Iceland Is Open Again—and Its Jaw-Dropping Natural Wonders Are Waiting For You
Epic waterfalls, jet black beaches, and ancient villages await.
Iceland is Mother Nature’s favorite plaything. This little island nation dangling from the Arctic Circle, with its ethereal geothermal terrain, is always finding new ways to stun. Seismic activity molds lava fields and obsidian beaches into entirely different landscapes. Storms thrash mountains and backcountry manors, leaving in its wake only delicate snowdrifts, pretty as Martha Stewart meringue. Geysers babble and spittle, and the earth even births out new hot springs wherever it pleases. All you can do is wear multiple layers and gawk.
And as of March 16, Iceland is inviting fully vaccinated travelers to once again stare slack-jawed at the country’s singularly stunning natural features. Spend some time in Reykjavik then get out onto the spectacular Ring Road. Iceland is sparsely populated, and after a year of chaos, you’ll feel calm, secluded, and like a bonafide Nat Geo photographer at the edge of the world. Here’s your road map to some of Iceland’s greatest and most impressive things to see.
But first: What’s open in Iceland & other travel restrictions to know
You no longer need to get a Covid test or quarantine upon landing in Iceland. But it bears repeating: Iceland is open only to fully-vaccinated travelers—both doses, y’all—who can show proof of vaccination. Check the Icelandic government website for updates. Also note that you’ll need to test negative for the virus no more than three days before you re-enter the US (learn more about registering for a test here).Popular attractions like the Blue Lagoon are slowly reopening at limited capacity. As for Reykjavik, openings and closings continue to fluctuate, so be emotionally prepared for your favorite spots to be closed... or maybe open!
What you can rely on is daily, non-stop service on Delta from NYC, Boston, and MSP starting in May. And Iceland's population is less than 400,00—that’s nine people per square mile—meaning that even with an influx of tourists this summer, social distancing won't be a problem. The beauty of Iceland is that all the attractions are HUGE, outdoors, and spread out—here are the best of ‘em.
SeljalandsfossYou’ll see Seljalandsfoss coming long before you arrive. Even the tourists that gather at the base of this 200-foot-tall beast look like ants compared to the enormous rush of the falls. Visitors can also explore the rocks just behind the waterfall. Less than a two-hour drive from Reykjavik, it’s one of the first major landmarks you’ll spot on a trip around Ring Road—and a good omen of the beauty to come.
Scramble up a rocky path (and hold on tight, because the wind is a doozie) to gaze out over Jökulsárlón, where immense blocks of blue ice lull up and down in crystalline water. Recently inducted into Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland’s most popular glacier lagoon and the snow-capped mountains that surround it will make it abundantly clear that you are witnessing life at the top of the globe.
Situated adjacent to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon on Iceland’s southeastern coast, we’re sure you’ve seen this beach’s “glass shards” all over social media. The deep blue crystals that lend the beach its name (Breiðamerkursandur in Icelandic, Diamond Beach for us English-speakers) look twice as spectacular against the black sands that blanket the shoreline. Here, where fragments of frozen ice twinkle against obsidian earth, it’s almost as if Mother Nature tried to bring the starry night sky a little closer to home.
Reynisfjara Beach, Vík
Another striking black sand beach, this time located in Vík, the country’s southernmost village. On the shore, you’ll stand side by side with unusually geometric basalt cliffs, and beyond the ghostly white waves, you’ll spot the rocky spires of the Reynisdrangar sea stacks jutting out of the frigid Atlantic. (Just don’t turn your back on the ocean for too long; “sneaker waves'' have been known to knock the unaware off their feet and sweep them out to sea in a matter of seconds).
SkógafossJust a two-hour drive from Reykjavik (and about 30 minutes from Vik’s black sand beaches), Skógafoss is one of the easiest landmarks to reach from the Icelandic capital—and one of the country’s most beautiful waterfalls. It’s not uncommon to see a giant rainbow arc over the falls’ wide, mossy green cliffs (though the water is so powerful, you’ll get soaked if you get too close). In a place where trolls and fairies are considered part of the local landscape, it’s not so hard to imagine these legendary creatures coming to life here.
Buðir ChurchThis jet-black chapel, alone atop a lava field, is sure to evoke all those emo feels you haven’t wallowed in since 9th grade. It may look like an album cover just waiting for a Scandinavian death metal band to show, but you can’t help but admit it’s a beaut. Reconstructed in 1987 as a nod to Iceland’s history of painting churches black with pitch, to protect against storms, it’s now the ideal spot for stalking the northern lights.
GullfossGullfoss’s unusual shape—from a distance, it almost looks like a dagger jutting out into the canyon of the Hvítá River—makes it easier to take in all at once. But tourists are welcome to witness the raw power of its two tiers up close: Use the marked path to sidle up to the waterfall’s edge and peer into the vast caverns below. (Just, you know, don’t peer too deep in, unless you want to end up like Kuzco and Kronk.)
Great Geysir & Strokkur
Iceland sticks it to Old Faithful at both the great Geysir and Strokkur, both found in Þingvellir National Park. The former—which was the first geyser ever recorded in a printed source, as well as the first known to modern Europeans—has become relatively dormant in recent years, erupting pretty infrequently. But when it does, ho boy, the blasts can reach up to 230 ft. The latter, Strokkur, is a much better bet, shooting a blast of steaming hot water 100 feet into the air every 5-10 minutes.