1. Go riding on the Icelandic horses (yeah yeah)
They might be pony-sized in stature but Iceland’s work horses can pack a punch – they were, after all, the vikings noble steed of choice. Brought to the island aboard boats more than 1000 years ago, they remained the only mode of transport until the first car arrived in 1913.
Now the world’s oldest and purest pony (thanks to uber-strict import and export laws) can be seen tölting (something between a trot and a canter) along the roadside; a thick coat and extra layer of fat keeping them warm in the harsh winter conditions.
DIYers can make a pit stop for a pat and a helfie (horse selfie) or saddle up on a trail ride. Riding low after one too many Icelandic hot dogs? Rest assured knowing their equine counterparts are capable of carrying a third of their body weight.
2. Have your own Blue Lagoon moment
This Blue Lagoon might not star Brooke Shields, but it is Iceland’s hottest of hot springs (in popularity, not temperature). Brighter than a blue raspberry warhead-coloured tongue and bordered by black lava rubble, you’ll have to strip down to your birthday suit for a quick wash and rinse before you dive in the deep end.
When you’ve had your fill of floating, try a cocktail (or three, max) at the swim up pool bar or a facial at the day spa (the lagoon’s fine white silica sand is touted as a cure-all for wrinkles). If you’re not one for sharing, then venture south near the village of Fludir to the Secret Lagoon.
As the name suggests, it’s very possible you’ll have this little-known hot spring all to yourself. It might not have the model good looks of its bigger, bluer brother, but a good group of friends and a fridge stocked with beer and wine is the stuff memories are made of.
3. Long walks on the beach, #GoT style
Head south (not too far or you’ll hit Antarctica) and tick off the three Bs – beaches, black sand and basalt near the town of Vik, aka the wettest place in Iceland. Get sand of a different kind between your toes on Reynishverfi beach and marvel at the patchwork backdrop of basalt columns caused by slow-cooling lava, then scale them like stairs and put your pano skills to the test with 360-degree views of the Reynisdrangar rock formations out to sea. It’s Game of Thrones on steroids.
4. Channel your inner (street) art critic
Graffiti has had a makeover in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik in the last five-or-so years, with 42,000 square metres of largely unauthorised tags and scrawl making way for a cleaner and more contained style of street art created with the blessing of local building owners.
Here, you set out on foot for two reasons—it’s tiny, so you can stroll from one end of town to the other in just 15 minutes, and, most importantly, it’s the best vantage point to capture the kaleidoscope of colours adorning the local walls, doors and pavement.
And while the unofficial graffiti gallery, Heart Park, might have been reduced to rubble, there’s still plenty of Banksy-esque masterpieces around every corner—from an infographic on how to tie a tie and mirror-encrusted glaciers to a bubblegum-chewing giraffe.
5. Geysers galore
Get your geyser on along the Golden Circle route, a 300 kilometre loop from Reykjavík into central Iceland and back (other notable highlights include a greenhouse village, volcano crater and a geothermal power plant). Haukadalur is home to two of Iceland’s biggest water spouts—the aptly named but often unreliable Geysir and its smaller but always on time cousin Strokkur, which erupts water 30 metres in the air every 5-8 minutes.
Some things are better together – cigars and waffles, pipes and crepes and the same goes for geysers and carbs. Luckily, these guys also double as geothermal ovens, so you can try your hand at digging up rye bread that’s been baking underground for 24 hours. Team it with lashings of butter and a boiled egg for the ultimate #foodporn experience.
6. Insert reference to chasing waterfalls here
If waterfall watching was an Olympic sport, Iceland would win, hands down. You know they take these cascading bodies of water seriously when waterfalls outnumber people in some of the more remote parts. Pick a foss to suit your mood—Seljalandsfoss for accessibility (you can walk behind it!), Skogafoss for an almost guaranteed rainbow sighting, Gullfoss for a waterfall triple-whammy and Svartifoss for a postcard-worthy photo op surrounded by black basalt columns. Then, set your camera on the slowest of shutter speeds and turn the gushing H20 into liquid fairy floss.
7. Take a walk on the ice side
Walking on water is a feat not many of us can put on our resume—until now. Glacier hiking is as close as you’re going to get and lucky for you, Iceland is home to a lot of, well, ice! Hiking boots decked out with crampons? Check. Experienced guide leading the way? Check. Ice axe at the ready? Check. Now all you need to do is find a centuries-old glacier for the ultimate ice-capad—the crowd favourite is Sólheimajökull, part of the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap. For a different perspective, try walking underneath the Langjökull glacier via a newly-completed 300 metre man-made ice tunnel.
8. THOSE lights
They’re one of Iceland’s headline acts—bigger than even One Direction, ABBA and the Backstreet Boys rolled into one—and front row tickets are as coveted as they are elusive. They say the best time to spot the Northern Lights is between September and mid-April, requiring dark and partly clear skies, but even then a lot of it comes down to luck.
Those who have seen the green glow say they’re well and truly worth the wait. Chase them on your own, or book a trip, but either way keep your camera at the ready—you’ll want proof that you saw them! If you don’t post it on Instagram, did it really happen?
9. Oh, did someone say Milky Way?
Iceland might be THE poster child for the Northern Lights, but it’s also a hotspot for stargazing thanks to almost non-existent light pollution. Look up and get lost in the Milky Way at the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, get a glimpse into galaxies beyond at capital Reykjavik’s Society of Astronomy and Stargazing, the biggest amateur astronomical society in Iceland, or splash out and stay at Hotel Ranga—home to its own astronomical observatory replete with roll-off roof and telescopes for days.
10. Flirt with death and live to tell the tale
Less liquified bubonic plague and more sugar-free schnapps made from mashed potato flavoured with native herbs and caraway seeds. It acquired the nickname ‘Black Death’ thanks to its utilitarian label, but Brennevin actually translates to ‘burning wine’, which is exactly what it will feel like going down (and possibly back up).
It’s made on home soil, by one lonesome distillery, and up until 2014 it was available only in Iceland (it’s now exported to the US). Tourists and diehard fans like Foo Fighter Dave Grohl are more likely to imbibe than locals, except during the mid-winter feast, Þorrablót, especially to wash down delicacy hákarl (rotten shark flesh). Delish!
11. Find your own little cabin in the wilderness
Photogenic log cabins right out of a movie set are popping up all over Iceland—appealing to accommodation DIYers partial to self-catering and jacuzzis. Those looking for buffets, room service and little bottles of shampoo need not apply, but if you value seclusion, the great outdoors and channeling your inner Bear Grylls then a cozy cottage in a fishing village is just the ticket.
Make the most of your surroundings, albeit remote, and walk a mile across moss-covered lava rocks in search of the nearest ponies or drink brennivin in the hot tub surrounded by nothing by ice, sleet and snow.
12. Ice(land) road truckers
Icy bitumen makes road trips here slow and sometimes dangerous, so hire a 4WD (you’ll need to be at least 23) or join an organised trip to avoid being towed by a tractor. The 1300 kilometre mostly-sealed Ring Road, not surprisingly, circles the outskirts of the island.
Consider this your anchor, with service roads shooting off like wayward roots in all different directions leading to new adventures. With the help of an extra-long Spotify playlist, you could complete the circuit in 16 hours straight, but take your time and savour the sights – after all, detours are the stuff epic travel stories are made of. Tip: Pack water, snacks and a few rolls of toilet paper (it can be a long time between gas stations!).