what’s left of it) that had been excavated. The settlement exhibition is a new museum, and a lot of care was put into creating an interactive and modern exhibit. It’s not a massive museum, but there’s lots to learn.
Next we visited Aðalstræti, the oldest house in Reykjavik, which has only recently been turned into a museum. Although there was a plethora of good information, I found this to be the least engaging museum. It was essentially a few rooms with text and photos on the walls. That may be some people’s ideal experience, but I myself won’t be rushing back anytime soon.
Once we made our way to the ocean, we appropriately visited the Reykjavik Maritime Museum. I found this to be my second favourite museum of the trip (behind The Eldheimar Museum on the Westman Islands). There was a huge variety in the way they displayed information, from ancient artifacts to touchscreen timelines. This is also a museum younger kids would enjoy, since there are plenty of great pieces of old boat machinery you can touch. After we left the museum, we ate at Kaffivagninn (see Tripadvisor reviews), the oldest restaurant in Reykjavik. The food was great and the service was fantastic, highly recommended.
Finally, we just had to see what was going on at the world’s only Phallological Museum. One of the best parts of visiting the museum is the gift shop. There are so many gross penis themed souvenirs and funny shirts. The actual museum is a collection of animal phalluses in glass cylinders. Don’t expect to spend more than 10 minutes here, it’s not that big. That being said, the museum is surprisingly informative and enjoyable, well worth checking out.
9. Þingvellir National Park (Continental Divide)
Iceland is one of the few countries that doesn’t fit in one continent. The rift between the European and American plate splits Iceland down the middle. At Þingvellir National Park, you can walk into the divide and stand between two continents. Þingvellir was a great first stop on our trip. It perfectly encapsulates Iceland in a short hike, with small waterfalls, volcanic geography and beautiful vistas. As you get near the end of the trail, there’s a cool bridge over a small fissure filled with crystal blue water. The pond functions as a sort of wishing well, the bottom covered in gleaming coins. The trails at Þingvellir won’t cause you any difficulty as long as you have a good pair of shoes.
10. Reynisfjara Beach (Black Sand Beach)
Unlike most of the world’s shorelines, iceland’s beaches are pitch black, made from broken down lava rock. Reynisfjara is one of the most famous black sand beaches in the world, characterised by beautiful basalt cliffs and black spires of rock carved by the wind and the waves. It’s not a beach for swimming though, multiple tourists have been swept out in the harsh current and killed. Climbing on the basalt was fun, but there isn’t that much to do at Reynisfjara besides take in your surroundings. I found the view from the cliffs to be more interesting.
Near Vik, there’s a road that winds its way up the back of a cliff overlooking Reynisfjara. The road is sketchy at some places, so you will need a decent car, but the view from the top is spectacular. Icelandic myth says that all the rocky pillars in the water are actually trolls that had been turned to stone in the sunlight. Overall, I’m glad we visited Reynisfjara, and especially glad we visited the cliffs above.
Fraser Hannay is a 14 year old French immersion student at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary in Vancouver, B.C. He enjoys skiing, mexican food, theater, and above all else, learning new things. Fraser is also an aspiring filmmaker, hoping to one day turn his passion for cinema into a career.
Finding Family Friendly Accommodations in Reykjavik
Additional information from Tara Cannon of Pint Size Pilot:
I requested the link for the vacation rental that the Hannay family chose for their trip to Iceland because I know how hard it can be to find suitable accommodations in Reykjavik for a family (due to high demand and high prices). They described the 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment they rented as “amazing” and “immaculate”, with a fantastic location right downtown. It even has shared laundry facilities. You can take a peek at it here. Apartment owners Daníel and Ólöf have several vacation rentals in Reykjavik, so if this particular one is booked, you might want to check out their other properties. As an alternative, for our family of four, we stayed at a lovely 2 bedroom apartment in Reykjavik on our last trip. We enjoyed it so much that we have rented it again for our upcoming trip. You can see it here. The site VRBO.com also had a large selection of Reykjavik vacation rentals to choose from.
Save Money: If you have not rented from Airbnb before, please feel free to use this link to get a $35 credit towards your first rental.